This year my husband Bill and I are breaking with our usual holiday tradition. Instead of gathering with family for Christmas and New Year’s, we are boarding a luxury ocean liner and heading south on a 12-day voyage through the West Indies, stopping off at seven islands along the way.
When friends who are elbow deep into gift wrap, decorations and recipes for sumptuous holiday meals ask about our plans their reaction is a mix of dismay and envy. Won’t you miss your family? Of course, but with our daughter half a world away and unable to come home until mid-January and our son who’s happy to celebrate with us a week early, we feel no guilt about making our holiday escape.
As I write this the temperature in my northern home is hovering around zero with wind chills well below. Soon I’ll be sunbathing in a deck chair, sipping a cool, tropical drink while deciding in which on-board restaurant to have our Christmas dinner. No cooking for me. No table to clear, dishes to wash.
And when we ring in 2017, no designated driver will be necessary to brave dark, icy roads. The captain will navigate us into the New Year in high style.
Only Santa’s sleigh could be more magical than ours. Upper premium Oceania Cruises operates a fleet of six luxurious ships crisscrossing the globe with stops at 370 ports. Our ship, the 684-passenger Insignia, cruises the Caribbean at this time of year. With 400 professionally trained European staff to take care of us, we expect to be pampered. Though Oceania promises a five-star experience, Bill is happy to leave his tuxedo at home and relax under the ship’s country club-casual dress code.
One of the R-class vessels operated by the former Renaissance Cruises, Insignia is a virtually new ship after a multimillion-dollar transformation. Almost 70 percent of its staterooms have private verandas, including ours. If we tire of dining in its four open-seating restaurants we can order room service and enjoy an intimate meal while watching the ship slice through the Caribbean Sea.
If I overindulge in Insignia’s fine dining—Oceania has a reputation for some of the best cuisine afloat—I can work off calories in the ship’s state-of-the-art fitness center or join an indoor cycling or aerobics class. I can even keep up my yoga practice by joining a group on board. And should I choose more pampering—why not, it’s Christmas!—I can book a massage through the ship’s Canyon Ranch SpaClub® or lower myself into the open-air whirlpool spa for a relaxing soak.
I’ll be thinking of family and friends shivering up north, and yes, I will miss them. But I’ll get over it. Who knows, this may be the start of a new tradition of celebrating the holidays at sea. Come along with me and maybe you’ll be tempted to hop aboard one of Oceania’s sleighs with Santa next season.
|Dec 23 Fri||Miami, Florida, United States||Embark 1 PM||6 PM|
|Dec 24 Sat||Cruising the Atlantic Ocean|
|Dec 25 Sun||Cruising the Atlantic Ocean|
|Dec 26 Mon||San Juan, Puerto Rico||8 AM||5 PM|
|Dec 27 Tue||St. John’s, Antigua, Antigua||10 AM||7 PM|
|Dec 28 Wed||Fort de France, Martinique||8 AM||8 PM|
|Dec 29 Thu||Bridgetown, Barbados||8 AM||6 PM|
|Dec 30 Fri||St. George’s, Grenada||8 AM||6 PM|
|Dec 31 Sat||Roseau, Dominica||7 AM||5 PM|
|Jan 1 Sun||Gustavia, St. Bart’s||7 AM||3 PM|
|Jan 2 Mon||Cruising the Atlantic Ocean|
|Jan 3 Tue||Cruising the Atlantic Ocean|
|Jan 4 Wed||Miami, Florida, United States||Disembark 8 AM|
Day 1: Welcome aboard and fab dinner on Oceania Cruises Insignia
Because Bill and I were confirmed on our cruise fairly late, our choice of flights to Miami for embarkation on Dec. 23 was quite limited–and expensive so close to the holidays. I made our air arrangements for us and found more flights, at less expense, flying into Fort Lauderdale on the day before. We decided to spend the night in a hotel near the airport, then transfer to the Port of Miami the following day.
The plan worked perfectly. First of all, coming from the north in winter always means a chance of flight delays or cancellations, so traveling a day early gives us a little cushion against that possibility. This time our flight was right on schedule and the hotel shuttle whisked us from a very crowded FLD to a nearby inn. The next morning Bill pulled out his smartphone and requested an Uber to the Port of Miami. The 40-minute ride cost around $30, less than half the fare of a shared shuttle and so much more quick and convenient. Lesson learned.
Unlike most cruises from Miami, Oceania departs from Terminal J on the opposite side of the port. On the main side, a long row of big ships stood alongside crowded terminals and traffic congestion. Bill thinks it took our driver as long to make our way through the maze to terminal J as it did to travel from our hotel. Once there we were pleased to see the 684-passenger Insignia standing all by herself, a picture of serenity contrasting with the chaos across the way.
Check-in went smoothly and because our stateroom is on the concierge level we were allowed to board shortly after 11 a.m. We could not access our room until 3, however, so we lingered over lunch in the Terrace Café sitting at a window with a view of the Miami skyline. A quartet of singers in Victorian dress stopped to perform a few holiday songs next to a two-foot-high gingerbread house just inside the café entrance.
