In preparation for the trip I overheard in the radio news that there was some storm developing in the Caribbean but I did not really pay much attention until we arrive to Cape Canaveral and were informed by the cruise line agents that the cruise had been changed to avoid hurricane Ernesto. Later in the ship the captain showed in a map the projected trajectory of the hurricane and according to the plan we was supposed to be at the Grand Cayman Island exactly at the same time when the hurricane was going to arrive. The Western Caribbean cruise quickly became the Eastern Caribbean cruise for obvious reasons. The new itinerary was:
Saturday – Port Canaveral
Sunday – Day at Sea
Monday – Day at Sea
Tuesday – Sr. Maarten
Wednesday – St. Thomas / St. John
Thursday – Day at Sea
Friday – Castaway Cay in Bahamas
Saturday – Port Canaveral
We had originally selected the Western Cruise because it only had two days at Sea and therefore the opportunity to visit one more locations, but as things evolved we really did not mind spending more relaxing time at sea. There are so many activities going on that an extra day of “rest” at sea was actually a relief.
The cruise was in the Disney Magic ship that provides the usual amenities of the largest cruise lines, but the beauty comes from the Disney customization. The ship was built especially for Disney and launched in 1998. The Disney theme and feeling is all around. The easiest way to describe this is as a cross between a good cruise ship such as Princess and a Disney theme park. The target audience are clearly families with small kids who can fully appreciate and enjoy the magic if Disney. This if clear from the first time you put a foot in the ship. As you board the ship and get into the spectacular atrium, central part of the ship and all activities, a whole bunch of crew members wearing special customs shout “Welcome to the Mihovilovic family!” with cheers and applauses. It very fun, surprising, and put you immediately in the right mood!
During the various days of the cruise you get plenty of chances to meet all the Disney characters and get pictures with them, including Mickey and Minnie Mouse, all the princesses, Goofy, Alice, Pocahontas, etc.
Additionally during the cruises there are daily shows for the family of exceptional quality and special effects. These shows were even better to what you normally see in other cruise lines, and of course very focused on the Disney movies and characters. Alto there was one formal dinner night, and a wild Pirates of the Caribeean party.
The calendar of events in the ship is fully booked and it describes all activities by age group (family, 2-3, 4-5, 6-9, teens, adults, etc.). Some of the activities and Amanda and I became used to took place in the “Sea Studio”, where they have all sorts of contests involving Disney trivia, and also they had karaoke every night. One highlight was when Amanda and I were selected to participate against three more couples in a Disney trivia competition (the place looks like a real TV studio with lights, cameras, etc.). We won the section in which you have to predict what is going to happen next in a movie. This was thanks to Amanda's extensive knowledge of all the Disney movies. I think that she was the only person including the audience who knew the answer to the most difficult questions. The second fun event was in the third night once Amanda felt comfortable with the settings she volunteered to sing “Part of my World” the main song from Ariel, the Little Mermaid. Amanda cannot read the text yet but anyways she had a good start following just the music. Later she got a bit lost and then I had to jump to the rescue to bring her back in the song. I never thought in my life I would be in front of a microphone singing karaoke for a full audience. Luckily I had heard that song with Amanda a million times and did a decent job in singing part of it and then closing the song strong together with Amanda!
St. Maarten/St. Martin
The two countries that share this 37 square mile tropical island are French Saint Martin (about two-thirds of the land mass) and Dutch Sint Maarten. The French side is totally French, right down to the passports, but with a totally Caribbean slant. The Dutch side is semi-autonomous: the country of the Netherlands Antilles (consisting of Curacao, Bonaire, St Eustatius, Saba, and Sint Maarten) manages its own internal affairs under the umbrella of the Dutch Kingdom . We arrived at Philipsburg in the Dutch side and rented a car to be able to go around at our own pace. We went straight to a beach in Oyster Pond. As all the beaches in the island, they are incredibly beautiful with water in various tones of blue and they are very calm and great for kids. The beaches are well equipped with basic elements you can rent, including snorkels, floaters, etc. They also have a good fresh water showers and normally also a good bar or restaurant right on the beach.
Afterwards we did a full loop around the island, stopping in Marigot, the main city in the French side where we had lunch. Then we continued the drive and came back to the port. Next to the port there are hundreds of small stores that sell all types of jewelry, watches, electronics, etc. Estella was very excited because in the ship we heard that these place offer extraordinary prices due to special tax benefits. However, the reality was that the prices were just OK. In addition we did not like the fact that prices are not advertised and probably tons of bargaining is expected. Therefore unless you know exactly how much something costs you may end up with a bad deal. It just looked like the usual touristy places in San Francisco , New York but with higher end items.
Another unusual thing that we noticed was that except for the tourist areas and beaches overall the island was not in very good shape particularly you can see many abandoned cards all over the place and also many constructions unfinished. Apparently some of the damage is due to previous hurricanes that severely damage the area. Also, probably part of the reason is that these island and far away from their respective countries.
The next day we went to St. Thomas, the capital of the U.S. Virgin Islands. It's immediately clear that St. Thomas is much better kept than the previous island. We arrived at port and took a taxi to visit Magens Bay beach on the north side of the island. This beach has been selected by National Geographic as one of the top 10 beaches in the world. We arrived there and it's really an incredible beach, particularly for families with kids. The water is absolute clear with a long white sandy beach. They have a few places to rent basic beach equipments and one restaurant. The water is very calm, almost like a perfect giant swimming pool. Additionally very close to the water there are trees so that you do not have to be fully exposed to the sun if you so desire.
And the last stop was in Castaway Cay. This is a Disney's private beach in Bahamas and as you can expect it's just perfect following the tradition and attention to detail typical of Disney. We arrive in this huge ship practically directly in the beach, at just a 5 minute walk. Only 45 people live in the island, and their purpose in life is to have the island ready for the time when the ship arrives. Additionally they do research on wildlife particularly on stingrays. We spend some good time on this beach that's partially man made to be just perfect. They have clearly delimited sections for swimming, snorkeling , water sports, etc. There is also a replica of the ghost ship of the movie Pirates of the Caribeean. We had two highlights here particularly for Amanda. The first one is that relatively deep in the ocean there is a sunken statue of Mickey Mouse (of course placed there as part of the experience) that we went together swimming to visit it and it was incredibly exciting to her. Secondly we took a tour to visit the stingrays that are part of their research work. We had the chance to manually fed the stingrays. You do that by holding a shrimp or squid between you finger on the bottom of the water and letting the stingray literally suck it out of your fingers. It was very fun.