I planned this cruise for “Teachers’ Week,” which is when New Jersey teachers attend the NJEA Convention in Atlantic City the first Thursday and Friday in November, so the schools are closed. The preceding Tuesday is Election Day, and some schools are also closed this day. This week has evolved into a huge travel week for New Jerseyians, as crowds are typically light in the popular vacation spots and the kids miss a minimal amount of school. It’s also the tail end of hurricane season, which runs from June 1st to November 30th, so the chances of a hurricane, while still present, are lower than say, August. We were due to sail from Cape Liberty in Bayonne, New Jersey on Friday in an open-ended cruise, ending up in San Juan, Puerto Rico. Well, three days before sailing, Hurricane Sandy hit, devastating the New Jersey coastline and New York City. The magnitude and subsequent destruction of this storm was enormous, and we weren't entirely sure that this trip would happen. Also, we felt supremely guilty worrying about vacation when some people had lost everything. However, come Friday, the port was operational and everything was a “go.”
Cape Liberty Cruise Port was still drying out after the storm, and much of the area around the port still didn’t have power. However, check-in at the port was quick and easy, perhaps the quickest I’ve experienced, and we were soon on board Royal Caribbean’s Brilliance of the Seas. Brilliance is part of the Radiance Class of ships, which have lots of glass and open spaces. There is glass enclosing the nine story atrium, elevators facing the sea, and floor-to-ceiling windows throughout. It is a relatively small ship, holding roughly 2,100 passengers (as compared to Oasis of the Seas, which can carry roughly 6,000 passengers) but that is certainly part of its charm – it is very easy to get around, and it has almost a “cozy” feel. I will say that Brilliance is looking a bit tired in some areas and is due for a much-needed refurbishment in the spring of 2013. The crew was exceptional, and my group agreed that this was probably our favorite cruise in terms of the crew.
It was in the low 50s, windy, and very grey when we sailed at 5 PM. I stayed out on the top deck long enough to sail under the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge,
and then hightailed it inside to warmer climates. We had three days at sea right off the bat, and the weather was cool for the first two days. There was a definite advantage to sailing from our home state, as I saved a bunch of money on airfare, but the downside is that we were that much further north and had to sail a bit until I warmed up; my shorts and bathing suit sadly sat untouched until Monday. There was still stuff to do – the rock climbing wall was a hit with my 12-year old and there were pickup soccer and volleyball games on the sports court. My kids even ventured into the pool and hot tub, and had the pool deck pretty much to themselves – I wonder why?
Our first port was the tiny island of St. Kitts. It’s only 69 square miles, but huge in beauty and warmth. I arranged a fishing charter for six in our group and the other three, me included, did a tour of the island using Grey’s Island Excursions:
Our driver, Sackville Grey, was awesome. He took us through town, filling us in on the history, and then to Palm Court Gardens http://palmscourtgardens.com/home, which features not only an acre of meticulously kept gardens and plants,
but also a heavenly pool area overlooking the harbor.
Palm Court can host weddings/vow renewals and private parties. You can also purchase day passes for the pool.
We were then off to Timothy Hill, where the views were exquisite.
This is perhaps the most famous photo spot on the island – you can check out the Atlantic (on the left) and the Caribbean (on the right) all at once. Multitasking at its finest!
And this is where I met my friend Max, a vervet monkey. These cute little guys are everywhere, available for the perfect photo op.
Sackville told us the monkey to human ratio is 3:1, and they apparently are little boozers. They’ve been known to steal drinks from unsuspecting beach bar patrons. What’s not to love about a little monkey who knows how to party?
From Timothy Hill we made our way to Reggae Beach Bar at Cockleshell Bay, where we were to meet up with the rest of our group that had gone fishing. They weren’t back yet, so we enjoyed some mango coladas and soaked in the view.
Here I met Jimmy, another vervet monkey wearing a sweet AC/DC shirt. I gave him a little taste of my drink in the palm of my hand. He must have liked it, because he tried to make off with my cup. He then went to torment Kitty.
