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Eastern Caribbean Cruise, March 2023
In March of 2023 we flew to Florida to take a Caribbean cruise with stops in the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico, Saint Martin, and Saint Thomas, USVI. Following the cruise we used an open day in Orlando to cash in a free day-pass at a Disney park as well.
This cruise had waited a few years before it came to fruition, actually. We had planned to visit Puerto Rico and St Thomas on a Royal Caribbean cruise back in 2017, but hurricanes Irma and Maria hit back to back and we postponed the trip. Then we also were about to take a Carnival cruise in 2021 that would have visited the DR but due to the ongoing Covid travel restrictions at the time we had to postpone yet again.
So finally, with a Carnival cruise credit to use or lose along with the free Disney pass, we made reservations a year in advance and finally traveled to the Eastern Caribbean.
- Day 1: Orlando and Port Canaveral
- Day 2: Sea Day
- Day 3: Amber Cove, Dominican Republic
- Day 4: San Juan, Puerto Rico
- Day 5: Saint Martin
- Day 6: St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
- Days 7 & 8: At Sea
- Day 9: Back to Orlando and Disney Hollywood Studios
Day 1: Orlando and Port Canaveral
We flew out the night before and arrived at our hotel at about 2AM due to the time change from MST to EST. We rented a car at Orlando airport to drive ourselves to the cruise port, while also giving us latitude to make a few stops to pick up supplies before boarding the boat. At $64 for a less than 24 rental this was actually much cheaper than using Lyft or Uber or a shuttle service for 4 people.
We woke up the next morning feeling expectedly groggy but wanted to get to Port Canaveral fairly early so that we could make a stop at Manatee Sanctuary Park just a few short miles from the port.
Manatee Sanctuary Park
Manatee Sanctuary Park is a small park on Merritt Island. There is a boardwalk right by the sheltered inland bay where manatees may be seen in the right season.
We did not see any manatees or even dolphins. But we did see quite a number of other animals of various kinds all within a half hour. Florida soft shell turtles, a skink, a brown anole, a white ibis, and a warbler among them. This was also a last moment of serenity before we would be boarding what we knew would be a very full Carnival Magic cruise ship for spring break.
We then drove down to the Avis at Port Canaveral to return the car and found that there were already a LOT of people waiting for shuttle rides to the port for a number of ships. After about an hour waiting in the hot, sunny waiting area (and debating calling a Lyft or Uber) we finally got on the shuttle and made it to the Carnival embarkation port.
I had bought Faster to the Fun in advance of the cruise to help us get aboard the ship in a priority line. The cost was $125 dollars for one cabin. Even with the priority line it was still about an hour of lines and processing steps before we were aboard the ship. Without FTTF this would have been at least twice as long, so it was still largely worth it. You also get priority debarkation and a special Guest Services line.
You are also supposed to get into your cabin early, which we ended up doing but it isn’t clear the cabin steward knew this was a benefit we had (our room was ready but our room cards had to be delivered to us).
We were able to get into our cabin earlier than the vast majority of the guests and that was nice as the rest of the ship was full of guests laden with their luggage. Eventually we left the room to get some food from the Lido deck which was crowded beyond reason. Just finding anywhere to sit was next to impossible. This was the worst we saw the Lido cafeteria, but the honest truth is the Carnival Magic at capacity is a bit of a crowded place.
At 4PM the ship left the port and we started the cruise. We had some fun on the 12th deck ropes course (circling it multiple times to try every path) and got in a few games of giant chess (we love playing chess).
Day 2: Sea Day
The second day of the cruise was a sea day traveling through the Bahamas toward the first stop at Amber, Cove in the Dominican Republic.
We were still feeling a bit tired even though we went to bed early the night before (around 8PM EST). I was glad to have a sea day with no itinerary that day to fully recover from the flight and sleeplessness of the prior day.
