Thursday, January 24, 2013

St. Kitts

We hadn’t really heard much about St. Kitts – but I’d read up on some independent tour operators on a forum and we booked with one of them. It ended up being the two of us plus one other family on our van tour. The driver gifted us a bottle of Arbor Mist for our honeymoon. This was an instant throwback to college when I used to drink a very large bottle of this wine/juice on my own, but a very sweet gesture, nonetheless. 

The first part of the tour was through the downtown area – we were struck by the incredible masonry. St. Kitts seems to be a bit better off than some of the other islands, I think in part because there are a few international medical universities on the island. Our tour guide told us about how sugar plantations used to be one of the main sources of income on the island, and that he used to work in the sugar industry. Now tourism has taken over as the number one source of income. There are a lot of resorts and condos being built there right now.

Masonry in the downtown area
As we continued along we stopped at Romney Manor (not Mitt Romney’s house, FYI), which has beautiful grounds and a batiking operation. A woman gave us a demonstration of their batiking process; they do some incredibly complex pieces. We bought a few small pieces – a bangle bracelet and a frog magnet.

A batik in process
Some examples of finished batiks
Next we went to Brimstone Hill, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. There is a fortress at the top of the mountain/hill and we spent awhile walking around checking out the beautiful panoramic views. The fortress used to be called the Gibraltar of the West Indies due to its size and seeming invulnerability. In the 1700s there was a major battle at Brimstone Hill between the British and the French.

Views at Brimstone Hill
Canon and view at Brimstone Hill
We continued on our tour, stopping at a lookout spot where you get a great view of both the Atlantic Ocean and Caribbean Sea.  (Don’t ask me which side is which!)

Next we spent a few hours on the beach in the South Friar’s Bay area, which is also home to Shipwreck Beach Bar. We enjoyed a lunch of Jerk Chicken and a few drinks – they had an extensive menu of frozen cocktails and Caribbean beers. There were also some monkeys and mongooses (mongeese?, I don’t know) hanging around the treeline in the beach area.

Drinks at the Shipwreck Beach Bar
After a few hours the van brought us back to the port and we spent some time in the shopping area, and finished the day off at Fat Tuesdays with some mixed drinks. 

Overall we LOVED St. Kitts, we are hoping to go back for an extended trip at some point in the future.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Honeymoon - St. Lucia

The next day was St. Lucia. We’d booked a land and sea tour through the cruiseline. The tour started off with a bus ride around St. Lucia – with stops at various spots around the island for pictures. Now, on all of the islands there were locals who would try to sell you things, but typically they’d leave you alone as soon as you declined. This was not our experience in St. Lucia. One of the stops, which included a bathroom break, was overlooking Marigot Bay, a beautiful inlet at the bottom of lush mountains. Unfortunately, as soon as we got off the bus, we were swarmed by people trying to sell crafts made of banana leaves. They were persistent. It didn’t help that only one restroom was in order. It also didn’t help that we were stuck in the back of the bus with an incredibly obnoxious fellow traveler. I try hard not to let other people’s ugly attitudes bother me, but this woman just wouldn’t quit complaining.
One of the first photo stops on our land tour.

Marigot Bay from above
Anyway, St. Lucia is incredibly beautiful, by far the most lush, mountainous, green island we visited. But it is also incredibly poor. On our tour we drove through some fishing towns on our land tour and it was eye opening to say the least. In addition to those towns, we heard countless stories along our ride of mudslides from hurricanes that wiped out entire homes that were on the mountain. Now, I think it’s really important to know what the reality is when you visit these tourist areas, but it was somewhat of a shock, especially as St. Lucia has become such a “hot” tourist destination in the past few years. It seems like the all-inclusive resorts are pretty insulated. 

We continued through the windy roads until there was a view of the Pitons, the twin volcanic mountains that St. Lucia is famous for. I’d been really excited to see the Pitons - unfortunately my camera battery died after only a few pictures of them from afar. Tourist fail!

The Pitons from afar.
The tour also included a stop at a local botanical garden and hot springs. By this point my camera battery had died. I think this day was just out to get me. The tour guides also started to rush us, saying that we’d be served lunch in the order that we got to the catamaran (you share a catamaran with two or three other tour buses for the afternoon portion.)

