We left home and headed to Orlando airport to board a plane for Puerto Rico for a day of sightseeing and where we would board the Norwegian Epic for a cruise to some of the Caribbean Islands.
Like so many of our friends that love to travel we have been looking forward to finally doing something. Our earlier plan was to take a cruise out of the Dominican Republic only to have it canceled because of COVID-19.
In December we were notified that our January Cruise was on and we need to prepare for the trip it was a little crazy. First, we need to understand the rules for the cruise and then the rules for entering Puerto Rico, both created some challenges. The cruise line required a rapid COVID test at the pier before we could board the ship. If we tested positive we could not sail or go home, we had to quarantine in Puerto Rico for seven days… but… if we had taken a COVID PCR test within the last 72 hours, Norwegian would help with the quarantine costs.
Puerto Rico on the other hand insisted that you must have an antigen test within 48 hours of your arrival. The 48-hour limitation created some challenges since you could not get results from a PCR test in 48 hours so we need to pay for an additional test. Insurance covered the PCR test but the Antigen test was out of pocket! Having tested negative 2 times (we were sure we would) we could now catch our flight and enjoy our trip figuring the test before getting on the cruise ship would not be a problem.
Old San Juan in Puerto Rico
With all the flight cancellations we decided to fly in the day before the cruise and spend some time in Old San Juan. We rented an Airbnb in Old San Juan and it was a treat. We took a cab from the airport, about 20 minutes to old town and the hotel. It was a cute boutique hotel that had been renovated on the outside with a bit of work in progress on the inside. The picture above is a view down the street from the hotel, very safe and nice. The host (Daniel) could not have been better. Daniel helped us take our luggage up 3 floors, the elevator was not operating yet told us where everything was located, and answered all our questions. The room was located a block from the old fort “Castillo San Cristóbal” and many of the wonderful sights. Daniel told us about the good local restaurants, for dinner and brunch in the morning.
We wanted to experience a real Old San Juan restaurant that the “locals” would eat at. Daniel recommended El Jibarito he said, “it might have the best Puerto Rican food in Old San Juan,… and my favorite, the authentic Puerto Rican food there is amazing and affordably priced!”
What an experience, we had to enjoy a local rum, we took pictures of the bottle so we could check if it was carried back in Florida but it is nowhere to be found in mainland U.S. The dinner was really good and the staff could have not been nicer. We took a walk after dinner and the whole area was alive and exciting.
We were up and out early in the morning and found a wonderful place for breakfast called La Carreta just down the street
and had a tall table in an open window alcove overlooking a small park. The food was great along with the good strong, almost expresso coffee, to Janice’s amazement they did not have hot tea. After breakfast, we headed back to the hotel and packed all our things so when we finished visiting the Fort we were ready to head over to the cruise port.
Castillo San Cristóbal
We then walked up the block to Castillo San Cristóbal, San Juan’s National Historic Site – Castillo San Cristóbal is the largest fortification built by the Spanish in the New World and is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Its sprawling outer defenses were built over a period of 150 years to protect the fort known as El Morro and the city from land attack. Construction began in 1634 and was completed by 1790. Castillo San Cristobal covers 27 acres on the eastern gate of the islet of San Juan. Link: National Park Service Write Up. Inspired by such attacks by rivals England (1598) and Holland (1625), it was designed by the Irish-born Chief Engineer Thomas O’Daly. (Ireland was at war with England). It lost some outworks when part of the city wall that protected the city was torn down in 1897 to expand the city of San Juan.
It was a beautiful morning and the views from the various vantage points of El Morro were breathtaking. Walking the multi-levels of the fort was good exercise!
We hired an Uber for the trip to the port in San Juan, a great lesson on taxis in San Juan, Uber quotes the rate, and most taxis don’t use the meter and overcharge! Uber was 11 dollars, Taxi was 35 (both including tips). We arrived at the Norwegian Epic after a 10-minute ride. The first step in the boarding process was dropping the luggage and then being herded to a bus for the trip to a warehouse, that usually housed trucks, a few miles away for “the rapid COVID test”. It took about 30 minutes for the test and results. It was great news that after three COVID tests we still did not have it..it was a little overdone. We were then carted back by the bus to the Epic for boarding.