We decided to stretch our legs to explore the ship’s public areas and ended up settling into comfy easy chairs in the library. Both of us fell into a snooze until our staterooms were ready. We quickly unpacked, finding space for everything in our stateroom’s ample closets, drawers and cubbies.
Insignia performs its customary muster drill before sailing from Miami and we were happy to get it out of the way. The drill was more comprehensive that what I’ve experienced in the past, especially the emphasis on fire prevention. Of course, open flames aren’t allowed. Smoking is limited to two public areas and prohibited in staterooms and verandas. This was the first time I’d been told electronic devices must be unplugged when leaving our stateroom and that housekeeping had been instructed to do so in our absence. The fire-prone Samsung Galaxy Note 7 smartphone was not allowed anywhere on the ship and anyone sneaking it on board would have it confiscated.
I had made reservations at Toscana, one of four restaurants on board. We’d eaten at an Italian spot near our hotel the night before and were pleased, but the fine dining in this Italian restaurant soared to a whole other level. Rather than a passing waiter plunking basket of rolls on our table, we were treated to an elaborate bread presentation, handed a sculptural tower of focaccia, rolls, crostini and bread sticks along with a half head of roasted garlic and chunks of fresh Parmesan. A rolling cart displayed nearly a dozen varieties of olive oils and three balsamic vinegars from various regions of Italy.
Bill ordered a nice bottle of red wine for us but chose to start his dinner with beer, telling the sommelier to bring him a “chateau Budweiser.” It became a running joke with the waitstaff the rest of the evening.
Caesar salad was prepared tableside and we watched a server debone a Dover sole at the next table with the skill of a surgeon. We ordered meat, however, veal marsala for Bill and osso buco for me, both exceptional. Our remaining half bottle of wine was tagged with our room number to enjoy at a future dinner at any of the ship’s restaurants. I just hope we can snag another reservation at Toscana later in the cruise.
Day 2: Holiday at sea
Santa Claus arrived at Oceania’s Insignia right on schedule on Christmas morning, but this being a luxury cruise line with no facilities or programs for children, there was only a handful of youngsters aboard. Still, each was called by name to meet the Jolly Old Elf seated in the stairway landing of the great hall surrounded by garlands and Christmas greenery. And each received a wrapped gift and was invited to sit on Santa’s lap.
After the kids took their turn, the adults filed in for photos with Santa, selfies and posed shots taken by family and friends. Twenty- and thirty-something gals got the giggles seated on Santa’s thigh, something the white-bearded gent seemed to enjoy. Up one level, servers poured eggnog for all.
The Insignia was decked out in tasteful holiday finery when we boarded two days earlier. Gingerbread houses stood at the entrance to each of the four restaurants and an entire gingerbread Christmas village depicting scenes right out of Dr. Seuss was tucked into the corner of the upper hall. The kitchen staff was still working on it when I took my first walk through the ship. White icing was spread on miniature paths to simulate snow and meringue mushrooms were gently positioned along the route to pose as snowmen.
Throughout the ship Christmas trees dotted public spaces, poinsettias brightened tables and stairwells. A few passengers got into the act, decorating their stateroom doors. Returning to our stateroom after dinner we found a wrapped gift on our bed: a lovely glass ornament in a velveteen box.
With both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day full days at sea, we had plenty of time to relax and enjoy the festivities, quite a contrast from past holidays spent driving in a snowstorm to a relative’s house or sweating over a hot oven in my kitchen and diving into a counter full of dirty dishes. Still I missed spending time with loved ones, especially the youngest in our family.
Christmas Eve happened to coincide this year with the lighting of the first Chanukah candle. Jewish passengers gathered for a simple, intimate service in a café off the pool deck. With no rabbi on board, passengers took matters into their own hands, taking turns leading readings, lighting the menorah and singing traditional songs. Someone asked where everyone was from, and voices rose from around the deck: New Jersey, Arizona, Florida, Mexico, Germany, France.
Two Christian services took place in the ship’s main lounge. Passengers attending the larger, beginning at 11 p.m. Christmas Eve, filled two-thirds of the seating. The ship’s band, string quartet and performers provided music and led the singing of traditional carols “Joy to the World” and “Hark the Herald Angels Sing.” In place of ordained clergy, the cruise director led the hour-long nondenominational service with Bible readings and sermon by passengers and crew members. A shorter version of the service drew a smaller group of passengers on Christmas morning.
Plenty of secular holiday diversions filled the roster of activities, too: a screening of the 2009 remake of Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” starring Jim Carrey, a Christmas sing-along lead by the ship’s pianist in Martini’s Lounge in the morning followed by a White Christmas Martini Tasting in the afternoon.
Holiday cheer, indeed.
Day 3: Getting to know Oceania’s Insignia
I love sea days.
