Monday, November 19, 2012

2012 HAL 11 night Noordam Southern Caribbean Cruise: Barbados; Dominica; Martinique; St. Lucia; St. Maarten; St. Thomas; Half Moon Cay

After our last 2 November Caribbean cruises in less then ideal weather conditions, you would think we'ld learn not to cruise the Caribbean in hurricane season!  But we persisted and gave it another try.  This time we did our longest cruise yet---11 nights on the Noordam and had almost perfect weather the whole time!   We actually booked this cruise while we were on the Eurodam last year.

We started our trip with the 1200 mile drive from St. Louis to Fort Lauderdale.  Took us 2 days with a stopover in northern Florida.  Sure glad we had a Garmin!  Can't believe we use to travel anywhere without it!

I'm sure we elicited a few comments as we drove by in our packed car!

Our daughter, Angie, and son-in-law, Josh, had recently moved to the Fort Lauderdale area and asked us to bring a few items down to them.  So we stuffed the back of our Ford Escape full leaving just a tiny space for our pup, Roxy.  We brought her with us so Angie and Josh could watch her while we went off on our cruise.

We made it to Fort Lauderdale safe and sound and spent a couple days there before heading off on our cruise. 

Finally cruise day came ( Monday, Nov. 5th). 

I chose this cruise , (Holland America's Noordam) mainly because it went to St. Lucia.  Not many cruises seem to go there and I've always wanted to see St. Lucia.  The cruise also included stops in St. Maarten, Barbados, Dominica, Martinique, St. Thomas, and Half Moon Cay.  It was very port intensive, which I loved---6 port days in a row, another port later.  Ken's more of a sea day fan, but he held up pretty well.

The first 3 days (Nov. 5-7) were sea days.  We settled into our SS 8060 superior suite.  We originally booked an SY category room, but when the SZ's came available a few months later for a couple hundred/person less, I rebooked an SZ guarantee.  About 10 days before our cruise, we got our room assignment--upgraded to an SS.  I kept checking my email hoping for an upsell offer to a deluxe suite.  I did finally get that email, but it was while we were on the road and I didn't find out about it until about 30 minutes after the inventory office opened.  By then all the upsells were gone.   Would have been a fantastic deal at $149/person!  Dang!!!  But our room was on the port side and we enjoyed the sunrises and port views the first 6 days, then sunsets the last 5.   It wasn't quite as big and didn't have the added benefits of the deluxe suite we had last year, but still pretty nice.

 Here's a very roughly put together pan of the room.

Loved that the verandah even had a table and 2 chairs as well as 2 other chairs with ottomans and a side table.

We were mid ship and on the 8th floor. Made it easy to just take the steps up to the Lido buffet for the many meals we ate there.

We took advantage of these sea days to check out the ship and some of the programs offered ---such as the digital workshop;
 The culinary demonstration;
 even a flower arranging presentation.
Enjoyed a sunset from the 10th level observation deck.
Also enjoyed views of the ocean from our verandah.

Had dinner one night at the now $10 upcharge italian Canelletto restaurant.  Last year it was free.  Service was great, although Ken wasn't as impressed with the food this time.

On our 3rd full day, we were in St. Maarten.  I had been here once before and had done the island tour then.  Although it was an interesting tour, I was ready to hit the water.  Ken doesn't really care what we do as long as it doesn't take much money or energy.  We're not ones to book many excursions through the ship, so I researched and came upon Dawn beach as the best place to snorkel here.   I'd read snorkeling isn't the greatest on St. Maarten, so wasn't expecting much more then a  beatiful beach and warm water.  I wasn't disappointed!  We walked off the ship and to the well organized taxi area of the port to the sign that said Dawn beach.  There we paid $7@, but I don't remember if that was rt or each way.  Regardless, it was much better then the ship excursion prices.  To get back, all we had to do was tell him when to come back.  There was also a dispatcher there that called him when we were ready to come back a little earlier then we originally planned.  There were people there offering to rent chairs and umbrellas for a few dollars, but we knew we'd be in the water most of the time and declined.  One vender came by when we were getting ready to leave, but he was pleasant even though we didn't buy anything.  The water was a bit cloudy near the shore, but cleared up quite  bit near the reef.

Snorkeling wasn't great but still entertaining.  We went to the darker area to the right of the above picture and saw a few interesting critters.  Here's one of the few squid we saw.
 Not sure what this guy is--blue striped snapper?
 I believe this is a moon jellyfish.   Saw quite a few of these guys here and elsewhere.
 Back at the port, there's a pretty nice little area of shops and restaurants.

