General

The Caribbean: My Cruise Experience

Caribbean views
Photo credit: Tricia Walters

Imagine this.

The sun is just beginning to set across the large expanse of water that is the Atlantic Ocean.

You are on a cruise ship heading south towards warm sunny beaches, blue skies and tropical locations where they speak Spanish, French, Dutch and even Portuguese.

The welcoming sound of ice cubes bopping up and down in a cocktail glass beckon you back to reality.

Welcome to the lifestyle that is cruising. Your destination? The Caribbean.

The Caribbean is often synonymous with cruising. With its truly unique dynamics, the islands are why this region remains the number one cruise destination anywhere – and has been for generations.

Even though Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Princess Cruises dominate this market, my husband and I opted for Oceania, which is a smaller line, and boarded the elegant ship – the Regatta – in Boston (not their usual port but Hurricane Sandy played a hand in this decision).

We would spend the next 25 days sailing through  the Caribbean, down the coast of South America and up the Amazon River for a week before heading back up the coast, once again making port in various Caribbean islands.

Twenty-five days might seem a bit extreme, even for the seasoned cruiser, but it takes you at least a week to relax, forget about work and feel like you’re on holiday and then … that’s when the magic happens.

You can imagine the number of stops along the way and going into detail about each of them, although worth it, would mean you’d still be reading this article come Easter, so I will highlight a few of the stops that rightly deserve it.

Trinidad Birders will delight in the Asa Wright Nature Centre where 430 species of birds have been recorded. No words can describe the magic in watching sunbirds hover around feeding stations – their wings beating so quickly that only their bodies appear to hang suspended in the air.

Puerto Rico When you gaze out from the El Morro fort, you can almost imagine how the defenders would shoot red hot cannon balls skidding across the water surface to inflame any attacking wooden ships of that era. Like many Caribbean Islands, you are made acutely aware of the huge Spanish presence in the New World. Sending fleets of silver-bearing treasure ships back to the King in Spain was the annual drama that energized the Spanish-colonial effort.

Barbados British civility immersed in a Green isle, focused more now on eco-tourism than sugar cane production. Barbadians, who call themselves Bajans, are among the most educated, friendly and proud peoples in the Caribbean. Taking a shore excursion here is highly recommended. There is nothing like eating fresh coconut or bananas picked right off the tree while your local guide takes you trekking through jungles to see some of the most breathtakingly beaches in the world.

St. Bart’s and Martinique Both French; both very exclusive and very expensive … The Euro flourishes here alongside the dollar and both benefit from the French cultural flair. A point to remember, St. Bart’s is one of the few islands in the Caribbean that boasts, yes boasts, a topless beach within walking distance of the port.

St. Lucia Be sure to take an excursion that includes both a land and an ocean trip. You’ll visit the magical botanical gardens as well as sail to see the famous Pitons – enormous mountain peaks that jut out over the ocean. Another highlight of this incredible country – you drive in and out of an active volcano. It does smell of sulphur – quite strongly – so be warned.

Pick up souvenirs!
Photo credit: Tricia WaltersTricia Walters

The one thing that strikes you right off the bridge, excuse the pun, is that you can spend a lifetime cruising the Caribbean and still never get your head around the enormous diversity of the region as far as language, culture and history goes.

Islands that practically kiss each other can be so different that you wonder if during the night, as the ship crawled along at two knots, you somehow crossed the equator. One day you’re listening to Spanish or French and the next, everyone is speaking Portuguese.

And on the topic of Portuguese, or in this case, Brazil, there are two things you need to remember when visiting. First, always carry the local currency. Just because the ship says that US Dollars will be widely accepted does not mean it will. We discovered this the hard way, wandering through a very large mall in Manaus, the capital of the Amazonas. Not only did no one want our US Dollars, there was no way to find out why as no one spoke English.

Second, if you are going to visit a travel agent or foreign currency exchange office, be sure to have your passport with you. Many cruise ships will hold your passport for the duration of the cruise, which can make exchanging cash even more of a challenge. And no, ships do not exchange foreign currency.

Sometimes you will find a vendor on shore, usually close to the cruise ship terminal, that will exchange cash for you, but it’s usually at an exorbitant rate. I think they realize you have no passport and you’re desperate.