We got to the catamaran second, and were served a delicious lunch of local favorites including a breadfruit salad, and a few types of chicken. The lunch was very good. So was the rum punch, though not as good as the in-ocean service from our time in Barbados. After the last tour bus arrived we set sail on the catamaran. 

One thing I noticed right away was that some locals in a small motorboat were following behind us. Our experience with the overzealous salesmen was far from over at this point. After a tour of the coast, we anchored at a beach to swim. Several motorboats and kayaks pulled up offering coconuts, shells, and other local items. They would pull up directly next to the boat and look over the edges. They were also hollering at people who were swimming, even though they clearly had no cash on them while in the water. At this point I felt like it became harassment, as they started guilt tripping people, telling them they’d come to their island and must support the local economy. After the swimming time, we headed back to the docks, making a stop in Marigot Bay, which we’d seen from high above earlier in the day.

Overall, this day was not our favorite. It was really eye-opening though. At one point we’d considered spending our entire honeymoon on St. Lucia, and I think from our experience, we were both glad we hadn’t picked to do that. 

Bananas grow everywhere in St. Lucia

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Honeymoon - Chef's Table Dinner

Being the (crazy) planner that I am, I started reading Victory reviews on cruise forums before we even booked the trip. One of the things I kept seeing was the Chef’s Table dinner, a private 7-course dinner for 12 people with the ship’s head chef. The dinner has an extra charge but we both agreed afterwards that it was absolutely worth it – the food, and the experience were amazing.

You meet the chef outside of the main dining room and he takes you back for a tour of the galley and prep kitchens. No photography is allowed in the galley, as it is an active work zone. As soon as you get into the galley, a champagne toast is served as well as some appetizers. I can’t remember all of the appetizers, but I remember stuffed olives being one of them. After the champagne, the chef leads the group through the kitchen where the staff is preparing hundreds of meals. He describes the way they estimate how many of each entrĂ©e will be served, the grocery (for lack of a better word) list (they stock everything at once, unlike some ships which pick up produce at each island). This was all incredibly fascinating. Next there is a cooking demonstration by the pastry chef, where they show you how to make the ever popular Warm Chocolate Melting Cake – they give the recipe to everyone who attends...but after seeing how much butter and eggs go into each batch, I think it’s better to keep it a cruise treat and not an at-home dessert.

After the tour the group goes up to a private dining room, in the case of the Victory it was a small library room, and service starts. The food was absolutely amazing, it included a very cute bread baked into a flower pot (Pinterest, anyone?), a tomato appetizer, soup, tuna tartare banh mi (didn’t remind me of any banh mi sandwich I’d had before...), salmon, wagyu beef, quail (not pictured, somehow I forgot to take a picture of that course), and then a “chef in a candy shop” dessert. They also brought us a Happy Honeymoon cake and another couple was celebrating their anniversary, so they got a cake, too.

By the end of all of that food I was stuffed and exhausted. Pretty sure we skipped out on all of the entertainment that night and went straight to sleep.

I’ve read that the Chef’s Table menu changes occasionally, but that it’s the same across all ships, so it’s not really customized by each chef. No matter, if we find ourselves on another cruise offering the Chef’s Table dinner, I’d bet we’d jump at the chance to do it again.

Honeymoon - Barbados

Our next stop was Barbados, and we booked a snorkel/beach excursion in the afternoon through Carnival. The Barbados cruise port is a little bit more industrial looking than St. Thomas. There is a mall/shopping center right when you get off, they must have free wi-fi because people were lounging all over the benches crouched over their iPads/phones/laptops. We stopped at a restaurant in the shopping mall for a flying fish sandwich and Banks beer before meeting our excursion in the afternoon. Barbados is also a debarkation point for some passengers; it was funny to watch people with their suitcases and in one case, suitcases + giant flat screen TV box as they waited for their rides/taxis.

When it was time to meet our excursion we went over to the desk and waited to board a bus for a short ride to the catamaran dock. We got on the catamaran and set sail for a spot which typically has a lot of sea turtles. We were amongst the only people on the catamaran to go to the net seats at the front of the boat. It was nice to be able to lie back and enjoy the short ride to the turtles.

