Viking focusses on immersing its passengers in the various places the ships visits. As part of this there is an included tour in every port, as well as optional ones if they take your fancy (at an extra cost). I noticed that people tend to potentially do more than one tour a day to see more of where you’re visiting, which isn’t something you see on every cruise line.
The Caribbean is open
For me it is difficult to start this piece without talking about the devastation that took place across the Caribbean during hurricane season last year. I was in the Caribbean on a cruise just 6 months ago during Hurricane Irma and Maria. Due to the devastation we were unable to visit a number of island and it was truly heart-breaking to see places that I genuinely love being battered by the storms. We were the first ship to visit Antigua, where we dropped off supplies and I remember talking to a number of Antiguans and Barbudans over the effect Irma had had on the island. Antigua escaped the worst of the storm, but Barbuda took the full brunt of the storm and had to be evacuated. Six months on and things are on the mend, power has been restored to Barbuda and people are beginning to rebuild their lives.
St Maarten, St Thomas and Puerto Rico all felt the full force of hurricane season in 2018 and are still recovering from all the damage. I spoke with a number of locals on my journey and they said that while the urban areas have things like power up, the rural areas are less fortunate. But they are positive that the islands will recover and move on, you cannot fault their outlook on life.
Tourism is crucial to this recovery, so enabling ships and tourists to visit the islands has been critical to help the economy recover. Cruise lines donated millions in hurricane relief, and well as much-needed supplies to support the islands to start to get back on their feet, as it is a true symbiotic relationship. Ships were also chartered to provide floating accommodation and evacuation relief for stranded tourists and locals. The message is clear, the Caribbean is open for business and will welcome you with open arms.
Our Viking Journey
I’ve called this whole series my Viking Adventure, and it really was. Starting out in Barbados we sailed up the West Indies immersing ourselves in the cultures and sights of the islands we visited. Here are my top tips and thoughts from our adventure.
Upon arriving in Barbados, we spent the night at Elegant Hotels’ Colony Club. This luxe beachfront hotel is an opulent retreat with upscale accommodations, great dining option and service. It was named on Travel + Leisure’s Best Resorts list in the Caribbean, Bermuda & The Bahamas in 2016. To learn more go here.
We joined Viking Sea in Bridgetown. If you have time to visit, or if you are there for the day, there’s plenty to see and do around Bridgetown. In speaking to locals, the thing they love the most is shopping, so you’ll find a lot of boutique shops all around Bridgetown, closely followed by the beautiful white beaches. If you are short on time but want to go to a beach, I recommend going to Brownes beach to the south of Bridgetown.
Guadeloupe is a French destination known for being the place where Death in Paradise is filmed. Known as the “Butterfly Island” due to its shape, it is a charming place with spice markets and handmade crafts, stunning natural beauty and a tropical rainforest climate.
I’ve always seen, but never tried, cookery schools on ships (despite being a big fan of cooking and food). Situated between the two alternative dining venues is the Kitchen Table, an interactive kitchen area where guests can cook a variety of meals with the very talented chefs on board. Typically, this is a two-part experience where guests will spend the morning shopping in port for exciting ingredients with chefs before cooking and enjoying the food later in the day.
We only took part in the cooking part of the excursion where we collectively prepared some Caribbean fare before sitting down together to enjoy our creations with delicious wine pairing. Not only was all the food delicious, this was also a fun and social experience to get to know people.
If you are a foodie I cannot express how much you must consider this tour. The whole experience from start-to-finish was really fun and interesting. It is one of the most expensive excursions found on board (at $199) but remember this is a whole day experience with some of the most talented chefs in the world. I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
I have had a particularly soft spot for Antigua ever since I first visited in 1998. It is a very friendly island, and how can you go wrong with 365 beaches! The history around Antigua is particularly interesting, and the included tour on board Viking was perfect to start to learn about the history.
On the tour you are taken to one of the most photographed places in the world, Shirley Heights followed by Nelson’s Dockyard in English Harbour. This is a national park and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Learn about the history of the island, the constant wars between various European countries vying to conquer the islands, as well as the important role that Nelson’s Dockyard played in refitting ships. It’s a truly stunning place with a unique colonial charm about it. Today this area is also well-known for being a world-class yachting centre and depending on when you visit expect to see some out-of-this-world ships in the port.
Interestingly, we did this tour in the afternoon. I’ve never really done many excursions in the afternoon and it was very enjoyable, particularly as it seemed less busy than it would otherwise be in the morning.
Finally. If you’re looking for a souvenir, Antigua does a particularly nice lesser-known rum. I recommend English Harbour rum, made around the UNESCO site.
St Maarten is one of my favourite islands in the Caribbean. Of all the islands I visited the devastation from Irma is the most visible, with parts of the port still very damaged. You can see where containers have literally been thrown across the bay and ripped open like tin cans. Despite the damage the island is getting back on its feet with most shops and bars around Phillipsburg open for business and welcoming guests. Other parts of the island will take longer to recover, but this is why it is important that tourism can assist the economy.
