GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE CARIBBEAN IN WINTER

On the face of it, winter is the ideal season for scores of sun deprived, pale faced Europeans to flee to the far warmer, more welcoming waters of the Caribbean.

And flee we do. Like hordes of migrating bluebirds, we follow the sun and pour up the gangways of the megaships, sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral to those sun splashed little island idylls. Snow, slush and bone chilling cold is no competition for the subtle, seductive lure of broad, bone white beaches, idly waving palms, and the indolent ‘no worries’ lifestlye that has always made the Caribbean so damned compelling in winter. On the face of it, it’s a no brainer.

Of course, the same holds broadly true for our American and Canadian friends, especially those bunkered down in that bitter winter bruiser known as the north east corridor. From Toronto down to Washington, DC, plane load after plane load of weary winter refugees sag gratefully into the open arms of benign Florida sunshine. The world and it’s wife can take care of itself for a week. It’s full speed ahead, destination sunshine.

And, while all of this is fine and dandy, it very much depends what you want from your Caribbean experience. If all you want is just a fun filled week in the sun, then fine. But, if you really want to get ‘under the skin’ of those self same islands, there are some other things you should know about the Caribbean winter cruise circuit.

OVERCROWDING

Any way you slice it, the winter Caribbean cruise circuit is very, very, crowded. Scores of ships that spend summers in Europe and Alaska flee like migrating birds of passage to the warmer, more welcoming Caribbean sun each fall, and stay there till the following spring.

This can mean some fantastic bargains in terms of fares, but trust me, there will be very little that is peaceful and quiet about those islands. Traffic is intense, and almost all of the main shopping streets are a glut of gold, tanzanite and diamond shops. Roads are busier, taxis more in demand. It takes longer to get anywhere and, inevitably, everywhere is much, much, more crowded. Little surprise, then,  that tempers can sometimes run just as hot as the temperatures.

To give one example; back in December 2003, I saw no less than fifteen cruise ships stocked up at Cozumel, Mexico. Every pier was full. Some of the most famous and prestigious cruise ships in the world were obliged to anchor offshore, tendering their passengers in. By the time you factored in the off duty crews coming ashore from all of these ships, the result was a vast human tidal wave, well in excess of thirty thousand strong.

AND MORE ARE COMING…..

That was 2003. The count of new cruise ships coming on line since then is mind boggling. And more are coming.

Virgin Cruises wil debut a trio of enormous new cruise ships in a few years, each one bound for the winter Caribbean. MSC Cruises will also offer year round Caribbean cruises, with their enormous new Seaside-class vessels, too. Newbuilds from Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line will further add to the mix. Rather than getting calmer and more sedate, the Caribbean is going to get busier and louder. And there is no changing that.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD?

Many repeat Caribbean passengers are, quite frankly, getting bored with the same old islands. Warm and inviting as they are, the likes of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman have become something of a well worn ‘greatest hits’ collection of Caribbean hot spots. So the cry goes up; what’s new? We want new!

And ‘new’ is what passengers will get. Well, kind of. Brand new cruise line developments such as Amber Cove and Harvest Caye, purpose built from scratch, provide the kind of safe, secure Caribbean experience that might well entice the old hands back, as well as wowing the newbies. How much connection these wonderful, almost Disney-esque places have to the actual, day to day experience of Caribbean living is another thing. But then, you’re not going to live there, are you?

Those points made, there are ways in which your winter Caribbean fun run can be kicked up by several notches. Here’s just a few points that you may find worthy of your august consideration.

FLY FURTHER SOUTH TO BOARD A SHIP

That’s right. Give Florida’s fun fuelled embarkation ports a complete swerve, and board a ship in, say, Barbados, or even Puerto Rico. Though you’ll still get the crowds, you are far closer to many of the islands themselves. On a typical, seven night cruise, you’ll hit at least six different island calls. Frantic yes, but you’ve got more chance of a richer, deeper experience. For many, this could be a deal breaker.

