Without further ado, here’s my (as always, long-winded and parenthetical) travelogue and review of our recent trip. Six people on a 10 day adventure, traveling by planes, trains and automobiles, in a very large circle that took us from Virginia, to New York, over the Atlantic Ocean, to the islands of the Eastern Caribbean, on to Old San Juan, and back to Richmond, via Atlanta. Oh and there was a 20 year anniversary somewhere in the mix as well.
We took AMTRAK from Richmond to NYC as it was not only more economical than traveling by airplane, (we were trying to save a bit of money and vacation time with a embarkation day arrival) but because we also figured we’d be much less likely to encounter the sort of catastrophic delays that could derail getting to the docks by our 4:00 departure. And honestly, the six hours it takes to go by train isn’t much longer than the time it takes to fly once you figure in arriving early, checking bags, collecting baggage again at the end, and then still being 40-60 minutes from the docks, depending on which airport you fly into. As it was, we left Richmond just after 6 AM, arrived at Penn Station by 12:30 (A 25 minute delay, due to some ongoing track work in Maryland) and were actually on the ship by 1:30.
This turned out to be a great choice, traveling by train is always less stressful than by plane, more room so that you can actually sleep, you can get up and move around whenever you need to, more conducive to visiting with your co-travelers, and the views are always fascinating enough to make the time go quickly. Our train had only a snack bar, not a full dining car, so we filled a small cooler with sodas, homemade country ham biscuits, and my son’s gingerbread cookies. We shared with the folks around us and made some fun new acquaintances too. Another advantage over plane travel. The downside, in my limited experience, is that AMTRAK restrooms are universally disgusting, I have no idea how they can already be so filthy when you catch the first train of the morning, but they are. Always. No matter how nice and modern the rest of the train may be.
Penn Station is every bit the madhouse you would expect it to be, wall to wall people, all with the New York native’s stereotypical indifference/hostility towards anyone who doesn’t know exactly where they are going, but we did eventually find our way to the surface and a taxi stand, where we caught a pair of cabs to the Manhattan Cruise Ship Docks. Only about a 10 minute/$10 ride. It would have helped had the two cabs taken the same route and not dropped half our group at the upper level and the other half across the road from the lower level, but hey, at least we ended up (mostly) in the same place. Thank the maker for cell phones.
The only problem here was due to the recent Ebola scare and the checksheets that needed to be completed before going through security. According to the local New York staff, the ship had failed to bring enough checksheets ashore and they had run out. This seems unlikely, as it is a simple Xeroxed form that should have been being run off by the dockside staff and not by the folks on the ship, but frankly all of the shore staff in New York were so rude that it was hard to even get information from them, much less assistance. They also seemed to have no system set up for getting the forms to the folks who were waiting, a staff member would turn up in the middle of the crowd with a handful of forms, hand them out to whoever could fight their way to them first, and then run out again. However, once we got our hands on the forms, everything went swimmingly.
I can’t say enough about how fabulous Carnival’s “Faster to the Fun” program is. This is the second time we’ve used it and it is totally worth every penny of the 50 dollar per cabin (NOT per person fee). You have access to the platinum security screening line, so there were only about half a dozen folks ahead of us to go through carry-on screening and the metal detectors. After going through there, you have your own dedicated FTTF line for check-in, no-one else was waiting and we were able to go straight to the first available agent to get our Sign and Sail cards. We were on the ship and in our (already ready, another FTTF perk) cabin dropping off our carry-ons within 15 minutes of turning in our Ebola forms. Again, we got off the train at 12:30 and were in our cabin by 1:30, how awesome is that? Considering the fact that there were several hundred people waiting in the general boarding check-in line when we arrived, I can’t imagine how long we’d have been waiting, cranky, restless (literally, they’d been up since 4:30), kids in tow, if we hadn’t signed up for the program. We went straight up to the Lido deck for lunch and a drink and by the time we were done, our luggage had arrived so we could get unpacked (yet another perk of the program).