We took it easy on Day 2 aboard the ship and had a formal night dinner in the ship’s steakhouse. It was the best dinner we had on the cruise, which made sense since it was the fine-dining restaurant and charged extra (although the wine was complimentary).
For free restaurants, Magic did have a Guy’s Burger Joint which was among our favorites throughout the cruise. Guy’s Pig and Anchor BBQ was also decent, but had odd hours (2PM open and 4pm close).
Day 3: Amber Cove, Dominican Republic
The Amber Cove stop was our favorite stop of the cruise. I had looked at possible excursions for this port for several months and kept reading that the 27 Waterfalls of Damajagua was the most exciting and worthwhile. I had also read a lot of reviews on TripAdvisor etc to the effect that it was physically demanding and potentially dangerous.
After weighing our options I decided that we should go ahead and do it. But I also had to decide whether to book it through the cruise line or through a tour in the Dominican Republic for less than half the cost (and also give us the chance to be ahead of the crowds that would arrive with the cruise tour).
Finally I decided to book the tour through Viator with Edwin Transfer Tours. I highly recommend doing this as we not only were taken to Damajagua, but got another stop at a plantation in the Dominican countryside on the way back. Although getting to the tour van was a bit of a walk (they park outside the gates on the highway), they treated us great and it was a relief to be away from the cruise hordes (at least for a brief moment).
We found our way through the gate to the highway and only at that point did I realize I didn’t bring our passports (just in case anything went wrong). It was fine though. You only need your ship card to reenter the port.
We found Edwin’s driver and climbed in to go on the tour. We were the only four in Edwin’s tour group that day. The drive up to the 27 Waterfalls was pretty short but gave us a chance to look at the Dominican countryside. When I travel I enjoy seeing ‘real’ places and not the built-up, touristy places that are usually right outside of cruise terminals. Even cows can look very different in a foreign country (and they did in the DR).
After arriving we were given our helmets and lifejackets and while I was hoping to be in our own group we ended up in a larger group which included many from other cruises. It still wan’t too bad though (there were some arrogant, rude New Yorkers that ended up in the excursion group with us but they shut up when they got winded on the hike and we were just fine – we’re Coloradans).
If you read the reviews the hike uphill sounds much more intense than it is. If you are in relatively good physical health and especially if you hike it’s really nothing. My eldest son and I could have run up and back and then back up again. So don’t let those reviews deter you. Just enjoy the forest scenery along the way.
Once you get to the falls the fun begins. You won’t descend 27 falls but instead about 7 (not sure who is counting). While I would never, ever take a child under 8 years old (and I think that is the age limit), older children will have no problem with the help of adults. There are places where you cannot touch the bottom and you can optionally jump at a couple spots. Some of the slides are as high as the jumps in reality.
After making our way through the falls we hiked back along the river to the visitor center. There we had a better buffet lunch than we ever got on the ship. We were really hungry so the food tasted even better.
After the Falls we started back and the driver asked if we were interested in stopping at a market. We weren’t sure what the market was but we wanted to do a little souvenir shopping so we said ‘yes’.
The market was actually more interesting than that. It was a farm of sorts where tobacco, cinnamon, cocoa, cilantro, mangoes, etc were grown and we got to watch cigars being rolled. That was something I was actually curious about as well but since we had chosen the Damajagua tour I didn’t expect to get to see.
When we arrived a tour group from a Norwegian cruise line was arriving at the same farm. I thought it was kind of funny that we got a free stop at a place those passengers paid for separately. While I wouldn’t have been that thrilled with it as an excursion if that was all we did, since it was a free stop off it was a pretty nice addition. It did not compare to what we saw in Costa Rica, however, at a cocoa farm there.
Day 4: San Juan, Puerto Rico
Old Town San Juan has been on my bucket list for years and it was right at the top of the list of places I was looking forward to seeing on the cruise. I had mentally put together a walking route to cover once we were off the ship and for the most part we covered it.
I’ve posted our walking route here as a guide for anyone that wants to use it for future reference. The only difference is that we walked around La Forteleza on the south outside the wall and up to Calle Fortaleza. Google Maps doesn’t seem to think you can do that.
