One of the nice things about cruise vacations is your embarkation and disembarkation points are typically great places. This means you can extend your holiday either at the beginning or end and stay for additional days in a nice city. We have done this many times in cities including Stockholm, Venice and Barcelona. It is wonderful to add on a few days to explore a city in more depth. After the Oasis of the Seas cruise, we took advantage of the nice disembarkation city and spent a week in Fort Lauderdale.
Fort Lauderdale is a terrific city. We stayed in a timeshare property called Coconut Bay Resort that was ideally located just a 10-minute walk from the beach and close to malls, restaurants and some local attractions. We have stayed in many timeshare properties and found this one to be in a great location. The resort had a nice pool area with a hot tub but didn’t offer any other amenities or activities on site. For our purposes, it was fine since we really just wanted to relax. The rooms were typical 80’s style Florida but overall it was very well equipped, well maintained and clean so it worked well.
Over the course of the week we participated in a turtle rescue program, relaxed at the pool and at the beach, visited the Bonnet House gardens, Denis played 6 rounds of golf and we took a day trip to Jupiter. That proved to be more than enough for us.
The first night we went out for an evening trek with a turtle rescue group who patrols the beaches of the region watching for turtles hatching. In Fort Lauderdale and many other coastal Florida towns, there is a serious issue with turtles hatching and moving towards the light of the cities rather than the light of the moon as Mother Nature intended. Due to the light pollution there are thousands of turtles that become disoriented and turn the wrong way. This dedicated group of people volunteer to take shifts throughout the night to track data on when nests have been laid, observe their tracks and record how many turtles become disoriented and how many they release into the sea. It is a pretty fascinating experience. Due to the light sensitivity you aren’t able to take pictures or video so we only have mental memories but it was quite a lovely evening sitting out on the beach watching the moon rise and moving from nest to nest as little turtles began their long journey to get into the water. Great work these folks are doing!
The Fort Lauderdale Beach is really wonderful. We spent time there, swimming in the warm water, lounging on the beach and of course people watching. An expansive beach with beautiful white sand, this is a perfect place to spend the day.
One morning Denis and I visited the Bonnet House gardens which happened to be within a few minutes walking distance of our resort. The property the estate resides on, was originally purchased by an early settler to the area named Hugh Taylor Birch. He gave the property to his daughter Helen and her husband Frederic Clay Bartlett as a wedding present. They built the house and planned to use the estate as a winter escape from Chicago weather. Unfortunately Helen died in 1925 so the property did not see its original plans come to fruition until Frederic remarried in 1931. He and his second wife Evelyn brought the property to the grand state it is in today. After Frederic died in the 1950’s Evelyn continued to visit regularly and eventually donated the property to the Florida Trust for Historic Preservation. This organization continues to maintain the property allowing tours, visits and rentals of the main house. We didn’t tour inside the main house but wandered the gardens for about an hour. The plants and vegetation on the property are incredible – there is a fresh water pond and salt water pond, enormous trees, flowers of all kinds – a virtual rainforest that is wonderful to explore. There are birds, turtles and monkeys roaming the area making it hard to believe the busy city sits just outside this oasis.
We planned a day trip to Jupiter to taking a kayaking tour that shows wildlife of the area. The hope was to see wild manatee in the area. Unfortunately they didn’t show themselves on our trip however we still had a great afternoon on the water checking out stingrays, sea urchins and the massive houses owned by celebrities such as Olivia Newton John, Keith Urban, Celine Dion and Burt Reynolds, to name just a few.
Denis played 6 rounds of golf – 2 per day at Club of Emerald Hills in Hollywood, Palm Beach National in Lake Worth and TPC Eagle Trace in Coral Springs. Suffice to say he was loving every moment of each day with the clear blue skies and challenging courses and extraordinary cheap rates, at top rated courses!
We ate at a variety of restaurants in the surrounding area including BurgerFi, Franco & Vinny’s, Coconuts, 15th Street Fisheries and Primanti Brothers Pizza. The food was always fresh, well presented and each restaurant had it’s own cool vibe. So many places to choose from – there was never any lack of options.
