Matt and I decided to visit some all-new islands on a cruise, and also spend a few days wandering around San Juan and the rainforest!
(The entire photoset is here on Flickr.)
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
Matt and I decided to visit some all-new islands on a cruise, and also spend a few days wandering around San Juan and the rainforest!
(The entire photoset is here on Flickr.)
Read from the beginning below, or jump to each day:
We got an early start Friday morning. Like, 3am early. Since it was the middle of winter, I was dressed in my finest convertible clothing: lightweight hoodie, pants with capri-straps, and wool socks under Keen water shoes. We left our jackets at home, of course!
Our cab arrived at 3:45, which put us at the airport before check-in opened at 4am. There was a long line, but they were efficient. We were able to board our flight right away, and I fell asleep right after take-off. I woke to the beverage cart, and did some knitting on the way to Atlanta.
We arrived in the ATL early (around 8:45am), and watched the ground crew dealing with an overturned baggage cart on the tarmac. We had brunch at the Sam Adams Brewpub, and got on our flight to San Juan a little after 11:00. Our awesome captain, Steve, announced that we had several returning vets from Iraq, which got them a round of applause and free drinks.
It was overcast til we reached the Bahamas, and then it was all ocean and islands and me dying of excitement. After which I fell asleep again, and napped til Turks and Caicos. Really, how often can you say that?
Our plane also had the back-of-seat display. Matt watched ESPN and played video games and trivia (with other people on the plane!), while I contented myself with my knitting and the map that shows you things like altitude, distance to San Juan, and air speed, in both English and Spanish.
We landed early again, got our bags, and hopped in a cab to the Sheraton Old San Juan. We dropped our bags off in the room and took off to see the city. Matt had never been there, and I was very excited to show him around!
I’m not sure how it’s possible to forget how gorgeous San Juan is.
We walked down toward El Morro and the city gate, following the long path around the outside of the island. The feral cats were everywhere, being cute.
I have several pictures of Isla De Cabras from our last visit, just because it’s amazing. What I learned from a very informative plaque is that it used to be a leper colony, too.
San Juan was decorated for Christmas. It was completely incongruous. We kept forgetting about the upcoming holidays!
We wandered up to La Barrachina for dinner, because we needed to visit the place that claims to have invented the pina colada.
I don’t even care if they invented them or not: they were fantastic. As was my mofongo with vegetables.
After dinner, we went to check out El Batey. We knew it was a favorite local dive, known for having the best jukebox on earth. It did not disappoint.
The bartender, Felipe, introduced us to the local rum: Ron de Barrilotos. You can drink it up or on the rocks, but at El Batey, it’s served in small plastic Dixie cups. We met Nicky and her cousin at the bar. Nicky had lived in New England for a long time, but her cousin seemed to not speak much English. He gave Matt a cigar, and the business card of the guy who sold them. Nicky also got us to write our names on the newly-repainted wall, so hopefully they’ll still be there next time we go!
We stayed far too late, of course, because El Batey was our newest favorite bar in the entire universe. Really. And then we made the decision to stop into Senor Frogs, because it was right by our hotel, and of course we had to. Plus they had food.
Two yards and two shots? A terrible idea, and yet that’s just how you do at Senor Frogs. I set myself up for a pretty epic hangover!
Saturday morning, we had to check out by 10am. That hurt a little! The perfect cure for a hangover, it turns out, is La Bombonera. We expected to have to wait in line at the most popular breakfast spot in San Juan, but we got a table right away!
After breakfast, we headed out to tour San Juan. We climbed up to San Sebastian and walked across the northern side of Old San Juan (essentially recreating the path I’d taken with Wendy and Stephanie on my first trip there).
We bought tickets to see El Morro; they’re only $3!
This is the view from the ladies’ room at El Morro. You could do worse. (That’s the leper colony in the background!)
It was insanely windy, and I’d already realized that I’d forgotten clips to put my hair up. Cue an entire week of me wearing my sunglasses on top of my head!
Above is the view through the troop barracks; below is the staircase they used to haul cannons up and down! Notice the spots to stop and rest every eight steps or so. If you’re hungover and it’s humid as hell, you don’t even need a cannon to make you want to rest on each platform.
From El Morro, we walked back into Old San Juan and decided to find a spot to sit, have a beer, and finish our Christmas cards. We were supposed to have worked on them on the plane, but I completely forgot. Really, what’s more cruel that mailing Xmas cards to people in Minnesota from the tropics? Sorry, guys.
This guy (called ‘chango’ in Spanish) sat and yelled at us loudly. He’s awesome.
After dropping off our cards at the post office, we walked over to Lupi’s for lunch. I’d heard in more than one place that it was closed, so I was thrilled that that was not the case. It was the same old bar… a dimly-lit Mexican restaurant with the naked lady machine on the bar. We had margaritas and plantain nachos, just like last time, and watched sports on TV.
Then it was time to go see about gettin’ on a boat! We picked up our bags at the hotel and hopped a cab to the cruise port.
We were pretty early for check-in (having learned the value of getting on the ship early), and it was an extremely quick process. We were on board the Celebrity Summit being handed glasses of champagne and ushered to cabin 6097 in no time.
Our cabin was very similar to the ones we’d had on Costa. Enough room for two people, with a nice balcony. And there was more champagne waiting for us, of course. We unpacked our bags, checked out the view from the balcony, and then set out to tour the ship, from the top down.
The ship had really nice pools… in that respect, it was nicer than Costa. No bocce, though! From the deck, we could see the yacht we’d passed on the way there: it’s called the Al Mirqab, owned by the prime minister of Qatar. Big pimpin’.
The lifeboat drills weren’t til the next day, so we were free to wander. We became acquainted with a hot Irish bartender at the pool bar, and then met the awesome Russian bartender at the coffee bar near the game room. We’d be seeing plenty of them over the next week.
Round about leaving time, we brought our champagne up to the deck for the celebration. There was a band playing by the pool, and a parade of boats covered in Christmas lights sailed past our ship in the port. We stood and watched as the ship passed Old San Juan and headed out to sea, then went back to the pool bar for some cocktails. Matt taught the Jamaican bartender how to make Johnny Jump-ups, and we had a long talk with a loud guy from Texas.
After a while, we decided it was time to check out the casino. We found spots at the blackjack table (which had a $6 minimum, not bad). For the first time in quite a while, I ended up winning – not much, I think I had $80 on my original $60, so I decided to leave ahead. I went to get a Rob Roy, and when I came back, Matt was still winning. We both did surprisingly well that night!
One of the few downsides to the cruise itinerary was that the ship docked daily at 7am. If you’re like us and want to stay out late gambling, dancing, and hanging out at bars, that’s kind of rough. But it was our first day, so we were up bright and early! From the balcony, we saw the Queen Mary 2 arriving in Sint Maarten as well.
The ship had experienced an outbreak of novovirus on the previous virus, which meant that for the first three days in the buffet, you were not allowed to serve yourself. You had to point out everything you wanted and be served, including at the beverage stations. It slowed things down, but the situation was understandable.
We got off the ship and headed into the port area. People were being herded toward cabs, but I’d read that it was an easy walk into Philipsburg. It only took about 15 minutes to get there. We made a mental note to return for Rum Jumbie, too.
