Tuesday, July 22, 2014

The Palm Trees are Really Cool: Onboard the Carnival Valor's Southern Route (Part Eight)

Many of our family vacations start with an off-handed mention at a really random moment. A “I wish we were in [insert random tropical island here]” while we’re out to dinner, or a “What about a trip on [insert a cruise line here]” on gchat during the work day.

Our first attempt to visit St. Lucia began on a car ride through a snow storm in 2008. Stephanie had just graduated college and, much like myself, was planning on taking some time off before finding a full time job to figure out what she wanted to do, and I was driving her home after moving her out of her apartment. Somehow, snow storms seem to motivate us to book vacations.

Our minds were on Orlando and a visit to Disney World and our eternal favorite Gaylord Palms, and as we do, we just started Google-ing. And we found a fantastic late rate on a cruise on the Miracle cruise departing six weeks later. St. Maarten, St. Kitts, St. Lucia. Mom always had some weird fascination with St. Lucia that I never quite understood, but that somehow grew the more reality shows she saw it on (I’ll call it The Bachelor Effect). And a couple of weeks before we left on that trip, we got a letter in the mail explaining that the Miracle was having propulsion problems and instead of docking in St. Lucia, our trip would take us to Turks & Caicos instead.

Despite the heavy disappointment, St. Lucia never really made it back onto any of our itineraries. “Lets visit St. Lucia!” was replaced with itineraries from New York, or to Aruba, or on new ships, or different cruise lines.

It was almost fate, not that St. Lucia was on this itinerary, but that the St. Lucia day fell on Mom’s birthday (a milestone birthday, nonetheless). And when we woke up to bright sunlight streaming in through our balcony door, basking us in the promise of adventures to come, we knew it had to be.

 photo DSC_1040.jpg

We were docking in Castries as we woke up and the first thing that struck all of us was just how much green there was. Lush trees in vibrant greens canopy most of the island. Amongst them is a vibrant and lively downtown (which didn’t seem walkable from where we docked, but surely close by) and small fishing villages canvasing many of the shorelines.

 photo DSC_1046.jpg

We grabbed a quick bite and a few cups of coffee up on Lido before heading to the Ivanhoe to meet our tour. While St. Lucia isn’t a tender port, many of the tours met in the theater to keep things organized. The row behind us was a zipline excursion and as people checked in, they were asked to step on a scale and try on a safety harness. We weren’t doing anything that extreme. I wanted to go on a hike of the Pitons but Mom and Stephanie weren’t feeling quite as adventurous. Instead, we booked on the Land and Sea to Soufriere, which would take us on a bus tour through the island and then a catamaran ride around. It was a long excursion (6+ hours), but would allow us to see many of the islands highlights.

 photo DSC_1047.jpg

When our tour group was called, we were split into groups of around 18 and led onto small busses. I heaved a heavy sigh of relief when I saw our tour group would be no greater than 20 (despite the large number of people taking the tour). Smaller tours are much more personal. Our tour guide was Solange and while incredibly knowledgeable about the island, she was not particularly warm.

 photo DSC_1054.jpg

The tour began with a drive through Castries, which is almost like the downtown area of St. Lucia. The streets were lined with local shops, banks, churches and schools, people filling them as they went about their Thursday mornings.

 photo IMG_4808.jpg

 photo IMG_4809.jpg

This tour allowed for many photo stops. The bus had windows that rolled down, and our first stop was a photo stop of the ship.

 photo IMG_4816.jpg

I’d heard the roads in St. Lucia were steep and winding, but I didn’t think they were that bad – certainly not as steep as some of the roads in St. Thomas or Tortola. Maybe I was distracted, though, by the foliage outside the bus window. We’ve been to many Caribbean islands (I think there’s ten or so that we have left to check off our lists), and I’ve never seen an island so lush. Vivid shades of rich colors paint the island in every which way you can look. It’s captivating in ways words can’t come close to describing.

 photo IMG_4823.jpg

Our first full stop was in Anse La Raye, a small fishing village on western side of St. Lucia. We had 20 minutes or so to peruse the local wares, grab a beer or use the restrooms. Mom, Stephanie and I didn’t venture far from the bus – the area was incredibly impoverished and there were many people begging for money (it made some of our fellow travelers uncomfortable – someone even asked Solange to escort them to the restroom because they didn’t feel comfortable walking alone). I live in a large city so there was nothing here that made me too uncomfortable, but if you’re not used to being approached for money, I can see where some would feel out of place.

