Our writer samples reggae and rum beneath the Caribbean sun
Enjoy evenings spent with friends old and new’ say the cruise brochures. I’m ashamed to say that I never really believed it; who goes on holiday and makes friends to the extent that they want to spend their precious annual leave in their company? I hadn’t envisioned spending my week in the Caribbean dancing the Sirtaki in the surf with a 48-year old Greek couple, helping two lovely 70-something Southerners to spend the kids’ inheritance on rum punch and sunbathing with a silver-haired Dame Shirley Bassey lookalike even more glamorous than the lady herself. But I did and I enjoyed every single second.
On face value, I’m not your average cruiser. I’m 30, neither newly-wed, nor nearly-dead, as the saying rather rudely goes. But that didn’t stop my Caribbean cruise holiday aboard P&O Cruises’ Britannia being one of the best holidays I’ve ever had.
What with work trips and holidays, I’d go so far as to call myself a seasoned traveller. You would think that someone who packs almost a case a month would be well-versed in keeping their hand-luggage light and their suitcase below that all-important weight limit, but oh no, not I. Which is why I was glad to see my cases disappear along the conveyor belt at Gatwick’s dedicated P&O Cruises/Thomas Cook check-in desk, knowing that I needn’t heave and hurl them again until they arrived outside my cabin door that evening.
The flight flew by (sorry, I couldn’t resist) and in no time at all I was descending the steps onto Caribbean soil. Barbados was humid but in a matter of minutes we were whisked off the tarmac and onto an air-conditioned coach making our way to Bridgetown, where we would meet the ship.
“That’s what they call it here, the rain. It’s liquid sunshine” said my fellow passenger. I couldn’t help but think they had a point. After all, when every house is painted a different colour, bright green coconuts are being prepared at the roadside and pink hibiscus plants spill from the gardens, it takes more than a little rainwater to dull the colour of the Caribbean. Still, I hoped this was just a liquid sunshine shower; I had a tan to catch.
With a lei slipped around our necks, we quickly embarked and made our way to our cabin, a balcony located far aft on E Deck. Our cases were expected to take a few hours to arrive, so we took the time to grab a bite to eat in The Horizon buffet and made our way to The Sunset Bar to enjoy the first cocktail of the holiday.
Later, and without the energy to get all dressed up after a long day, we decided to eat at the Beach House, where our meal more than warranted the £7.50 per person cover charge. After a coconut shrimp starter, an enormous piece of onion-crusted salmon defeated me and overturned my plans to devour a triple-chocolate fudge cake desert. There’s always tomorrow…
Perhaps it was the excitement of finally finding ourselves in the Caribbean. Maybe it was the potency of the sea air. It could have been the Long Beach Iced Teas imbibed by the pool or Marco Pierre-White’s food coma-inducing Beef Wellington at dinner. Whatever it was, it rendered two 30 year olds asleep in their formal wear – shoes included – by 7.30pm.
I’ll start at the beginning of what was our first sea day. Sat on the balcony at 6.30am, Kindle in hand and eyes scanning for dolphins on seas that stretched for miles on end, I read in the kind of peace that only comes when your boyfriend is still soundly asleep, the TV remote far from his grasp. Remembering a comment someone had made about making sure you’re by the pool early to secure a sunbed, I decided to relocate, blue towels in hand. The ship was busier than I had expected it to be at that time, the deck walkers, early breakfasters and morning swimmers all present and accounted for.
Later, we ate breakfast in The Horizon, both opting for healthy options in an attempt to stave off the 7lb weight gain the average cruiser reportedly comes home sporting. The rest of the day was spent by the main pool on the Lido Deck, the cocktails flowing freely and the Grab ‘n’ Go salads soaking up the alcohol. It was hot, the hottest we had ever experienced, and we couldn’t help but feel a little smug as we heard of the rain and wind at home. There’s a lot to be said for winter sun. It was by the pool that we came to meet the people we would go on to spend almost every day in port with, all of us gathering in reception each day, armed with the name of a new beach to explore.
After a last-minute ironing session in the launderette, we were suited and booted for the first formal night of the cruise, making it to the atrium just in time for Captain Paul Brown’s toast. My floor-length red gown had me feeling all Pretty Woman, like an alternative Julie Roberts who eats bread and skips Pilates a little more than she should. After an early dinner in the Meridian Restaurant, we should have made our way to The Live Lounge, where we would watch a Bruno Mars tribute touted as the best in the business. Only we never made it to the ship’s liveliest nightspot. Instead, we made the mistake of nipping back to our cabin for a change of shoes, which ultimately led to the earliest night I think I’ve ever had. What a waste of a great dress.
My prior cruise knowledge taught me to demand the side of the bed closest to the balcony and to leave the curtains open halfway when turning in for the night; two important steps in getting that exciting first glance of your next port of call. Today’s port was Curaçao and we were feeling refreshed and ready to explore after our ridiculously early night.
