Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Cool Caribbean Charm

USA Trip 2013:  Blog Post #12

"To myself I am only a child playing on the beach, while vast oceans of truth lie undiscovered before me". - Isaac Newton 

Our day in St Martin was a perfect example of how you can do all the research in the world into a travel destination, but none of this is a substitute for actually seeing it with your own eyes.   For some reason I almost wrote St Martin off before we even arrived.  I struggled to find a port excursion that fit the interests of my family and I was worried that we would find the Island charmless.   I am happy to eat a big slice of humble pie on this one as it ended up being our favourite port day of the whole trip.  

Saint Martin or Sint Maarten (depending what side of the island you are on) is an island shared between the French and the Dutch.  France owns the North of the Island while the Netherlands owns the South.  There are some distinct differences between the two areas and I definitely sensed some unwritten competition between the locals over what part is better.  

While I wasn’t there long enough to come up with a preference of my own, a day was all I needed to decide that the whole island is pretty special. 

The charm of this Island begins from the moment you step off the ship.
What I got from St Martin, that I didn’t get the following day from St Thomas and St John, is a relaxed Caribbean vibe.  Coming from the opposite side of the world, the whole Caribbean had always been a bit of an unknown entity.  I can tell you quite a bit about the Islands of the South Pacific, but until this trip, my knowledge of the Caribbean was really only one of stereotypes: easy-going people, beautiful beaches, cool Caribbean rhythms, brightly coloured buildings, and plenty of rum. 

Stereotypes or not, the picture I had painted in my head was one I was hoping to experience.  St Maarten did not fail to disappoint.  We had been onboard our tour vehicle for less than 10 minutes when our guide and driver cracked open the cooler box and started offering us his homemade rum punch.  “It’s 5 o’clock somewhere in the world”, he explained.    We knew we were in for an enjoyable day. 

For sipping only.  The Mailman makes
a pretty strong rum punch.
I’ve always been a fairly cautious person and I can’t imagine anything worse than finishing a cruise excursion late only to watch the ship sail into the distance without you.  (This happens more often than one might think.  There are even YouTube videos of unfortunate souls running down the wharf waving desperately at their departing ship).  So with this in mind, I usually explore the areas close to the ports, or I opt for the guarantee that comes with a ship-organised excursion.  

The problem with all of Disney’s St Martin excursions is that I didn’t really like the look of any of them.  Maho Beach was the one place on the Island that we really wanted to visit and, perhaps for safety reasons, Disney didn’t offer a tour that would take us there.  I started some research into privately run tour companies and discovered Bernard’s Tours.  Not only do they take you to Maho Beach, but they have a very good online reputation.  Many people have used them and then raved afterwards on cruise forums about how much they enjoyed the tour.  Plus, because the tours on offer finished about 3 hours before the ship was due to leave port, I felt the odds of something going disastrously
wrong were fairly low.
Low enough for me to take the risk and book.

While Bernard's Tours offer the option to book a private tour for just you and your family, we instead opted for the much cheaper option of being grouped with about a dozen strangers.  With free-flowing beer and rum punch, it didn’t take long for our van full of different nationalities to relax in each other’s company.

Who's this handsome fella?
Our driver was nicknamed the Mailman and he was fantastic.  He struck the perfect balance between relaxed humour and informative dialogue.  From both his words and his manner, we learnt a lot about the island and it’s people.  You sometimes get tour guides that spend the whole trip fishing for tips (see my upcoming St John post), but the Mailman wasn’t like that.  He seemed to genuinely enjoy his job and was proud of the Island he was showcasing. 

As well as a driving tour of both parts of the Island, we had 7 scheduled stops.  The first was at an iguana farm where iguanas of all sizes could be enticed to eat lettuce from your hand.   I don’t think we were the first tour of the day to try and feed these lizards, as they weren’t particularly hungry by the time we arrived.  But it was still a fun stop that was particularly enjoyable for the kids in our group. 

The last stop of the day was at a beautiful elevated lookout (the Mailman called it his secret spot) where we were able to get some fantastic photos of the Fantasy.

