Aaron Saunders, Live Voyage Reports
Carnival Cruise Lines’ Carnival Breeze arrived in St. Thomas early this morning, coming alongside in the picturesque town of Charlotte Amalie. St. Thomas has two major cruise ship terminals (Havensight and Crown Bay), and Carnival Breeze secured prime berthing space in at the first Havensight berth, within sight of the St. Thomas Skyride gondola.
Reportedly the busiest cruise port in the world, Charlotte Amalie – always identified as St. Thomas on cruise line itineraries – is one of the de facto stops on almost every Eastern Caribbean cruise. Nearly half the population of the US Virgin Islands calls St. Thomas home, with 51,634 inhabitants in 2010.
But with numerous ships in town at any given time, St. Thomas isn’t what you’d call ‘idyllic.’ It’s pretty, sure, but with three or even four ships docked in port at a given time, the average day sees upwards of 6,000 passengers stream ashore. With three ships in port today – including the Carnival Breeze – there are roughly 8,000 people here who arrived via cruise ship.
One of the first ships to ever arrive in St. Thomas brought with it Christopher Columbus, who made landfall here in 1493 on his second voyage to the “New World.” Unlike today’s passengers, he wasn’t here to do a little duty-free shopping and slam back a margarita. Instead, the “Old World” nearly wiped out the new one, thanks to the introduction of European diseases that spread like…well…that virus that’s been in the news a lot lately.
Regardless of whether Columbus was using his hand sanitizer or not, the Europeans were in St. Thomas for the long haul. In fact, it wasn’t until 1917 that the island was purchased from the Danes by the United States for $25 million in gold. A gentleman by the name of David Hamilton Jackson was instrumental in paving the way for this transaction to take place, even going so far as to travel to Denmark during the height of WWI to petition the King of Denmark to allow the sale to go through.
Even then, travel to the island didn’t really kick off until the United States issued the embargo against Cuba and American travelers began flocking here thanks to the rise in the popularity of cruising and the affordability of cheap air travel to the island.
This is my third visit to St. Thomas; I seem to come here every two years or so. And much as I like to give the island a bad time for its status as an over-the-top, duty-free tourist mecca, I do have to admit I always enjoy myself here. The town of Charlotte Amalie itself is quite beautiful, with colonial-style buildings and winding, narrow passageways that feature an abundance of little bars and cafes.
I was off Carnival Breeze at lightning-speed around 10am this morning, with disembarkation taking less than three minutes from stateroom-to-pier. Most guests have a tendency to shuffle toward the Havensight Mall that lies straight ahead of them, but I always prefer to hit that one the way back to minimize the crowds.
Instead of following the crowd, disembark and immediately turn left like I did today. You’ll end up walking about a thousand feet running parallel to your ship if you’re docked at Berth 1, at which point you’ll see the entrance to Yacht Haven Grande to your left.
While most of the Yacht Haven Grande complex caters to the mega-yachts that are moored immediately behind it (think Bvlgari, Coach and Louis Vuitton), there are some truly unique, interesting shops here that aren’t kitschy and are well worth your time.
The complex also serves a secondary purpose as an entrance to the seawall walk that takes you right into the heart of Charlotte Amalie. From Yacht Haven, it’s about a mile or two kilometres into town; a very easy, pleasant, entirely flat 15-minute stroll. If you pack a bottle of water (or, like me, an iced latte), the heat from the sun doesn’t get too overbearing.
Remember to look very carefully before you cross any streets in St. Thomas; despite the fact that most vehicles are all left-hand drive like in North America, cars here drive on the left side of the road as in England or Barbados. This is not the place you want to rent a car!
If you need an ATM, I always stop in at the First Bank location on the main Waterfront Highway just off of Guttet’s Gade. You’ll need to insert your bank card to open the exterior door, but once you’re in it’s nice and clean and, in my humble opinion, far safer than a back-alley ATM out in the open.
Not that you have to worry much in St. Thomas; the people here are all very friendly and can generally help you with almost any question.
I did my usual stroll down the veritable orgy of shopping that is Main Street, or Dronningen’s Gade, just one block in from the main oceanfront highway and pedestrian walkway. There’s more jewelry, alcohol, perfume, and kitschy stores here than you can shake a sugar cane at.
I will say that some of the duty-free liquor stores are worth a visit, particularly if you enjoy rums. The Caribbean is noted for its diverse rum production, and some of the bottles they have on hand are a great deal – particularly if you can’t get them at home. Just remember that this will be confiscated when returning to the ship and delivered to your stateroom on the morning of disembarkation.
But it was on my way back to the ship when I discovered one of the best finds I’ve ever stumbled across in St. Thomas. I was taking a stroll past one of the three narrow Royal Dane Mall passageways just off of the Waterfront Highway when I noticed a sign that said Gladys’ Café.
