Despite having read numerous articles about them in travel magazines, I had never taken a cruise before. Sharon had just received a nice gift of money, so we decided to put some of it towards a Carnival Southern Caribbean cruise. The islands in this particular sailing were interesting -- a mix of standard and somewhat off the beaten track sights: Puerto Rico; St. Thomas; Guadaloupe; Grenada; St. Lucia; and the Dominican Republic.
We flew in late morning in Puerto Rico, checked in aboard the "Inspiration," and headed back out to explore Old Town, San Juan. The El Moro fortifications were fun to clamber around on, with brilliant blue views of the sea all around. A huge field on the approach to the castle was alive with hundreds of kite flyers. The sky above danced with all shapes, sizes and colors of kites. They spun, whirled and dove across the grass -- startling more than one casual stroller as they flapped abruptly towards them. The streets of the Old Town were quieter, with pleasant shady squares tucked in between bright colonial homes.
Our next stop was St. Thomas -- a well-traveled standby of the Caribbean circuit. We'd planned to do a little snorkeling here, so took a cab to Megan's Bay Beach. Gray skies and intermittent rain dampened the excursion, though. The water was choppy, which churned up silt and reduced our visibility underwater. So, the snorkeling was somewhat of a disappointment. As a consolation, though, we got a wonderful view as we crested the hills on the return trip and St. Thomas' harbor was laid out beneath us. Back at the docks, we shopped a little and found the "Shipwreck Tavern," where we enjoyed cold beers in the afternoon heat.
Guadaloupe was our island where we'd planned to do a little hiking. We rented a car (despite parlez vous-ing only a bit of French) and drove to La Soufriere Volcano. The trail to the top was supposed to be "do-able," and afforded excellent views of this lush, green outpost of France. Well, to get lush and green, the island needed a lot of what? Rain. This fact completely slipped our minds and we were unprepared for the deluge that greeted us on the slopes of the volcano.
With no ponchos and no boots, our clothes and tennis shoes quickly became soaked as we sloshed our way upwards on the trail. The clouds and mist occasionally parted to tease us with a hint of the views we could have had, but the rains always returned. So did we, after getting only two thirds of the way to the summit.
Thank goodness my navigation and driving along Guadaloupe's roads was good -- otherwise my reputation as the experienced, international traveler might have been washed away.
When Sharon and I planned the cruise, we picked an activity or theme for each island. St. Thomas had been snorkeling, Guadaloupe hiking, and Grenada was simply "beaching it." Grand Anse Beach in St. George, Grenada's capital, was supposed to be one of the Caribbean's better ones. It was. Other than a 15-minute rain shower, Sharon and I enjoyed relaxing on the beach (with me constantly reminding the sun goddess to put on sunscreen).
We also enjoyed the town. It white or pastel-colored buildings with their orange, terra cotta roofs, ascended the hills overlooking the harbor. When most Americans hear "Grenada," they think of our invasion of that island. Our memories of beach, water and sun are doubtless more pleasant than those our troops came away with.
Both of us agree that the highlight of the trip was our day in St. Lucia. The theme was scenery, so we hired a cab and saw quite a bit of this lush, gorgeous island. We drove through tiny harbor villages, banana plantations, visited bubbling sulfur pits, toured a tropical garden complete with waterfall, and saw St. Lucia's trademark sight -- the Pitons. These two tall, conical hills dominate the coastline, making a gorgeous backdrop for the rain forests, beaches and harbors towns that make up St. Lucia.
The weather was great, too. Our cab driver was incredibly helpful and friendly -- buying us fresh bananas and coconuts to sample. We topped the day off with some of Sharon's favorite activities: shopping; French Fries; and drinks (in the "Pink Elephant Grill and Bar"). To most people, St. Lucia is a relative unknown. To us, it was tops of the trip.
The theme for Santo Domingo and the Dominican Republic was "History." The castle, cathedrals and churches from the colonial period in Santo Domingo's Old Town were clean and immaculately kept up. Their pale, blond-colored stones contrasted sharply with the tropical greenery and brilliant blue sky.
I'd read that you must be careful or the person you might be talking to at one of the sites (thinking they were an attendant), suddenly turns out to be a freelance guide, and requests payment. I pride myself, though, on being able to spot such scams, but the fellow at the castle was so smooth that it took me 15 minutes to catch on. We quickly sent him on his way with a fraction of what he expected, and continued our exploration at a slower, more thorough pace, guidebook in hand. Monuments to Christopher Columbus are the main emphasis here, which made it a somewhat appropriate place for two Columbus natives to wrap up their tour.
So, did the cruise match the descriptions in the articles I'd read? Generally, yes. We did not take any of the packaged excursions offered by Carnival, setting off on our own, instead. For the independent traveler, this is the route I recommend. Would I take another cruise? Certainly! There is something to be said for unpacking once, sleeping in the same bed each night, but taking a different "day trip" at each port.
Our islands were a nice mix, too. The cruise turned out to be a fun (and romantic) vacation.