We enjoyed our week in Fort Lauderdale. There is so much more to see and do that this is a port I would definitely recommend extending your stay.
We woke up just after 6:30am to a bustling pier just as the sun was rising over Fort Lauderdale. I went to the Promenade deck for my morning coffee and a glass of water for Kim. When I got back, I perched myself on one of the chairs on our balcony to enjoy my coffee and watched intently as a dozen forklifts methodically unloaded crates of luggage for 6,000 passengers into the terminal baggage area. The whole process took less than an hour. As soon as the baggage carts were unloaded, dozens of tractor trailers were ready to begin re-provisioning the ship for the next cruise that would leave in only a few more hours.
Since there are limited options for breakfast on the day of disembarkation, we went to the main dining room for an à la carte breakfast. As with the venues, the menu choices are also fairly limited on this last morning, so our orders consisted of sausage and eggs, pancakes, and French toast. Breakfast can also be a bit of a wait since it is served by wait staff as opposed to buffet style. Unlike the leisurely breakfasts of the week past, this one is done with 2 purposes in mind – killing time while waiting to disembark and refueling.
Our preferred strategy for disembarkation is usually to wait as long as we can onboard and let the craziness of thousands of people leaving the ship subside before we make our exit. In most cases this works fine, on this occasion, not so much. While we were on the cruise we were not overtly aware of the large numbers of passengers all around us. The ship is large enough, as is the variety of venues, that we were not impacted by the number of people on board. Even at the various ports, the embarkation and disembarkation was quite efficient (with the exception of re-boarding in San Juan which is covered on Day 5). The disembarkation in Fort Lauderdale was painful.
We sat outside the Main Dining Room, our assigned waiting area, for our colour to be called. Disembarkation is organized by coloured luggage tags which are assigned based on the time you are leaving. The coloured tags are also used to locate your baggage once you are off the ship and through customs. Our tags indicated that we were to leave the ship at 10:30am. This was fine for us since we were not catching a plane or other transport home. Our plan was to spend the week in Fort Lauderdale so we were not in a hurry.
When we were called to disembark it was only 9:30am. We made our way down the stairs to the exit ramp that leads to the main terminal and the customs area. The walk was long and slow as hundreds of people shuffled along for a few feet and stopped, then shuffled along again. As we entered the main terminal, the line stopped completely. We waited for approximately 10 minutes before the line began to move again. The process of stopping and starting went on for another 35 minutes as we zigged and zagged through the terminal until we finally made it to Customs. As the group in front of us was checked through by the Custom’s officer and we waited to be called, he grabbed his lunch and left the booth. We were left standing there with dozens of people behind us and waited for another officer to take his place. We waited several minutes and no one took his place in the booth. The lines on either side of us were moving fine. Eventually, one of the other Custom’s officers motioned us to his line and we finally got through. Once we passed through customs we retrieved our bags and left the terminal without any further delay. This leads me to believe that the issue at Fort Lauderdale is about the number of Custom’s officers that are deployed to process the thousands of passengers coming off the ship.
We stepped out of the terminal and crossed the street to the cab and shuttle pick-up area, a small circular cul-de-sac that allowed vehicles to enter, turnaround and leave again after either dropping off or picking up passengers. The mid-August sun was piercing on this cloudless day at around 11:00 am. It was already extremely hot and we looked for a shady spot that would give us some relief from the sun. Unfortunately, there was none. We had called the off-site parking company before we left the terminal to let them know we had arrived. Our driver was apparently on his way and would be here in about 20 minutes. We were looking for an orange van and I watched the incoming traffic creep along at a snail’s pace hoping to spot it. After half an hour, we called the driver directly and he told us he was in the line coming into the terminal. He had no idea how long he would be since the traffic was at a standstill. We waited another 20 minutes and finally saw the van crawling towards the pick-up point. When he pulled up beside us, we scooted into the van and managed to get seats before another 2 families boarded behind us. We were jammed into the van, but did not complain as we had been nearly 2 hours since we had started our exit from the ship. Another 10 minutes and we would be loading up our car and heading on to our next adventure – more about that in the next blog.