Even the city beach was gorgeous. Philipsburg is bright and colorful, with the typical beachfront walk lined with tourist shops, restaurants, and bars. We stopped at a bar that was just opening at 10am and ordered a couple of rum punches. It’s never too early in the Caribbean. Also, the bar had a Packers clock. Confusing.
We wandered a few blocks into the downtown, stopped into an awesome casino, and then found a liquor store that seemed to have everything we could ever want for cheap. We were in there for at least half an hour, and they took care to wrap everything very carefully for us. The owner also sold Matt three Cuban cigars, telling him, “one for after dinner, one for before sex, one for after sex!”
A few stores later, we found the famous Juggie’s Place. Their special is a cigar and two beers for $2.99. You can’t go wrong! We were happy to take advantage of the bathrooms, too.
We picked up a bottle of the famous Rum Jumbie (made only in Sint Maarten!), then decided to take everything back to the ship and change for the beach. We walked down to the water taxi stand and climbed aboard. Though there’s a charge to use it, nobody asked us to pay.
We dropped off our giant rum stash, changed clothes, and walked back into the port to get a cab to Orient Beach. The driver, Dan, told us all about growing up in the area, and how much it had changed in the past 50 years. He pointed out everyone’s house, too, including that of the governor’s son and his six wives.
Orient Beach is on the French side of the island (Saint Martin), so we got to visit two countries in one cab ride!
Dan dropped us off at Pedros at the end of Orient Beach, showed us the dividing line between the nude resorts and the regular part of the beach (right next to Pedro’s), and said he would pick us up at 4pm. We’re pretty sure he stayed there the entire time, too.
We had nachos and rum punch at Pedros and enjoyed the view. There weren’t too many naked people, but they still made us giggle every time we saw one. A few crossed over to the main beach and walked past.
Orient Beach has the typical setup where every restaurant/resort has its own beach chairs available; you claim the ones you want, and eventually an employee will come ask you for payment and your drink order. Pedros charges $15 for two chairs, an umbrella, two drinks, and the use of their bathroom, which is about the best deal you can find.
We walked up and down Orient Beach, ending up back at Pedros. Our server, Superman, eventually woke from his nap and set us up with chairs and rum punches. We went for a swim with our drinks, and an errant wave stole half of Matt’s rum. (I’m pretty sure that’s the biggest tragedy you can encounter there, short of a hurricane.)
Superman convinced me to get a Penis Colada. It seemed appropriate, considering the view.
He then planted another penis straw in the sand, and we all sat around laughing about it for way too long. Possibly the rum had something to do with that. Superman eventually returned to his nap in a nearby chair.
We sat around watching the windsurfers and the naked people walking past. 4pm came way too quickly.
Dan drove us back to the cruise port, where we stopped at an Indian grocery for snacks and beverages. We also stopped at the Rum Jumbie stand to actually try some, as we hadn’t opened ours yet. At the gate to the ships, we were told that they didn’t allow open glass bottles, so Matt had to slam his Lucozade. I think that gave him enough energy for the next three days.
We showered and sat on our balcony eating delicious Indian snacks and watching the ship leave port. Once we were back out at sea, we headed up to the buffet, where Matt discovered the sushi boat. It was his greatest day ever. I myself had some pizza. We ate on the back deck, watching the sunset.
Afterwards, we went up to play a very long game of HORSE (it’s hard to play basketball on a ship!), then an improvised soccer game involving a squash racket.
We headed down to the coffee bar to visit our new friend Velika, then went to the game room next door to play Scrabble.
Post-Scrabble, we went to Rendezvous (the midship bar with a small stage) to watch the band for a while, and then headed to Revelations (aka “The Bar at the End of the Earth” – a way better name) because they had reggae at 10pm. We got a table and met our server, Winston. He was Jamaican, so he knew all about rum punch; he fixed us up with some highly delicious versions, and also a carafe of nuts that quickly disappeared. When ‘No Woman, No Cry’ came on, of course I cried. And then my contact fell out of my eye.
After reggae, DJ Ron Hollywood showed up and started spinning. He was a DJ in the loosest sense of the term, but played halfway decent music anyway. There were very few people there dancing (probably mostly due to the 7am daily port times), but that didn’t bother us. I requested Daddy Yankee, and we danced to it. Then there was Soulja Boy and Jay-Z. I loved the old folks dancing to hiphop.
Matt made friends with an old guy from Puerto Rico named Jose (who we would later see at that bar every single night). It was hard to hear him over the music and through his accent, but he told a long story about the time he proposed to a stripper. AWESOME.
Of course, we went to bed way too late for the early morning start, but it was worth it.
We arrived painfully early in Dominica to find this waiting on the dock. I was not feeling so well.
Luckily, we only had to walk a block to meet Gary from Bumpiing Tours. We’d scheduled a tour of the island with the company based on the uniformly rave reviews online. We were also pleased to discover that there was only one other couple on our tour that day, though they seemed painfully shy.
As we set out, we noticed that most of the houses and businesses had colored flags and banners hanging everywhere. Gary explained that it was election day Friday, and the island turned the event into a huge party. There was a pre-election party with drinking, pot smoking, music and dancing. Then there was the election afterparty, with more of the same. As far as we could tell, the red, blue, and green parties seemed to represent similar things, all with labor-focused messages. Also, Gary told us that traffic would back up completely around the island when one of the party leaders would start a caravan and pick up followers in a giant parade along the way. Clearly, Dominica is awesome.
It’s called the Nature Island, known more for its rainforest, waterfalls, and volcanic features than its beaches. The roads are very narrow and winding, and you drive on the left. I was happy to be in the hands of a professional, though the couple in the backseat seemed afraid for their lives. (If we survived dune buggies and cabs in Mexico, there’s little else that can scare me, driving-wise.)
Gary stopped to pick Ylang Ylang on the side of the road. It’s used in perfumes.
There was a cooler of water, juice, and beer in the van, in which we gratefully indulged. I needed as much water as possible. After 45 minutes or so, we arrived at our first stop in the mountains: the Emerald Pool. It’s about a 15-minute hike into the rainforest, and the four of us seemed to be the only people there.
It’s impossible to capture in photos (just like most of the rainforest – all you see is green). The water is indeed emerald, and there are ferns and runners hanging down from above. It looked like a Hollywood version of the jungle. Even though the water was freezing, there was no way we weren’t getting in there. The other couple hesitated, but we finally convinced them to come in. Seriously, when you have the opportunity to swim in a waterfall in the rainforest in Dominica, you damn well better take it.
We climbed out, dried off, and squished our way along the rest of the trail. Though the port is on the Caribbean side, from the top of the mountain, you can see the Atlantic:
Gary tried to bring us to the Mr Nice fruit stand, but it wasn’t open yet. (Next time!) Matt and I cracked open a couple Kubulis, the beer of Dominica. We liked it especially because there was a map of the country on the front, and we could keep track of our location. We drove back down to the Roseau Valley (where the ship was docked), and Gary pointed out the houses on stilts along the way. People would buy the land and build the upper level of a house, while camping out underneath. When the top was done they’d move in, with the intention of building the lower level when they could afford it. We didn’t see many homes with a lower level, but they were all fairly new in the mountains.
We drove through town and back up into the mountains, headed toward Trafalgar Falls. It’s the most famous destination in Dominica. On the way, Gary stopped to show us an active volcano along the side of the road.
