Christmas/Anniversary Cruise 2021: Day 3, Part 2, Christmas Day! Mount Isabela de Torres, Dominican Republic
We had a great time on our walking tour of Puerto Plata. We returned to our minibus to climb the mountain! It was a long steep winding road to the top of Mount Isabel de Torres. We got a good look at the beautiful countryside along the way. The higher we climbed the better the views became. Towards the top, the road was very steep! Our minibus was having a hard time. Rambo told us that we would probably need to get out and push! Luckily the minibus made it to the top without our help. When we arrived at the top we were literally in the clouds. We were there to see the Christ statue on the peak. It was barley visible through the clouds. Puerto Plata below us was totally obscured. The Christ the Redeemer Statue is a smaller replica of the same statue in Rio de Janeiro. The clouds were moving rapidly and we were able to get nice views of the statue and Puerto Plata below. There is a cable car from Puerto Plata to the peak of Isabel de Torres. It was temporarily closed.
The Isabel de Torres National park has a beautiful botanical garden. After we took in the views of the valley below, we took a walk through the garden. The stone pathway wound its way through the beautiful lush garden. We came to a small cave. Rambo said he brought a group of 14 here and only 13 came out! He was kidding, I think….
There was a replica of an early Dominican home complete with its own herb garden. Rambo was very excited to tell us all about how the early Dominicans lived. He plucked herbs from the garden and invited everyone to smell how fresh they were. He was really having fun showing us how they used a device that looked like an old butter churn to grind coffee. He was very funny shaking his booty as he ground the coffee. He was telling us all about the house and how they lived. The roof was made from the base of palm fronds. It was a very interesting place. The path wound its way down the hill and was fairly steep! We were worried that we were going to need to go back up the hill! We were happy to see that Rambo had the driver bring the mini bus down the hill to meet us.
The first full day of our cruise, Christmas Eve, December 24, 2021. We spent the full day at sea enjoying the ship. We started the day with a nice breakfast in bed! Well not really in bed but we could’ve if we had wanted to. The night before we filled out our breakfast menu and hung it on our stateroom door. In the morning, right at the time we specified, our hot breakfast was delivered to our stateroom. It was very nice watching the world pass by through our veranda window as we ate our breakfast. It was very yummy too! We were far from camera ready so, sorry, no photos.
We wanted to work off that wonderful breakfast and also minimize the weight gain that always happens on a cruise. We took a brisk walk on the windy Promenade deck. We did 6 laps which equals two miles. We had to stop from time to time to watch the Brown Boobies chasing the Flying Fish that were jumping out of the water as the ship cut through the waves. As we were walking, I was seeing lots of photographs. So I took an extra lap to take some photos.
We were on our way to the Dominican Republic. This is the port that was switched at the last minute right before we left. The cruise port at Amber Cove is a fair distance from the places that we wanted to visit, so we booked a shore excursion. A shore excursion can be expensive, but in a port like this, it’s probably the best option. They were giving a talk about the shore excursions in the main showroom. We went to the talk to help us decide which excursion to do. We booked the Mountain Views and city sights shore excursion for the Dominican Republic.
Time to eat again! The reason the we always gain weight on a cruise is all of the wonderful food available pretty much anytime you want. We can’t let it go to waste! We popped up to the Lido deck and ordered a pizza for lunch.
There was another talk in the main showroom about the Caribbean. It turned out to be a sales pitch for rum. So we went back to our stateroom watched the flying fish and relaxed until it was time to get ready to eat again! This evening was gala night, so everyone dressed up for dinner. We had a very nice Christmas Eve dinner in the main dining room. After dinner we went to see the dance show in the main showroom. The Step One Dance Company put on a nice show.
My wife Robbie and I enjoy taking a cruise for Christmas and our anniversary. Unfortunately the past couple of years the cruise industry has been shut down. We have been unable to take our Christmas cruise. So we were really ready to cruise. Things have been getting better, the covid cases have been dropping. Everyone on the ship needed to be fully vaccinated and have a negative covid test to board the ship. Masks were also required everywhere inside of the ship, except your cabin and while eating or drinking. So this year we thought that we would take our Christmas cruise. We booked a 7 day Caribbean cruise with Holland American Cruise Line. Enter the Omicron variant! Covid cases were rising, ugh! We had committed to going, so we made the decision to continue with the cruise.