There were four huge cruise ships in port in San Juan that day and that was immediately a big disappointment as almost every sidewalk and historic site was saturated with people for the first several hours. By the time we were finished eating lunch things were better but we also had less time before we had to start making our way back to the ship.
Our first stop was Castillo San Cristobal passing the Columbus statue in Plaza Colon along the way. Castillo San Cristobal is one of two national park sites in Old San Juan along with El Morro on the opposite side of the city.
The fortress is huge and it provided the land defense of the city while its twin El Morro provided the sea defense. The fortifications were built by the Spanish in the 1500s and were so well constructed the US army used both in World War II for coastal defense.
Unfortunately at that point Shelley was succumbing to a stomach illness that I also would acquire on the trip, and because of the high heat and humidity she decided she would have to let the rest of us continue the tour of OSJ in her absence. We were not going to stop until we’d seen the most important places (and had at least one piña colada).
We decided Castillo San Felipe El Morro was next and made the trek across the north part of the city to the second fortress.
El Morro seems even more impressive owing to its position at the edge of a peninsula. The kids enjoyed reading about the history of the fortress and viewing the defensive walls and entering the garitas (the guard towers that line the walls).
After spending time in El Morro it was lunchtime and the heat and humidity were wilting us so we decided to head off to find some lunch. Along the way we came to the Iglesia San Jose which was built in 1532 making it the oldest church in Old San Juan.
This was certainly a cool stop and a relief from the heat and the crowds. I knew that in one of the churches was the tomb of the explorer Juan Ponce de Leon. We asked at the church and they said it was originally there, but it was moved to the Cathedral Basilica San Juan down the street which was a decade younger.
All the restaurants in San Juan were filling with diners and most were pretty much overwhelmed by cruise traffic. We found El Patio del Sam and were just happy to get a seat out of the heat and a chance to enjoy some local food.
While our drinks came out quickly and the sole waitress was nice, the food took over an hour to arrive and we really weren’t sure it was even the right food (we ordered empanadas and were served breaded, flattened meat entrees, but we were not going to ask to have it changed). A few other tables of tourists were getting grouchy and complaining to the staff. We just decided to be chill and understanding. There were too many people and too few staff.
After eating, the streets were dramatically less populated, which was great. We made our way next to the cathedral which was also pleasantly quiet inside.
We did find the Tomb of Juan Ponce de Leon, the conquistador that once reputedly sought the Fountain of Youth (obviously he failed otherwise we wouldn’t have found his tomb).
We also found a rather interesting relic in the remains of Saint Pius that were brought to the cathedral in the 1800s. I realized that these were in fact the actual remains coated with wax but let out 10-year-old Evan believe on his own they were fake. I didn’t photograph the saint as I didn’t feel it was appropriate. I honestly had a dream a subsequent night about this experience.
After the cathedral we set off for La Fortaleza but only after passing through the gateway Puerta de San Juan in the wall. This gateway was one of the last that remained of what was once an encircling wall but which was partially removed. The gate led uphill to the cathedral.
We passed by La Fortaleza but because of time constraints we had to hasten this last part of our journey and moved directly on to Calle Fortaleza after passing through a park square.
Unfortunately Calle Fortaleza was undergoing roadwork so we proceeded on and just made a few quick souvenir shop stops in the Old town, enjoying the scenic architecture as we went.
With time running short and our energy depleted we made our way back to the ship.
Day 5: Saint Martin
I wanted to do some good snorkeling on this cruise as it’s been rather difficult to find good places to snorkel over the last few years. Key West was rather disappointing (dead coral and rough seas on an overcrowded catamaran) and we really didn’t try in Costa Rica (although we considered it).
The last relatively good snorkeling was on our last cruise in Roatan, and prior to that we had some good experiences in the Cayman Islands, Maui, and best of all (by far), Belize.
