Being a tourist: Mixing rum cocktails at Casa Bacardi

DSC03829
The view of the fort at the entrance to San Juan harbour from the Casa Bacardi estate. 

Sometimes you just have to plunge in and be a tourist for a few hours. It’s just fine to protest that you’re a “traveler” and not a “tourist”, but we’re all just tourists in other countries when you get right down to it. The thing that has given tourist activities a bad name, though, is their “fakeness.” So, is learning to mix rum cocktails in a state-of-the-art mixology classroom fake? We think not.

The day begins as all days do on a vacation in San Juan, Puerto Rico: the day is beautiful, it’s hot and sunny (with intermittent showers predicted), and we have the whole day stretching out before us to do with anything we please. What we please to do today is to visit Casa Bacardi, the home of the famous rum distillery, something we’ve never done on any of our previous visits to PR. Let’s just back up a moment, though. How did we get here this morning, tickets in hand?

DSC03836

A few months before this trip, Patty was perusing some of her favourite travel YouTube Channels and stumbled upon one titled: Five things you must to in San Juan…or something like that. Four of them were “been-there-done-that” kinds of things, but the fifth was “take a mixology class at Casa Bacardi.” We do like a rum drink (among other libations), and we have certainly drunk our share of Bacardi rum. Add onto that the fact that we have visited rum distilleries in the past on Caribbean islands, and this is not a tourist experience we need to repeat. But a mixology class? That sounded interesting, and above all, fun.

So, a bit of online surfing to the Casa Bacardi web site established that they offer three options for your visit: the historical distillery tour, the rum tasting tour and the mixology class. Naturally, our only interest was in the mixology class, so we surfed to the calendar, chose our tour time and paid for our tickets about three weeks before we left home. The mixology class was $60 (USD) per person and worth it in our view.

So, that’s how we had our tickets in hand when our taxi from the Condado area of San Juan, where we always stay, drops us off at the entrance to the guest pavilion at Casa Bacardi.

As you probably already know, Bacardi rum is among the most storied in the world. We feel as if this experience is a must, given that our next stop will be Santiago de Cuba where Don Facundo Bacardi Masso first began his business as a wine merchant and importer. Of course, with all that sugar cane about, he began experimenting with distillation of spirits eventually buying a local Cuban distillery in 1862. After a series of wars and fires that pushed the business out of Cuba, the Bacardi distillery reemerged on the island of Puerto Rico in 1936 and, as they say, the rest is history. Today, Bacardi rum is, at least according to Bacardi, the number one rum in the world. So, here we are.

DSC03841

We are given “beepers” and told that we should make our way to the bar where a mixologist will prepare for us a rum drink of our choice while we wait for the beginning of our tour. Since we know we will be mixing a series of drinks during our class, we approach two older women waiting at a table and offer them our “free drink” tokens. They are only too happy to take them off our hands. It was really unnecessary for us to have come as early as we did – the web site suggests at least a half-hour in advance, but we needn’t have. Anyway, there are lots of people milling around, but we do notice that not all of them are wearing a blue “mixology tour” bracelet. Oh yes, they give you a bracelet with the beeper.

Finally, it is 1:30, our appointed time, and the beepers begin to vibrate. We head toward the waiting tram and are delighted to find that there are only seven people in our group. We can only surmise that the rest of those waiting were on cheaper tours!

Our tour guide is a petite woman who is as rapturous about rum as you might expect of a Bacardi employee. And she is knowledgeable. We listen attentively while she tells us about the distillation process, but we are really here for the class. After this presentation and a view over the acreage and San Juan across the bay from the roof deck of the building, we are off to class.

DSC03851
The drinks we will learn to make…

We follow our guide as she makes her way toward a closed door. We’re not really sure what we had been expecting, but this wasn’t it. The sight before us was mesmerizing: a large (really large), superbly equipped, state-of-the-art, sparkling mixology classroom/lab, reminiscent of cooking classrooms on board the Oceania cruise ships, but much larger. Our little class of seven is almost lost!

Now it’s time to learn to mix rum cocktails.

Each of us is positioned at a station where there are three mini bottles of rum (see how smart we were not to imbibe too early?), mixing glasses, stainless steel mixing spoons, cocktail shakers, muddlers, glasses, ice, sugar, lime wedges…everything a budding mixologist needs! Our guide and teacher had, earlier in the tour, introduced us to the three drinks we would be making: the Cuba Libre, the daquiri, and of course, the Mojito. We were more than ready.

DSC03863

We first mixed the Cuba Libre, a lowball rum and coke, where she gave us the secret to the best rum and coke: squeeze a lime wedge over the ice to season it before adding the rum then the coke. A familiar drink to us, for sure.

Then we shook up a daquiri – one of the best we’d tasted owing to all that fresh lime juice we have squeezed in. Finally, the mojito. To our surprise, the real trick to this delicious drink is rectifying the mistake most bartenders make, according to our petite teacher. That mistake is muddling the mint leaves along with the lime. No, no and no, she says. Muddle the lime in the glass, slap the mint leaves between your two hands to release the aromas, wipe the leaves along the rim of the glass and then drop them on top of the limes before adding the rum and soda. She was so right.