Our cruise departed from Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, Florida on December 23rd. We were going to Grand Turk, San Juan Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and Half Moon Cay Bahamas. A few days before the cruise we were told that the Grand Turk port would be replaced with a stop at Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic. Apparently both ports are owned by Carnival Cruise line, Holland America is a Carnival company. The Grand Turk port only had enough personnel to accommodate one ship. Carnival and Holland America were taking turns at the port. It was Carnivals turn, so we got bumped to Puerto Plata. We had been to Grand Turk before on another cruise, so we were good with the switch.
We drove our car to Fort Lauderdale to start our cruise. The great thing about living in Florida is that we are a few hours drive from any Florida cruise port! We parked at the Park N Go parking lot. We took a 5 minute shuttle ride to our ship the Nieuw Amsterdam. Our last cruise in 2019 from Venice, Italy took hours to board the ship. The European ship was delayed by fog but still, after boarding started it took hours! This time in Ft Lauderdale, we boarded the ship in record time! In fairness, the latest ship was about 500 people short of being full. All of the passengers had staggered boarding times, we were in the 1:40pm boarding group. We arrived at the parking lot about 1:30pm. The shuttle dropped us off right at the ship. The cruise line baggage guys grabbed our bags from the curb. We walked into the cruise terminal. We had to wait for one couple in front of us to show our boarding passes, passports, negative Covid tests and Vaccine cards. They scanned our boarding pass and we went right to security. We put our carry on bags through the machine. From there we stopped at a kiosk and had our photos taken for our ship/room key cards. After the photos we walked right onto the ship. I think they scanned our boarding passes one more time, as we boarded the ship. We were in our cabin literally 15 minuets after we got off the parking lot shuttle! Our key cards were waiting for us in our mail slot.
Once on the ship everyone is required to do a mandatory muster drill. This is a practice run for everyone to gather at their assigned lifeboat in case of emergency. Normally the whole entire ship gathers on the promenade deck under their lifeboats. You are all massed together until everyone is there and listen to the safety instructions. It’s a very tedious and long process. Not to mention huge crowds of people and Covid. They changed their process for this cruise. This time we just needed to go visit our lifeboat, so we knew where it was. A crew member scanned our key cards, so they knew we had been there. Then we just needed to watch a safety video in our cabin. A much better process, thank you Holland America! We took in the view of the port on our way to the lifeboat.
When we sail out of a port, I like to go up on deck and watch the sail away. Robbie stayed in the cabin and I went to take some photos of the sail away. I like to watch the people, watching the people, as we sail through the port. People on shore are waving and yelling at the people on the ship and people on the ship are waving and yelling at the people on shore. Everyone is happy, taking photos, and having fun!
click on an image to se larger.
As we were sailing out to sea, we were treated to a nice sunset over the fantail. One of the best things about cruising is watching the sunset from the deck.
After enjoying the beautiful sunset, I took walk around the Lido deck. There is the rear pool and hot tubs with a pool bar. There is also a pizza shop where you can get a made to order pizza. Moving inside we have the Lido Market buffet restaurant. This is where you can go just about anytime and grab a bite to eat, get something sweet, or something to drink, ice tea, water or coffee. Everything is usually pretty good! Moving through the Lido Market there is the second pool and hot tubs with the Lido pool bar. Get a tropical drink and sit by the pool or have a soak in the hot tub. There is also the Dive In restaurant, a walk up diner where you can get a hot dog, burger and fries. Robbie really liked the portabella mushroom sandwich! In case of inclement weather they roll the roof closed. We had great weather and the roof was open every day. They did close it at least one night. I think we passed through some spotty showers.
Back in our cabin, from our veranda, we got to enjoy the last of the setting sun as Fort Lauderdale faded into the distance. Our cruise was off to a great start!
