Truth be told, I’ve never thought of myself as much of a cruiser. In fact, until two years ago, I hadn’t been on one since I was 17 years old (which, for the sake of argument, we’ll say wasn’t all that long ago). I don’t know what I had against the idea of cruising. I mean certainly I’m known for whirlwind stops in various countries that could roughly resemble a cruise ship itinerary. Of course, in my defense, I usually at least spend the night. But after 4 cruises in the past two years (3 Caribbean, 1 European) I can officially say I am slowly but surely becoming a fan of cruise ship travel.
It turns out there are certain parts of the world that just lend themselves perfectly to cruising. The Caribbean definitely falls into this category. There are so many islands so close together, why not just unpack once and call it a week? And I do have to say, one of my favorite things about cruising is waking up in a different port every morning with a new island to explore! I also love last minute cruise deals, like those offered by the Bolsover Cruise Club.
So last week I set sail with my best friend, Autumn, for our second annual spring Caribbean cruise. For the third time, I chose to sail with Carnival. Known as the “Fun Ships,” I’d enjoyed my previous sailings with Carnival and they had an itinerary out of Miami that we both liked: 8 nights at sea with stops in Grand Turk, the Dominican Republic, Curacao and Aruba.
After a quick flight from Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale, we arrived at the Port of Miami around 10:00am. The kiosk check-in process (which I don’t recall trying before so perhaps it is new?) could not have been easier. Within 15 minutes, we’d cleared security, checked-in and had our Sail & Sign cards in hand. Since boarding wasn’t supposed to start until noon, we had a little time to kill in the terminal. Luckily, they began boarding at 11:00am so before we knew it the ship’s photographer was snapping our photo as we stepped aboard the newly-renovated Carnival Valor, our home for the next 8 nights.
Inaugurated in 2004 by Godmother Katie Couric (did you know cruise ships had Godmothers?), the Carnival Valor is the largest Carnival ship ever based at the Port of Miami. Like all Carnival ships, the design of the Valor is focused on a central theme which permeates every inch of the ship. The Valor’s concept of “Heroes and Heroics” allowed designer Joe Farcus – Carnival’s chief designer for the past 30 years – to explore heroes of both mythology and reality.
For example, the main show lounge is the Ivanhoe Theater – named after Sir Walter Scott’s signature novel. The name of the dance club, One Small Step, was inspired by the famous words of Neil Armstrong on the first lunar space walk. Its planetary design – including actual Hubble telescope photographs – mimics the surface of the moon and combines a little history with the usual nightclub whimsy. The aft show lounge, Eagles, honors the strength and freedom of the national bird of the United States. The Cigar Bar is named after Sir Winston Churchill while the sports bar – Bronx Bar – is a tribute to the Yankees. The two magnificent main dining rooms – Washington and Lincoln – recognize two of America’s most legendary presidents. Everyone from Charles Lindbergh to Joan of Arc gets a nod on the Valor.
Since our cabin wouldn’t be ready until 1:30pm, we headed to the Lido Deck for lunch and then grabbed lounge chairs at the aft pool (which is just for adults…hooray!) to enjoy a beautiful Miami afternoon until we could ditch our carry-ons in the cabin.
While we waited, we were able to meet up with a few of the folks that Autumn had interacted with on the CruiseCritic.com website. (Sidebar: If you’re taking a cruise and haven’t visited Cruise Critic, do so immediately!) One of the great things about the Cruise Critic website is they have a feature called “Roll Call” that allows you to meet your fellow cruisers and share information about excursions, etc prior to your cruise. The Roll Call forum has a wealth of information and for the second cruise in a row we met a number of people through it that we spent a lot of time with on the ship (Autumn gets all credit for that one as she is our Cruise Critic representative!).
Setting Sail for a Caribbean Cruise!
So, after sailing away from Miami late Saturday afternoon, we started our week in the Caribbean with what Carnival calls a Fun Day at Sea. After a few cruises, I’ve decided I really like starting and ending the cruise with a day or two at sea. It gives you a nice opportunity to learn your way around the ship and relax by the pool a bit before the all the island-hopping starts in earnest.
First Stop – Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos Islands
Just 6 miles long and 1 mile wide, the capital of the Turks and Caicos Islands has welcomed a notable guest or two throughout the course of history. Locals claim Columbus first made landfall here in 1492 while most historians believe that it was Ponce de Leon who was the first to visit in 1512. One historic landing that is not up for debate is that of U.S. astronaut John Glenn whose space capsule splashed down in the waters off Grand Turk on February 20, 1962 after he became the first man to orbit the earth. Glenn’s craft, the Friendship 7, was picked up by the U.S. Navy and he was taken to Grand Turk for a medical and two days of debriefing before Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson arrived to fly him back home. It was the first time the international spotlight had come to the islands and locals who were lucky enough to shake Glenn’s hand gleefully held up their own hands saying they had “touched space”.
These days it’s mostly cruise ship passengers who arrive on Grand Turk thanks to a brand new deep-water cruise port opened in 2006. For our day on the island, Autumn and I rented a golf cart (all you really need to get around this tiny island) and set out to explore. In about two hours, we had circled the entire island visiting the colonial capital of Cockburn Town, the charming lighthouse on the northern tip of the island and Columbus Landfall National Park – all the while dodging the island’s wild donkeys.