The whole experience is one and a half hours long and great fun. Our pre-Easter dinner drinks this year will be inspired by our newfound knowledge. Our family is delighted – since we’re hosting!

Next up…we’re off to Santiago de Cuba. Cheers!

Advertisements

One perfect day…in San Juan, Puerto Rico

DSC03768
The old fort in San Juan

There is nothing quite as nice to us Torontonians as getting on an airplane and jetting off to warmer climes in mid-winter. It’s magical to arrive at your beachfront hotel and shed those winter layers – of clothes and cares. We’re just back from a few weeks of doing just that and we started our adventure in San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For a bit of background…A place we’ve been to on several trips in the past, San Juan never loses its charm as both a bit of the Caribbean with an American flavour. It’s not quite that sleepy Caribbean hideaway, and yet it’s not Florida either.

Since Puerto Rico is an unincorporated territory of the US, we are able to pre-clear US customs and immigration at Pearson Airport before leaving Toronto making our entry into Puerto Rico as smooth as any domestic flight. San Juan’s population is just shy of 400,000 making it a city about the size of Halifax (with its surrounding municipality) in Canada. What we like about it is the combination of the old San Juan which everyone photographs, the lovely beaches and the modern shopping experience at the Mall of San Juan, the upscale place for that shopping fix. But our perfect day does not include that modern-day mall experience…

The perfect day begins with breakfast at the San Juan Marriott in the Condado district. A beautiful residential district, the Condado is home to an array of wonderful (and not so wonderful) restaurants, hotels and above all, homes and condos. It’s not strictly tourists, but on this beautiful, sunny 27C day, you’d be hard-pressed to believe that! No matter, we’re heading into Old San Juan, a 5 km walk along Ashford Avenue which follows the beach on one side and the lagoon on the other. Not many people walk this way, so it’s perfect for us.

DSC03758
Enjoying our 5k walk int Old San Juan

We’ve been to San Juan at least four times before, so its maze of streets in the old district are not such a mystery to us. We have a destination today, though. Patty has been putting off her flip-flop purchase until she could browse an actual Flipflop Shop. She usually buys them in Phillipsburg on the island of Sint Maarten, but our original cruise itinerary (which included her favourite flip-flop spot) changed, so we’re in search of the San Juan franchise. The shop is easy to find among the cobbled streets, and we are successful in our purchase.

After strolling the fabled streets, it’s time for lunch…and a beer which we drink only when the weather is hot. This is the day! We’re looking for the pub/tavern/restaurant where we have eaten on two previous visits. Since we don’t have an address and cannot actually remember its name (!), we have to rely on our memory of landmarks in the vicinity.

DSC03799
We don’t think we’ll forget Nano’s again!

Without too much difficulty, we find Nano’s where the people are friendly (and speak English), the beer is cold and the club sandwiches delicious. Then it’s time to find a taxi back to the hotel. It’s now too hot to walk another 5 km!

IMG_8600
Beer…the great rehydrator!

The hot afternoon is a perfect time for a long walk along the Condado beach. In the past, we’ve been able to go for miles without ever leaving the beach. What we find today, though, is extensive erosion since Hurricane Maria so much so that at a certain point we actually have to leave the beach, take to the street, and rejoin it farther along. Such a shame, but the walk is relaxing nonetheless.

DSC03803

One of the reasons we’ve chosen the San Juan Marriot this time (in addition to the fact that our Platinum status with Marriott keeps us coming back to their properties) is because we’re able to have an oceanfront balcony. The times we’ve been here before, we always stayed down the beach at La Concha, a Marriott Renaissance. We do love the vibe of a Renaissance, but on our last visit things seemed to be changing – and they don’t offer beachfront balconies. Since we’re here for six days, we wanted to be sure we have private outdoor space. So, later in the afternoon we sit with a glass of local rum and coke and listen to the waves crashing on shore – and they are, indeed, crashing.

Later we dress for dinner which we have booked for Seraphina, the Italian restaurant at La Concha where we eat outside, enjoying the lively street scene. Later in the week we’ll have Puerto Rican cuisine!

The next thing on our “agenda” will be a mixology class at Casa Bacardi tomorrow. Stay tuned!

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!

DSC08666
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.]

DSC08693
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!

 

DSC08708
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.

DSC08796
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 5 best Caribbean cruise ports – for discerning travelers on their own

Colorful Old San Juan (Puerto Rico) is a wonderful place to spend the day strolling & taking photos.
Colorful Old San Juan (Puerto Rico) is a wonderful place to spend the day strolling & taking photos.

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.

Art in Williamstad, Curacao.
Art in Williamstad, Curacao.

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

Enjoying St. John's, Antigua
Enjoying 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

You can't get lost making your way from the ship into Phillipsburg.  Patty points the way.
You can’t get lost making your way from the ship into Phillipsburg. Patty points the way.

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

The boardwalk on the beach, Phillipsberg
The boardwalk on the beach, Phillipsburg

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?