Embarkation was somewhat delayed, so lifeboat drills were a bit after 4, nothing to say about that, except it actually was pretty fast and efficient as such things go. Leaving from Manhattan at sunset was the one of the most amazing sights I’ve ever seen. We went up to the observation deck above the basketball court, wine glasses in hand, to see the sights. Surprisingly we were almost the only people up there, so we got a fabulous view of the Empire State building, (King Kong was nowhere to be seen, sadly), the new World Trade Center, and Lady Liberty herself before the ship left the Hudson and headed out to sea after passing under the Verrazano Narrows bridge. I can’t think of a cooler place to leave from, so many famous sights I’d only ever seen on TV, passing right off the rails of the ship. I’d definitely leave from New York again, just for the view. I did miss the spa raffle (AKA, let’s pitch a bunch of dubious “services”), but since I never win those things anyway, I’m pretty sure it was a fair trade.
THE LADY HERSELF
The Splendor is a lovely ship, large enough that she almost never seems crowded, despite having 3000+ passengers aboard. Despite the infamous “pink circles” décor, she is actually the most subdued of the Carnival ships I’ve traveled on. The Pearl dining rooms are still pretty over the top, but I loved the millefiore glass in the Lido dining area and the lovely tilework throughout the ship. The deck plan is nearly identical to the Valor-Class ships, until you get to Deck 9, so if you have traveled on any of those, you won’t need too long to get your bearings. It has not had the recent Fun Ship 2.0 upgrades, but personally I didn’t miss them. I like Guy’s Burgers pretty well, but found that losing those was a fair trade-off for the longer shows and the availability of the Tandoor at lunchtimes.
Speaking of lunch, the food was exceptionally good, by far the best I’ve had on Carnival. I have seen frequent complaints about Splendor’s food from other reviewers and keep wondering if they were on the same ship we were. We had your time dining in the Black Pearl every evening, and with the exception of the prime rib, which was average at best (but I’m picky about that dish and it’s nearly always disappointing, even in restaurants at home), everything I had ranged from very good to fabulous. Standouts included the chateaubriand and the any of the soups. My son tried escargot for the first time, and loved it. It provided a great opportunity for the kids to experiment with a few new foods in a low-pressure environment. My favorite dessert was a caramel date cake that was absolutely fabulous. But the coolest was the spectacular special dessert for Halloween, your choice of a pumpkin cake or a dark fudgy chocolate mousse in the shape of a coffin. They were plated with tiny marzipan jack-o-lanterns and white chocolate gravestones, with Happy Halloween written on the plates in chocolate. They were gorgeous and delicious, and I can’t imagine the time and effort that went into preparing them. We also had outstanding dining staff as, despite the your time dining, we were able to request the same seating section each night. Headwaitress Astini and her assistant Komang went above and beyond the call of duty taking care of us, they even sang for me and hubby on our 20th wedding anniversary. And Magician Barman stopped by the table on a couple of days, not only to mystify us, but to show the kids how to do a magic trick of their own. I am always more impressed by well-done close up magic than by big stage productions involving a lot of equipment, and Barman is very very good.
Other standout dining options include the sea day brunch. I was particularly pleased with my steak and eggs and the huevos rancheros. I suggest going after 11 however, when they switch from offering a basket of breakfast breads upon seating, to bringing out hot, fresh, melt-in-your mouth popovers. And make time for tea at least once while you are on the ship. We are early risers and did not find that sit down breakfast was worth the extra hour’s wait on port days. The food is no better than that offered on the Lido breakfast buffet and there are fewer choices.
The Lido buffet is certainly serviceable at lunchtime, better than I expected given previous experiences, but I really suggest going for either the Tandoor or the Pizza instead. The tandoor offers a rotating selection of hot Indian dishes and they do a particularly good job on the fish dishes, they also offer a large selection of chutneys and other accompaniments. The pizza is a very authentic thin crust pizza de Napoli. The Quattro formaggi is a standout. They are made to order, but the 5-7 minute wait is generally worth it. I did not try the rotisserie (hidden away on the second floor of the Lido dining area), but my mother thought it was quite good. None of us had the Mongolian grill as there was always a line. The Lido desserts have improved dramatically, not a dry dull cake in the bunch this trip, and there were some fabulous Napoleons on offer.
Try the Taste Bar on sea days for appetizer sized servings of dishes from the different specialty restaurants throughout the fleet. Another good way to get the kids to try out some new dishes.
