Tuesday, February 26, 2013

We're back! T and I had a wonderful trip last week on a cruise in the southern Caribbean. Cruising is an excellent way to visit lots of places for short amounts of time, and then decide where you may want to go back and visit for a longer vacation, or on the flip-side, Never. Visit. Again. Drum roll please...

Our trip started with an overnight in Minneapolis before an early morning flight out of MSP. For anyone unlucky enough to have to drive to your departure city the day before because you live too far away for your flight time in the morning...insert extreme dislike here...I would HIGHLY recommend staying at the SpringHill Suites by Marriott in St. Paul Airport/Mall of America area. They have wonderful suite-style rooms, great lobby and bar area, and shuttle service to and from the airport and Mall of America.

DAY 1 | San Juan, Puerto Rico
Saturday, we arrived in San Juan after a 4 1/2 hour non-stop flight from Minneapolis (offered thru Delta). We booked our airfare through our cruise line, and saved almost $250 per person AND got non-stop flights vs. if we would have booked our own flights separately. Always get a quote if it's an option. You never know how much it might save you. Upon arrival in San Juan, we had previously set up a shuttle to take us to our ship. There are plenty of taxis that would take you for about the same amount of money, but the transfer through the cruise also took our luggage so we didn't have to worry about it until it arrived at the door to our stateroom a few hours later. It made the check-in process run very smoothly. After a quick 'Muster Drill' - a.k.a. lifeboat drill - we were on our own to explore the ship.

Puerto Rican Sunset | Day 1

DAY 2 | St. Croix, U.S.V.I.
Sunday, we arrived bright and early in St. Croix, the largest of the US Virgin Islands, and the most eastern part of the United States. St. Croix and the other virgin islands became part of the US in 1916 when they were purchased from Denmark for a cool $25 million. For the 200 years prior to becoming a US Territory, the islands were known as the Danish West Indies. 

Our excursion on St. Croix was a visit to Buck Island Reef National Monument - an underwater snorkeling trail that has been protected by the US government since 1948. It was declared a national monument by John F. Kennedy in 1961, and later expanded to cover 880 acres, mostly underwater, in 2001 by Bill Clinton. We had fun snorkeling and seeing fish and live coral, but were very surprised by the overall state of this US Territory. There was a great deal of poverty, and we would not visit again. 

Buck Island Snorkeling

DAY 3 | Basseterre, St. Kitts
Monday, we arrived in St. Kitts, a two island nation under British control that includes Nevis, and boarded the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, a 30-mile train route circling the entire island. It was built in 1926 to connect the sugar plantations to a central factory in Basseterre to make sugarcane processing more profitable. It has been operating as a tourist stop since the decline of the island's sugar industry in 2003. 

T and I enjoyed the scenic trip, and hearing the stories about the island. It's a good place to be if you are a student - the St. Kitt's government provides laptop computers to all schoolchildren! They also have an excellent affordable-housing system that keeps the island looking nice. If we return someday, we hear that the island has some excellent beaches.

The coastline on St. Kitts

Old sugar plantation on St. Kitts

Scenic Train ride in St. Kitts

A lovely day for a train ride in St. Kitts

DAY 4 | Roseau, Dominica

Tuesday, we visited the 'nature island' of the Caribbean. Dominica - pronounced "Dom-in-EEK-a" - was a highlight of our trip. This island, with very minimal beaches, is mostly known for it's rainforest, Morne Trios National Park, and excellent hiking. Originally under French, then British control, Dominica gained it's independence in 1978. If you are a beach and relax type of vacationer, this is not your ideal destination. Dominica does not have many resorts, and the few that it does are smaller and focus on eco-tourism. It is also a volcanic island, so most of its beaches are black sand.

