Tuesday, January 3, 2012

The Norwegian Experience - Part II (Ports of Call)

Our seven-night cruise on the Norwegian Pearl departed from the Port of Miami on Sunday, November 27th. We had two complete days at sea and visited a total of four ports of call, which I will describe here. I have already detailed what we did on Day 1 in my last post, published yesterday.
the Norwegian Pearl anchored off Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
Day 2: Great Stirrup Cay, Bahamas
According to my research, Norwegian was the first cruise line to establish a private island as a port of call for their ships. They purchased Great Stirrup Cay in 1977 and have been developing the island as a cruise destination for the past 30 years. I have been to The Bahamas before (Nassau & Andros Island in December, 2007), so for this cruise I didn't mind that we were missing out on the true Bahamian experience.
ready for a bike/kayak adventure with new friends at Small Hope Bay, Andros Island, Bahamas - December, 2007
Greg was still suffering from a stomach virus so he stayed in bed all day. I took a tender ashore around 11am, happy to feel well enough to enjoy the beautiful weather. The sea was a bit choppy which made for an interesting 15-minute ride to shore. I walked from the main developed area with its shopping huts, inflatable water slide, food pavilion and bars to the far end of the island and back. The sand seemed very clean and not too hot so I walked barefoot, except on the rocky sections. I didn't feel like swimming so after thoroughly exploring I eventually found a lounge chair away from all the action and relaxed for about an hour before returning to the ship.
the beach at Great Stirrup Cay
Norwegian is spending millions of dollars to make even more improvements to the private island experience. One section of the island was filled with construction equipment, although it was hard to discern exactly what they were building. While I was generally impressed with the current offerings – free lounge chairs by the beach, barbecue lunch with plenty of seating at the dining pavilion, live music, and toilets at both ends of the main beach area; I was disappointed that everything else cost extra: floats, snorkel gear, beach umbrellas, etc. You even have to bring your own towel from the ship!
directional signs at Great Stirrup Cay
Day 3: At Sea
Since Greg & I were still recovering from the stomach virus, we were happy to have a day at sea to rest. After breakfast we attended the Cruise Critics Meet & Greet with the ship's management team and enjoyed chatting with our fellow cruisers. Later, just for entertainment value, I went to the hour-long "shopping show" at sea, which made me painfully aware of what is wrong with the world today (greed, emphasis on material things, etc.)!
at the Cruise Critics Meet & Greet
I wanted to spend the afternoon reading but one of the problems I discovered with the Pearl is there are no quiet and comfortable areas to sit. Good candidates, like the Spinnaker Lounge which has beds(!) and lots of plush chairs, often has activities scheduled so there is usually loud music and/or ambient noise from bingo games, etc. The two designated quiet areas are both outside and exposed to the sun & wind so are not good options. The library is generally quiet but very small and has only a few seating options plus there is a TV so it's not exactly a peaceful environment. The Bliss Lounge has lots of cozy seating but is dark and also has gaming machines and a bowling alley so it can be pretty noisy.
Greg pretending to sleep in the Spinnaker Lounge
Since we both chose to skip lunch, we ate an early dinner in the Summer Palace, then went to the 7:30pm theater performance of "Oh What A Night" (a Four Seasons tribute which I thought was excellent). Afterward we were entertained by comedian Sam Fedele in the Spinnaker Lounge before we turned in for the night.