We did not try the steakhouse this trip, because we instead signed up for The Chef’s Table as a 20th anniversary gift to ourselves. Please, please, please, if there is any way you can do this on your cruise, set aside the money and go for it! It was the highlight of the cruise. Head chef Rakesh took us on a tour of the galley during dinner service, it was amazing to see the scope of the operation required to keep 3000+ passengers fed. The logistics are mindboggling and after seeing it, I was even more impressed that they can turn out so much food of such consistently high quality every day. Don’t eat much the day you are going to do this, it starts with 4 different appetizers and champagne in the galley and then runs through about 7 courses BEFORE you get to the desserts. Wine and a group picture are included as part of the package, as well as souvenir menus and the recipe for the chocolate melting cake, which you will get a lesson on how to make during the galley tour. The Head chef is available throughout the dinner to not only talk about the dishes, but to answer any questions you might have. For example, I learned that the Splendor goes through just over a ton of butter every 3 days. And Barman came by here as well, to provide tableside entertainment. All in all a wonderful gourmet experience and well worth the additional cost.
We did the Bottomless Bubbles for the kids this year and it was OK, they aren’t big soda drinkers (by choice), so they actually increased their consumption to make it worthwhile. They still probably didn’t drink more than 2-3 sodas a day, so I don’t think we’ll do that again. Still, it is probably worth it if you just can’t do without your Coke, and the 12 pack per person you are allowed to bring on board just won’t do. The rest of us made do with the copious free water, coffee, tea, lemonade and hot chocolate. We did not do the Cheers program, as we knew we’d never break even on it, instead we signed up for a 5 bottle Cruise The Vineyards package and split a bottle at dinner each evening. Frankly the bottles are way overpriced, the Tier 2 program runs about $35 a bottle for $10-$12 wines, but still much less expensive than buying wine by the glass. We also discovered that Carnival has introduced their own line of craft beer, which made us very happy as my mother and I are both beer lovers and beer snobs and the previous options of nothing but canned Bud and Heineken meant that we simply went without on board. The Red Frog Amber Ale is a fabulous, smooth, medium-dark brew, without any overly-hopped bitterness. We absolutely loved it, and loved even more that it was the best alcohol bargain on the ship at $5.50 a pint and $16.85 a pitcher (pitchers only available in the Sports Bar). We had great bar staff, especially in the Sports Bar, where they were very patient with the kids.
Hubby and kids loved the Seuss at Sea program. Hubby even got to play The Cat in the Hat for the post-parade story time show. Since there were so few kids on this sailing, they did not limit admission to the brunch to those 5 and under, so Hubby and the kids were able to do that as well. The brunch itself wasn’t particularly inspired, but they had a lot of fun and we got some great pictures of the kids.
The shows were pretty cheesy, the Fiesta Latina show was particularly obnoxious, no-one involved demonstrated any Latin rhythm whatsoever, although they did frequently demonstrate the proper wear of thong underwear. The band is quite good however, and “The World’s Fastest Juggler” should not be missed. For entertainment, we really came to prefer The Piano Bar, where Russell Blues demonstrated not only his mastery of the keyboard but some impressive vocal chops as well, he can sound just like Tom Jones one minute and Satchmo the next. His engaging personality helped keep the audience involved throughout the evening.
Halloween was a lot of fun, they did onboard trick or treating for the kids, with a treasure map to show the stops ending at a family dance party, where the youngest won the costume contest. One caveat (OK, we probably should have asked first), as when we showed up with drinks to the bar where the party was being held, we were told we could not bring alcohol into the venue. We were not the only parents leaving a drink guard outside while we rotated in turns to watch the kids dance. I understand the policy, but it also seemed a little silly for a party held in a BAR, when all the kids had seen folks drinking on the ship all week. None of the parents were drunk or obnoxious, just sipping a glass of wine or a frozen cocktail, as responsible adults often do.
There were a lot of guests in costume that evening and a lot of different parties going on as it was the last night on board. The staff got into the act as well, but since the costumes were almost all props for the different port photo shoots they do, they had a rather threadbare randomness to them. We all dressed up for the evening as well and decorated our doors with Halloween-themed banners and decorations for the whole week. From what I saw, it looked like a lot of fun was being had by all, but I did not get to spend nearly as much time up people watching as I would have liked because it was the last night and I had a lot to do to make sure we were ready for the next day.