Just before starting out on our hike in Morne Trios National Park

T & I at Middleham Falls in Morne Trios National Park

After much research, we planned a private tour with Donaldson, from Nature Isle Explorers, and could not possibly have been more happy with our decision. Donaldson was a wealth of information about his home country, and led us on an amazing hike in Morne Trios National Park to Middleham Falls, a 282 ft waterfall deep in the heart of the rainforest. The falls were a definite highlight, but the hike was also the most strenuous I have ever done, and I am not new to hiking (Thank You Hubby), nor am I out of shape. I had trouble walking for 2 days after this hike that was up an down uneven terrain the entire way to and from the falls. Well worth it, but only if you are in very good shape and do not have any joint issues as you will be required to balance yourself on wet, uneven surfaces the entire time.

Our second stop was Titou Gorge, a filming spot for Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest (check out minute 40-42 to see where we were - it's when the cage falls into the canyon). This was literally the COLDEST water I have ever willingly stepped into - as in the temps were in the 50s. I'm not going to lie, after feeling the temp, I had second thoughts and almost turned around and got out without seeing the gorge. Swimming inside a canyon in the rainforest was truly unforgettable though, and if you ever make it to Dominica, I would suggest finding a tour that will take you here.

Trafalger Falls

The last stop of the day was Trafalger Falls. A short 10 minute hike along well-paved trails to a viewing platform for a snapshot, and our tour was complete. After the Middleham Falls hike, our small group of seven laughed about what a joke the hike to Trafalger Falls was. This would be your best bet, and is still a very pretty waterfall, if you want a shorter, less-strenuous tour, but still want a feel for the island's natural beauty. All-in-all, T and I loved our day on Dominica, and would consider a return visit if we were looking for an adventurous vacation in the Caribbean.

Roseau, Dominica

DAY 5 | St. George's, Grenada
Wednesday we made port in St. George's. Grenada lies at the southernmost tip of the arch formed by the islands of the Lesser Antilles' Grenadines. It was also the furthest south our cruise would take us. It is known as the "Spice Island", and produces large quantities of cloves, nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, mace, and many more. Grenada currently supplies 40% of the world's nutmeg. A common theme among the islands we visited, Grenada was originally aquired by the French from the Carib indians, then transferred to British control after the 1783 Treaty of Versailles. After much turmoil, Grenada earned it's independence in 1974. It has remained relatively peaceful since the 1983 Invasion of Grenada by the United States - a controversial invasion during the Reagan administration partly based on a communist government, building of a military grade airstrip, and Cuban involvement.

Lucky for us, the turmoil has died down, and Grenada is now a safe place to visit. On our stop, we visited the Gouyave Nutmeg Processing Station - everything here is still done by hand, there are no modern machines taking away work from the factory employees. A good thing, as there is a high unemployment rate in Grenada. We also visited Grand Etang National Park - we were not at all impressed, drove through a banana plantation, saw cocoa, cinnamon, and nutmeg trees.

Banana plantation. The bananas were covered with plastic so insects wouldn't get to them.

Cocoa tree - this fruit is where all chocolate begins! 

On the left is a picture of the nutmeg and cocoa fruit, on the right is the seed from the nutmeg fruit. The veiny red covering is used to make mace, while the inside seed is where the nutmeg spice comes from.

Oil Down - Grenada's National Dish made with breadfruit.

The much sought after nutmeg ice cream - Delicious!

Back in town, we enjoyed a local lunch of Grenada's national dish Oil Down, sorrel juice, and tasted curried lambi (conch) - This lunch was actually pretty delicious, and not nearly as scary as it sounds. After lunch, we made our way to Grand Anse Beach, which was the definite highlight of the day with powder-soft white sand beaches. Before getting back onto the ship, we were lucky enough (and by lucky enough, I mean we searched all over town to find) to find a local store serving nutmeg ice cream. All of the reviews we had read before arriving in Grenada urged us to find nutmeg ice cream, and we are glad we did. It tasted similar to cinnamon ice cream for those of you who don't plan to make it to Grenada anytime soon!