When we got to the turtle cove there were several other boats there, so it was definitely kind of crowded. Some of the boats were throwing bait in the water, so we did see some turtles even though there were a ton of snorkelers.  I was glad we purchased a new camera before the trip which doubles as an underwater camera without the need for a special case.

After we were finished snorkeling they pulled the boat up closer to the beach where we spent an hour or so swimming. Some of the catamaran staff brought pitchers of rum punch and cups into the water and handed it out – now that’s service! J I ended up scratching my foot on a sharp rock and stepping on a sea anemone and getting spikes stuck in my foot within a few minutes, but otherwise it was a fun time at the beach.
We headed back to the cruise terminal in the late afternoon, and bought a few souvenirs including a few rum cakes to take back for family and my office, then got back on the ship. We got cleaned up quickly because we had the Chef’s Table dinner that night, something we were both really excited about!

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Honeymoon Day 2 - St. Thomas

After sleeping like a rock the first night, we awoke to find ourselves docked in St. Thomas.

We booked an excursion through Godfrey Tours, after doing a bunch of research on Cruise Critic forums. We picked the option which had some shopping in the morning, then an island tour, finished off with a few hours at the beach. 
We disembarked and gathered under a structure where a bunch of the shore excursions meet. Our guide, Godfrey, came and met us a few minutes later. We boarded an open air bus/taxi and headed toward the shopping area in downtown Charlotte Amalie. We walked around the jewelry stores which were on every corner, and there was a random downpour for a few minutes. We’d talked a little bit about buying some jewelry on St. Thomas, because they have really good deals, but weren’t sure. Well, we both ended up with pieces we were really happy with, at Diamonds International. I got beautiful diamond stud earrings and A. got a great deal on a watch he loves. I was worried about carrying the purchases around the rest of the day, so we were really pleased to find out that the Carnival shopping expert makes regular stops at Diamonds International throughout the day to pick up purchases and you can pick them up at his desk later in the evening. Of course after we agreed to that I spent the rest of the day worrying that it was a scam, but worry not, we had a call on our cabin phone later that afternoon and were able to go pick up our purchases that night.

On to the island tour...we reboarded the open air vehicle and started up the mountains. This was my first experience with island roads and let’s just say I’m glad I wasn’t doing the driving. There were maniacs everywhere! We stopped every once in a while at scenic overlooks for pictures. 

Eventually we made it to Mountain Top , which is really just a huge souvenir store and balcony with an incredible view. From their balcony you can see tons of other islands, and Magen’s Bay Beach, where we’d be spending some time later in the afternoon. They also have a huge bar in the back of the store where they make world famous banana daiquiris – I know it sounds gross but they were absolutely delicious! I’d go back for more.

After our stop at Mountaintop we continued on our way and stopped at Drake’s seat – a bench where Sir Francis Drake supposedly sat. 

Finally we got to pick between Magens Bay Beach or Coki Beach. We picked Magens Bay Beach. Again, this was my first time in the Caribbean, so I couldn’t wait to get my feet into the crystal blue water. I was amazed how clear/blue the water is.  

After a few hours at the beach we got picked up by the bus and headed back to the cruise terminal. There is a small shopping area near the cruise terminal where we stopped to get a few souvenirs and then got in line to get back on the ship. While we were in line a steel drum band from a local high school was set up under the structure where we’d met our tour guide earlier in the day. Right as we were walking by they started playing Danza Kuduro, which if you read my first post about my love of that song, this just further led me to believe we’d made an excellent choice in picking this cruise as our honeymoon.

Our next day was a day at sea, and we didn’t do much that was noteworthy. We used this day to finally unwind a little bit since it had been such a whirlwind since (and before!!!) the wedding. I’ll be honest...I think that port intensive cruises are the way to go for me. We definitely did not take full advantage of everything the ship had to offer, somewhat because we were incredibly drained from all of the wedding week activities, and partly due to feeling a bit like a sardine at times. My next post will be on our day in Barbados and the Chef's Table dinner later that night.