Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Celebrity Cruise - St. Thomas & St. Kitts with Kids - Rainforest Tour, South Fryer Beach, Butterfly Farm

Day 5 – St. Thomas

We had been to St. Thomas many times before and we had done much of what there was to do so we contemplated staying on the ship but at the end decided to take a tour of the island and visit the Butterfly Farm. In the past we had usually left Victor with in-laws onboard or just taken him to a beach but he was now ready to explore with us. We booked a 4-hour tour of the island in an air-conditioned van (most tours there are done in the open-air trucks that I prefer but it was a very hot day). We had previously docked in the new port a bit outside of town but this time we were docked right in downtown, very close to the stores and the gondola ride up the hill.

After we left the port we drove up on the narrow, winding roads (somewhat scary actually because you barely avoid the other cars coming down the road) up to the highest point on the island which is a great overlook point and the home of the best Daiquiri. On the way we stopped and “Nelson’s Chair” (not much left except a view) and a couple of other spots for photo ops and when we got to the top we were left to wander for about 30 minutes. 

There is a big souvenir store at the top and a huge terrace from which you can see the blue water and the other nearby islands. Then, we were taken back to downtown while the driver gave us a bit of history of the island. There is definitely a lot of poverty on St. Thomas and a lot of houses that have suffered hurricane damage and were never fixed. But at the same time there are a lot of pretty colorful buildings and the downtown area is buzzing with activity. I am not one to shop for diamonds or perfumes but there is a whole street with such vendors for those you wanted to buy duty-free. I’m not really convinced you get a better deal and I’ve discovered that most times alcohol is actually cheaper onboard but I guess it’s the excitement of bargaining that brings a lot of cruise passengers to the stores.

After the tour we visited the Butterfly Farm which was right across the street from the ship. While the farm is not the largest in the Caribbean and none of the butterflies are native to the island it was still a unique experience. Victor loved smearing his hands with banana juice and having the butterflies land on his hands. 

There is actually a pretty amazing parrot show while you wait where the birds do some amazing things – ride roller-skates, talk and ride bikes. This was definitely a highlight of the trip for the kids.

In the afternoon we decided to try Emerald Bay beach and just relax. We had previously been to Coki Beach (nice clean beach but a bit out of the way) and Megan’s Bay (to me it was a bit overrated and there was only one restaurant on the entire beach). Emerald Bay was OK and there were some facilities but I have to be honest that I do not think that St. Thomas has the best beaches in the Caribbean.

I think you just have to discover ones that work for your family so we will keep trying. But so far the beaches that we have been to have been very quiet, no umbrellas or chairs and few restaurants. So if you are looking for an “authentic” unexplored beaches you may love it but I like my beaches a bit more active.

Day 6 – St. Kitts

This was our first time there and boy, do we want to return for more!

 I had booked a private rainforest tour through Poinciana Tours and David, the owner, was amazing! We were his only clients that day and although the ship has booked him to take care of a large group on a ship tour, he assigned one of his helpers, Tristan, to work with just the 4 of us so we get an amazing private treatment. We saw so much more than the poor folks on the ship tour which were in a group of 50 or so.

David picked us p from the port and drove us to a place near his house which is just down the street from the famous Batic Factory. Even is you have no interest in Batic this place has such amazing grounds and such lush landscaping that it is a must-see. While we were there we had a taste of the rainforest climate when the sky opened up and poured down on us for about 15 minutes followed by the most amazing rainbow.

From the Batic Factory, Tristan took us on a great tour of the rainforest. He had grown in this area and knew everything and truly gave us a picture of life on the island. He also pointed a lot of plants that the locals use as medicine. Victor was most fascinated by a large plant that would hide its leaves if you touch them – that was like a magic in his eyes, as well as the natural leaf “tattoo” that Tristan painted on his hand. 

We saw huge drum trees, crossed creeks and  were able to swing on a vine several times (yes, I am no Tarzan and almost dropped myself in an attempt to look gracious) but at the end it was an unforgettable experience. Victor did amazingly well and did not complain once from the walking. After the hike we were taken to David’s front yard and served local fruit (bananas, coconut, mango) as well as home-made banana bread.

We had arranged for David to take us to a beach for the afternoon and he took us to the best beach on this whole cruise -- South Fryers Bay. Situated right where the Pacific meets the Caribbean sea, it is not a large beach but was just perfect.

 Lovely, silky smooth black sand, super calm water and the best fish tacos. There is also a wooden platform tied in the middle of the water so we all swam there and laid out in the sun for a bit. We truly did not want to leave and promised ourselves we will be back soon.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Celebrity Silhouette 14-Day Caribbean from New York Trip Report

Day 1
Even though we had just cruised on Royal Caribbean over the holidays, when an opportunity arose to go again on the brand new Celebrity Silhouette we just could not say no. Chris and I had cruised on the Celebrity Equinox (sister ship to the Silhouette) a couple of years ago and absolutely fell in love with the stylish and modern Celebrity ships. We love staying in modern boutique-style hotels and these ships totally felt like a boutique hotel on the water.