The Epic is one of Norwegians’ larger ships that usually has 4,200 passengers on board. This was the second trip of the Epic since the COVID pandemic begin, the ship had been idle for almost 16 months. We only had 1,000 of our closest friends on board. We laughed about it really being a ghost ship, no lines, no waits, but plenty of food and drink! We were ready for the Caribbean holiday. We got to our balcony room and got settled in then headed to the Whiskey bar for our bon voyage drink, it was a great start!
We enjoyed a nice dinner in the main dining room and then went to the show at the Epic Theater, Beatlemania. The group did an outstanding job playing the old Beatle songs and the drummer was outstanding. We thoroughly enjoyed the old songs. We remembered all the words to many of the tunes as the whole audience sang along and clapped to the music.
It was funny that John had been asked to write about a “Song that brings a memory from your youth”. He wrote about The Beatle’s concert in Kansas City in September of 1964. It was the first Beatles tour in the United States. John laughed and said, “it’s a good thing we can look these things up on the Internet because my memory is not that good!”
Our first stop was Saint Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. We had no restrictions except that masks were required inside stores and taxis but you were able to freely breathe the wonderful fresh air when walking around. The taxi ride was a short one that dropped us into Charlotte Amalie near a small park with dogs, chickens, and roosters walking around. When we got to the other side of the park there actually was a cockfight going on. One of the men in the park told us about the roosters. There are five brother roosters that hang around the park and fight on a regular basis. The two that were fighting were really getting aggressive and one of the men saw that blood was drawn so he jumped in between them and stopped the fight. He told us that it is legal in Saint Thomas to have cockfights. No harm nor foul, so it was interesting.
Here is a short video.
We started walking through the town and were taken back by the number of businesses that were closed. We were fortunate to find two wonderful locally owned stores. A jewelry store owned and run by veterans where Janice was able to find some earrings, and a lovely clothing store with nice items, unfortunately, she would be closing by the end of the week. We had a conversation with her and she explained the difficulty all the locals had experienced with the hurricane that hit the Island just before COVID basically closed them down. She was dependent on the tourist trade and while some cruise ships began sailing, it was not enough. She told us if more than 1% of the people on board had tested positive for COVID they were not permitted into port. While that has changed recently to 3%, it was too late. She also told us that large corporations were running the locals out of business, like Amazon and the International Port Companies. The Island and the people are wonderful and we hope they recover soon.
We were last in St Maarten in 2014 and were impressed with the growth around Philipsburg. The last time our cruise ship anchored in Great Bay and launches took you into the town of Philipsburg. A large cruise port was built on the east side of Great Bay where at least five cruise ships could dock. What had been the Marina area has been totally rebuilt. We enjoyed walking thru the town and it was bustling with activity, doing much better than St. Thomas.
We had to return to where we had participated in a 12 Metre yacht America’s Cup Race. In all our travels this stands out as the most fun tourist adventure we have enjoyed.
A Little History of 12 Metre Class race yachts:
They were built between 1907 (when the class was defined) and 1987 when the last America’s Cup was sailed on this specification. Approximately 170 12 Metre Class vessels were built, of which only approximately 100 exist in the world today. We are lucky enough to count four of the beautiful 1987 “great 12’s” as our fleet, including Stars and Stripes (US-55)- considered among the most famous sailing vessels in the history of The America’s Cup.
The 1987 America’s Cup is considered by many to be the greatest of all time, but this story begins in 1983. Dennis Conner, who had already defended the cup twice, was once again sailing for the New York Yacht Club against the Australians on their revolutionary 12 Metre Australia II. With the newly introduced winged-keel, the Australians were able to come back from a 3-1 deficit to defeat Conner, and for the first time in it’s 132 years of existence The America’s Cup left the United States.
Over the next four years a disgraced Dennis Conner vowed to bring the cup back home, and after a grueling competition involving over 350 individual yacht races earned the chance to do just that. Aboard Stars & Stripes 87 off the coast of Fremantle, Australia Conner earned his redemption, defeating the Australians on Kookabura III four races to none, and solidifying one of the greatest comeback stories of all time. 12 Metre Regatta
They have two of the original America Cups boats including Dennis Connor’s 1987 America’s Cup winner, Stars and Stripes. Every day they run a regatta race on a course the size of The America’s Cup course, out of Great Bay. When we raced in 2014, we sailed on Stars and Stripes, competing against Canada II. You actually are assigned a task during the race and it is challenging work and oh, so much fun! We won and the celebration was had. We had purchased “crew” t-shirts afterward and over the years they got worn out so we returned to the Regatta store and purchased new ones. Fun memories.