No shore excursions, no alarm clock to set. I can just wander the ship, popping in for any of the myriad activities scheduled night and day as outlined in the ship’s Currents daily program.
In the Canyon Ranch SpaClub <CQ> a woman from Ontario and I got a complimentary lesson from the hairdresser on the best haircut for the shape of our face. I also learned that guests with staterooms in my concierge category and higher have free access to the spa’s private sundeck and whirlpool, a perk I plan to use if the ship’s ample sundeck ever gets too cramped for my taste.
I discovered the Monte Carlo-style casino—not my taste—and next door the Martini’s Bar, which suits me fine with more than 30 specialty martinis on the menu. Mama does love her martinis when the opportunity presents and is game to try a new variety. So let’s do the math: 30 martinis, 12-day cruise . . . oh my.
But I found plenty of nonalcoholic ways to unwind on the Insignia. Barista’s bar serves specialty coffees and the Horizons lounge, with oversized observation windows spanning the width of the ship near the prow, offers afternoon tea. As the ship’s string quartet started to play classical music the hostess came by my table with a box of teas for me to try, then a white-coated server brought over a steaming pot of water and a trolley passed with finger sandwiches, tempting cookies and petit fours. I spent a relaxing hour savoring a pot of tea, looking up now and then from my kindle to stare at the horizon as the ship’s prow parted the ocean waves. Horizons also has a bar we might visit in the evening and self-serve coffee station that has already come in handy in the mornings.
Insignia was built in France in 1998 and refurbished in 2014. It’s registered in the Marshall Islands. I love the dark wood paneling that gives the public areas such richness and warmth. With just 684 passengers and 400 crew, the level of service is high. I’ll do the math for you: 1.71 guests per crew member. While Oceania is most certainly a luxury line, the ambience on board is anything but stuffy. The atmosphere is that of a country club, casual and relaxed, though shorts, casual jeans, T-shirts and athletic wear are not allowed in the ship’s fine dining restaurants.
Passengers did don their best duds for the captain’s cocktail celebration. After welcoming us aboard in the ship’s largest lounge, Capt. Maroje Brajcic, who hails from a seafaring family in Dubrovnik, introduced his senior staff one by one. When the purser stepped forward as he was introduced he claimed he was the chef, startling the man in the toque at the end of the receiving line. Nobody ever applauds the man who handles the money, the purser joked. Sure enough, when it was the chef’s turn to step forward, the room erupted. With good reason, too. The cuisine on board is exceptional.
To make up for some of our overindulgence at the table, Bill and I are trying to exercise on board. High winds closed the outdoor walking/running track so we climbed on stationary bikes in the fitness center and broke a sweat pedaling while watching the north coast of Hispaniola slip by.
Two days at sea have been relaxing, but while 11.5-foot waves have not made me seasick, staggering around the ship—even without a martini to blame—is getting to be annoying. It will be nice to be on solid ground in San Juan in the morning.
Day 4: San Juan, pros and cons of ship excursion
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.
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 libre or tropical sunrise. Tours of the distillery are so popular, Bacardi serves 30,000 of these cocktails a month.
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.
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.
Day 5: Swimming with stingrays and sports on board
A stingray feels a lot like a yoga mat in the fitness center on Oceania Cruises’ ship Insignia. And the females would be big enough to plant myself in downward facing dog if only they didn’t skitter away so quickly.
Bill and I were booked on the Swimming with Stingrays shore excursion in Antigua, a worthwhile experience that we probably could not have done on our own. Eleven of us met our driver at the pier in the capital, St. John’s, for a 30-minute pothole-filled van ride to Stingray City, an attraction on one of the island’s many bays.
An employee led an orientation using a child’s stuffed toy stingray to illustrate the parts of the animal we would soon be frolicking with. Who knew that a ray’s mouth is on its under side? The openings behind its eyes on top are used for breathing and cleaning its food, he told us. Don’t touch it, he warned. Putting any food there would be like stuffing a banana up one’s nose. Not good. We were also warned not to get too close to the ray’s mouth when feeding it. Its powerful suction on bare skin can cause a stingray love bite. And don’t worry about being stung, he told us. Rays don’t sting unless you step on their tails, an unlikely occurrence.
Lessons learned, we joined a large group of passengers from other cruises as we set off with snorkel gear in a flotilla of boats for a 15-minute ride to a sand bar. We exited onto a floating platform and lowered ourselves on ladders into clear, chest-high waters. Soon the rays were upon us, the males about two feet wide, the females five feet. And they weren’t shy. They came right to us, brushing up against our legs, startling those caught unawares and eliciting squeals of excitement. Guides brought out buckets of bait, squid mostly, and the rays began circling like a fleet of stealth bombers waiting for a turn to be fed.
Gradually we began to feel comfortable swimming with these odd looking marine creatures, though they move so fast there’s no chance of keeping pace. The best tactic: Snorkel in place and let them come to you. They glided under us, so close we could reach out to pet their rubbery yoga-mat skin.
