Vacation at Sandals in St. Lucia

We recently returned from vacation at Sandals in St. Lucia. Thankfully, it was less eventful than our previous trip this year. All our flights were on time (or early). It has been a long time since we’ve had a trip without any travel shenanigans.

We spent 5 nights at Sandals Regency La Toc in St. Lucia. We would have preferred to stay a couple nights longer, but when we booked there was no availability for a stay any longer in the room categories we were interested in. This time we booked a beachfront junior suite with balcony. And similar to our Sandals stays in Montego Bay, Jamaica and in Barbados, at Sandals resorts in St. Lucia you have access to the other Sandals resorts on the island (Sandals Grande St. Lucian & Sandals Halcyon Beach). Here is how it went:

  • 10/29 – Flights to St. Lucia: Our flights to St. Lucia were uneventful. We even had an empty middle seat on the ATL to UVF flight, which allowed us to spread out and get comfortable. During our trip in August we had a snafu during arrival process in Barbados that required us to quarantine for almost 24 hours. They didn’t like that CVS had us self-swab for our COVID tests. To prevent that this time, we got our tests at the health department where the tests are performed and swabbed by medical professionals. Ironically, during arrival processing in St. Lucia they didn’t even ask if the test was self-swabbed or performed by a professional. Anyway, no quarantine was required so we were happy about that. On the other hand, one minor point of irritation was the transfer from the airport to the resort. For our stays at Sandals in Barbados and Montego Bay, the transfer was maybe 15 minutes as the resorts were very close to the airport. Well, the international airport in St. Lucia is on the other side of the island from the resorts, so the transfer took 60-75 minutes. But everything was great once we finally arrived at the resort.
  • 10/30 & 10/31 – Relaxing Days at Sandals Regency La Toc: The first two days we stayed entirely at La Toc without visiting the other resorts. After breakfast each day, we spent our mornings at the beach. We had lunch at one of the beach side restaurants and spent the afternoons at the pool. In the early evening, we had dinner at one of the many restaurants at the resort. Speaking of evenings, St. Lucia also has the whistling frogs that we first encountered in Barbados (see this post for the video from the Barbados trip).
  • 11/01 – Visit to Sandals Grande St. Lucian: On the last two full days of our stay we decided to visit the other Sandals resorts on the island. We loved this feature when we stayed at Sandals in Montego Bay in 2016. You could take a shuttle and spend the entire day at one of the other resorts and even eat at one of the restaurants at the other resorts in the evening. Sandals’ marketing information calls this “Stay at 1, Play at 3”. In Barbados, the two resorts are literally next door, so no shuttle was needed. Given the great experience we had with this in Montego Bay, I was surprised to learn that the earliest shuttles between resorts in St. Lucia started at 12pm each day. For people like us that prefer early dinner reservations, this limits the time you can spend at the other resort. At first, I thought this was just specific to the St. Lucia resorts. But I later found this page on the Sandals website explaining that the shuttle scheduling was due to COVID and curfew restrictions. Really? You already require that all guests using the shuttle be vaccinated. What does it really impact what time that fully vaccinated people move between resorts? You really can’t start that shuttle service at 8am or 9am or even 10am? The people being shuttled are still vaccinated at those times. COVID doesn’t magically go to bed at 11:59am. This kind of policy really diminishes the utility of the “Stay at 1, Play at 3” feature. This feature is why we chose to stay at Sandals each time. Anyway, we spent the morning on the beach at La Toc and then took the shuttle at noon to Sandals Grande St. Lucian. Another complicating factor on this day was that there were two cruise ships in port. We’re guessing this added extra traffic on the island and so what should have taken us 30 minutes to get to the other resort ended up taking a little more than an hour, further limiting our time at the resort. We enjoyed the time we were able to spend there, but I would have preferred to be there the whole day.
  • 11/02 – Visit to Sandals Halcyon Beach: After spending the morning at La Toc, we took the shuttle to Sandals Halcyon Beach at noon. The traffic was much better, so the shuttle only took about 15-20 minutes. Halcyon is the smallest of the three Sandals resorts on St. Lucia. But it was also the least crowded. We had a relaxing afternoon before returning to La Toc. After dinner that night, we watched on TV as the Atlanta Braves become World Series Champions!
  • 11/03 – Flights Home: We checked out of our room and waited for our transfer to the airport.
    Compared to the miscommunication and poor execution we experienced at Sandals Barbados, the departure process at La Toc was much better. The transfer dropped us off at the airport and our flights were completed without any drama.

In contrast to our previous trip, we’re happy to have had a much less stressful trip this time. Anyway, I’ll post the link to the pictures once I’ve finished processing them.

(View Larger Map)

Vacation at Sandals Barbados

In April 2019, we were extremely delayed flying home on American Airlines from Martinique, eventually arriving home about 24 hours later than originally planned. Since Martinique is a French territory and therefore politically part of the European Union, that means that the EU’s flight compensation regulation EC 261/2004 applied to our situation. Based on the circumstances of our delay, we were entitled to $400 each. I submitted a claim to American Airlines and they gave us a few options. We could choose to receive the $400 each in cash or if we accepted flight vouchers with AA instead they would give us $600 each. Wanting more value to put towards future travel, we chose the vouchers.

We originally used these vouchers for flights to San Juan, PR for a cruise in March 2020. Of course, that month is when the world came to a grinding halt due to COVID-19, so our cruise was cancelled a few weeks prior to departure. We rebooked to another cruise in November 2020, so I had to call AA to change our flights. Initially, they weren’t going to let us make any changes to the flights because a voucher from an EC 261/2004 claim had been used. For a moment it looked like we were going to lose the voucher entirely and that we should have just taken the cash offer to begin with. After imploring them to use some common sense and consider the exceptional circumstances of the pandemic, they relented and allowed us to make the change. I felt that another change to this reservation after that was probably not going to be allowed, so this cruise really needed to happen.

Of course, the cruise booked for November 2020 was then cancelled almost 2 months prior to departure. Luckily, by this point most airlines had adopted much more flexible change policies due to the pandemic. So, we were able to cancel our flight reservation and the value was transferred into a credit with a new expiration date. We were optimistic that we now had a new credit that was no longer associated with our EC 261/2004 claim. Now fast forward to a couple months ago. We needed to book flights for the trip that we took last week so that we used the credits before the expiration in October. We logged on to AA’s website and saw our credits waiting. However, we ran into errors on AA’s website while trying to redeem them for flights.

Immediately, I was concerned that somehow the EC 261/2004 claim was still tied to these credits and causing issues that might prevent us from using the credits. But I saw online posts from people stating that AA had not made it possible to redeem these COVID-related cancellation credits online and that you must call them to redeem. I called the reservations number and the wait time was expected to be many hours, so I chose the call-back option. Luckily, I found a Reddit post of someone mentioning they were able to call AA’s web technical support number to redeem the credits. We gave it a try and the wait was only 45 minutes before we were called back. They were able to book the flights and we were able to use the credit. If we had waited for the call-back from the original reservations number, it would have been 6 hours later.