Trafalgar Falls was crowded, as expected. There were several excursions from the cruise ship, and the van driven by Levi from Bumpiing tours, with whom I’d booked the tour. Even the climb up from the parking lot was steep, and the humidity was killing me.
We hiked down to the pools formed by the stream from the waterfall, and Gary helped us get in. I recognized the other group there as the people whose recommendations about Bumpiing Tours I’d read in the first place, on the Cruise Critic message boards. Funny!
The pools were very warm, heated by the volcano. On the right, you can see a man standing in a hole; you can actually climb down there to the pools below. Of course when the Cruise Critic people left and the other couple got in there with us, they refused to go in the hole. We had to, though, even though it bruises the hell out of your knees. It was an awesome massage, with the water cascading from above.
We eventually climbed out, and Gary led us back up the hill. I was pretty sure I was going to die at that point, because I couldn’t stop shaking. I told Gary I had too much rum punch the night before, and he instantly understood. I love the Caribbean.
We finally reached the top, and I got some more water. On the way down from Trafalgar Falls, we stopped at a roadside bar called the River Rock. We got chairs at a table on the patio, where the papayas and passion fruit used in their drinks were growing from trees in the valley. Gary got us a round of rum punches, and then hung out at the next table smoking weed. The couple with us looked like they were going to die of uncomfortable. I really love the Caribbean.
We climbed back in the van and headed back towards Roseau. Our rum punches empty, we had another round of Kubulis and Quenchi (Dominican juice). Gary took us through the Botanical Gardens in Roseau, where we saw the most-photographed sight on the island. It’s a school bus flattened by a tree that fell on it in Hurricane David.
He showed us the sausage tree, too!
From there, we drove down to Champagne Reef to snorkel. He gave us our passes, and Matt and I headed off down the beach. The couple we were with decided not to snorkel. What the hell?
Champagne Reef is known as such because of the air bubbles coming up from below, caused by volcanic activity. The water was a little murky because the waves were high that day, but we still saw the vents with the bubbles erupting from them.
Levi swam up and said he’d seen an octopus nearby, but we couldn’t find it. I’m pretty sure Matt was really happy about that.
It was hard to get out of the water on the stony beach, but our water shoes helped a lot. Gary led us back to the van, pointing out an iguana along the way. He said that the males are grey, and the females are green and mostly hang out in the mountains.
We drove back into town, and he dropped us off near the ship. We asked him for a dining recommendation, and he pointed us in the direction of La Robe Creole around the corner. It’s well-known, and was excellent despite having the strangest rum punch yet.
I had the vegetarian plate: pumpkin puree with garlic, rice and beans, and spinach. Matt had flying fish. It was fantastic. While we ate, trucks kept driving by with giant soundsystems and bullhorns strapped in the back. They were all stumping for the various political candidates they’d be voting for that weekend.
We stopped in the duty-free shop in town to pick up more rum, including Havana Club (which is illegal in the US, obviously), then went back to the ship right before boarding time ended. They confiscated the rum this time, which was fine: they give it back to you right before debarkation, and we weren’t going to need it til we got home anyway. The Caribbean has plenty to go around.
I showered and took a nap while Matt took pictures of Dominica as we left. This, of course, was the start of my typical tropical-vacation sickness: something about the combination of heat, different foods (sometimes not enough food, because it makes me feel like not eating), hangover, humidity, sunburn, and dehydration always makes me sick. I just consider it an important part of the process, though. (What I didn’t realize til later was that I was also seasick!)
Once I rose again from the dead, we got dressed and went to see Velika in the coffee bar, then to play cribbage. The board was missing its pegs, but there were broken drink picks instead. Matt and I had some great ideas, including his new website: nakedmenblowingtheirnosesintowomensdresses.info (or .mobi). Yeah, I don’t remember where that came from, either. All we knew was that we were for sure getting a book deal out of it.
We stopped at the champagne bar to get cocktails to bring back to the room (and met the bartender Mehmet, who we’d be seeing more of later), then ordered room service. It took 45 minutes, and we ended up with bread and butter, lemon ricotta ravioli, a fruit cup, a crostini platter, and two entrees for Matt because they’d run out of one. We only ordered about half of that. Needless to say, there were leftovers.
We went to bed a little later, but I was completely unable to sleep. The wind and waves were really bad, and I was tossing around all night. I couldn’t figure out what was wrong, but I was absolutely miserable and my head was spinning. I probably should’ve realized what it was, but I’d never had trouble with seasickness before!
The alarm went off at 8, but we didn’t make it out of bed til 9. I was feeling pretty terrible. At least some delicious gruel helped, and the novovirus scare had finally cleared, so we could serve ourselves.
While Matt showered, I went to the infirmary to tell them about my symptoms. Guess what? Seasickness. They pointed out the basket of Dramamine sitting in the office, and told me to stop by anytime and grab some. I instantly felt better, just knowing I wasn’t going to die.
We got off the ship in St George’s, Grenada. It was raining a little, but quickly clearing. To get into town, you have to go through their giant cruise terminal. It was really nice, though, and crowded with people trying to hop on the wifi network.
We left the terminal, found a Scotiabank ATM, and set off up the hill toward Fort St George, because I’d read that the view was amazing. There’s still plenty of evidence of the effects of Hurricane Ivan, too, which was disastrous in Grenada.
We reached the top of the hill and bought our $2 tickets for the fort. The sun was already coming out, and the view thing is no joke:
We wandered around the fort, which was an awesome mix of picturesque and run-down. The police use it as a training facility.
One of the Brits there told us that the markings on the cannons were King George’s seal.
We left the fort, and headed back down the hill to the Carenage. It’s on the other side of the giant hill from the cruise port. St George’s is a busy, very pretty town.
The Carenage was full of fish boats and the infamous Rhum Runner, and it was packed with tourists, as expected.
We picked up a couple spice necklaces to bring home. I love them.
We then stopped at a little grocery store in search of local beverages, snacks, and spices (Grenada being the spice island, of course). We also wanted local change, as it makes an awesome souvenir. Our bag of mauby, pop, and snacks cost about $15US, and the cashier was amused that we wanted Grenadan change. He also reassured us that it was safe to drink outside in Grenada. You never know!
We headed back toward the ship to drop our purchases off and change into bathing suits, stopping at a little craft/souvenir store along the way. We picked up a bunch of things and continued to the spice market, which was amazing. We just stopped at the first booth, but it was perfect… we ended up with bags of spices, and when we overpaid the seller by just a little bit, he handed us another handful of nutmegs as change. I loved it.
We also stopped to visit Yvonne in the cruise terminal, because we’d promised to (she also sold spices), and then spent quite a bit of time in the souvenir shop in the terminal itself. Grenada is good at selling us stuff, and all of it was awesome.
We changed into our beach gear on the ship, and walked back out to the water taxi. It cost $16 roundtrip for two people going to Grand Anse beach.
Grand Anse is regularly called the most perfect beach in the Caribbean, and it’d be hard to disagree with that.
We got a couple of beach chairs with an umbrella at Lazy Days, and the server brought us rum punch. This time, Matt finished his before going in the ocean!
We swam for over an hour. There was a deep dropoff, so you didn’t touch the bottom within 30 or so feet of the beach. That made for some awesome surf, too.
