Hopping on a really big boat, part 1

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Cane sugar Beach, Tortola

wpid20666-2013-12-16-Caribbean-1160046.jpgCruising isn’t for everyone, but we like being able to unpack just once when we get on a ship and then check out several locations in a short amount of time.  We take cruises to find places we’d like to return to for a longer stay, and it’s nice to not worry about cooking, doing dishes or making our bed for a few days!

Between the two of us, Steve is definitely the cruise lover (although I don’t mind tagging along!).  This was our sixth cruise since 2000, and our second since we’ve been full-timing on the road.  Some things we’ve learned that might help if you’re booking your first cruise with Royal Caribbean:

If possible, be sure to get a balcony room.  Inside rooms, and even outside rooms with windows can be claustrophobic, and there’s nothing like being able to sit out on your balcony to read or enjoy your favorite beverage at the end of the day.

Consider the “early seating” for dinner, to maximize the entertainment options available on the ship in the evening.  You’ll also have more time to digest all of that amazing food before going to bed.

Shore excursions taken during the stops can get expensive.  You may find that catching a taxi to see an area is more affordable than what the cruise line offers.  Be careful to get a reputable ride, though; talk to the cruise travel person on the ship to learn how to avoid getting ripped off.  They are usually very helpful in this regard.  But if there’s an excursion that looks fun, take it!  Although they can sometimes be a bit rushed, they usually do a good job and the cruise line sanctions them.

Steve is partial to the beautiful islands of the caribbean, so this time he booked a 7-day southern caribbean cruise on board Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas.  Our ports of call were Tortola, British Virgin Islands; Basseterre, St Kitts;  Philipsburg, St Maarten;  Roseau, Dominica and Bridgetown, Barbados.  Following our three days of fun in San Juan, we boarded our ship and were off.

Southern Caribbean Cruise

Before the ship departs, a mandatory emergency drill takes place.  Every passenger must report to their muster area to learn the procedures.  It’s easy and fast, then the partying begins!

Muster Area, Jewel of the Seas

Muster area where the huge lifeboats hang, ready to go

It takes a day or two just to learn where everything is on these massive ships – this one had 12 decks total.  Although there are many elevators, we always take the stairs so we can burn some of the calories gained when we eat the wonderful meals.  During this cruise, Steve put on 7 pounds, and I hate to admit I put on 4. Oh my goodness, we have some serious exercising to do!

Jewel of the Seas

If you get lost, just refer to this map on each deck

Jewel of the seas

The fabulous atrium on Jewel of the Seas

Jewel of the Seas

I won a drawing at the spa and got some goodies!

San Juan Puerto Rico

Departing San Juan, Puerto Rico

Our first port of call was Tortola, British Virgin Islands.  Since we didn’t see any shore excursions that appealed to us, we went to Cane Garden Bay Beach to hang out and swim in the beautiful clear warm water.  Since it was on the far side of the island we got to ride over the mountain on the twisty road, driving on the left side of the road.  It was a bit hairy, but we had some great views of nearby islands.

Tortola, British Virgin Island

A rainbow greeted us as we arrived at Tortola – good times ahead!

Cane Garden Beach, Tortola

The beach was loaded with bars and restaurants – love it!

Our next stop was at St. Maarten, which Steve had been looking forward to for years.  Why?  Well, he had seen the Youtube videos of airliners coming in right over the beach to land at the airport there and he had dreamed of experiencing it firsthand.  So, we caught a taxi just off the ship and went straight there.

St Maarten

Someone is happy to arrive at St. Maarten!

We were fortunate to arrive at Maho Bay Beach early, because it turns out this is a very popular attraction.  We found ourselves a good table at the Sunset Restaurant and began partying at 9:30am as we waited for the first airliner to arrive. 

Maho Beach, St Maarten

We liked this “arrival board” for airliners

Most of the beach goers were here just to watch the planes coming in right over their heads.  This spot has become so popular that the restaurant aptly named their pizzas after airlines, and the entrepreneurs charged $20 for a beach chair!

Sunset Grill, Maho Beach

Pizzas were listed by “airline”, and very yummy

Maho Beach, St Maarten

This is so cool, you have to be here to experience it!

It’s not just the landings that people come to see, the takeoffs are pretty interesting too.  A large jet engine at full power can flip a car over, and we were amazed to see people blown across the beach as an airliner powered up for takeoff.  Fortunately, Steve had no desire to stand behind that one!