Oh no, it’s our last full day in Venice! Robbie and I are on our own today. Everyone in our group is doing their own thing. We took a walk to the Basilica di Santa Maria della Salute. The basilica is the beautiful domed church that stands out as you look down the Grand Canal from the Accademia Bridge. Along the way we stumbled onto the Venice Photo Lab. A photography exhibit of photographers that were chosen from Instagram. There were quite a few interesting photos on display. We stopped by the Accademia Bridge and found it fascinating that there was actually a phone booth. There were also public toilets or WC (water closet). If you need to use them, and we did, you will need 1.50€ in coins. They were clean and very nice. The basilica is right along a busy Grand Canal. It’s interesting to watch all of the boats zipping up and down the canal. From the top of the basilica steps you get a nice view across the canal toward St. Marks Square. We were getting hungry and started to look for a restaurant. The problem is, Italians eat early and then late. So lots of restaurants close for the afternoon. Unfortunately, when you’re out and about seeing the sights the time you think about getting something to eat is the time most restaurants are closed for the afternoon. There are many restaurants that do not close in the afternoon. We seemed to be in an area where most of them were closed or pricey. We found the Bar dell Accademia close to the Accademia Bridge. We had a very relaxing and tasty lunch. Robbie and I had a great day exploring a new section of Venice.
Robbie and I visited the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida for my birthday. The Brevard Zoo has an awesome giraffe exhibit. The giraffes are free roaming in a large open field. On the edge of the field there is a large platform for humans. From the platform you can get eye to eye with the giraffes. You can buy some lettuce to feed the giraffes. If you are lucky one will come and eat the lettuce out of your hand. Giraffes have the strangest tongues. They are very long and it feels very weird to be licked by a giraffe. I was able to feed my new best buddy Greg the giraffe. He was very handsome and enjoyed posing for the camera. We had a great time with the giraffes at the Brevard Zoo.
We had a great day at the Brevard Zoo. When we go to the zoo, we like to visit the bird aviaries. They have two, one for lorikeets and one for cockatiels. You can just walk in with the birds or you can buy them a treat. We like to get some treats and feed them. They know you have a treat and you have several buddies as soon as you walk in the aviary. We actually have two cockatiels a budgie and an African grey parrot at home. We still like to visit with the other birds though.
My wife Robbie and I had an awesome day at the Brevard Zoo in Melbourne, Florida for my birthday! The Brevard Zoo is a great little zoo. You can take a walk through Africa, Australia, wild Florida or the rainforest. There are lots of really cool animals from each region. The zoo is involved with lots of great community conservation efforts like, collecting oyster shells from area restaurants to make oyster mats. The mats are placed in the Indian River to bread oysters to help clean up the river. They help with the endangered Florida scrub-jays. The zoo also has a sea turtle healing center. There are many other conservation programs that the zoo is involved in. We didn’t do it this time, but the zoo has a really cool Treetop Trek. There are zip-lines and treetop trails. We had a really fun day at the zoo!
After a really nice lunch at La Bodeguita del Medio, we continued on a walking tour of Old Havana. There was some repetition of our tour from yesterday, but it was mostly things we didn’t mind seeing again anyway. Also this tour took a different route and we saw lots of different things along the way, as well as getting a different perspective. For instance, we got off of the bus near Plaza de Armas and walked through Plaza de la Catedral on the way to and from the Bodeguita.
One of the things we saw along the way was La Bodega de Barrio, a local ration store. Basic staples like rice, sugar, salt, soap and many other necessities have been rationed in Cuba since the 1960s. In order to understand rationing you need to know a little about Cuban currency. There are two types of currency in Cuba. The Cuban convertible peso or CUC and the Cuban peso or CUP. Cuban state workers are paid mostly in Cuban pesos or CUPs, they also receive a few Cuban convertible pesos or CUCs. At the risk of oversimplifying, if Cubans are paid by the government or spend money at a government business, Cubans use CUPs. If Cubans are paid or spend money at a non government business, Cubans use CUCs. You can probably guess which one is worth more. When people from other countries visit Cuba, they exchange their currency for CUCs. Visitors are only allowed to use CUCs. When you exchange U.S. dollars for CUCs there is an added surcharge of 10%, lucky us. Some people like to get Euros and exchange the Euro for CUCs without the surcharge. Getting Euros before your trip also has a cost, I figured it was close to a wash and we didn’t need that much anyway, so we just exchanged U.S. for CUCs and paid the extra 10%.
