Caribbean Caper: Cruise ships:Blessing or blight?

Published: January 19th 2019
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San Juan, Puerto Rico to Trinidad

1 – 6 January 2019

Happy New Year to you all!

Christmas passed for us in a wonderful parade of people and places as we managed to see lots of family and friends during our brief stay of eighteen days in the UK. It was lovely to catch up and see so many people but it was also good to return to a warm clime in Puerto Rico after Tasmania and England. The days here have all reached towards 27/28 C and nights not fallen below 21. Bliss!

We started in Puerto Rico which is a commonwealth of the USA and a semi-autonomous territory so not a US state. Puerto Ricans have some benefits from this arrangement so for instance they can reside in the US but they do not have voting rights and only have a non-voting 'Resident Commissioner' in the US House of Representatives. President Obama wanted to hold a referendum for PR to decide if it wanted to become a full state but Congress never approved the money for the referendum and some say that the Republicans will never allow PR to become a state as it is assumed they would be heavily Democratic when voting and that would alter the balance and make it more difficult for Republicans to maintain power.

The capital, San Juan, was established in 1521 on a small islet. It still has its cobbled stone streets, stone walls (in places up to 15 feet thick and 140 feet high), and more than 400 historically listed buildings.

The old town where we stayed is tiny. It is possible to walk around it, mostly by the thick stone walls which were built to defend the town, in an hour or less. That is at a leisurely tropical pace. There is enough to see in the town itself to fill up our four days. The houses are all colonial style painted in bright colours, and there are pretty squares and parks full of traditional style street lamps and lots of greenery.

The northern coast of the old town faces out across the Atlantic and is defined by its forts and defensive walls where the Spanish inhabitants fought off attacks from the Dutch, English and later, the USA. The walls are anchored by El Morro, the fort on the western edge of the islet, and Fuerte San Cristobal on the east. El Morro is said to be the oldest fort in the New World. Both forts stand impressively above the sea and the walls which join them must have presented an intimidating sight when approached by marauders. Having said that we did watch 2 metre long iguanas running up and down the steep walls without any hesitation.

We spent hours in the forts where displays provide lots of information, statues and cardboard cut-outs of people bring life to the dark grey stones and it became possible to understand how they functioned as a town in their own right. They form a huge area where soldiers lived, drilled and stayed on watch permanently prepared for attack. Puerto Rico had a key location as the Spanish used it as the focal point for ships coming from Spain to carry out repairs and reprovision with fresh foods and water. Then it was where the riches taken from Central and South America were gathered together to make the return trip back to Spain which of course was why it was so attractive to pirates as well as other nations.

A tiny hamlet, La Perla, is situated on a small ledge under the walls and there we saw damage from recent storms. Some houses were completely destroyed, others still lack roofs, (that should be rooves English spelling, when did it change?).

Our hotel was right in the centre of old town so it was a little noisy but the atmosphere made it worthwhile staying there. It is a lively place full of characters, noise and music. One morning we caught the small free bus to take us for a ride around the town for a rest between sightseeing and a group of ten to fifteen people climbed aboard with tambourines. The leader asked if we all liked music and immediately they burst into song and drumming. It was a skull rattling and teeth shaking shock to the system. The bus driver shouted stop, and they did. He then said you can sing but only one drum to accompany. This they adhered to, most of the time, only getting a little over enthusiastic on some of the choruses when bells started to shake. Jim and I thought they might be a religious group but when I managed to translate some of the lyrics I changed my mind. It was so contagious that everyone started dancing in the street as we passed by.

Another morning we went to Burger King for breakfast, not quite as unhealthy as it sounds as we had a coffee and a very small wrap filled with scrambled egg. Two men were waiting for their order before me and I saw the server give each a box and they sat down to eat. Then one of them, from the US, saw that the order was wrong so went to the elderly female assistant to explain. She realised that she had switched the orders around so went to the second man, who was local and had already tucked into his food with gusto. She delicately removed the plate with his part consumed meal from in front him and handed it to the American guy, replacing it with the other box. The American looked down at the half eaten meal in his hand for a second, then at her, then with a confused and disbelieving look on his face he wandered off to finish the meal. I can't imagine the same placid acceptance from a customer in the UK.

Just east of the old town are lovely sandy beaches although we did not find time to laze on them. We did take a trip up into the rainforest of El Yunque but unfortunately it rained, as it often does there. The waterfalls were at their best.

The only down side to Old San Juan is the fact it is a cruise port. Large cruise ships moor right in the centre, as many as four or five at one time. The blessing for Puerto Rico is that this brings in money, from people getting of the ships for a few hours, or like us, those who are starting or finishing a cruise here and stay over for a few days. However, and I know this is unbelievably hypocritical of us as we are getting on a ship, hordes of slow moving cruisers shuffling through the narrow streets like snails on sleeping pills, does not add to the ambiance. But of course it provides work and income for local people even more important after the hurricane damage they have suffered.

6 – 17 January 2019 aboard Norwegian Dawn

So we joined the throng on 6th and went aboard our cruise ship. As this is only our second cruise, the first being to Alaska with Holland America we did not know what to expect. The process of embarkation was very quick and easy and by 11.30 we were aboard although the room was not available until 1.30. That is a very quick turnaround as guests are still leaving at 11.00 from the previous cruise, but it was all very smooth.