After an hour we were back in the boat heading toward shore where a celebratory rum punch awaited. That gave me time to reflect on the ethics of the experience. The rays are not captive, but they certainly are domesticated, conditioned to be fed by humans. Does this harm them? I wonder.
On the way back to the ship, our driver pointed out a modern-looking sports stadium. Soccer? Or football, as they say on this island. Nope, it’s a world-class cricket stadium, venue for the World Cup in 2007.
Back on the Insignia, passengers have plenty of sporting activities. There’s table tennis, a putting green, baggo bean tournaments, shuffleboard, yoga and Pilates classes and workouts with a personal trainer. Of course, there’s the swimming pool, though doing the breaststroke isn’t nearly as exciting as swimming with a stingray.
Day 6: A taste of France
You know you’re in a department of France as soon as you explore downtown Fort-de-France, capital of Martinique. The buildings with wrought iron balconies remind me of New Orleans, the beaches the French Riviera, the bakeries the boulangeries of Provence and the perfume shops the boutiques of Paris. The city even has a Galleries Lafayette where you can buy French scents and fashions and pay for them in euros.
Bear in mind, though, that this French enclave adheres to the time-honored tradition of the midday break. Many businesses, including shops, close from noon to 2:30 for the sacrosanct leisurely lunch and rest period. The locals love to eat out and the choice of restaurants serving French and creole cuisine is among the most extensive in the Caribbean.
But passengers on Oceania Cruises’ Insignia have little incentive to leave the ship for an exceptional meal given the variety of fine dining on board. Five-star menus are crafted under the watchful eye of master French chef Jacques Pepin, the cruise line’s executive culinary director. Care for some roasted quail stuffed with black truffle mousseline, or black Angus steak Provencale, or maybe a perfectly grilled ahi tuna garnished with tomato chutney?
This being a holiday cruise, on Christmas day Insignia’s Executive Chef Farid Oudir came up with Christmas goose and Christmas pudding for his menu. And every day, in addition to Chef Oudir’s creations, the menu in the Grand Dining Room has selections from Jacques and Red Ginger, two restaurants on Oceania’s larger ships.
Don’t get me started on the wine. The ship’s cellars hold a vast collection of vintages from around the world, some appealing to casual wine drinkers and some satisfying serious oenophiles.
Bill and I spent the morning walking around Fort-de-France, stopping at St. Louis Cathedral with its lovely stained glass windows and unusual iron steeple, La Savane, the city’s Central Park, and the beautiful Schoelcher Library built by the Eiffel Engineering Co. in Paris and shipped to Martinique in pieces in 1893.
Then we did something a Frenchman would never do. We skipped lunch and went to the beach. On a visit to Martinique last year we spent a lovely afternoon at Sainte-Anne Beach, 31 miles from the cruise port, but this time we walked down the pier and joined locals on a ferry taking us to Pointe du Bout and the beach Anse Mitan just 20 minutes away. A brief rain shower cooled us off after an hour of sunbathing and we were rewarded with a rainbow arcing over the beach.
I have fond memories of last year’s shore excursion and wish we had time to return to Sacre Coeur de Balata, a one-fifth scale replica of the famous Sacre Coeur of Montmartre in Paris, and the Botanical Gardens of Balata. Landscape gardener Jean Philippe Thoze began collecting plants as a hobby before opening his garden to the public in 1986. It’s now the second largest botanical garden in the Caribbean and the most visited attraction in Martinique.
No wonder this French speck of land in the Caribbean is nicknamed “Island of Flowers.”
Day 7: The bounty of Barbados
Two things I love about Barbados: beaches and shopping.
This former British colony, independent since 1966, is an important center of commerce in the Caribbean, most of it centered in the capital, Bridgetown. The cruise terminal sits just a little over a mile from the heart of the city. As soon as we make our way through the maze of shops inside the terminal we emerge into sunlight and walk a short distance to a well-organized taxi stand. Shared vans are the norm here, and prices are per person, not per vehicle. Most people are headed to one of two places: the shops in Bridgetown or the beaches. I opt for sand over duty-free diamonds, at least for the time being.
Carlisle Beach is one of the closest to the cruise terminal and among the most popular, so we follow the crowd to Harbour Lights, a bar, grill, nightclub and beach facility where daytime visitors can rent umbrellas and beach chairs, book tours to snorkel and swim with turtles, and order bottles of the local Banks beer by the bucket. We settled in for a session of sunbathing, laughing at a pair of dogs stretched out on the sand in the cool shadows below the chaise lounges. What a life, I thought. Then it occurred to me: Aren’t we the same? But at least the dogs had the good sense to stay out of the sun while we roasted.
After a dip in the ocean and a stroll along the beach’s arc of clean, white sand, I found a seat by the grill and took advantage of Harbour Lights’ free Wi-Fi to catch up on some work. The cost of connecting to the Internet on cruise ships can add up and the signal can be weak at sea, so this was a perk I appreciated.