We dressed quickly, grabbed breakfast with a sea view and met our new-found friends at reception. The seven of us walked outside to the sound of steel drums and, having not booked any shore excursions, hailed a mini bus to Mambo Beach at the recommendation of a fellow cruiser (they’re a friendly bunch).
We couldn’t have chosen much better; beach, shops and restaurants (The Green House’s daily specials are the best $11 you’ll spend all day). Some of us shopped for bikinis, jewellery and candles carved with tiny replicas of Handelskade harbour, whilst others sought shade in the beach bar. My boyfriend, Tom, headed off to invest in a snorkel, something which provided us with hours of amusement over the course of the cruise and accompanied us in every port of call. At Mambo Beach, we spent hours in the perfect blue sea that filtered into the cove through a break in the rocks.
With the ship in port until 10pm, we had plenty of time to change and grab a laidback dinner in The Horizon (amazing apple crumble!), before disembarking again for a leisurely evening in Willemstad. We passed a group of animated taxi drivers playing a heated game of dominos on route to the illuminated arches of the Queen Emma Bridge and the Handelskade, before turning back and making ourselves comfortable at one of the Rif Fort’s many bars and restaurants. The evening air was humid and it is extremely important to stay hydrated in the hot weather, so we thought it best to take advantage of a ‘two for $5’ deal on Coronas before making our way back to the ship, where we ended the day with a nightcap in Brodie’s Bar.
Aruba was the port of call I had been most looking forward to on our Eastern Caribbean itinerary and, looking out of the window as we docked, I wasn’t disappointed. I always assumed that almost all photographs of the Caribbean are Photoshopped to within an inch of their lives, the sands made a little whiter and the contrast turned up on those turquoise seas. Peering over the handrail of the Lido Deck, I realised I was wrong. The water here was blue in a way I have never seen before. Even as a weak swimmer, I couldn’t wait to dive in.
All thoughts of snorkelling in Aruba soon went out of the window when we saw the waves crashing onto Eagle Beach, but that didn’t make it any less appealing. The sun was hot, the sea was blue and Aruba’s widest stretch of sand was golden. There’s free public Wi-Fi too, just in case you’re looking for the perfect spot to FaceTime those poor souls enjoying the typically British weather at home.
We hired sunbeds for the princely sum of $15 and watched the action unfold from our front row seats; jet-skiers in the distance, children in armbands dipping a tentative toe in the surf to the front, and the mid-ground filled with swimmers cooling themselves off in Aruba’s 30-odd degree heat.
We crossed the road for lunch, swapping our sun loungers for bar benches at the Tulip Caribbean Brasserie. The ceviche was the best I’ve ever eaten and the cocktails saw us all in high spirits in the restaurant’s sunshine yellow courtyard.
After having our heads turned by the diamond dealers of Oranjestad, we made do with an ‘Aruba’ Christmas tree decoration and headed back to the ship to enjoy the last of the sun around the pool. Unfortunately, we were so caught up in the sail away celebrations that we missed our 6.30pm sitting in the Meridian Restaurant, so it was back to The Beach House for us. After drinks in the sunset bar, a flutter in the casino and a couple of drinks in Brodie’s Bar, it was time for bed.
No cruise holiday is complete without a lazy day and today was ours. We had a lay-in and ate a late breakfast, before Tom disappeared to the pool and I retreated to the Market Café with my laptop in hand.
The patisserie cabinet was full of Eric Lanlard’s sweet creations, but it was the Gourmet Boards which caught my attention. The British Pub Platter with Mini Artisan Beef, Mushroom and Ale Pie with Green Pea Puree Scotch Eggs, Pork Scratchings, Game Chips and Piccalilli took some resisting, but with the thought of another formal night gown in the back of my mind, I decided to give it a miss. Biggest regret of the holiday.
Besides a stroll around the boutiques above the main atrium, the remainder of the day was spent by the pool. Britannia has so much going on that it almost seems a waste to while away the day on a sun lounger, but as a sun-starved Brit, the opportunity to soak up some Caribbean rays is too good to miss.
Later, we enjoyed a pre-dinner drink or two in the Crow’s Nest, where a pianist provided the entertainment, before dining in The Glass House. Rather than paying a cover charge, diners here pay per dish. We opt to share three small plates as a starter, a bargain at £5.95 and more than enough for two people, before enjoying the best steak we have eaten in a long time for just £7.50 each. The hand-cut chips and beer-battered onion rings were equally delicious, as was the accompanying wine chosen from an almost endless wine list. We loved the fact that The Glass House felt hidden away from the rest of the ship, despite its location within the main atrium, and it became our favourite dining venue on board, without a doubt. In fact, we ate here three times in seven nights and recommended it to anyone who would listen!
