A Taste Of Europe While Cruising The Caribbean

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Ken Brooks photo

The shore excursions offered by cruise lines are always optional, but provide a great way to get acquainted with different cultures and foreign settings.

Just a few days ago I returned from an 11-day Caribbean cruise on a ship and cruise line that for many is not well known in America. The cruise line is MSC Cruises and the ship we traveled on was the “Lirica.” The Mediterranean Shipping Company (MSC) is the second largest cargo shipper in the world with a fleet of more than 350 ships. The company presently has 11 cruise ships with two new vessels coming into service soon. The company is Italian owned and all of their cruise ships were christened by film star Sophia Loren who serves as godmother since 2003. The “Lirica” came into service in 2003 and is 59,000 gross tons, 824 feet in length and accommodates 1,550 passengers. MSC cruises have positioned two ships this season to operate in the Caribbean from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. The MSC Orchestra does seven-day cruises and is a running mate with the MSC Lirica in the American market, which is doing 11-day cruises. The ships will return to Europe late this spring to resume Mediterranean cruising.

What makes this company different from many now cruising from North America? MSC cruises is very well known in Europe and many Europeans wanting to experience a Caribbean cruise fly to Florida to enjoy the comforts and very high service standards of the line. Languages heard on board were English, German, Italian, Spanish and French, with a sprinkling of a few others. The food served on board is European for the most part and you can enjoy real Italian recipes. There was pasta, pizza and the best quality of meats I have tasted on any cruise line to date, plus the desserts were the best. The dining rooms were tastefully decorated with padded walls to help deaden the sound around generous-sized windows and offered the most four-person tables I have yet seen in a cruise ship that was not in the high end market. The dining service was friendly, professional and abundant. The service crew was mostly Indonesian from the Island of Bali and the officers and management were Italian. I used room service each morning for wake up beverages as well as for lunch when we returned late from a shore excursion and the dining rooms had closed. Again, this complimentary service was fast and efficient.

As with most cruise ships, passengers are assigned a table and sitting time for dinner, but the breakfasts and lunches can be taken in the buffet cafeteria, outside around the swimming pools or in the dining rooms.

The interior décor is sophisticated, much as you would find in a five-star hotel anywhere in the world. All spaces were in harmony. The main theatre is just that, a theatre! There is no bench seating, no bar service and the seats are all upscale theatre seats found in the best concert halls around the world. The sound is excellent, clear and not loud as I have experienced in other cruise line theatres. The line of sight is also the best I have yet found on a cruise ship. The nightly entertainment consists of programs that do not generally require a lot of spoken word because of the various languages used by the passengers. One night offered the best magic show I have ever seen anywhere with a cast of several. There were three nights of classical music and other nights with varied shows which were of the highest quality and all in good taste.

Children 17 and under traveled free on an early booking basis. On our cruise there must have been at least 50 young people and all behaved well. MSC Cruises provide children’s programs in a special room located off the spa and gym area for children aged 3-8 and juniors, 9-13. The space is called The Pirates Club. All activities are well supervised and the kids seemed to be having a ball.

The cabins are light and bright and well laid out with soothing colors in the décor. The suites with balconies are generous in size and again, well furnished.

Where did we go? The Caribbean offers so much, especially in the spring and fall with temperatures in the low 80s. The cruise lines usually divide what they call the eastern or western part of the Caribbean for itineraries. I personally prefer the eastern Caribbean finding the islands more interesting and lush. Our first port of call was San Juan, Puerto Rico. About a 1,000 miles from Florida, this island, a U.S. possession since 1917, is one of the larger in the area. The sunny beaches give way to upland tropical rainforests. We took an excursion which took us around the city of San Juan, the largest in the Caribbean, then up over 3,000 feet to the El Yunqaue rainforest to view the varied tropical plants, trees and flowers found here. It is extensive and lush. We also viewed beautiful Luquillo beach with its spectacular palm trees in a protected lagoon. On our return to San Juan we drove through the upscale Condado beach area with its high-rise hotels and apartment homes. In the afternoon we walked around old San Juan where the ship was docked, to shop and purchase some gifts for the grandkids.

Our next port was in St Maarten. This island is divided into two national governments, Holland and France. One can move freely between the two regions. Here, we hired a van and driver to take us around the island. The capital of St. Maarten is Phillipsburg, the capital of St. Martin is Marigot. The boundaries are marked with signs that say Welcome — that’s it. Both parts of the island are heavily dependent upon tourism with wonderful beaches and hotels. There are also many private yachts berthed and anchored around the many bays.

On our round the island tour I also saw a clothing optional beach area where the clothed would stare at the unclothed.

Next, it was on to St. Lucia docking at Port Castries. I had never been here, so was anxious to see the sights of this lush and tropical island. Here, there are high volcanic peaks known as the Pitons. There are near black volcanic beaches, lush rainforests, rivers, tumbling waterfalls and bays and coves. St. Lucia is quickly growing in population as the world discovers the almost perfect beauty of the island.

Then, sailing on we stopped in Antiqua, part of the British Leeward island group. Here is a dryer island with a wide variety of things to see and do. St. John’s is the capital and one of the oldest trading ports in the Caribbean, dating back to the late 17th century. We visited the old courthouse, the museum of marine and living art, as well as Nelson’s dockyard, Fort George and Shirley Heights. The highest point is only a little over 1,300 feet, but the beaches offer varied entertainment in the form of catamaran sailing and snorkeling, and opportunity to swim with stingrays, go fishing, etc. It’s all here in Antiqua.

One of my favorite islands in the Caribbean is Tortola in the British Virgin Island group. We spent a day here and took time to swim at Cane Garden Bay, one of the best beaches in the area. The last time I had been here was 20 years ago and it had hardly changed. It was still peaceful and uncrowded.

The main town is Roadtown which had grown substantially in the last few years, but is still interesting and filled with good shopping opportunities.

Our last stop was in the Dominican Republic at Cayo Levantado. This is a small island with one of the best beaches available in the Caribbean and close to Samana. Here, there is horseback riding, swimming, snorkeling, diving and sailing. We spent the time in a comfortable lounge chair to enjoy the beautiful beach and surroundings. It was a great way to cap off a wonderful cruise.

At sea, the Lirica provided many activities to enjoy such as arts and crafts, shuffle board, quizzes, dancing, fashion shows, soft aerobics and time to just relax around the various decks and two large swimming pools. I took time to read a good whodunit.

Try cruising on your next vacation and if you would like to try a real European cruising experience, I suggest MSC Cruises. The company gives you the Caribbean in the winter, fall and spring and Mediterranean in the summer. Visit your travel professional for information and brochures. You can’t miss.

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