Cruise lines sell a few hours at Harbour Lights as a shore excursion. Insignia’s was priced at $69 per person including round-trip transport, beach chair with umbrella and a welcome drink. It departed from the ship at 8:40 a.m. We spent $20 apiece for the same, minus the drink, and came and went when we pleased.
Back at the cruise terminal, Bill boarded the ship while I browsed the shops, looking for gifts for the grandbabies and the neighbors watching our house while we are away. I also needed to replace the sunhat that blew off when a sudden gust of wind took me by surprise as I exited on the gangway. Somewhere a sea turtle is sporting a new look.
Along with the usual souvenir shops, post office and convenience store, the cruise terminal has duty-free outlets of The Royal Shop, Colombian Emeralds, Best of Barbados, Diamonds International and Harley Davidson. Downtown Bridgetown has more shops in addition to these, including Little Switzerland, Milano Diamond Gallery and Cave Shepherd selling perfume, jewelry, watches and leather goods. Shoppers looking for handmade items head to Pelican Craft Village and Chattel Village.
You can shop right on Insignia in two shops, one selling fine jewelry, the other Oceania logo items, resort wear, perfume, costume jewelry and sundries. The Currents daily newsletter advertises specials and jewelry presentations. I looked over the Tara collection of Tahitian pearls, the Longines watches, earrings from Tashka by Beatrice and a Roberto Coin bracelet. As his personal signature, Coin places a ruby hidden inside each of his pieces, inspired by an Egyptian legend that says a ruby worn close to the skin promotes long life, health and happiness. Tomorrow we celebrate New Year’s Eve on the Insignia. What more could one wish for in the New Year?
Day 8: A spicy day in Grenada
Oceania’s Insignia docked right on time in Grenada. Today marks our third visit here and this time we were determined to have a proper tour of the island on an excursion we booked ourselves through the Grenada Tourism Authority.
On our first visit, back in 1986, our Sitmar vessel—remember that cruise line?—docked at Carenage, a perfectly shaped natural horseshoe harbor and one of the most beautiful in the Caribbean. Our 3- and 6-year-olds stayed on board with staff in the children’s program so we allowed ourselves only a short walk along the pier to watch fishermen bring in their catch, selling to locals right off their boats as they still do today. On our second visit, with the Royal Clipper just a year ago, we took a taxi to La Luna, a 16-cottage resort overlooking Morne Rouge Bay, the next beach over from the two-mile-long curve of lovely Grand Anse. La Luna’s restaurant is open to cruise passengers as is its Bali-inspired spa—if you book ahead. We still remember our couple’s massage as an hour of bliss.
But Grenada is renowned for its natural wonders and we had seen none of them. Oceania’s Insignia docked at the island’s newest cruise terminal, a tunnel away from Carenage and at the foot of the old town in St. George’s, the capital. Here we met up with Roger Augustine who regaled us with tales of growing up in Grenada, the island’s economy, politics and general state of happy well-being. What little crime there is, he said, is petty crime. The prison was destroyed when the island suffered hurricane Ivan in 2004, so prisoners were released to check on their families. After the island recovered, a public service announcement ordered the incarcerated to return, and all came back to serve out their sentence. Everybody knows everybody here, Roger said, so there’s no escaping.
As we drove up the west coast of the island, with the Caribbean Sea lapping at black- and white-sand beaches along the shoreline, we passed a group from the Insignia bound for the ship’s kayak excursion. Glass-bottom kayaks allow paddlers to view an underwater sculpture garden, named the 25th wonder of the world by National Geographic. Hmm. Another reason to come back to Grenada.
In anticipation of independence day, islanders paint curbs, barricades and bridges in the colors of Grenada’s flag: yellow, red, green. Roger slowed his van long enough for us to admire a hillside covered in old tires painted in the patriotic colors and surrounded by flowers and greenery. Farther along, we saw bus shelters and buildings with images of the popular prime minister, historic figures and celebrities. Colonized by the French, then ruled by the British, a revolution in 1979 established the island’s independence. A bloody coup in 1983 prompted an invasion by U.S. military forces ostensibly to rescue American students at a university here, but really to restore democracy. Elections a year later re-established a government that has been stable ever since.
Leaving the main road we headed up a winding back road into the rainforest around Concord Falls. The three-tier cascade cuts through black, volcanic rock overgrown with lush greenery. An athletic young man stood ready to jump from the top of the falls for tips. He earned his money.
Bill and I were happy to have Roger behind the wheel, navigating twisting paved back roads narrowing to one lane at regular intervals. He stopped to point out some of the 32 species of bamboo on the island, a huge nutmeg tree, cocoa pods hanging heavy on their branches and bunches of bananas swinging almost into our path. Farmers carrying machetes walked along the road on their way to and from their gardens. While nutmeg is the “black gold of Grenada” it takes a long time to reap its rewards. The trees don’t reach their prime for 30 years so in the meantime farmers grow cash crops–bananas, tomatoes, potatoes, papaya, corn–sold on the roadside or at market in St. George. I’m betting some of this fresh produce will appear on my dinner plate in Insignia’s Grand Dining Room tonight.
