Oh, Ship! We Sailed Across The Ocean.
Twice a year when the tourist seasons change, major cruise lines move their ships from one region to another, typically crossing the Atlantic or the Pacific Ocean along the way. These repositioning cruises are offered to passengers who enjoy long stretches at sea and extended itineraries. Kody and I jumped on The Vision of the Seas, one of Royal Caribbean’s ships, as it crossed from Galveston, TX at the end of the Caribbean cruising season to Barcelona, Spain for the beginning of the Mediterranean cruising season. The picture below is from our travel journal and shows our cruise itinerary with a total of 10 days at sea while we crossed the Gulf of Mexico, then the Atlantic Ocean, and through the Gibraltar Straight into the Mediterranean Sea.
We were both surprised to learn that our cruise was fully booked and very interested to see what the typical passenger on a trans-Atlantic ship ride would be. We hoped to find fellow long-term travelers and people that we could learn some tips and tricks from. That part certainly turned out to be true. Our ship was full of extremely well-traveled individuals and couples from around the world, many of whom were on their X-teenth ocean-crossing journey. Still, Kody and I stuck out from our shipmates… as the youngest people on board.
On our first day at sea, some other passengers asked us questions that you might ask a cruise staff member. Mostly because they believed we were cruise staff members! The most surprising thing about Kody and me to the people that we met at dinner or in the casino is not that we had the money to afford this trip, but that we had the time. The average passenger on a ship like this is at or above retirement age. The repositioning cruises are a nice, relaxing way to take an extended vacation or to get to Europe without a long, uncomfortable flight followed by jet lag. They’re also likely to be cruising multiple times throughout the year, commonly booking their next cruise while they’re on their current one. We didn’t meet anyone who wasn’t friendly or excited for us and we got more recommendations than we will be able to act upon. It was wonderful learning from people who have done things similar to what we’re doing with work and travel and exciting to remember that we still have the whole world to see and experience for the first time.
I will sum up all of our days at sea briefly because, honestly, there isn’t much to say about them! We had nowhere to be and nothing to do. These days were the absolute definition of a vacation. No rushing around to see different things, no trying to fit too much into one day, no waiting in lines, no Wi-Fi connection (unless you’re willing to pay upwards of $23 per day). Kody and I divided our time during our days at sea between reading, laying out on the pool deck, and playing Blackjack (unsuccessfully) in the casino.
Almost everything on the ship is included in your ticket price – food, entertainment all day and each evening, and group activities. The Vision of the Seas is one of the smaller ships in Royal Caribbean’s fleet and doesn’t have as many additional amenities, but our ship had a casino, a nice theater, two pool decks, a rock-climbing wall, a gym, a running track, and a spa. There are multiple bars throughout the ship, but the alcoholic beverages aren’t free. Some passengers buy a drink package where you pay one flat fee per day to drink all you want, but you have to purchase it for every person over the age of 21 in your cabin and, for the most part, it’s not worth the money. The gym was free to use to work out in and some classes were offered for free, but specialized classes and personal training were an additional fee. The same goes for the spa and the casino – you had to pay to play.
On the first day of our cruise right after we boarded and the ship sailed out of the dock, Kody won a raffle for a $100 credit at the spa. He had to choose from a limited number of services and got a beard trim and men’s facial. It was a nice way to start the vacation!
To fill the rest of the hours at sea, I joined a Brazilian dance group. We practiced 4 or 5 times and then performed the opening ceremony for the passenger talent show on the 11th day of our cruise. I tried to stay in the back of the group, but the instructor moved me to the front. There’s a link here to a video of the dance, if you’re interested.
Kody volunteered for a hypnotist’s show another day and was the most entertaining of the maybe hypnotized people on stage. He acted like a guitar player swinging his axe around his head and sticking his tongue out at the crowd; a fighter pilot banking turns and blowing kisses; a Japanese body builder who spoke “Japanese” and bowed to the audience; and slow-motion ran to a complete stranger to sit in his lap and hug him fiercely. He swears he wasn’t under the influence and I guess we’ll never know…
I will do a separate post with a review of our time aboard The Vision of the Seas and what to expect on a long-distance cruise.
SAN JUAN, PUERTO RICO
Our first port was San Juan, Puerto Rico. Land was a welcomed sight after 3 full days at sea and I was excited to be back in San Juan after visiting there about 8 years ago for a friend’s wedding. Kody had never been, so we hopped off the ship and we went walking to get our bearings. We walked through the Old Town (Viejo San Juan) and saw the fort and the umbrella road leading to the governor’s mansion. The row houses were brightly painted and it was a pleasant, warm day.
The cruise line offers different excursions, like group activities and guided tours, at each port, but they’re normally over-priced and easy to replicate on your own. Instead of booking through the cruise line, we looked on AirBNB to see what was available. Rather than only offering homes to rent on the site/app, they now offer “experiences” led by locals which can range from adventure activities to guided tours to pub crawls to cooking classes. Using this, we booked kayaking lessons in San Juan from a local business called AquaFitness.