We dried off, sat around on the beach for a bit longer, and then went to find food. I headed straight for the roti stand:
I had a vegetable and salad (!) roti, and Matt had chicken and chips. We sat around giggling at the rooster strutting around the yard. After lunch, we stopped at a little shop on the beach so Matt could pick up a Carib beer shirt, and then we hopped on the water taxi back to the cruise port. On the way, we eavesdropped on one of our fellow passengers hitting on a dancer from the Queen Mary 2. I also noticed the pile of Carib bottles underneath the pilot’s steering wheel.
Back on the ship, we noticed that the Ocean Village boat next to ours was preparing to leave. The passengers were assembling on the top deck, and they were all holding little British flags. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get flags (preferable Puerto Rican ones). They started blasting music, and we witnessed the Brits singing and dancing along to songs like ‘YMCA’ and ‘We Will Rock You’. We decided to go up to the top deck to watch, because it was hilarious.
We got a couple of the daily specials – the $5 rum runner – and stood at the railing watching the Ocean Village ship. They had two staff people shouting in megaphones to get the crowd going (both of them wearing British flags), and they tried to organize a yelling contest between the two ships. Lacking a large crowd and our own organizers, we lost by a lot. The Brits seemed to think it was as amusing to make fun of the Americans as we did them. It was awesome. Our ship headed out first, so we waved goodbye to them and headed out to sea.
We returned to the cabin to shower and hang out for a while, then went to the martini bar to try the martini flight, more for novelty purposes than actual quality. It was cute! After that, we got a couple of real martinis and headed to the main restaurant for the first time since we’d been on the ship.
We found our table of eight, and realized there was only one open seat. The very loud group there had obviously made a friend, so we went to ask the maitre-d’ about it. They sat us at another four-person table nearby, telling us another couple had the other seats. But they didn’t show up, so: score.
The main restaurant service was sub-par, to our surprise. It was extremely slow, and I didn’t get the fruit cup I’d ordered. I did get a giant caprese salad and Israeli couscous that was very good, though. Matt asked our waiter, Vasilika, for help choosing between two entrees, so Vasilika just brought both of them. We had panna cotta for dessert, and also got espresso. While the food was good, the time it took for dinner wasn’t really worth it. Especially since, if we wanted fancy food, we could get it via room service for free. The buffet was usually just fine for us, though!
After dinner, we wandered down to Michael’s Club, the fancy cigar and cognac bar. Matt just wanted to pick up matches for his cigar, which we then took up to the pool bar on the 11th deck. They were having an “island party” up there, with a really entertaining band and people dancing. We got cuba libres from the hot Irish bartender, and learned about the wonders of Bacardi 8. And since I’m all class, I took my Dramamine with rum.
We witnessed the ship’s longest conga line (or so they said) from above; why are old people doing the conga so hilarious? We also met a couple from Philly drinking out of coconuts, which obviously we had to partake in. But since I was smart, I also made sure we got a gigantic bottle of water to carry around. Ha!
We headed down to the pool deck to dance. By then, they’d played ‘Hot Hot Hot’ at least three times. Once the island band switched to DJ Ron Hollywood, I told Matt we’d hear the Cupid Shuffle within two songs. And we did, so of course we danced to it. Afterwards, I got my own drink in a coconut. I had to.
Then it was time for bed! We had more islands to visit, after all.
I slept til 9 on Wednesday. I was able to sleep with the Dramamine, but it made my arms feel floppy, and I was really out of it. Thankfully, we had no plans in Tobago but to go to the beach.
We got in a cab to Pigeon Point beach with a driver named Benjamin. As he dropped us off, he asked what time we wanted to be picked up. He said he’d be back at 2pm, or maybe not. It wasn’t quite clear.
Pigeon Point beach is gorgeous.
We went to the dock to get on a glass-bottom boat tour of the reef for $20 apiece. Our captain’s name was Ringo, and he had giant dreads that stood up on his head like a crown. He was fantastic. There were some ladies from the east coast complaining because the boat tour was 15 minutes late. I’m pretty sure they’d never been to the Caribbean before, because 15 minutes late is pretty early.
They took us out to Buccoo Reef, where we could snorkel. The water was really choppy, so we all clung to a long rope trailing behind the boat. It was pretty difficult trying to swim, breathe underwater, hang on, and not touch the stinging coral! We saw a lot, but it was exhausting.
From the reef, we headed over to the Nylon Pool. It’s a very shallow area in the ocean, and the color is amazing.
The bottom isn’t sand, it’s crushed coral. Captain Ringo said it was exfoliating, and helped us all scoop some up so we could rub it all over ourselves. We ended up a boatful of really smooth people!
The first mate sat atop the boat, smoking weed. Irie.
They dropped us back off at the beach, and Matt and I went to the food stand for beers and roti. By then, it was already 2pm. It’s amazing how fast time flies on the beach.
We went to the cab stand and told them our driver was Benjamin. He didn’t show up til 2:45. Had we known that, we’d probably have gone swimming some more! At any rate, he finally showed up and drove us back into town.
We stopped into a few stores at the cruise port, then went to our cabin to shower. I wanted iced coffee, so we went up to the buffet to get some. We happened to arrive at tea time, so of course we had to try that out.
After tea (I want to say that every day), we went out to the back deck and got a couple mojitos while we watched the ship leaving Tobago. We saw the giant ferry that goes to Trinidad in port…
And we saw Trinidad, way off in the distance! I realized that we were at 11 degrees longitude, the farthest south I’ve ever been. And really close to South America.
After sunset, we went to the card room for a cribbage rematch with our new cocktail recipe playing cards, which I of course won. We then went back out to the bar on the aft deck to sample their daily special, the mixed berry mojito. It was delicious, though I don’t know why I was so surprised that they were using fresh berries!
We had dinner reservations at ‘Destinations’ (or as we called it, “Moments”, based on an obscure joke), a casual restaurant that was part of the buffet area. We weren’t exactly sure what was different about it, except that they had a slightly different menu and service. The menu was somewhat disappointing, though, as it had no vegetarian entrees. (Cruise ships are pretty well-known for catering to any diet… I rarely had a problem finding food.) Instead, I ordered two different salads and black bean soup.
Though the place was almost empty, we were seated next to the most fascinating couple, and we couldn’t stop eavesdropping. The guy was a higher-level crew member, and didn’t speak English very well. The woman apparently worked on Celebrity Millennium, and had time off. She kept demanding that he have the captain marry them, because she was mad that she wouldn’t see him again til January. Also, we found out that it cost her $300 to stay in his cabin, and that Captain Yanis apparently was always napping. AWESOME. We really wanted one of those spy listening devices and the recording pen you can buy from Skymall.
Then we discussed the possibility of creating a shipwide food fight, since obviously there was food everywhere you looked. I can’t really explain the details, but trust me: it’s amazing. For some reason, it ended with the lifeboats being full of sushi, and the life preservers full of mashed potato.
For dessert, we sampled a mango cheese tart and had a glass of Prosecco. We then went to shop at the little mall onboard for all our cruise-ship-related souvenirs, then stopped into Michael’s Club to see a purple-hatted lady playing piano and singing Sinatra. It was a good oldschool cocktail bar, but the fact that there were only a few people in there was a little uncomfortable. We decided to go to the casino and play slot machines for a while.