Next day we woke up in the port of Castries, St. Lucia.  The view from our verandah of the port was beautiful. 
We headed off the ship to the taxi area again and were directed to one going to Pigeon Island (no longer an island, it was artificially joined to the mainland in 1972).  Again we made arrangements for the driver to come back and get us.  Our $20@ rt fare included the $6@ entrance fee into Pigeon Island National Landmark.   The island is a historic site with numerous forts such as an 18th century British fort and Fort Rodney both used by the British to spy on French Ships from neighboring Martinique.

It had a nice secluded beach here.  We had it basically to ourselves for a couple hours before the tours started to arrive (except for the nice lady offering beach chairs for a small fee).
Snorkeling here was pretty good.  I even swam out to the far point where the Atlantic ocean meets the Caribbean.  It was rougher by the ocean, but the Caribbean bay was really smooth.  We spent a couple hours snorkeling here.
 A couple species of wrasses I hadn't seen before
One of the many trumpet fish we saw, but the first one I've seen that was bluish.  I know they will turn yellow, but didn't know they also can turn blue.

 Lots of schools of fish.
 Another school of fish
 I also spent some time wandering around the ruins of the old fort here.

All too soon it was time to go back to the ship.  I would have liked to have taken a land tour, but being in port only 6 or 7 hours just doesn't leave enough time to do more then one thing.  Our cruise ship did do a scenic narrated tour of the coastline to Soufriere where the Pitons are.  The ship stopped here to pick up passengers who did a couple of the excursions that ended here.  I enjoyed watching the sunset and seeing the clouds changing colors over the Pitons.  I would love to go back here someday to one of the Sandals resorts.

The next day we were in Barbados.  I had thought we would take the mass transit bus to Folkstone to a marine preserve there, but was told the reserve was pretty far off shore.  So I actually did a ship excursion here.  As a photographer, the "in-focus" tour sounded good.  I figured a photographer would know where the best views of the island were.  I was right---this tour was fantastic and possibly worth the $80 I had to pay for it.  Ken elected to stay at the port and wander around there.  I really fell for this lush little island!
Here's is the driveway to one of the many plantation houses on the island.  Sugar cane was a big producer for them.  In recent years, though, sale of sugar has fallen off.
The guide told us about some moveable wooden houses that working class people would occupy. They are called Chattel houses.  The term goes back to the plantation days when the home owners would buy houses designed to move from one property to another.  These houses were built without nails and could be quickly and easily disassembled and moved.  Now the home owners own their land and many add-ons can be seen on the remaining Chattel houses.  This is one of the better renovated ones.
The Scotland District appears as a half bowl containing the hilly highlands of Barbados, with a dense, in parts jungle-like vegetation, quite unlike the rest of the island, which is rather flat, deforested, and commonly used for agriculture.
 Another area we spent a bit of time in was Bathsheba.  The picturesque coastline reminds me somewhat of the Oregon coastline with palm trees.
 One of our stops gave us an overhead view of the Bathsheba coastline.
 Could have stayed here taking pictures forever.
The port of Barbados is nothing to look at, but it leads to an interesting little island.

The next day we were at the port of Martinique.  It was much more commecialized then the other islands we went to.  They aren't dependant on tourism and it shows.   Here's a view of a small part of Martinique from our cruise ship. 

This port was more difficult to do a self excursion.  We had hoped to take a taxi to a beach about 30 minutes away and do some snorkeling.  Unfortunately, the taxi drivers here wanted 60 euro/hour and wouldn't just leave and come back.  They wanted to be paid for the whole time we snorkeled.  We had talked about doing just an hour long taxi ride, then be dropped off at a ferry port to ride over the bay and walk to a beach on the other side since.  But the driver then said we had to book him for at least 2 hours.  At that point, we took off on foot to the ferry. 
Along the way, we passed this fort that we saw from our verandah earlier-Fort St. Louis.  It is a fortress on a peninsula at Fort-de-France.  Today the fort is both an active naval base and a listed historic site of France.

 We also came across this ceremony.  That's when we remembered it was Veteran's Day, or Armistice Day in France.
 We came upon a ferry port and waited in line only to find out that port was for ferries to other islands.  The ferry we wanted was another 1/2 mile or so down the road.  Another person walking near us was wearing a pedometer and said the walk was 1.4 miles from the cruise port.  It was a pretty nice walk, though.