T & I at Annandale Falls

The beautiful Grand Anse Beach

DAY 6 | At Sea and relaxation. Nothing better than lounging on the pool deck with a cold mojito in hand. By Thursday, we were more than ready for a day of rest at sea.

Hanging out at sea on the pool deck.

Pool deck on our ship, Celebrity Summit.

Formal night checking out the on-board casino. Doesn't T look great in his new suit!?

DAY 7 | Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, U.S.V.I
Friday we docked in Charlotte Amalie. Our immediate impression was that this island was the most 'touristy' and 'Americanized'. For those of you out there that want to visit a Caribbean island without giving up the familiar comforts of home, St. Thomas is your island.

A view of Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas.

We weren't off the ship for more than a half hour before T ran into a completely anonymous couple, not on our cruise, who were also fully decked out in Iowa Hawkeye gear. In all of our travels, we have come to realize that the likelihood of running across a fellow wanderer with ties to the University of Iowa, are very high. Can't say I've ever come across that amount of pride with an Iowa State fan while on vacation outside the US!

Excited to head to the beach for some relaxation.

Anyways...we walked into town (about a 20 minute walk from the ship right along the harbor), and did a little souvenir shopping. St. Thomas definitely hands down has the best shopping and souvenirs of all of the stops we made - it's very similar to the shopping in Grand Cayman if you have been there. There is a good mix of local handcrafts, along with upscale duty-free shopping. 

A view of Magen's Bay Beach from above.

After putzing around in town, we headed to Magen's Bay Beach - voted one of the top ten beaches in the world by National Geographic. The best part, the beach has many trees to shade you from the sun, and an excellent beach bar with food and drinks. T and I decided we would definitely consider heading back to St. Thomas for a future vacation, and split time between St. Thomas, and St. John's, the more upscale sister island.

Magen's Bay Beach - voted one of the top 10 beaches in the world by National Geographic.

The coast guard escorted our ship out of the port. We were surprised by the machine guns on the coast guard boats.

Waiting for sunset...

Sunset the last day of the cruise.

DAY 8 | San Juan, Puerto Rico
Saturday we returned to San Juan, disembarked the ship, then killed some time walking around Old San Juan before heading to the airport to catch our 4pm flight. Castillo San Felipe del Morro fort was the prime destination of the afternoon (T is slightly infatuated with exploring old forts). It was a beautiful day, and a great end to a wonderful trip.

Final day of vacation exploring Old San Juan.

Walking along the Paseo del Morro

Castillo San Felipe del Morro National Historic Site

Take a look at that cannon!

Coast of San Juan from Castillo San Felipe del Morro
Favorites of the trip:
- Hiking in Dominica
- Beaches in Grenada and St. Thomas
- Walking in Old San Juan - we love Puerto Rico!
- Formal nights on the cruise, and our personal sommelier Alen from Croatia
- T LOVED being on deck at night, beer in hand, watching the stars and waves go by
- Our wonderful dinner table partners and conversations on the cruise
- 80+ degree temps
- Seeing so many places and meeting so many wonderful people from around the world

To see all of our photos from the trip: CLICK HERE or HERE

What is your favorite Caribbean island?

Bon Voyage!

Friday, February 15, 2013

T & I are absolutely thrilled to be leaving on a getaway tonight. It is our first big trip together post-honeymoon, and we couldn't be more excited. We'll be flying to San Juan, Puerto Rico (we have previously vacationed here and LOVED it) in the morning, and then 7 wonderful nights onboard the Celebrity Summit for a Southern Caribbean cruise. Our ship makes stops at such exotic locals as St. Croix, Grenada, St. Kitts, Dominica and St. Thomas. It'll be T's first cruise experience, and my first on Celebrity. We are so looking forward to exploring new cultures, seeing new islands, and soaking up the sun in some amazing 80+ degree weather.

All images via Pinterest

I'll be back in a week. Bon Voyage!
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