At the appropriately-scheduled time, because they only performed for something like 15 minutes a day, we went up to Revelations to see the Acapelicans. It was mostly due to the name, but we figured they must be important if they had such a short gig. They did indeed only perform for 15 minutes, and we decided to leave immediately afterwards because they were starting the newlywed game. We went to the martini bar, and had the same server as the previous night. Matt said, “In my head I’ll call him the pilot, because he was in charge of our flight.” We had an old fashioned and a french lemonade, and then it was time for bed.
Barbados was our last stop on the cruise, and we were feeling the combination of too many late nights, too much sun, and the double-bonus sickness. We were supposed to go snorkel with sea turtles, but my seasickness and Matt’s killer sunburn made that seem like a terrible idea. We were totally happy just going to wander around Bridgetown and see the land of rum, though.
The cruise port is a ways from town, and they encourage you to take cabs. That’s not our style unless it’s absolutely necessary, though. We took the path along the harbor and walked. Some other people were going that way, too, but surprisingly few, considering there were five cruise ships in port.
Barbados is a very British island, the kind of place where they still have tea at 4pm every day. Compared to the other places we’d been, it was the biggest city, and by far the cleanest. It was also very busy, hot, and insanely humid. We wandered into a few shops on our way to the Careenage, which was very cute:
Souvenirs in hand, we decided to catch a cab to the Mount Gay Distillery. It was our #1 priority, in terms of things to see in Barbados! On the way, we passed Kensington Oval, the famous cricket grounds.
Mount Gay was a little ways north of town, on a smaller piece of property than I’d expected. Granted, most of their operations occur at other locations.
We got tickets for the tour, and the first stop was the little museum, where they went over the history of Mount Gay. We saw a ton of old bottles (Matt was maybe drooling a little), and even saw one of the oldest pot stills in the world. That was way too exciting.
We then toured the bottling plant, but weren’t allowed to take photographs. The tour guide introduced us to a bottle known as “the one-legged man“: it’s the size of a 12-oz beer bottle, with the same kind of bottle cap. Which means you have to drink it all in one sitting, hence the name. Of course we had to get one of those.
After the tour, they led us to the bar for the rum tasting. We tried the Eclipse and the Extra Old. They showed us the really expensive 1703 as well, but there were no free tastes for that one. It was funny how shocked some of the visitors were at drinking rum straight.
After the tasting, Matt and I shopped like crazy people. We got a bottle of the 1703 (it was $80, but that’s about half the price it sells for in the US), a one-legged man, and various other souvenirs for ourselves and other people. It was by far my favorite souvenir-shopping of the trip. We got a couple of rum punches at the bar, and sat around watching Chelsea-Pompey on TV.
Post-distillery, we decided to walk back to the cruise port and get our stuff for the beach. That may not have been the best decision, though, because it was a lot farther than we expected. And a lot hotter. And it wasn’t very clear how to get there. We managed to find it eventually, though.
By the time we got near the port, we realized that we wouldn’t have much time at the beach before having to turn around and come back, so we decided to hop a cab into town for lunch instead. We got a couple of Banks beers at the port, then caught a cab. Matt asked the driver his name, and he introduced himself as Christopher.
He avoided the traffic on the main streets and instead drove through the neighborhood, where everyone waved and said hi to him. It was apparent that Christopher probably knew 90% of the people in Bridgetown. He told us he’d lived there 40 years, and answered all our questions about hurricanes (they tend to blow right over Barbados, because it’s a reef island instead of a mountainous volcanic one). That’s apparently what also makes for the excellent beer and rum.
Christopher dropped us off at Big John’s, a local fast food restaurant serving all Caribbean food. I was wary til I saw that amongst the many roti options, they had mock duck. WIN. We ordered food and brought it upstairs to eat.
I went for my camera to get a picture of our Barbadian fast food feast, but it wasn’t in its case. In fact, it wasn’t anywhere with me. It was, in fact, in the back of Christopher’s cab. Suddenly, I had zero interest in eating, and I wanted to cry. If there’s one thing (besides Matt) that I never want to lose on vacation, it’s my camera. Especially after having taken hundreds of photos.
We bundled everything up and ran outside to the nearest cab stand. It was ridiculous to ask about a cab driver about whom we only knew his first name, especially in a city with hundreds of taxis, but we had to try. We asked a couple of drivers about him, and they told us that there was more than one Christopher, obviously. We described him and his car, and for some reason they seemed to think they knew the guy. One of them asked, “was it 334?” (Referring to the cab number.) We had absolutely no idea, but it seemed like a lead. They said that his home cab stand was the one down a couple of blocks nearer the city center, and that we should go there and wait.
Despairing, we walked over to that cab stand. At least ten different cabbies asked if we needed a ride, so we told each of them the situation. I didn’t care if they thought I was a stupid tourist, I was willing to do anything to get my camera back. Everyone we talked to knew Christopher, and assured us that at some point he’d be back in that area. They also all made sure to inform us that someone could’ve gotten into the cab in the meantime, and may have stolen the camera. I was well aware of that, unfortunately.
The cab stand was at the center of a triangle, the intersection of at least three main streets. We picked a vantage point where we could watch all of them, and looked for similar cars matching that number. After standing there for 20 minutes or so, we were approached by another cabbie, so I explained again what was going on. He told us he knew Christopher personally, and asked, “did you tip?” That was the most critical part of the equation, it seemed, both as far as Christopher’s willingness to return, and whether or not the camera might be found. Not that we would consider not tipping a cab driver… but we were extra-glad that we had.
Rodney introduced himself, and said he might know someone who had Christopher’s cell number. He got two phones at once, and took down the number from his friend. It wasn’t til he actually got Christopher on the phone that we knew whether or not it was even the right driver. He told us that my camera was still in the backseat, and I started crying.
Christopher returned shortly afterwards, and I gave both him and Rodney $20 and thanked them profusely. Rodney told us he’d give us a ride back to the cruise port for free. I’m sure he was just in a hurry to get the hapless tourists out of his town, but I didn’t care: I had my camera back, and Barbadians had earned my love permanently.
Matt and I went to the bar at the cruise port, got a table and a couple of Banks beers, and finally ate our long-overdue lunch. I could not have been happier about life at that moment. Here’s the first photo from my recovered camera, the one I’d been intending to take in the first place:
Other people were having an equally great, if different, time in Barbados. We suspected these guys didn’t even leave the port!
After eating, we shopped at various very-crowded shops in the cruise port complex. There were many ships docked there that day, and everyone seemed to be leaving within an hour of one another. We all scrambled to shop, and Matt and I managed to find some really great stuff: a straw purse for his mom, Banks dominoes for his dad, some Angostura orange bitters from the duty-free shop, and then the next greatest thing to happen to me that day: I FOUND GO AHEAD IN THE GROCERY STORE. (It’s hard to explain why I love them so much, but I’ve only ever found them in one specific shop in the Bahamas, and I obsess about them constantly.) I bought six packages, and we hauled our many shopping bags out to the shuttle bus stop.
We crammed onto the bus, rode to the ship, and had to dig several bottles of rum out of our bags so security could bundle them up for us. It was pretty funny. It seemed we were some of the last people boarding, too.
