Virgin Islands Recap
by Rick Archer
Last Update: December 2012
Our trip to the Virgin Islands and several other Eastern
Caribbean Islands took place in
This was our
20th SSQQ Cruise. We traveled to
the Eastern and Southern Caribbean Sea aboard the
RCCL Serenade of the Seas.
For most of us, our trip was divided
into two parts:
pre-cruise visit to San Juan, Puerto Rico
cruise trip itself
which visited St. Thomas, St.
St. Lucia, and Grenada.
On this page,
you will get my overview regarding the entire trip.
There is a good story about Grenada you will enjoy down at
The stories on
this page will then be followed by a five-chapter article on
a series of adventures organized by my friend Mara Rivas
complete with 300 pictures.
The story about
Mara's adventures is fun reading, but I regret to say I did
not write anything about our excursions on St. Thomas, St.
Croix, and Antigua.
However, I do
have a great picture from St. Thomas to share with you.
From left to
and Richard, Marla, Carolyn, Peggy, Rhoda, Robert, Cher,
Patty, Joe, Ann, George, Nancy, Iqbal, and Mona.
all did we visit?? So many choices!
There is an entire chain of tropical islands stretching from
Puerto Rico all the way down to the northern shores of South
There are 7,000 islands
in the Caribbean.
Eastern Caribbean is an island-hopping paradise.
Not all of these
7,000 islands are inhabited.
Anyone with a decent sailboat can
usually find a
deserted key somewhere for a trip ashore if you want to get
away from the world.
Given the balmy weather, sleeping the
night under the stars on your boat isn't such a bad idea
either. Anyone searching for a little personal freedom
would definitely find this an attractive location.
As for us, we didn't
have a small sailboat. So we used a giant cruise ship instead.
San Juan, Puerto Rico
The trip originated in
San Juan, the capital of Puerto Rico.
This city turned out to
be a bustling metropolis of 1.2 million people. Industry
thrives in Puerto Rico. San Juan turned out to be just as
modern and active as any city back in the USA.
We quickly discovered
that San Juan is a big city with a
bustling business district, glitzy resorts and casinos, as well as
one of the most stunning examples of colonial life in the Western
Juan was founded in 1521. In 1508 Juan Ponce de León founded the
original settlement, just to the west of the present
metropolitan area. A year later, the settlement was abandoned and moved to the site of
what is now called Old San Juan. San Juan is one of the biggest and
best natural harbors in the Caribbean and is the second oldest
European-founded city in the Americas
San Juan is built
around an enormous harbor with a narrow mouth that was easily
defended by the Spanish.
San Juan is actually two
cities in one - Mainland San Juan and Old San Juan that is built on
Mainland San Juan and Island San Juan were
separated by about 200 yards of water.
If you study the picture,
the red arrow
points to the area where a bridge connects the island to the
200 yards doesn't seem
like much, but it prevented an army from simply marching up.
This unique feature made the island far easier to defend.
Old San Juan is known as "La Ciudad Amurallada"
(the walled city). The
Spanish spent 200 years building walls around their island city. In
some places, that wall is very imposing. You
can't help but stare in awe at the enormous fort surrounded by 40
foot high stone walls.
The combination of the huge harbor and the easily-fortified
island made San Juan very attractive to the Spanish. Plus
the trade winds practically guaranteed any ship coming from
Spain would land there automatically.
Old San Juan became the unofficial capital of the New World.
Since much of our group stayed in a hotel on the island,
several of us flew in early to spend three days exploring
Old San Juan. For history buffs like me, seeing the
massive forts and learning about the battles was a real
wandering around and seeing the architecture of a different
era was equally pleasing. The island of Old San Juan
was easily hiked from one end to the other.
Our group also
visited nearby parts of Puerto Rico. One night we took
a kayak trip. Part of our adventure included paddling
through a spooky canal that was so dark we barely could see
where we were going. Twenty of us passed through a narrow canal in a dark
and mysterious mangrove swamp.
