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Friday, March 4, 2016

Carnival Splendor Ports of Call - Eastern Caribbean

February 2016

Following is information about our ports of call while aboard the Carnival Splendor. This was a 7-day Eastern Caribbean cruise from Miami. We stopped at four ports: Amber Cove, Dominican Republic; St. Thomas, USVI; San Juan, Puerto Rico; and Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos.

In addition to this blog post, you can find more photos and information in the Facebook ports of call album for the Carnival Splendor.

approaching Amber Cove - photo taken from the 
secret balcony (as my husband calls it) at the front of the ship

Amber Cove, Dominican Republic 

Amber Cove -
view from our balcony cabin 7434
Amber Cove is a new port that just opened October 2015. This was our first port of call scheduled for 8:00 a.m. - 4:00 p.m. My husband and I went on a safari type tour when we were in Puerto Plata a few years ago, which was fabulous. I have not been on the Carnival Outback excursion, although I imagine it is similar. I highly recommend this type of excursion, if this is your first visit to the area. The vehicle we rode in on our tour was similar to the one in the Carnival photos, and the description of the day sounds similar, as well. Most of the reviews posted on the Carnival website for this excursion have five stars.

view of Amber Cove from deck 12
We arrived before 8:00 a.m., and I do not know exactly what time guests started disembarking. We were walking on the jogging track on deck 12, and did not hear any announcements about disembarking. One of the first photos I took with guests walking up the pier was at 8:02 a.m. Some of the guests were already to the building at the start of the pier, so we must have been cleared before 8:00 a.m. It is a bit of a walk along the pier, and locals on bicycles pulled a rickshaw for passengers who did not want to walk.

Since we were going to just hang out at the new port, we had an early lunch, and then got off the ship around 11:00 a.m. After you turn right toward the pool, look out toward the cove, and you will see a sign that lists the price of everything for rent. I had not noticed the sign when we arrived. I drew an arrow next to the two purchases we made - umbrella and zip line.
rental prices
I thought the $8 umbrella rental was a great price. We found chairs in a nice area by the pool, and someone set the umbrella up for us. The cabana prices seemed high; however, I do not know what may be included with the cabana, since I did not inquire about them. When we rented a cabana at Sandals resort a couple of years ago, it included suntan lotion, beverages, and butler service. We observed a few guests in the Hillside and Poolside cabanas, and most of them looked like groups of four.
the zip line overheard was very quiet

view from our seats by the pool

My husband probably would have just done the zip line once, if there had been an option for that. Unfortunately, the only pricing was unlimited rides for $12. My husband and our son both went on the zip line a few times. I did not walk up the hill to the entrance, so the zip line restriction information I am providing next is only hearsay - from one of my traveling companions. Minimum age 8, minimum weight 60 lbs., maximum weight 260 lbs. The minimum restrictions might be mixed up; i.e. minimum age 6, minimum weight 80 lbs. If anyone can confirm this, please let me know.

The water slides were very fast, and the lines were not very long when we were there. The pool, deck area, and facilities were all very clean.

Some of the beverage prices around the pool were reasonable. The prices on the menu included tax and tip, and the service was excellent. The menu does not say that tax and tip are included, so we were initially uncertain about the pricing before we inquired. I got a split (about a glass and a half) of Freixenet champagne for $7. Not my favorite brand, although much better than the Barefoot Bubbly  served on the cruise ship! My husband had a couple of local beers for $3 each. I thought the souvenir beverage cost of $20 was high, although I observed some guests ordering souvenir glass beverages.
many stores with signs saying open soon

There were not many retail stores open at the time of our visit. I thought the souvenir prices were expensive in the stores that were open. We made a purchase at the pharmacy. I did not check the price of health care items on the cruise ship, so I do not know how the prices of those items compare. 

Carnival Splendor from Amber Cove Pier
The water was murky around the cruise port, and some travelers have complained that there is no beach by the port. There are cabanas for rent out on the water, which I imagine you could swim from, although I would not want to swim in this cove. We liked this port, and we were happy to wait for one of the next ports to visit a beach. The next time we stop at this port, we will probably book an outback excursion. I know that there are many beautiful beaches in the Dominican Republic; just not at the cruise port.

St. Thomas, USVI 

We stopped in St. Thomas on a Wednesday from 11:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m. We have been to St. Thomas a couple of times. This time, we wanted to book an island tour or hire a driver for 2 to 3 hours with a stop at Mountain Top and a beach; however, all the tour companies I contacted were either already booked or very expensive. I blame myself for not researching this sooner. If you are interested in something like this, I suggest starting your research a few months ahead of time. We considered negotiating with a driver when we arrived, along with two other options: Skyride to Paradise Point through Carnival, and Blackbeard's Castle on our own. Other than Paradise Point, none of the Carnival excursions interested us.
view in St. Thomas from our cabin balcony #7434
Another activity I considered too late -- taking the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John for the day. I did not research this beforehand, so I did not know we could spend time on foot in St. John after taking the ferry over. This post link from 2014 provides some good information about Cruz Bay where the ferry arrives in St. John.