GO SMALLER

Forget those fun filled floating theme parks, and go for a voyage on the smallest, most exclusive ship that you can afford. The smaller they are, the more inclusive they seem to be.

The likes of Silversea, Star Clippers, Regent, Seadream, Seabourn and Crystal will all offer you salubrious, sybaritic indulgence on such a scale that the experience of cruising the Caribbean is massively elevated. These smaller ships can raise the bar- and the price- by quite a way, but the experience is truly unforgettable.

They can also often access the smaller, far more intimate islands, such as Jost Van Dyke and St. Barts, that the big ships have to bypass. Thus, your Caribbean experience becomes far more intimate, pared down and personal. In short; you get what you pay for.

Buteven the most exclusive of ships will sometimes deliver you into the same massive crowds at the ‘greatest hits’ ports. Your six star, boutique ship may well look swanky and impressive when docked next to the latest floating death star at sea, but you will still be competing with its passenger load for access to taxis, beach space, and shopping and restroom facilities. Which is precisely why these de luxe ships try and avoid the busiest of these ports in peak season; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It’s horses for courses.

All of that said, none of the points up above should prevent you from running like a March hare to any of those islands in the sun during the winter. Maybe, like me, you are quite happy to relax on board quite a bit, and then just saunter off to a favourite, nearby beach for a few hours once the crowds have headed off for their day of pirating ashore. And, crowded or not, few things sooth the soul quite like a hammock on some sunny beach, with a feisty, frost crusted strawberry daiquri to hand, with warm sun, cool breezes, and the sound of reggae kissing your ears. It worked for me back in the Eighties, and it still works now.

Maybe I’m just weak and predictable, mind you.

The bottom line is that the Caribbean has it’s complications and flaws in winter, and some will find them maddening to the point of temporary distraction. But hey- a distracted day in paradise, noise, crowds and all, is still a giant leap for mankind better than a day driving through a blizzard to reach the factory or office.

On balance, get out there. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls, and choose accordingly.

And yes, I’m afraid that hammock is taken. Have a nice day.

A winter wonderland; it's called the Caribbean....

A winter wonderland; it’s called the Caribbean….

 

FORT SAN CRISTOBAL- SAN JUAN’S ANCIENT GUARDIAN

The stone ramparts of San Cristobal

The stone ramparts of San Cristobal

Looming above the entrance to the feisty, salsa fuelled firecracker of a city that is San Juan, the ancient fortress of San Cristobal seems to have almost nothing in common with the lively, teeming metropolis that draws legions of holiday makers each year. It sits on a headland, a gaunt grey, battle scarred colossus that seems somehow adrift in its own time and space. Even the surging ocean rollers that drum the beaches far below it seem to recoil from its stony scowl.

Yet the vast complex has history in droves. It was originally built by the occupying Spaniards to repel any potential foreign attackers. In the Caribbean of that time, there were plenty of those, from the English, to the Dutch and a small armada of local privateers. For the fleets of Spanish galleons, wallowing across the treacherous Atlantic back to Europe loaded with the spoils of looted Aztec and Mayan temples, San Juan was a place of potential shelter and resupply. San Cristobal was the gatehouse to the southern approaches to that same harbour.

The first, small part of the fortress was built in 1634, after abortive attacks by Sir Francis Drake on the neighbouring El Morro castle on the opposite headland. It was greatly expanded between 1765 and it’s eventual completion in 1783. In all, the massive stone walls originally occupied around twenty seven acres and, over the years, it survived numerous attacks by both the British and the Dutch.

The courtyard

The courtyard

It last saw active military use during the Spanish-American War of 1898, although some of it’s fortifications were reactivated by the US Army during World War Two. Today, the fortress and its battlements are a registered historical national park, and it attracts literally hundreds of thousands of awed visitors each year.

The fortress itself has a menacing stance even in broad daylight, when the mid day sun throws long shadows along its ancient, weathered battlements. The centuries old stone ramparts seem to rise straight up from the sea itself in places, an optical illusion caused by height and stance.