The story of the many Caribbean islands is a major black African contribution topped off with a European veneer.

Soon after the voyages of Christopher Columbus to the Americas, both Portuguese and Spanish ships began claiming territories in Central and South America.

These colonies brought in gold, and other European powers, most specifically England, the Netherlands, and France, hoped to establish profitable colonies of their own. Imperial rivalries made the Caribbean a contested area during European wars for centuries.

The other European powers established a presence in the Caribbean after the Spanish Empire declined, partly due to the reduced native population of the area from European diseases. The Dutch, the French, and the British followed one another to the region and established a long-term presence.

They brought with them millions of slaves imported from Africa to support the tropical plantation system that spread through the Caribbean islands.

Between 1958 and 1962 most of the British-controlled Caribbean was integrated as the new West Indies Federation in an attempt to create a single unified future independent state – but it failed.

Shore excursions? Yes or No?

Shopping
Photo credit: Tricia WaltersTricia Walters

Cruise ships provide an excellent way to visit several islands, taking advantage of the various shore excursion options. But sometimes, as we discovered on this particular cruise, you can get the same tour as that organised by the cruise company (and at triple the price) simply by taking a guided taxi.

In St. Bart’s for example, a one hour taxi tour of the island costs about $90. That might sound like a lot of money, but excursions can cost up to $120 per person and the $90 was for the entire taxi – irrespective of how many people the 8-seater carried.

But for the most part shore excursions are a good buy because it organizes the logistics for you – especially when you find yourself on the Amazon River where no one speaks English.

I’m still amazed at how much ‘language’ there is in using your hands and pointing to things, counting by using your fingers and generally just grinning from ear to ear and nodding excitedly when you see something you want.

As you can tell, I’m referring to shopping now. There is no shortage of shopping opportunities throughout the Caribbean, but ask the staff on board the ship which island are the least expensive for whatever you’re looking for. After all, they’ve been shopping at these ports for at least a year if not more.

For crafts and curious it’s best to stick to local markets in places like Trinidad, Barbados and the Bahamas. They set up stalls all along the major roads. If you think something is worth what they are asking, don’t try and get them to bring the price down. I say this as an artist who appreciates the time and effort that goes into creating beautiful items by hand.

The reason I say to stick to local craft markets is because many of the larger centres have fallen into the ‘made in China’ tourist traps and stock the tacky “things” that you can buy just about anywhere – even in Canada.

San Juan’s local markets are exquisite, as are the markets in Barbados and Trinidad. Perfume and designer clothing are a must if you visit Martinique or St. Bart’s and be sure to visit a gallery or two in San Juan. You’ll be surprised what you’ll find in a great price range.

Selecting a cruise ship and itinerary

Choose your cruise ship
Photo credit: Tricia Walters

Start slow. Pick either the East or Western Caribbean and take a week. Then work your way up to a longer cruise. Stay on the smaller ships if you like a more personal touch. The larger ships can be quite daunting with thousands of people crammed into a space for a week or more.

If you have children, see what options are available on board for them before boarding.

Ask friends and family who have cruised which they prefer and why.

Royal Caribbean has always been for the more sophisticated (slightly more mature) cruise ship passengers, as is Princess, while Celebrity Cruises and Carnival are the notorious party boats.

And don’t forget about Disney Cruises – if you’re retired this is not the cruise line you want to be on in an effort to escape the grandchildren for a week.

It’s also important to decide when to cruise. If you cruise during the summer holidays the ship will be overrun with children and teenagers. If you cruise in the off season, you get better deals and the trips are generally quiet – if that’s what you want.

A final tip: Pack light (most cruise ship passengers end up packing too much clothing, even after eight cruises we still pack too much). There are laundry facilities on ships and if you are cruising during the summer, you end up living in shorts and T-shirts. But do pack a comfortable pair of walking shoes. And always pack a small First Aid kit. Band-Aids, Tylenol, anti-histamine, eye drops, and sun block – lots of sun block.

After your first cruise you’ll find yourself online looking at future cruises and pretty soon, just like most of us salty dogs, you’ll start saying to your friends and family, “The deal is just too good to stay home.”

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