2020 Florida and Caribbean Cruise Journal
In our usual need to escape the winter weather in the Northwest we decided on the Caribbean and Florida this year. Our cruise was headed to the south eastern islands which we had not visited since our first cruise in 1989. We went about a week ahead of the cruise for exploring Florida.
We had a direct flight to Orlando leaving bright and early at 7:35 am. Ruby - so kind to take us to the airport - arrived early to our house. Scramble! Get ready! We were able to grab some exit row tickets a couple of days before the flight. The good news - lots of legroom. The bad news - a large guy on the aisle seat and we felt squeezed into our seats.
Everything went smoothly on our arrival to Orlando and we checked into the motel. However the next morning we had the very unpleasant surprise of finding our car with a completely shattered passenger side window. There were several other vehicles in the lot that were affected. The thieves didn’t even get anything from our car. Well that changed our plans - we were off to the airport to present our damaged vehicle and trade it in for a new one. On the way we passed an entry into a toll road (which are everywhere in Florida). Problem was that the toll booth was empty and there were no instructions about how much money we needed to pay. So...we just threw a few coins into the bucket and took off. We found out later that the rental cars have transponders and sure enough our charges came through on our credit card later.
Off we went to the Kennedy Space Center in our new rental car. Just as we thought our day couldn’t get worse Butch had a spectacular spill of his coke in the Subway restaurant. Of course it was fairly busy and a number of people witnessed this event.
Kennedy Space Center: It has been many years since we have visited the Space Center. We went on the bus tour around the grounds for an interesting view of the launch areas. It now reflects the impact of the private sector and includes the SpaceX launching area. The vehicle assembly building as you might imagine was gigantic. The entire area is a protected wildlife area and indeed part of the tour involved alligator viewing.
Next we headed down the Atlantic coast to Ft Pierce. We spent the night in a Comfort Inn and handily there was a Red Lobster within walking distance. We figured we deserved a nice dinner out.
The Florida Keys
We headed down to the Keys and had a scenic drive from island to island until we reached Marathon Island. We were ready for a resort type of stay so we found a marked down room price at the Tranquility Bay Resort. The hotel staff pointed out when asked that there was no breakfast as most of their rentals had kitchens. NOT in our small room, so a little grocery shopping took care of our needs for the next morning. The Resort was really so relaxing and beautiful.
We had some beach and pool time before heading out to dinner. We ate at a casual place near the 7 mile bridge. The restaurant was aptly named the 7 Mile Grill and had outdoor seating (such a luxury for January). The food was not really memorable (I had a rather greasy grilled Grouper) but the meals filled us up just fine.
The next day we headed down to Key West and had a series of problems. When we arrived there we wanted to make a quick stop at the local McDonalds. Well the GPS drove us to a “McDonalds'' all right. It was some type of local business called MacDonalds - definitely not a restaurant. Well that wasn’t much help for our hunger (and Butch’s increasingly full bladder…). Once we were past that area we did find a McDonalds that took care of our needs. We made our way into the older section of Key West using our trusty phone GPS again. We were trying to find the visitors center but ended up at one of the local massage parlors. I went into the bar next door and spoke to the bartender who looked like some sort of unkempt ageing hippy. “Oh”, he said, “that hasn’t been the visitors center for a year. The GPS just hasn’t been updated. Want a drink??”
He gave us a “possible” location for the Chamber of Commerce and not surprisingly we couldn’t find it. So...we did find a public parking garage finally near the location of the conch train. The conch train trundled us around the old areas of Key West where we saw Ernest Hemingway’s old winter home, other lovely homes, small “shotgun” houses (long and narrow) and the wild side of town with many active bars. Apparently drinking is common any time of day here.
A glimpse of Hemingway’s old home. It was built around 1850 and was home for the writer during which he wrote several of his novels. Fun fact: there are apparently a bunch of polydactyl cats (extra toes) that live on the grounds. This home would be a good tour to do someday.
We headed north (the only direction we could go) and stopped for a late lunch right on the water. The Island Fish restaurant on Marathon Island was just what we had in mind and what a treat it was. The warm tomato-feta sauce was fabulous with the fish. We ended up at a Quality Inn poised not too far from the Everglades National Park.
The Florida Everglades
We went on an airboat tour near the Everglades Park and saw gators and a variety of birds. What fun!
Many of the narrow waterways had water lilies all around. The airboat just skimmed over everything. Of course we were on the wrong side of the boat for the alligator viewing but oh well we still got a look at them.
Yikes, he (or she?) is quite big
Can you find me??
