Sunday, January 27, 2019

West Indies Explorer, Viking Sea ~ January 6-18, 2019

While this is a lengthy post, there are no real words that can accurately describe the luxury and near flawless experience we had during our most recent adventure. It was a dream come true for these lovers of beaches, food, wine, cocktails, luxury, relaxation, companionship, etc. I could go on and on. It’s really what dreams are made of…

From January 6-18, 2019, Steve and I embarked on a trip to the West Indies. We began with a two-night stay in Old San Juan, PR, before boarding the Viking Sea where we visited eight different islands in eight days. We were joined by Steve's parents (Paul and Sue) and we all had a fabulous time!

This trip came about after Viking publicly announced they would be an adults-only (18+) cruise line beginning in August. They previously discouraged children (minimum age of 12) as they don’t offer anything that is remotely interesting to someone under the age of 18. Paul and Sue happened to be visiting us in Cleveland at this same time and they were reminiscing to us about their Viking River Cruises. I was telling them about the brilliant PR move by Viking to make this public announcement because it appeals to people like ourselves. I think my exact words were “that’s our kind of vacation!” 

The reality is there is a niche of travelers between the age of 35-55 who choose adults-only vacations (almost) exclusively. If you add luxury, fine food and cocktails, then you’ve hit the jackpot. By early September we were booked! 

Jackpot

Viking’s target market is 65+, so needless to say, we were very recognizable J At 39 and 45, Steve and I were two of approximately eight guests (out of 930) who were recognizably younger than the rest of the crowd. Sure, you had a handful of people in their mid-late 50’s, but the average age of this cruise was 69. There was a lot of Kindle-reading, napping, and shade-seeking. That being said, there was also a lot of peace and quiet.

We had an awesome time!

Onward…The trip started with a stay at the El Convento Hotel in Old San Juan. We arrived in San Juan around 4 pm and checked into our room. My research booked us here due to the location, boutique-y-ness, and free wine and cheese happy hour J It really was an ideal location and close to everything. We even walked to the cruise port with our bags. But free wine happy hour? It’s hard to compete with that.












Soon after we arrived, we quickly embraced the Puerto Rican culture. We enjoyed the celebration of Three King’s Day, followed by mojitos, bolitas de queso and mofongo at El Punto de Vista. After dinner we enjoyed some fabulous cocktails at an old speakeasy, La Factoria.












Day 2 in San Juan was a smashing success. We had chocolate and cheese for breakfast at Chocobar Cortés, toured both Castillo San Cristóbal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro forts, visited the famous umbrella display on Fortaleza Street, and visited the Catedral Basílica de San Juan Bautista, Paseo la Princesa, and Plazuela de la Rogativa. 





































Later we enjoyed tacos and margaritas at La Guerita and indulged in some Puerto Rican pizza at Pirilo Pizza Rustica (topped with seasoned pork, cube steak, ham and potato sticks and a hint of mayo-ketchup). 22k steps later and we were ready for bed!





On our last morning, we tried out Mallorca, a local diner with an indulgent breakfast sandwich. The Mallorca sandwich was filled with egg, bacon, ham and cheese and topped with powdered sugar. 




We loved Old San Juan and look forward to visiting again to see a few places we missed. Not only did we enjoy the history and culture, but we also found it relatively inexpensive to eat and drink there, which was a nice surprise. 

On Day 3 (Tuesday) we finally embarked on the Viking Sea! Since we were already in San Juan we made our way to the port a little early. Embarkation was technically at 11 am, but we were able to get on the ship around 10:45 am and we were two of the first guests to arrive! I think there were four others on board before us J This gave me the PERFECT opportunity to scour the place and take pictures for the blog. We were everywhere, but pretty sure we were supposed to be secluded to the 1st and 7th deck. Steve even requested a tour of the spa. We were already breaking the rules and no one was going to stop us! 









Paul and Sue joined us around 4 pm when we enjoyed a welcome champagne toast and relished in our excitement.




The Viking Sea is a luxurious vessel. It first set sail in May of 2016, so it still felt brand new. It’s gorgeous, spacious, immaculate, tranquil, and elegant. Really, it is all of those things and more. With a mere 930 guest capacity (550 crew), you never felt crowded or overwhelmed. We never had to wait in line for anything. There were automatic sanitizing machines at every turn, our room was cleaned twice daily (Noni was our awesome room steward!), and every request was granted. 