Maho Beach, St Maarten

Planes taking off can actually blow people off the beach and into the water

Click on the video below that I took of an airliner coming in right over Steve on the beach.  Believe me when I tell you he was in heaven!  This takes one off his bucket list.

The island has a simple way of directing traffic.

Why not stop for one of the island’s famous GuavaBerry drinks on the way back to the ship?

St Maarten

Back on the ship, we ogled our neighbors from France on the cruise ship Riviera next door.

Royal Caribbean Cruise Ship

Checking out the neighbors

Royal Caribbean Cruise

Cruise ship commute hour

St Maarten Sunset

Cruise sunsets – you only get one at each stop!

On several nights, our room steward put a smile on our faces by creating “towel animals” for us. 

Jewel of the Seas

Next up:  The other islands we loved in the caribbean sun!


Taking in the sights of San Juan, Puerto Rico

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This is one of my delayed posts describing our southern caribbean journey, and it is quite long – so pour yourself the beverage of your choice and enjoy!  I must also thank my hubby for his hours of tedious editing of this post – thank you honeybunch! 🙂

When Steve booked our southern caribbean cruise, he was happy to find one that began and ended in San Juan, Puerto Rico.  It’s a place he had heard good things about for many years, and the cruise gave us an excuse to take the short flight there while in Florida.  We spent three days exploring Old San Juan before hopping on the cruise ship — yes, a quick visit — but we managed to take in many of the sights and sounds of El Viejo San Juan!

Old San Juan is within the historic colonial section, and it’s the oldest settlement within Puerto Rico.  We stopped at many of the city’s historic landmarks, including the two forts — El Morro and Fort San Cristobal — to marvel at their distinct character.  We also walked the cobbled streets of the city, and on another day we took a tour of the tropical El Yunque Rainforest.

San Juan Puerto Rico

Aerial view of the walled city of Old San Juan (toward the left near the end of the island)

First, a quick history of San Juan.  Before the United States took over in the late 19th century, San Juan was an important Spanish gateway to the caribbean islands.  Puerto Rico – meaning “Rich Port” – was fortified by Spain because it was the first major island with fresh water, shelter and supplies that could be used by sailing ships on their way to the Americas.

Castillo San Cristobal

Castillo San Cristobal (the large stone structure in the background)

Behind the mighty stone wall, the old city of San Juan grew and developed.  The city wall is marked by the dark line in the image below, and it took us the better part of a day to follow and explore it along with the two forts.

El Viejo San Juan

The forts are designated as San Juan National Historic Sites and administered by the U.S. National Park Service.  To begin our walk, we had a taxi drop us at the southern end of Old Town where we first explored Castillo de San Cristobal with its sprawling outer defenses. The largest fort built in the caribbean by the Spaniards, it protected El Morro and the city from land attack and took 150 years to complete.  There are many other details, but I’ll just say it is architecturally beautiful and the coastal view from it is fantastic.

Castillo San Cristobal

Castillo San Cristobal

Sentry boxes (or garitas), a cultural symbol of Puerto Rico, are located all around the outer walls of the fort.

Sentry Box, Garitas

Sentry boxes are Puerto Rican icons

This fort is 150 feet tall, and a great example of the strategic skills used to create land and sea defenses.  It is actually many different units connected by tunnels, each unit being self-sufficient in case others are invaded.

Castillo San Cristobal

Taking a break and trying to find our way around this huge fort

 Castillo San Cristobal, San Juan Puerto Rico

The San Juan coast and skyline viewed from an observation area at Castillo San Cristobal

While there, we noticed these green creatures busy feeding themselves or posing for pictures as they basked in the sun:

Monk Parakeet

Monk Parakeets

It was a half hour walk to the next fortification, Castillo San Felipe del Morro, and we were wilting under the blazing sun — whew, it was hot and humid that day!  We passed by the picturesque Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis (established in 1863), which sits just outside the fort walls.  This white cemetery was gorgeous, surrounded by the city wall on one side and the blue Atlantic ocean on the other.  The only problem is you have to die to get a view like this!

Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis

Cementario Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis, looking south

Cementario Maria Magdalena de Pazzis

Looking at the cemetery from one of the 6 ft. embrasures in the wall.  Castillo San Felipe del Morro can be seen at top of the hill.

Located at the end of the island to protect San Juan Bay’s deep harbor from sea attack, Castillo San Felipe del Morro (El Morro) consists of six massive staggered levels rising 145 feet above sea level.  We wandered around dungeons, barracks, passageways, and storerooms to learn about this amazing fort that took Spain over 200 years to build.  It is now Puerto Rico’s most picturesque military structure and was designated a World Heritage Site by UNESCO in 1983.