Getting back to Cuban rationing and the Bodega. The Cuban government gives each family a ration coupon book called a Libreta de Abastecimiento. The amount of rations each family is allowed depends on the size, age, and gender of each family. There is a Bodega for each neighborhood, they must use that Bodega. Cubans take the coupons to the Bodega, the coupon determines how much of each commodity they can buy with CUPs. There are stores where Cubans may buy things over and above the rations. Unfortunately, they need to pay for those items with CUCs and CUCs are hard to get for a lot of Cubans.
When we arrived at the Bodega our guide was telling us about the Bodega and rationing. After that we entered the Bodega. I could tell buy the size of the group and the size of the Bodega that we were not all going to fit. As the group was inside the Bodega, I hung around outside taking some photos of the area. My wife Robbie took these photos of the inside of the Bodega. Also for some reason I felt a little strange photographing the Bodega. As the crowd thinned, I did go inside and took a look around.
You maybe wondering about the La Bodeguita the restaurant and the Bodega the store. The Bodeguita started out as a store many years ago, long before rationing. They started making a few dishes to sell in the store. Eventually it evolved from a store, into a restaurant. Hence La Bodeguita or the little store.
Update on Cuba: Due to the recent ban on travel to Cuba, along with tightening of the U.S. embargo, as of May 2019, rationing in Cuba has been increased. Cubans now need to make due with even less than before! Also the situation in Venezuela is having an effect. Venezuela has stopped sending aid to Cuba. The relationship between Cuba and Venezuela is said to be the reason for the U.S. travel ban. Although even before things in Venezuela became an issue, the U.S. started restricting travel to Cuba.
On our second day in Havana, Robbie and I chose to do the Art and Culture tour. This was sort of a hybrid tour that involved a bus ride, as well as a walking tour. We woke up early and ate a good breakfast. There is no shortage of food on a cruise. This tour included lunch, but we were not sure when that would be. Once again we met our group in the big showroom to wait our turn to exit the ship. Once we were off the ship we needed go through customs. They had several customs people, so the process went fairly quickly and smoothly. They just check your passport, visa, and make sure you don’t have any weapons, fruits, etc., the typical things you can’t take into another country. There is airport type scanning and off you go. We met up with our group at the designated area and boarded our bus.
The first stop on the tour was Plaza de la Revolucion, we call it Revolution Square. The square is outside of Old Havana, too far to walk. To see this on our own we would have needed a taxi or maybe one of those cool little yellow Cocotaxies. A Cocotaxi is a small, round, motorized rickshaw thing that looks like a coconut. They are rather cute, but being a three wheel vehicle they are prone to tipping over (I don’t think that happens too often). The bus ride from the port took us down Paseo de Pardo, this is a large tree lined boulevard with a promenade through the middle. If you have the time, a stroll down the promenade is recommended. We road past the Memorial Granma. The memorial houses the yacht Granma that Fidel Castro used to transport revolutionary fighters from Mexico to Cuba. The glass building that houses the Granma is surrounded by old military vehicles, the Granma is not visible from the road. We then passed by El Capitolio, the old capitol building. It was modeled after our own capitol building in Washington DC. Just past El Capitolio is Chinatown.