We took the water taxi back to the cruise ship and settled in to read by the pool for the rest of the afternoon.
We arrived in the port city of St. John. There were not a lot of excursions that were of much interest so we got off the ship and walked around the cruise stores near the dock. The stores were somewhat active however a lot of “For Rent” signs. We had seen St. Johns’s church from the ship and decided to walk through the town to see it. We got a few blocks and unfortunately did not feel safe, so returned to the port and spent the rest of the day enjoying activities on board the Epic.
We were looking forward to Barbados, John had been before and loved the Island and all its charms. Barbados had many COVID rules in place including no walking around on your own. You had to have an approved guide or tour to leave the ship. You could also get an approved taxi to a particular place (as long as it was open and approved). Masks were required at all times. We decided not to adventure out. Too many rules and we did not want to go on a big bus around the island so it was a day of rest on the ship. When the world gets back to normal we look forward to spending some time in Barbados
Janice had been eyeing the water slide, which allowed her to go down in the large tube. It was a blast, near the end of the slide she went around and around in a toilet-like motion until she was sucked down the drain to the finish…She had a blast!
We had a shore credit so decided we had to take a tour, we chose the historic tour of the island.
We were then taken up the hills to an old fort that was converted into the Sir Arthur Lewis Community College a two-year University for the island children. In 1979 Sir Arthur Lewis was awarded the Nobel Prize for Economic Sciences for “pioneering research into economic development research with particular consideration of the problems of developing countries”.
The Sir Arthur Lewis Community College sits on St. Lucia’s Morne Fortune, one of St. Lucia’s most historic sites. This “Hill of Good Luck” was the scene of many battles between the British and the French as they fought for St. Lucia. Many of the buildings are historic as they were originally built for military use.
The school has been physically closed since the COVID outbreak and is 100 percent remote. When driving around the campus you can see it has not been maintained for the last several years. Here is hoping it will be able to reopen soon.
Sir Arthur Lewis is one of two Nobel prize winners from the small island of St Lucia, the other was Sir Derek Walcott who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1992.
St Lucia is has a thriving cocoa bean and banana industry. As we took the historical tour around the island we passed many banana plantations. Did you know that once a banana plant (it is not a tree) shoots bananas and they are ready for harvesting, the original plant dies and shoots off a baby plant that eventually grows its own bananas for harvest and the cycle continues?
The cocoa bean process to make chocolate is very interesting. It can take anywhere from 3-5 years for the trees to grow to the point that the flowers, and eventually cacao pods, will be ready to harvest. Once ready, each tree produces around 30 pods, depending on the size. The pods are then cracked open and approximately 40-50 seeds per pod are removed. It takes one tree’s entire annual harvest to make roughly 1 lb of chocolate — that’s a lot of beans! We then understood why the candy bar in the store o the plantation was $7.00!
It was wonderful to see St Lucia thriving.
We decided to get off the ship and see what we could find within walking distance. We made our way through the cruise ship stores at the docks into town, nothing was open, not even the museum so we headed back through the stores only to run into a gentleman with 3 monkeys and he would put them on your head and in your arms and pictures were taken. Too much fun! We think at $20.00 per picture session he had the best business in town.
The Epic Crew
We had wonderful conversations throughout our cruise on the Epic with members of the crew. They shared their stories of being out of work during the COVID stoppage. They shared that only a small percentage have jobs and they are proud to represent Norwegian and look forward to their friends coming back to work. The pride and level of service were excellent as they work out the “kinks” of returning to sea. They were all a pleasure to meet.
The employees were tested for COVID on a regular basis and if positive, they were quietly removed from the ship and transferred to another ship that was used as a “hospital”
Return to San Juan
Upon returning to San Juan we took an Uber to the airport. The ship wanted 75 dollars to take us to the airport in a bus, the Uber with tip was 11 dollars. We arrived at the airport a bit early and found a lounge we could pay to sit in for a few hours. It was another lovely trip to the Caribbean and we look forward to the recovery of the many economies that have been crushed by COVID.
We look forward to our next adventure in the fall.