We showered and sat on the balcony to watch the sunset in Barbados. I kept dozing off in my chair, so we went to take a quick nap once we were at sea.
We awoke at 6:30 and went up to the pool deck to take advantage of that day’s $5 drink special. We hung out on deck for a while, during which time I scribbled in this very travel journal. Well, the paper version. There was another sushi boat, too!
We headed down to the coffee bar, but Velika wasn’t working. Matt was embarrassed to order a French Kiss from a male bartender, so he got something else instead. We played a fast game of Scrabble, then went to the room to change for formal night. We had reservations at the Normandie at 9pm!
The Normandie is the very fancy restaurant on the ship, and is decorated with objects from the original SS Normandie. It costs an additional $35 per person, and it’s worth it, especially on formal night. We ordered champagne and were brought the bread basket, then an amuse-bouche of mango soup in a tiny tureen. (I would’ve taken pictures of everything, but I didn’t want to be tacky!) After that, a goat cheese bechamel souffle in a puff pastry cage for me and scallops Wellington for Matt. Then anjou pear in phyllo with a tiny salad, and for Matt a salad containing all the ingredients in an Egg McMuffin, but way better.
The entree was vegetables primavera for me, and steak and lobster for Matt. The service was formal, which always makes me feel a little uncomfortable, but the waiters were very friendly. They even removed the lobster from the shell for Matt. After dinner, they brought us Manhattans from the bar in fancy crystal glasses, and wouldn’t let us refuse to order a dessert, so we chose the miniature dessert sampler to share, figuring it would be the smallest.
They brought a tiered tray of tiny desserts, and we thought that was perfect: we could each have a bite of every item, and not be stuffed to the point of having to vomit in buckets. Then they informed us that wasn’t our dessert, that was the dessert appetizer. Seriously.
The dessert sampler was fantastic, though. And the Normandie is worth it, but you’d probably be better off starving yourself for three days before you go.
After dinner, we went to Revelations for the formal night dance party. The place was packed for once, which was fantastic. There was a huge buffet in the back with desserts and breads (we wanted to die a little), and amazing ice sculptures. We recognized most of the servers and bartenders from other locations on the ship, and Winston from Jamaica was our waiter.
We got a little table, ordered cocktails, and did some hardcore people-watching. I noticed a stir in the middle of the room, and realized it was our bartender, Mehmet, from the bar where we’d had Manhattans a few nights ago. He had what was essentially a fancy ice luge set up for martinis: he’d put everything in the shaker, toss it around over his head with a lot of flair (to the intense delight of every lady who passed), then pour it down the ice luge into a waiting glass below. He was absolutely loving the attention, so I decided to go over there for my next drink.
I ordered a Grey Goose l’Orange martini, and we ended up talking about favorite drinks. He asked about mine, so I told him about the Manhattan I’d had at dinner. It turned out he’d made it to be sent to the restaurant, so we discussed favorite bourbons and such. I told him I preferred Maker’s, so he said we should stop down to his bar the next night and he would make one special for us. Mehmet instantly became my favorite bartender on the ship, and that’s saying something.
I headed back to our table with the world’s largest martini, and it took all I had to not spill it. Walking with a martini glass in heels on a rocking ship? Not the easiest thing I’ve ever done. I found Matt there drinking Patron on the rocks. BIG PIMPIN’.
The band finished up around midnight, and a DJ who was not Ron Hollywood took over. We were just thrilled to be able to stay up late and dance again, because it was the first night of the entire cruise where we wouldn’t be in port at 7am. Hooray for sea days!
The crowd thinned out pretty quickly after the DJ started, but a group of Americans stuck around to dance. We requested ‘Rompe’, and got a bunch more reggaeton. I ended up on the dance floor barefoot in my dress. It was awesome, and everyone protested loudly when the DJ had to shut down at 2am. Regardless, we had a great time.
We slept til 10 on Friday morning, and it was glorious. I popped my Dramamine, we had breakfast, and then we went to the theater to see the crew talent show and sendoff. It always chokes me up a little knowing that vacation is almost over. It goes so amazingly fast.
After the show, we headed to the pool. It seemed funny that we hadn’t done that yet, but we’d been in the ocean almost every day, and it was usually dark by the time we were back in our cabin. The waves were pretty high, which made swimming hilarious: you could just float and the movement of the ship would bounce you around the pool. While we swam, Captain Yannis came on and announced we were at 16 degrees latitude. That’s awesome.
We tried out the thalassotherapy pool in the spa, too. It’s open to everyone on the ship. There are reclining chairs built into the hot tub! That may be the greatest invention of all time. I wanted to stay in longer, but there were several signs telling us to only stay in there for 15 minutes at a time.
We showered, changed, and headed to swing dance lessons in Revelations, because we figured it’d be good to brush up on our skills. There were about 20 people there, and at least half of them were incapable of following directions. It was pretty funny. We then went to have salads from the spa buffet, and to balance it out, got margaritas from the bar out back. We hung out on the deck, watching the ship’s wake.
Since we were catching up on everything we hadn’t gotten to do yet on the ship, we headed down to geography trivia a bit later. Matt wanted to stop for a drink at the pool bar, and the bartender asked about my cocktail as well. I told him it was a not-great margarita, so he took it and ‘improved’ it for me. It pays to befriend the bartenders on a cruise ship!
We got 11/15 at geography trivia, which was good enough for us. From there, we went down to the front desk to pick up our ipods for the self-guided art tour. The lobby was decorated for Christmas, which was still confusing to us.
The battery on Matt’s ipod was almost dead, and mine had broken headphones. We didn’t want to wait in the long line again, though, so we worked out a deal that catered to my lack of focus pretty well: Matt would listen to the narration and relate the important details to me in what sounded kind of like stream-of-consciousness beat poetry, and I would take pictures, admire the artwork, and be amused.
So we weren’t being too nerdy about the whole thing, we decided to stop at the bars we passed along the way. It was a pretty excellent plan.
The artwork on the ship was actually great. They focused on modern art, and most of it appealed to us quite a bit. It was a nice change from the usual classical sculptures and such. Some of it is just plain weird, though.
Once we’d viewed all forty or so pieces and explored some areas we hadn’t seen before, we headed up for 2nd lunch. That was our other goal: to have as many meals as possible on the ship that day, just because it was funny.
My second lunch consisted of nachos, a raisin scone, and a little croissant. It was a mix of the Mexican buffet and tea time offerings. Oh, and also a Red Stripe!
Sadly (but not too sadly, considering our day), we went to the cabin to begin packing. We had a lot of work to do protecting all that rum, since it would all have to be checked at the airport.
Because we obviously expended so much energy packing (and making an ill-fated trip to the ship’s store for inflatable bags… they required the pump in the store, so we’d have to haul everything down there), we were starving (haha). We went for third lunch! I wasn’t hungry at all, but I had a roll just for show. Matt had his final sushi boat, and declared that he had eaten an entire sushi armada.
The next time we swung past the cabin, the rum we’d purchased in port had been delivered. We finished packing that up, as well as everything else we wouldn’t need. We had to have our bags out in the hallway by 10 or 11pm, and they would be returned to us after disembarkation the next morning. Everything else in the cabin would have to fit in our carry-ons in the meantime.