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

The city walls of San Juan with Castillo San Felipe del Morro on top of the hill, as viewed from San Juan Bay

Cannon Water Battery, Castillo San Felipe

Cannon battery overlooking the beautiful ocean inlet to San Juan

Castillo San Felipe del Morro

Main plaza

Leaving Castillo San Felipe del Morro, we walked the Paseo del Morro trail which follows a three mile long wall protecting the western side of the city.  The wall stands 40 ft. tall with 20 ft. thick masonry, and was completed in 1782.  It includes gun ports from which to fire cannon and sentry boxes perched at strategic viewing locations.

Walls surrounding San Juan

Note how thick the walls are.

We encountered a lot of cats along this stretch, and I saw this one resting on a tree.  I couldn’t resist snapping a shot.

Wild Cat in Pasel el Morro

High wall, Old San Juan

After hours of exploring the two forts and strolling along the high walls, we walked through the streets of the old city looking for some good Puerto Rican food.  Strolling along narrow blue cobblestone streets, we observed boldly colored houses and shops watched over by grill-work balconies.  The city is characterized by flat-roofed brick and stone buildings dating back to the 16th and 17th century and reflecting Spanish architecture.

Streets of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Hey, anybody home?

This city is on a hill, so we walked uphill and downhill throughout our trek.  We really worked up a sweat in the heat and humidity!

Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

Mofongo is a staple dish of Puerto Rico.  Our friend Brenda of Island Girl, a Puerto Rican lady herself, advised this was the local dish we should sample.  It is essentially a mashed mound of plantains into which a combination of seafood, meat, or vegetables is added.  I liked it so much that I had it in twice during our stay!

We continued exploring after that delicious meal, moving toward the waterfront of San Juan Bay.  Called Bahia Urbana, this is a new area of walkways and parks along the south side of Old San Juan.  We were refreshed by the cool breeze coming off the the bay, as we walked and then sat down to enjoy the harbor view.

On another day, we took a taxi, then a ferry ride, then another taxi to visit the largest premium rum distillery in the world – the BACARDÍ Rum Distillery.  More than 85% of all BACARDÍ rum is distilled in this facility.  After our free tour and a glitzy, informative, entertaining commercial for Bacardi, we enjoyed our 2 free drinks (Cuba Libre and Mojito).  We were a bit disappointed in the tour, since it resembled a Disney-like attraction in a separate area and did not include the working part of the distillery.  And even though the tour was free, the trip there and back to our hotel was far from it.  At least we were able to enjoy the ferry ride across the bay on a very nice day.

Some other sights in San Juan:

In addition to the Capitol building, there were a number of memorial plazas and sculptures in the Capital District of Old San Juan.  We also viewed the Walkway of the Presidents, a Holocaust Memorial, a Fallen Soldier Memorial, a monument to police killed in the line of duty and quite a few others.  We thought it was very well done.

Walkway of the Presidents, San Juan, PR

Walkway of the Presidents, San Juan, PR

Condado Beach, San Juan

One of the beaches along the high-end district of Condado


At the end of Paseo de la Princesa is a Bronze sculpture called “Raices“, symbolizing  the island’s cultural roots

Artistic Graffiti

San Juan


San Juann, Puerto Rico

 San Juan, Puerto Rico

Finally, we took a trip to the rain forest, El Yunque Rain Forest that is.  It’s the only tropical rain forest in the U.S. National Parks system.  Ample rainfall (over 200 inches a year in some areas) creates a jungle-like setting – with lush foliage, waterfalls and a river. We didn’t take an umbrella and were surprised to get rained on while we were there – duh!

While chilling out by the pool at the end of a long day, we heard what sounded like a singing bird but we couldn’t locate it.  The sound was so close and loud that we started searching for it.  Finally, a waiter informed us that it was actually a tiny frog native in Puerto Rico and called a Coqui.  It is abundant here and has become the country’s symbol.  Although the waiter said it is rare to see them, this guy surprised us by jumping right onto our table.  How cool is that!

We thoroughly enjoyed our short visit to San Juan, and it’s a place we would definitely go again.  The history, architecture, friendly people and the many photo opportunities make it an inviting destination.  We obviously only scratched the surface, and there are many things left to see – a great reason to go back some day!

I know that was a little too long, but I hope you enjoyed a taste of San Juan, Puerto Rico.

Next up:  Hopping on a really big boat!