Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
After a relaxing morning aboard Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Breeze , the Puerto Rican coastline came into view off our bow just after 10am as our special eight-night Eastern Caribbean cruise enters its fourth day. By 11am we were alongside, and by 11:30am the local authorities had cleared the ship. Gangways went down, and guests streamed ashore to make the most of their eight-hour call in San Juan.
This is the first time I’ve been to San Juan or Puerto Rico before, so I figured today would be an excellent opportunity to test out one of Carnival’s Shore Excursions. Before leaving home, I logged on to Carnival’s website and pre-purchased their $39.99 History Behind the Walls walking tour.
When you pre-book, the cost of your tour is billed immediately to you, so it was nice to know I was headed ashore today on a tour I’d already paid for and not one that was going to sit on my shipboard account. If you’re a family or even just a couple looking to budget, booking your excursions in advance can be a great way to do that.
Disembarkation was a touch more competitive this morning as many tours – including mine – were scheduled to meet pierside at Noon. Still, from the time I left my stateroom until the time I stepped ashore was just under five minutes, and that included a stop to buy bottled water from the crew member stationed on the Deck 1 landing.
Founded in 1521, Old San Juan has a more decidedly European flair to it that most other Caribbean ports of call. Despite the fact that Puerto Rico is designated as a commonwealth of the United States, San Juan has managed to retain its Spanish influence and charm.
Outside of Cuba, San Juan is home to some of the finest examples of Spanish colonial architecture in the Caribbean. The city’s historic Old Town and fortress complex are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage sites for their cultural and historic significance.
Fuerte San Felipe del Morro – or just ‘El Morro’ for short – is situated at the northern tip of San Juan, bordered to the left by Bahia San Juan and to the right by the Atlantic Ocean. Constructed by the Spanish between 1540 and 1783, it represents two hundred years of history condensed down into a single, sprawling complex that is within easy walking distance of the San Juan Cruise Terminal.
El Morro is spread out over six levels that rise in height some 140 feet – the rough equivalent in height of a cruise ship above the waterline. Contained within are all the bells-and-whistles you’d want when in the market for a 16th century Spanish-Colonial fortress: a maze of corridors, on-site dungeons, barracks, keeps, tunnels, and a variety of turreted towers from which you can survey your fiefdom. A smug sense of superiority is suggested, but not required.
There’s another fortress just down the road that is closer to the cruise terminal, but which was not quite as successful. La Fortaleza – or ‘The Fortress’ – was constructed in 1533 but was sacked twice; once by the British in 1598, and then by the Dutch, who had their turn to be the big man on campus in 1625.
Once the more imposing El Morro and the even-larger Fuerte San Cristobal were completed, La Fortaleza was turned into a palace. I assume having both gardens and a dungeon on site was pretty desirable back in the day.
Fuerte San Cristobal was the primary destination on our “History Behind the Walls” walking tour. In its prime, it was one of the largest fortresses in the Caribbean, dubbed the “Gibraltar of the West Indies.”
It’s also exceptionally huge, with plenty of steep inclines and cobblestone pathways. There was a CBS TV mini-series being shot on location during my visit today, so that limited some of our ability to tour the museum portion of the fortress, but what we did see was spectacular. In fact, it’s worth the stroll up to Fuerte San Cristobal for the views alone along the Puerto Rican coastline.
We were also able to tour one of the numerous dungeons that are on-site, one of which still had a string of colourful expletives carved into the walls and protected underneath glass. Musty, dark, and nearly completely lacking in ventilation, being in the narrow dungeon for five minutes had everyone perspiring heavily. Prisoners would be thrown here for their crimes, but were frequently forgotten about or just left to wither away and die here.
An interesting thing happened to me when I was about to leave the dungeon. I had snapped a few photographs and was headed for the exit, walking through the dimly-lit room with my hand running along the soft stone walls when someone tapped me on the shoulder.
I turned around. No one was there.
Now, I’m not superstitious by any stretch of the imagination. Unless I can see something and touch it, I’m a skeptic. But someone undeniably tapped me on the shoulder, and there was absolutely no one around me when I looked. I stopped perspiring almost instantly as an icy chill came over me.
Needless to say, I got the heck out of the dungeon!
Our walking tour also made a quick visit to the Capitol Building in San Juan which, unlike the rest of the town, faces north – toward the United States. It’s a very nice building, nestled in amongst the swaying palm trees and facing the azure-blue of the Atlantic Ocean.
On another note, on my way back to the ship I popped into the Bacardi Visitor Center located just fifty feet from San Juan’s Berth 3, where Carnival Breeze is docked today. The Bacardi family originally began their distillery operations in Santiago de Cuba, Cuba, where I visited just last month. When the family left Cuba in the 1950’s, they set up shop here in San Juan. To be able to see the origins and the new home of Bacardi was actually pretty neat. Today, Bacardi makes over 220 million cases of spirits per year.
In many respects, Puerto Rico is Cuba without the Missile Crisis. In fact, it’s not difficult to imagine that, had history worked out differently, Havana and San Juan might be very similar to one another.
Of course, for every bit of Spanish influence, there are two American ones. I popped into a Starbucks sandwiched between two local restaurants and immediately felt guilty for doing so, just because I prefer to do the local thing.
On Paseo Gilberto, which runs along the waterfront adjacent to the cruise terminal, a CVS Pharmacy sits next to a Senor Frog’s location, which itself isn’t far from a Polo Ralph Lauren shop. See where I am headed with this?