Half the fun was listening to the
married couples argue over whose fault it was for running the
kayak into the trees in the dark. We could have
really used a marriage
counselor on that trip. For
example, these two individuals are smiling in this picture,
but it is all an act. Wait till you discover the dark
secret they are hiding when you read Mara's Triumph.
highlight of our stay in San Juan was a trip to the El
Yunque Rainforest just east of San Juan.
numbered an even dozen. First
we climbed a huge tower that took us above the
rainforest canopy. The view was absolutely
stunning. The picture gives you a pretty good idea
of what we could see.
Next we took a hike through the fabulous
rainforest in search of the world's most
awesome waterfall. That hike was simply
sublime. It was about two miles - one mile to the
waterfall and one more mile in another direction to get
to our waiting vehicle. The trail was paved all
the way which made it a very safe walk. We
penetrated deep into the forest and were surrounded by
beautiful foliage wherever we went. And of course
the waterfall was stunning as advertised.
After three days
in San Juan, it was time for the cruise to begin.
Thank goodness! I needed a cruise to recover from my
constant exploration of San Juan and Puerto Rico.
Unfortunately, there was no rest for the weary. I soon
discovered Marla had me
down for hiking, biking, snorkeling, zip-lining, and
climbing. Every single day of the
trip was another macho adventure into the wilderness of the
islands we would visit.
When I attempted
to complain about all the activities, Marla had a quick
wife said she booked me on every tough excursion she could find
because I am always complaining that all we ever do is sit on
buses and stare at things. Be careful what you complain about!
Marla had me doing something athletic for three straight days in
San Juan and five straight days of visiting ports. Then on the
final day, I was down for a two-hour dance workshop as our
cruise ship headed back to port. Before our cruise trip, I
had predicted I would be worn out
by our trip to Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands and
the other nearby islands. Well, I was right. I returned from this trip utterly exhausted.
I was wrong about the dancing
aspect, however. I didn't expect
there to be any dancing at all. I was amused at how much
people talked ahead of time about 'dancing' every night on the ship. I figured
if their trip experience was similar to mine, they aren't even
going to be able to get out of their chairs at night.
"Mark my words. They might dance a little the first night, but
after that these people are going to be in bed by 10 pm every
Well, I was wrong. While it is true that most of the married
couples behaved as expected and hit the sack
immediately after our late dinner, the wild and crazy singles managed
to dance wherever they could fine music. After
the band shut down, some nights Cher
Longoria would turn on her Ipod system and play the necessary
music to dance for another hour or so. When you are single, you live to dance.
There was some initial skepticism about
the itinerary of this trip.
Many of these islands were used for the
production of sugar cane. After the Spanish managed to
kill off practically all the indigenous people of the area
through battle and disease, slaves were brought over from
Africa to work the plantations. At some point, those
slaves ended up inheriting the islands when the Europeans
anyone willing to work never had to worry about eating.
These lush islands would feed anyone willing to till the
land or fish the waters. On the other hand, with no
education and no experience at self-government, many of
these islands stayed impoverished as far as industry was
concerned. Few of the islands could even begin to
approach the high standard of living enjoyed by US citizens.
one person explained why he didn't go on this trip.
"The first cruise I ever went on was that cruise...
Martinique, Barbados, etc. It was the most boring cruise I have
ever been on. I didn't like the islands...too many beggars
everywhere we went. Don't know if it is still the same, but they
really make visiting the towns no fun."
Well, this gentleman had a point.
As I discovered, some of these islands were not
particularly wealthy. Fortunately, however, the poverty was
nothing compared to Jamaica. Although I will admit I was offered
drugs on several occasions, not one person asked me for money on
any of the islands. And the sales people were not nearly as
aggressive as some places I have been (for the record, Kusadasi,
Turkey, easily holds the record for the most aggressive sales
Best of all, the islands clearly made a concerted
effort to keep their streets clean. I saw none of the depressed,
suffering faces I commonly see in Jamaica. The people I
encountered on this trip were basically happy and upbeat.