We took the included tour in St Maarten, which was a scenic tour of St Maarten. Despite having visited a number of times, I’ve never really see the french side of the island and its Capital, Marigot. This tour was an excellent way to see the various towns and villages. We stopped off at the pretty French side before heading back to Phillipsburg, including a stop at the renowned Carousel Bar and Gelato on the way. This is a strange but enjoyable experience. As the name suggests there is an old-fashioned venetian carousel, which was imported from Italy, as well as a lovely ice cream parlour that serves a range of fun and interesting flavours – I went for rum of course!
The lovely and talented Karen, from Lavender and Lovage , went on an optional excursion, ‘French Cuisine at Grand Case’, and told me about her experience:
“A cooking class with a view; I had a wonderful optional excursion on St Martin, where I travelled to Marigot, the capital of French side of the Island, here, a small party of food aficionados from Viking Sea were instructed by a former Michelin star-trained chef from Paris to create a Franco-Caribbean style fusion meal. The cookery class was at the top of a shopping complex in a lovely little restaurant, which has stunning views over the marina and the harbour. The starter was Tomato, Mango and Shrimp Tartare with a Balsamic Vinegar Reduction and our main was a delectable Goat’s Cheese Pastry Parcel with a Three Nut Nougatine, served with fresh salad. After we cooked and prepped these recipes, we then sat down to enjoy the fruits of our labours with a cheeky glass of French wine! It was a totally enjoyable cooking class, with the chance to see both sides of St Martin”
If you are looking for other ideas, I do recommend experiencing Maho Beach. This is the famous beach where planes take off and land close to the beach and is a big attraction on the island. See my video below on a previous visit
My other recommendation for the island is trying (and buying) and bottle of Guavaberry Rum. This local rum is infused with local guavaberrys and there’s nothing quite like it. I always pick up a bottle when I visit.
St Thomas was next on our island adventure and is another beautiful place to visit. I was unable to go on the included tour of the island, but it is one I thoroughly recommend for the views and vistas.
Jamie from Explore with Ed, went on the included tour, ‘Scenic Island Tour and Mountain Top’:
“The viewpoints in St. Thomas were incredible, green rolling hills give way to sandy beaches and a turquoise sea. The excursion took us high up to the mountain top, home to a Banana Daiquiri bar and shop with a balcony overlooking the other Virgin Islands. “
Our group opted to go on an optional excursion kayaking through the mangroves of Cas Cay-Mangrove Lagoon Marine Reserve & Wildlife Sanctuary. After a short ride from the port we joined our kayaked and went through the mangroves learning about their important role, including for hurricane protection. Islanders will use the mangroves to protect boats during storms. Jamie goes on to say: “The optional excursion to Cas Cay was a memorable experience where we kayaked to the sanctuary, pulling our boats onto the beach covered in hermit crabs! Here we explored the remote island, finding a natural blow hole before seeking out starfish and other sea life in the shallows. Even if you’ve not tried kayaking before, this guided tour will spark your sense of adventure, just like the European explorers who once discovered these islands centuries ago.”
San Juan, Puerto Rico was the last stop on our adventure through the West Indies. San Juan has its own colonial charm and a vibrant and authentic culture. Six months ago I watched as the island was hit by Irma, but fast-forward to 2018 and the island is rebuilding, with cruise and tourist traffic getting back on its feet.
We stayed overnight in San Juan, which gave us plenty of time to explore. It is definitely a walking city, and if you are able I recommend hopping off the ship and wandering the delightful streets. As you wander you cannot help but gaze up at the fantastic colonial architecture. There is something totally different around each street corner.
Just a short walk from the port is the historic sites, including the famous Castillo Sn Felipe del Morro fort overlooking the entrance to the port. The place was buzzing with activity, including the San Juan Kite Festival. While we did the tour ourselves, a walking tour around the Old Town is an included excursion with Viking and I thoroughly recommend doing it.
As you walk about you’ll notice a lot of street art and murals across the city, which just works to create even more atmosphere. Of all this my favourite has to be La Puerto de la Bandera, found on an abandoned building.
I’ve been to San Juan a few times and personally overnights here are my favourite. The streets and alley’s come alive with music and life. There are a lot of really good food places to Indulge in, and it’s a crime not to have some of the best mojitos anywhere in the world. Put simply, this is a city for all your senses.
The Viking Experience
As I outlined in my first blog post [LINK], I’m a total Viking convert, and I have no doubt that I’ll be booking a cruise with them when I get a chance. I sailed on a Viking Ocean Cruise West Indies Explorer itinerary. This departs from San Juan, Puerto Rico for 11 days, visiting 9 countries across the Caribbean. It costs £2490 including flights and on-board gratuities.
For more details visit here to learn more about Viking Cruises.