Cruise Ports on Your Own: A Day in St. John’s, Antigua

IMG_3176The 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.

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St. James’s Club in Antigua where we spent a wonderful holiday a few years ago.

 

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.

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Too many cruise ship in port that day!

 

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.

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The opal and gold pendant Patty acquired at Goldsmitty.

 

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!

 

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Cruise Ports on Your Own: “Doing” Gustavia, St. Barth’s

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Lovely Gustavia

St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.

 

The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.

During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]

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Beautiful vistas in St. Barth’s

 

For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.

Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.

We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.

If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.

The relaxation of ‘return’: Cruising well-loved Caribbean islands

Like most people, we travel for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we travel to visit family and friends far away; mostly we travel to experience new and exciting places and cultures. However, from time to time we travel simply for an opportunity to relax, and there is nowhere better to relax than places we know and love for their laid-back ambience. For us that laid-back ambience is exemplified nowhere better than the Caribbean – and the most relaxing way for us to visit islands we know and love is on a cruise line that we also know and love. We’re just back from three weeks doing just that, and it was just what the doctor ordered.

Leaving behind a snowy Toronto (oddly that day it did snow although the winter, by and large, has had very little of the white stuff), we waited with sixteen aircraft in front of our plane for the inevitable de-icing that characterizes any kind of air travel in a Canadian winter, then waited in an equally long line-up to take off. But it was worth it.

After six days in Miami Beach (we’ll tell you about that and South Beach’s art deco history in the next few weeks) we boarded our transportation that would take us back to islands we’ve visited many times in the past. That transportation for this trip was Oceania’s Riviera, an elegant and quiet 1200-passenger beauty. We were bound south and planned to enjoy each of the stops on our own terms – NO shore excursions with gaggles of other people!

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A view of part of the Atlantis Resort on Paradise Island from one of the two bridges that connects it with Nassau.

Our first stop was Nassau in the Bahamas where we’ve been many times over a period of some thirty years. Not strictly speaking in the Caribbean – it’s the Atlantic really – Nassau has changed over the years. We took a long walk from the cruise pier through the main street of Nassau and over the bridge to Paradise Island. The first time we visited that little island it was dotted with small resort properties like a Holiday Inn and Flagler Hotel, not to mention Club Med in more recent years. Now, however, it’s been gobbled up by Atlantis, where we have actually spent a week-long vacation in the past, one of the most expensive for this kind of vacation for us. The Atlantis complex has practically taken over the island these days. Back over the bridge, we visited the well-known straw market to find that it has disappointedly changed with hand-made straw products vastly outnumbered by trinkets and T-shirts imported from Asia. And not a single local woman actually making a basket on the premises. Pity.

 

Then we arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When we first visited this island, we weren’t impressed – perhaps it had something to do with the ‘shore excursion’-type experience. However, on subsequent visits where we actually stayed on the island, we came to love it for its mix of the new and the old. On this visit we returned to a numbers of spots in old San Juan including Senor Lopez’s wonderful vintage and estate jewelry shop which is now run by his widow. [We wrote about it in more detail here.]

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Old colonial architecture in old San Juan

Next stop was Gustavia in St. Barth’s. The last time we were there we toured the island; this visit we confined ourselves to exploring the town of Gustavia. A little bit of France in the Caribbean, Gustavia is home to a variety of the best-loved high-end French brands. But we were on a mission to visit the French Pharmacie so that Patty could purchase several French drug-store products that you can’t buy elsewhere.  Stuffed to overflowing with brands like LaRoche Posay, Emryolisse, Bioderma, Vichy, Nuxe and Caudalie to name only a few, a French Pharmacie is nothing like drug stores in North America and always worth a visit!

 

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The beautiful little harbor in Gustavia, St. Barth’s

When we arrived in St. John’s, Antigua, we were looking forward to revisiting an island we had spent a vacation on a few years go and that we loved. Unfortunately, it was crawling with cruise ship passengers from several mega-ships and we gave the town short shrift noting that some aspects seem to have deteriorated since our last visit.