Day 4: Ocho Rios, Jamaica
Ocho Rios was another destination I had visited before, on a day trip during a vacation at Couples Sans Souci in December, 2006. Thus I had already climbed Dunn's River Falls, which is one of the most popular shore excursions in Jamaica. Greg was okay with just walking around town, so we got off the ship just before noon and made our way to the main street.
climbing Dunn's River Falls - December, 2006
One of the unfortunate aspects of port calls is having to deal with the unlicensed tour operators and salespeople that bombard you when you get off the ship. This was especially the case in Ocho Rios where we were approached by "taxi/tour" offers every step for over 30 minutes until we had walked far enough down the main drag away from all the other tourists. Of course then we didn't feel quite as safe and there was nothing to see anyway, so we made our way back to the tourist zone.
Greg near the entrance to Turtle River Park
We discovered a small public park (Turtle River) that was free to enter so we strolled around the quiet walkways for awhile and found some shade to escape the intense sun & heat. The area near the port is filled with shops and bars so, with nothing else to do, we decided to check out a couple of the “malls” and people-watch. And, on a tip from the shopping seminar I attended yesterday, we picked up free bamboo necklaces from Cariloha (a shop specializing in bamboo clothing & accessories).
Greg enjoys a free cup of Blue Mountain coffee while wearing his new Cariloha bamboo necklace
Exhausted from walking in the heat, we eventually made our way to Jimmy Buffet's Margaritaville where we shared a pitcher of Red Stripe for $20 (including tax & tip) while watching shell necklace & hair braiding vendors ply the beach. Then, as we were walking back to the ship, we spotted a bar offering $2 bottles of Red Stripe so we couldn't resist stopping one more time since our goal was to NOT consume any alcohol on board due to the fairly high cost of drinks (average $5 per beer, $8+ for mixed drinks, $30 per bottle of wine plus 15% service fee automatically added to the bill).
get your shells here!
Day 5: George Town, Grand Cayman
We were very lucky to make our Grand Cayman port call. Their weather had been bad for the past three days and, due to rough seas, no ships had been able to dock. Even on the day we were there all other ships had canceled. And, due to the still unfavorable conditions, we had to "park" on the south side of island and tender in, then transfer to town.
tenders ferry passengers to & from the Norwegian Pearl on the south side of Grand Cayman island
Greg & I had no specific plans but were interested in snorkeling if we could find something for a reasonable price. After tendering in, we talked to a local lady at the information booth and she advised us to book with Captain Marvin's. We had to wait almost an hour for the next scheduled tour, but it was worth it because we paid only $35 per person for the 2.5 hour Stingrays & Reef Snorkel which cost $70 per person if we had booked it as a shore excursion on the ship.
trying to figure out where exactly we are on a Grand Cayman map
After transferring in a mini-bus to the Captain Marvin's booking office near downtown, we rode another few minutes to the dock and boarded our boat, Miss Anna. It was nicely equipped with a toilet & changing area and the snorkel gear, optional life vests and nonalcoholic drinks were included in the cost of the tour. It took about 30 minutes to reach our first stop, the Stingray City Sandbar.
Yay! We're going snorkeling!
Because of the absence of the other cruise ships, there were only a few boats at the sandbar and thus not very many people in the water. Our boat had only 12 other guests along with two “guides” and one photographer. This excursion appealed to me because the stingrays are not captive (they swim freely in the wild) but are guaranteed to show up at the sandbar for some treats. While it was quite intimidating to be standing in the 3-5 foot deep water with these massive creatures (5 foot wingspan!), they are pretty docile and seem to enjoy interacting with humans.
Greg gets a stingray massage
Greg was feeling more adventurous than I so he spent some 1:1 time with one of the female stingrays. First he held her in his arms, then he kissed her on the mouth, then he got a back massage. WOW! All I could handle was some light petting and a quick kiss. :)
this is about as close as I wanted to get
After spending about 30 minutes with the stingrays we got back on the boat and motored about five minutes away to the Coral Gardens snorkeling site. The water was a bit choppy but clear and we could see plenty of fish. If you have snorkeled before, this particular site is not that colorful and just has the typical variety of fish, but it was enjoyable enough for about 30 minutes.
That was the end of our tour so we returned to the dock and boarded another mini-bus for the ride back to the ship. We had already arranged to be dropped off at the Cayman Islands Brewery, which was located about one mile from where our ship was docked. We browsed the small gift shop, chatted with some of the workers and drank FREE 7oz samples of their beers (Caybrew, CayLight, Ironshore Bock, White Tip Lager). By chance the British Governor of the Cayman Islands, Duncan Taylor, was getting a private tour of the brewery at the same time we were there, so we got to meet him, briefly, and took the opportunity for a unique photo.
Greg & Duncan Taylor at Cayman Islands Brewery
Greg was worried that we would be late getting back to the ship if we walked, so we hailed the Cayman Islands version of public transportation – a shared minivan – and paid $2.50 each to cover the short distance to the tendering location. Thus we made it back in plenty of time to catch the last tender and soon the ship was under way for our next destination.