Every. Single. Request.

The Living Room was located on the 1st deck and the atrium extended to the 2nd and 3rd decks. There was a bar, plenty of comfortable seating, and live music daily. 







There were two saltwater pools on the ship located on the 7th deck. The main pool was in the center of the ship and had a retractable ceiling in event of inclement weather. The small infinity pool was located at the aft. 








The sun deck was on the 8th deck and rarely used on this itinerary. We used it as a great place to take pictures.




The sports deck was on the 9th deck. We had every intention of playing some shuffleboard, but time got away from us and we used this space to relax and watch the days go by without any physical exertion whatsoever. 






We had a Deluxe Veranda room on the 4th deck (4077). Paul and Sue were in 4076. The rooms were larger than we expected and suited our needs sufficiently. We loved that every room on the Viking Sea had a balcony and the bathroom floors were heated.










The public spaces were clean and you could find a hand sanitizer at every turn. There was enough seating for more than the ship's capacity and we never felt crowded even though the ship was at maximum capacity. 














Dining
The Chef’s Table was an incredible culinary experience. With a set 5-course menu every night, it was hands-down the best dining on the ship. Every guest at every table was eating the same food and it was consistently beautiful and delicious. Each course was perfectly portioned and nicely paired with the sommelier’s wine choice. Because we were on the Silver Spirits package, Steve and I enjoyed upgraded wine. 

I miss it every day. 







Reservations were required at Chef’s Table and there was no additional cost for this exquisite experience (amazing!) We all know I’m a planner and due to the menu changing every 3rd day, I made sure to make reservations for all of us on the 1st night of every menu. If you do the math, we should have eaten there four times…well, we ate there five times and I could have eaten here more. It was that good. 


The highlights of the Xiang menu were the granita and the wok-fried beef.




The highlights of the Asian Panorama menu were the duck, granita and dessert trilogy.

 





The highlights of the Sweet & Salty menu were the scallops and veal tenderloin. This was Paul & Sue's favorite menu. So much so we ate it twice!






The highlights of the La Route des Indes menu were the seared tuna and beef tenderloin. This was mine and Steve's favorite menu. Too bad it was only available on our last night...otherwise we likely would have eaten here again!





Manfredi’s was the second specialty restaurant that also required reservations. We ate here three times and while it was outstanding, it didn’t hold a candle to The Chef’s Table. I ordered the chicken Parmesan all three times (I tend to be a creature of habit, you think?) and it was one of the best chicken Parmesan dishes I’ve had. Pounded perfectly thin and lightly breaded with an arugula salad on top. It was massive and covered the entire plate. I went off the menu and ordered the fettuccine with tomato sauce as my side. Steve, Paul and Sue all ordered the Bistecca Fiorentina rib eye steak at least once. It’s all the rage and it met expectations. Steve also loved his veal scaloppini. The highlight for dessert was the Nutella Panna Cotta. I need to learn how to make this at home! 












 


 



The Restaurant was another venue we dined at twice for dinner and a few times for breakfast. Due to zero days at sea, it was not open for lunch. No reservations were needed and the place could seat hundreds of guests.




At breakfast I enjoyed another off-the-menu item - a goat cheese and fresh herb omelet. Mmmm…I love goat cheese in my omelets. Steve usually ordered the eggs benedict and Paul and Sue enjoyed the lamb chops and eggs. Yes, that is correct – lamb chops for breakfast. Pretty fancy.












We ate dinner here twice where we ordered a variety of items, but the highlight from Paul and Sue was the prime rib. The left side of the menu never changed, but the right side changed daily based on our destination.










Mamsen’s was the one place you could almost always get a snack. If you were too early or too late for breakfast or just wanted a small snack before or after dinner, Mamsen’s is where you wanted to be. While I’m not a fan or herring, they also had waffles, breads and cheese.






World Café was your typical buffet, but with a higher standard. They had theme nights and everything was always fresh. You could even order shrimp and chicken grilled to order at lunch. We ate here for breakfast at times as well as lunch or to grab a snack. The gelato was delicious! There was additional outdoor seating near the infinity pool and around the deck.