I went to the trouble of providing this background information because it provides context into why we were flying on American Airlines for this trip. That will be more relevant toward the end of this post.

Anyway, for this trip we decided to spend a week at a Sandals resort in Barbados. We both really wanted to go to Europe this year, but the logistics of visiting multiple countries in Europe during the pandemic would have added too much risk of some kind of travel disruption (ironic given what happened anyway). So we chose to spend a week in one place. We booked a swim-up suite at the Sandals Barbados. Sandals has very flexible COVID-19 cancellation policies and also provides travel insurance at no extra cost. Also, we enjoyed our previous stay at Sandals in Montego Bay, Jamaica a while back, so we wanted to try another Sandals resort. Also, things at work this year have been stressful and spending a week at a beach resort was a really appealing option. Here is how it went:

  • 08/07 – Flights to and arrival in Barbados: Refreshingly, our flights to Barbados were uneventful, even arriving early. For entry into the country, Barbados requires a negative COVID test result taken within 3 days prior to arrival. The requirement is worded like this: “Self-administered tests, rapid tests or home kits will not be accepted.” We got our tests at CVS, which were administered in the drive-through. The CVS nurse hands you a sealed swab, instructs you how to swab yourself, and observes as you do that. I assume the intent of this is to avoid possible transmission. We interpreted this as the CVS nurse administering the test even though we self-swabbed, so we did not expect any issues on arrival. Well, during arrival processing in Barbados the explicitly asked if we had self-swabbed or not. Even though a pharmacy administered the test, since we self-swabbed they would not accept that test. Accordingly, they performed a COVID test there at the airport and required us to quarantine in our room at Sandals until the test came back negative.
  • 08/08 – Quarantined in Room: As far as quarantines go, this was probably as good as it gets. Our room had a patio with swim-up pool, so even during our quarantine we were permitted to use the pool directly in front of our room. For meals, room service is included anyway, so we ate meals al fresco at the table on our poolside patio. This was just a minor inconvenience. I can’t really fault the country of Barbados for their policies, since their rate of infection on a per capita basis is around one tenth that of the US. They are taking this seriously and the numbers show it’s working. Perhaps the distinction between self-administered and self-swabbed tests could have been communicated better, but it wasn’t the end of the world. Anyway, at 1pm we received email confirmation of our negative test and were released from quarantine. We were finally able to enjoy the resort.
  • 08/09 through 08/13 – Relaxing Days at Sandals Barbados: I should actually have said resorts. Because the Sandals Barbados resort is adjacent to the Sandals Royal Barbados resort and we had access to both during our stay. I don’t know why they don’t just call them the same resort. Most days we spent the mornings relaxing on the beach, the afternoons around our swim-up pool or another pool on the resort, and the evenings having a nice dinner at one of the 12 restaurants on resort. One aspect in particular that I enjoyed is that we were located right next to the final approach path of aircraft arriving in Barbados. Something we hadn’t anticipated was the Barbados whistling frogs (more on that in this post). A couple days before our planned return, Sandals provided the COVID test required for re-entry into the US.
  • 08/14 – Travel Shenanigans Ensue: Our time at Sandals was relaxing and enjoyable. However, it is almost as if fate required a sacrifice as recompense for our good travel-fortunes so far and the following travel related comedy of errors commenced.
    • 11:00 AM AST: We checked out of our room and had an hour to kill before our transfer to the airport. The concierge told us there was a departure lounge we could utilize and that they would have our bags stored there and retrieve us for the transfer bus to the airport. We went to the departure lounge and neither guests nor staff were there. Nothing was set up to make it look like a lounge and it appeared like it was actually a storage room. Furthermore, our bags weren’t there and I assume no one would have been retrieved from there to be taken to the transfer bus. We assumed that we were supposed to just wait at the entrance near the front desk, where we did find other guests and our bags waiting. The process between check out and the transfer to the airport was both badly communicated and poorly executed by Sandals.
    • 12:00 PM AST: The transfer from Sandals to the airport was completed without incident. We checked-in, cleared security, ate lunch, and waited for our flight.
    • 03:12 PM AST: Our flight to Miami was scheduled to depart at this time, however boarding was proceeding at a glacial pace. In Barbados, there are no jetways; you embark/disembark the aircraft from the apron using stairs. Also, the gate we were departing from was not adjacent to our aircraft. This seems to be common practice there as they have buses to move passengers to the remote stand where the aircraft actually is. It turns out that there was a shortage of available buses to move us to our aircraft, which delayed our boarding process considerably.
    • 04:01 PM AST: The flight to Miami finally departed 49 minutes late, introducing some doubt in making our connection as this delay ate up 40% of our connection window. However, briefly after takeoff the flight crew notified us that our aircraft had a minor flight control issue. After some time they stated that we would have to divert to San Juan, PR where they could have maintenance look into it. At this point, our connection in Miami was doomed. Since we would be landing over the maximum landing weight they had to technically declare an emergency. Nothing extreme, but it is the standard procedure for this situation.
    • 05:53 PM AST: Landed in San Juan. It was a firm landing but still felt like they had things under control. We taxied to a gate, but they kept us all on the plane. The plan was to have maintenance have a look and either fix it or confirm that it is not a problem so that we could continue on that same aircraft to Miami.
    • 08:00 PM AST: After a couple hours of troubleshooting, they decided the fix was going to take too long, so they wanted to move us to another plane to complete the flight to Miami. However, to this point we were still an international flight that was technically in-transit. That means that all 165+ people on the flight had to clear US customs and immigration in San Juan before we could continue. We have global entry so we were through customs in a matter of minutes. However, there was a problem with the baggage carousel after customs. It seems the ground crew was able to offload all the baggage much quicker than the flight crew was able to get permission to disembark the plane. So, the bags had filled the entire carousel to the point that the remaining bags could not come out yet. Our bags had not yet emerged. Even though we breezed through customs past everyone, we had to wait for people to claim their bags. Once most bags were removed from the carousel, there seemed to have been a malfunction that prevented it from sending more bags up. After waiting here about 45 minutes, we finally retrieved our bags.
    • 08:45 PM AST: Before we could proceed, our bags had to undergo USDA APHIS screening. This is required by the government so that certain agricultural products from Puerto Rico aren’t brought to the mainland US. Our bags had to undergo this screening even though they hadn’t even left the airport and had only officially been in Puerto Rico for a matter of minutes. You gotta love seeing US bureaucracy in action. After that, we waited in line to re-check our bags and get our new boarding passes. Since we had left the secure area, we had to re-clear security. We have TSA Precheck, but of course the Precheck line was not operating. Once we finally cleared security we made our way to the new gate to wait until boarding. I am not sure if it was a function of the late hour or that tropical storm Grace was approaching Puerto Rico, but the airport in San Juan was like a ghost town. None of the shops or restaurants were open.
    • 11:37 PM AST: We had been waiting at the gate a long time. They notified us that the replacement aircraft also had a maintenance issue that would prevent us from using it. They moved us to another gate where we would wait on a third aircraft to deplane so we could use it.
  • 08/15 – Travel Shenanigans Continued:
    • 01:05 AM AST: Around 7 hours after landing in San Juan, we finally departed. Our “flight from Barbados to Miami” was continuing on as a domestic flight.
    • 03:23 AM EDT: More than 11 hours after departing Barbados, our flight arrived in Miami. We exited the plane and got in a very long line for rebooking.
    • 05:45 AM EDT: After standing in the rebooking line for about 2 hours, we finally got to the front of the line and were next to be served. Inexplicably, one by one, each agent in the rebooking center just left their post. Perhaps their shift was over. But they left without any communication. No apology. No explanation that more agents would eventually be coming. Nothing. Wouldn’t it have been more appropriate to stay at your post until your replacement relieves you? To us it looked like American Airlines was deserting us. Extremely poor customer service. While we were waiting for the replacement agents we hoped were coming, this crazy lady cuts the entire line and bothers everyone in sight. Like a cross between Mr. Bean & Tom Hanks in The Terminal except she speaks no English. When an agent finally arrives about 15 minutes after the others deserted us, this lady gets on a face time call with someone who can translate for her and demands help from the agent. Once another agent arrives that can speak Spanish, the agent passed the crazy lady off to her and finally rebooked our flight. We were confirmed on a flight that night around 9pm and were put on standby for a flight 3 hours earlier. The agent claimed that our bags would make it on the plane with us if we made the standby flight. Also, we were given meal and hotel vouchers.
    • 07:00 AM EDT: We ate breakfast, which was our first real meal since lunch in Barbados the day before.
    • 08:15 AM EDT: Regarding the hotel voucher we received during rebooking, we went to catch the shuttle to the hotel to shower and get some rest before continuing our journey. When the shuttle stopped, the driver stated that the hotel was full. They gave us a voucher without checking to see if the hotel was full. Brilliant. We had no interest in standing in line again to get a new voucher. Instead, we have Priority Pass, which gives us access to some airline lounges. We re-cleared security and went to the Turkish Airlines lounge, which has showers we wanted to use. It turns out they have closed their showers due to COVID-19. So, we just rested in the lounge until we went to eat lunch.
    • 05:35 PM EDT: We went to the gate of the standby flight to await our fate. We were first and second on the standby list, so our chances were pretty good. As it turns out, we made the flight along with 2 other people behind us on the list.
    • 06:52 PM EDT: We finally departed Miami.
    • 08:03 PM CDT: Mercifully, we arrived in Nashville. Despite what the agent in Miami claimed, our bags did not make the flight with us. They arrived on the later flight on which we had confirmed seats. So, before we could go home we had to visit the AA baggage claim office to arrange home delivery of our bags the next morning.