At the Dougaldston Estate we saw cocoa beans laid out on huge wooden platforms to dry in the sun. Women shuffle through the beans, using their feet to stir and aerate them. When completely dry they are shipped to a chocolate factory. Grenada makes some of the world’s finest chocolate, and unlike in some other parts of the world, no child labor is allowed. I’ll remember that when I pass by the chocolate confections on the trolley rolled through Insignia’s Horizons lounge at tea time.
Inside Dougaldston Estate, Roger showed us examples of some of the spices grown on Grenada, making the point that on the island spices are added for flavor but not necessarily for heat. Cracking open a nutmeg pod, he showed us the red nugget inside, the “lady in the boat with the red petticoat,” that’s processed as mace. An array of leaves, seeds and branches lay before him yielding cinnamon, bay leaves, turmeric and allspice. The room smelled like Christmas, just as Insignia’s public areas do this week decked out in pines and gingerbread for its holiday cruise. Roger demonstrated how islanders add local white rum to a jar of spices, age it for six or eight weeks then use the essence to flavor food and drink. Some sip it straight for medicinal purposes. He said his great grandmother had a shot in the morning and one at bedtime and lived to 105. I wish Insignia would list this home brew on its menu of after-dinner liqueurs.
We took a short tour of the nutmeg processing cooperative in the fishing village of Gouyave to see how the nutmeg beans are aged, sorted and graded. A 140-pound sack brings about $1,200 U.S. before it’s ground.
Another twisting, steep road leads us up through the rainforest to an altitude of 1,900 above sea level where Lake Etang unfolds before us. The lake, normally cobalt blue, fills the inside of an extinct volcanic crater. Today, though, gray skies have turned the lake the color of slate. If we had more time we’d hike its perimeter, explore the flora and fauna of Grand Etang National Park and take a peek at Annandale Waterfalls. But Roger’s trained eye sees a heavy rainstorm is brewing, so we skedaddle back to St. George and the Insignia.
Turns out there’s more to see in Grenada than our time allows once again. Luckily Oceania, and plenty of other cruise lines, make “The Spice Island” a regular stop on cruises through the West Indies.
Day 9: Rain drops and tiny bubbles in Dominica
Our day with Oceania’s Insignia in Dominca began on a low note and ended with a high and noisy one on this, the last day of the year.
The shore excursion we had booked was cancelled the night before our arrival due to lack of interest. We’d planned a Jeep safari through the rainforest and natural wonders of what we’d been told is one of the Caribbean’s wildest and most unspoiled islands. Luckily, Insignia’s destination services crew found room for the two of us on the afternoon Champagne snorkel excursion, so we turned in for the night determined to make the best of the ship’s brief stay at the island.
But when we opened the draperies and stepped onto our veranda the next morning my heart sank. It was pouring rain with dark clouds all around showing no sign of a break in the weather. And, because another ship was docked at the main cruise terminal in the capital, Roseau, we were in a port stacked with shipping containers with nothing of interest to be explored on foot. The Oceania crew thinks ahead, though, and organized a complimentary shuttle into the city. We boarded in drizzle, but by the time we reached our destination 15 minutes later we were in a downpour. Bill and I were the only passengers who got off the packed shuttle; the rest turned around and went back to the ship.
We high-tailed it across the street to the Dominica Museum and stayed dry studying exhibits explaining the movement of the Earth’s tectonic plates and the volcanic history of the island. An exhibit on the slave trade that populated Dominica was positioned near an open window overlooking Old Market Plaza where slave auctions once took place. Today colorful but dripping umbrellas were struggling to keep vendors and their handicrafts dry. We moved on to the museum’s replica of a Carib hut and a collection of Arawak pottery. Interspersed among these finds were odd bits of miscellany prompting Bill to joke, “Looks like someone just cleaned out his garage.”
The rain let up so we wandered over to the Fort Young Hotel for a look at portions of the building belonging to an 18th-century fort. Today, instead of providing protection for the island, they house duty-free shops that only threaten your wallet.
We made it back to ship in plenty of time to get organized for our snorkel excursion, but as soon as we stepped aboard the snorkel boat the skies opened again. Cold rain blew in on us from all sides below the boat’s sun shade. The look on our fellow passenger’s faces told the tale: Are we having fun yet? At least we were planning to get wet anyway, I rationalized. Already drenched, the boat dropped anchor just off the coast, we donned snorkel gear and jumped in.
