Friday, 17 January 2014 12:01 PM
Esme Fox puts her pre-conceptions about cruising aside for a two-week cruise in the Caribbean. What was the verdict?
I honestly never thought that I’d go on a cruise. I've never been able to understand why people would want to spend all their time on a ship instead of immersing themselves in the country they're visiting.
However, when I got the chance to go to the Caribbean with P&O Cruises aboard Ventura, I knew that I had to give cruising a go. How else would I get the chance to visit these small tropical islands, some of which don’t even have international airports? And on what other type of trip would you get to visit nine different countries in a two-week period? Maybe, just maybe, my idea of cruising would change completely.
The cruise was to begin in Barbados and sail to St. Vincent, Dominica, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Kitts, Grand Turk, Tortola and St. Maarten before ending up again in Barbados again.
When I stepped aboard in Barbados, the ship was just how I’d pictured it, with a glass and marble atrium, plush red carpets and flashy bars. There were even four pools, a spa, gym, full-sized theatre, mini basketball court, shops and many restaurants. My room, on the C deck, felt just like that of a cosy chain hotel, but with added storage space – a walk-in closet and a big balcony with stunning views out to sea. The bathroom was small but perfectly adequate.
My first day was on the island of Barbados, and I had little time to prepare, I booked one of the ship’s shore excursions to go snorkeling with Barbados’ sea turtles. It was a perfect start to the cruise, filled with sunshine, plenty of up-close encounters with the endangered green and hawksbill sea turtles, visits to secluded beaches and as many cups of rum punch as I wanted. Run by professional, very friendly and knowledgeable locals I was thoroughly impressed by my first shore excursion.
The best part about the ship, which became clear right from the second or third day, was the wonderful staff. Nothing was ever too much trouble for them, from noticing that you have a special diet (I’m a vegetarian), to supplying my partner with herbal concoctions when he developed a bad sore throat and even creating cute animals out of the towels in the room.
My favourite part by far though – and the part I knew I’d like the most – was the time spent on the islands. I was up early every morning ready to be on shore for 8am when the ship docked. A hearty breakfast at the onboard buffet supplied everything from fresh fruit and muesli, to pancakes, waffles and a full English. It left me feeling so full for most of the day, that I felt guilty about not being hungrier on the islands and wanting to try lots of local cuisine. Food was something that was definitely not lacking on board – apart from the buffet there were also several formal dining rooms, a pizza bar, a grill and high-end cuisine from celebrity chef Marco Pierre White.
I had made a few notes of things I wanted to do on shore before I arrived, but was eager to see what I could find out in the ship’s own library. Unfortunately though there was only one guidebook on the Caribbean and this could not be taken out, most other books seemed to be about various European destinations, which was disappointing. Instead I decided to turn to the in-room destination videos for inspiration, however I have to admit they left a lot to be desired and could do with a good update.
While the staff on Ventura’s Explorers’ Desk were very friendly and helpful about their own ship excursions, their knowledge of the islands on the whole was pretty poor. It looked like I would have to make do with information from the locals (the best way anyways) when I got on shore, although this wouldn’t allow me much time for planning.
Particular highlights for me during the first week included hanging out with a local man near the ruins of the Pirates of the Caribbean set on St. Vincent, who used to act in old Hollywood kung-fu movies during the 70s; river tubing in Dominica with a wannabe reggae artist and sipping rum punches in the sea on the stunning island of St. Lucia.
Each night I was treated to some form of onboard entertainment, which ranged from excellently staged West End style productions by the Headliners Theatre Company and impressive singers, to cringe worthy comedians and the downright bizarre, such as puffy-eye seminars. There was definitely something to suit all tastes, even if all you wanted to do was sit in a British pub and watch the football then you could (although that definitely was not why I was here). It was a shame there were not more seminars about Caribbean history and culture, apart from the couple about Nelson and the real pirates of the Caribbean, which were very interesting.
After booking the turtle snorkeling and river tubing with the ship, I decided to do most of the island exploring independently. When I disembarked the ship I was always greeted by plenty of local tour companies and taxi drivers who suggested things for me to do and see. However, while these weren’t as expensive as the ship’s shore excursions they were still very expensive, so sharing a ride with other travellers from the ship was a good option. For example a couple of hours tour around the island only getting out to take photos costs around $80 US per couple (only if you manage to find at least two or three others to go with you, more if not).
During the second week onboard I went to visit the UNESCO World Heritage site of Nelson’s Dockyard in Antigua – the best preserved Georgian dockyard in the world, spent a lovely day on St. Kitts taking a tour of the island and discovering the history of Brimstone Hill Fortress, as well as swimming with stingrays on the laid-back island of Grand Turk in the Turks and Caicos.
The highlight of the whole cruise would have to be the day I spent on the island of Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, home to the geological wonders in the Baths National Park.
I decided to take a 30-minute ferry over to Virgin Gorda and after paying a small entrance fee to the National Park, made my way down a narrow sandy path framed by tropical plants and past giant granite boulders.
The path opened onto a lovely secluded beach filled with rocky coves backed by swaying palms. It was relatively quiet and there were just a few tourists and a couple of locals with which to share the space. A sign at one end of the beach pointed to the Devil’s Bay Trail and lead me on an intriguing adventure through caves, up ropes and down ladders, where I had to crawl, swim and climb. Eventually after half an hour it abruptly ended and I was greeted with the stunning view Devil’s Bay with its curve of golden sand and cobalt blue waters.
Although some parts of the cruise were definitely not for me – the odd seminars, the Agadoo-type music for the ‘sailaway’ parties, and the whole 'British is best attitude aboard', I felt on the whole it was a great experience to see so many different places and be looked after by such amazing staff. I am definitely not opposed to cruising anymore and I think next I’d like to do a river cruise – perhaps down the Nile or the Yangtze.
By Esme Fox
Caribbean – March 2014
P&O Cruises is offering a 15 night Caribbean fly cruise on Ventura (N405A) from £1,729 per person for a Vantage Fare. Departing March1, 2014, the price includes return flights from the UK, inside cabin, all meals and entertainment. Departing from and returning to Barbados, ports of call are St Vincent, Dominica, St Lucia, St Kitts, Grand Turk, Tortola and St Maarten.
Caribbean – November 2014
P&O Cruises is offering a 15 night Caribbean fly cruise on Ventura (N423) from £1,329 per person. Departing November 7, 2014, the price includes return flights from the UK, inside cabin, all meals and entertainment. Departing from and returning to Barbados, ports of call are Grenada, St Lucia, Dominica, St Kitts, St Maarten, Tortola, Curacao and Bonaire.
To book, visit www.pocruises.co.uk, call 0843 373 0111 or contact your local travel agent.