Day 6: Cozumel, Mexico
In stark contrast to the utter lack of tourists on Grand Cayman, when we reached Cozumel the next day we were one of six cruise ships in port! We docked at the International Pier, which is about 1.5 miles from downtown San Miguel. As the weather was nice and not too hot, we decided to walk into town, which at a leisurely pace took over an hour. It was still enjoyable as there is a sidewalk which parallels the waterfront. Plus we were never harassed by taxi or tour operators!
Welcome all cruise ships! ( two other Norwegian ships docked in Cozumel - neither is the Pearl)
Upon reaching downtown we were ready for an adult beverage and I had previously researched where to get the best margaritas. Pancho'sBackyard is at the far end of town but it was worth the extra few blocks walk for the strong, refreshing house margarita. While not exactly cheap, they were totally worth their $5.50 each price tag.
Greg enjoys a fantastic margarita at Pancho's Backyard
As we started to make our way back towards the ship we decided that we would initiate a beer/margarita crawl. We just had to decide where we would stop next! Wanting to avoid the most touristy places (like Margaritaville or Senor Frogs), we wound up at Jeanie's, where a bucket of five beers plus free nachos was only $12.
ready for beer & nachos at Jeanie's
After we left Jeanie's, we stopped at a convenience store where Greg bought a beer “to go” and proceeded to drink it, undisguised, as we walked back along the waterfront. Our final stop was for another round of margaritas at an open air bar/restaurant called Ernesto's. There was a noticeable difference in the lesser quality of these drinks versus the ones at Pancho's and they still cost $6 each although the glasses were larger.
lifting my jumbo margarita at Ernesto's
I had been eying these great “masks” sold by the street vendors all day long. I wasn't really sure what they were for, but I loved the bold colors & designs. When we reached the cluster of shops at the pier, I had to have a closer look. I convinced Greg to get one, too, but unfortunately the one he wanted (Spiderman) was too small. As it was the end of the day, I negotiated with the shop manager and got the mask I wanted for $10 and proceeded to wear it all the way back to the ship (although they did ask me to take it off at the security checkpoint)!
wearing my new mask at the International Pier (our ship is on the right)
Day 7: At Sea
The final day of our cruise was spent at sea, covering the distance back to Miami from Mexico. It was cloudy and very windy which deterred my best efforts to stay outside. There were lots of activities on offer, some free some not. I went to the officer Q&A featuring the ship's captain, chief engineer and hotel manager (interesting); watched the food & beverage demonstration by the pool (pretty lame); watched the International Crew Talent Show (not bad, but had minimal participation from the crew); attended the juggling class offered by Sharkbait (fun); and looked at all of our cruise photos taken by the onboard photographers (but they were $12.95 for each 5x7 so we didn't buy any).
crew performance "Fountains"
We had asked at reception if they would refund our $15 corkage fee (x2) since we had not opened either of the bottles we brought onboard on Day 1. Because it was last day of the cruise, they agreed to remove the corkage fees from our bill AND told us it was okay to drink the wine if we wanted to. So, of course, we opened our bottle of Corsican white wine and enjoyed it for the rest of the evening! The other bottle, a Madeira from the Portuguese island, was brought all the way back to Tennessee where it was consumed by Greg & his parents before Christmas.
I snapped this photo of one of the ship's photographer's shots of us at dinner
We capped off the evening by watching the theater performance “Broadway Showtime: Encore!” and ate a late dinner at the Garden Cafe buffet. I had decided I preferred the buffet over the Summer Palace restaurant because of the wider variety of food on offer and the option to get small portions of different items, including more vegetables, so I could try to find something that wasn't too salty.

That's it for the ports of call. My next post will summarize our overall Norwegian cruise experience.
The link to all of my cruise photos is embedded in this post's title.

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