A central plaza is flanked by ancient, colonnaded passageways and vast, hexagonal water towers that have been dry for centuries. In days of old, this would have been the parade ground for both Spanish and American garrisons. The true scale of this vast arena can only be really appreciated from the next level up.

On the upper level, the ancient ramparts loom like serried ranks of jagged, stony molars against a petrol blue sky. Far below, the surging ocean rollers that once carried British and Dutch invaders ashore now flail endlessly against the beaches and rocks far below. At intervals, a series of small, one man archery (later musket) posts stand frozen in time, offering views far out over the ocean. Many an initial alarm was sounded from one of these petrified stone perches that stand frozen in time.

One of the indoor tunnels

One of the indoor tunnels

It is all too easy to see the serried ranks of gaping, open mouthed cannon spewing smoke, flame and steel death across the sea. A stack of frozen, long since silent cannon balls stands in a pile here, arrayed as it once might have been in battle order. Lovers now stroll the long, grassy ramparts below where supply trains and walking wounded would once have made their way in and out of the fortress.

Back inside, long, steep tunnels hewn into the rock provided cover for moving troops and supplies safely throughout San Cristobal. They are every bit as eerie and evocative as they must have been even back then. For the beleagured Spanish troops under bombardment from the sea, these claustrophobic warrens must have seemed like mouse traps.

There are small, gaunt dungeons that were the last living abodes of many captured pirates; some of them carved initials and even emblems into the pitiless stone walls that were the antechamber to the gallows. Stark and silent, the very stones seem to be soaked in lore, grief and sheer, uncontrollable terror.

The scope and scale of San Cristobal is as grand, ageless and arrogant as that of the mentality that conceived it.  A magnificent piece of engineering by any standards, it was intended to cement and maintain the iron grip of the occupying Spaniards on an island that they rightly saw as a vital link in a chain, designed to protect their pillaged conquests from both Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The view down over the ocean from the battlements of San Cristobal

The view down over the ocean from the battlements of San Cristobal

It is an absolute must see if you’re in Puerto Rico during the day. But nothing- and I mean nothing- would compel me to spend the night in that place alone.

ENCORE FOR EXPLORER OF THE SEAS

Caribbean winters are pretty inviting

Caribbean winters are pretty inviting

After eight consecutive seasons as a dedicated ‘New York ship’,Royal Caribbean International stalwart, Explorer of the Seas is being deployed for a season of cruises originating in Port Canaveral, Florida, over the winter of 2014/15.

The 140,000 ton Voyager class megaship is the only one of the five ship class not to be sent to Europe since her completion. Owners Royal Caribbean international have instead largely ran her on nine night spring and summer Caribbean cruises from their New Jersey base at Cape Liberty, augmented by five night Bermuda cruises in the summer, and on a series of longer, twelve night ‘Deep Caribbean’ itineraries through the winter seasons. In this role, the Explorer of the Seas has become a popular and familiar staple on the North American cruise circuit.

Eight cruises to the Caribbean and the Bahamas have been announced for the ship from Port Canaveral so far. These commence on November 15th, following her fourteen night repositioning cruise from New Jersey to Florida, via the Eastern and Southern Caribbean. The itineraries are as follows:

Nine night Southern Caribbean: Two departures to Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in the Southern Caribbean. Sails on November 15th and December 4th, 2014.

Five night Caribbean and Bahamas: Three departures to Cozumel and Nassau. Sailing on November 24th, November 29th and January 4th, 2015.

Five night Bahamas cruise: This one off cruise visits Nassau and Royal Caribbean’s private island at Coco Cay. Sails December 18th.

Four night Christmas cruise: Another one off, arriving at Royal Caribbean’s private island of Labadee, Haiti, for Christmas Day. Sails on December 23rd.

Eight night Eastern Caribbean cruise: Ports visited include Labadee, St. Croix, St. Maarten, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sails on December 27th.