Our group returned from fishing (total catch – 1 barracuda, 1 Bonita, 1 mahi mahi – good thing we weren’t depending on them for dinner!). We had some lunch and a few more cocktails before heading back to the ship.
Another favorite port was Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. However, we didn’t spend any time actually in Tortola, other than to catch a water taxi for the 35 minute trip to White Bay, Jost Van Dyke. This is what my idea of heaven looks like – turquoise water, white beaches, and super friendly people.
Oh, and Painkillers. (Is alcohol allowed in Heaven??)
Jost Van Dyke has only about 200 permanent residents but lots of visitors, and for good reason. For the next few hours we floated, drank, played on the water trampoline and banana boat, and drank and floated some more. All too soon it was time to take the trip back to Tortola. We tried to bribe one of the mates to “forget” us, but he just smiled and told us he gets that offer all the time.
We also had port stops in St. Martin and St. Thomas. We did some shopping in both ports. In St. Martin, we paid $6 for a round trip ticket from Philipsburg to the Great Bay Beach area, where we did some shopping and had lunch. We had planned to do some beach time/snorkeling in St. Thomas, but we experienced some “liquid sunshine,” so we just grabbed a taxi right outside of the port, and for $8 per person round trip we visited downtown. There is some great duty-free shopping to be had, especially if you’re looking for jewelry, cameras, or liquor.
Right at port, there's a cute little butterfly farm. We popped in and browsed the gift shop, and walking back to the ship we saw lots of butterflies at the flowers right along the walkway.
St. Thomas was our last port, and the next day our cruise ended in San Juan, Puerto Rico. We had made some great friends and really enjoyed our time together. Brilliance is a great little ship, and the crew was terrific. But because it is so small, I don't know if I would do another route with three sea days back-to-back, as it obviously doesn't have as many options as the larger ships. And speaking of this crew, this brings me to the title of this blog entry. Our dining room waiter, Peter from India,
was probably the best we’ve ever had. He was attentive without being instrusive and knew what we wanted sometimes before we even knew. And I came to the conclusion that Peter had learned English primarily from watching bad 80s movies: “Check it out - here’s what I recommend for dinner tonight..,” or “Here’s your crème Brule – kill it,” and “Escargots for an appetizer? Why not??” Every conversation with Peter was punctuated by a mixture of those phrases. He seemed to thoroughly enjoy his job, as did pretty much everyone we came into contact with. An upside to a smaller ship – you can really get to know the staff, and vice versa. The activities staff was great, and the regular features on board a Royal Caribbean ship - the Love and Marriage game show and Quest - didn't disappoint. I now know what a middle-aged guy from Milwaukee looks like in his wife's bra and lipstick. Not to worrry though - there are a lot of G-rated activities for the kids. One day on the top deck we saw a group of young girls on a scavenger hunt set up through the Adventure Ocean youth program. One of their challenges was to strike a pose like Charlies' Angels and take a picture. I told one of the girls she would make a great Jacklyn Smith - she said, "Who? I'm Lucy Liu." Yeah, I showed my age right there.
Disembarking was quick and painless, and all too soon we were back on solid ground. We were staying over in San Juan Saturday night. It was much more inexpensive to fly home on Sunday rather than Saturday, even with the cost of a hotel factored in, and it was nice to be able to ease back into the real world gradually. We had reservations at the San Juan Marriott Resort and Stellaris Casino, located on Condado Beach about 15 minutes from the port. We grabbed a taxi to the Marriott (I love the way the taxi service operates in San Juan – areas are broken into zones, with each zone a set price so there is no way for individual drivers to overcharge) and relaxed by pool. The Marriott is gorgeous resort, but the bar and restaurant prices were a bit pricey ($14 for a drink at the pool bar). Luckily, the Marriott is located in a great area with lots of restaurant options priced much more reasonably.
As seems to be the case with all highly anticipated events, they are over too soon, and on Sunday we flew into Philadelphia International Airport and 45 degree weather. The evening seemed especially cold after the mid-80 degree temps we encountered all week. Of course, my feeling is that the only cure for post-trip depression is to start planning the next one. This one, however, was a wrap – and we killed it.