The Norwegian Dawn is a mid sized ship with capacity for about 2,400 people. The large ships carry over 5,000 passengers. That sounds like a nightmare to me but I did hear some people on board saying they prefer the larger ships because of the extra facilities.

The main difference with this cruise was that it is called 'freestyle' so you can choose where and when you eat. You can book a table in advance but you don't need to. There are some four or five venues where you can just walk in and another five that have extra charges which usually need to be pre-booked. This worked really well for us especially as on the second night, by lucky accident, we were taken to a horseshoe shaped alcove table with couch seating for 6 (are they called banquettes or am I thinking of something else?) in a quiet separate room that was like a small intimate restaurant. We had the table to ourselves. Immediately we decided to eat dinner there for the rest of the cruise, it was perfect.

When we booked the cruise I had not appreciated the extras that had been included in the deal. There were technical things like so many minutes of phone calls, a certain amount of wifi, daily water bottles, specialist coffees, but the thing I missed, or perhaps could not believe, all alcoholic drinks were included. How dangerous! But we were quite restrained on the whole, enjoying wine with meals and occasional drinks in bars, the theatre and music venues. Waiters were on hand everywhere ready to deliver whatever delights you chose, as long as the drink cost less than $15 per glass, which included most things. They had an excellent Australian Shiraz.

English Harbour, AntiguaEnglish Harbour, AntiguaEnglish Harbour, Antigua

I think this was the most beautiful view of all

Compared to Holland America I think of Norwegian as Cruising Lite. They are party ships with most people there to have fun by way of loud music, cheer leading, ('How is everyone today?' Loud reply from audience. 'I didn't hear you, how is everyone today?' Louder reply. Jim & I cringing quietly in the corner.) and sun bathing by the pool. The talks about destinations were simply about their shore excursions, not the islands themselves, and shore excursions were in the same vein, a quick glance at a few sights, no meaningful information and then out with the rum punches. Having said that it is possible to do your own thing, avoid the crowds, go island wandering alone, and to be fair I never saw anyone behaving badly or the worse for drink. Maybe that was because the parties tended to start after we went to bed? There were plenty of quiet spaces plus a library and in our cabin or on our balcony we never heard any noise so sound proofing is very effective. I was disappointed with the music, it tended to be very loud with little variation whereas Holland America provided classics and blues as well as rock and pop. For all that I would be very happy to go with Norwegian again. The destinations/prices are more important to us than the cruise line.

We chose our ship as it visited lots of islands, Aruba, Curacao (excellent museum about slavery and early African cultures. Did you know the Catholic Church received a 'baptism' fee for every person taken into slavery? I was shocked to learn that), Bonaire (fantastic snorkeling), Grenada, Antigua (Nelson's Dockyard), Barbados, St Lucia, St Martin, and St Thomas. The eastern islands are higher with more vegetation so look prettier than the ABCs in the west (Netherland Antilles) but their buildings are interesting because they have retained their Dutch character. There was more storm damage throughout the islands than I had expected and St Martin/Sint Marten has severe damage. Interestingly the island is divided in two between the French side, which is actually a full French Departement, and the Dutch side which is independent. The French half is part of the EU so it has an unguarded border with an independent territory. Strange no-one mentioned that in the discussion around Brexit and the land border in NI! Also, because the French
Slave ship replica, shelves in hold to fit in as many as possibleSlave ship replica, shelves in hold to fit in as many as possibleSlave ship replica, shelves in hold to fit in as many as possible

I heard a visitor ask the guide where the restrooms were for the slaves. It took a few seconds for the guide to recover.
part receives income and benefits from the EU, the businesses there have not yet started to rebuild, they can survive without work. In the other half there are no such payments and people are struggling to rebuild and restore commerce. Their livelihoods depend upon attracting visitors.

Even on St Thomas there is storm damage mainly to the coral by the shore. I snorkelled and saw four turtles, two large sting rays and good numbers and varieties of fish but the coral itself is largely destroyed in the few metres below the surface where the waves ripped it away. The good news is that it is starting to show signs of regrowth already.

So we really enjoyed the indulgence of the cruise and were reluctant to give it up but knew for our health's sake we had to do it. At one meal I watched a large couple receive their first course. I glanced over to see which starter they had chosen and saw that one of them was having what I had had, the other something different but they both had double portions. Next course arrived for them and I saw it was more appetisers, again both double helpings, so I thought they must be having those in place of a main course. No, main courses arrived next, one for each of them and an extra one to share. By this time I was fascinated and horrified. I wanted to wait and see what happened with pudding but Jim dragged me away, I think in case my absorption in their consumption became too obvious.

One of our favourite activities was the trivia quizzes. We met a lovely couple, Harry and Nancy, and joined forces with them creating a good team as we all had different areas of expertise. We really enjoyed their company and I think we came either second or first every time. Harry has a broad range of knowledge and Nancy was our music expert and is not only knowledgeable but can sing wonderfully. We went along to the Karaoke competition to hear her and both felt she had far and away the best voice but the votes went for the noisy raucous songs not the quality of singing. Nancy's singing was the best music we heard on board. We were expected to answer questions with a UK connection which we did most of the time but the pressure was on to remember Margaret Thatcher's maiden name. Jim came up with it, Roberts, just in time. That would have been embarrassing if we had not remembered.

Now we have arrived in Trinidad en route to St Lucia, more about that in the next blog. Hope the weather stays kind to you all.

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