Make winter history with Royal Caribbean

Make winter history with Royal Caribbean

The redeployment of Explorer of the Seas from Cape Liberty to Port Canaveral will give Royal Caribbean a three ship presence in the Florida port, along with ‘short cruise’ ship Enchantment of the Seas, and the larger Freedom of the Seas.

For UK passengers, these cruises are ideal combinations with a stay in Walt Disney World, or even with a beach holiday in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater or Tampa. A Port Canaveral departure means convenient flights from the UK into Orlando, and also offers the scope to visit such attractions as the space centre at Cape Canaveral, with its huge display of rocketry, space capsules and lunar memorabilia.

This is a good selection of cruises from a European perspective, as it cuts out the often cold and stormy first day or so encountered in winter time sailings from New York. Definitely worth taking a look at next winter.

DISNEY DELIGHTS- MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES IN 2014

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

After a very successful 2013 run, the Disney Magic will return to the Mediterranean next year. The ship, recently extensively refurbished in Cadiz, Spain, will offer a series of four, five, seven, nine and twelve night cruises running from May to September, before making a fourteen night transatlantic crossing back to America.

Disney Magic will offer twelve cruises in all, book ended by a twelve night eastbound crossing in May from Port Canaveral to Barcelona, and the aforementioned, fourteen night westbound voyage in September. Almost all twelve of these cruises sail round trip from Barcelona.

Here’s how the cruises in between break down in terms of length, ports and dates:

FOUR NIGHT CRUISES:

A one off departure on August 7th. Ports of call are Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca. One sea day.

FIVE NIGHT CRUISES:

Another one off departure on August 11th, calling at La Spezia, Civitavecchia for Rome, and Villefranche, One sea day.

SEVEN NIGHT CRUISES: 

Five sailings, calling at Villefranche, Naples, Civitavecchia and La Spezia, These cruises depart on May 31st, June 7th, and August 16th, 23rd, and 30th. Two sea days.

NINE NIGHT CRUISES:

Two cruises, this time to the Eastern Mediterranean. Embarkation here is in Venice. Ports of call are Katakolon, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Mykonos and Venice (overnight stay). This one sails on June 26th and July 5th. Two sea days.

TWELVE NIGHT CRUISES: 

First itinerary is from Venice, and sails to Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Heraklion, Mykonos, Santorini and Valletta, Malta. A one off sailing on July 14th. Four sea days

Second itinerary from Barcelona. Ports of call are Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Valletta. Another one off, sailing on July 26th.  Four sea days.

Third itinerary is also from Barcelona, with calls at Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Catania, Naples, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice. Sails on June 14th. Note that this cruise ends in Venice. Three sea days.

THE CROSSINGS:

May 19th, Port Canaveral to Barcelona, with calls at Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island experience), Funchal, and Malaga, Twelve nights.

September 6th, Barcelona to San Juan, Puerto Rico, calling at Malaga, Tenerife, Antigua, St, Maarten, St, Kitts, San Juan, Fourteen nights.

This is a really good programme of cruises, with something for everyone. A couple of short breaks to allow first timers to decide if the Disney style of cruising is for them without breaking the bank, some excellent seven nighters that include the rare treat of two full sea days, and a trio of cracking twelve nighters that are more or less a complete sweep of the ‘greatest hits ‘of the region. Again, there are enough sea days on these- between three and four- to allow time to recover from ‘cathedral fatigue’.

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

But the daddy of them all for me is the sailing on July 26th, that includes both Villefranche and Mykonos on the same itinerary. Probably the two most beautiful ports in the entire region, it is very rare indeed to see them both featured on the same itinerary.

Freshly upgraded, distinctive, and graced with a stance that is instantly nostalgic, the Disney Magic has more than enough areas for the whole family to eat, rest and play through the pleasure spots of the balmy summertime Med. And the ship is not short of adults only enclaves for when you need a little kiddie-lite time. And some shore excursions are even tailored for adults only in certain ports of call.