We were in adjoining Ocean View cabins 2404 and 2408. The cabins were roomy (roomier than the balcony rooms) and the connecting door made it like having our own suite. The pullman and sofabed were always made up in the room we were sharing with the kids, so we used the sitting area in my parents’ cabin as a place to visit together and watch TV. It worked out really well and gave us more space than adjoining balconies would have. We spend so little time in the cabin, aside from changing, naps and sleep, that I don’t feel the lack of a balcony, and with 4 of us in a room, I’d rather have the space anyway. We had excellent service from our room stewards, Marvin for my parents’ room and Agung in ours (somehow the connecting cabins split two areas of responsibility, weird). They kept on top of all our needs, were quick to respond if we had questions, and were unfazed by the sort of troubles that inevitably arise when traveling with kids (in our case, one with a major nosebleed in the middle of the night).
All the staff were fabulous throughout the ship, always ready with a smile and assistance.
PORTS OF CALL
We did some fabulous jewelry shopping here. I can highly recommend JC Jewelers. They were very helpful, and due to a call ahead by my boss, who has known the proprietor for years, they opened up their shop for us in Crown Bay Center, despite the dual facts that there were no ships in the Crown Bay port that day and that they were in the midst of a move to that location from an older one downtown. We were able to get very fair prices on our purchases, and had a fabulous time visiting with the proprietors, Jay and Judy. It was much more fun than the usual stops at the big chain duty-free jewelers that make up most of the dockside complexes.
We stopped at Beuchart’s Beer Garden for lunch and had a fabulous experience. It’s a true hole-in-the-wall place with just a few outdoor tables and a bar, shady and breezy, with moss and ferns covering the walls, lizards exploring, and a plantain tree right in the middle. Not at all crowded on the day we went, just one other group at another table, although there was a ship in port. The owner was very friendly and helpful and had been in the islands for many years.
The conch fritters actually contained some conch and veggies and were spicy, crispy and batter-dipped, completely unlike the dull, doughy, hush-puppy-like things you usually get. The Cuban sandwiches were also extremely good, containing some of the best pulled pork I’ve had (and I come from a barbequing state). While the margaritas may not have been the world’s best, they were certainly the world’s strongest, 2 of them and I’d have never made it back to the ship. The local Blackbeard’s Ale was excellent and well worth trying, particularly if you like good dark beers.
The only thing I will say is, don’t come in here if you are in a hurry, everyone here is on “island time” and each separate dish, sandwich, or drink is made individually, so it will take a while. For us this just added to the sense of leisurely relaxation, but could be an issue if you have a short time hack to get back to a ship. Also, bathroom is clean but southern service station basic.
As far as Magic Ice goes, we had been very excited about doing this based on the ads and the other reviews we’d seen, but ended up sorry that we went. Admission is pricy. We spent 92 dollars for a group of 6, 4 of whom were half price (senior/child). Instead of the highly detailed ice sculptures we were led to expect, everything was featureless and rather blobby.
It is just a narrow warehouse, so you walk to the end, turn around and come back by the things you already saw. The guy staffing the inside was extremely rude, screaming at kids instead of simply telling them what the rules were. He wasn’t much more polite to the adult tourists he served at the bar, only offering vile, sticky-sweet flavored rums (banana, coconut, pineapple and something else) for your “free” shot, though it turned out that you could try any of the rums that they had behind the bar. When my father asked for a dark rum instead, he got very snippy, stating that what was on offer was “what the tourists like”. I wish I’d had sense to ask about alternatives myself as the coconut was disgusting.
Save your money and have a second margarita at Beuchart’s instead.
We had some time left after heading back to Havensight Pier so Mom and I went to the little butterfly garden right across from where we were docked (it’s directly behind the inevitable Señor Frog’s). That was much more rewarding than the ice museum, with lots of beautiful butterflies and local tropical plants on display. We had a fabulous tour guide all to ourselves, as we were practically the only folks there, and she was able to not only tell us about the butterflies and the plants, but to tell us about local life and history as well.
You could even watch the new butterflies emerging from hundreds of chrysalises on display. The only disappointment was that the butterflies themselves, while dramatic, were not local species. The attached ‘botanical garden’ to the side was really only about 25 yards of pathway with some of the local plants labeled, but we did see a hummingbird and some cool lizards, so it was not a complete wash.