This sailing was out of New York and that’s what we initially liked about it – no early morning flights, no packing light, no stress. We decided to drive to NY the night before and stayed at the Residence Inn Hotel in Bayonne. It is a 10 min drive to the port and despite being located in what appears to be an industrial part of town was a surprisingly new and modern hotel with great staff. There was a pull-out sofa for my brother and they brought in a trundle bed for my son so it all worked our great. Surprisingly, the morning of the cruise I found an email from Celebrity that the ship had been plagued by the Norovirus the week before so they were doing a full sanitation of the ship that day and boarding would not start until 2 pm. We got to the port at exactly 2 pm (the port of Bayonne is a bit hard to find but at least there is not a lot of traffic to get there) and were quickly checked in a given a bus number. 
We were in Concierge Class which meant that we were assigned to one of the first buses but we still had to wait together with the remaining 2000 people in a huge warehouse. This port had been a commercial port until recently and unfortunately is still not fully fitted for passengers. The waiting  area was short on chairs, you had to wait for a but to drive you from the waiting area to the ship and everything looked quite gray and industrial. We waited and waited and finally around 4 pm the ship was cleared and the buses started going.

The whole process was a bit daunting especially with all the elderly guests and those on wheelchairs who had to get on and off the buses but we were finally onboard around 5pm and as soon as we walked in we felt like home. Since we knew the ship we did not even try to get to the buffet, which we knew would be packed, but instead made a beeline for the Café Baccio on Deck 5 and parked ourselves there. 

Because the cabins were not yet ready, there were hundreds of people walking around and looking for a place to sit and all the available chairs, tables and loungers were pretty soon occupied. We got ourselves some coffee and a few desserts and just hung around until 6 pm when the rooms were finally ready.

Our cabin was Concierge Level on Deck 10 and my brother had an ocean-view on Deck 3. The Concierge Cabin was exactly the same as all balcony cabins except it came with the services of a butler and some extra little perks like champagne, luxury toiletries and fluffy robes (which we actually never wore). 
The cabin is very clean and modern and there is plenty of storage as well as space to walk around a bit. Victor’s bed was the sofa which was actually set up with linens and pillows already and he felt very comfortable there. The bathroom was also very well designed with plenty of room and a nice glassed-in shower. 
Before we even had a chance to unpack we were called for the Muster Drill (thank god it was conducted inside) and around 8 pm we finally left the port. I was a little disappointed that we actually missed seeing the ship leave New York and sail under the bridge but it was already dark and very cold outside and we have had a long day so just went to get dinner, registered Victor for the kids’ club and were in bed early.

Days 2-4
This being a cruise out of NYC, it included 3 sea day at the beginning and at the end of the cruise so I was a little concerned initially that we would be very bored for 6 days at sea. In reality however, this was the best cruise we have ever been on.

We slept in the next morning and then made our way to Deck 14, the buffet area. The buffet area on the Silhouette (and all the Solstice-class ships) is very bright and sleek decorated in glass and pale wood and bright colors. There is plenty of seating (actually most of the time there not many people there at all) and the food is divided in multiple stations so there is pretty much no line for any food. The only wait we ever encountered was for the egg station in the morning and even that was only a couple of minutes. Breakfast in the buffet suited us very well and found lots of great options – eggs, pastries, fruit, veggies, fish, cheeses, cold cuts, really everything, so we never tried the main dining room for breakfast or lunch.

The other option for breakfast which we discovered mid-cruise was Café Baccio, our favorite spot on the ship. Located in the middle of the ship, the café is decorated with beautiful wing chairs, glass tables and leather banquets and serves the most amazing pastries ever. We have always had our afternoon coffee there but on this cruise we discovered that they actually serve French pastries there in the morning as well as bite-sized sandwiches for lunch. So on port days we will just grab a few pastries and a juice for breakfast before we run to our activities.

After breakfast, we took Victor to tour the kids club which is located at the top of the ship and on the very front. It is pretty high and on some of the rough sea days that area felt like a roller coaster but the kids did not seem to mind. On that particular sailing, since it was during the school area, we were told there were only 50 kids.

There were only about 15 kids in the 3-5 age range and the counselors were just amazing. They learned Victor's name right away and made him feel so comfortable that he begged us to go to the club pretty much all day long on the sea days. They did a lot of activities with the kids that no other club has done before  - they would take them to the shows at night and sit on the front row and hand out popsicles, they would have pirate parades, take the kids for ice cream daily and even had a talent show on the last day. The club is very bright and airy and decorated in clean bright colors and Victor had a great time there. Which, of course, makes for a great vacation for mommy and daddy ;)

The first two sea days were rather cool and rough so we spent most of the time inside. The gorgeous covered pool was adults-only so unfortunately we could not take Victor there but there were plenty of other areas to go and lots of activities going on, from trivia to karaoke. Chris and I spent a ton of time at the casino (of course) but on the lazy afternoons our favorite spot was "the cubby" area in the center of the ship. This is an area that is unique to the Silhouette and is decorated with multiple cool and comfortable chairs. We would read there, nap there and have coffee there. There is also music coming from the atrium and light coming from the skylight so you could not find a more comfortable spot on the ship.