WOW - Hope it doesn’t wiggle too much, I would probably just drop it
Our souvenirs for the airboat ride were the cotton balls in our ears according to the boat pilot. Next we were headed to the Shark Valley National Park entrance to the Everglades. WRONG - a three day weekend in Florida draws the crowds to such locations. The parking lot was full and parking was backed up way down the street. Oh well, next time.
We stayed a couple of nights on the gulf side of Florida including a very nice Comfort Inn in Clearwater. We turned in our Dodge at the Tampa airport and Ubered it to our hotel for the night.
Our Ship - the Norwegian Dawn - and 3 days at sea
We received an email warning us not to go too early for embarkation for no apparent reason. Even though it meant waiting at the hotel lobby for a while we were extremely pleased that embarkation went so quickly. Embarking later rather than early really makes sense. Also our room was ready for us upon arrival. Yes!!
We left Tampa on a cold evening (for Florida anyway!). Here is a view of Tampa as we were leaving.
Our first sunset at sea
Our ship held about 2300 passengers and about 1000 crew members. The crew members that we dealt with were practically all foreign with a large number from the Philippines. We managed to keep busy during our days at sea. I had fun learning line dancing and Butch went to a class held by the magician to learn card tricks. The ship had a nice walking area around deck 7 that I took advantage of. I needed to work some of those calories off. Speaking of food - the dinners in particular were fantastic. Over the course of the cruise we went to our favorite specialty restaurant (Cagneys) for unforgettable steak and shrimp. We also experienced a Brazilian restaurant with meat brought on great big skewers right to our table. The Japanese restaurant was not only tasty but they put on quite a show for us. There was always entertainment in the evening to keep us busy. Overall the 3 days at sea passed along nicely as the weather warmed up.
St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands)
Our first cruise port was St. Thomas, one of the US Virgin Islands. Three main islands make up the US part of the Virgin Islands - St Thomas, St John and St Croix. The indiginous people were living in some of the sheltered bays of the islands making pottery and practicing agriculture when Christopher Columbus wandered by in 1493. Their population was ultimately decimated by diseases the Europeans presented to them and the hardships of slavery. Isn’t this a familiar story? In the early 1700s the Danes established themselves on the islands and established a thriving sugar cane business (with the help of imported slaves). With the abolition of slavery the sugar cane plantations were abandoned. The US purchased the islands from Denmark in 1917. Currently the big industry is tourism in the islands. Fun fact: This is the only US territory where driving is on the left side of the road.
Land Ho! The hills of St Thomas
As we were trying to get off the ship they chose to have a staff drill. This unfortunately involved closing down the elevators. I hoofed it down the many flights of stairs while Butch waited for the elevators to start up again. The boat for our excursion to St. John was waiting for us but we were almost the last ones on it. Our tour of St. John took us around to some beautiful beaches, abandoned sugar mills and beautiful viewpoints.
Gorgeous white sand beaches!
Abandoned sugar plantation
Leaving St. John - note sailing is taught at a very young age here
Another sunset at sea as we head out from the US Virgin Islands
Antigua (and Barbuda)
Antigua and Barbuda became an independent nation from the United Kingdom in 1981. Similar to other islands their sugar cane industry has gone by the wayside and tourism is the prominent industry now. Our ship docked in Antigua and we took a scenic excursion around the island. Our first “rest stop” was at a lovely small hotel and restaurant on the water. Despite this being a late morning stop, a rum based drink was offered as an option (which I took part in).
A nice break
Right on the water
This is the St Barnabas Anglican Church made out of the unique green stone of the island. It is some type of basaltic green rock of volcanic origin relatively unique to this island.
The houses on the island were painted in a variety of bright colors and usually had tin roofs. The laundry room was most often located on the front porch. The washing machine was often there as was the dryer (i.e., the clothes lines). Rainwater collection containers were commonplace for most all homes. Fresh water sources are limited for the small islands in the Caribbean. Antigua has desalination plants for a significant amount of their water resources. (Since of course seawater is quite available). The majority of the people we saw were black. In fact over 90% are Black or mixed (Mulatto) in Antigua and Barbuda.
Agriculture does play some ongoing role in Antigua. Here is a field of pineapple.
Dejavu from our barefoot cruise in the Caribbean during the eclipse of 1998. Montserrat has a volcano which is still spouting out smoke and ash.
Ahhh, the end to another wonderful day in the Caribbean
Barbados and the Jolly Roger snorkeling and pirate cruise
Barbados has been an independent British Commonwealth nation since 1966. As with most Caribbean Islands, sugar production was its main industry for many years until slaves were freed and the sugar beet industry took off. Tourism is now its primary source of income. We are helping their economy!