Some Last Minute Thoughts
Aside from the disembarkation process in Fort Lauderdale, we all felt this had been a wonderful cruise. The Oasis of the Seas is a great ship and has enough activities, venues and entertainment that it is a destination on its own. Even after 7 days on the ship, we were not tired of it. We did not find the ship overly crowded, even though it was at capacity, and we rarely had to wait in line. While we had heard that the quality of the food on Royal Caribbean ships had declined in the past few years, this was not our experience. There are certainly more specialty restaurants and some of these have unique menus, but they are also at a higher cost. For us, the regular dining room presented us with enough variety on a daily basis that we were never left wanting.
This was our first cruise in an Ocean View balcony stateroom. While Kim's opinion may differ, I found the abundant light, the extra space and the ability to sit outside the room and enjoy a morning coffee or an evening glass of wine, well worth the additional cost of an inside suite.
I enjoyed the ports that we stopped at, but would have preferred spending a full day in San Juan and half a day at Labadee. There is just so much more to old San Juan than can be appreciated in a few short hours.
As we woke up on Day 7 of our cruise, I pulled the blinds open to a partially overcast sky and a slightly choppy sea. The last day of any cruise is fairly low key since it is often a sea day and there is a bittersweet feeling that seems to pervade the ship as everyone realizes the journey is nearly done. There are still lots of activities going on around the ship, but they are taken on with a more relaxed approach than earlier in the week. For the most part, this is a day to transition from vacation mode to “back to reality”.
We began this day as we had the other sea days – I went up to the Solarium and picked out a spot on the deck that would be shady by afternoon. Kim joined me soon after and we meandered through the Solarium Bistro picking up our favourite breakfast fare from the buffet islands. After breakfast we climbed into our lounge chairs. Kim read while I just lay there and let the banter from the other guests and the morning warmth cover me like a cozy blanket. Ian and Laura eventually joined us. We spent the rest of the morning relaxing and re-energizing between the lounge chairs, the pool and the hot tub.
By early afternoon the clouds began to gather and it was slightly overcast. We packed up our gear and changed into street clothes deciding to use the time to walk around the ship to take photos. It was our intention to re-walk all common decks and ensure that we had not missed anything over the last 6 days. Since we hadn’t been to all of the specialty restaurants, we passed by Central Park and browsed the menus just to see what we had missed. There were some exclusive tasting menus and multiple course meals featured at these restaurants, but for our tastes and budget, we felt we had done quite well with the selections in the main dining room. Since I am an avid sushi fan, one restaurant that I would like to try the next time around is the Japanese Restaurant Izumi.
As we continued walking down Central Park, we decided to try the Park Café for lunch. We had stopped by here earlier in the week for a baguette which was quite tasty, but wanted to try some of their other food items as well. Today the lineup was moderate, but it did take some time to get through the cafeteria style queue. This was primarily due to the way the counters are laid out and the small venue size. There are only a few tables inside the café and they fill up pretty quickly. There is one line which goes from the soup and salad bar through to the sandwich bar and then the checkout area. Since the salads and sandwiches are fresh and made to order, there does tend to be congestion, especially on sea days. The wait however, is well worth it, since the both the salads and sandwiches are fresh and flavourful. This is where the famous roast beef sandwiches are found - fresh shaved roast beef with mustard on a caraway bun - so delicious! We also had huge salads that you choose the ingredients and they are made fresh for you. Ian enjoyed a toasted brie and cheese baguette and Laura had an egg salad sandwich. All very tasty! We brought our meals outside the café into Central Park and found a high top table which had an overhanging umbrella that kept us shaded.
After lunch we continued our walk around the ship. Kim and I had talked previously about stopping in at the wine bar for one of the wine tastings. Since we had not managed to make that happen to this point, we decided to do so today. We had actually just missed the scheduled tasting which is offered at a discounted price. Instead, we were offered the extensive wine list which featured vintages from every major wine region in the world. Most were priced by the bottle and some by the glass. The wines we were interested in were quite expensive and more than we are used to paying. For the serious wine connoisseur, there certainly are some superb wines listed. We opted to wait for another cruise when we can schedule one of the discounted wine tastings more suited to our budget.