The five stops in between included Maho Beach, Orient Beach, Marigot markets, another scenic lookout, and an encounter with some peculiar sea creatures.  The exact order of these stops has slipped my mind, but I think this schedule can vary slightly from tour to tour anyway.  There needs to be a bit of flexibility to fit around plane landings at Maho.  

One of two scenic lookouts
The peculiar sea creatures were a selection of live sea urchins and sea stars.  A lovely local gentleman had fished them out of the sea that day for our viewing and touching pleasure.  He took measures to keep the animals alive during the day and, from my understanding, returned them to the sea after the last group had left.  He worked separately from Bernard’s Tours and survived on donations from tourists.  It made me a bit sad to notice that many tourists were happy to be entertained by his unique sea life, but weren’t prepared to throw a few dollars his way at the end.

A squirmy sea urchin.  This little guy is better caught on video. 
Maho Beach's Sunset Bar keeps you
up to date with the day's flight schedule.
The highlight of the day had to be Maho beach.  For Scott it was probably the highlight of the whole holiday.  The airport is a Health and Safety risk that few other countries would ever allow to exist.  But here in Sint Maarten it is tourism gold.  Watching as the planes fly above your head, seemingly close enough to almost reach up and touch, is an experience neither of us will quickly forget.  

The real danger comes not from the plane landings, but from the plane takeoffs.   The Mailman entertained us with stories of incautious tourists who had attempted to ‘ride the fence’ while the plane prepped for takeoff.  The thrust from the plane’s turbines sent them cartwheeling across the road and into the water with many a serious injury resulting from such foolishness.    Scott was very eager to try this escapade for himself and it took some serious begging and pointing towards the large "Danger, you could die" sign (I'm paraphrasing), for me to convince him that he was thinking with his brawn rather than his brain.  Hospitals and broken bones are not my idea of a happy family holiday. 
Search 'Maho Beach' on google for better photos than this. 
Take heed of the warning.
For the other two stops, we had chosen a tour that spent a short amount of time at Orient beach and a longer amount of time shopping at the markets.  There was a second tour that offered the opposite and in hindsight I made the wrong choice.  The short length of the beach visit, paired with a concern about being sandy and uncomfortable for the rest of the day, meant that we had decided to leave our beachwear on the ship and just paddle in the water instead.  The brilliant azure water of Orient Beach drew us in like a magnet and we wished desperately that we had brought our swimsuits.  In the end we stripped Oskar down to his shorts and let him in the water anyway.  It seemed cruel not to.  The Orient Beach location that the mailman took us to has access to showers, changing rooms, a bar, and beach chairs.   I could have happily spent a few hours there. 

Orient Beach.  How inviting does that water look?
The markets in contrast were just okay.  Most of the stall owners were selling variations of the same items and twenty minutes of browsing was all that was really needed.  In saying that, I did enjoy the bright colours of the area, and it was nice having the time to try out one of the local French bakeries. With directions from the Mailman, we also had time to walk to a nearby shipping office to get our passports stamped. 

The colourful Marigot Markets

While the total length of the tour was only about 5 hours, I feel satisfied that we got a comprehensive and child-friendly introduction to the Island.  If I was to return to St Martin/Maarten, I would more than happily do a Bernard’s Tour again.  Only this time I would make the most of it's beautiful beaches.

The stunning Maho Beach.  The planes aren't the only memorable thing about this location.

A Dining Experience Like No Other

USA Trip 2013:  Blog Post #11

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” 
― Virginia WoolfA Room of One's Own

Palo's glass chandelier 
Remy.  Look out for all the hidden images in
the furnishings.
While you could happily spend the whole week trying out the fun range of dining options that are included in your cruise fare, for an extra fee you could also try out one of the two optional adults-only restaurants.  Take it from me - you will be missing out on something very special experience if you don’t. 

The first is Remy; a French restaurant named after the rat from Ratatouille.   However, there is nothing rat- or cartoon-like about this restaurant.  At $75 per head, or $150 per head with wine pairings, it is one of, if not the, most expensive restaurants at sea.  With a menu designed by a Michelin star chef, this restaurant is hailed to be an experience like no other. 

