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Wednesday, July 15, 2009

On Board the Carnival Victory: Land Ahoy!

We had initially intended to travel the Caribbean via air, hopping from one exotically-named sand bar to another, all the way down south into Venezuela.

Well, all that planning done in March went to moot when we realised that it was horrifically expensive to fly from place to place. Nevertheless, I was still hard-bent on finding a cheap way to fly and was quite resistant to the idea of a cruise, which came across as being horribly touristy. But when we chanced upon Carnival Cruises' US$599 offer for a 7-night Southern Caribbean sea excursion, it was obvious that cruising was the most affordable way to visit this pricey destination. That would take care of accommodation, all our meals, transport and entertainment for a week.

Of course, US$599 is for the most bare-bones package out there. It gets you a cabin on Deck 1 (the lowest being the gangway on Deck 0) without a window. We looked at the deck plan, saw the rows and rows of nicer cabins above ours, and felt like the scum at the bottom of the food chain.

Well, the Scum's Cabin turned out bigger than we anticipated (much bigger than our shipping container room at The Pelican, Key Largo), with a roomy bathroom, TV, safe, a bed big enough for 3-4 bodies, beach towels, twice-daily cleaning services and comfy bathrobes. We were very pleased indeed.

The master of the cabin gets comfy

Living in a windowless box makes one crave for fresh air and sunshine, and some vigorous walking to stretch those cramped muscles. Plus, when you get a whole menu of exotic countries to wake up to every day - St Thomas, Dominica, Barbados, St Lucia, Antigua, St Kitts - it's exciting enough to make you want to leave the comforts (and buffet lines) of the ship, although it seemed that some of the passengers were actually happy to lounge around on the deck chairs with burgers and cocktails in hand the whole day!

We managed to tear ourselves away from the bed and buffet lines

There are plenty of options for shore excursions and this entry is about the different ways that you can organise your shore landings, and even save some money for a beer or two in town.

Option 1: Pay Someone
Damage on the Wallet: High

Firstly, there is no lack of guided land tours offered by the tour companies whom the cruiselines tie up with. Of course, most of them were beyond our budget, ranging from US$35 for a simple excursion to the beach (where they throw in a rum punch and leave you alone to bake for 3hrs) to US$130+ for 2 dives. For those who can afford it and relish the ease of traveling on a tour, you can just pop down to the shore excursions desk and settle your programme for the day.

Option 2: Pay Someone Cheaper
Damage on the Wallet: Medium

If money wasn't an issue, we would have hopped onto a tour into Dominica's lush rainforests and do some trekking to the waterfalls. Unfortunately, with the tours costing US$60 to US$80 per person, we had to give the rainforest a miss. We were all prepared to spend the day out in town, laptops in tow, in search of an Internet cafe. Upon stepping off the gangway, we were accosted by vendors brandishing laminated posters showing pictures of rainforests, waterfalls, churches, botanic gardens - all claiming that their tour was only US$15 per person.

We didn't go. Our excuses? (1) too lazy to trudge back to the ship, deposit our notebooks and change into swimmers; and (2) too scared. We didn't know who these vendors were, which tour company they were representing, and if they were even part of a tour company. We weren't familiar with the island and didn't feel comfortable following strangers into a van and being driven deep into the rainforest. And it's a decision I don't regret. Safety first. Always.

Option 3: DIY
Damage on the Wallet: Low

We've pretty much been DIY-ing for the whole of this trip without relying on any travel agents, so this is nothing new.

Of course, if the docking point for the ship is right smack in the heart of town, doing a DIY city tour really doesn't take much effort. You simply stroll down the pier and roll into town.

Walk right over to Roseau, capital of Dominica

Basseterre, St Kitts, is just a short stroll away

St Thomas was the smartest - they plonked a huge shopping mall right between the dock and the town, Charlotte Amalie. We found a Philippino cafe right outside the mall and happily sat there for a few hours. Didn't make it very far into town.

So what if the ship pulls into an industrial port area (not a very pretty welcome indeed) instead of downtown or near a beach? (I wouldn't go to a beach near a port anyway. Except for Sentosa, when truly desperate.)

Well, the evening before each shore landing, all passengers are given a simple map of the island on which key towns and beaches are marked. We perused the detailed itineraries offered by Carnival's appointed tour companies and took note of which beaches the paying guests would be brought to. While tourist beaches aren't always the best ones on the island, they are usually fairly easy to get to (no tour company is going to burn gallons of gas just to bring you to their island's best-kept secrets) and not too far away from the dock (so that everyone can embark in time for the next departure.)

Our only source of travel information on the cruise, short of paying to surf the net

With the names of the popular beaches or towns in mind, we set out to find our own way there.

In Bridgetown, Barbados, we hopped into a public taxi cos it was only US$2 per person to get to town. We managed to leech onto a Canadian couple for the return trip for more bargaining power and got a ride back to the ship for US$2 again, when some drivers were demanding for alot more. We were quite appalled when the Canadians paid their US$4 fare and still tipped the guy US$1. A 20% tip for a short ride?! Spoil market.

In Castries, St Lucia, the first step was to board a water taxi from the port into town.

Feeling happy to get off a big boat and into a small one

Without our rental cars, he's no longer my Mr Taxidriverman so he gets to enjoy the rides now

After surfing to our heart's content (it's not just frivolous online reads and Facebooking, we have to keep our blog going, you know), we were all ready to get wet and sandy on the beach. The lady at the Internet services store gave us incredibly detailed written directions on how to walk to the Castries bus terminal and take a public bus to the beach for US$1 per person. We made it to the terminus (while fending off an insistent cab driver who wanted to take us for US$10 per way), but got lost in the confusing hive of activity when we couldn't locate our bus. Thankfully, the locals were so very friendly. They directed us to the correct bus and even told us where to get off, assuring us all the way that we were on the right track. These mini-vans don't come equipped with bells you can ring to signal your intention to disembark - you just simply yell "bus stop!"

We were really quite pleased and happy to have gotten around St Lucia the local way. It made for a more authentic experience. I realised that how touristy our experience of the Caribbean turned out wasn't dependent on the fact that we were on a cruise, but rather how we chose to spend our time onshore and get to know the islands.

Squashed into the back of one of the mini-vans, Route No.1A, going to the beach

Option 4: Teleportation
Damage on the Wallet: None

Of course, if you can find a red phone booth and dial the code for the place you want to teleport to, that's the best way to travel.

Hang on baby, we're going to the beach!


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