My spring break cruise on the Norwegian Gem included time on five different islands. Early on during the planning of our cruise, when I was still skeptical about how much fun I would have, the amount of islands that we would visit was what got me through the times when I was doubting more than I was looking forward to the adventure. And the time on the five islands that we visited really lived up to and beyond my expectations.
The first place that we stopped was San Juan, Puerto Rico. When we were getting ready to disembark from the Gem, I was buzzing with excitement. I’ve done plenty of traveling around the US and Atlantic Canada, and while Puerto Rico is still a United Sates territory, I looked forward to experiencing a new place with a new culture that wasn’t on the North American continent.
I fell in love with Puerto Rico instantly. San Juan is bright, colorful, and really easy to get around. Our first location was within walking distance of the cruise port, the Castillo San Cristóbal. A historical site preserved by the National Parks service, this fortress used to be part of Spain’s defense of the island as a part of their empire. I traveled in a group of eight people total, and the gaggle of us wandered around like kids playing make-believe in a make-believe space. The whole place was probably crawling ghosts, but there was one particular turret called the Devil’s Sentry Box, only able to be reached by walking along the rocky coast, that was supposed to be especially so. One of the coolest parts of the historical site, to me, was that a few sections of the castle had been restored to show what it might have looked like when it was still a new structure. We ran into plenty of fellow cruisers while we walked around the site, and stayed until the park closed, soaking up as much of the place as we could.
After Castillo San Cristóbal, we spent a good amount of time doing my absolute favorite thing to do in a new place– wander around aimlessly. Some of the people I was traveling with were less excited about this part of our time in Puerto Rico but I have to admit it was my favorite part. I liked that we walked through normal seeming neighborhoods and watched some teenagers playing basketball, hearing the music from people’s cars, peeping into the windows of apartments and restaurants to get a sense of what life in San Juan might be like. Towards the end of wandering around, we hung out at start of the waterfront. I took a little bit of alone time to watch the pelicans dive into the water and write in my journal.
We wound up having dinner and drinks at La Castia, a taco bar with outdoor seating and a beautiful view of the harbor. They handled a surprise party of 10 (our group of eight travelers and the two cousins of one of our party, who live in PR) super well, and we had spectacular food– I had a pork taco with pickled onions that I would hop back across the ocean for. We sat and talked about anarcho-communism– anything you could expect from a group of East Coast college students exploring a new part of the world. Getting back on the boat after Puerto Rico was borderline painful– I have a feeling I’ll be spending more time there as soon as possible.
Our port the next day was the one that I was the most excited for, Philipsburg, St. Maarten. This was the island where we planned on spending a day hiking Pic Paradise, a mountain on the island’s French side. We took a 40 minute taxi across the island to get to the trail head (there was a $5 charge to take the trail, which stars at a zipline course), and got to get a good look at the island we were visiting, which I really appreciated. I was worried that when cruising the only parts of the islands that I would see were over-developed tourist sites, and I was pleased with really how easy it was to go off the beaten path.
We decided to only take the shorter peak when on our hike. There is a longer version of the hike we went on that includes going to the tallest point on the island, but we worried about not making it back to the boat on time, another downside of cruising. The trail was also a bit confusing– it would have been helpful to download the map onto AllTrails on my phone so that we would have had an easier time, because we ended up walking up a steep steep hill that wasn’t on the trail and having to climb back down again, which put a lot of doubt into my travel companions into how much I actually knew about hiking (doubt that they maybe should have had to begin with). But once we got on the path, it was a SPECTACULAR time.
The trail was gorgeous, and after spending months in Rochester NY’s winter it felt so good to be out in the woods exploring. The trail snaked its way up the mountain in a zig zag, and with each rung a totally new view of the bay emerged until we got to the top- dubbed Chewbacca Rock- where the whole bay was visible. The group I was traveling with had mixed experience with hiking, and when we got to the top I could tell that everyone had gotten something out of the experience. And after spending 4 days on a cruise ship, being able to move our bodies and hang out with some trees was a true gift.
Once back at the port, we had more more pleasant surprise. Among the tourist shops and duty free stores, we stumbled on The Spice Shack. Still looking for something I could take from such a beautiful island, I was so excited to find a woman selling locally made hot sauces, jam, and tea. She chatted with all eight of us as we took turns scanning her shelves and sampling some of her creation, and in the end I got something for almost everyone in my family from the Spice Shack– along with some Guava jam for myself.