For a month …or a day … intrepid traveller Maria Wu is always ready for her own adventures. Here she tells how she enjoys shore excursions without taking the cruise company’s short excursions!
Last Christmas, I joined my friend Arthur for a “14 Night Western Caribbean Cruise”, sailing from Baltimore with seven ports of call. Before the trip, Celebrity Cruises sent me detailed descriptions of shore excursions, and a website where one could sign up for these. But organized trips do not appeal to me. I planned to survey the shorelines as the ship approached for inspiration for excursions of my own.
After three days at sea, I was looking forward to going ashore for a good walk. We were in Labadee, Haiti. As I left the ship, I was given a map and, following it, I soon found a sign for a hiking trail leading upward. My heart soared as my feet picked up the pace, my nose took a deep breath for the scented bushes and my ears tuned to the song of birds. Apparently Labadee is a playground for water-lovers with a market featuring local crafts. But after my walk, I contented myself with a good swim in the pristine calm waters at Columbus Cove.
Our next port of call was Samana, Dominion Republic, where we were taken ashore by tender. Along the waterfront, there were lots of tents set up by local vendors. But I was attracted by a large, brightly-coloured building perched on top of a nearby hill. Arthur, who normally shuns walking uphill, decided to join me. He was well rewarded when we arrived at Gran Bahia Principe Resort where he enjoyed an espresso coffee at the bar for just $1.00! We bade farewell to each other at the bar, as I could sense further adventures awaiting me. I went downhill and found the quiet Samana Bay. The water was tempting but too shallow for swimming. But quite accidentally I came upon a trail which was clear but going in many directions. Being alone, I was careful to look for markers, so I could retrace my steps. After about 45 minutes, I picked a spot looking down on the Caribbean Sea for the lunch I had brought with me: smoked salmon with cream cheese on a bagel. I felt on top of the world. I hummed to myself all the way back to the ship. Best yet! And I had not spent a cent on this shore excursion.
Xmas day was celebrated at sea. On Boxing Day, the ship docked at Tortola, British Virgin Islands. Looking out from my cabin, I could see rolling hills with visible paths. As soon as I landed, I headed straight to the hills. Instantly I understood why there were so many 4-wheel drive cars. I paused constantly to catch my breath and to take in the panoramic views. By the time I reached the top, I was glad to sit down for a rest. Lady Luck was with me. An elderly lady was waving at me and pointing at a chair in her courtyard. While we were exchanging greetings, her granddaughter brought out a tray of cakes and a glass of lemonade – what an unexpected treat! They were surprised that I walked up the hill alone. To make sure I would not get lost, the granddaughter took me to another road leading down to the ship. This road was even steeper with a zigzag all the wayl. I left Tortola filled with the warmth of their hospitality.
Next we docked at Phillipsburg, St Marten, the capital of the Dutch part of the island. Initially, we shared a taxi with others to get to Orient Beach in St. Martin, the French part, where wearing a swimsuit is optional. It is a good snorkelling area. By lunch time, Arthur arranged a cab to take us to Marigot, the capital of St Martin. It is a charming town dotted with high-end boutiques and inviting cafés. After lunch, we took the local bus back to the ship at Port Philipsburg for $4.00. It had been a day full of variety.
Basseterre, St Kitts, was next. It was sunny but windy. Hiking was an option but I was worried local transportation may present problems. However, I met a lady coming from church during my morning walk and she helped me find the round-trip bus that covers a good part of the island. I met up with Arthur and headed to the Bus Terminal where a kind islander put us on the bus, driven by Bob. He was an excellent driver. He stopped and started, letting off and picking up passengers patiently, negotiated bends and narrow lanes while avoiding traffic and pedestrians all while listening to reggae music. This trip, with its unique entertainment, took just an hour and a half. We felt we’d seen a lot of this small island before we returned to the ship for a swim and a late lunch.
After St Kitts, it was St Johns, Antigua. Arthur had been here the previous year and he was excited to show me English Harbour at Nelson’s Dockyard which could be reached by bus No. 15 from the West Terminal. It was a 35 minute ride in an air-conditioned vehicle. While Arthur enjoyed a leisurely lunch, I went looking for a walk. After passing the Anchorage Bar & Restaurant, I found a road going up and soon found a hiking trail going even higher. Gladly I followed and was rewarded with a splendid bird’s eye of the harbour and surrounding beaches. I could have spent hours here exploring the trails without fear of getting lost.
The last port of call was St Thomas, U.S. Virgin Isles, a shopping paradise. Taxis at a fixed price showing their destinations were available at the port. Arthur and I boarded one for Magens Bay. The ride by-passed the downtown shopping centre before winding uphill to a vantage point for a panoramic view of the harbour. Due to high winds and a rough sea, our driver, Mr. Paris, offered to take us over to the leeside of the island to Secret Harbour where there is a resort with an enclosed, calm beach. Mr. Paris waited for us until we were ready to return to the ship. We were happy with this private tour for just $32.00.
To sum up, I followed my instincts and trusted the helpfulness of the islanders and I was richly rewarded with a variety of experiences. The total cost of all my shore excursions was about the same as just one organized by the ship! The cruise trips guarantee fun, but with no surprises. And I love surprises!