We spent the rest of the afternoon walking the various decks of the ship and ensuring we had pictures of all the venues and specialty areas that we may have missed previously. The weather fluctuated between partly sunny and overcast - an appropriate backdrop to that bittersweet feeling that pervades the last day of a fabulous cruise.
Images from around the ship:
Just before dinner, we decided to try the Champagne Bar which was another venue that had eluded us so far. On other cruises, the Champagne Bar is one of our usual stops. It tends to be a quieter venue than most bars and often features some live music at the grand piano. On this last day of our cruise, we had the chance to just sit and reminisce about the last week and begin our plans for our stay in Fort Lauderdale following our disembarkation. Kim sipped the chilled champagne that was the daily feature, and I enjoyed a very dry, classic Vodka martini, with olives. Since we still had a couple of drinks left on the drink coupon that we had purchased earlier in the week at the Rising Tide bar, Kim’s champagne, normally 11 dollars and my martini, normally 13 dollars, were 7.99 each. We found that to be a bargain since both drinks were from the premium list.
Our last dinner on the Oasis of the Seas was bittersweet. We enjoyed prime rib, striploin steak and cheese & pancetta pasta. As with the other meals we ate in the dining room, we were not disappointed with either the quality or the quantity. We just weren't sure how we would survive the next night when we were no longer on the ship and weren't provided with so many tasty options to choose from each evening! We said our goodbyes to our waiter and assistant waiter and wished them many more good voyages.
Since there was no scheduled entertainment in the main theatre on this night, we wandered over to the Promenade. Kim went up to the Future Cruise Office to book our next cruise. This is an option that we often look at since booking your next cruise while on a cruise usually entitles you to a discount and additional onboard amenities. The booking only requires a modest refundable deposit and doesn’t obligate you to take the cruise you booked – you can change dates, itineraries or ships later if you wish. We opted for a 12 night cruise of the Hawaiian Islands in May. The cruise starts in Hawaii and repositions to Vancouver. Looking forward to that one already!
While Kim was booking our next cruise, I did my last night shopping at the duty free store, purchasing 2 bottles of Kettle One Vodka (one of my favourites) for $30. That is less than I pay at the Liquor Control Board of Ontario for one bottle. With that chore out of the way, I joined Kim in the Future Cruise office just as she was finishing up.
We made one last pass through the pool deck and Solarium, then headed to On Air and caught the finale of the Karaoke competition. The venue was packed and we barely managed to find spots for the 4 of us to sit (stand) together. The winners from the elimination rounds all came together, and we recognized a few of them from the first evening that we tried to get Ian registered. After the final tally, the competitor that won was the same girl who had managed to get in by singing acappela on the same night that Ian performed. She was very good and deserved to win the competition.
Because we needed to get our bags packed and in the hallway by 11:00pm so they could be transported for our morning departure, we said our good nights and headed to our staterooms. I have to admit, I was a bit sad that this was our last night aboard.
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Day 6 – Labadee
After 2 very hectic days in Sint Maarten and Puerto Rico, our 3rd port of call was on the island of Labadee, Haiti, where Royal Caribbean leases part of the island for the exclusive use of its cruising guests. While our intention was to spend most of the day on the island to relax and recuperate from the rigours of our last 2 ports, there is lots to do on Labadee for those who want to continue to be adventurous.
Labadee is home to the Dragon's Breath Flight Line, the world's longest zip line over water. It also has an exciting 300 foot long waterslide that goes through several twists and turns, and ends up in the splash zone at Columbus Cove. There is also the Dragon's Tail Coaster that speeds along at 30 miles per hour.
While we didn’t take advantage of any of these thrill rides, Laura and Ian instead opted for a parasailing adventure that departed just after our 10:00am disembarkation and took place on the bay behind where the Oasis was docked. Needless to say, as we ambled down the ramp from the ship to the pier, we were greeted by another cloudless and sunny sky with temperatures already past 30 degrees celsius. It was going to be a scorcher.