This was our favorite port of call this trip. We grabbed a taxi as soon as we got off the ship and, not being in the mood for beaches or having batik aggressively sold at us, was able to get a tour just to Brimstone Hill fortress and back for $12.50 each (plus admission fees to the fort, $10 for adults, $5 for kids). Our driver, Peter, was an absolute gem. He immediately asked if we wanted to go straight there or have a bit of a tour. Naturally we opted for the tour, so he showed us around Basseterre before heading off to the fortress. We saw cattle egrets, monkeys and even a mongoose along the way.
Brimstone Hill is fascinating, the oldest fort in the Carribean. You drive up a series of terrifyingly narrow switchbacks to reach the entrance and from the top you have views of most of the island. It was gorgeous! There is a brief video, outlining the history of the site as a British Fort, captured by the French then turned back over to the British at the end of the American Revolution (which I always forget involved a lot of skirmishes between the British and the French in the Carribbean). It gave me real sense of just how much bigger Revolutionary War history is than just Lexington and Concord, and Yorktown.
Peter was completely unhurried about the whole experience, I’m not sure if that is because there was only the one ship in port, or if he is just naturally of an island time disposition, but he was perfectly willing to stop along the way us to take pictures, while avoiding any of the unwanted tourist trap shopping along the way (I have had this insisted upon, in Europe as well, by drivers who get a kickback from the owners for every tour that stops), he was not at all worried about how long we wanted to spend exploring the fort, asking us if we wanted to stay longer when we came back to the car when we were done. We asked for a good local place to eat, so he took us to a hole-in-the-wall called OJs, about 3 blocks from the port. Unfortunately we got there right at lunchtime, so we couldn’t get in past the long line of locals reaching out the door. With kids who don’t wait patiently once hunger kicks in, we decided that the better part of valor was to simply return to the ship for lunch, no matter how good it smelled from outside. Next time however…
Peter did give us card advertising one of the jewelry places on the docks, so after he dropped us off, we went in just so he could get his kickback. We the used the excuse of hungry kids to head off a protracted sales pitch and went back onboard.
We had planned a quiet day here, so we fought off several dozen cab drivers and just explored St. John’s on foot. We managed to navigate the gauntlet of maddened taxi drivers, seeking their natural prey of tour lacking ‘rich’ Americans, but only barely. There are fascinating colonial era buildings down by the quay, very satisfying to a group made up of history buffs versus beachgoers. A fabulous huckster named “Sugar Mama” sold us some of her handmade shell and stone jewelry from an improvised roadside stand. I’ll readily admit it, I’ll spend money just as a reward for the showmanship of someone who can talk a good game and “Sugar Mama” was the real deal. We told her we’d think of her when we wore the pieces and she told us she’d think of us that night when she spent our money. Gotta love an honest huckster!
We went to the small Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, which is found in the old city courthouse. Nothing fancy here, but some very interesting history if you have the patience to read the displays. They were selling Remembrance Day poppies here, which really brought home the fact that this was, until relatively recently, like Saint Kitts, a part of the vast British Commonwealth.
We also went to see Saint John’s Cathedral like the good(ish) Anglicans we are. Unfortunately, the church is currently closed for long-overdue restoration. The churchyard is open to the public, however, as well as a small parish bookshop on the grounds. The parishioner working there was very sweet and was able to give us a lot of information about the church and local history. I bought a small book of devotionals and was touched by his gratitude that I had also picked up one of their free brochures on church history, as “it has the church website on the back, and you can keep up with the renovations.”
While heading back in the direction of the ship, we stopped spent a couple hours hanging out in a wonderful little open-air courtyard bar/restaurant called Alligator’s Bar and Restaurant. In all that time, I think we were the only non-locals who came in. Spotlessly clean, the main seating area was a breezy porch with well-padded benches all around. Lunch prices were very reasonable, though I think I’d have had a bit of sticker shock at supper time. Absolute standouts were the conch in garlic sauce and the homemade ginger beer (Hubby suggests that his was improved even further by a shot of good dark rum).