Evenings we usually spent in the buffet or Bistro on Five. Unfortunately on this cruise we were unable to get the early dining so we had to do the Celebrity Select. It would not be my first choice because you sit at a different table every night and the service is spotty and slow so we did not get to spend as many nights in the main dining room as we wanted to. But Bistro on Five was out new discovery - it is a casual crepe house where for $5 charge yo can eat as many crepes and salads as you want...and they are so yummy.

One night we decided to try the funky new restaurant called Qsine. I've heard that the food is really innovative and it lived up to expectations for sure. There is a $40 cover charge but everyone at the table gets to pick from a menu on an iPad. Then all the items are brought in and shared by everyone. Each item is pretty small but when you end up with 10-15 of them it's more than enough. The Sushi Popsicles and the Disco Shrimp were our favorites.

By the third sea day the weather was sunny and warm, the sea was calm and it was time for the pool. One thing I love about Celebrity is that you can always find a good spot by the pool. They have a lot of different seating areas, lots of clam-shell loungers and even a few four-poster swings. We were lucky enough to score one of those in the afternoon and it was the perfect spot to nap and just relax.

So we managed to keep pretty busy during the 3 sea days, and actually had the best and most relaxing time. The next day, we started 5 days of ports - first stop St. Thomas.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

RCI Enchantment of the Seas -, Nassau, Zoo and back

Day 5
Today we were supposed to be on the RCI private island Coco Beach. However, when we woke up we found a note from the Captain that the seas were far too rough and we would not be able to tender to the island so we were going to stay an extra day in Nassau. The weather was sunny and warmer than the day before so after a group discussion we decided to all go to the Zoo. The zoo is about a 15 minute drive or a very long walk from the ship and I have to say I was pleasantly surprised.
Lots of the animals were roaming free (flamingoes, monkeys, peacocks), they offered a lot of feeding opportunities and it was a great way for the kids to experience a lot of exotic animals up close.
We strolled around for quite a while and even got a peacock to open his full tale for us (or for the female bird nearby, but we took full advantage of the photo opp).
Victor and I went into the large parakeet enclosure during feeding time but we did not realize that as soon as the people walk in parakeets come from everywhere and climb on your head, shoulders, hair and pretty much everywhere on you. After my initial screams and victor hiding under my shirt we ended up having a good time though.
After the Zoo we walked over to the beach area, only about a 10 min walk, and found several cute local restaurants where we had a nice lunch and some of us even tried conch. The service was typical Caribbean (slow) but the fish and the other seafood was fresh and we enjoyed being outside even though the temperatures were still not that warm.
On the way back we walked through the Nassau downtown area and got some duty free goodies but overall there was not much to see here. It is still a very poor island with lots of visible hurricane damages. Everything looks run down and small and there are a ton of locals just milling about on the main street so we quickly made our purchases and got back on the ship.
On most cruises that we have been to mid afternoon is my favorite time of the day. A coffee and a pastry at the onboard coffee shop is always a favorite family experience. However, on the Enchantment, the coffee shop is small, the area around it is dark and there are no pastries, just tired-looking oatmeal cookies and a few types of muffins. I was definitely missing the lovely desserts on Celebrity’s Café il Bacio.
 Day 6 and 7
The cruises ends with two days at sea while we make our way back to Baltimore. The first day is actually warm and sunny and for the only time on this cruise the outdoor pool is open and buzzing. The water in the pool is warm and everyone is playing outside and happy to get some sun. However, the seas are rough and the ship is rocking and rolling and some people from our group suffer the consequences. The three of us are doing good so we fully enjoy the warm day.
 That night we send the kids to the club despite some protests and save our seats for Quest – the adult scavenger hunt game which I totally enjoy watching. For those who have not played it, you are hunting for things like ladies underwear, a pair of thongs, a guy with lipstick on and things like that. It is hilarious to watch and is exactly what we need considering the other entertainment onboard has been geared mostly to the older crowd.
The next day is our last one and, as we are already past the Carolinas, the weather is back to being cold. We play some trivia, get some drinks in the atrium, watch the Love & Marriage show (where the oldest couple, in the 70s probably, have absolutely no shame and share some hilarious stories like the time the woman handcuffed the guy to their bed and accidentally lost the keys) and then go back to our cabins to pack and say our goodbyes.
All in all, this cruise was a good way to spend time with our friends and get to hang our with people we don’t see as often as we want. But unfortunately I have to say that we will not be returning to the Enchantment of the Seas and probably Royal