Whenever most Canadians think about Cuba, they think, sun, sand and all-inclusive resorts. Throw in a day trip to Havana, and you’ve got a winter get-away. However, that’s not how we travel these days. So, that recent trip to Cuba that we inadvertently discovered ourselves on found us touring the historical cities of this Caribbean island. You last found us dashing to the excursion desk on the Silver Spirit as the ship left Santiago de Cuba, so that we could cancel any and all future group tours. After spending the day with the Cuban guide and a bus load of Americans who seemed to have an odd relationship with one another, we did not relish a repeat performance. Cienfuegos would be on our own.
After spending the next day in Georgetown, Grand Cayman (an unprepossessing port call if ever there was one these days), we sailed into Cienfuegos with the sunrise.
After a leisurely breakfast in the dining room, and knowing that the bulk of the passengers had already gone ashore, we made our way to the tender and stepped ashore in Cienfuegos.
Of course, this being Cuba, we had to go through immigration for the second (but not last) time. A ship’s crew member ashore pointed us up a street just outside the “port area” and so we walked.
It wasn’t long before we realized that this was the road less traveled – by tourists or anyone other than locals. The streets were lined with crumbling buildings that held the shadow of a former glory with their Spanish architecture. But these days, they are sad collections of what appeared to be residences.
We were lightly accosted by a local “taxi” driver who assured us he could take us to the town square. We protested that we prefer to walk (which we do), but he kept returning on the off chance that we had changed out minds. This happened at least five times through the morning. Who could blame him, though? There was no doubt he could have used the fare.
We finally emerged into the historic town square, after having missed the turn affording us a bit longer walk through the not-for-tourists area!
Located some 250 km from Havana, Cienfuegos has a population of 150,000 and has a town centre that is a UNESCO world heritage site. Its collection of neoclassical buildings comprises six buildings from 1819–50, 327 buildings from 1851–1900, and 1188 buildings from the 20th century.
After cruising the town square, we walked through a variety of city streets teaming with locals. Where were the tourists? Nowhere to be seen.
As we walked along, an older man who appeared to be North American, stopped us and said, “do you speak English?” We thought that he was going to ask for directions.
“Yes,” we said, “we’re from Toronto.”
“Oh, I thought you might,” he said. Of course, we didn’t look local.
In any case, he proceeded to tell us that he’s from just outside Toronto, and he spends the winters in Cienfuegos. What he wanted to tell us, though, was that we shouldn’t miss a chance to step inside the new Melia hotel that had just opened a block or so ahead. He told us it had a terrific view.
We took his advice and visited the hotel. What’s interesting is how different it is from the rest of the town as we had experienced it. New and shiny, the hotel is clearly trying t attract tourists for winter holidays.
We then made our way back to the ship, just in time to enjoy a drink on the deck! Next stop: Havana!
There’s something about the ocean. Of course to even consider taking a cruise, you have to have at least a grudging love of the sea.
Even if it is transportation to wonderful new experiences in interesting places, there will be days at sea between destinations when you have a chance to unwind, sit back and enjoy your conveyance. In this instance, we’re getting to know Silversea Cruises’ newest addition to their fleet: the Silver Muse.
With some 580 or so guests, it’s really considered a small ship, although we’ve sailed on smaller ones. Being new, everything shines. With a low-key sophisticated decor, the Muse is a mellow space that suits the Discerning Travelers’ taste!
So, what, you may ask, does one do with two sea days in a row? In addition to dining and relaxing, there are plenty of other activities on offer for the gym to the casino to the bars. Gyms are generally out of the question for us on vacation, with the exception of the odd yoga class for Patty.
We’ve been boning up on the history of the Panama Canal which we will reach the day after to,orrow. The on-board lecturer is really knowledgeable as well as entertaining…and we learned that we’ll have to get up before sunrise to really get the full value of one the modern wonders of the world.