 We waited about 30 minutes for the ferry which was suppose to run every hour.  While waiting, I thought it would be nice to grab a drink from McDonald's across the street.  I was surprised to find it closed, along with everything else in the area because it was Sunday.
After our 15 minute of so ferry ride which we paid $10/person rt for, we had another walk to the beach.  I figure that walk was about another mile.

Finally reach the beach (I believe we ended up at Anse Mitan).  It was pretty.  Lots of little restaurants/bars along the beautiful beach.
I knew the snorkeling wouldn't be any good, but I was surprised to see there were some critters there.

 The water was probably about 82 degrees and very calm and clear.  We spent a couple hours here.
 It even rained a bit while we were here.  It was the only rain we really encountered the whole trip--at least during the daytime.
On the way back to the ferry dock, we tried to shop a couple of the shops  that happened to be open.   Found out a lot of people there don't speak English or take the US dollar.  We did find an ice cream shop that did and I got a Light (not diet) Coke and a soft serve pistachio and mango cone for $7.  Don't know what happened with the return ferry, but we waited well over an hour for it.  Back on the other side, we were walking back when a taxi drove up and the driver said he would take us back to the cruise ship for $2.  Once we got in, along with a few other people, the charge mysteriously became 2 Euro@.

Next day we were in the port of Dominica.  We had absolutely no idea what we were doing that day.  I had heard of Champagne Reef, but thought it was mainly an area where bubbles were in the water and wasn't sure it would live up to all the hype.  After all, I could stay in the jacuzzi and see a bunch of bubbles!  The port wasn't much to look at.

 The info I had said it was the nature island so I figured we'd head off the ship and see if we could find a tour.   We headed to the info booth and asked about tours.  As an afterthought, I asked about Champagne Reef.  She said it was a quick taxi ride and accessible from the beach and was an excellent place to snorkel.  So back to the ship we went to change into swimsuits and grab our snorkel gear then head to the taxis.  Fortunately there was another couple there waiting, too, so we got to share the taxi cost---which was then $30@ rt.  At the destination, we paid a $2@ admittance fee and were led down a boardwalk to the "beach"--made up of rounded rocks.
At first I was little concerned, all I saw was a rocky shoreline.  Then a tiny sandy opening appeared.
 Just to the left of the entrance starts the large area where lots of bubbles come up from the bottom of the ocean giving the area it's name.  I'll have to admit, it was more impressive then a jacuzzi and there were quite a few fish in that area.
We noticed a tour group was already there and snorkeling quite a ways off shore.  So we ventured out there, too.  That's where we found a fabulous reef!  We snorkeled for well over 2 hours.  I could have stayed there much longer, but the other 3 in my group were getting anxious to leave.  Here are just some of the sealife we saw there.
Yellow tail snapper---
 pretty coral---
 Lots of schools of fish---
 Really neat coral species--
 more coral and fish----

 an eel---
 A banded butterlfy fish.
 Another fish I've not seen before---

and another--- (Rock Beauty?)

After tipping the taxi driver another $10 and tipping the young man at the entrance to the place who actually swam out to the reef with us, we ended up spending about $45@, much better then the $80@ fee the ship excursion was and we got to spend more time there.  For a day that started out shakey (couldn't find my ship card and had to get another one; I also mistook contact cleaning solution for soaking solution and my eyes didn't like that much) , this turned out to be a fantastic day!

The next day we were in port at St. Thomas.  Having been here before, we knew the snorkeling was great and had an idea where we wanted to go.  We also had rented a car here before and did so again.  Pick up was easy----just made our way to the windmill on the port and called Budget for our courtesy pick up.  Rental for the day was $45, plus we paid $10 for supplemental insurance.   They do drive on the wrong side of the street there, but my driver didn't do too badly! 

We had planned to go to Coki beach first before the ship tours got there, but with the poor road signage, we ended up at Saphire first.  I had read Saphire was the place to go for snorkeling, but because of weather had never made it anywhere but to a beach in Cowpet Bay before.  Although Saphire was beautiful, we found the snorkeling to be only so-so.
 Typical snorkel area at Saphire.
 Yellow tailed snapper at Sapphire---
 Blue tang at Sapphire----
 blue head wrasse----

After less than an hour at Sapphire, we headed to the place our daughter told us about last year---- Cowpet Bay at the Elysian Resort---

