Day 4: The pros and cons of a shore excursion in Puerto Rico

ABOARD THE OCEANIA INSIGNIA — What an interesting mix of culture Puerto Rico presents. Pulling into San Juan, the pretty pastel buildings of the old city rise from the piers, their Spanish colonial architecture testifying to the island’s long history.

But on closer look, we spot a CVS pharmacy, a Foot Locker store, Starbucks and a Subway. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is very Americanized. Our tour guide, Tony, told us the island has 14 Wal-Marts. It also has 11 rum distilleries and Tony has us en route to the largest, Bacardi.

Bacardi’s Cathedral of Rum.

Founded in 1862 and moved to the island from Cuba sometime later, the distillery produces 85 percent of Bacardi rum, the remainder made in Mexico. A trolley transported us around the grounds of the massive complex just across the bay from Old San Juan. We stop at the museum to get schooled in Bacardi family history, then pop into the Cathedral of Rum. The striking art deco building houses fermentation tanks and we learn how Bacardi transforms sugar cane into its many rum products, some aged 16 years in American oak barrels purchased from whisky distilleries and reconditioned. Thanks to the hot Caribbean climate, between eight and 12 percent of each barrel’s contents is lost per year through evaporation, the “angel’s share.” We move on to the visitor center and gift shop and back to the outdoor bar for our complimentary cocktail: a daiquiri, Cuba libré or tropical sunrise. Tours of the distillery are so popular, Bacardi serves 30,000 of these cocktails a month.

Castillo San Cristobal

A free drink makes a nice perk, especially when we consider the cost of drinks on board Oceania’s Insignia, which are on the high side. A bottle of Bill’s “Chateau Budweiser,” the cheapest beer, costs $6, cocktails $10 to $12, a glass of wine $9 to $16. An 18 percent service charge applies to all. Passengers can purchase a wine package or have their stateroom card dinged for each drink. And if you are thinking of bringing a bottle of wine on board to enjoy in one of the ship’s restaurants, consider the corkage fee you’ll be charged. Not worth it.

Shore excursions purchased through the ship are on the high side, too. Our San Juan and Bacardi Distillery tour is priced at $149 per person. On the plus side, Tony was an affable tour guide, earning the tip we gave him, and our tour bus picked us up right by the ship and dropped us at the door of each site we visited, something passengers with limited mobility appreciate. However, if you have no difficulty walking, and aren’t interested in a distillery tour, you can easily visit the sites included on our tour—and more—on your own since they are just blocks from the cruise piers.

Old San Juan sights are close to the cruise piers.

Tony took us to Castillo San Cristobal, a massive 18th-century fort guarding the entrance to San Juan Bay with a view of Castillo San Felipe del Morro a citadel started in 1539 farther along the oceanfront. Built by the Spanish to protect what once was the walled city of Old San Juan, this pair of fortresses established the European power’s position in the Caribbean at what the Spanish called “puerto rico,” rich port. After admiring the walls, bastions and domed turrets of the fort, we were back on the bus for a quick drive through Old San Juan.

After the tour ended, I wanted to see more of this lovely colonial city with its wrought iron balconies and cobblestone streets. A short walk led me to the Catedrale de San Juan Bautista built in 1540, making it one of the oldest cathedrals in the Western Hemisphere. It contains the remains of Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon who accompanied Christopher Columbus in his discovery of this rich port.

December 27, 2016

Photos by Katherine Rodeghier

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