All in all, the Virgin Islands Cruise of 2011 turned out to be a
very pleasant trip. Unfortunately, unlike some of our other
trips, there are no amazing tales for me to share. I say
'unfortunately' because wild adventures make for good stories.
In the old days, I would just make stuff up when things got too
bland, but lately my tendency to exaggerate has been missing. I
am sure that problem is just temporary.
In retrospect, nothing went wrong
on this trip. Trust me, we have
encountered our share of problems over the years.
The ship didn't capsize
(2011 Egypt Cruise). No
hurricanes (2001 Vera Cruz, 2005 Rita
Rhapsody). No one missed the cruise ship at the end of the day
(twice in Barcelona 2009).
No norovirus (Oslo 2010). No volcanic eruptions
to disrupt travel (Oslo 2010).
No tender failures
(New England 2006). No long
lines or waiting (New England 2006). No sex on the elevators
(Rhapsody Cruise 2004). And since I stayed
sober much of the time, I didn't see any zombies either
(Rhapsody Cruise 2004).
Alas, everything went smooth as glass. This trip was just one
long smooth groove of never ending fun reminiscent of a long walk
on the beach. Boring to read about, I know, but nevertheless
for the people who went.
In my opinion, this trip was a cross between our 2007 Hawaiian Islands Cruise
and last year's Bahamas 2010 Cruise. The islands we visited
featured the same tropical temperatures and the same rainforests
as Hawaii complete with beautiful beaches and rugged extinct
volcanoes thrown in for good measure.
For sheer physical beauty, several of the Eastern Caribbean
islands were definitely a match for Hawaii. Now that I have seen both
worlds, I would say Hawaii's advantage is in its wealth. Hawaii
has an unmistakable economic superiority. Its infrastructure is
superior and certainly no Eastern Caribbean island can match
Honolulu for the endless string of opulent hotels that line
Yes, there are beautiful hotels and resorts in the
Eastern Caribbean, however just not quite to the same extent.
That said, a trip to the Eastern Caribbean has many advantages
over a trip to Hawaii. For one thing, these islands are much
easier to get to, particularly if you live on the East Coast.
I would say a good 50% of the
people on our cruise ship were from the East Coast.
They consider the Caribbean to be their own personal
Second, these islands are much more affordable. One person
estimated a trip to Hawaii could cost up to twice as much when
you factor in air fare. Plus time is a problem. You give up
practically an entire day flying to and back from Hawaii. By
comparison, our flight from Houston to San Juan, Puerto Rico,
was just slightly longer than a flight to Denver, Colorado. We
were able to land in San Juan and still have an entire evening
to explore the old town.
Potatoes or tomatoes, pineapples or bananas. Take your pick. A
good argument can be made for both locations, but ultimately a
trip in either direction is bound to be satisfying.
Our trip to the Virgin Islands
resembled the 2010 Bahamas Trip
because it was yet a further extension of our 'Family'
Theme. The sense of community permeated practically every
activity we engaged in. This
trip had a definite feel of 'shared experience'.
Some trips were
planned ahead of time as a group excursion. I have already
mentioned our kayak experience and our visit to El Yunque.
Another time on the island of
St Lucia, 13 of us crowded into a single bus for a wonderful
tour around the island. This
exquisite tour was organized in
advance by Mara Tiara. Thank
goodness Mara took the time to find Cosol, our guide.
His personality and competence helped make this trip one of
the real highlights of our vacation.
Marla and I would sign up for an excursion through the
cruise ship only to run into other members of the trip.
No matter what excursion
Marla and I signed up for, we ran into other members of our
For example, one
day Marla and I shared zip-lining with Zorro in Antigua.
And it was a good thing we did!
Zorro was unbelievably helpful at explaining how to stay in
Other times we
formed impromptu groups on the spot. Marla and I got
off the ship at St. Thomas without any idea what we were
going to do for the day.
Down in the
shopping area next to our pier,
we met other
members of our group discussing what to do.
