Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

Winter 2018 was definitely time for another cruise from Florida. This time we chose Holland America, a cruise line we have never used before, for a 7-night trip to Key West, Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos, Amber Cove in the Dominican Republic and Half Moon Cay, Holland’s private island in the Bahamas. The ship was the Nieuw Amsterdam and we left from Fort Lauderdale on a pleasant Saturday evening in early March.

Go here for a picture gallery.

We had booked what is called a “guarantee” balcony cabin, which the cruise line allocates the week before. We found ourselves perched very high in one of only 10 cabins on deck 11. You can read more about the ship here.

Nieuw Amsterdam, arrow showing our cabin

Key West

On the first whole day we were in port at Key West at the very end of the Florida Keys. The ship docks right by the town with an easy walk for sightseeing. We had been to Key West twice before including once by car with 2 nights B&B, and so bypassed the major sights like Ernest Hemingway’s house.

Key West is 160 miles by road from Miami, far enough for the city to be able to do its own thing. They call themselves the “Conch Republic”, and slightly with tongue-in-cheek have an Independence Day and a national anthem. Chickens wander about in the streets. There are no high rises, just old wooden houses, beautifully done up. Needless to say there are also a lot of places selling key lime pie and key lime everything else – the yoghurt is really good.

Manatee mailbox in Key West

Rather than walk a lot, we took the trolley tour. “Trolley” is American for an open-sided bus. It’s hop-on hop-off in Key West. The trolley goes a lot further than the touristy “Conch tour train”. We stayed on round the newer part and then got off at what claims to be the southernmost point in the US. There’s a kind of beacon there – and a long queue of people taking photographs of themselves, which we duly did.

Southernmost Point

As we set off to walk some of the way back, on the pavement we found a poignant reminder that Cuba is only 90 miles away and was easily visited from the US until relations soured in 1959.

Poignant reminder

We also passed a number of larger than life-size statues.

Statue in Key West

Back at our perch on the ship we saw that the military occupies the actual southermost point where it has 2 radomes.

Grand Turk

Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos Islands was the second port. “Grand” turned out to be rather a misnomer as it is just less than 7 square miles. It was badly damaged by Hurricane Irma in September 2017 and some of the 3600 inhabitants left then. The main town Cockburn is more like a village, but they have made a big effort to get more tourists by building a cruise terminal that can take two very large ships.

Cruise ships at Grand Turk

In the end we decided to take the ship’s safari tour. This turned out to be another trolley, this time mounted on a truck. We had to climb on up some steps at the back. In 2 hours we stopped only 3 times and then very briefly. We saw several wild ponies and donkeys wandering about. The guide pointed out hurricane damage – there was certainly a lot of building going on. The first stop was at a small craft market where there were some lovely things on sale. We bought a small oil painting for $10 and would have liked more time there.

Next we went to the lighthouse at the other end of the island. This was built by the Brits, of course, in 1852 and is now a historic monument. Most people on the tour were more interested in the wild horses and donkeys which were being bottle fed water by the bus driver.

Donkey drinking with bus driver on Grand Turk

A few venturous people were trying a small zip line there. Again it was a short stop – Martin was the only person who went into the lighthouse enclosure.

The last stop was on a rather nice beach where a ship had been wrecked. The driver told us that this ship had been moored out by the reef a few years ago because it was damaged and had only ended up by the beach during Irma.

Nice beach at Grand Turk with wreck

On reflection I think it would have been better to rent a car on Grand Turk. It certainly would be have been a lot cheaper than the cruise ship’s excursion and we could have stayed longer at some places and taken more photos. There is no way you can get lost in such a small island which is very flat and we do have a guide book for the Caribbean islands. It was interesting to see it, but I think Grand Turk falls into the “been there, seen that” category of places we have been to.

“Not” Amber Cove

The next day the Captain came on the PA at 7.15am to say we would not be docking at Amber Cove because of the swell which was caused by a nor’easter hundreds of miles away. This was a big disappointment to us as the stop in the Dominican Republic was the main reason we chose this cruise. We had booked a rental car, bought a guide book and spent some time working out what we wanted to see in this area. It’s a big country. Rather than trying to see it from a cruise ship again, we realised that we could fly down there for a week from Florida.

Amber Cove was opened in 2015. We have not been able to find out if missing Amber Cove is a frequent occurrence, but you would think that they could have built it to withstand some bad weather. The sea did not appear to be that bad and the locals must have lost a lot of business.

Half Moon Cay

So we had an extra day at sea and sailed very slowly to the Bahamas. There we did know that it was a tender and that we might not get on to the island if the sea was rough, but all was fine and we had a lovely day. Half Moon Cay is bigger and better equipped than the one other cruise line island we have been to. The beaches are lovely, but the rest of the island is low-lying scrub. I found a nice quiet lounger on the beach and got my Kindle out while Martin, needless to say, walked as far as he could.

Our ship anchored at Half Moon Cay

Lunch was an excellent barbecue with plenty of choice of meat, salad and fruit. After lunch we decided to walk the “running trail”, which was all of just under a mile on a good surface. As soon as we set off we met a local on a bicycle who told us that 45 people live on the island permanently, all working for the cruise line. He said he was in charge of the “farm” and invited us to view his “vegetables” which we duly did.