 

We then arrived on the scene of our honeymoon some 28 years ago: the island of St. Lucia. The last time we visited the island about four years ago, we took an island tour and noted that Castries, the capital seemed as down-trodden as ever. We were pleasantly surprised on this visit to see that St. Lucia seems to have weathered the recession better than some other islands. The town was vibrant, hopping and wonderfully hot.

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The lovely boardwalk along the beachfront in Phillipsburg

St. Maarten was our last island visit. Having spent several wonderful holidays here before, we were looking forward to our early-morning stroll along the boardwalk in Phillipsburg. Morning is the very best time to do this since most people on cruise ships are off on those shore excursions and won’t return to town until later in the afternoon. So we had it all to ourselves. A quick pop into the Flip-Flop shop where Patty always buys her flip-flops and then we were back to the ship.

 

In spite of this being a kind of return for us – no surprises to speak of – there is still much to tell you about. Stay tuned as we tell you stories about learning new skills while on vacation, Art Deco architecture in South Beach including the Blue Moon Hotel where we stayed, and how we plan independent cruise port visits – eschewing those cattle calls they refer to as shore excursions.

The discerning guide to cruising: Part 1

Cruise ships come in all sizes and flavors! You may not believe it, but there is something for everyone
Cruise ships come in all sizes and flavors! You may not believe it, but there is something for everyone

Despite the Costa Concordia disaster, hurricanes and the annual Titanic remembrance, a cruise still holds an allure for many travelers.  People who shun cruising usually have one the following reasons:

  • They believe that a cruise will be confining and claustrophobic.
  • They believe it will be crowded.
  • They believe that they will be bored.
  • They believe that they can’t experience other places and cultures.

You may have your own excuse that doesn’t appear on this list, but these are the ones most often reported and we’re here to tell you – every single one of them is a misconception.

Our documents for our upcoming Caribbean getaway just arrived from our travel agent, Angela, this week, and we don’t know about you, but the anticipation of an upcoming sojourn somewhere south is all a part of the vacation excitement.  It’s still two weeks out, but we can already picture checking into our Seabourn cruise aboard the Spirit at the Barbados cruise terminal (we’ve been there before on more than one occasion!) and sipping that champagne that will be in our hands shortly thereafter.  Of course, that will be after we’ve acclimatized ourselves to the southern climes with six days in Barbados at “The House.” And we’ll tell you all about it and the six days in St. Maarten after the yacht harbor cruise when we get back…but back to the why and how of cruises…

If you’ve never been on a cruise but have wondered what it might be like – and whether you would like it or feel safe, or how you could ever decide which cruise to pick – stay with us for a few posts and we’ll take you aboard some of our own cruises to show you what you’ve been missing.  If you’ve cruised before, come along with us and add your own comments to help all those novice cruisers who can benefit from experience.  This week we’ll dispel misconceptions – then we’ll look at finding the right one for you, how to get ready, and how to get the most from every minute on board – and in port. Then we’ll tell you about our latest one when we get back.

A quiet drink on our verandah.
A quiet drink on our verandah.

Let’s begin with the ‘confining’ and ‘claustrophobic’ part.  We have traveled on cruise ships that range from 280 to 2400 passengers (this year’s will be the smallest at 204 passengers), and we can assure you that never once did we feel either confined or claustrophobic.  If you’re interested in the 6000-passenger mega-ships, we can’t really help you since we have not the slightest interest in them.  The only time in selecting a cruise where we believe bigger is better is when it comes to choosing a stateroom – but we’ll get to that in a later post.

Every cruise ship, regardless of its number of passengers, is designed with public spaces that are more than sufficient for every one on board to find a quiet place.  In fact, we’ve spent a lot of time strolling through cruise ships wondering where everyone is!  And that’s on sea days where everyone is on board.  The one thing that would be claustrophobic to us at this point in our cruising career would be to stay in a small stateroom.  That would be confining for us since we do like to spend time away from all others on our own verandah enjoying a cocktail and the peaceful sound of the ocean rushing by.