Cher, Tracy and Ed decided to take a tram up to the top of a
mountain. They ended up raving about their experience.
However, at the
same time, Iqbal was organizing a group to hire a guide to
drive us around the island. So I broke ranks with
Marla and went with Iqbal,
Sheba, Handsome, Peggy Sue,
Carolyn, Ann, Nancy, Rhoda, Richard and Toni on a
wild bus ride around St. Thomas.
Another day Marla and I shared
snorkeling with Robert and Cher as well as Patty and Joe at
No matter where
we went, we had company. We had friends.
Did I mention our visit to see Flamenco Dancing?
Or our visit to
see the world's tallest cigar in Old San Juan?
Now that was a real
highlight! And what about the simple joys of sharing breakfast
with our friends in the stunning open air patio of the El Convento Hotel? Or watching Marla's befuddlement when the waiter
brought her a mountain of Mofungo, a native dish she made the
mistake of ordering on the first night of the trip? Or for that
matter getting drunk as skunk with our friends at the free wine
and cheese party at the El Convento Hotel in the evening?
vividly remember hearing raucous laughter at my stupid jokes.
Were my jokes funny? Probably not. I think maybe the delicious
wine deserves most of the credit. But the point is simple - we
all laughed together. Our shared experiences were special.
Marla's ambitious excursion project, the Virgin Islands Cruise of 2011 was the most physically active
trip Marla and I have ever taken. We did something very active
practically every day of the trip, sometimes even two things on
the same day. Kayaking, hiking, climbing, snorkeling,
zip-lining, and dancing too ... you name it, we did it. I was so
pooped some nights that I almost fell asleep at dinner twice.
The highlight of the trip for me happened near the end of the
trip. Remembering how much fun we had hiking to the waterfall at
El Yunque, Marla and I signed up for another hike to a waterfall
in Grenada. The start of our trip was unremarkable. Our guides
bored us out of our minds with a ten-minute discussion on
nutmegs, then ten more minutes on plantains, then ten more
minutes on mangos.
Enough already! Give it a rest and let us
hike! I confess I am not much of a naturalist. I could barely
contain a giant yawn as I struggled to listen. Little did I know
that my boredom would turn to terror just a few minutes later.
Once we entered the rainforest, Marla and I were confronted by a
difficult downhill path hacked out of the dense foliage. This
path was really steep! We had to navigate rocks and logs placed
in the trail for traction. In the more level areas, there were
no rocks or logs. Unfortunately, due to recent rains, the level
areas were soggy. Our shoes sank deep into the mud several
times. Due to the poor condition of the trail, we made very slow
progress on this difficult downhill trail. One slip and we might
slide quite a ways before coming to a stop. Considering sticks
and stones can break our bones, we could easily fall and hurt
And then it started to rain a little. Misting at first, neither
Marla nor I had the sense to take our umbrella out of the
backpack. It wouldn't have done us much good. The trail wasn't
wide enough for the two of us to use the umbrella together. Plus
the overhead foliage was so dense the umbrella would have
constantly have gotten stuck in the branches. Besides, it was
just drizzle. We didn't mind the rain that much. It felt
refreshing! Refreshing, that is, until the rain went from zero
to sixty in a matter of seconds.
The heavens opened up. Suddenly we were trapped in a water
deluge of Biblical proportions. Then I
fought to keep my balance as we continued down the trail. Marla
struggled mightily as well.
Now the rocks we had depended on
betrayed us. The rocks were so wet we couldn't plant our feet on
them without slipping. And the red clay around the rocks turned
into deep mud puddles. Finding a safe place to take the next
step was a real challenge.
In the distance we could
see the waterfall. However
first we had to cross a
raging stream. There was no bridge. Marla and I and the other
members of our hardy group helped each other across using the
massive rocks in the stream as stepping stones. I enjoyed lending a
hand whenever I could to help people with shorter legs keep their
The picture on the right was the last picture I
took. I stuck my camera in my backpack under a towel
for safety. I wasn't about to cross that stream
with my camera in my hand. At this point, we were
assaulted by blinding rain. You can see
some streaks in the picture of the rain pellets, but this picture
doesn't even begin to capture to intensity
of the downpour.