While Kim, Ian and Laura headed over to check in for the parasailing adventure, I decided to see if we could find a spot on the beach with umbrellas to provide some much needed shade from the relentless sun. We had met a couple in the Solarium the previous day who had been to Labadee before and had rented beach tents for $35 U.S. I went to the information centre and was told that there were a few umbrellas at each beach, but they are usually taken immediately after disembarkation. I was told to go up to the beach area to see if there were any cabanas available. I walked up to the main entrance to the beach and resort area and enquired at the front desk. I was informed that all of the cabanas were rented out and that there was no availability. My only option was to see if there were any no-shows.
There were a series of shuttles that transported guests with confirmed reservations for cabanas, back and forth from the beach to the ship. I stopped one of the shuttle drivers and asked him if there were any unoccupied cabanas. He told me he wasn’t sure but asked me to wait while he loaded a group who had reservations for their trip to the beach. The group he was loading handed him 6 tickets, one for each cabana. Since they were only 6 people, he asked why they had purchased so many tickets. There response was that they thought they needed one ticket per person. It turned out that each cabana is large enough for 6 people, so in effect they really only needed one ticket. What was more surprising to me was that each ticket cost $200 U.S., so this group had paid $1200 to spend the day at the beach! I negotiated with them for one of the tickets so that we could enjoy our day without worrying about the blistering sun.
By the time I had done the negotiating, Ian and Laura had finished their parasailing, and Kim was leading them back to the beach entrance where we had agreed to meet. I told them the good news, that I had managed to get a cabana, and the bad news – it cost us $200.
We waited for the shuttle to arrive to transport us to our cabana, and as it turned out, we managed to get Willie, the same shuttle driver that I had spoken to before. Willie welcomed us aboard the shuttle and drove us along the crescent shaped shoreline to the far end of the beach, where our large, square cabana, covered in a white canvas roof with white sidewalls flapping in the breeze stood in the middle of the beach amongst a few other well spaced cabanas. The cabana interior was made up of adjoining mattresses with large pillows all around the perimeter. Willie introduced us to our concierge who provided us with beach towels, a water cooler with 6 large bottles of water, coupons for bar drinks and a BBQ lunch. He also pulled out beach mats and lounge chairs for our exclusive use.
By the time we settled into the cabana it was approaching noon and the temperature was nearing the projected high of 38 degrees celsius. It was time to relax and take full advantage of the amenities that came with the cabana. We spread out on the mattresses under the canvas and let the cooling breeze soothe our burning bodies as we all buried ourselves in our favourite books for the next hour.
After a good rest in the cabana, we walked over to the closest of the three covered BBQ areas where lunch is served buffet style. The menu consists of hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken, rice, beans and a variety of salads. There are picnic tables on either side of the buffet area, but we chose to bring our lunches back to the cabana where it was quieter and far more peaceful.
One of the main advantages of renting a cabana, aside from the obvious comfort and protection from the sun, is the location. The main beach is much closer to where the ship is docked, and as a result is extremely busy. The cabanas are at the far end of the beach which is much more private. The beach at this end is also protected by a stone breakwater that extends well into the bay so the water is very calm. The water is quite shallow all along the beach but unfortunately it has not been dredged out so it has many sharp rocks and coral on the bottom. Water shoes are a necessity!
After lunch, and for the rest of the afternoon, we alternated between cooling dips in the Caribbean and short naps or reading on the cabana mattresses. This was probably our most relaxing day on the cruise so far and was enhanced by the palm trees behind us, white sand beneath us and turquoise waters in front of us. The all aboard was scheduled for 5:30pm and we waited until the very last minute to have Willie paged to drive us back to the ship. In fact, we were the last group on this part of the beach to leave.
Once we boarded the ship, we went to our staterooms to shower off the sand and salt, and get ready for dinner.