So I booked the one and only excursion of the trip through the cruise line: Ultimate Snorkel and Beach Break.
But the excursion wasn’t until 1PM and the ship arrived at 8AM. Which should have meant we had time to visit the historic town of Phillipsburg, Sant Maarten.
Instead upon exiting the ship at 9:30 (we took our time eating breakfast, etc) we found that the cruise port is a distance from the town and just finding a taxi to town was a pain. We eventually decided that we would be better off just spending a little time at the cruise port shops before returning to the ship to put on sunscreen, take Dramamine, get our cameras, and eat lunch.
When it was close to 1PM we made our way to the dock for our excursion and after a wait in the hot sun on the concrete pier, we were taken to the boat.
It was good to not be on a crowded catamaran, but when we were taken t o the snorkeling spot we saw not only the catamaran but several other boats. The excursion just went to the same snorkeling spot as every other tour.
We were instantly disappointed on seeing hundreds of snorkelers in the same area, but we didn’t have another option. Little Bay seems to be the default snorkeling spot on Saint Martin and it does have some interesting things underwater (helicopter, submarine, cannon, etc) and some colorful fish, but it wasn’t quite what I was hoping for (a vibrant reef full of amazing sea life).
What made it worse was my attempt to move to the edge of the group led me to bump into a barnacle-encrusted boat nearby. I scraped my arm and was bleeding but didn’t even realize it until we exited the water.
The crew weren’t exactly the nicest either. They gave me peroxide but acted like I must have scraped on coral. The coral was far below as you can see in the video.
Once we were back on the boat we did get a pretty good tour that led to the French part of St Martin and around past Maho Beach where the airplanes land at the edge of the beach. I got a video of a plane landing right over our tour boat.
After that we went to Kim Sha Beach which was pretty nice with warm water and a sandy fenced-in shore. There was no real scenery there, however so I was kind of disappointed we weren’t at one of the other beaches we passed along the route.
Overall we kind of felt bummed out by the snorkeling tour experience. It was neat to travel around by sea and have the plane land overhead, but the snorkeling was our primary objective and that was less than we were hoping for.
We did see a resident iguana lounging on the pier as we made our way back to the ship after the tour.
As for my arm, I was worried about an infection after exposure to the uncertain sea water and barnacles, but after applying hydrogen peroxide, alcohol, and some Neosporin I brought with us, I decided it was likely ok. I had to get right back in ocean water the next day, and since it had not yet scabbed over, it bled a little more in the ocean there as well. As of today (over a week later), the scrape is healing fine.
Day 6: St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
This was another stop I was looking forward to and had once made plans for on a cruise we never took. I had read about Virgin Islands National Park on St John and Trunk Bay and that was really where I wanted to go as a first priority.
Unfortunately the only excursions that went there were sold out (there is one called St John on Your Own, which I considered). And the ship was set to depart at 4 PM, requiring being back on the ship by 3PM (to be safe).
It is possible to take a cab to Red Hook on the east on of St Thomas to board a ferry to Cruz Bay on St John and then an open air taxi to Trunk Bay (or another beach on St John). But with only really about 5 hours to work with and four cruise ships in St Thomas that day, I wasn’t willing to risk it.
So I decided on what is considered one of the most beautiful beaches in the Caribbean and the second most famous in the USVI, Magens Bay. Getting to Magens Bay would just be a short taxi ride up and down to the north end of St. Thomas and would provide a nice day on the beach without any real rush. Afterward we would have time to do the Skyride at Adventure Point (right by the cruise terminal).
The taxi ride there was $12 per person (or $48 for four of us) each direction, plus $5 to enter the park for 12 and over. So we spent a little over a $100 to go the Magens Bay. Overall worth it. But make sure you have plenty of cash (we did).
Magens Bay was exactly what I expected: beautiful, crowded with cruise travelers and the water had little visibility so you really can’t snorkel. There are better places to snorkel in St Thomas so only go to this beach to enjoy completely calm, safe water and a beautiful beach.