Steve and I actually enjoyed the pizza. We absolutely love pizza so can be a little picky, but this was worth the effort and gave us the sustenance needed to get through our day J


Breakfast was pretty good as well. There were a lot of options, but we enjoyed the classic with egg, meat and potatoes.

  
Room Service was available 24-7, but we never seemed to need it. We talked about getting breakfast a few times, but never actually followed through. The variety was quite good (sorry, I forgot to take a picture of the menu!)

Afternoon tea was served in the Wintergarden every day from 4-5 pm and it was totally packed by 3:45. I guess these people love their tea! If we weren’t napping, this is where you could find us. I don’t drink coffee, so I enjoy tea on occasion. If you serve it with some tea sandwiches on a fancy ship, then I might as well be on vacation. All of the sandwiches were quite delightful, but we went back for more of the BLT. Yum.






The pool grill was open from 11-6 pm and a great option when we returned from an excursion and the buffet was closed. They had a small salad bar and items from the grill were cooked to order.




Bars
Before I begin with the bar experience, I will mention that included with the Viking cruise fare is beer and wine at lunch and dinner. You could also purchase drinks from the menu at very reasonably prices (i.e. $5 wine and $7.50 cocktails). Steve and I upgraded to the Silver Spirits package for $199/person for the entire 10-night cruise. That allowed us to order any drinks listed on the menu for under $15 at any time of day. It was a steal of a deal for the two of us.




There were five bars on the ship. We visited all of them because they all had something different to offer. Our favorites were the Explorer’s Lounge and Torshavn. Not only did they provide the best atmosphere, but they had one of THE BEST bartenders we’ve ever encountered. Bharat Karkee was truly was one of the highlights of our trip and helped to put it over the top. Steve and I love classic cocktails such as manhattans, martinis, aviations, Hemingway daiquiris, etc., but Bharat brought classic to another level. We ended up having a mutual appreciation for one another because we let his creative mixology juices flow, and we would happily drink his masterpieces. It was impeccable mixology at its finest. 

Explorer’s Lounge is where we enjoyed pre-dinner cocktails, It overlooked the bow of the ship and had live music every night. We found it to be a very peaceful and relaxing place to hang out.











Torshavn is where we went for late night drinks and dancing. They tended to have more exotic liquors here that were't stocked in the other bars. Bharat's creations at Toshavn were incredible. The live music from the Viking Band with Judith and Arvin was the best entertainment on the ship. They knew how to get the crowd dancing and enjoying the moment.









There was also a bar in the atrium with plenty of seating, as well as a pool bar and a bar near World Café.











The Liv Nordic Spa offered many of your typical salon and spa services as well as a fitness center.



We went a couple of times for the Nordic Bathing Ritual. It was totally free and we could stay as long as we wanted. It was refreshing, elective torture (that cold plunge pool is brutal), and relaxing, all at the same time. Steve and I went in the morning we were the only ones there. It was fantastic!


 











Entertainment
We enjoyed a few shows and live music every night. In addition to the shows in the main theater, the entertainment crew hosted a couple of dance parties on the pool deck. That was a huge hit with guests and everyone seemed to come out to watch. Our favorite was The Viking Band. We listened/watched them nearly every night in the Torshavn bar. They took requests every night and had the crowd dancing until late into the night. Band director, Joelle, was one of the best trumpeters I’ve ever seen and was a class act. 














The Viking Daily was the resource for all things Viking. It let us know the agenda for the day, where we needed to be at what time, what restaurants were open, and most importantly...when we needed to be back on the ship! A paper version was delivered to our room the night of departure at every port.






Among other things, our in-room TV was a great resource for making dinner reservations, booking excursions, watching pre-recorded port talks and checking our on-board account balance.  


We also downloaded the valuable Viking app where we could do all of these things as well. It was only active while on-board, so it didn't provide any value in port. 





 Excursions
Steve and I booked four excursions through Viking and they varied in enjoyment and value. We were all about the beaches and that’s what we received! Beautiful, more beautiful and most beautiful beaches. I’ll discuss these a little later.

Included with the Viking cruise fare is one excursion at every port. While Steve and I didn’t not do any of them (sorry!), Paul and Sue participated in most of them. I asked them to write a quick overview of each so you could read/see what we missed! 

Below is the price list for all of the optional excursions at each port. 