There are, however, places on cruise ships that are crowded.  Think buffet and you’ll get the picture.  Discerning travelers, however, avoid the buffet at all coasts.  Avoid a buffet, you say?  Yes, avoid the buffet.  Even on the smallest cruise ships, there are various places to eat.  Lunch in the main dining room is a relaxing, quiet time, where people wait on you impeccably.  And the larger ships will have other, more casual spots to be served your lunch.  (Cunard has an English pub, for example).  If you want to stay in your bathing suit all day on a southern voyage, you won’t be able to do this, though, so you’ll have to chow down at a buffet of one sort or another.

Another place where it might be crowded is during a Caribbean cruise, on the pool deck, on a sea day.  Discerning travelers will want to have their own verandah.  But if you don’t need to have the pool in view, there is always a deck with a chair away from the madding crowd.

So you think you’ll be bored.  Or as one of our acquaintances who has never been on a cruise ship once said, “Oh, I like to be active.”  The snickers started from over in our direction.

Active folks will find a lot to occupy them on a cruise.  Consider first the possibilities on dry land in port.  This is one reason why your selection of itinerary is so important.  In fact, after you research the cruise lines (we recommend Frommer’s Cruises and Ports of Call which even provides a snap-shot of your potential fellow cruisers based on past-guest statistics), choose by itinerary.  For your first cruise, you might be a bit broader and less discriminating.  For example, if you want to go to the Caribbean, that’s where you start.

We can still remember our first cruise aboard the Carnival Triumph on during its maiden year (you can tell how long ago that is when you note that it is about to be refitted!).  Our travel agent said this to us: “I would never put you two on Carnival except that you’re taking a child.  It’s great for children.”  And he was right – our then eight-year-old son loved it, spending all of his days in the company of other children in the well-designed and supervised program while we enjoyed a bit of couple time.  However, he was also right in that we would never cruise on Carnival without a child – too many partiers, loud-mouths and eaters for our liking.  But then, it just might be others’ cup of tea.

Looking forward to returning to St. Maarten this year by cruise ship.  And we'll stay there for six days!
Looking forward to returning to St. Maarten this year by cruise ship. And we’ll stay there for six days!

So there is a lot for a child to do on a cruise, but there is also a lot for adults.  And being active can be accomplished in any number of ways: aerobics or yoga classes, personal training sessions, basketball on some ships, working out in the gym, walking on land and on board, and the list goes on.

The boredom factor is one that anyone who has cruised simply laughs at.  If you want to spend all day in a deck chair reading a book and sipping on a drink, then you can do that.  If that isn’t for you, select ships whose entertainment fits within your personality (dram/acting workshops, wine-tasting, music, cooking classes, computer classes, art auctions etc.).  There’s a lot more to cruise activities than bingo and shuffle-board, two activities that we avoid like the plague.

And as for those travel snobs who think that they can’t experience other places and cultures on a cruise, you’ve clearly been looking at the wrong brochures.  Our first cruise to the Mediterranean was one of the most incredible ways to be introduced to a vast array of places.  It introduced us to places to which we have returned for longer, more in-depth visits, and for those who cannot afford many long trips in their lives, a cruise will, indeed, let you visit places that you might not have otherwise gotten to before you die.

On a Mediterranean cruise for example, we began in Barcelona (our favorite city in all the world now as a result), then went onto Marseille where we took a day-trip to Aix-en-Provence, then visited Monte Carlo and Nice to which we have returned again and again, then onto Italy to Pisa and Florence and Rome to which we have returned, then to Corsica (when would we ever have had an opportunity to visit Napoleon’s birthplace Ajaccio?).  A more recent Mediterranean cruise introduced us to Sicily, Olympia, Pompeii, Monte Negro, Albania and Croatia.  So, there’s no need to be snobbish about what you can or cannot learn about the world on a cruise.  They are not all the same.

The bottom line for us is that although cruising is probably not for everyone, it is for lots of people with varying interests and styles.  Our discerning style has led us up the cruise food-chain as it were – from a mainstream line like Carnival, through the so-called premium lines such as Celebrity and Cunard, to the luxury lines Regent, Silversea and now Seabourn.

Next time join us as we get ready to leave for a southern cruise!

See “Choosing a Cruise”