 photo DSC_1060.jpg

 photo DSC_1061.jpg

 photo IMG_4837.jpg

 photo IMG_4841.jpg

We had another long stretch of bus ride before we hit our next photo stop, but it passed by in a blur of bright colors as we rode along the coast.

 photo IMG_4856.jpg

The bus pulled over on the side of the road and we stepped out to a lookout spot where we could see the Pitons.

 photo IMG_4872.jpg

Rising majestically from the Jalousie Bay, these mountainous peaks are just…breathtaking. Gros Piton is the larger one (Petit Piton, the smaller) and looking across the bay, I was glad we decided against the hike. It was incredibly hot, I was incredibly burnt from our sail in Barbados and our itinerary was intensive and didn’t leave much room for rest. The hike will come one day, I’m sure.  This time, though? I was content to stare off into the distance and take it all in.

 photo IMG_4875.jpg

 photo DSC_1070.jpg

 photo IMG_4879.jpg

There was a small table with a vendor selling handmade wares, but we stepped past and back onto the bus. The vendors in St. Lucia were incredibly aggressive. If the bus was stopped at a stop sign, it wasn’t uncommon for a vendor to walk up and start knocking on the windows.

 photo IMG_4883.jpg

With most of the land portion of this tour complete, we only had one stop left before the sea portion of our excursion: the Diamond Botanical Gardens.

 photo DSC_1080.jpg

It was incredibly crowded at the botanical gardens when we arrived. There was a slowly moving tour group ahead of us, another two groups behind us and many people at the grounds to swim in the mineral baths or visit the waterfall. The allure of the gardens outweighed the number of people in them. Bold, intense colors of flora lined the dirt paths through the forest.

 photo DSC_1077.jpg

 photo IMG_4895.jpg

 photo DSC_0004.jpg

 photo IMG_4902.jpg

 photo IMG_4903.jpg

The water flows black down the Diamond Falls River due to the sulfur content from the volcano. If the color didn’t give it away, the smell would have.

 photo DSC_0008.jpg

 photo DSC_0022.jpg

Our walking tour of the gardens culminated with a photo stop at a waterfall. The kind of waterfalls you want to swim under and jump off of that scale dozens of feet. Not the man made kind we’d seen at the Gaylord Resorts we’ve visited, or the disappointingly tiny one we hiked through the rainforest in Costa Rica to see. I was disappointed that the stop was a photo stop and this wasn’t a waterfall we could swim through, but I’ve got plenty of travels ahead of me for that.

 photo DSC_0026.jpg

 photo DSC_0028.jpg

At the end of the tour, we had a few minutes to use the facilities and peruse the gift shop. I bought a bottle of locally produced rum and Stephanie grabbed us all ice cold water bottles to sip on during the short bus ride to the pier where we’d embark the catamaran.

 photo DSC_0030.jpg

I thought the catamaran was more like a ferry. It was large and had more space inside than there was outside. While our bus tours were small, three or four busses of people had to fit onto this vessel and as luck was on our side, we were the first group to board. We chose seats around a small table in the shade and waited for the rest of the groups to arrive.

 photo DSC_0031.jpg

 photo DSC_0033.jpg

The water was brilliantly azure, and so clear that you could see pretty far down.

 photo DSC_0035.jpg

 photo IMG_4914.jpg

 photo DSC_0039.jpg

Lunch was brought onboard for us, catered by a local restaurant. A buffet was set up on the bar with salads, macaroni and cheese, rice, beans, local fish dishes and jerk chicken.

 photo DSC_0059.jpg

As everyone settled in with lunch, we began our sail around the island.

 photo DSC_0041.jpg

 photo IMG_4929.jpg

 photo DSC_0047.jpg

 photo DSC_0053.jpg

 photo DSC_0060.jpg

 photo IMG_4946.jpg

Not long after lunch, we approached our beach stop at Anise de Cochon.

 photo DSC_0071.jpg

 photo DSC_0072.jpg

We anchored about 35 feet from the shore in waters no deeper than five feet. Our stop was only for 45 minutes and we were still so burned that we opted to stay on the boat and sit in the shade. The beach did look lovely, though, and the waters were so clear you could see straight down.

 photo DSC_0075.jpg

 photo IMG_4950.jpg

Unfortunately, the pushy vendors that existed along the land portion of the excursion also existed on the sea portion. They’d literally pull up alongside the boat and yell at whomever they could to try to get attention and make a sale.

 photo DSC_0073.jpg

 photo DSC_0074.jpg

 photo IMG_4953.jpg

As we approached the end of our beach stop, our guides started putting out rum punch and snacks of locally grown bananas.