San Juan, Puerto Rico
We stayed overnight in San Juan on our first night, so the next day most guests went on a walking tour and/or enjoyed some of the same activities Steve and I enjoyed earlier. We decided to take the $0.50 ferry (and then an Uber) to the Bacardi rum factory for a mixology class. We were each set-up at our own bar station and made a Cubra Libre, mojito and classic daiquiri. It was nearly impossible for me to finish them all so I shared mine with my fellow mixologists. It’s no surprise we passed the class with flying colors.

























Meanwhile, Paul and Sue headed off on a 3-hour walking tour around Old San Juan which included the Castillo San Cristobal fort. It's a national park that was scheduled to be closed due to the government shut down, but remained open because the government of Puerto Rico paid the employees’ salaries. We thought that was a nice gesture for tourists.

A couple of other points of interest on the walk were the street near the governor's mansion with umbrellas hanging upside down. An art form established by the governor's wife. A second is the way electrical wire is strung throughout the city. It is not strung on street level but at roof top level. The streets are too narrow to accommodate poles. When Hurricane Maria came through it wiped out the roof top poles and connectors. It took 3 months and a lot of cranes to get the connections repaired.

When the walk was over they visited the Chocobar Restaurant which had been recommended by us and their tour guide. What's not to like about chocolate? They found that the only way to improve the grilled sharp cheese sandwich with dark chocolate was to add the double chocolate truffle as an appetizer. The truth is that Paul had a bowl of sausage, potato, onion soup and Sue ate most of the grilled cheese with chocolate.





Road Town, Tortola
We set sail later that night and headed to our next stop, Road Town, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. Steve and I could not wait to put our feet in the sand! We booked the Escape to Jost Van Dyke excursion through Viking and it was outstanding. We had a small group of about 20 people and it was a relaxing 45 minute catamaran ride to White Bay Beach. When we arrived we were in awe. It was the most beautiful beach we had ever seen. With a population of just 300, they know happy. It was a tiny, but absolutely gorgeous beach with five bars! 

Paradise was found.













I had pre-ordered two Painkillers from The Soggy Dollar Bar for Steve at Christmas. Apparently, this is where it originated back in the 70's. We also enjoyed a Bushwhacker from One Love Bar. We had to pass on the other three bars as they each had a $25 credit card limit. It was quiet and the sun was blazing. My (more than) sun-kissed face was just the icing on the cake. Amazing.

















Paul and Sue boarded a standard shift, 20 passenger, open air taxi with no seat belts. Since they had experience with the roads and drivers on the island of Grenada, they had an idea of what they were in for. The ride didn't disappoint. Tortola is, as are the other Caribbean islands, of volcanic origin. As a result the roads were very steep, very twisty and vary from 1 to 2 lanes in width.

The drivers use a variety of horn beeps to make certain that they can safely get around a curve in the road, plan to pass or allow someone else to pass. The value of standard shift is to use the transmission to slow down instead of burning out the brakes. Seriously some hills appear as steep as a ski jump.

They arrived at the beach and visited and chatted with some folks while enjoying the shade and view. One woman was taking this cruise in order to visit the 9 countries represented. That will bring to 100 the total number of countries she has visited. After a rum punch they walked the white sand beach. A pleasant way to spend an hour







Basseterre, St. Kitts
Our third port stop was in Basseterre, St. Kitts where Steve and I stepped off the ship briefly for lunch. My research had us at El Fredo’s, which is just off the beaten path. The place is clearly a local’s favorite and the authentic chicken roti is worth writing home about (pun intended). We also ordered the garlic shrimp, but the chicken roti is where it’s at…cheap and so good. 











Paul and Sue booked the St. Kitt's Scenic Railway through Viking. The first part of their 3 hour trip was an hour long guided 20 passenger bus ride through some rural areas of St. Kitts. Always nice to get some local history and way of life. They left the bus and boarded a double decker, diesel, small engine, narrow gauge train. The upper deck had a roof but was otherwise open. The approximately hour and a half ride almost met the "too far too long" limit. 

The company that runs the train assures that people like the ride by providing a limitless variety of rum based drinks. The 10:30am pina colada was quite good. The downside to that is if one needs to move there are no rails, poles or hand holds of any kind so one ricochets among the seated passengers; an interesting way to meet and greet.