The lagoon where we were to have our lessons were about an hour’s walk from the ship dock, so off we went. It was an excuse to get a little further from the tourist areas and see the real San Juan. Our walk was long and hot, but enjoyable. Once we got to AquaFitness, however, we learned that we were almost an hour late for our lessons. The ship’s time adjusts little-by-little to account for the different time zones that the ports are in and our phones hadn’t automatically updated when we got off the ship. The owner was gracious enough to let us have our lesson anyway.
After minimal instruction, we were set loose on our separate kayaks in the water. It felt good to be physical and to use our hands for something other than stuffing our faces or placing a bet at the casino. We kayaked for about an hour and then asked our instructor, Michael, for a recommendation of a local place to have dinner. He suggested Pannes and off we went.
Dinner was a much-needed change of pace and scenery from the buffet or the assigned dining in the main dining room on board. Don’t get me wrong – the food on board the cruise was good, but it’s available all the time and makes it easy to over-indulge. Cruise food is typically under-seasoned (I think to account for the many different people’s taste/sensitivities on the ship), but additional salt and pepper is always on the table. We took a seat in Pannes, ordered two local beers, and hopped on the free Wi-Fi for the first time in 4 days. I ordered mofongo which is one of my favorite Puerto Rican foods. It’s seasoned mashed plantains piled into a little mound and topped (or filled) with your meat and sauce of choice. I don’t have any decent pictures of our dinner because I was too busy stuffing my face and texting my friends.
After we ate, we made the long trek back to The Vision. Our ship sailed out at 10:30pm and headed towards the U.S. Virgin Islands.
CHARLOTTE AMALIE, ST. THOMAS, U.S.V.I
The next day we arrived in St. Thomas around 8:30am. St. Thomas is home to the celebrated Magen’s Bay and other beautiful beaches. It also typifies what a Caribbean cruise ship port looks like. Rows of the same businesses which advertise non-stop on the ships – Diamonds International, Effy Jewelry, etc. There are many cruise shopping presentations throughout the trip while you’re in the Caribbean and they offer free incentives to cruisers who want to spend money on diamonds, luxury watches, and gemstones you’ve never heard of (Korite, Marahlago, Larimer) while they’re in the islands.
The trouble is: once you’re on those islands and you step away from the manicured and cultivated “downtown” shopping areas near the docks, you can see immediately that not much of the money from those luxury purchases is being returned to the island housing those stores or the locals who work at them. Almost all of these stores exist solely to service the cruise crowds that flood the island during the season and they pack up all of the wares and move from their shops in the Caribbean to their shops in Alaska when the cruise seasons change. The brands are also available on-board in the shopping area on the ship.
Kody and I wanted to see Magen’s Bay, so we hired a taxi to take us there. He suggested that instead of paying to get onto that beach, we got up to a viewing spot in the hills where we could see the entire mile stretch of beach in the Bay, but spend our day at another beach with no entrance fee that the local frequent. We took his advice and headed up to Drake’s Seat for a nice vista view and a mini history of the Virgin Islands and then hung out at Coki Bay where the water was clear, the view to the open ocean was amazing and the drug dealers were very friendly.
Unfortunately, we both agree that St. Thomas is not an island that we are likely to visit again. It is a good lesson to have though that there is a difference between directed tourism and true investment in a community.
PONTA DELGADA, THE AZORES
Arriving in Ponta Delgada meant being back on land after 5 full days at sea. We were happy to see it since we we’re getting a little more stir crazy and loose in our wallets with each day crossing the Atlantic Ocean. We received little certificates commemorating our crossing from the cruise staff.
Ponta Delgada is beautiful. The buildings in the main square downtown are white with black lava rock outlining the facades and the windows making every one look intense. The streets and sidewalks are black and white cobblestone hand-pounded into intricate designs that make just walking down the street a joyful experience. Everywhere we looked was interesting – up, down, left, and right.
The weather was cloudy, chilly, and a little rainy, but we were so excited – finally in Europe! It felt like the first real day of our European adventure once we stopped at an ATM and Euros came out. We didn’t make any plans for our time in Ponta Delgada ahead of arriving there and took the day to explore the city and enjoy ourselves. We walked through parks, neighborhoods, and a university; up to a hermitage and a palace; along the dock and through the alleys. We had so much fun and we ate so well! Our first stop was in a little bakery. We ordered a pasteis de nata (a Portuguese custard tart served with cinnamon on top) and another cream filled pastry that wasn’t labeled but looked delicious. They were both so tasty and made us giddy about all the great food we’d be enjoying once we got to mainland Europe.
We learned our first words of Portuguese. Bom dia which means “good morning” and obrigado which means “thank you.” If you’re only going to learn a couple of phrases in the native language of the place you’re visiting, it may as well be something polite and kind.At a small café where we enjoyed tapas and drinks, we met two German tourists and chatted with them. The whole restaurant was full of people who weren’t Portuguese and the mix of languages and attempts to communicate with each other were interesting to watch and participate in.