That was quite the experience getting home. Our next trip is in October to a Sandals resort in St. Lucia. Luckily, we fly Delta and not American. Anyway, I’ll post the link to the pictures once I’ve finished processing them.

(View Larger Map)

Blue Ridge Parkway & Smoky Mountains

Last year we were disappointed when our cruise to Cuba was effectively cancelled by the government‘s inconsistent foreign policy. In December, we booked our travel for this year. Our plans involved an eastern Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Summit in March. And in August we were booked on a Danube river cruise from Bucharest, Romania to Vienna, Austria on the Amadeus Silver II. We would have transited ten countries across eastern Europe. We were so excited about these trips. However, 2020 had it’s own plans.

COVID-19 happened and a couple weeks before our March trip, the cruise industry suspended all operations thereby cancelling our eastern Caribbean cruise. We rebooked on a cruise with roughly the same itinerary on Royal Caribbean Enchantment of the Seas in November. Surely the pandemic would be over by then, right? Well, by July our Danube river cruise was cancelled and earlier in October our rebooked Caribbean cruise was also cancelled. There is no end in sight and I am starting to think we’ll never leave the country again.

Anyway, we decided our 2020 vacation consolation prize would be to take a road trip through the Smoky Mountains and the Blue Ridge Parkway. Kara’s mom lives near the Smokies in Rockford, so we could visit her before and after our road trip. Here is how it went:

  • 10/14 – Smyrna to Rockford
  • 10/15 – Abrams Falls Trail: We started our vacation by hiking the Abrams Falls Trail in the Smokies. I hiked this trail about 25 years ago, except then we were backpacking and continued past the falls to the Abrams Creek campground. Today we simply hiked to the falls and back.
  • 10/16 – Blue Ridge Parkway to Asheville: In the morning, we drove from Rockford through the Great Smoky Mountains National Park down to Cherokee, NC. After lunch, we drove on the Blue Ridge Parkway from the southern terminus up to Asheville, NC. We were in the clouds for most of the time above 5,000 feet. The foliage was starting to turn and would become more colorful throughout the trip.
  • 10/17 – Biltmore: We spent the day at the Biltmore. In the morning, we took the guided rooftop tour. After lunch, we explored the grounds surrounding the mansion. And in the late afternoon, we took the self-guided tour of the mansion.
  • 10/18 – Blue Ridge Parkway to Boone: Today we continued up the Blue Ridge Parkway, driving between Asheville and Boone, NC. Along the way we visited the summit of Mount Mitchell, which is the highest point east of the Mississippi river. And in the afternoon we stopped to make a short hike to Linville Falls.
  • 10/19 – Boone to Rockford: We started today by visiting Grandfather Mountain, where there is a mile-high swinging bridge. After enjoying the views there, we traveled the backroads west back into Tennessee and made a short stop at the David Crockett Birthplace state park. Before returning to Rockford, we visited the Andrew Johnson National Historic Site in Greeneville, TN.
  • 10/20 – Rockford to Smyrna

It wasn’t either of the vacations we originally wanted, but we still enjoyed ourselves. Anyway, I’ll post the link to the pictures once I’ve finished processing them.

(View Larger Map)

2019 Northern Caribbean Cruise

We just returned home last night from our second trip of the year. However, it turned out quite a bit different than originally envisioned. We booked the trip last December. It was going to be a cruise on Royal Caribbean’s Empress of the Seas visiting three ports in Cuba (Havana, Cienfuegos, & Santiago de Cuba) & Labadee, Haiti. We were really excited to visit multiple stops in Cuba.

Our best laid plans were dashed in June when the Trump administration effectively banned travel to Cuba. The administration claimed the ban was a result of Cuba being a “communist foothold in the region” and supporting “US adversaries like Venezuela”. While I am irritated that I can no longer visit Cuba, I am infuriated that the administration’s reasoning was inconsistently applied to Cuba and not to China. China is both communist and supports Venezuela, but we don’t see Trump banning travel to China. Why not just say you are reversing every Obama-era policy and this one was next on the list? Anyway, I digress.