 photo DSC_0083.jpg

Once everyone was back onboard and the anchor was lifted, we began the journey back to the ship.

 photo DSC_0084.jpg

 photo DSC_0094.jpg

 photo IMG_4955.jpg

 photo IMG_4965.jpg

And the tour guides held a dance party in the middle of the boat.

 photo DSC_0107.jpg

Unlike the tour in Barbados, this one actually left us off right next to the ship. We bid farewell to the crew and our guides and headed towards the pier.

 photo DSC_0108.jpg

 photo DSC_0110.jpg

We decided that, since we had some time, we’d check out the shopping near the pier. The shopping area reminded me a bit of Costa Maya’s cruise pier, with plenty of shops and a few bars, but unfortunately, there weren’t any good deals to be had. In fact, the prices for souvenirs were higher than we’d seen all day. I was glad I purchased my magnet at the botanic gardens because they were nearly double the price at the pier!

 photo DSC_0116.jpg

With nothing really catching our eyes, we headed back onto the ship. After a day in the sun, that blast of cold air when entering the ship was beyond bliss.

 photo IMG_4966.jpg

We grabbed a few snacks on Lido and took them back to the room to enjoy on the balcony.

 photo DSC_0119.jpg

Since we didn’t have long to shower and get ready for formal night, we stayed in the room and alternated getting ready while watching sailaway from the balcony.

 photo DSC_0121.jpg

 photo DSC_0122.jpg

 photo DSC_0123.jpg

 photo DSC_0131.jpg

After a round of obligatory formal night balcony pics, we headed down to the promenade.

 photo DSC_0137.jpg

They had Cucina del Capitano at the Taste Bar this night, so even though they didn’t have a Cucina restaurant onboard, we still got a taste of that delicious whipped ricotta.

 photo DSC_0138.jpg

 photo DSC_0139.jpg

We sat and people watched outside the casino for a bit, but once the parade of teenagers in tiaras (…literally. Many of them…) slowed, we figured everyone headed towards the dining room, so we went to join them. And formal night meant chateaubriand night, which always, always means absolute deliciousness.

Shrimp Cocktail
 photo DSC_0142.jpg

Fried Vegetable Spring Rolls
 photo DSC_0144.jpg

Penne Siciliana (Starter Portion)
 photo DSC_0145.jpg

Caesar Salad
 photo DSC_0147.jpg

Fresh Fruit Cocktail
 photo DSC_0148.jpg

Chilled Creamy Bing Cherry Soup
 photo DSC_0149.jpg

Roasted Half Spring Chicken with Gravy
 photo DSC_0151.jpg

Chateaubriand with Sauce Bearnaise
 photo DSC_0152.jpg

Baked Alaska
 photo DSC_0153.jpg

Warm Chocolate Melting Cake
 photo DSC_0156.jpg

SURPRISE! Happy Birthday, Mom!
 photo DSC_0154.jpg

 photo DSC_0155.jpg

Back at the room, we had a new friend waiting for us after dinner.

 photo DSC_0161.jpg

…and another birthday cake that Stephanie ordered for Mom’s birthday before we left.

 photo DSC_0167.jpg

We headed up to Movies Under the Stars hoping to catch a bit of Frozen before heading down to the Ivanhoe for show time, but Frozen was running very late, so…

 photo DSC_0169.jpg

We grabbed some seats in the show lounge and not soon after, were approached by a bar server asking if we wanted the special for the night – a disco ball filled with rum punch. Do I want to drink out of a disco ball? DO I EVER!!!

 photo IMG_4967.jpg

The drink ran around $13 plus tip. The drink was actually in a plastic cup hidden inside the disco ball, and underneath the cup was a string with which to hang up your disco ball.

 photo IMG_4970.jpg

As I was loudly telling anyone who would listen that drinking out of a disco ball was the greatest thing ever, the show started. And Far From Over? Almost as good as drinking out of a disco ball. I’m an 80s baby and I love me some 80s tunes. The song selection, the choreography, the costume…everything was spot on. And the climax of the show, when they break into an acapella verse of I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For by U2 gave me chills.

 photo DSC_0174.jpg

 photo DSC_0175.jpg

 photo DSC_0177.jpg

Stephanie and I had intended on going swimming after the show, but we ended up falling asleep while watching Toy Story 3 in the room, and so ended our long-awaited visit to St. Lucia.

Today’s Lido Lunch Menu:

 photo DSC_0117.jpg

Today’s Lido Dinner Menu:

 photo DSC_0168.jpg