After returning the golf cart, we settled in at one of the Caribbean’s best beach bars for the afternoon. Jack’s Shack sits on a perfect stretch of white sandy beach and turquoise water and serves up local specialties, a mean rum punch and quality entertainment provided by Jack’s two dogs – Topher and Cooper. Topher (who was named after Christopher Columbus) spends his days digging ever-deeper holes on the beach while Cooper prefers to devote his time to fetching his ball from the sea whenever he can get someone to throw it for him (if you do, be prepared to stay for a while).
Our afternoon at Jack’s Shack reminded us a lot of our favorite day on last year’s cruise – at the Soggy Dollar Bar on Jost Van Dyke, BVI. It’s hard to beat a relaxing day on a perfect Caribbean beach with a cold adult beverage. While Grand Turk is very small, it actually makes a perfect cruise ship stop because you really can see it all and still have time to sit and relax in just one day.
Stop #2 – La Romana, Dominican Republic
We were initially torn about what to do with our day in the Dominican Republic. But thanks to Autumn’s regularity on the Cruise Critic board, she’d discovered a local tour outfitter offering a day trip that sounded like fun. So, after docking in La Romana at 9am we made our way to the village of Bayahibe to hook up with Seavis Tours for a day of exploring the Parque Nacional del Este, one of the Dominican Republic’s eleven national parks. We climbed into a speedboat with about 20 others and then first cruised past the rocks of Penon and through Mangroves to see the colonies of Frigate birds before arriving at beautiful Saona Island for an afternoon of snorkeling and relaxing on the beach.
Our final stop of the day was the “Piscina Natural” or natural swimming pool, a giant sand bank famous for its colorful indigenous starfish. A few photo ops later we were headed back to the ship. It was amazing day out on the water and I was impressed with the beauty of the Dominican Republic. Unfortunately, not everyone on our ship was as impressed with the country. Those who chose to strike out on their own and hire a taxi to tour the island were mostly disappointed with their experience. The D.R. is one of the poorest of the Caribbean islands and though there are many luxury resorts and exceptional natural beauty, there is also widespread poverty. Even booking with a tour company doesn’t keep the local children from coming up and (basically) demanding money from you. I’m not sure if I would go back to the island and spend more time but I definitely enjoyed my day there.
Stop #3 – Willemstad, Curacao
Up next on our Caribbean cruise tour…a return visit to the beautiful island of Curacao. I visited the island last summer and while I was there, I met up with a friend of a friend (Sandra, who was born and raised on the island) for lunch. At the time, Sandra had promised that if I ever returned to Curacao she’d give me the full tour.
So, I happily took her up on her offer while our ship was docked in Willemstad for the day. Sandra was kind enough to take the day off work to show us all around the island. We visited the Nassau Fort, the Avila Resort on the eastern side of the island and then drove across to the western side to visit a few of the other resort areas. Sandra also took us through several of the local neighborhoods and I really enjoyed getting an “insider’s tour” of this gorgeous island. We ended our day exploring Willemstad, which I think is the best capital city in the Caribbean – it’s certainly the most colorful – before getting back on the ship. All in all, an excellent day ashore!
Last stop, Aruba!
I know what you’re thinking…this Caribbean cruise seems really lovely and all the beaches are so beautiful but what’s really missing is a death-defying adventure sport. And you’re absolutely right! So for our last stop in the Caribbean we booked a windsurfing lesson. What possessed us to attempt windsurfing on the Caribbean’s windiest island? I’m honestly not sure. But we actually did pretty well and managed to stay above the water most of the time. Autumn did amazingly well considering she just had knee surgery 4 weeks ago…I have no such excuse to fall back on. It was a fun sport and I’d love to try it someplace less challenging next time to get a little better at it. (OK, so it wasn’t exactly death-defying but that’s as close as it’s going to get this week!) After our lesson and a little practice time, we’d had plenty of sun so we decided to head back to the port and spend the afternoon enjoying the empty ship.
Aruba was the last of our stops and we spent the next two days at sea in total relaxation mode before arriving back in Miami on Sunday.
It seems the more cruises I take; the more they seem to grow on me. But without a doubt, my favorite part of the cruising experience is meeting the crew. Carnival crews are truly an international bunch with crew members hailing from more than 100 countries. I have found in my past few cruises that meeting the crew and talking to them about their countries is one of my favorite parts of the trip.
I love it when I meet the waiter from Indonesia or the Internet Café manager from Macedonia or the dining room hostess from Bulgaria and I get to say that I have visited their country. The surprise on their faces is priceless and it always turns into a lengthy conversation. The crew members obviously enjoy their jobs and they really love talking to interested passengers about their countries; not to mention they are a wealth of information for globetrotters like me. It’s like having my own personal international travel agency floating across the Caribbean.
In fact, last summer I spent a full day with our cocktail waitress from last year’s cruise, Magdalena, and her husband (and dining room waiter) Milan touring Serbia while they were home between assignments. When I saw her name tag on our first night and mentioned I was going to be in Serbia over the summer, she gave me her contact information and said they would love to show me around. Maggie and Milan were incredible hosts and it just goes to show you the wonderfully hospitable people Carnival employs from top to bottom.
So, yes, I admit it. This globetrotting nomad likes to cruise. (Is there a 12-step program for that?) Though I think I might like it even better with a more exotic itinerary. Perhaps a South American cruise? I’ve always wanted to transit the Panama Canal. Or Antarctica? The possibilities are endless with new itineraries being posted all the time. So I guess the only question is…where will a Fun Ship take me next?