If you are interested in the Skyride to Paradise Point, which is located across the street from the cruise port, the cost through Carnival was $19.99. The cost at the ticket booth was $21, unless you are visiting on Sunday (all day) or Tuesday after 5:00 p.m., as specials are offered at the ticket booth on those days.  Ride the View website has information about daily promotions and drink menus. 

We ended up visiting Blackbeard's Castle, which is a little over a mile from the cruise port. If you get a ride from the cruise port, the cost is $4 each, and if you walk around the corner and take the local bus/taxi downtown, the cost is $1 each. There is also a water taxi at the cruise port, which will take you downtown. We took the water taxi downtown last time we were in St. Thomas; however, I had forgotten about it until we returned from our daily trek. If I had remembered the water taxi, we probably would have taken that back from town because the ride would have been more enjoyable. I do not know the current cost for the water taxi to/from town, although I imagine it is around $4 each.

Using local public transportation was very easy. You can use the following instructions to get to town for shopping, too: Stay on the left side of the road in front of Havensight Mall and start walking toward town. After you pass Wendy's and cross Rumer Dr., you will see a covered bus stop. This is very close to the corner of Rumor Dr. and Edward Wilmot. Local buses go by about every 10 minutes. While we waited, a tourist bus slowed down by us, and a delivery truck parked in front of the bus stop briefly. There was also a local resident at the bus stop who was not waiting for the bus. Although these things confused us, we managed to figure everything out.

St. Thomas transportation facts:

  • The local buses and taxis from the cruise port all look the same. They are called open air safari buses or taxis. 
  • The only way to tell the difference between the two buses/taxis is by the passengers. The $1 local bus will be filled with local passengers, and the $4 tourist bus will be filled with tourists. You can confirm which bus you are boarding by asking the driver before you board.
  • For the downtown area (where we got off for Blackbeard's Castle) get off near Fort Christian. We asked our driver how we would know when we got there, and she said she would stop for us. She did not say anything when we arrived at the correct stop; however, we had a printed street map (from Google maps), so we knew it was our stop when she stopped. I have included a screen shot of the downtown area. You can click on the map to enlarge it and read the labels I added.
  • Pay the $1 bus fare when you exit the bus. 
  • For our return, we got on the bus in front of Vendors Plaza. We confirmed we were getting on the $1 bus as there was only one other rider on the bus. We told the driver we wanted Havensight Mall by the cruise port, and she nodded. I do not know where the bus stop was at our destination. When the driver stopped at the stoplight in front of the cruise port/Havensight Mall (by Wendy's) we got off.
view of castle exit
marked map

Getting to Blackbeard's Castle from the bus stop:

We did not take the most direct route to the castle, as we missed Torvet State Rd., and had to walk back from Franklin D. Roosevelt Park. We had planned to get there via Torvet State Rd. because we wanted to walk by the Governor's House. When we walked up Fort Pladsen road after getting off the bus, we did not realize we were at the castle exit until after our castle tour. The shortest route to the castle from the bus stop would be to walk up the exit stairs, and then turn right to the 99 steps after getting to Hotel 1829. Refer to the map and castle exit photo above for details.
view from Blackbeard's Castle
Blackbeard's Castle Tour
It is many steps up to the castle. There are actually 106 steps instead of 99, and then there is still more walking before you get there. It is possible to take a taxi to Blackbeard's, and be dropped off at the very top by the entrance. We walked because we wanted to experience the entire visit, including the famous 99 steps.
start of the 99 steps
We passed tourists coming down the steps when we arrived. That is not the way we exited, so they either missed half the tour, or they did not end up taking the tour after climbing the steps. There is no cost to climb the steps and see some of the grounds before the castle. The cost to tour the castle/buildings was $12.50, and credit cards were accepted. There was an area during the tour with no signs or staff where it would be easy to turn back down the steps and miss half the tour. The tour is self-guided with no map after visiting the tower.
before we got to the castle entrance

more walking and steps
after the 99 (106) steps

There is more information and photos for Blackbeard's Castle in the Facebook album. We walked up the tower, and cooled off in the pool before we finished the self-guided tour through the rest of the buildings and grounds. There was an outside bar near the pool; however, the prices were expensive. The exit stairs from Blackbeard's brought us right back to town where the shops are located. We briefly walked through town before taking the bus back to the cruise port.

At the cruise port (Havensight Mall) I purchased a St. Thomas hooded sweatshirt for $28, which I am very happy with. Initially, I did not think I even wanted to go in the store when my companions entered, because the store name was Carnival. With a name like that, I figured it was some kind of tourist rip-off place. They had several great color sweatshirts, and later I wished I had asked if she would have sold me two for $50.
hooded sweatshirt from Carnival store in St. Thomas - not affiliated with Carnival Cruise Lines
We had read about St. John's Bay Rum factory tour online. Everyone said there is no charge, and that it is pretty neat. I was not familiar with St. John's Bay Rum, so we were quite surprised to learn this is fragrance and not rum! The picture on the door when we arrived should have been a giveaway. We took the tour of St. John's Bay Rum Factory. They will ship purchases to the US for no charge, if you do not want to take it with you. I purchased a bottle of Coral Fragrance after our tour.
St. John's Bay Rum Factory in St. Thomas

San Juan, Puerto Rico 

arriving in San Juan
Our next port was San Juan on Thursday from 7:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. This was again, a port we had visited a couple of times before, and we did not book an excursion. We have shopped in Puerto Rico, and we have also stayed in a couple of the resort hotels in Isla Verde (nice beach area). 