Accordingly, Royal Caribbean changed the itinerary for our sailing but allowed free changes due to this abomination policy. The changed itinerary was not one we had interest in as we had been to most of the ports. We lucked out as there was a different itinerary for the same date range starting one day later that we liked. This meant we didn’t have to change our flights and had a free day in Fort Lauderdale before the cruise. We still got to visit Haiti and sail on one of Royal’s mega-ships, Allure of the Seas. It wasn’t what we originally wanted, but it was a great replacement. Here is how it went:

  • 08/09 – Flight to Fort Lauderdale: We had travel vouchers from JetBlue as a result of delayed flights in 2018, so we used those for the outbound flights for this trip. Ironically, we had another long flight delay on this trip. Scheduled arrival was around 8pm, but we didn’t actually arrive at FLL until just before 2am. So, they gave us each a $150 travel voucher this time.
  • 08/10 – Fort Lauderdale, FL: Due to arriving very early in the morning, we slept in late and had a lazy day. Our hotel was right on Fort Lauderdale beach.
  • 08/11 – Embarkation & Departure: We boarded the ship and had lunch while waiting for our cabin to be ready. Then, we spent the afternoon exploring our cabin and the rest of the massive ship. The muster drill was noteworthy in that our muster station was at the ice skating rink venue! We loved that. On the other hand, I thought the video they showed during the muster was cringe inducing and way longer than it had to be. You can see it here on YouTube; judge for yourself.
  • 08/12 – Day at sea: On the first sea day, we spent the morning by the solarium pool. After lunch, we played a round of mini-golf, rode the carousel on the boardwalk, & browsed some of the shops. The highlight of the day was the the Ocean Aria show that took place that night in the aquatheater. Here is a YouTube video someone took of the show on an earlier sailing.
  • 08/13 – Labadee, Haiti: We spent the day in Labadee on the beach at Royal Caribbean’s private resort. After dinner back on the ship, we went ice skating, which I had never done before. This is clearly not a skill I have, so I only did one lap gripping to the railing the entire time. But it will be unique to say that the first (and probably only) time that I went ice skating was in the Caribbean Sea!
  • 08/14 – Falmouth, Jamaica: In Falmouth, we went to a nearby beach club and spent the day on the beach. That night we went to a ventriloquist show by Ronn Lucas.
  • 08/15 – Day at sea: For the second sea day, we played another round of mini-golf before I had a go at the zip line. After an afternoon nap, I then went to a viewing of Avengers: Endgame.
  • 08/16 – Cozumel, Mexico: For our stop in Cozumel, we chose to visit the Mayan city of Chichen Itza. It required about a 35-40 minute ferry and 2+ hour bus ride each way, but I think it was worth it to check off a bucket list item.
  • 08/17 – Day at sea: On the last sea day, I attended a crew Q&A with the captain, chief engineer, hotel services manager, & the cruise director. Kara never has interest in these. After lunch, we went to the Ice Games show at the ice skating rink. I’m not an ice skating or ice dancing fan, but it was impressive how much they could do on such a small rink. Here is a partial video of the show someone took on a prior sailing. After the ice games show, we tried our hand at boogie boarding on the flowrider. I did better than I thought I would and most importantly didn’t get injured.
  • 08/18 – Disembark & flights home: We also had travel vouchers from United as a result of delayed flights in 2018, so we used those for the return flights for this trip. Despite a minor delay, we arrived home without too much difficulty.

We typically prefer cruise itineraries with a low number of sea days so that we can see as many places as possible. After 7 nights (including 3 sea days) on this ship, we were never bored and there are some things we didn’t even get to. We enjoyed our first mega-ship. I’ll post the pictures after I’ve finished with them.

(View Larger Map)

2019 Eastern Caribbean Cruise

A couple days ago, we arrived home from our first trip of the year. We went on a cruise to the southeastern Caribbean that stopped at some lesser visited islands. I had my eye on this itinerary for a while since it went to a lot of places we hadn't been to. In fact, after our second trip later this year, we will only be 3 countries away from visiting all the countries in North America & the Caribbean. Here is where all we went:

  • 03/29 - Flight to Miami: The cruise started and ended in Martinique. Because there is only one flight per week from Miami to Martinique, we decided to arrive in Miami the night before to limit the chance of missing that flight.
  • 03/30 - Flight to & Embark in Fort-de-France, Martinique: We flew from Miami to Fort-de-France, Martinique. After a short taxi ride to the port, we boarded the MSC Preziosa. This was our first time cruising with MSC. We explored the ship and relaxed before the ship departed around 11pm.
  • 03/31 - Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe: For our stop in Guadeloupe, we booked an excursion to an all inclusive beach resort through MSC. We were bused from the port in Pointe-à-Pitre to the resort, which happened to be the Club Med Caravelle in Sainte-Anne. The beach was spectacular and while the resort wasn't quite as nice as a Sandals, it was still very good.
  • 04/01 - Castries, St. Lucia: Since this cruise visited places that were all fairly close to each other, there were no sea days in the itinerary. We had previously visited St. Lucia, so we chose not to do much here and in a sense it served as a sea day even though we were docked. In the morning, I took a helicopter tour of the island, which was awesome. After some brief shopping at the port, we got back on the ship and enjoyed the ship for most of the day. I particularly enjoyed the Vertigo water slide, which MSC calls "the longest single-rider water slide on the seas." It is completely enclosed and has a section that runs out over the edge of the ship.
  • 04/02 - Bridgetown, Barbados: We took a shuttle from the port into Bridgetown. We explored the downtown area briefly before walking over to the Boatyard Beach Club on Carlisle Bay. The beach was outstanding and not that crowded given that two ships were in port. We would definitely go back there in the future.
  • 04/03 - Port of Spain, Trinidad & Tobago We saw some off-shore oil rigs as we approached Port of Spain. That shouldn't be surprising given that, at the closest point, that Trinidad is only about 7 miles from the oil producing country of Venezuela. After arriving we went to Maracas Bay Beach. Getting there required an adventurous drive through a mountain rain forest. The beach was pretty good, but unfortunately much of the time we were there it was pouring rain. It's funny that we were down off the coast of South America, yet the soaking rain actually made us cold!
  • 04/04 - Saint George's, Grenada: I think Saint George's, Grenada was probably my favorite stop on this cruise. The harbor area almost feels like a Caribbean version of an Amalfi coast town. We visited both Fort George, which had nice views close to town, and Fort Frederick, which offered a more sweeping viewpoint of the island. After the forts, we spent time at Morne Rouge Beach (also known as BBC Beach). It was a small beach but nonetheless exceptional.
  • 04/05 - Kingstown, Saint Vincent & the Grenadines: The final stop before ending the cruise was Kingstown on Saint Vincent. Our tour started with a drive through the downtown area on the way to Fort Charlotte. The fort had a great view of Kingstown. After the fort, we visited the nearby Botanical Gardens, the oldest in the western hemisphere. Our final stop was Villa Beach. It is a tiny dark sand beach that seems to be popular.
  • 04/06 - Disembark in Martinique & Travel Shenanigans: Originally, we had booked an excursion to see some sights in Fort-de-France after disembarkation. MSC's site stated that the tour was for those with flights after 3pm, which our's was barely. However, when we asked the excursion desk about this they clarified that the excursion actually drops people off at the airport at 3pm. So, we had to cancel that tour and just spend the day at the airport. Unfortunately, the inbound flight kept getting delayed while we were waiting for our scheduled departure. In the end, our flight departed around 4 hours late. This caused us to miss our connection in Miami, which was the last flight of the day to Nashville. So, for our second trip in a row, the airline had to provide a hotel room for us.
  • 04/07 - Unexpected Travel Day: Apparently, at the time our itinerary was re-booked, there were no direct flights home with any seats remaining. So, not only did we have to fly through New York to get home, but we didn't get home until about 24 hours after our originally expected arrival in Nashville.