 Snorkeling here was excellent again.  Even saw some creatures I hadn't seen before like this guy---(smooth trunkfish?)
four eyed butterfly fish---
 Never saw one of these before,either, but there were several of them here this time.
 Not sure what happened to this guy.  I was thinking it was a shark, but seeing it's missing some basal fins, I now think it was a dolphin.
 Another interestingly marked blue tang.
 Lots of these squirrel fish, too
 A curious school of squirrel fish---
 The largest porcupine puffer fish I've ever seen---
 The last beach we had time to go to was Coki Beach.  It was gorgeous, but got quite crowded with the cruise ship excursions going here.  Also had lots of "waitresses" and venders trying to drum up business.  We bought a sandwich and drink from Subway on our way there and didn't have an problem pic nicing on the beach before we entered the water.  We enjoyed snorkeling there for about another hour.

 The snorkel area really isn't very big, basically the rocky area shown above.  But it was better then where we snorkeled at Sapphire. (On a later trip, we found really good snorkeling at Sapphire, but it was way out at the point to the right of the bay)
 We didn't go to the domed viewing area where lots of ship tours go.  There is a roped off area by it which we didn't go past. 

I had hoped to get to Megan's beach, too, or at least to the overlook, but time ran out.  We stopped at K-mart for some post cards and to the post office to mail them.  Then sat in traffic for a good 30-45 minutes getting back to the Budget rental place.  Caught our shuttle back to Crown Bay port.  After really bad weather here the last 2 years, it was so nice seeing the sunshine and beautiful waters of St. Thomas!  Next year, we're even planning a land based vacation there instead of cruising.  ( here's a link to that trip--- )

After 6 port days in a row, the next day was a welcomed sea day!  Even though I'm not a big fan of sea days, the day of rest was nice.  Althought my plans for sleeping in didn't go so well.  Somewhere in the Caribbean waters I encountered what I assume was sea lice---invisible to the eye, larvae or jellyfish or other stinging swimmers that attacked me---and I ended up with an extremely itchy rash.  I had this happen before on a couple of our trips to Hawaii (out of about 20 trips to Hawaii), so I wasn't surprised.  Apparently they don't bother everyone---like Ken---but they sure like me.  Took about 5 days for the extreme itching to subside.  At least it happened near the end of our cruise.

After our sea day, we had one last port---the HAL private island, Halfmoon cay.  We have been here twice before, too, so were looking forward to a restful day at the beach there.  We were not disappointed.  This was the only port we had to tender to, but that didn't take too much time.  We threw our towels and bag on a couple chairs and donned our snorkel gear and headed into the water.  There's a little snorkel area by the kids area which we'ld snorkeled before and knew it didn't have much, but we didn't care.   We knew the water would feel great.
Getting in the x-mas spirit.
Much to my surprise, the snorkeling this time was considerably better then the last 2 times we were there. We were even able to get all the way to the rock wall to the far left of the bay.  The last 2 trips the water was too churned up to see anything over there.  This time we saw a couple cute Caribbean groupers---
A rather large gray triggerfish---
 A hard to notice rather large octopus---
 Then I noticed this baracuda watching us----
 Next thing I knew there was a school of barracuda, as you can barely see here.  I didn't venture too close to them!  But they seemed as scared of us as we were of them.
Here is a picture of part of the artificial reef out by the kids play area.
 A few of the fish by the rock wall in the "snorkel" area.
and more by the rock wall.

 even schools of minnows by the rock wall.
 Goatfish could be found in the sandy areas.
 It was another beautiful day on Halfmoon Cay!  Even the free bar b q lunch on the beach was good.  There were a bunch of birds cleaning up after us, including these cute little yellow bellied ones.

When we weren't eating or swimming in the water, we wandered around the beach a bit.

While we were there, the tide really went out.  The chairs to the right were almost in the water when we got there.  With the low tide we had even calmer water.
 All too soon it was time to get back to the ship.  Here's a view towards the tiny snorkel area on the other side of the rope as we head back to the ship on our tender.
This was Ken's 4th cruise, my 10th.   Other than my first cruise (when my Dad almost drowned), I haven't had a bad one yet (not counting weather).  I really enjoyed seeing the new places and revisiting the ones we've been to.  We enjoyed it so much we even did the onboard booking for the ship board credit for the next one.  The $200 ship board credit for booking onboard last year and the $100 OBC for having CCL stock came in really handy this year.  After gratuities of $12/day@ , the Canelleto dinner, and a couple other items we bought onboard, we only owed $56 when we debarked.  Now to start dreaming about where to go next!

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