My late grandmother, a cheerfully diminutive woman with an irrepressible laugh, was named Gladys. So I was sufficiently intrigued to go over to the café and snap a few photos. It’s literally tucked halfway up what looks like a darkened alley, but fear not: it’s actually a very safe, if often undiscovered, little passageway.
Since it was closing in on Noon, I decided to go in and have lunch there. I’m glad I did. Five minutes after I arrived, the place had filled to capacity and the restaurant’s eponymous owner was eagerly inviting tourists in. “Come on in,” she hollered at one family from behind the bar. “My food’s really good!”
She’s right about the food. I ordered a bowl of the Conch Soup and a Rum-and-Coke made with proper rum from St. Thomas. The Conch Soup was out-of-this-world good; fresh and perfectly seasoned. Homemade, too, like everything else on the menu.
The biggest surprise was the price: my lunch and adult beverage barely broke $10. I think Grandma would have approved of her namesake restaurant.
As a side note, I see now that I have returned to the ship that Gladys’ is actually featured in my Fodor’s Caribbean Ports of Call reference book. This is one eatery to definitely seek out in Charlotte Amalie.
By the time I’d strolled back to the Havensight Mall adjacent from the Havensight Cruise Terminal, most of the crowds that had packed the area in during the morning rush had dissipated, making it far easier to move around.
The shops here are more of the usual, but there’s enough variation to make it worthy of a little walk-through. There’s a good-sized pharmacy and a very large supermarket with local and international newspapers, but for me the pinnacle of all Havensight stores was always Dockside Books. They had a fabulous maritime and local interest section, and I usually came away with two or three new purchases.
But I have bad news for book-lovers: Dockside Books is gone; its former space in Building VI is now vacant.
Not wanting to visit Senor Frog’s or Hooters – the two bars situated near the pier – I made my way back onboard the Carnival Breeze.
It’s worth noting that Carnival actually offers tours that explore both St. Thomas and nearby St. John here. These range from snorkeling excursions to champagne catamaran sailings to underwater scuba diving to jeep excursions and zipline tours. In all, 30 different shore excursions are offered through Carnival in St. Thomas on this Carnival Breeze sailing.
You can also do the beach-thing on your own; Magens Bay Beach isn’t far away, though you’ll want to bring some cash: there’s a $5 per person entry fee, and it can get super-crowded.
With everyone back onboard, Carnival Breeze let her lines go 15 minutes ahead of our scheduled 5:00pm departure time, and by the bottom of the hour we’d already utilised our six thrusters to pivot us in around in preparation for heading out into the Caribbean Sea.
From there, we’d sail a short distance before joining the shipping lanes in the Atlantic Ocean for our return journey back to Miami.
With no more ports of call – but still two full days of sailing ahead of us – the entertainment staff aboard Carnival Breeze kicked things up a notch. One of the evening’s best highlights was a magic show performed by renowned magician Bobby Borgia. Magic acts on cruise ships can be very hit-or-miss, but Borgia not only delivered some pretty cool tricks, he also worked the audience into the show at every opportunity, with a cameraman following him around as he mingled and utilised the audience members as props.
Not one piece of the show took place on the stage, and that was a truly unique twist.
I’ve had numerous passengers onboard Carnival Breeze ask me how I’m enjoying my very first Fun Ship cruise, and I tell each and every one of them the same thing: I’m pleasantly surprised.
Not that I wasn’t expecting a good cruise – I was, and still am. You don’t get to be the world’s most popular cruise line by delivering a shoddy product. But when I walked back to my stateroom to write this report at 11:30pm, the main entertainment hubs on Deck 5 weren’t just busy; they were packed.
I’ve never seen such vibrant nightlife on a ship before. Up on Deck 10, a Mexican Pool Deck Party is in full swing, and there’s precious little space left to be had on the open decks.
For those who like something more subdued, the Piano Bar 88 is packed. There’s adult comedy featuring our fellow guests in the Limelight Lounge right next to the Piano Bar. And people were waltzing to the music in the Deck 3 Atrium Lobby.
It’s tough to please everyone and be all things to all people. That Carnival can deliver even half of the diverse nighttime entertainment they put on is mind-boggling.
Let my personal experience serve as a guide: if you think you know Carnival, but have never sailed with them, you really don’t know Carnival at all. All the derogatory comments about it being the ‘Wal-Mart of the Seas’ are insultingly wrong.
Things change. Cruises change. But Carnival’s managed to hang on to one very important thing that I feel is slowly evaporating from a number of mainstream lines, and that’s this: Carnival still wants you to know you’re on a ship. The deck parties, the traditional style dining option, the plethora of live music – these are all things that can trace their roots back to the line’s inception.
I don’t know about you, but I’ll take that any day of the week.
Carnival Breeze - 8 Night Eastern Caribbean
DAY PORT ARRIVE DEPART 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