After dinner, we watched comedy magician Miguel Martinez in the Headliner’s Theatre. Whilst we weren’t entirely convinced by the authenticity of his Cuban accent, his show was a laugh a minute.
As the water taxis bound for Grand Anse Beach came and went, full to the brim, I began to wonder whether I had been a little hasty in proclaiming the further-afield Morne Rouge Beach to be a far better option for today’s sunbathing spot. Eventually, our taxi arrived, and we were joined by no more than six shipmates heading in the same direction. I worried, a lot. Was I taking us on a wild Grenadian goose chase? As the wind whipped our hair and Britannia stood proud beneath Granada’s rolling greenery, I decided that I had given everyone a scenic goose chase, if nothing else.
Then we rounded a corner and the relief washed over me, just as the seawater spray had done on the way there. This was paradise. Nothing encroached on the slither of perfect white sand other than sky-reaching coconut palms and the silent surf of the sea. At the very end of the beach sat two beach bars, the oddly-named La Plywood and our favourite, Sur La Mer. Here, we sipped nutmeg sprinkled rum punch and ate spicy chicken roti, all the while desperate to get back on the beach. Even the raucous arrival of the Rhum Runner – a rum and reggae fuelled boat trip excursion offered by P&O Cruises and calling at the island for an hour – couldn’t shake the smile from our faces.
We had arranged a water taxi return for 3.30pm – early but necessary, as the ship won’t wait if you are gallivanting on some paradise beach and don’t make it back in time. Although, the thought of being marooned on Morne Rouge Beach was almost enough to have us ordering another round and watching our taxi disappear into the Caribbean sunset.
Back on board, we headed up on deck to catch what Captain Paul Brown had declared “the first Great British sail away for 179 years”. We had been joined in Grenada by Azura and it was impossible not to get caught up in the sense of occasion as both ships got into the party spirit.
Afterwards, we returned to The Glass House, where the Ice Cuvee flowed and the Guinea fowl and smoked bacon pie was amazing.
With our preferred excursion to Bequia fully-booked, we decided to take a water taxi to Indian Bay instead. As we rounded the corner and saw the beach, my heart dropped a little; sunbathers were packed like sardines and the beach itself was nowhere near as impressive as we had become accustomed to since arriving in the Caribbean. I know, First World problems, right?
Fortunately, our water taxi driver was really friendly and very chatty, and it was through him that we learned we were able to spend the day on the paradise private island that sits just off St Vincent’s coast, almost directly opposite Indian Bay.
Young Island is on the market with Sotheby’s International Realty for the bargain price of $10million and it will cost you somewhere in the region of $500 to spend a single night there. So, when we were told that a boat could take us there and back for $5, we couldn’t quite believe our luck. Without a second thought, we had hopped in another – much more ‘rustic’ – water taxi, still not quite convinced that this desert island could be ours for the day. Surely we would have to pay extortionate sunbed fees, if nothing else?
We didn’t. In fact, the only stipulation for cruise passengers spending the day on Young Island, is that they lay their towels on the left of the beach, with the right hand side and its sunbeds reserved for the island’s paying guests. Aside from that, the beach bar and its a la carte menu, the swim up Coconut Bar, the amazing snorkelling on reefs just a couple of feet from the shore and the jaw-dropping views of St Vincent are all yours to enjoy.
It was incredible, one of my favourite days of the holiday in fact, but one thing to bear in mind is that you’re not just one, but two water taxis away from the ship. We had just finished tucking into a pretty special chicken club sandwich and piña colada when, glancing outside, I realised the beach had gone very quiet, very quickly. We decided to be on the safe side and check what time the last crossing back to Indian Bay – and onwards to Britannia in the main port – would leave the island. Cue some pretty frantic gathering of our belongings, as we were told “Right now! We are leaving; the weather is changing and this is the last boat!”.
Time to say goodbye, as Andrea Bocelli would say. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy but St Lucia looking so vibrant and photogenic only made it more difficult. Lesson learned; book two weeks!
With our cases already on their way back to the UK and our hand luggage securely stowed in the Meridian Restaurant, we decided to indulge with a leisurely breakfast at the Oriental Restaurant. The P&O Cruises breakfast didn’t disappoint and we regretted not making more of our morning meal throughout our cruise; the Horizon is fab, but it just doesn’t have the sense of occasion that comes with eating in the main dining rooms.
After a spontaneous watch purchase in one of the port’s many jewellery stores, we headed back to the ship before we did any more damage to our credit cards. After collecting our bags, I reluctantly slipped out of my sundress and into my jeans, exhaling an audible sigh of relief that they still fit. Then, in no time at all we were off the ship and weaving our way along St Lucia’s roads to the airport, turning our backs on the Caribbean in favour of an English winter.