After a couple hours we wanted to return to the port area to have lunch and ride the Skyride. That unfortunately wasn’t going to happen.
When we got back to the port the line for the Skyride was ridiculous. There were four huge ships in port that day and Adventure Point was overcrowded. I also wanted to do the Pirate Museum but the cost of admission for us seemed ridiculous at the time. We were hot and overwhelmed by the crowds and just wanted to get away.
We ended up re-boarding the ship knowing that the next stop on land would be in Port Canaveral. But we just didn’t have a lot of time to begin with and everything was overcrowded.
In the end I liked Magens Bay overall but felt disappointed with this stop. St. John would have been better. The itinerary just didn’t give us enough time in the port and there were too many other mega cruise ships in port as well.
Days 7 & 8: At Sea
Our last two days of the cruise were sea days. We made extra efforts to enjoy the activities on the ship these days, playing trivia several times, giant chess, and taking part in family games on deck five.
We ate in the Italian restaurant and had the Dr Seuss breakfast with Green Eggs and Ham. We took our portrait photos and went to the White Night party on the last night. Might as well get it all in.
We actually enjoyed these days the most of the cruise as we were starting to settle in more. We were also starting to feel ill (cold symptoms) which I don’t blame on the cruise but we were getting a tad worn down physically by the time the ship arrived in Port Canaveral.
We found the crew to be very nice aboard the ship and enjoyed many of the activities on the ship. But the spring break crowds were as expected. The pools were crowded and there were often some significant lines at the cafeteria on Lido Deck. And the Serenity deck loungers were rarely available. We’ll cruise again, but not on spring break. It’s more relaxing with a less busy ship.
Day 9: Back to Orlando and Disney Hollywood Studios
With the cruise over we had still another day before our flight back to Colorado, since the difference in flight prices were substantial between Sunday and Monday.
We took the shuttle to get our Avis rental at Port Canaveral (which turned out to be a smaller car than I intended and we had several suitcases) and after stuffing ourselves into the little Kia Rio, we drove off to find breakfast.
We found a nice waffle diner in Cocoa Beach called C’s Waffles. We had some good waffles there and lots of coffee (much needed because of the cool weather and my cold symptoms). After eating we drove onward to Orlando and the Disney resort.
Both Shelley and I were starting to have cold symptoms and felt congested. So we canceled plans to go to Hollywood Studios that day as we were just too sick. And the weather was an unseasonably cold 58 degrees Fahrenheit. We would still stay at the Caribbean Beach Resort at Walt Disney World.
Once we arrived at the hotel and checked in we realized the resort wasn’t crowded at all and presumed the park wouldn’t be either. Also we really didn’t have any other plans for the day and the kids really wanted to go to the park. So we uncanceled our plans and decided to go ahead and visit Hollywood Studios.
Since we had our free pass I decided to put on the warmest clothes I could (my son’s flannel shirt) and we got aboard the sky tram to the park. It was very much worth it. We had a really good day that made up for the bad day we had at the Magic kingdom a year and a half before.
The reason we had a free pass was we complained about a prior visit which was a shitstorm in the covid era with grouchy staff and ridiculous mask rules. Now we had low expectations based on that but Hollywood Studios turned out to have some good new Star Wars rides, a new Toy Story rollercoaster, and the staff was nice too.
Our kids enjoyed the day at Disney a lot and honestly I enjoyed the resort hotel we stayed at after the crowding of the ship. The Caribbean Beach Resort was quiet and relaxing. We also really liked the direct access to Hollywood Studios from the hotel by the gondolas.
We got a late checkout for our room and then made our way to the airport to hang out in the United Lounge before our flight home. My cold was worsening but at least the airport lounge had coffee and soup to eat.
By the time we got home I would say we were exhausted and my cold made the flight a tad miserable (thanks for the in-flight tea). But overall I’d say it was a good trip. Maybe not as relaxing as I hoped for, but never boring either.