Of course, after a difficult day of lounging and sunning ourselves, we had worked up an appetite. Tonight's selections were very good. Ian and Laura enjoyed the cheese gnocchi (in fact so much so that they each had two plates) and Kim and I replenished our energy with enormous portions of prime rib. Both were excellent!
Because we had time before the evening performance was to begin in the Opal theatre, we browsed through the ship’s photo gallery on the 5th deck to preview some of the pictures that we had posed for over the past few nights. We often take advantage of the photographers onboard to capture some images of us while we are dressed up and all together at one time (since it doesn't happen often). We had some group shots and individual pictures taken over the last couple of evenings but on this particular cruise none of them were outstanding. They have also changed some of the policies for purchasing photos. They won't provide an individual digital photo any longer, you must purchase a package so this wasn't really of interest to us at the time.
After checking out the photo gallery we walked down to the Theatre for the evening performance of Come Fly With Me, an impressive acrobatic extravaganza that has hints of Cirque de Soleil and Burlesque. The costumes and stage settings are creative as is the use of black and white, and colour to portray changes in time. The show is energetic and fast paced.
As had become our custom after watching the evening performance, we strolled through the Promenade to see what was happening at On Air. Tonight’s game show was “60 seconds or less”, based on the popular TV game show “A minute to win it”. Several contestants representing their home countries competed for fabulous prizes including Royal Caribbean zipper pulls and colourful hi-liters by trying to bounce ping balls into a Red Solo cup placed strategically in the centre of a bar table. After many unsuccessful attempts, a winner was declared from Australia, to the relief of the spellbound spectators.
To cap off our evening, Ian, Kim and I headed to the Adult comedy show while Laura headed off to her stateroom. The show is typical stand up comedy fare with a Master of Ceremonies who warms up the crowd and introduces the feature performers. The headliners for this show were Mike Marino and Joe Yanetty. Both have countless credits to their name including appearing on the Tonight Show, The Martin Short Show, and various comedy venues in Atlantic City and Las Vegas. Both also have extensive acting credits in both television and movies. We found their performances to be topical, hilarious, and sometimes raunchy, but certainly not over the top. This is a show well worth seeing.
With Day 6 behind us we retired to our cabin saddened by the thought that tomorrow would be our last full day on the Oasis.
Day 5 – San Juan, Puerto Rico
15 years ago, I had the great fortune of working on a project in Old San Juan where I met some wonderful and generous people who turned this paradise island into my second home for the better part of a year. As a result, I had been looking forward to our 2nd port of call since we first booked our cruise. As soon as we confirmed our booking, I immediately reached out to my dear friend Oscar Pita who I hadn’t seen in 15 years to see if we could meet up when we arrived. Oscar was as excited as I was to reconnect and immediately suggested that he would take the morning off work and be our personal guide on the island he calls home.
Our ship docked in the early morning of August 17th in the downtown Cruise Port just before 6:00am and by the time we roused ourselves from bed, the sunlight was streaming through our balcony door filling our stateroom with the bright light and promise of a new day. By the time we had dressed and were ready to disembark, 2 other cruise ships had quietly inched their way into the port and were parked beside us – it was going to be a busy day in San Juan!
We made our way off the ship, down the gangway and onto the pier in the heart of the old town, where we were greeted with the heat and humidity of a typical Caribbean morning. At just before 8:30am, it was already 30 degrees and the predicted high of 36 degrees was not far away. The forecast was for scattered cloud and the possibility of rain, but most of the cloud had already cleared and the sky was bright blue.
Oscar had suggested we meet across the street from the Port and a few hundred yards to the west at the entrance to the CVS Pharmacy. From experience he knew how busy this area becomes when the cruise ships arrive, pouring more than 10,000 passengers into the old town in a very short time. Fortunately for us, since ours was the first ship to dock, we were able to get off the ship and out of the port before the crush of the crowds. It took us less than 5 minutes to walk to our rendezvous point where we waited for Oscar and his lovely wife Enid to arrive.