We’ll do that, but tomorrow we’ll be in Costa Rica for an Eco-river cruise.
The first time we ever set foot on the island of Antigua was on a six-hour layover at the airport enroute from St. Kitt’s to Toronto. That was a few years ago when the airport was little more than a Quonset hut with a small duty-free shop and the inevitable bar where the hordes congregated awaiting their flights. Oh, and we suppose it’s worth mentioning that the airport at the time was sans air-conditioning!
We had been in St. Kitt’s for Art’s medical school reunion and were in a bit of a group traveling back to Canada. One of the groups had been on an earlier inter-island flight so by the time we arrived in Antigua someone had already booked a van and driver and planned an island tour. So we spent our time soaking in the beauty of the island vowing to return for a longer holiday – which we did a year later.
We fell in love with Antigua and Barbuda, its beauty and its people, so whenever we take a Caribbean cruise that lands in St. John’s, Antigua’ s capital, we always look forward to our day.
Just a stone’s throw from where the ships usually dock are the small streets of the town offering an array of the usual duty-free shopping as well as some shops unique to the island. If you need a new bathing suit, you’d do well to wait until you get to Antigua so that you can avail yourself of the dizzying array on offer at Sunseekers. Then, on your hunt for a unique piece of jewelry and/or art, eschew all those shops you see as you disembark and head to Goldsmitty on Redcliffe Quay. Uniquely original, Goldsmitty’s pieces are the creation of artist and jewelry designer Hans Smit. Patty has acquired a pendant and earrings on trips to St. John’s.
This most recent visit to St. John’s though was a bit disappointing. The town was overrun with cruise ship passengers that day. The main docking area in the town was jammed with ships so that our own didn’t even dock there. The alternative port is in an industrial container port area a ten-to-fifteen-minute drive from the town through an area that you would not choose to walk – and we’ll walk practically anywhere.
We took the shuttle into town, walked around for an hour and then headed back to the ship to enjoy the Antigua sunshine from the vantage point of the deck. The town seemed a bit shabbier than on previous visits and we have to wonder if the recent recession has had a negative impact.
St. John’s is still worth a port visit and Antigua and its people are still beautiful!
And so we’re back at it. The dog days of summer are waning and the thoughts of discerning travelers of the Canadian sort turn to winter – winter vacation planning of course! As we begin to consider the options, we’ve been thinking back to our many cruises and island vacations in the Caribbean; we thought that we’d share our choices for the best cruise ports for travelers to venture on foot on their own.
When you’re on a cruise for the first time, there is something to be said for booking a few shore excursions – but inevitably, after a while, you just want to stroll off the ship (or the tender in some smaller ports) and wander on your own without benefit of the constant drone of the tour guide’s voice, or the chatter of other cruisers.
To give you a bit of context for why we think we have an opinion that you might find credible, you need to know that we’ve actually visited some 28 Caribbean cruise ports. So, our list of the five best ones for strolling about independently is based on considerable experience! So let’s get started!
Number 5: Georgetown, Grand Cayman
The first time we visited Grand Cayman, there were five large cruise ships moored off the port with thousands of passengers being tendered to Georgetown all day long! Despite these large numbers, most of the cruisers were actually on shore excursions, so although there were crowds in Georgetown, they weren’t unbearable. Although not a great port culturally in our view, the reason Georgetown figures on this list at all is because of the shopping.
On most cruises we take, we plan to shop only once. We don’t pick up souvenirs (we’ve told you about that before), but we do like a bit of interesting shopping. Georgetown offers a wide array of duty-free goods and if you’re in the market for something like a watch, high-end perfume, cosmetics (like Chanel), a piece of good jewelry, or even a camera this is the place to find variety, and the shops are well-laid out.
The last time we planned our shopping for Georgetown, the last cruise port on our Regent cruise, the ship had engine trouble in Cozumel and stayed there an extra day (where we ate copious amounts of Mexican food!). The Grand Cayman stop was cancelled. Oh well, we saved a lot of money on that trip!