Wonder of wonders, the sea water felt warmer than the air, the clouds lifted and the sun peeked out. Our snorkel guide led us over a reef, pointing out different types of fish and free diving to the bottom to pick up pieces of dead coral for us to examine. He left the best to the last, however, when we followed him to Champagne Reef where bubbles escape from underwater volcanic vents. I could have stayed for another hour snorkeling above them, the sunlight catching the bubbles and turning them into bright strings of crystal. And when I swam above them, warm water enveloped me. What a fabulous experience, and how fortunate our Jeep safari cancelled so we could be here.
Back on board the snorkel boat, the mood had turned jovial with everyone laughing and talking. There was no Champagne, as the shore excursion brochure coyly explained—the bubbly referring to the reef not the drink—but the crew made up for it by passing around cups of fruit juice and rum punch. All of us were soaking wet, our hair plastered and in disarray, and red marks from our masks ringed our faces. No one cared. High spirits carried us back to the Insignia.
I must say, the collection of passengers on Insignia’s holiday cruise cleans up well. Though the ship’s dress code is country club casual, this night is New Year’s Eve and many of the ladies were sporting evening gowns and beaded cocktail dresses, a few men in jaunty bow ties. After a lovely dinner in the Grand Dining Room—beef Wellington for Bill, duck l’orange for me—we had many a hearty laugh over the comedy performance of Brooklynite John Joseph in the Insignia Lounge.
Then, as the witching hour approached, Martinis and Horizons lounges filled up with passengers in party hats. The crew passed around flutes of complimentary Champagne and we all counted down aloud to the New Year while cruising through the Atlantic time zone. Noisemakers squawked and Constantine the pianist led us through the singing of Auld Lang Syne.
Finishing my flute I reflected on 2016, a year with so much trouble in the world. But there were good things for us: a new grandchild and our beloved Chicago Cubs won the World Series—finally. I made a resolution then and there that in 2017 when the sky darkens and rain threatens, I will think of the bubbles in my glass tonight and on the reef this afternoon and keep a sunny disposition.
Day 10-12: Final thoughts as two sea days become three
St. Bart’s, you were but a vision seen from afar.
Last night’s New Year’s resolution to maintain a sunny disposition in the face of adversity was called upon this morning as Oceania’s Insignia anchored off St. Barthelemy. The sea was as tipsy as some of the passengers after ringing in the New Year, the swells too high for passengers to safely board tenders headed into port. The captain announced he would wait an hour for the sea to calm. When the hour passed and the forecast remained for high waves, he canceled our call to this upscale French island, pulled up anchor and cruised away turning our two-day return to Miami into three days at sea.
Along with many passengers, I was sorely disappointed. Gustavia, the capital of St. Barthelemy, sat crouched below green hills on our port side, a sprinkling of expensive yachts in the distance between us. I had not visited this island with its exclusive shops, fine restaurants and beaches and felt cheated. Bill was looking forward to a stroll along a French Riviera-style beach.
But Oceania rightly puts safety first. Peering over Insignia’s railing at the tender bouncing alongside, I could see that stepping aboard would be a challenge for even the most agile among us. In fact, the tender crew needed several attempts to bring the vessel to the starboard side and rig it up to the ropes and pulleys that would hoist it on board. One false move could easily send a man overboard and possibly pinned between the wildly bucking tender and the anchored ship.
So I needed an attitude adjustment and got one when an hour later the ship delivered a revised schedule of the day’s activities to our stateroom. We decided to try a few that had so far eluded us: bingo, team trivia, shuffleboard, golf on the putting green, baggo bean, table tennis and talks by the guest lecturer. With plenty of time spent poolside and forays into the large library for more books to read, it would be a full three days.
I also spent the time reflecting on the cruise itself, the good, the not-so-good. I was struck by the high number of passengers who had cruised on Oceania ships in the past. One dinner companion had been on 11 Oceania cruises and I was told another on board was on his 21st cruise. Obviously, the cruise line is doing something right to keep these folks coming back. This is not to say there weren’t complaints; no cruise is perfect and passengers can be nitpicky, particularly those cruising on a luxury line. This is our first cruise on Oceania, so I can only compare it to the dozen or more cruises I’ve taken on other lines and I weigh my opinion against comments I heard from those who’ve been aboard Oceania’s six ships on prior cruises.
Staterooms: We were on deck 7 in a concierge stateroom, probably middle of the pack between lower-priced rooms and more expensive suites. It was pretty much as I expected, a snug fit for two adults, but we found plenty of room to stow our belongings. The shower was small, a common complaint. Our king bed was quite comfortable, covered in 1,000 thread count Egyptian cotton linens. The beds are such a hit with passengers that Oceania makes its entire bed collection available for sale, including the seven-zone mattress with 400 encapsulated springs and two-inch-thick gel pillow top wrapped in chamomile-infused fiber.
Some passengers complained their veranda was too small. With two chairs and a table, we thought it adequate. The desk with U.S. and European electrical outlets, two each, held my laptop with plenty of room to spare. We made use of the TV and DVD player, borrowing titles from the library, and appreciated the mini-frig stocked with complimentary soft drinks. A loveseat and two cashmere throws were great for lounging, but the glass table in the center of the sitting area was constantly in our way. The complimentary bottle of Champagne on our arrival was a nice touch. On other cruise lines, appetizers or fruit were brought to our room daily and I missed this on Insignia.
