First and apology in the delay in getting this post on the site. We actually returned from the trip on Sunday November 14th, but that meant a does of reality keeping me busy once we got home.
St. Maarten has grown quite a bit since my last visit there in 1980. I don’t even think St. Phillipsburg had a cruise port back then which required us to tender into town. During this visit we shared the cruise terminal with Adventure of the Seas and Rhapsody of the Seas, however even with three ships in port, the town did not seem overrun. I asked one of the locals about this and they said that was because many passengers take tours or taxis to the other beaches, including renowned Orient Beach over on the French side of the island. I actually found the town of St. Phillipsburg to be quite charming with its nice paved beach front “boardwalk” and many beach side cafes and bars. Our visit to the island included a 15 minute walk from the ship into town, a light lunch at a cafe, and a swim at the in town beach. The beach in town is simply a swimming beach, not much surf and no snorkeling opportunity. Visitors can rent beach chairs and upbrellas if they choose to recline right on the beach, or they can do as we did and have one party sit with the stuff at the cafe/bar while the others take a swim. This worked well for us as the kids and I like to swim in the ocean and my husband who doesn’t like salt water prefers to “hold down the fort” and enjoy some beers. My daughter also got her hair braided in by the beach by one of the many ladies make a living braiding hair for tourist. She choose just to get the front braided and leave the back natural. It took about 45 minutes to get the 21 braids/cornrows in her hair, but she felt really “Caribbean” after having it done. The braids last for several weeks, but she’ll have to take them out soon for her ballet recital.
Our visit to St. Maarten also came with some typical Caribbean weather. The day started out hot, sunny and humid, then we had a brief 10-15 minute shower, then more sun. The rain did cool things off for a few minutes, but since it didn’t have any lightening, the kids were able to keep swimming even in the rain.
After our swim, we started our walk back to the ship and got diverted by the inexpensive shops along the way. We picked up a few very touristy items like t-shirts, hats, Caribbean shirts. and a white dress Caribbean dress for my daughter.
Back on the ship we enjoyed a swim in the pool and waited for our sail-a-way departure from St. Maarten. Again we were a bit disappointed that the band did not play pool side during the departure. On a small deck on the back of the ship they did have a guitar player, but this area seats only a small amount of passengers. We did enjoy waiving to the Royal Caribbean passengers on their ships as we departed. Cruiser on every ship and line always seem to be friendly and know how to have fun.
My first dose of reality was packing all 4 of us back up for the departure. I worked on getting the large suitcases filled and ready to go in the hallway for the crew to unload them from the ship. I also tried to organize a small bag for us to carry off and have packed with the essentials we would need for our hotel stay in San Juan.
We enjoyed our wonderful dinner on the last night and thanked all of our staff and crew members. We had chosen to use Celebrity’s auto tipping service. To use this service passengers must “opt in” by filling out a form earlier in the week. This automatically applies the recommended tipping amounts to the passengers on board account. The staff can see that the tip has been applied through their on board computer system. Celebrity used to give out nice envelopes with a little receipt in them showing that the auto tipping had been selected. However this time we only received some little slips of paper. Since we knew the crew would already know the tipping had been done, we choose to just make a short mention of the auto tipping and thank them verbally for their wonderful job during our voyage. This ended up being a very comfortable way to handle not only the tipping but to express our appreciation.
The next morning we enjoyed a nice buffet breakfast on the ship with our friends from England and then waited for our disembarkation number to be called. I give a very poor grade to Homeland Security for their handling of the disembarkation process. We waited in line for over 45 minutes to pass through immigration in an un-air conditioned terminal. The main problem was their not having enough agents and booths open to handle the large amount of non-US passengers who were on this cruise. All those passenger were required to have their fingers prints scanned and an electronic picture taken as then entered the country. The Border and Customs agents get a passenger manifest a head of time and should have allocated more agents to handle the large amount of foreign passengers. It also didn’t help that many of these foreign visitors choose to complain to the agents about the hassle of the whole finger printing and picture taking. This caused further delays. When we finally got to the agent, being US citizens, it took all of about 5 seconds for the agent to review our paper work and pass us through.
After picking up our luggage we went out to the taxi stand. Representatives got our destination and flagged the next taxi for us. Almost all of the San Juan tourist taxis are full size vans in order to handle the large amount of cruise passengers with cruise luggage. This worked out perfectly for us as the driver had plenty of room for the 4 of us and all our luggage. The ride was about 10 minutes from the Pan Am Pier to the Sheraton Old San Juan. The bellmen at the hotel where very helpful and very friendly. We had chosen this hotel because of its proximity to the pier. However, that pier was the Continental Pier. and our pier was the more distant Pan Am pier. I had discovered that we would be docked there about 1 week before the cruise, so I already knew that I had made a mistake in selecting the location of the hotel. Hover, the Old San Jaun location turned out to be not so bad. We were in very close walking distance from the shopping areas in Old San Juan and could see one of the forts from our room window. The pool area located on the 9th floor also provided a panoramic view of the harbor where we could see the many ships as them came and went. I had also read quite a few bad reviews of this hotel. We had used cash and points to book our room so our cost was only about $150 for the room. However, if you are paying full price for the room, which I have seen at $450 a night, I would definitely say that this hotel is not worth that price. The lighting was dim in the hallways and the carpets were, as other visitors have reported online, very worn and dirty. We also had some stains on our in-room carpet. However the room was clean and amenities were in the line of what we have found at the “Four Points” brand of Sheraton we’ve stayed in on other trips.
The next day we were up at 6:00 am to head to the airport. Again getting a taxi was no problem as they are lined up outside the hotel to accommodate both airport and cruise terminal passengers. The San Jaun airport was a bit of a hassle too. All luggage requires an agriculture inspection and sticker before you can even check in. Many passengers don’t realize this so we were glad that another passenger pointed us to the agriculture inspection area before we tried to check in. Once we got our “ag” stickers on our luggage we could check it in. I was sure that I had bought my tickets before the $25 second check bag fee went into effect, but it actually went into effect 6 days before we bought our tickets, so that meant paying an extra $25 each for 4 of our 8 checked bags. We have to figure out how to pack lighter for a 14 day cruise, but it is so hard when you are gone for that long and you have to guess about the weather. In any case we checked in, boarded our flight from San Juan to Houston. After that uneventful flight we had a 5 hour lay over in the Houston airport. We had originally booked an itenerary with a 90 minute lay-over, but shortly after we booked our early flight, Continental canceled it, moving us to the later flight. The lay over time did allow me to work with the kids on finishing some of their school work that was due the next day. We arrived in Tucson about 7:30, and arrived home about 9:00. That ended up being a very long and tiring journey home.
I am hoping to write a complete over-all review of the cruise, and have a photo gallery up in the next few weeks. This was a fantastic trip and over-all a great family cruise experience.