This was a bit of a crapshoot for us as the tour we had scheduled to go to the butterfly garden and Marigot, on the French side of the island had been cancelled due to the recent Hurricane Gonzalo. As we were planning our one official shore excursion here, and as I did not find out about the cancellation until we were on the ship, I hadn’t researched anything about this port. We took the water taxi across to the main tourist area of Phillipsburg and explored the area on foot. Some interesting buildings, but quite a bit of hurricane damage was evident and a lot of places were closed. And the aggressive salesmanship of all the jewelers’ touts reached a grating sort of climax here, probably driven by the facts that we were the only ship in port and that they were less than two weeks out from a damaging major storm. Once you got out of the immediate tourist district, it was still what appeared to be nothing but miles of more shopping districts, just run down ones catering to locals instead. We did get some good rum punch here to bring home, but that was the extent of it. We hopped the water taxi back to the docks. I will say we got the best mojitos we’d ever had from a stand in the duty-free plaza by the ship for $5, so that was a highlight. We also found Kinder Eggs in a shop there, which we got to add to the kids’ Halloween goodies that night
I wish we had known earlier in the day what we learned from one of our fellow cruisers on the water taxi back to the ship. If you go straight back two blocks (past the courthouse) from where the water taxi debarks in Phillipsburg you can catch one of the frequently running buses (vans really, but they function as buses) that circle all the way around both sides of the island for $2 per person. You can get to Marigot and back this way, or stop off at any of a number of well-regarded beaches. Or just stay on the whole way round, see the island and avoid a second $2 fare for the trip back. Next time I go, I want to do that, rather than a ship’s excursion.
Debarkation in San Juan was the smoothest we’ve had. Because we had Faster to the Fun, our luggage was in the first group off the ship. We were told to expect to be called about 9, but we were cleared to debark earlier than expected. Since we went down right away when called, there was no wait to get off the ship, we found our luggage without too much difficulty (there is always that one bag that somehow gets separated from all the others in the group and must be searched for, fortunately my bags are neon lime green), and went straight through Customs with only a cursory glance afforded to our declaration forms. Our hotel was only ¼ mile away, so by 9 we were not only off the ship, but had dropped off our luggage, gotten directions and a map of Old San Juan, and were out on the street to begin our next set of adventures.
Old San Juan is amazing and gorgeous, everything you would expect it to be, with well-preserved 19th century Spanish townhouses lining blue cobblestone streets. What you don’t expect is that is also very expensive. Nothing makes you realize you are back in the States quite like paying DC prices for everything. All of our favorite parts were free though, the Cathedral, Ponce DeLeon’s final resting place, with its amazing frescoed ceilings, the forts of El Morro and San Cristobal (free for us as I have a National Park Services pass), the astonishing Capitol building and the absolutely stunning (and tiny) Chapel of the Christ of Good Health. We were very lucky to be able to go inside the last, as it is manned exclusively by a society of local volunteers and there is no regular schedule when it is open. We were happy to buy a couple of inexpensive religious tchotchkes to help keep this astounding little site open. It also happened to be right next to “Pigeon Park”, I advise not opening any of your purchases to show them off here as the pigeons will think you are feeding them and swoop down to sit on your head or shoulders.
The area is only about 7 blocks square, so everything can be seen on foot. There is a free trolley, but a number of the stops are closed due to construction right now and the route is split into two parts, with the buses that look like trolleys only making a circle around the port area and only the white, open air ones traveling to El Morro and San Cristobal. We found this out the hard way after spending far too much time on the wrong one. Honestly, as long as you have the endurance, you’ll make far better progress on foot anyway, given the unbelievably heavy traffic and the random street closures from the construction. I would say that, especially if you know where you are going, which we did not, you can easily cover the whole area on foot in a single day, so I see this as potentially a fabulous single day port of call. Eat breakfast for free on the ship, see the town and stop for a single substantial local meal at one of the many excellent, but expensive, restaurants, then return to the ship before you run out of money.
Food will be your biggest expense. As far as I can tell, there is no such thing as a lunch special in this town, it’s dinner prices at all hours. We did have some fabulous meals, the very best was the mofongo at El Mojito, recommended by one of the hotel staff as the place he goes, and by another as his mother’s favorite. Although it is right in the heart of the tourist area, the patrons seemed to be, if not San Juan local, at least nearly entirely Puertoriqueño, and prices were at least in the semi-reasonable range. The food was amazing and the mofongo was the best we had, stuffed with meat or seafood that spilled out of the top, and dripping with butter and garlic. Despite the name, we did not go there for the mojitos, instead finding the best deal on those at the rooftop restaurant in the Hotel Milano, which offers 2 for $8 mojitos, a decent view and the best nachos I’ve had outside of Chacho’s and Chalucci’s in San Antonio (those who are familiar either with me or the establishment in question knows that that is high praise indeed).