Finally we saw the waterfall
(note: I got the picture off the Internet). Stunning!
Before our eyes, we had our very own
miniature Niagara Falls. Thanks to the powerful rainfall, the
waterfall was cascading tons of water at an enormous rate.
The waterfall was easily twice the size of
this picture taken on a normal day.
Once we got to the waterfall, Marla began to
take off her soaking wet
clothes to reveal her soaking wet bathing suit underneath. I laughed.
Marla was already soaking wet. Why even bother taking off the
outer layer? Must be a girl thing.
Undeterred by the constant rain pellets, Marla made her way into
the middle of the water pond directly below the powerful
waterfall. Marla hollered, "Take my picture!"
I reached into my backpack to retrieve my
camera. That's when I made a very unpleasant discovery
- my expensive backpack wasn't waterproof like I had thought it was.
Uh oh. My towel was soaking wet... and so was my camera. I tried
turning it on... no luck. The camera was ruined.
As I explained to Marla that the camera wasn't working, I heard
one of the guides yell, "We gotta get out of here now! There is
a real danger of mud slides plus the river becoming too
difficult to cross."
As I saw him take off, I could sense the
fear in his voice. I thought it must be serious for him to leave
in such a hurry. I was shocked to see him turn his back on his
and take off. Hmm. What did he know that I didn't know?
Well, I wasn't going to leave without Marla. Like a boy scout, I
stuck around to help my wife. Plus she was very persuasive.
"Rick, if you leave me now, you better pray I don't make it back
to the bus..."
Marla struggled mightily to get out of the pond that had become
much deeper thanks to the torrential waterfall. After Marla
finally got out of the pond with my help, she asked where
everyone had gone. I turned around to make a nasty discovery -
everyone had left us, guides and all. We were the last people at
the water pond!
Marla pulled her soggy outfit and shoes back on. She muttered
some choice words about how cold and miserable she was. Normally
Marla whines about the slightest ache and pain, but not today.
Other than an occasional grumble, Marla was amazingly tough.
As we stood by the pond feeling deserted, we didn't see any
point in sticking around. Together we grimly headed back.
When we got to the stream, thankfully there were a couple native
Grenadans who had stuck around to help us across the stream.
Unfortunately the stream was no longer a stream. It had been
transformed into a raging river. It was a good thing those men
were there. It seemed like the water current had doubled its
intensity in just the short time we had spent at the pond. Only
half the rocks were still visible and the ones I could see were
very slippery. Taking one tentative half-step at a time, it took
us forever to cross.
Now we discovered that our downhill trail had also become a
river of sorts. This picture was taken
earlier before my camera went out. However now the conditions
were three times worse. With the foliage cleared out of the way, our own
trail was the easiest route for the rainwater to descend down
the mountain. Lucky us. Try climbing uphill in a constant stream
of water! We could barely even see our
feet at this point as the water ran over our shoes.
Helping each other, Marla and I slowly
made our way back up the
trail. Amazingly, even though we had been dead last and even
though we were the oldest people in the group by a wide margin,
we caught up to some of the members of our group.
Of course we had a powerful
incentive to catch up. The fear of being left behind
had us both scared to death.
So why was this ordeal my favorite moment of the trip? I loved
the challenge! To heck with the danger of falling in the river.
To heck with the danger of being buried in a mud slide. To heck
with the threat of twisting an ankle or hitting my head on a
rock if I fell. Marla and I were determined to fight our way
back to safety. I cannot tell you how proud it made me to know
we were able to overcome this difficult path and match much
younger people stride for stride in the process. I had no idea
this old body of mine was that tough.
You know what? For a moment there, I actually felt like a kid
again. This climb was an ordeal... and it was fun. Just for that
experience alone, I would do this trip again in a flash.