Because this level of fine dining is not something Scott or I are accustomed to (or even find easy to justify) we gave Remy a miss for this cruise.  We did, however, visit the restaurant during a tour of the ship, and if the attention to detail in the decor was anything to go by, then this restaurant is bound to be a special experience.  I think that if I were to cruise the Fantasy again, I would throw caution to the wind and give this restaurant a try.
If you have to ask what these wines cost, you can't afford them.  One bottle was in the tens of thousands.

The other restaurant is Palo.  With dishes inspired by those served in Northern Italy, it is a much easier to swallow $20 per head. 

Is was nice to have this time just the two of us.
This restaurant has an almost cult-like following on online forums.  People wax-lyrical about both the service and the food, and most commonly, the chocolate soufflé.  Keen to add my opinion and photos to the multitude that already exist online, I booked Scott and I in for both a dinner and a brunch.  
Strawberry Soup

Because of Palo's popularity, all available bookings are snatched up fairly shortly after they open online.  They do hold some bookings back for arrival to the ship, but for the best chance of securing the day and time you want (or in the case of the brunch - getting a booking at all), you need to be online the minute bookings become available.   This involved some pre-planning on my part.  Since our booking window happened to fall on the same day and time as an important work meeting, I had left Scott with some very carefully detailed instructions on how to make the bookings.  My husband made me proud and got the exact dates and times that I was hoping for.  Was it worth the hassle?  Absolutely!  These meals ended up being two of the best dining experiences of our lives.  I might even go as far to say that the Palo dinner was the best meal we have ever had. 

The brunch was a buffet paired with an optional menu.  The menu was typical breakfast and lunch style meals such as eggs benedict, pancakes, pasta and pizza.  The buffet - the highlight of the meal - was a plethora of all that is good in this world.  From delicious delicatessen meats, fine cheeses and delicious seafood, I was in food heaven.  In typical cruise ship style, you can eat as much or as little as you like. If you feel like gorging yourself on the buffet before ordering 3 meals from the menu, then that is what you can do.  

I ordered the chilled strawberry soup off the menu.  I was hoping for creamy smoothie like drink as opposed to a soup, and that is exactly what it turned out to be.  Yummy!  On recommendation from our waiter, I also asked for a half serving of the lasagne.  While it was certainly tasty, I feel like it filled up precious stomach space that would have been better dedicated to the delicious buffet.  

For both the brunch and dinner we had the same waiter.  His name was Predrag and if I had to give him a grade for customer service, he would receive an A++.  He struck the perfect balance between conviviality and professionalism and he contributed greatly to our overall dining enjoyment. 

Picking a night to dine at Palo is always going to be a bit of a gamble.  Just prior to boarding the ship you are given a dining timetable that tells you which restaurant you are assigned to each night of your trip.  If our Palo night fell on the same night as Animators Palate (a very unique interactive restaurant that I will describe in a future post) I was prepared to change or even cancel our Palo reservation.  Given how much I enjoyed the show at Animators Palate, I still believe that would have been the right choice.  Luckily I was never forced to make this decision as the nights never clashed. 

Palo dinner consisted of roughly 7 courses (I can't remember the exact amount), and all were as delicious as the last.  When it comes to good food, a picture is worth a thousand words. 


Finally a decent coffee


Breads and a shared antipasto platter to begin with

Palo's version of a caprese salad.  The tomato is wrapped around the mozarella.

Melt in you mouth lamb.

The famous souffle.

Panna cotta and sorbet.  I'm going to risk a tar and feathering and say that I preferred this dessert.  It was light and refreshing after such a heavy meal.  According to Predrag, this is the chefs favourite dessert.   However the restaurant hardly gets to show it off because everyone orders the souffle.

A delicious alcoholic digestif.  (licks lips)

This was awaiting us when we returned to our room.

It's the small touches that make all the difference.

Monday, 16 December 2013

A Room Fit For a King

USA Trip 2013: Blog Post #10

"Where we love is home - home that our feet may leave, but not our hearts". - Oliver Wendell Holmes 

I’m not sure I’m doing the right thing by blogging about our stateroom.  Short of staying in a suite, I feel like I discovered the best room on the ship and I’m not sure I want anyone else to know about it.   However, in all fairness, having learnt so many great tips from the online world, it’s probably only right to share one of my own:  Cabin 5520 is awesome! 