Luckily for us, Ponta Delgada was not like the Caribbean cruise ports. It is a vibrant city that hasn’t allowed the cruise companies to control the tourism economy. (This would turn out to be true for all of the European ports that we went to, making a European cruise feel much more authentic than a Caribbean one.) Once we boarded the ship, we found a cozy place to watch as we passed by the entire island continuing on our way to Spain. My phone battery died in the attempt and the quality isn’t great, but here is a time lapse video of our ship leaving Ponta Delgada.
Málaga is a Spanish port city in Andalusia. It was founded in 749 B.C. and has existed since then usually under Spanish or Moorish control. These influences don’t compete with each other, but blend together to create a unique city and people. The Moorish architecture is resplendent throughout the city with its horseshoe arches, honeycomb vaulting and decorative tiles. It made me excited to be in Málaga and also excited to be going to Morocco later in our trip. The city is the birthplace of Pablo Picasso and you can see that his creative legacy has lived on there encouraging many other young artists.
Immediately after coming ashore, we noticed a large military fortress up on a hill and we set our minds to making the climb. The hike was full of switchbacks and slick tile and show-offs running up as though it were no chore at all. We rested a few times and noticed the squirrels in Málaga had adorable little tufts of fur on the tops of their ears and didn’t seem shy at all. Entrance for the fortress included a ticket to visit the Alcazaba (walled fortification) at the bottom of the hill. The fortress museum was slim and all in Spanish, so although we didn’t take much away from it intellectually, we had a nice time walking around the grounds and up on the ramparts.
We made a wrong turn on the way down to the Alcazaba and didn’t get to take the tree-lined walk we were expecting. We got to skip the line since we bought our tickets at the fortress and were treated to some lovely gardens and water features. Almost the entire fortification had a sidewalk with a small water trough running through the middle of it, bringing burbling water to each room.
The rest of our day in Málaga followed no particular plan. We wandered through a neighborhood that was filled with colorful street art and popped into a café. Having had such great luck choosing random places to eat on our trip, we hoped it would extend to this stop. Unfortunately, it did not. Our lunch consisted of octopus salad (okay, but not delicious) and hard-boiled eggs topped with tuna and absolutely doused in mayo (not okay, not delicious). We washed them down with beer and wine and carried on. Our day in Málaga ended with a beer at the main city plaza.
Alicante was our favorite cruise port because we were able to have a simple, perfect day there.
We set out from the port in a random direction, which, let’s be honest, is pretty much our style for this trip. This brought us to a massive indoor market filled with fish and meat vendors, fruit and vegetable proveyors, and bread and cheese dealers. European markets are heaven! We set about creating a picnic and bought jamón iberico, cheese, a baguette, some tomatoes, and beers. After walking a little bit, we set our picnic up in the Plaza de Toros, across from the bull-fighting arena. The weather was sunny and cool and the company was spectacular. (Honestly, most of the pictures we’ve taken are of food or of each other eating food. We have an agenda, okay?)
The rest of our day in Alicante was spent at the beach. It was a reminder that Europe is not as sensitive to nudity as America is because most of the beachgoers were topless. We hadn’t brought our swimsuits with us so we just sat out fully clothed bringing balance to the flesh-filled beach. Sometimes all you really need is a little sunshine, a good meal, and the beach.
We walked so much in Palma de Mallorca! We spotted a cathedral from the ship and decided to make our way to it, not realizing that it was on the other side of the city. We walked a total of 12 miles in Mallorca and we were feeling it at the end of the day.
Along the way to the cathedral, we passed through vendor stalls on the waterfront and a charming old town square. The city had a similar look and feel to it as Alicante and Málaga did, that of a Spanish beach city steeped in history. In front of the cathedral was a fortress surrounded by high walls and many stairs. We made our way up and were struck by the cathedral’s detail and beauty. Kody especially felt in awe because he had never seen a cathedral like this in person. I can only imagine the impression that its grandeur and immensity made on the people living in Mallorca when it was originally built. We spent time taking it in and talking about the Catholic Church and its influence on Europe (I read a European art and history book on the cruise over). We couldn’t wait to see the cathedral’s counterparts on the mainland and throughout the rest of the continent.
Our last stop for the day was the Mercado Gastronómico San Juan, an eating hall with many different food stalls. We each picked out two tapas and settled down to our favorite activity – eating. I was able to find a typical Spanish tapa that I had been looking forward to trying made with roasted peppers and anchovies. Everything tasted so fresh and delicious. We were able to fuel up for our hour and a half trek back to the ship for our last night on board.
LANDING IN BARCELONA
When the cruise is over, it is over. We were expected to be awake, packed, and off the ship before 8:30 in the morning. Since we each only brought one backpack, we were able to achieve this quickly, but the nerves started to set in. Starting once we stepped off the ship, we would be fully responsible for every aspect of our trip. No one was going to feed us or clean our room for us or make sure we were happy and entertained. Just me and Kody, Kody and me for the next six months.
The cruise shuttle bus dropped us off in front of a huge statute celebrating Christopher Columbus and his explorations. What a fitting start to our adventure!