The bus/train wasn't the best experience but one did get to see a moving snap shot of how some of the local St. Kitts population lives. It appears that there is a larger population of rural poor here than on Tortola. They did get to see, some equipment in need of an operator, and some scenery including a black sand beach.





St. John’s, Antigua
Our fourth stop was St. John’s, Antigua. As you know, our vacation of choice tends to be all-inclusive resorts, so we thought it would be neat to get a few day passes while on some of these islands. We did just that at our next three ports. 

We made the best of an overcast day at the beautiful Blue Waters resort located on the northwest corner of Antigua. We enjoyed the beach, pool, lunch and some Cavalier rum and Ting cocktails.



















P&S were up early while S&S were still dreaming away. The day started with a 3-hour guided drive in a 20 passenger van. The guide was born and raised on Antigua so was very familiar with the area we traveled and visited. After describing one school he remarked that teachers can still strap students but only for a major offense.  When he was a student strapping could and did occur for any infraction of the rules, such as a late arrival or not turning in an assignment.

The tour stopped at two forts and the Nelson Dockyard National Park. In the 1700 and 1800's, the dockyard was used to repair British ships. It is currently undergoing restoration and the area is a major location for docking yachts. They also got to see some very nice views including one site that overlooked singer Eric Clapton's house. The other pictures are from the drive to the dockyard and back and a very nice sunset.







Castries, St. Lucia
Castries, St. Lucia was our fifth port stop and we had an absolutely gorgeous day. The sun was on blast and we enjoyed ourselves with a day pass at the beautiful, small, and quiet Rendezvous resort. The beaches and pools were spectacular and we enjoyed them to the fullest.

















P&S embarked on a tour where the tour guide was disappointing because of her lack of knowledge the scenery, but the visit to Stoney Hill was not.

Stoney Hill is a privately owned location available for events and tours of the grounds and gardens. The site has a wide variety of plant species from bamboo to beautiful orchids. The views of Castries are stunning. The roads to get to Stoney Hill vary from good two lane paved to narrow, rutted, hair pin turn "do you think we'll make it" roads.

In the afternoon Paul listened to a very good award winning steel band while Sue read and relaxed. Then there was another sunset some of which which most folks miss. They stay around until the sun sets, not realizing that some of the best color occurs a half hour later. One of the pictures after sunset is of the pitons or what are referred to as the sharks teeth. These sharp pointed mountains are the remains of volcanic eruptions and are very specific to St. Lucia.






Bridgetown, Barbados
Our sixth stop was Bridgetown, Barbados where we traveled on Rihanna Drive to The Club Barbados where we appropriately listened to Rihanna on repeat poolside. (Hint – Rihanna is from Bridgetown). Once again, we had great sun, but had to take a bit of a treacherous walk at low(er) tide to find the best beaches. It was worth the risk! They were the most narrow, most rocky and most warm of all the beaches we’ve seen thus far, but still so gorgeous. This resort was somewhat disappointing and didn’t quite meet our standards. After a few hours, we decided to head back to our luxury “hotel” and enjoy some fancy tea.















P&S leisurely departed for their tour of a portion of the island. Barbados differs from the other islands visited because it's limestone and coral and not volcanic in origin. So it is not as mountainous as the other islands.

The day was in the high 70's, sunny with large puffy white clouds. Their guide was very good so they learned more about the history, role of religion, geography etc of the island. They made two stops; one at the highest point on the island, Highlands and another at an Anglican Church built in 1628.





Roseau, Dominica
Roseau, Dominica was our seventh stop and we took our second Viking excursion, the Mero Beach Sojourn, located in St. Joseph, Dominica. There were only 10 other guests from the ship and it was nice and peaceful. The volcanic black sand was awesome and made our feet scream. We walked the length of the beach and enjoyed a coconut rum cocktail from a local vendor.



























P&S's tour of the Roseau area was compact and included the commuter crowded narrow streets of the city, a basket weaving shop for people with disabilities some of whom were blind, a tour of the botanical garden and the remains of an old fort from which there were views of Roseau and the harbor. In the afternoon Paul took a walk to the local markets. 