This stateroom is classified as category ‘8a’ which means it has a window but not a balcony. 
On the Fantasy, the price gradient from inside cabin to balcony cabin is not that steep.  This is because all categories of cabin are quite desirable.  The inside staterooms have cleverly designed magic portholes, while the outside cabins have beautiful big circular windows which are ideal for sitting in and watching the world pass by. 

Look at the size of that porthole!  And this room had two!
For less than $100 more we could have upgraded to a balcony.  There was a time during my planning I wondered if I was a fool not to pay for this upgrade. But I had done my research and knew my room was unique, and in the end I decided to put a note on our reservation that we weren’t interested in an ‘upgrade’ even if it was free.  Having stayed in the room now, I know that we made the right choice.  Even access to fresh air wouldn’t have been better than all that extra space.

Small bathtub.
It’s no secret that most cruise ship cabins are the size of a glorified cupboard.  With barely enough room to swing a cat, they are designed mainly as a place to sleep.  To some extent Disney has revolutionised the mainstream cruising industry with some of the largest staterooms around.  They’ve noted that families need a bit more room to move about, and that is what they have provided.  Most of their cabins even have a split bathroom with a toilet in one room and a tub/shower combo in the other.  (The fact that their standard rooms actually have a bath tub and not just a shower, is pretty unique in itself). 

Most cabins are the same rectangular shape that is advertised on the Disney website.  But as with most cruise ships there are a few irregular shaped cabins that require research, and some careful studying of the deck plans, to find more information on. 

4 such cabins are 5520, 5522, 5020 and 5022.  On online forums these cabins have been labeled the ‘8a mini-suites’, because of their abundance of space.   

The square-shaped cabins are partially divided into two sections by an interior wall.  On one side of the wall is a comfortable queen-sized bed and a wall-mounted television.  On the other side of the wall is a desk, sleeper sofa, and yet another t.v.   There is plenty of storage throughout the room, tons of floor space, and a small (non-split) bathroom with a short rectangular tub.  (The bathtub was wide enough for me to sit in, but not long enough to lie in). 

On both sides of the dividing wall was a large porthole window.  Having two windows meant that the whole room was nice and bright throughout the day. 

The dividing wall is the one with the television on it.   Just featuring in the right of the photo is the door for people who also book the connecting room 5522.  For a large family in could work out cheaper to book these two connecting rooms than one family sized balcony.  All that space would be amazing.
Oskar's side of the room.  The back of the sofa flips forward to create a single bed.  
Heaps of storage.  Also note the width of all the unused floor space.
I was worried that it’s position near the teen club and above the theatre might make the room a bit noisy, but we heard nothing.  You do feel a bit more movement at the front end of the ship, but I’d
rather this than the engine vibrations I could feel every time I was near the aft. 

The view that greeted me from the bed each
This is where I get pedantic and come across as a bit of an obsessive researcher; of the 4 rooms I mentioned above, I believe that 5520 is the best.  5520 and 5020 have a slightly different furniture arrangement to the other two.  Their desks are bigger, and the sofa is positioned in a way that provides a bit more privacy between the two areas of the room.   The only difference between 5520 and 5020 is the side of the ship in which they are positioned.  From 5520 we were able to enjoy a beautiful view of Castaway Cay as we backed into wharf.  We were also on the side of the ship where the fireworks were fired off.  Obviously we didn’t see the show as well as we would have had we been up on deck, but we were so exhausted after such a long exciting day, that watching the blasts from the quiet calm of our room was all we had the energy for. 

Because the combined occupancy rate of these four rooms is 12 (each room takes a maximum of 3 people) while the maximum occupancy of the ship is 4000, it does not take a rocket scientist to work out that the odds of getting one of these rooms is going to be quite low.  From memory I had my pick of two of these rooms when I booked 14 months out.  I think that a year or less until your cruise and you would pretty much be out of luck.   If and when I cruise on the Disney Fantasy again, I will be making my plans early and trying to get this room again.

It's the small touches that made all the difference.  Towel animals and chocolates on our bed every night.
Bathroom - small yet functional
Nice nautical touches