A few minutes after 8:30am a car pulled up to the sidewalk not far from the CSV and I recognized the beaming smile of my old friend as he emerged from the passenger side of the vehicle and strutted confidently to where we were waiting. We greeted each other with hugs and after saying our hellos, I introduced him to Kim, Ian and Laura. Oscar let us know that Enid was going to park the car and would meet us at a restaurant that he had picked where we would have breakfast and go over the plans of our discovery of Old San Juan. We walked north from the pharmacy up a narrow, cobblestone side street. I had forgotten how hilly the old town is and within a few minutes of walking up the incline, I had already started to perspire.
A short time later Oscar led us through an arched doorway into a dimly lit room with dark floors and large overhead ceiling fans. The hostess directed us to a long rectangular table in the middle of the dining room. Oscar had picked this particular restaurant, the Waffle Era Tea Room because it is famous for its waffles (both sweet and savoury). The menu is quite extensive with waffles of every description so it took us a bit of time to decide what we were going to have. Once we made our decision we began to plot out our itinerary that would allow us to see as much as we could in just a few hours.
With our plan in place we left the Waffle Era and walked in the general direction of the famous Castillo San Felipe del Morro, more commonly known as El Morro, a World Heritage Site fort that has been guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay at the town’s most northwestern point for 500 years. We picked this attraction as our first stop for two main reasons. First, it marked the furthest distance, and highest elevation from where our cruise ship was docked. This meant that our longest and steepest walk would take place at the beginning of our trek, while we were relatively fresh and before the hottest part of the day. The rest of our tour would be downhill and towards the ship after this stop. Second, El Morro is one of the most visited sites in Puerto Rico and we wanted to avoid the crowds that would surely come once the other cruise ships began to unload their passengers.
It took roughly 20 minutes to walk from the restaurant near the cruise port to the fort, stopping to take photos of the Governor’s House and Cuartel de Ballajá.
Just before we walked down the hill to the main entrance of El Morro, Oscar spotted a vendor selling Piragua from a colourful pushcart. Piragua is a popular frozen desert made from shaved ice and fruit flavoured syrup and has become a Puerto Rican favourite. It is similar to snow cones sold in the U.S. and Canada, but gets its name from the its shape, which is more like a pyramid than a cone. The ice is shaved by hand from a large rectangular block and the syrups are made from real fruit with flavours like mango, passion fruit, banana and strawberry being the most popular. This was a welcome and refreshing treat as it was only but 11:00am but the temperature was now above 35 degrees.
Our visit to El Morro lasted just over 45 minutes. We walked around the outer wall of the massive structure, taking in the unobstructed views of the Atlantic Ocean to the north, San Juan Bay to the west and south, and the old town of San Juan to the east. After walking the perimeter of the fort, we went down several flights of stone stairs, into the interior admiring the impenetrable walls that have kept intruders, navies and pirates at bay for centuries. Our tour finished with a quick stop at the gift shop where Enid, knowing my love for good coffee, purchased a pound of Puerto Rican coffee beans, grown in the mountains that form the spine of the island of Puerto Rico from the east to the west.
We continued back towards the centre of town, stopping at the Cathedral de San Juan Bautista, the second oldest church in the Americas, dating back to 1521. The cathedral houses the remains of Ponce de Leon, the Spanish explorer famous for his quest for the Fountain of Youth. It is also the shrine for the Blessed Carlos Manuel Cecilio Rodríguez Santiago the only layperson in the history of the United States to be beatified.
Leaving the cathedral, we opted to stop in briefly at the Church of San Francisco, only a short distance away. While not as old or as large as the cathedral, it exudes simplicity and piety in its architecture and style and is worth a quick visit.
As we approached the centre of the old town, we were passing by the building that Oscar and I had worked in so many years before, the Office of Management of Government for Puerto Rico. We paused for a quick photo-op before continuing our trek to the centre of town and the main square.
Before arriving at the square, Enid insisted it was time for another Puerto Rican treat so we made our way to a now-famous shop that sells fancy Puerto Rican popsicles in a variety of shapes and flavours. These are not ordinary popsicles, but instead, are very upscale, unique and delicious.