We went down to the casino and found seats at the blackjack table. The other people playing were great. One of the old guys had a lucky quarter on the table, and it seemed to help us all: from the original $100, I ended up with $170, and Matt left with $210. I think that’s the best I’ve ever done at blackjack!
We cashed out and went to make our final stop, as I’d promised Mehmet we’d visit him before leaving. (I hate saying goodbye to crew members. A lot.)
We arrived and found him flipping bottles around for the women sitting at the bar. They were loving it, and he was thrilled. He announced that he’d been practicing a lot. I noticed the bottle of Makers sitting out on the bar just for us: how cute is that? He said he also had an awesome martini for me to try, but I told him we had to go get dinner first. We took our Manhattans and headed back to the room to order room service.
Did I mention that you can order room service on the TV? I love the future. We watched ESPN while waiting for Jude (our shy cabin steward) to arrive with our food, which included the cheese plate. Totally not necessary, but I’d been obsessing over that damn cheese plate the whole time.
This photo is an accurate representation of how hard life on a cruise ship is. Matt’s waiting on hold to tell Jude the trays are ready to be cleared. There’s a cocktail on the table and a Cuban cigar on the bed.
We were exhausted by then, but we’d promised Mehmet to return for the special martini. We hung out at the bar for a bit listening to the terrible karaoke below (it was the same Americans we’d danced with the previous night), then said goodbye to Mehmet and headed to bed. We had another early morning ahead of us!
We got up at 8am and headed to breakfast unwashed, as the buffet closed at 8:30. It was insanely crowded, and I was a little sad to have my final gruel (and Echteboter) of the trip. We then went to shower, and gathered with the rest of our group in Revelations at 9:30. We were off the ship by 10.
A porter asked if he could help with our bags, so we said yes. Most people were insisting on hauling their own, but we made the right choice: after barely having to flash our passports at customs, he led us right to the front of the very long taxi line. WIN.
While we were sitting and waiting to get off the ship, we’d had a bright idea: why not rent a car for the rest of the trip, and go see more of Puerto Rico? I’m not sure why it hadn’t occurred to us before. The cab took us to Thrifty near the airport, and we picked up a car (that we promptly named El Dispo), threw our giant bags in the back, and were on our way to El Yunque National Rainforest.
It was awesome to see some of the small towns outside of San Juan. We missed the turnoff for El Yunque the first time (we could barely even find it with GPS turned on on our phones), but we still managed to get there in half an hour or so. Admission was only $3! We stopped at the visitor center to get a map and find out more about it.
We toured the displays and got a map with directions from an old guy at the front desk. Then we went on the short hike near the visitor center.
Wherever breadfruits had fallen and smashed on the ground, these gigantic snails were enjoying the buffet:
From the visitor center, we drove up the mountain to find La Coca Falls. El Dispo did surprisingly well on the steep hills.
Our next stop was Yokahu Tower, for the overlook. We had to climb a million stairs to get to the top, but the view was amazing.
On one side, we could see the cloud forest (the area of the rainforest that’s almost always in the clouds, and therefore has a completely different ecosystem):
In the other direction, we could see over the top of the rainforest canopy to the ocean, and a beach lined with resorts.
After climbing back down from the tower, we drove up the mountain even further to the hiking trail that leads to La Mina Falls.
The map showed that the trail was .75 miles long, 1.5 miles roundtrip, and that it was ‘somewhat difficult’. That didn’t worry me too much, considering I’ve hiked on ice in the mountains, and on the Sliding Sands trail on top of Haleakala. Still, everyone that was emerging from the trail looked like they were going to die. Along the way, two people even wished us good luck. Yikes!
The trail was definitely difficult, but not insane. It was paved for much of the way, but it would’ve been really hard without hiking shoes. The humidity played a big factor, too. It was worth the effort to see La Mina:
We sat around at the falls for a while, then headed back. The return trip wasn’t bad til the very end, when we had to climb back up to the parking lot. We still weren’t as worn out as most people looked, though!
After that, it was time for lunch. We drove up to Yuquiqu Delights, a little restaurant/picnic area even higher up on the mountain. The girl working there was awesome, and she was telling people all about how she moved there from New York with her husband. How you go from there to a cafe on a mountain in a rainforest… I don’t know, but I’m a fan. Since we have similar ambitions and all.
I’d be happy eating tostones and beans and rice every day. Matt probably feels the same about his empanadas and amarillos.
We headed back down the mountain, stopping on an overlook where we were able to pick up cell reception so I could call my parents and inform them that we were back in the US. It’s always good to hear that nothing very exciting is happening back home.
From there, we drove back toward San Juan. We made a few wrong turns on the way, even ending up at the airport, but we eventually found Isla Verde, Ocean Park, and Condado. They reminded me of… well, most coastal communities in the US. Fort Lauderdale or Myrtle Beach.
Long before we’d left for vacation, Matt had expressed an interest in visiting one of Wilo Benet‘s restaurants in Puerto Rico. We’d kind of written it off because they were far from Old San Juan, so imagine our surprise when we drove right past both Picayo and Varita. And they were at the Conrad Casino, which we figured had to have been named after Matt, just misspelled. We parked and went inside.
The Conrad has a little beach, and the lobby is gorgeous. We walked out onto the patio to see the ocean side, and noticed that they had hammocks everywhere. (I kind of want to stay there now!) We went upstairs to Pikayo, but it was closed. Varita was kind of empty-looking, so we decided to go hang out til Pikayo was open at 6pm. The main problem was that we had no idea what time it was, because both of our phones had died. We figured we could wander around Condado for a while, and eventually they’d be open.
We walked down a couple of blocks to a park with a beach, which had an outdoor bar next door. Perfect! We ordered a couple caipirinhas just as a pink limo pulled up, and out piled a wedding party. All the girls were dressed in neon dresses in different shades, with matching Chuck Taylors. The groomsmen had neon cummerbunds and shoelaces. We watched them take pictures on the beach, and it was a sight to behold.
From there, we wandered back to the Conrad and went to the front desk to ask the time. The guy working there told us it was 6pm exactly, so we were in luck. We stopped to browse at the gift store at the Conrad, and met a very loud, very drunk man from New Jersey, who entertained us for a while. We then went back up to Pikayo, and were the first people in the doors. We grabbed chairs at the bar.
I had a mojito made with cilantro and tequila, and we tried their version of rum punch, which had cinnamon syrup and bitters. We also ordered a couple appetizers, and ended up with a bonus order of tuna lollipops because he’d put in the order wrong. On TV, there was some kind of runway show with terrifying models. We learned the history of the place from the bartender, who went from chilly to friendly within a round of drinks. We’d have loved to have dinner there, but we were nowhere near hungry enough. Not to mention the fact we were severely underdressed.
The only downside to renting a car in Puerto Rico was the idea of driving it in Old San Juan. Traffic is crazy there, the streets are narrow and cobblestone, and we didn’t know the parking rules. Before we left, I tracked down a public parking ramp within a couple blocks of our hotel, and we made that our target: drive straight there, park, and don’t think about any more driving in town.
It didn’t exactly work out that way. A couple of the streets we needed to turn on were closed, and they were having some kind of festival near the port. We sat in crawlingly-slow traffic forever, but at least the people-watching was excellent. We ended up having to drive right by the festival, and then were finally able to head up the hill toward the parking garage. We sat on one street for 15 minutes due to a traffic jam behind a parallel parker. INSANE.