We then came to the stingray lagoon where people were doing the cruise ship stingray excursion, walking amongst them.

Sting rays at Half Moon Cay

There wasn’t much else to see except a few hens pottering around and some interesting vegetation. We were back by the dock in under an hour.

The ship left at 3pm and sailed overnight to Fort Lauderdale arriving at 7am. Because there are so many people, disembarkation is in groups and you choose your time. This meant that we could have a leisurely breakfast in the dining room before getting off at 9.45.

Life on the ship

Three days at sea enabled us to explore the ship. Our cabin was next to the large Exploration Lounge at the front of the ship. Shore excursions were being sold here at a desk, but the lounge also had some huge flat touch screens where you could research and trace where you are going. There was also a large number of travel books, a rare thing on cruise ships.

Many people spent the days at sea lounging by one of the pools. This is not really our thing again, especially when there is music as well, but we did indulge in one of the jacuzzis a couple of times, at dusk when it was quiet. The ship provided ample pool towels and beach towels.

The other passengers were mostly Americans, with a fair few Canadians. We did not meet any other British people on this ship and heard just a few other languages being spoken, although these might of course be people living in the US.

Meals

Mostly we ate in the main dining room which is table service. We always prefer anytime dining rather than the older cruise system of a fixed time at a fixed table. With anytime dining you can ask to share a table. Just think what it would be like if you were stuck on a fixed table for a week with people you didn’t get on with. We had some great companions and, thankfully, no Trump supporters.

The food for dinner in the dining room was imaginative, varied and well-presented. There were two more formal dinners with a scattering of dinner jackets, but most people just dressed up a bit more on these nights. Breakfast was a bit less exciting, but Martin managed to have some kippers one day. There was a good choice of cereals, which was a bit surprising as Americans tend not to eat them.

Like all cruise chips, there was also a large buffet which was open most of the time. This was a good place to have lunch and you could take your food outside. You could make up a light lunch or a sandwich with salad and deli meat. Seeing some people load their plates really brought home the obesity problem in north America, which is far worse than in the UK.

Our cabin

This ship has only recently been refurbished and our cabin was well-equipped with an up to date video system including a bonus of the BBC on the TV.

We didn’t meet our cabin steward for several days and wondered if he was a ghost, something he himself joked about when we finally saw him. Most of his cabins were on the deck below. He was from Indonesia and was very pleased to learn that we had been there. The room was very clean and, like on other cruise lines, we had a towel sculpture every night.

Towel sculpture

Although we didn’t know it beforehand, this cruise was also associated with the Oprah [Winfrey] Magazine and an “Oprah goody” was left for us in the cabin every night, including two very nice beach towels which we could keep.

Entertainment

We only went to the big theatre three times. One was a showing of clips from some of David Attenborough’s programmes accompanied by live musicians. The red snakes chasing the iguana from the last Blue Planet series were a big hit. The same musicians, a Ukrainian string quintet, played light classical music in one of the lounges every night and were much appreciated. One afternoon there was a showing of more clips from David Attenborough with sections on how the clips were filmed. It was all a good advert for the BBC.

We didn’t bother with the rest of the entertainment but I sensed there were fewer clubbers than on most of the previous ships we have been on. Most people seemed to be spending their evenings either sitting around consuming the expensive drinks or in the casino.

Kitchen tour

The tour of some of the kitchens after breakfast one day was interesting, but rather hurried. We were given a short presentation in several departments, although the only food we saw was pastry preparation.

Pastry chef on the ship’s kitchen tour

More interesting was the information sheet which listed how much food they get through in a week. With 2000 passengers and 1000 crew it is rather a lot. The list included 3500lbs of rice for the crew who were mostly from Indonesia and the Philippines. The head chef was a Brit from Portsmouth.

If you are thinking of cruising

We’ve now taken several cruises in the Caribbean, one across the Atlantic and one from Singapore to Darwin. It’s an easy way of travelling and of getting a sense of what some places are like, but I wouldn’t want to do it as my only type of holiday as I like to stay longer in some places. However we met many people who do only ever take cruises.

You can get a good price deal at the last minute, but the cruise lines make more money on excursions and drinks, both of which are very expensive. Most of the excursions in the Caribbean tend to be to beaches, zip lines, stingrays and the like. The crew get paid from tips (called gratuities in America) which are added to your bill. At $13.50 per person per day on Holland America this soon mounted up.

I would strongly recommend anytime dining and I would also recommend doing some internet research before booking and sailing. You will often find that there are much cheaper excursions. When you get off the ship there are normally some locals selling trips and also some taxis.

Cruisers are great users of the Internet. There are forums such as cruise critic where people post often quite lengthy reviews of individual cruises. You can find deck plans of all the ships online, and comments about ports and shore excursions.

And….. don’t forget your sweater or cardigan. It was very cold inside the ship in the public areas.

Picture gallery: Caribbean Cruise Winter 2018

Click to enlarge

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