We got off the ship briefly, because we had remembered good liquor pricing and samples when we departed from this cruise port in 2006. We passed many vendors and taxi drivers along the road into town, and no one bothered us as we walked by. One reason I have never liked stopping in San Juan is because my previous experiences are memories of locals hounding tourists to make sales. I almost felt like people were grabbing us when we were in San Juan before. 

departing San Juan
This time, we got off the Splendor a few hours after it had arrived, so this may have had something to do with the different experience we had. In fact, we felt like fish swimming upstream as we tried to exit the cruise building because so many passengers were already returning to the ship (there was another ship in port the same time as the Splendor). 

There are a few stores inside the cruise terminal, including a liquor store upstairs. We did not purchase anything, although our son purchased canned soda to take back on the ship.

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos

Our last stop in Grand Turk was scheduled for 11:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. We were excited because Grand Turk was a new port for us! We had been on a cruise that was scheduled to stop in Grand Turk a few years ago, and rough weather prevented us from being able to dock. The same thing almost happened this time, too. Initially, we were told we would not be able to stop at this port because it was too rough to dock. We were then told that a guest on board had a medical emergency, so we were waiting for a tender type boat to come and get the passenger. A bit later, we were told we were going to try and dock again, and then that we could not dock. We heard a few more announcements after this, and about 2½ hours after we had heard the first announcement saying we could not dock, we were safely at the dock! The Carnival Sunshine was already docked when we arrived. We ended up directly across from the cabin we had been in when we cruised on the Sunshine - cabin 6363. I posted a close-up photo of the balcony on the Carnival Sunshine (from our Splendor balcony) in the Facebook album.

view of Grand Turk from our balcony while pulling in

Grand Turk is a small island with a beach right at the cruise port.  Margaritaville is the first business to the left of the cruise port, and the place was packed. I had read that drinks are expensive at Margaritaville, and that there is no cost to swim in the pool. We walked through the area, although we did not stop. The place was packed with way too many people for me. It looked like more than half of the 6,000 passengers from both ships were at Margaritaville.

name on the umbrella we rented
We continued down the beach and ended up renting an umbrella and two chairs for the outrageous price of $20 (remember we only paid $8 in Amber Cove, before we gladly added a tip!). One of the guys had told us he would let us have all three for $15; however, when we returned, he walked away and someone else helped us. "Bait and Switch" is what my husband calls this tactic. We disagreed with the guy about the $20 price. I did not want to pay it after he would not relent - some people were just sitting on the beach on their towels - but my husband would have none of that. He wanted us to be comfortable and to have shade. Every person we had talked with on the beach told us the same price; $20 for two chairs and an umbrella. Except for the $15 guy that ran off, that is.

view from our seats - Carnival Sunshine in distance
The beach and water looked beautiful. The bottom was a bit rocky in the water, although not too bad. Local beer cost $3, and a tiny glass of rum punch was $5 - if you wanted rum. The 2 for $5 drinks did not have much, if any, rum in them. There was not any service on the beach. We had to walk down a ways and then stand in line to get the drinks. The price was the same in both directions, unless someone was selling something there was no sign for.

There is a shopping center at the cruise port, and a quiet beach to the right. We walked to the right before we got back on the ship, and there were a lot of rocks in the water. It did not seem like the swimming on that side of the pier would be very good.
view from quiet beach area - Carnival Splendor on left, Sunshine on right
Our experience in Grand Turk was a huge disappointment. We often travel off the beaten (or tourist) path, as we like to experience the places we visit and meet the locals. Before we arrived, we had hopes of finding a local liquor store or a place where we could buy a small bottle of rum to mix up our own drinks while we hung out at the beach for the day. We have been to many beaches in the Caribbean and Mexico, and this was one of the few times I felt like the locals were crooks who only wanted to take us for everything they could. My husband must have had a similar feeling by the time we left, because he said he had no desire to ever stop at this island again (he was not too happy about the way he was treated when he went to purchase our beverages).

The water and beach is beautiful, and I would love to visit Grand Turk again. After our delay into port, we should have rethought our plan before we disembarked and walked down the beach. Since our time on the beach had been reduced to only a couple of hours, we would have been better off, if we had slathered on the sunscreen, and not carried much more than our towels off the boat. Instead, we had our original day plan in mind, which only set us up for disappointment. I still feel like we were taken advantage of, and I have no desire to do business with anyone on the beach in Grand Turk again. We enjoy it when we find friendly locals, like we have in the Dominican Republic, Stone Island (Mexico), and Ixtapa--to name a few places. I realize we are partially to blame for the way we felt, because we were not better prepared. 

Let me know if you have any questions about any of these ports, and feel free to share this information for others.