The travel disruption notwithstanding, we really enjoyed this trip. Now, I just have to finish with the pictures before the next trip.

(View Larger Map)

Mediterranean Cruise

A couple weeks ago, we completed our latest vacation. We had never been anywhere in southern Europe, so a cruise around the Mediterranean was a great way to see a lot of interesting new destinations in one trip. Here is how things went:

  • 09/07 - Travel Shenanigans: As originally booked, we were supposed to connect in Washington, D.C. on our way to Barcelona, Spain. We got to D.C., boarded the flight to Barcelona, and then didn't leave the gate. Initially, ATC put us on an overwater hold due to weather. Then, when we were cleared to depart, the tarmac at Dulles was closed due to lightning. So, even though we had clearance to leave, no one could push back our aircraft. Eventually, we left the gate and started taxiing towards the runway. But then we were informed that the ETOPS certification for that aircraft had expired and that we had to go back to the gate. We waited some more before they finally decided to cancel the flight. We spent about 6 hours on the plane, having gone nowhere. We then had to wait forever to get re-booked. United re-booked us on Delta through Atlanta and put us up at a nearby hotel. So, being delayed by a day, we lost the chance to explore Barcelona. We'll just have to visit another time. We got to bed that night around 3am.
  • 09/08 - Travel Shenanigans (continued): But that wouldn't be the end of the travel insanity. When we tried to check-in that morning for our Delta flight to Atlanta, we ran into errors and they said we had to go back and speak to United. The United agent looked at our record and stated that the United agent from the night prior shouldn't have re-booked us on Delta using the most inane reasoning. Because we paid for our flights with miles, we only could be rebooked on a Star Alliance carriers. In other words, if we had paid in dollars then they would have allowed the rerouting on Delta. We wondered if there was even any seats left that would get us to the ship on time. At one point, the agent asked us what our first port was. We were not amused. Luckily, they were able to re-book us through Munich to Barcelona. But now our flight didn't leave until that evening. So, we used our Priority Pass to enter the Turkish Airlines Lounge, where we camped out until our flight.
  • 09/09 - Embark in Barcelona, Spain: We landed that morning in Munich and then flew to Barcelona. After arriving in Barcelona, we went immediately to the port and boarded our ship, Holland America Oosterdam. This was our first time on Holland America. Impressively, our bags arrived at our cabin before we did. Our vacation could finally begin.
  • 09/10 - Marseille, France: In Marseille, we started by taking a shuttle bus to the Old Port, where we explored for a bit before getting on a hop-on hop-off bus. We got off and visited the Basilica Notre-Dame de la Garde, which sits on a hill overlooking Marseille. We then visited the Marseille Cathedral and surrounding area.
  • 09/11 - Monte Carlo, Monaco: Our ship anchored near Monte Carlo, Monaco. We did a small group tour of the French Riviera that started by visiting the sights in Monte Carlo. Next, we visited Nice, France. Lastly, we visited the small hilltop village of Èze, France.
  • 09/12 - Livorno, Italy (Florence & Pisa): The ship docked in the port town of Livorno, Italy. From there our tour took us first to Florence. In the Accademia, we saw Michelangelo's sculpture David. We had a guided tour of the other sights in Florence before being given time to explore by ourselves. Then we were taken to Pisa. We saw the leaning tower, as well as the cathedral and baptistry. Unfortunately, the inside of the cathedral was closed the day that we were there.
  • 09/13 - Civitavecchia, Italy (Rome): The ship docked in Civitavecchia, Italy, which is about 35 miles from Rome. Our tour visited the Trevi Fountain, National Monument to Victor Emmanuel II, Trajan's Column, the Roman Forum, the Colosseum, and the Arch of Constantine. Later, we went to Vatican City and saw St. Peter's Square and St. Peter's Basilica. One day in Rome is certainly not enough time to see everything, so we definitely plan to return to Rome in the future.
  • 09/14 - Naples, Italy: After docking in Naples, Italy, our tour started by visiting the Sorrento Peninsula before going to the Amalfi Coast. Bad traffic caused our planned visit to Positano to turn into a drive-by viewing. Although, we were still able to stop in Amalfi for a visit. In the afternoon, we had a guided visit to Pompeii.
  • 09/15 - Messina, Sicily, Italy: We docked in Messina, Italy and then started our tour of northeastern Sicily by going to Taormina. After exploring all the sights of Taormina, we were taken to the hilltop village of Castelmola. We were guided around the village and taken to the top of the hill to enjoy the views of the surrounding area. After lunch in the village, we returned to Messina where, among other things, we saw the Messina Cathedral and Clocktower.
  • 09/16 - Day at sea: We spent the day sailing the Ionian Sea between Messina and Corfu. It was nice to have a relaxing day to do nothing after all the busy days beforehand.
  • 09/17 - Corfu, Greece: After getting off the ship in Corfu, Greece, we took a taxi into the old town and did a self-guided tour. After exploring for a bit, we made our way to the Old Fortress. We climbed to the top of the fortress and enjoyed the views of the city. After that, we explored more of the old town before returning to the ship.
  • 09/18 - Dubrovnik, Croatia: The walled city of Dubrovnik, Croatia is a place I've wanted to visit for a while and was a requirement when browsing itineraries for this trip. We took a shuttle bus from the port to the old town and started exploring the Stradun and side streets. After seeing the old port, we made our way to the cable car. We rode it up to Srđ Hill, which stands at around 1,300 feet above nearby Dubrovnik. The views of the city were outstanding. After lunch, Kara did some shopping while I went and walked the western part of the city walls. Lastly, I briefly visited Fort Lovrijenac, just outside the city wall.
  • 09/19 - Kotor, Montenegro: I feel like Kotor, Montenegro is the hidden jewel of this itinerary. It's not a place most people know, but it is a picturesque town on a bay surrounded by mountains. Since we didn't have that much time in this port, we got off the ship pretty early in the morning. So early, in fact, that while we were exploring the town there was hardly anyone else out and about. After walking from one side of town to the other, we hiked a trail leading from town up the mountain towards St. Ivan's Fortress. The views were spectacular. After returning to town, we explored some more and then returned to the ship. Around 2pm, our ship departed. Because our route through the Bay of Kotor was scenic, the crew opened up the bow of the ship, which is normally closed to passengers. So, I watched our departure from there.
  • 09/20 - Venice, Italy: Our arrival into Venice, Italy took place just after noon. The route from the Adriatic to the port took us past the entire city, which gave us a great view of everything. After we got off the ship, we went to Piazza San Marco for a self-guided walking tour. I took the elevator up the Campanile bell tower and enjoyed the views of Venice. After exploring the piazza, we started walking back towards the ship crossing the Grand Canal at the Accademia Bridge. We then walked to and visited the Basilica dei Frari. Lastly we walked back to the ship via the Scalzi Bridge and Piazzale Roma.
  • 09/21 - Venice, Italy: Early in the morning, we left the ship for the last time and placed our bags in a luggage storage facility because we had a tour that day. Our guided walking tour started near the Rialto Bridge and visited a ton of places. Before lunch, we went on a gondola ride for about a half hour. After lunch we visited St. Mark's Basilica and the Doge's Palace. After the tour, we returned to pick up our baggage and then went to our hotel.
  • 09/22 - Flights home: To return home, we flew from Venice to Zürich to Chicago to Nashville. Although, due to long customs lines and a terminal change, we very nearly misconnected in Zürich.