Our tour guide admitted as much this afternoon, stating that Puerto Ricans “love the American people. But we love our Spanish history, too.” She also alluded that the average Puerto Rican is less than thrilled with the United States government at the moment.
As if to signify the haphazard approach successive governments have taken to this Caribbean paradise, the city has beautiful metal statues of each President who has visited Puerto Rico during his term in office mounted along La Constitution Avenue, facing the Capitol Building. After Barack Obama, the next most recent sitting president to visit Puerto Rico while in office was Gerald Ford.
That’s a pretty significant gap in time.
Once the sun had gone down on San Juan and the Carnival Breeze, it was once again time for dinner – but tonight, I wanted to indulge a little and try out Carnival’s Fahrenheit 555 Steakhouse on Deck 5.
At an additional cost of $35 per person, this specialty restaurant is one of the few aboard Carnival Breeze to carry an extra charge – but what you get for that $35 is very much worth the price of admission.
To be honest, you’re probably not going to have a bad meal at any shipboard specialty restaurant. The cover charge is as much for the food costs as it is to ensure the restaurant remains small, intimate and uncrowded. Food tends to be better. Service becomes more personable. And for most cruise guests, it’s a splurge they’ll make once per voyage.
For $35, I expected a good but standard steakhouse experience. Fahrenheit 555, however, vastly exceeded those expectations.
I am a huge Lobster Bisque fan, so it took no amount of arm-turning to choose that as my starter. It was prepared tableside, which for some reason never seems to lose its appeal to me. But the taste was out-of-this world, with just a hint of cognac at the bottom of the bowl.
I also had the Spinach Salad with Blue Cheese prior to my main course, though I think I should have skipped it – and perhaps lunch and breakfast. Remember: this is an event, not a meal!
For my main, I ordered the 9 ounce Filet Mignon – always my go-to choice on the steak front. Steaks got as large as 18 ounces, which I’d never personally be able to finish. While beef remains their signature dish, there’s no worries if you’re not a fan: seafood entrees including lobster tail and lobster ravioli are offered, along with a free-range chicken breast. You could probably just load up on appetizers and salads if you chose to and skip the main altogether.
I like my filet mignon medium-well. I have a tough time getting it done medium-well; most restaurants (even some of the ritziest steakhouses I’ve been to) trot it out medium-rare, with blood still oozing down the side. Carnival, however, cooked it just like I would at home. It was so tender I barely needed my knife to cut it.
Of particular note was the side dish of Wasabi-infused Mashed Potatoes that were recommended to me by my waitress Andrea. I don’t like wasabi on its own, but it added just the right amount of spice to the dish. I could have had a plate of it and remained quite content.
For dessert, I chose the Fruit Cocktail. It was very tasty, but nothing was as stunning as the raspberries, which tasted like they’d been freshly picked this afternoon. I picked fresh raspberries once, as a kid in British Columbia’s Okanagan Valley, and to this day there’s nothing as great as a fresh raspberry. My fruit cocktail had five exceptionally fresh ones.
My final verdict: I have four evenings left here onboard Carnival Breeze – and one of them will be spent enjoying another meal in Fahrenheit 555. When I left the restaurant, I was stunned to see I’d been there for three straight hours. Can it take on Silversea? No. Does it give other mainstream line steakhouses a run for their money? You betcha.
Tonight at 10:00pm, Carnival’s RedFrog Caribbean Beach Party kicked off up on Deck 10 by the Beach Pool situated amidships. Tons of people all ready for fun showed up, with some dancing on the open deck while crowds lined the port and starboard sides of decks 10, 11 and 12.
What I loved most about this was seeing everyone enjoying themselves in their own way. The kids were having an absolute blast (who wouldn’t when it’s past your bedtime?) and the adults were breaking out the drinks from the RedFrog Rum Bar and the BlueIguana Tequila Bar.
But I’m kind of a quiet guy. Big, loud parties aren’t really my thing. So, I ambled down to Deck 4 and found the perfect spot for me: the cozy Library Bar.
I originally went in just to get a snifter of cognac, my typical post-dinner cruise drink. But I completely forgot that the Library Bar would have hand-crafted cocktails designed specifically for it, so instead I ordered a Black Pearl: Hennessey Black Cognac; Blackberry Brandy and Lemonade.
A good drink needs a good book, so I picked up Fodor’s latest Caribbean Ports of Call guidebook from the enclosed travel section. If Carnival had a maritime section, I’d probably never leave.
Carnival isn’t a line I would have pegged as having so much individual choice, but it really seems as if there is something to suit every personality onboard. For me, my 45 minutes in the Library Bar was the perfect end to a great evening.
|January 31, 2014||Prepping our Fun Ship Journey|
|February 1, 2014||Miami, Florida||Embark Carnival Breeze||4:00 PM|
|February 2||Fun Day at Sea|
|February 3||Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos||7:00 AM||3:00 PM|
|February 4||San Juan, Puerto Rico||11:00 AM||7:00 PM|
|February 5||Philipsburg, St. Maarten||8:00 AM||6:00 PM|
|February 6||St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands||7:00 AM||5:00 PM|
|February 7||Fun Day at Sea|
|February 8||Fun Day at Sea|
|February 9||Miami, Florida||8:00 AM||Disembark|