Our cabin steward and her attendant kept things tidy with morning cleaning and nightly turn down, chocolates on our pillows. One evening we were relaxing in our stateroom after showering and phoned for ice and a Champagne bucket to cool down the welcome bottle we hadn’t finished. Bill barely had time to put on his pants when they were at the door with both.
Size and service: When we asked passengers why they chose Insignia the No. 1 answer was its size. With 684 passengers it’s in the mid-size range, and with 400 crew members the ratio of 1.71 passengers to crew keeps the level of service high. Smiling crew members were constantly wishing us a good day, asking if we needed anything. They hailed from more than 50 countries, sommeliers from Honduras and Russia, waiters from India and Italy, bartenders from Guatemala and Ukraine, omelet maker from the Philippines, all well trained and English speaking.
We were surprised then that service was often slow in the Grand Dining Room. Even when we entered at 7:30 pm we often missed the beginning of the 9:30 show. We realize Americans are accustomed to speedy meal service, but dining companions from Germany and the U.K. also said they found the arrival of courses lagging.
Food: Oceania has a reputation for some of the best cuisine afloat. Our New Year’s Brunch in the dining room was especially impressive with an array of hot and cold buffet items, carving station, bread table and sumptuous dessert bar with elaborate sculptures in chocolate.
Oceania’s executive culinary director, the acclaimed chef Jacques Pepin, has supervised five-star menus on all of Oceania’s six ships. Insignia’s Executive Chef Farid Oudir came up with some wonderful main dishes at dinner–lobster thermidor, roasted guinea fowl, sea bass, prime rib, Vermont turkey, red snapper, osso buco—with creative starters, soups, salads and desserts. The right side of the dinner menu always included Pepin’s signature dishes (steak, chicken, salmon) and selections from Red Ginger and Jacques, the two specialty restaurants on Oceania’s larger ships. On the left side were healthy choices chosen by the ship’s spa and a four-course degustation menu with suggestions for wine pairing.
Still reviews among passengers were mixed. Some were pleased, others felt the food on previous Oceania cruises had been better. Some singled out certain dishes they found lacking. As for me, I enjoyed every dinner course but two on our 12-day cruise. Not a bad batting average.
Alternatives to the dining room include reservations-only specialty restaurants, Polo Grill and Toscano, which seemed to please most passengers, including us. The Waves Grill on the pool deck had a salad bar and made-to-order sandwiches, including a Kobe beef burger. We had breakfast every morning in the Terrace Café and loved the amazing variety of buffet items—eggs, salmon, cheese, fruit, breakfast meats, cereal, yogurt, potatoes. The staff puts your selections on plates for you; healthier than allowing guests to serve themselves. One night when we didn’t feel like getting gussied up for the dining room, we had dinner in the Terrace Café, expecting burgers and hot dogs. Not so. Many of the menu items served at dinner downstairs on deck 5 appear on the buffet up on deck 9. We had lobster and grilled-to-order steak.
We never made use of room service. Bill felt it would feel too confining, but some passengers seemed to appreciate the convenience of dining in their staterooms. One, however, said she complained to the concierge that her morning coffee and evening soup were both cold.
Entertainment: Reviews of Insignia’s lineup of nightly entertainment were mixed, too. Most passengers seemed to enjoy the guest comedian and pianist, others were lukewarm on the guest singer and ventriloquist. The on-board cast, from the U.S. and U.K., sang and danced their hearts out at night, though some guests seemed not to appreciate their performances. On the first night I looked around the Insignia Lounge and noticed some were actually asleep. During the day the Four Seasons String Quartet played in the Hall and Horizons Lounge. In the evening Constantine tickled the ivories in Martinis and the Insignia Show Band backed up performers in the Insignia Lounge.
Cruise Director Leslie Jon, whose long career as a performer put him in the Hollywood Bowl, Japan’s Mikado Theatre and the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, among many others, kept the ship running smoothly, overseeing the nightly entertainment and daytime activities, including the many special events on our holiday cruise.
Fellow passengers: Among the most positive aspects of a cruise on Insignia, its relatively small size gives passengers the opportunity to get to know each other. We didn’t meet every Tom, Dick, and Harry but did have dinner with one of each, along with their spouses.
There is no assigned seating or time for dinner in the Grand Dining Room and two specialty restaurants. Passengers usually have the option of dining alone or at a table with others. We met people from Germany, the U.K. and states across the U.S. and overhead conversations in Italian, French and Spanish. Aside from a handful of grumps, people we met seemed to be having a good time. After some grousing and nitpicking over dinner one night, a fellow diner agreed his time on Insignia had been positive overall. As he put it, “If you can’t enjoy yourself on a cruise you should stay home.”