It was an incredible trip. I’ll post pictures here when I am done with them, which might be a while given how many pictures we took.

(View Larger Map)

April 2018 Cruise

Last week, we returned home from our first vacation planned for this year. Given that our trip later in the year visits a lot of places with little down time, Kara wanted this trip to be pretty much just relaxing at beaches and pools. We ended up choosing a 6 night cruise to the Dominican Republic, Grand Turk, & Bahamas. Although, to save some money we booked an inside cabin, which is the first time we've done that. Here's how it went:

  • 04/21 - Flight to Fort Lauderdale: On the way there, we flew nonstop from Nashville to Fort Lauderdale.
  • 04/22 - Embark in Fort Lauderdale: We boarded the Carnival Conquest in Fort Lauderdale. We didn't purposely choose a cruise on a ship we've been on twice before, but it just worked out that way.
  • 04/23 - Day at sea: We spent most of the day sunbathing or in the pool. Kara won the Harry Potter trivia game. That makes three combined trivia wins between us!
  • 04/24 - Amber Cove, Dominican Republic: Amber Cove is a cruise ship port just outside Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. There is a resort area as part of the port that is accessible to the cruise passengers that has pools, water slides, zip lines, among other amenities. We got a couple chairs and an umbrella and spent the day there.
  • 04/25 - Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos: The port in Grand Turk has a beach and pool area, which is where we spent our time there.
  • 04/26 - Half Moon Cay, Bahamas: Half Moon Cay is actually Little San Salvador Island in the Bahamas. It is a private island that has an awesome half moon shaped beach. It was also the only port where we had to tender. The day started gloomy with rain, so we rented a clam shell umbrella that would keep us dry. Luckily, it cleared up a couple hours later and became sunny for the rest of the day. The beach was one of the better beaches we've been to.
  • 04/27 - Nassau, Bahamas: Like the last time we were in Nassau, we booked an excursion that took us to Balmoral Island also known as Discovery Island. And that is what we did again this time. The resort was a little more developed this time and there wasn't near as many people there with us as last time.
  • 04/28 - Disembark and flights home: When we booked our flights we had direct flights in both directions of travel. For reasons passing understanding, in January JetBlue cancelled the Fort Lauderdale to Nashville flight for the day we were coming back. They didn't drop the route, just that day's flight. Weird to do for only one flight date about 3 months in advance. Since JetBlue's only other destination from Nashville is Boston, that required a connection there. The flight from Fort Lauderdale to Boston went normally. It looked like the subsequent flight to Nashville would operate as scheduled, but after sitting on the plane at the gate for quite a while they were unable to solve a mechanical issue. So, they deboarded us while they tried to find us another plane. That took so long the pilots timed out on their allowed work day. Then we had to wait for them to find us another flight crew. After a nearly four hour delay, we finally got going. We ended up getting home after midnight. Before we even landed though, JetBlue sent emails stating that each passenger would get a $100 credit. Given what we paid for the flights that is better than a 50% refund.

The last flight home notwithstanding, it was a relaxing trip. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled 2018 Caribbean Cruise, which contains the following albums:

(View Larger Map)

Baltic Sea Cruise

Yesterday, we returned home from our nine country odyssey around northern Europe. We took a cruise marketed as a cruise of (current or former) capital cities on the Baltic Sea. That’s a stretch for the stop in Warnemünde, Germany, where the majority of cruisers take a train ride to Berlin. This cruise itinerary was appealing to us as it visited a lot of iconic European cities, particularly Saint Petersburg, Russia, which was on Kara’s bucket list to visit. So, we booked a balcony cabin. A couple months before the cruise, we got an email offering the opportunity to put in an upgrade bid to upgrade our cabin. In the last week or so, we found out via email from Norwegian that our bid was not enough and we didn’t get the upgrade. Too bad, but it was nothing to be sad about since the cabin we booked originally was still great. Here’s how it went:

  • 09/17 – Flights to Copenhagen, Denmark: When we got to the airport, we found out that our inbound aircraft to Toronto was delayed nearly 2 hours and would cause us to misconnect. The check-in agent stated that all rebooking would occur in Toronto. Given that we would be arriving after 10pm, there would be few same-day options if we waited to have them address our problem then. The check-in agent looked briefly, but did not find any flights to change us to. So after clearing security, I used our delay to search for replacement flights. We called Air Canada to have our flights rebooked, feeding them the flight numbers for various options we found. During irregular operations, it speeds things along if you can provide the agent this information. After that we had to get the gate agent to re-tag our bags for the new routing. For some reason, they were unable to do this using their automated systems. So, they had to write out a manual bag tag. That really made me nervous, but it ended up working out ok. After arriving in Toronto, we got to the gate for our flight to London right after they started boarding. If we had waited to find a rebooking agent in Toronto as they initially directed, we would not have been able to make that flight and would have had to wait until the next day. That would have made things much more stressful leaving little margin to make the cruise.
  • 09/18 – Arrival in Copenhagen: Upon arrival in London, we found a lounge to wait in. After taking a shower, we made our way to the flight to Copenhagen. Right after we landed in Copenhagen, I was checking my phone while we were taxiing. There was an email from Norwegian and they were making us an offer on an upgrade! It was actually lower than any of our original bids and for a suite category higher than the ones we bid on. All we had to do was call to accept. We couldn’t get off the plane fast enough to call them. We accepted the offer to upgrade to a Haven 2-Bedroom Family Villa! The suite had 559 combined square feet between cabin and balcony. It is the third highest cabin category and the category with the second most area. And the category with more area only has two cabins on the ship. So, on a ship with 2,008 cabins, ours was smaller than only 2 cabins! The other part of this is that we were in the Haven, which has private areas of the ship and special services only available to 80 of the 2,008 cabins. This link has more info on that. Anyway, after taking care of that we went to check-in to our hotel and then explored Copenhagen.
  • 09/19 – Board ship in Copenhagen: We did some more sightseeing in Copenhagen before making our way to the cruise port. As part of the Haven, we had a much shorter line and were on board the Norwegian Getaway in no time. We explored our suite and had some lunch before exploring the rest of the ship. Eventually the time came to set sail. As indicated by the map below, we sailed north. This seems a bit circuitous, as most ships could sail south under the Øresund Bridge. The captain explained that while our ship could fit under the bridge by about 10 feet that our draft is too deep for the water under the bridge. This necessitates sailing around the other direction.
  • 09/20 – Warnemünde & Rostock, Germany: We had breakfast in the Haven dining room and it so happened that the windows were pointed towards Warnemünde. So, we had a great view from deck 16 while eating breakfast. Most passengers probably took a train to Berlin. Since Kara has already seen Berlin, we stayed in Warnemünde & Rostock. Rostock was the first area on my mission to Germany. So, since I lived there for 4.5 months, I was able to guide us around the sights. We started by exploring Warnemünde. After that we took the s-bahn to Rostock and explored there. There was some light rain off and on, but we still enjoyed ourselves.
  • 09/21 – Sea Day: On our first sea day we did a variety of things. We played a couple games of trivia, nearly winning one. I killed Kara in mini-golf. We also did the rope course, which was pretty cool. They have a plank you can go on that hangs out over the water. And at the end of the course is a zip line. Let me say that again. We did a ZIP LINE on a cruise ship. Unfortunately for Kara, she got stuck half way through the zip line. For some reason, she didn’t want to do the rope course later in the cruise. In the evening, we went to the Haven courtyard to enjoy the hot tub with 55-60°F air temps.
  • 09/22 – Tallinn, Estonia: We started our exploration of Tallinn by taking a taxi to the Old Town. According to UNESCO, Tallinn’s Old Town is one of the best preserved medieval cities in Europe. I had originally intended to start our walking tour at the north end of Old Town, but our taxi driver suggested we start from the south end so we would be walking down hill. His English was rough and our Estonian is non-existent, but his recommendation saved us from a lot of up hill walking. So, thanks Estonian taxi guy. We explored Old Town starting with the Alexander Nevsky Cathedral, which is an orthodox cupola cathedral. There was some rain early on, but it cleared out pretty quick. After we finished up in Old Town, we walked back to the cruise port and had a late lunch on the ship.
  • 09/23 – Saint Petersburg, Russia: Typically, a U.S. passport holder must have a visa to enter Russia, but there is an exception for cruise visitors in Saint Petersburg when they are accompanied by a tour operator licensed by Russian authorities. So, since we booked our tour through a licensed operator we didn’t need a visa. Nevertheless, you are still required to go through passport control after getting off the ship, which is not normally required for visiting ports on cruises. As a result of that, we got some Russian stamps in our passports. Our tour on day one started by visiting the Peter and Paul Fortress and Cathedral. Nearly all of the Romanov emperors and empresses of Russia are buried here. Next, we went to the Peterhof Palace, which is also referred to as the “Russian Versailles“. We’ve now visited both and can say they are both amazing. As part of lunch, we had some Borscht. The last stop on day one was the Catherine Palace, which was the summer residence of the Russian tsars. After we got back to the port, Kara bought a set of Matryoshka nesting dolls.
  • 09/24 – Saint Petersburg, Russia: Day two of the tour started with a river boat tour on the Neva river. We saw a variety of things, among which was the law school that Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky attended. Next was the Winter Palace of the Hermitage Museum. Aside from being an ornate palace, it houses an incredible amount of art. Among many others, we saw works by Leonardo da Vinci, Raphael, Michelangelo, & Rembrandt. Next was the Church of the Savior on Blood. The inside of this church might be the most amazing single work of art I have ever seen. Nearly every surface inside is covered in intricate mosaics. That’s over 80,000 square feet of mosaics. Wow! The next stop was the huge St. Isaac’s Cathedral. The last stop was Yusupov Palace, which was the residence of the House of Yusupov. It was also where Grigori Rasputin was murdered. Our two-day tour of Saint Petersburg was absolutely amazing. As we left Saint Petersburg, we went to deck 17 to watch as we past the Kronstadt Naval Cathedral. This was something that we wanted to visit but that was just too far away to be practical (seriously, go to the Wikipedia page for this and look at the pictures of the interior). We settled for seeing it from the ship at night as we left.
  • 09/25 – Helsinki, Finland: In Helsinki, the day started with some dense fog that burned off fairly quickly. We used a hop on hop off bus to get around, starting first with the Sibelius Monument, dedicated to composer Jean Sibelius. After visiting various other sights, we ate some Finnish street food for lunch at Market Square.
  • 09/26 – Nynäshamn & Stockholm, Sweden: For the stop in Sweden, the ship docked in Nynäshamn. Earlier in the year, Getaway sailed through the archipelago to dock directly in Stockholm. I heard that the reason why we didn’t do that is that they require daylight to safely navigate the archipelago in a ship of this size. So, we had about a 35 mile bus ride to get to Stockholm, where we started with a stop at an overlook with a view of the city followed by the Stockholm City Hall. This is also where the Nobel Prize banquet is held. Next, we went to the Vasa Museum, where the salvaged 17th century warship Vasa is kept. The remainder of our time was spent in the old town (Gamla Stan). We explored the old town and had lunch at a small cafe.
  • 09/27 – Sea Day: On our last sea day, I started by going to a lecture by the captain and chief engineer on the technical aspects of the ship. If you can believe it, Kara had no interest in this event. Go figure. Then, we played a couple more trivia games. After lunch, we pretty much just relaxed in our suite since we had done a lot of walking in the past week and a half. In the evening, we watched from our balcony as we passed under the Østbroen Bridge, which has the world’s third longest main span.
  • 09/28 – Arrival in Copenhagen: Sadly, our cruise had come to an end. We took our bags to our hotel and then went out to explore Copenhagen. Our first stop was the Church of Our Saviour. It has a spiral staircase on the outside of its spire that allows a nice view of the city. Then we went to see Nyhavn, where we also had lunch at a cafe. After lunch we visited various palaces as well as the Little Mermaid statue.
  • 09/29 – Flights Home: On the way home, we only had to take 2 flights. We flew from Copenhagen to Toronto to Nashville.

This trip was absolutely fantastic. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Baltic Sea Cruise 2017, which contains the following albums:

(View Larger Map)

Vacation to Miami and Key West

Today, we returned from our vacation to Miami and Key West. Because our Baltic cruise later in the year is a little longer in duration than normal, we decided our spring trip would be a little smaller in scale. So, we found cheap flights to south Florida and paid for all of the hotel nights except for one using points. Since the cruise in September would not be in beach type weather, this trip was intended to be half beach vacation. Here was our itinerary:

  • 04/18 – Flight to Fort Lauderdale: We flew down to Fort Lauderdale. Right after clearing security in Nashville, we saw a restored American Airlines DC-3 (Flagship Detroit). A group of people surrounded it and later took off for a short flight around town. Anyway, after arriving in Fort Lauderdale we drove down to Miami to our hotel.
  • 04/19 – Miami: We spent the morning in Everglades National Park. Within about 15 minutes of arrival at the first stop in the park we saw a soft shell turtle killed by an alligator. A ranger was standing there explaining to a group of kids that the turtle had just laid some eggs. The turtle then started walking back to the water, which happened to be too close to a nearby alligator. And thus ended the life of the turtle. It was cool to see the variety of wildlife in the park. In the afternoon, we went to the south end of Haulover beach. I mention the south end specifically, because if you go to the north end you’ll see more than you bargained for! Anyway, since there was a red flag warning with very rough surf & rip currents, we just lounged on the beach without getting in the water.
  • 04/20 – Key West: We left our hotel in Miami and drove down the Keys on the Overseas Highway. We arrived in Key West just before lunch. After having a look around Mallory Square (and dodging the free-range chickens), we had lunch on Duval Street. After lunch, we toured the Truman Little White House & Key West Lighthouse. Then, after a quick stop by the southernmost point buoy, we toured the Ernest Hemingway House. Once the residence of Hemingway, it is still the home to the many descendants of a six-toed cat given to him as a gift.
  • 04/21 – Key West & Marathon: Our first stop was Fort Zachary Taylor. We explored the fortress for a while and then went to the nearby beach. The beach was a little too rocky, so we just headed to the next planned destination. We drove back up the Keys towards Marathon. We stopped briefly at the Seven Mile Bridge overlook before eating in Marathon. After lunch, we spent the afternoon at Sombrero beach. The beach and surrounding park area was very nice. Although, the weather was cloudy and cool, so the water was a bit too nippy to get in.
  • 04/22 – Miami: We spent the morning in Biscayne National Park. We took a boat tour from the park headquarters across Biscayne Bay past Elliott Key and stopping at Boca Chita Key. We saw a lot of wildlife (mostly birds). During our hour long stop on Boca Chita Key, we explored the lighthouse as well as other parts of the island. In the afternoon, we tried to visit the Cape Florida Lighthouse, but it was closed by the time we got there. So, we finished the day at the Crandon Park Beach. The beach itself was large and nice, but there was too much vegetation in the water to bother swimming (not that the weather allowed it anyway).
  • 04/23 – Miami: We started the day by visiting the Ancient Spanish Monastery (St. Bernard de Clairvaux Church). The monastery has an interesting history in that it was originally built in Spain in the 12th century. In the 20th century it was purchased by newspaper magnate William Randolph Hearst, dismantled, and shipped to the US to be eventually reassembled in North Miami Beach, where it is now an Episcopal church and tourist attraction. The skies opened up to a downpour of rain right before we were done at the monastery, so we waited about 45 minutes inside before getting drenched running to the car. After drying out a little during lunch, we went to South Beach. Yet again, there were red flag warnings and rough surf. We only spent about 15-30 minutes there before it began to rain again. On the way to and from South Beach, we saw Norwegian Getaway docked in the Port of Miami. Getaway is the ship we will be taking in September on our Baltic cruise. It was starting its last Caribbean cruise before making the transatlantic voyage towards the Baltic.
  • 04/24 – Return flight to Nashville: We returned our rental car and flew back to Nashville.

Even though the weather and surf conditions made the beach parts of the trip mostly a bust, we still had a nice relaxing time. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled Miami & Key West 2017, which contains the following albums:

(View Larger Map)

2016 Caribbean Cruise

Yesterday, we arrived home from another cruise in the Caribbean. This was our second time cruising with Shannon, Rusty, Ben, & Stephanie. However, this time Caitlin and Alaina also tagged along since it was their fall break. This cruise lasted 8 nights and was scheduled to stop at two ports in the northern Caribbean and two ports in the southern Caribbean. It was unique for us since we were sailing on a ship we’d already been on (Carnival Conquest). In fact, our cabin was the exact same cabin number we had the last time. Here was our itinerary.

  • 09/30 – Evening flights to Fort Lauderdale: We flew down to Fort Lauderdale and stayed at a hotel close to the port using Hilton points.
  • 10/01 – Start Cruise: We boarded the ship and had lunch which was around the time met up with everyone else. We explored the ship for a little while before I went to the sports bar to watch college football with Ben & Rusty. After the muster drill, we went out on deck to watch as we sailed out of port. After dinner, we returned to the sports bar to watch more football.
  • 10/02 – Day at sea: After breakfast, we started our day at the pool and water slide. After we got too hot, Kara and I played a couple rounds of trivia. We came in third on the general knowledge trivia. After a nap, we went to dinner for the first formal night of the cruise.
  • 10/03 – Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos: We spent our time on Grand Turk at the beach near the cruise center and at the pool resort area near the Jimmy Buffet’s. It was convenient to the cruise terminal and was a nice free place to enjoy.
  • 10/04 – La Romana, Dominican Republic ► Day at sea: Our ship was originally scheduled to stop in La Romana, Dominican Republic, where we would have taken a tour of Saona Island. I say “would have” because nearby Hurricane Matthew necessitated a change in plans by our captain. The previous day, we cut short our stop in Grand Turk by a couple hours and we skipped the stop in La Romana altogether. The bright side of the changes were that we were able to extend our time in Curaçao and Aruba. So, while it is a bummer that we didn’t stop in La Romana, the captain made the right call to keep everyone safe. Actually, this is our second cruise in a row that we were near a hurricane, although this was the first time we needed to change our schedule. The closest we came to the eye of Hurricane Matthew was approximately 425 miles when we were off the southeastern coast of Hispaniola while Matthew was off the southwestern coast.
  • 10/05 – Curaçao: We spent the morning on Curaçao by going to a beach resort at Jan Thiel Beach. After returning to the ship, we then walked over to explore the very European-like downtown Willemstad. Our ship was docked until around 10pm, so we were there most of the night. After dinner, we all went up to deck 12 to play cornhole. This was pretty cool because we had the backdrop of the lights of Willemstad at night while we were playing.
  • 10/06 – Aruba: We spent the morning on Aruba by going to Eagle beach, which was a nice beach. Kara and I had expected to be the only ones from our group there since the others had booked an excursion for this port. But their excursion was cancelled, so we met up with everyone else and had a great time. After returning to the ship, we explored downtown Oranjestad and did some shopping.
  • 10/07 – Day at sea: This day at sea was much like the others with pool/water slide, naps, trivia, and other games with the group.
  • 10/08 – Day at sea: We started our last day with pool and water slide in the morning. After that, I went to the sports bar with Ben & Rusty to watch college football. We watched a double overtime thriller between Tennessee and Texas A&M. With about 60% Tennessee fans in the sports bar, the place went nuts when they inexplicably forced overtime but then fizzled when their luck finally ran out and lost the game.
  • 10/09 – End cruise in Fort Lauderdale: We debarked from the ship, but our shuttle back to the airport got us back a little close to our flight. To speed things along, I checked us in on the Delta app while on the shuttle to the airport. So, all we had to do was drop off our bags and clear security. As we arrived, there were sirens blaring and bright lights flashing throughout the terminal with an automated message announcing that there was a security threat (bomb threat I suppose) and that everyone should leave the terminal. However, no one was leaving the terminal. That was bizarre enough, but the Delta line to drop off bags was completely full and snaking down the sides of the terminal. I’m not sure why it was so backed up, but if we had waited in the whole line we would have missed our flight. Luckily, the Delta agents handled it well and called all passengers from our flight to the front of the line so we could make our flight. It was so backed up there was no one in the security line after dropping off our bag. We made it to our gate with about 5-10 minutes to spare before boarding.

We had a great time on vacation. I’ve posted the pictures to my Flickr in the collection titled 2016 Caribbean Cruise, which contains the following albums:

(View Larger Map)