It was approaching 12:30pm and I could feel the time that we had left before returning to the ship beginning to slip away. We still had a couple of stops to make before our all aboard so we made our way to the main plaza in the middle of town. This was one of my favourite spots when I worked here so long ago. I would walk around the plaza at lunch time and stop in to one of the many restaurants or cafes for my midday meal. The plaza is not just a favourite spot for tourists, but is also home to hundreds of pigeons. I had noticed that Oscar was no longer in our small group, but instead was talking to one of the vendors at the edge of the square. He returned to where we were chatting and stood beside Kim. He raised his hand and in a gesture as if he were patting her shoulder, he deposited a small handful of crushed cornmeal down her arm. Almost immediately, a flock of 4 pigeons were perched on her arm! Within a few seconds, he had doused the rest of us with cornmeal, and we were all covered in frolicking, flapping birds!
As our time was nearly done, we wanted to end our stay with a Puerto Rican mallorca, a buttery bun sprinkled with powdered sugar that is a “must have” on any trip to San Juan. The best place to get one is at La Bombonera, a restaurant that has been around for over 100 years. Aside from the mallorcas, this is also one of the best places to get a robust and aromatic café con leche (coffee with milk) made in the original espresso machine that was brought in from Cuba nearly a century ago. The espresso machine, made by Cafeteras Nacionale sits proudly on a counter across from the patron seating area. This was the perfect ending to our all too short visit the old city of San Juan.
It was finally time to say our goodbyes to Oscar and Enid. They had been wonderful hosts and it was a very emotional farewell for me. Oscar and I vowed not to let another 15 years pass before we see each other again. We crossed the street towards to the cruise ship and were swallowed up by the enormous crowd that had queued up for the all aboard. Unfortunately, both our ship and the MSC ship docked beside us were loading at the same time and each passenger had to pass through the U.S Customs/Security before boarding the ship.
After changing from our street clothes and donning our swimwear, we went directly to the Solarium where we cooled off in the pool and then relaxed over lunch from the Bistro. It had been a jam packed and exhausting morning but now it was time to relax. We spent the rest of the afternoon in and around the Solarium going from the pool to the lounge chairs and back to the pool, with the occasional snack in between.
On every cruise we have been on, one of the feature dinners in the main dining room is Lobster Tail. It is also one of the dinners that I look forward to the most and since I was particularly hungry from all of the walking around San Juan, I ordered two. I have to say that I was feeling a little guilty about this, but the guilt dissipated quickly once the lobsters arrived. Just to reinforce that I had made the right choice, Ian decided to order a lobster tail after he finished his original selection of pasta, and then Kim joined in reluctantly (sort of) by also ordering a 2nd tail.
After a very filling dinner we waddled over to Studio B, for our nightly onboard entertainment. Tonight’s feature presentation was titled “Frozen in Time”, an ice skating extravaganza based on the fairy tales of Hans Christian Andersen. The performance lasted just under an hour and was energetic and fun. The talent was quite good with several solo and duet performances from skaters who had won national and international competitions. Pretty incredible considering they were skating while we were on a moving ship! The finale was an amazing sand artist who drew a variety of Hans Christian Andersen’s characters in quick succession from a pile of sand on a lightboard projected onto a screen.
Still feeling a little stuffed from our dinner, we decided to follow up the skating performance with a walk around the ship. We ended up at On Air to catch the last few songs in a Kid’s Karaoke competition. As Karaoke was finishing we could hear the music ramping up in the Promenade just outside of On Air. We followed the crowd towards the middle of the Promenade and into the heart of the 1970’s. On the catwalk above the Promenade, the Village People had arrived to welcome us to the Disco Inferno Street Party with their rendition of ‘YMCA’. This was obviously a popular event as people emerged from everywhere to fill the expanse of Promenade. We stayed for several more unforgettable hits and then dragged Kim away, hips still swinging while her and Ian continued to sing disco tunes. It was finally time for bed.
Sharing Our Travel Dreams
Sharing our personal experiences onboard and on the road, along with tips and insight for creating memorable vacations.