Number 4: San Juan, Puerto Rico
We love San Juan; although we didn’t the first time we visited it on a cruise ship. That time we took a tour and didn’t really get to see San Juan. A later visit when we stayed there for a few days prior to our cruise actually leaving from San Juan endeared it to us in so many ways. But this one is on the list of places to stroll to only if your ship docks in Old San Juan. There are two cruise ship ports in San Juan: the other one is called the Pan American cruise terminal and you’ll need a taxi to get anywhere, including Old San Juan. But it’s worth doing on your own.
Old San Juan is a wonderful labyrinth of cobble-stoned streets with a wide variety of shops, pubs and restaurants. You can easily while away several hours walking around, visiting the fortress and museum, doing a bit of shopping and then grabbing a bite of Puerto Rican food for lunch. Be sure to sample the local Medalla beer.
By the way, if your cruise leaves from San Juan, this is even better! You can then stay in PR for a few days and enjoy the rest of this beautiful island.
Number 3: Willemstad, Curacao
What a lovely little town this is! A UNESCO World Heritage Site (as is Old San Juan, by the way), Willemstad has wonderful architecture, and offers you a variety of sights, shops and restaurants. It’s really worth strolling around and you could easily spend the morning, have a bite of lunch, and then stroll back to the ship.
The two districts that make up Williamstad, Punda and Otrobanda, are connected by two bridges: one is a pontoon bridge you can walk across – unless it has been removed temporarily to let a boat pass. Watching the bridge come back together as you sit in a waterfront café sipping an early morning beer is a terrific way to enjoy your port visit!
Number 2: St. John’s, Antigua
Maybe it was because Art is from St. John’s, Newfoundland that this little city resonated with us so quickly, but for whatever reason, it’s a terrific place to stroll around.
We’ve visited this from a cruise ship as a port visit, but we have also spent a vacation on the island of Antigua (which we highly recommend) and had an opportunity to get to know this town.
Whenever we visit St. John’s we go immediately to The Goldsmitty on Redcliff Quay, a jewelry store that stocks only the unique creations of jewelry artist Hans Smit. Patty owns several of his creations and we’ll return on our next visit as well. The second store not to be missed is Sunseekers on Heritage Quay. They claim to have the largest selection of swim wear in the Caribbean, and we believe it! More than that, the service is wonderful. The sales staff will search out bathing suits to suit every body. If you need a new swim suit, wait until you reach Antigua to buy it!
Number 1: Phillipsburg, St. Maarten
We love Phillipsburg. Stroll off the ship and along the cruise ship terminal. Don’t bother with a taxi: it’s a nice ten-minute walk into town. Follow the signs to the boardwalk and when you emerge into downtown, you’ll be on a beach! The town has done a terrific job of developing this board walk along which you’ll find an array of shops and fun restaurants.
Take a walk to the very end; if you’re beach people, you can rent a chair and umbrella with a bucket of beer and watch the waves. If you’re shopper, walk to the end of the board walk and then take one of the alley-ways (well-marked) to the next street and walk along it all the way back to the end where you started. This is where the duty-free shops are located.
Many cruise ship passengers never eat off the ship. It seems they feel that since the paid for their meals, why eat anywhere else? Well, because you may miss something wonderful. If you’re interested in a light lunch, try The Greenhouse near the beginning of the boardwalk. If you are a bit more discerning and want a really lovely experience, walk a bit further along to the Ocean Lounge at the Holland House Beach Hotel that opens right onto the board walk. You’ll have a
table with a view, wonderful professional service and a meal to remember.
Ah, it’s so wonderful to think back on all the great experiences we’ve had. We haven’t decided on a destination for that winter vacation yet – we’re already booked on a European river cruise for April, but we’re exploring. Where are you going to escape the winter weather for a few weeks?