Revolution Square is a huge plaza where political rallies are held. Fidel Castro and other Cuban leaders address the people of Cuba from this plaza. A prominent feature of the plaza is the Jose Marti monument. It’s a tall star shaped tower along one side of the plaza. Jose was a Cuban hero from the late 1800s. There is a museum in the base of the tower, we didn’t have time to visit. Behind the monument is a large government building and the home of the Cuban Communist Party. On the other side of the plaza are two other government buildings. One has a large drawing in steel of Camilo Cienfuegos, who sort of looks like Fidel. We thought it was Fidel at first. The other building has a matching drawing of Che Guevara. They were both heroes of the Cuban Revolution and friends of Fidel Castro. As you can see in the parking lot one of the best ways to get to the plaza is in an old classic car. Due to not being able to buy parts from the US, most of these old cars have a Russian engine under the hood. All aboard for the bus ride back to Old Havana.
My wife Robbie and I have been doing some cruising. I have not blogged about any of our cruises yet. I thought I would start with our cruise to Havana.
Update on Cuba. This is a multiple part post that I have been working on for a few weeks. As I finished writing about our first day in Havana, we learned of a US ban on travel to Cuba. This is very sad, we really enjoyed our trip to Havana. We were looking forward to going back and seeing more of Cuba. I not only wanted to share our experiences, I also wanted to inspire readers to visit Cuba. Sadly, posts like these may be the only way that any of us will be able to visit Cuba in the future.
There are many factors to consider when choosing a cruise. I could probably do a whole post just about choosing a cruise. You may choose a cruise because of the departure port, cruise line, specific ship, cruising days, dates, cost, itinerary, destination, probably many others. The two most important factors for us for this cruise were destination and itinerary. We definitely wanted to see Cuba! There were several cruise lines going to Cuba and a lot of those were spending one or two days in Havana. We picked this Royal Caribbean Cruise because it was going to be docked in Havana for the longest period of time. We were in Havana for two full days. Some of the other cruises were spending the night in Havana, but leaving early on the second day. Only staying in Havana for a day and a half or less.
The hard part done it was time to pack our bags. If your going to do some cruising, living in central Florida has it’s advantages. We are about 20 minutes from one cruise port and only a few hours drive from 4 others. Not needing to fly to a cruise port is a huge advantage. This cruise was sailing out of Miami. So we packed up the car and drove to Miami.
This cruise was a bit shorter than our other cruises. Other than Havana we only stopped in one other port, Key West. We have been to Key West before, but it’s always nice to go back. The sun was rising as we docked. Cruise ships going to Key West, dock at Mallory Square. This is good and bad. It’s good because Mallory Square is walking distance to almost everything Key West has to offer. It’s about two blocks to Sloppy Joe’s bar and Duval Street. From there all of Key West awaits you. So there was no real need to purchase a shore excursion from the cruise line. In some ports doing a shore excursion is a good idea. Whenever possible though, we like to explore a port on our own. I was looking for something different since we have been to Key West before. I found Nancy Forrester’s Secret Garden. Nancy runs a parrot rescue from her home. Since Robbie and I are parrot owners and enjoy visiting with parrots this was a great choice for us. We sat in Nancy’s beautiful garden chatting with Nancy and the parrots for quite a while. Nancy was telling us about her birds and we told Nancy about our birds. We were only a few months from a major hurricane that devastated the Keys and many other parts of Florida. Nancy was telling us about all of the hurricane damage. Key West and the Keys had recovered very well, but it had been a long few months. Nancy was great and we enjoyed our time in Nancy’s Secret Garden.
We walked from there to the Old Town Mexican Cafe for a nice lunch. After lunch we walked down to the Southern Most Point, the most southern point in the United States and only 90 miles from Cuba! From there we had a leisurely walk on Duval Street, taking in the sights on our way back to Mallory Square. We arrived in Mallory Square with enough time for a margarita before we needed to board the ship. The bad thing about docking in Mallory Square, is that it’s Mallory Square! Probably the most popular place in the country to watch the sunset. But who can see the sunset with huge cruise ships in the way. So the ships must be on their way before sunset. This somewhat limits your time in port and you miss the famous Mallory Square sunset. You should really see a Mallory Square sunset at least once. The sunset is the star, but there are lots of street performers and tons of people watching as well. The sunset is just as spectacular from the ship. We were excited to be on our way to Havana!