It’s also worth noting that the standard cabins on this ship are some of the largest in the industry. That gives you somewhere cool and air conditioned to really chill out when you return from a day spent exploring the hot spots waiting for you ashore.

Altogether well thought out as a programme, and definitely worthy of your consideration.

THE BERMUDA TRIANGLE

Sunset over Bermuda,,,

Sunset over Bermuda,,,

The Bermuda Triangle. Flight 19 disappeared over it. Barry Manilow sang about it. Both were traumatic, inexplicable happenings that seared themselves into a nation’s psyche. Things that are spoken of in hushed tones even today.

It’s a fondly imagined region of freaky atmospheric disturbances, disappearing ships and half seen ghosts, brought to life in the fevered fantasies of book and screenwriters. Since the end of the Second World War, the Bermuda Triangle has grown to become a myth of epic proportions, one almost on a par with Camelot, or even Atlantis.

The waters around Bermuda have always been treacherous. The island is surrounded by many dangerous, shallow reefs, and is ringed by a shark’s mouth full of jagged coral. As far back as the sixteenth century, Shakespeare was writing in The Tempest about ‘the still vex’d Bermoothes’…

I’ll never forget the mixture of amusement and mock concern that danced across the faces of my friends when I told them that I had booked my first ever Bermuda cruise. After a while I lost count of how many times the ‘triangle’ word came to surface like some vengeful Kraaken. It seems that ‘Bermuda’ and ‘Triangle’ are as symbiotic as ‘Barry’ and ‘Copacabana’.

Eight cruises to Bermuda later, and I have still not managed to disappear into the wispy Bermudian ether. I was beginning to wonder if i was doing something wrong, to be honest. And what I very soon discovered was that there are far, far worse places to be lost in than Bermuda, that sunny island full of wonderful, friendly souls.

There's nothing mysterious about Bermuda's beautiful fauna....

There’s nothing mysterious about Bermuda’s beautiful fauna….

For sure, there have certainly been lost evenings in Caffe Cairo on Hamilton’s waterfront, and at the White Horse over in gorgeous St. George’s, when the nights seemed to vanish as completely as Atlantic fog. But none of this really tallies with the fearsome literary ogre that has grown up in these post war years.

In truth, the given geographical edges of what is also known as the Devil’s Triangle hinge on three focal points; Bermuda, Miami, and Puerto Rico. I suppose it could just as easily have been called after either of those other two hinges, but then ‘Miami Triangle’ does not have quite the same ring to it, i guess.

Nor would it be too popular with the cruise lines, i suppose. Because the truth is that every Caribbean cruise that sails from Florida passes through the self same waters linked to the triangle. The total amount of water enclosed in the region between Miami and Puerto Rico alone is at least half a million square miles. The total number of cruise ships that have disappeared in the Bermuda Triangle since 1968 is, erm, nil.

That is not to say that certain things do not vanish in this region. On more than two dozen cruises in these waters over the years, I have noticed the sudden and abrupt disappearance of several things over the course of a voyage.

These can include; stress, sobriety, cares and worries, diets and, sometimes, virginity, to name but a few. Common sense and intellect often seem to vanish without trace, and at the strangest times. Good intentions, resolutions, hang ups and inhibitions; all lost somewhere within that fearsome void, and nary a word said about any of them. Spooky.

Typical Bermuda beach

Typical Bermuda beach

And Bermuda itself? Well, most of the cruise ships bound there in the summer sail out of Boston and New York. They sail southwards through the Atlantic, not the Caribbean. Apart from touching land on the island of Bermuda itself, they never enter into the area of the ‘triangle’ at all. A fact that some find oddly disappointing.

So no, your chances of disappearing are something less than nil if you dip your toes in the triangle. Still, the good news is this; we’ll always have Barry.

No. Seriously. Don’t thank me. You’re welcome, Lola.