How did we find the deal on the mojitos? Those were recommended by the streetside tout of another restaurant altogether, Greengos Carribean Café. A chain restaurant, it is still worth a stop for the very good $5 happy hour margaritas, then ask the girl who works out front where to actually go for food. She was the best free tourist guide in town, happy to point you in the right direction for anything your were looking for regardless of whether it brought you into the restaurant to spend money. Like a number of folks we met and talked to in San Juan, she was not a local, but an itinerant drifter (from Oklahoma in this case) who’d somehow made her way to the city, found it way more expensive than expected, and found local work while trying to save up money to leave again.
If you aren’t wedded to having local food, the one good bargain we found was pizza joint called Foccacia. They probably had 20 different styles of pizza on offer, running the gamut from plain old cheese or pepperoni, to a pear and gorgonzola wonderment. They sold by the slice, and we were able to satisfy 6 hungry folks, all with different tastes, for 38 bucks including drinks/beer.
I definitely do recommend the Hotel Casablanca if you are cruising out of Puerto Rico, it is right in the middle of Old San Juan, within easy walking distance of the docks, and they will store luggage both on pre-check-in arrival and after check out on late departure days. It is a funky little boutique hotel, a converted 19th century Spanish apartment building that has been decorated with a Moroccan theme. Rooms are small, particularly the ones with only one bed, more like a European room than the larger ones you get used to in the States, but they are comfortable, air-conditioned, with private baths, flatscreen HDTVs, and cable. The decorating theme extends to the rooms, with mosquito netting and themed bedding, as well as mosaic glass wall lanterns. And, hubby’s favorite part, the movie Casablanca plays on a 24/7 loop in the lobby.
There is also an AstroTurffed rooftop with lounge chairs and giant stone hot tubs (really giant stone baths, no jets) where you can sit with your nearest and dearest and have a drink while looking over the city and seeing who else is in port (the Valor docked the day after the Splendor left). It’s not really going to sell you on the hotel, one way or the other, and frankly Old San Juan is not at its best when viewed from 5 levels up, but it is a pretty cool feature.
Do be aware that, as a 19th century building, there is no elevator and rooms can be as high as the 5th floor. Staff will assist with getting luggage to and from the rooms, but if you have difficulty climbing stairs, this might not be the right choice for you. Also rooms with windows opening on to the old central courtyard (now roofed in) can be noisy, with conversation floating up from the lobby bar below into the wee hours of the night. If that bothers you, ask for a room at the quieter rear of the building or ask for earplugs, which are available from the desk. Prices are reasonable for the area, booking directly on the hotel website we were able to get rooms at the same rate as we would have paid at the Radisson, across the causeway in Condado. In the end it was the more economical choice as staying in Condado would also have meant an expensive taxi ride from the port as well. I also advise against breakfast in the hotel restaurant, 20% off or not, it was bland and rather expensive. Siglo XX across the street had much better choices for about half the cost.
The staff here is very helpful, as well as storing luggage, they were able to provide maps of the area, instructions for the best ways of getting around, and recommendations for where to find the best local food (El Mojito, as stated above, seriously, just go there). They also made taxi arrangements for us when we were ready to depart for the airport and would have made rental car arrangements and set up tours, had we not decided that sticking to just exploring Old San Juan was plenty to manage this trip. A taxi to the airport starts at $21, but there are also additional charges for excess passengers and per piece fees for luggage, so it can up quickly.
HOME AGAIN HOME AGAIN JIGGETY JOG
Not much to say about the trip home, we flew Delta out of San Juan. The only big difference was having to have our baggage inspected twice when leaving Puerto Rico, once by the USDA and again by TSA. As everything is x-rayed at both points, it would seem to make more sense to combine the two, but that would involve two different US government agencies actually cooperating, so that’ll never happen. The flights were uneventful, we had a 3 hour layover in the Atlanta airport, which I believe every single person in America has had to change planes in at least once in their lives, and therefore requires no explanation, except to say that the burgers were much cheaper than the ones in the San Juan Airport (I told you that place was expensive). Delta mishandled our luggage as only they can, we came home with a gigantic rip in the soft-sided bag we’d bought just prior to the trip, and our hardsider now looks like it was run through a mangle, but everything and everyone made it home safe and with a bunch of new stories to tell. And really, what more can you ask from an adventure?
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