A Winter Escape to the Caribbean

Fairview Great House

Air travel is often an adventure when the weather gets iffy. My mother and I had been planning a cruise out of San Juan, Puerto Rico for the last couple of months. The week we were scheduled to leave, the weather forecast was predicting snow and ice.

We made adjustments to our plans and arranged to meet three days earlier than we had originally planned so I could bring her to my house just in case the roads got bad and they did. Living in the country with two hills near my home, any snow or ice makes it nearly impossible to get out and we woke up Thursday to sleet followed by snow which continued into Friday.

I decided to call a taxi to pick us up Sunday morning to take us to the airport and started watching for flight cancellations. With ice coming down in Dallas, all flights between Springfield, MO and Dallas, TX were being cancelled. When I checked the airline Saturday morning, our flight was still scheduled to depart on time, but I had barely completed check-in and printed our boarding passes when it was cancelled.

Calling in to the airlines, my call got dropped twice and I was on hold for an hour and 20 minutes before getting through to get a new flight to Atlanta with less than an hour between for our connecting flight to San Juan. You can guess what happened there.

We got up at 3 am Sunday to get ready for the 3:45 arrival of our taxi and our 6:05 am flight departure. The flight change to a different airline meant standing in line at the ticket counter for boarding passes and they had me running back and forth between the two counters completing their paperwork. The wheelchair assistance we had requested with the original booking for my 81 year old mother never materialized in spite of me asking at both counters for help. Since Springfield airport is small we went on without it.

After boarding our plane, we waited for our turn for deicing. Upon our arrival in Atlanta, there was no place for our plane to park due to others being in maintenance, so when we walked off the plane, it was already 9:32 and our next flight was scheduled to depart at 9:44. We did at least have wheelchair assistance upon our arrival in Atlanta and it was off to customer service to find a new flight and then make calls to the travel insurance provider and cruise line to explain our predicament. There were no flights to San Juan left with available seating that would arrive before our ship had already sailed. So-o-o…we booked a flight to St. Thomas that would arrive Sunday night by way of Miami and have us ready to greet our ship when it came into port there. I was starting to wish I had a travel agent of my own to take care of resolving some of the problems we were encountering.

We arrived in St. Thomas USVI around 10:45 pm exhausted. It was the airport’s last flight of the day and they were eager to get rid of us so they could go home. We took an airport taxi to the nearby Windward Passage Hotel and crashed.

Dec. 9th
The alarm went off at 6:30 am Monday. It had been too dark to see our surroundings when we arrived. When I pulled back the curtains in our rooms, there was the Charlotte Amalie Harbor in front of us and our ship was just coming in. It was followed shortly by two other large cruise ships. What a wonderful scene to wake up to after the difficult day before!

Charlotte Amalie

Traffic was already picking up and we needed to get to ship as early as possible as we didn’t know how long it would take us to get checked in and we had a 9 am excursion scheduled. After dressing and waiting for a taxi, we were cutting things very close. We called the tour company and they agreed to pick us up 40 minutes later than originally scheduled. We checked in at the ship and left our bags with the staff without ever seeing our cabin and went to wait for our ride.

We were picked up in an open safari type truck and the first stop was for shopping in town. I’ve never seen so many jewelry stores in my life. There seemed to be blocks and blocks of jewelry stores and not much else. A different area did have vendor tents, but we never made it over to them. We would have liked to have found a café to sit and have a little breakfast as we were starting our second day of not having a real meal to speak of. We never did find one and ended up sitting on the post office steps and sipping bottled water.

Our guide came back to pick us up and took us up St. Thomas’ winding hills for views of the Island and to point out some of its highlights. We were taken to the Mountaintop Rum Bar, a look out point, for a banana daiquiri sample and more shopping. After that, we were off to Coral World. At Coral World there is an aquarium of marine life, an underwater observatory, diving opportunities and Coki Beach is right next to it for the sun worshipers and snorkelers. We watched the sea lion presentation there. The driver on the way back drove much too fast on those winding roads and I felt lucky to make it back to the ship alive. I thought he was going to bounce mother out the entryway on the safari wagon and was doing my best to hang on to her.

Megans Bay, St. Thomas
Megans Bay, St. Thomas
Coral World resident iguana waiting for goodies to get dropped.
Coral World resident iguana waiting for goodies to get dropped.

It was good to get back to the ship and finally have a chance to sit down to a real meal. Food was always plentiful and tasty on board and evening dinner offerings were exceptional. We were content with the complimentary offerings and felt no need to visit the specialty venues.

Dec. 10th–
Tuesday was a day at sea and we were both welcoming the chance to rest up and eat regular meals. Following breakfast, we spent some time enjoying the weather on the Lido deck. The winter cold front that had caused the snows before we left, followed us to the Caribbean and made for choppy sea conditions and a few showers, but the weather was mostly pleasant with temperatures in the 80’s. And while we could feel the ship rocking some, we never needed the motion sickness medicines that we brought with us.