We decided it was time to get into the water. So off we went for an excursion on a “pirate ship”. Hurry up and wait - we packed on the boat and waited while they packed more and more people. Hmmmm I wonder what the maximum capacity was on this boat? The boat managed to head out without sinking from its load. It was nice to be out on the water and look at the coast line as we went by. At the snorkeling spot we loaded into a smaller boat and were taken to an area off the coast where we floated above turtles and stingrays. Note the fact that one of the ship employees had some food he was sprinkling around the water helped bring the turtles around. Next we floated over a small ship wreck with a variety of fish. The water was so nice and warm!
Then off to another location where it was a fun time. People walked “the plank” and swung out over the water on a rope swing. Liberal availability of rum based drinks helped loosen everyone’s inhibitions. Our inhibitions were not loosened enough for us to do these things but we certainly enjoyed watching others make fools of themselves.
St Lucia - a new country visited
St Lucia became an independent island nation in 1979 and is part of the British Commonwealth. France and England vied for ownership of the islands for many years (from the 1600s) with England winning in the end. Islanders still speak French Creole (as did our tour guide and driver) and tourism is once again the major industry. The island is quite hilly with the two well known peaks of the Pitons particularly well known. Next visit - consider a tour including these peaks and a view of a waterfall.
Arriving at St Lucia before sunrise
Beautiful view from our first stop where the locals made a variety of crafts
A stop at a quaint little fishing village right on the water
Another beautiful view - note the arch formed by the outcropping of the rock
St Kitts and the ATV ride!
The nation of St Kitts and Nevis obtained independence from Britain in 1983. Similar to other islands in the Caribbean the sugar industry was once the predominant export. Now tourism is the predominant source of income. And...we helped them out! We hooked up with our tour which was arranged on line as it was a much less expensive ATV alternative as compared to the ship sponsored excursions. After a bit of a drive around part of the island we met up with our guides and ATVs. What fun!
Oh boy...I wasn’t sure if I was really up for this.
But we did well. We were with a group of experienced riders.
We spent most of the ride on the remnants of an old sugar plantation.
You say you are thirsty? No problem - our guide shimmied up a coconut tree.
Now we’ll just cut it up and…
Enjoy! Very refreshing as we were feeling, hot, dusty and thirsty at this point. What a fabulous day!
We sailed into the city of San Juan, the capital of the US territory of Puerto Rico. This island is about 100 miles long by 35 miles wide and was discovered by Christopher Columbus on his second sailing to the new world in 1493. Apparently there was gold in one of their rivers and the country was ultimately named “rich port” or Puerto Rico. The Spanish colonized the country until the Spanish-American war upset the status quo. The Treaty of Paris ceded Puerto Rico to the US (and also by the way, Cuba, the Philippines and Guam). While the Spanish were in charge they were constantly having to protect the Island from other interests (France, Britain, and the Dutch in particular). And so….they built forts. First there was San Filipe del Morro in the 1530s and then a more serious fortress called the Castillo de San Cristobal which enclosed the old city in massive old stone walls and towers.
We first stopped by the capitol building (“El Capitolio”) which was completed in 1929. The dome was added in 1961. The outer exterior is made from expensive Italian marble. Next time - there are tours held inside the capitol building weekdays.
This statue was across the street from the capitol building. This is San Juan de Bautista (John the Baptist) for whom the city was named.
This fort is San Filipe del Morro built in the 1530s by the Spaniards. There is a cemetery located just below the fort.
Next we went for a tour of the rather massive Castillo de San Cristobal fortress completed in 1793 by the Spaniards to protect the island.
This wall of the fort extended well above Butch’s head. And Butch….please don’t go faster then 5 MPK (that is kilometer of course) when you leave. A pathway to one of the sentry posts below…….
A view of the new city from the old walled city of San Juan, Puerto Rico
And leaving Puerto Rico - a parting view of San Filipe del Morro
We had a couple of more days at sea and then returned to Tampa. We decided that before we left Puerto Rico we would change our return flight a couple of days early from Tampa rather than Orlando. (Note our phone calls were not considered international from the US territory of Puerto Rico!) Alaska Air was happy to accommodate us - for a price. Oh well, we were ready to head home and we figured we would save money on the hotel and car rental to offset the cost. The next morning I checked the seats and voila an entire exit row had opened up. Score!!
And so ends a nice warm interlude from our chilly and wet Northwest winter weather. Note that the coronavirus pandemic was only in its beginning stages when we flew back. Butch’s developing cough on the plane couldn’t have been that could it???