Finally, we found the ramp, but the door was closed, and there was no indication about how to get in there. We decided to circle and maybe we’d get lucky and find a spot, so we headed around the block and there it was!! A street parking spot! Directly across from the actual entrance to the parking garage, of course. We emptied the car and hauled our bags to the Howard Johnson Plaza de Las Armas.
I wasn’t expecting much of the HoJo, but the reviews were good, it was the only hotel under $200, and we were only going to be sleeping there one night. The guy at the front desk was fantastic, and he assured us that it was fine to leave the car parked on the street overnight. He pointed us to the tiny, ancient elevator that required instructions, because it had two sliding doors that had to be closed completely, or it wouldn’t move. Also, it went approximately .5 floors an hour, and was so tiny that the two of us could barely get in their with our giant suitcases and carry-ons.
Our room was actually very nice. It was clean and had a balcony overlooking Plaza de las Armas and The Best Souvenir Shop in San Juan, where another Christmas festival was in full swing. They even had a giant neon Christmas tree, and bands were playing.
We charged our phones, repacked our suitcases for the flight the next day, stopped at a supermarket for water, and headed to La Barrachina for another of their legendary pina coladas. The old bartender was fantastically opinionated: he went off on a rant about how the crazy weather changes were indicative of the fact that the world was going to end in 2012. He had made plans for that event, too: he was going to take his sons to a whorehouse, and his daughter to a convent so there’d be someone to pray for the family.
Then it was time to go find dinner. Quite possibly the saddest moment of vacation was when we left La Barrachina and noticed that the ship we’d just disembarked was heading back out to see with a new set of passengers. SIGH. We wandered around in Old San Juan til we came across the Blessed Cafe. We’d walked past it several times, and noticed the reggae blaring. The sign about Jamaican patties drew us in.
Their menu had 5 kinds of rum punch, which was immensely confusing. I ordered callaloo, but they were out. I asked the server (the owner’s wife) if they had anything else vegetarian, and she said just red beans and rice. I was totally happy with that, but she kept apologizing for not having anything else. When she brought it out, the rice was molded in a heart shape, and there was enough for two meals. She had nothing to apologize about!
After dinner, we did some more wandering in Old San Juan. We heard music coming from a spanish restaurant near El Convento, so we went in. I got a margarita that was so strong I couldn’t even finish it. We sat in the courtyard, and watched the band set up for the evening. Once Matt was finished with his drink, it was time to return to El Batey!
There was a different bartender with awesome tattoos this time, but he had basically the same attitude as the first. We had some Cuba Libres with Barrilitos (you can tell it gets you cred with the bartender just by ordering that brand as a non-Sanjuanero) and played the jukebox. My set ended with “No Woman, No Cry”, which made a bunch of people sing along. Also, our bartender uttered my favorite phrase of the entire trip: “Why pay for sex, why pay for water? Those are two things that should be fucking free.”
We wanted to stay there forever, but of course we still had things to see in San Juan the next day. We bid farewell to our new favorite bar, and headed back to the hotel.
We got up to check out at 10am. Leaving the room, we met another couple from Delaware who was standing and waiting for the elevator. They said they’d been there quite a while.
We’d have taken the stairs, but there was no way we were getting those monstrous suitcases down from the 3rd floor. When the elevator finally arrived, the four of us packed our bags inside like a Tetris game, and the tiny lady squeezed in with them while the rest of us took the stairs. We beat her by a lot.
We rolled the bags to the car, stopped at Starbucks, and then headed toward San Cristobal. It seemed a lot hotter than it’d been the last time we were in San Juan during the day. I was sweating my ass off, and all the hill-climbing didn’t help.
We paid our $3 admission and set off on a tour of San Cristobal. First up was the dungeon, which proved that people at all times have been pretty much the same (the graffiti says ‘shit’):
The views from the top were amazing. The above photo is looking east, toward Condado (that’s the capitol building with the dome). Below is the view to the west, with La Perla, the cemetery, and El Morro.
We saw the oldest guardhouse in San Juan, well below the current fort:
These are the tres banderas:
I was so hot that sweat was soaking the fronts of my pants below my knees. Also, I filled up the 4gb card on my camera, and of course the spare one was in the car. I had to go back through hundreds of photos and delete the duplicates! It’s not like I was going to stop taking photos.
We stopped for lunch at a little food court that advertised pina coladas in yards. We chose to have a Sol instead, and went to the Caribbean food counter in the back. I ordered vegetable mofongo and tostones. Matt got pastelon (plantain and beef pie) with cassava marinated in garlic and onion. It also came with about 6 pounds of rice and peas.
His came up right away, but the lady told me mine would take a little bit because they had to make it special. A little bit seemed to last 2 hours, but I finally got my food. It was enough for a week.
We took the tostones to go, because we had to hurry at that point. We did some last-minute souvenir shopping (including the Best Souvenir Shop in San Juan), then got the car and headed back to Thrifty Rent-A-Car at the airport. We only got lost once!
We shuttled to the airport, and found the check-in area so packed that we couldn’t roll our suitcases around. We walked up and down and couldn’t find the Delta counter at all. Finally, we found it in the back, and were overjoyed to see that there was barely a line. The check-in people told us we had to go through USDA inspection first, which seemed to consist of a scanner that may or may not have detected anything, and a man putting stickers on bags. When we got back, Matt sent his bag off, and then mine came up 9 pounds overweight. Of course.
The cost for a 59-pound bag? $90. What the hell, Delta? The other option was to check a third bag for $25, so we opted for that. The lady at the counter was actually very friendly, and helped us drag the bags over to a place where we could do the big switch. Matt still had his big leather carry-on, so we wrapped everything as well as possible (I was very nervous about putting glass rum bottles in that bag, but that was most of the weight), paid the extra money, and were on our way to security. They sent us through the ‘professional traveler’ line, probably because we only had one carry-on at that point. The best part was when they took my giant package of Go Ahead out and asked me what it was. If Go Ahead is contraband, I don’t want to go on living.
We stopped at the duty free shop for two bottles of Ron de Barrilitos (three star, of course – the bartenders at El Batey had taught us well), and got a free rum carrier that would serve as Matt’s carry-on bag. How perfect is that, really? We then saw a sign for an airport bar’s happy hour, so we took advantage of $3 caipirinhas and sports on TV. We both called home to say we were on our way, and then it was time to board the plane for Detroit.
Around the time we hit the continental US, there was all this frantic activity on the plane. Apparently an old lady up front was having a medical emergency, and the flight attendants were preparing for an emergency landing just in case. Thankfully, there was a nurse on the plane, and he was able to get the lady stabilized so we could continue. We landed in Detroit without incident, and an ambulance met her at the gate. Thanks, nameless nurse guy! You’re awesome.
We had dinner in the Detroit airport and learned that our flight was delayed like crazy coming from Philadelphia. The east coast had been experiencing horrible snowstorms, and they were still having trouble with that. We finally managed to board an hour and half late, and arrived in Minneapolis around midnight. Because it was so late, we told my parents to not bother picking us up, and got a cab instead.
Personally, I can’t believe we made it to work the next day.
Here are the spoils from our trip!!