Phillipsburg, St. Maarten
Our eighth stop had us in Phillipsburg, St. Maarten. The island though small is owned about half and half by the French and Dutch. So the name can be spelled Maarten (Dutch) or Martin (French)

We had originally planned to explore on our own, but the taxi prices were starting to add up so we decided to book our third Viking excursion (Tranquil Turquoise Water Snorkeling), which we regretted nearly immediately. We boarded a catamaran with about 60 other guests and headed to a snorkeling site. Our previous two excursions were very intimate, so we were spoiled and the number of people was simply annoying. When we arrived at the site, we jumped off and saw nothing. We continued for another 30 minutes and saw a few fish, but only because someone was feeding them. We were disappointed. When we looked into the water earlier that day we had seen sea turtles and other fish in the crystal turquoise waters. We thought we’d experience something remotely close to this!











We then headed another 60+ minutes past the famous Maho Beach just near the Princess Julianna airport. We watched several small planes and one larger plane land on the shortest runway in the world. While touristy, I had really wanted to visit the beach itself. No dice.






We visited beautiful Mullet Bay and its crystal clear turquoise water. This was on my list to-do on our own as I had read they had a beautiful beach. I was also told to order the best ribs on the beach…so we did that too. The problem with the excursion is they dropped anchor about 20 yards out where the water was about 10 feet deep. Remember, Steve and I are (by far) the youngest. We also couldn’t bring anything with us such as towels and phones. Luckily I had my waterproof camera us so was able to bring that ashore and snap a few pictures. We walked the (beautiful!) beach and that was about as much time as we had before we headed back on the catamaran for another 60 minute sail to the ship. My picture shows how our boat took over the area and people were just wading in the water. We had so little time we actually had to swim (faster than we’ve swam in a long time!) to get back and were the last ones on board.




On our way back we couldn’t help but notice the massiveness of the ships docked next to us. Being a large cruise port, there were several other ships, including the Allure of the Seas with its 6,000 passengers, compared to our 930. Woah.




P&S had a good tour guide so learned a lot about the island and people. The tour included both the Dutch and French portions of the island and were treated to seeing iguanas, beautiful views and even a Carousel ride. The island received substantial damage from Maria in 2017, which is evident by leafless trees, damaged structures and boats. It is rapidly coming back. The shore facilities and duty free shops are some of the best. St. Martin does a huge tourist business. 






Our time at sea was sadly coming to an end so after dinner we enjoyed a chocolate reception and the Captain’s Farewell Party. 









Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas on the US Virgin Islands would be our ninth stop on the cruise and I’m not sure it could have been a better day from beginning to end. In the morning we were joined by two other guests for a baller VIP Back of the House Tour where we met Captain Johan Malmberg and toured a few other areas of the ship, including the laundry facilities (fascinating!) I will say the bridge was pretty cool.










Steve and I were joined by Paul and Sue on our fourth Viking excursion to a Secret Sands Beach Getaway. Another large group of about 70 embarked on open-air vehicles to Smith Bay. When we arrived, there weren’t enough chairs or enough shade, so Steve and Paul scoured empty buildings to find two chairs for Paul and Sue. After a short time, persistence prevailed! Chairs and shade were found and we were all sipping on rum punch. Steve and I spent the rest of the time walking the beach and snorkeling on our own. Not surprisingly, the snorkeling was better than the previous day. We saw a giant sea turtle and some sting rays. 


















That evening there was a party on the bow as we sailed away to Puerto Rico. We had mixed feelings. Home was inevitable and this was a fabulous trip.



 







While we had met all of the senior officers earlier on the trip, I took this as an opportunity to get a selfie with some of them. I love selfies. Here I am with Tom (GM), Jenna (cruise director) and Laura (guest services manager).




We disembarked in San Juan at 9:30 the next morning and spent the next two hours in San Juan before heading to the airport. We took one final family selfie before we shared hugs and parted ways.



Our epic trip had come to an end. We saw beautiful beaches with sunny skies every day. We enjoyed incredible food, inventive cocktails and met people from all over the world! Most importantly, we were joined by Paul and Sue. While we had different agendas every day, we still came together and created so many new memories. At the ripe age of 39 I’ve taken the trip of a lifetime. I guess I’d consider myself a pretty lucky girl. 
Until next time...stay warm!



Anyone interested in talking to me about this trip or any of my other travels, please contact me at shannon@smstripsandtravels.com

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