The featured entertainment for the day on-board was the Hairy Chest Contest and Mother seemed eager to have her picture taken with the winner who had used her cane in the final drag dressing part of the competition.

After dinner we attended the Nightclub Express Show in the ship’s theater with lots of lively music and dance.

Dec. 11th–
Wednesday morning we arrived in Barbados. Mother had chosen to stay on the ship, but I had a tour scheduled to the wildlife reserve. I left the ship an hour early to give myself plenty of time to find the meeting spot, and then stood there until it became apparent the operator wasn’t going to show up, nor were they answering the phone. I eventually got a refund, but it was a huge disappointment to have made it so far south and then to end up not seeing anything of the island. I returned to the ship, but two days in a row on the ship was getting old and I was getting bored. There was little going on during the day on the ship on port days and shops on-board were closed. We had sat next to a woman with a cold on the plane and I could at this point feel the back of my throat starting to get sore.

Dec. 12th–
Thursday we made it to St. Lucia which lived up to its reputation as one of the most beautiful islands in the Caribbean. Castries is a charming port city and the island is rich in dense green vegetation and beautiful volcanic mountains. Our guide, Sammy, was excellent and treated us to fresh, warm homemade bread at one stop along the way. Like St. Thomas and Barbados, driving is on the left hand side of the road here. We stopped to visit the drive-in volcano and watched others partaking of the mud baths. We then visited the lush Botanical Gardens with its colorful waterfall. While the island is rich in natural beauty and home to several luxury resorts, many of the inhabitants of the villages are destitute and it is so sad to see many animals starving and uncared for.

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Canaries
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Drive-in volcano
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Botanical Gardens
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The Pitons
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Diamond Falls

Dec. 13th–
The Friday visit to St. Kitts was wonderful. Monty was another great guide. While this island is truly tiny, it is gorgeous and once we drove away from Basseterre, the traffic and island seemed very quiet and peaceful. We stopped at the batik store at the Romney Manor Estates and Gardens. It is such a beautiful place and I would like to have had a little more time for wandering and exploring the pretty setting. We also stopped at the lovely Fairview Great House with its gardens and restaurant.

Romney Manor Estates
Romney Manor Estates

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Fairview Great House
Fairview Great House

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St. Kitts
St. Kitts

Back at the ship I had a delicious dinner of red snapper and a warm fig and spice cake for dessert. During the evening they had a Holiday show at the theater with the ship guests’ kids performing in the show.

Dec. 14th–
By Saturday we had arrived in St. Maarten and the Star Clipper, a ship on my wish list, was in port along with us. Mother again stayed on the ship while I took an Island overview tour. St. Maarten/Martin is much drier than other islands we visited and even has cactus growing under the palm trees. It is unable to support any crops and imports most of its food. Tourism is its number one source of income. Driving is on the right and traffic can be very heavy. We made stops to enjoy the scenery, spent time at the clothing-optional Orient Beach (So sorry Mother decided to sit this one out.), watched the airplanes land at the Princess Juliana Airport as they came in over Maho Beach and shopped in Marigot. Tour provided complimentary cold drinks which was a welcome touch.

St. Maarten
St. Maarten
Orient Beach Village
Orient Beach Village
Orient Beach
Orient Beach
Ft. Louis
Ft. Louis
Coming in for landing at Princess Juliana Airport
Coming in for landing at Princess Juliana Airport

Dec. 15th–
Sunday we were greeted to a full rainbow arch in the San Juan Port when we went for our breakfast. We didn’t have anything scheduled for the day, so could take our time getting around and finding our little hotel.

We took a taxi from the pier to our hotel so we could stow the luggage while we waited for check in time. We then caught a public bus to take us back to Old San Juan for exploring that area. Old San Juan is charming and has much to see, but it is hilly and can be tiring going by foot. We had a lunch at Toro Salao and only had time to visit the San Cristobal Fort before we ran out of steam and returned to our hotel for the evening. We were frequently interrupted by brief rain showers. Taxi driver said the rains they were getting were more typical of May-June weather patterns than December.

Old San Juan
Old San Juan
Barracks at San Cristobal Fort
Barracks at San Cristobal Fort
View of cruise port from the fort
View of cruise port from the fort
Hotel cat
Hotel cat
Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas

There is a free trolley service. Waits at the stops can be long and not all marked stops were being picked up on the day we were there. We spent so much time waiting on buses and trolleys that if I had to do it over again, I would just hire a tour/transfer service to take us around to the high points for a short stay. Depending on a person’s level of interest, doing justice to the forts alone could easily take 2-3 days alone, allowing for rest breaks. An organized tour would be more efficient than the blundering around that we did. And, of course, Puerto Rico has much more to offer beyond the San Juan metro area and a longer stay would have been great.

We were up early Monday so we could have coffee before heading to the airport. I wanted to allow plenty of time there as I had a Global Entry interview scheduled at the Luis Munoz Marin Airport. The return flights home were mercifully on schedule and uneventful.

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