Monday, February 05, 2018

Pirates Retirees of the Caribbean, Part 1 - The Western Caribbean

From January 14th through 28th, Agnes and I enjoyed a two-week cruise in the Caribbean on board the good ship Regal Princess. Actually, we enjoyed two one-week cruises back-to-back - the first one to the Western Caribbean (with stops at Princess Cays, Ocho Rios (Jamaica), Grand Cayman (almost ... more about that later), and Cozumel (Mexico); the second one to the Eastern Caribbean, with stops at Princess Cays (again), St Thomas, and St Maarten. We were accompanied by Agnes's cousin Bernadette and her husband Richard, who came from Germany to do the cruise with us.

We had some concerns about whether or not the cruise would actually come off ... we'd booked the trip in early summer of last year, before hurricanes Irma and Maria ripped through the area, causing widespread devastation and loss of life. In the end, both halves of the cruise went ahead as scheduled, with all original ports included, although several of the tours we'd planned on taking were cancelled because of lingering storm damage.

So here's how it all came down, with today's post covering the first (Western Caribbean) leg of the cruise; tomorrow, we'll talk about the second (Eastern Caribbean) leg ...

We flew from NoVa to Ft Lauderdale the day before the ship's scheduled departure (not being dumb enough to assume that an airline will get you from A to B on time) and spent the night in a hotel near the cruise port. The next morning we transferred to the ship, wandered around while we waited for the delivery of our luggage, and sat through the mandatory emergency procedures briefing. Shortly after 4:00, with the ship's horn playing the old "Love Boat" theme, we sailed off on the first leg of the journey.

Early Monday morning we arrived at Princess Cays, an island owned by the Princess cruise line. We've learned that most (if not all) of the cruise lines that operate in the Caribbean have private islands that they include as stops, which provide additional opportunities for them to squeeze out money the passengers haven't already spent on board the ship. We rented some two-person clamshell beach chairs for the day and enjoyed splashing around in the water and getting sand all over everything. Here's a view of part of Princess Cays from an observation tower on the island:

And this is what the clamshell beach chairs look like: 

We were glad for the clamshells when the daily noon rain squall came through. By the way, Bernadette shot the photo above, and the clock on her camera was still set to German time ... it was 2:23 PM, not 8:23 PM, when she took the picture! 

Here's a picture of the good ship Regal Princess anchored offshore ... the captain wasn't trying to do a Costa Concordia, I just thought this was a neat angle to shoot the picture:

After leaving Princess Cays we spent a day at sea before reaching Ocho Rios, Jamaica on Wednesday morning, January 17th. Our initial impression wasn't the greatest, as we found ourselves ashore in a vast and barely-organized scrum of buses, taxis, and great crowds of milling tourists all trying to find their way around while slowly roasting in the bright Jamaican sunshine: 

We eventually found the right bus and ended up, after a short and rather hair-raising drive, at the Mystic Mountain rain forest, where we boarded a chair lift for a 17-minute ride through the rain forest canopy up to the top of the eponymous Mystic Mountain. I don't do heights especially well, and I wasn't particularly thrilled when the chair lift stopped cold just after the second tower, with Agnes and I gently swaying about 150 feet above the forest floor. It eventually started again after about ten minutes, and we continued up the mountain through the gorgeous tropical greenery with the blue of the Caribbean shimmering through the breaks in the trees. I'm not sure if you can really tell from this picture, but the chair lift ran on two levels - the trip up the mountain was at a tree-top level, while the route down the mountain was at a lower elevation to allow riders whose eyes were not screwed shut in fear to see the flora and fauna about halfway down to the ground:

Speaking of fauna, we met quite a few of the local banana spiders, which seemed to be everywhere, whether there were any bananas or not. I'll take the bananas, and you can have the spiders, thank you very much ...

At the top of the mountain were various opportunities to swim (they had a nice infinity pool!) or ride a bobsled partway down the slope. The guide explained that in a two man bobsled, the person in front steers and the one in the back screams. From what we heard, it sounded like a proper division of labor.

We didn't swim or ride the bobsleds, but visited a beautiful, serene hummingbird sanctuary (hummingbirds are notoriously difficult to photograph, but trust me - they're gorgeous) and took some photos of the port of Ocho Rios (two ships in town while we were there) 

and the beautiful Jamaican rain forest and sky

While we rode the chair lift back down the mountain, I commented to Agnes about how much the calls of the monkeys in the jungle sounded like screeching people. No sooner had I made this insightful comment than a young woman roared by below us on a zip line, screaming in terror and glued tightly to her safety escort. As we rode sedately past the platform where she'd landed, the escort gave us a thumbs-up and a happy smile and shouted up that "She saw Jesus!" From the look and sound of her, I think she saw a whole lot of saints, too.

Back at the bottom of the mountain we walked a meandering route through the forest back toward where our bus was parked, and passed lots of interesting trees and plants with signs indicating what they were. I thought this one was interesting ...

A tree that produces spices for use with pork and as an embalming agent. What could possibly go wrong? 

From Ocho Rios, we were supposed to sail to Grand Cayman. Unfortunately, the weather was so bad and the winds and seas so rough that the Regal Princess could not safely lower the tenders needed to carry us into the harbor (which was not suitable for huge cruise ships), and the captain made the decision to bypass Grand Cayman and proceed directly to the next stop at Cozumel, Mexico. This was disappointing, as we'd been looking forward to snorkeling and doing the stingray swim at Grand Cayman, but what the heck ... we'll probably be back*.

We arrived at Cozumel mid-morning on Friday, January 19th, after a relaxing, if unplanned, extra day at sea. There were seven (!) huge cruise ships in the harbor, five of them anchored alongside each other at one end (Regal Princess is on the far right), and two more about a mile away ... proof positive of the importance of cruise tourism to the local economy.

As soon as the ship was berthed and ready for disembarkation, we headed off to a day of lounging on the beach at Isla PasiĆ³n - Passion Island**.

It was a 45-minute trip by boat from the harbor around to the Passion Island resort, and the trip was ... well ... damp. The seas were fairly heavy and the open-sided boat threw up sheets of spray each time we hit a swell ... thoroughly drenching Agnes, who was sitting on the open port*** side. The seas were, in fact, rough enough that swimming at the beach was "at your own risk," and no lifeguards were posted. In the picture below, the posts you can see in the surf are supports for hammocks that allow you to relax in the warm water ... which were, unfortunately, off limits:

Away from the relatively narrow strip of developed beach, the island quickly gave way to fairly dense and beautiful forest:

We had access to a beachside buffet for lunch and an open bar for countering the lingering effects of news from Washington. There was also a cash bar at which one could get the more exotic treats, such as the "Passion Island Coconut," filled with coconut milk well-spiked with island rum. I couldn't pass it up:

And, this being Mexico, you couldn't escape the aggressive roaming vendors and - of course - the "discount drugstores:"

We returned to the Regal Princess about 3:00, having sufficiently roasted in the Caribbean sun, and the ship sailed at about 10:00 PM for the end of the first leg of the cruise in Ft Lauderdale, where we arrived early on Sunday morning, January 21st ...

... and where we will pick up the rest of the adventure tomorrow with the story of our cruise to the hurricane-devastated Eastern Caribbean. Have a good day ... more thoughts then.


* Unless the GOP Congress succeeds in wrecking our Social Security and our savings before then.

** When you're 66 years old, lounging on the beach constitutes passion.

*** "Port" = "Left." See how well I've mastered that nautical lingo?


Mike said...

I assume you've stocked up on discount drugs. I'm sure they've been safety tested.

allenwoodhaven said...

Nice to hear about your trip. Cruises provide a unique experience.