Warning: This is a rather lengthy article. If you’re going to brave it, get a big drink and kick back in a comfortable chair.
Trip dates: February 6 – 15, 2014
Thursday Feb 6, 2014 – The Trip Begins
We got ourselves ready and took Supershuttle to the Austin airport to catch our flight to JFK. The shuttle van picked us up in front of our apartment at 4:05 AM. They were about 10 minutes later than they said they would be. We were also supposed to be the last stop but we were actually the first stop so we had to sit through picking up two more people and got to the airport ½ hour later than we were supposed to but we still had enough time.
Our flight on JetBlue departed Austin at 6:07 AM, touching down in JFK at 9:39 AM, about 40 minutes earlier than scheduled. We then had about a 2-hour layover until our next flight, also on JetBlue, which took off at 12:06 to get us to Santo Domingo at 4:13 PM, about a 4-hour flight. All the announcements on the JFK to Santo Domingo flight were in Spanish first, then English, which gives you an indication of the number of Spanish speaking passengers.
When arriving in the Dominican Republic, you are required to pay a $10 fee per person for a tourist card, which is like an entry Visa. We ended up having to pay this entry fee twice, but more on that later.
When we arrived, Santo Domingo was sunny and about 77 degrees, a nice change from the cold weather we were having in Austin when we left.
We had pre-booked an airport transfer, via taxi, with our hotel so, after getting a little money exchanged for pesos in the airport, we met the driver and we were on our way. The airport was about 17 miles (27 km) from our hotel, about a 25-minute ride. Our driver was a friendly guy who spoke perfect English named Jesús. If you’re ever going to Santo Domingo and need a ride somewhere, give him a call. He is also available to drive you around to see the sights for $10 per hour. That’s a darn good rate for a personal driver and if we had more time before our cruise we would have hired him for a tour around the area. The ride from the airport to our hotel was $32 total for the two of us including tip and he didn’t mind being paid in American money.
The hotel we had booked was the Hotel Atarazana, a small but charming historical 6-room hotel near the Colonial Zone in Santo Domingo. It’s actually more of what I would call a bed and breakfast. We stayed here for two nights before our cruise to give us a chance to see some of the Santo Domingo sights. The rate for the hotel room included breakfast. Click here for my review of this hotel.
I took some pictures of the hotel and, since we were a bit tired from traveling, we decided to stay in for the rest of the night.
Friday Feb 7, 2014 – Sightseeing in Santo Domingo
We got up at around 7:00 AM, got dressed and ready for breakfast and a day of exploring the Zona Colonial in Santo Domingo.
We went downstairs and had a great breakfast and then back up to the room to gear up and go through the daily ritual of applying gobs of sunscreen. My wife and I are both fair-skinned and we burn easily so anytime we head for the Caribbean we have to do this every day before starting out for the day.
We headed out the door at about 9:00 AM and it was already sunny and hot. We decided to start with a walking tour we found in a Lonely Planet book the hotel had, although we deviated from the actual route several times over the day. For the first hour there weren’t many people on the streets but at about 10:00 AM tour buses filled with tourists and school children on field trips started rolling into the area.
When you walk around in Santo Domingo there are National Tour Guides all around that offer to walk you around and show you the sights on a personalized tour. We declined, choosing to make our own path.
As you walk down the main boulevard that runs east to west in the Zona Colonial, Calle El Conde Peatonal, there are people that ask you if you want to exchange money, street vendors that try to sell you their wares, and people that try to entice you to come into their stores. The boulevard is blocked off so cars can’t drive on the street; it’s just a place for walking. It’s lined with restaurants, stores, hotels, etc. and all kinds of vendors set up along the street hoping to make a few pesos from people passing by.
When we were there, the whole area had a lot of construction going on. The manager at our hotel said they were redoing all the streets. There was also construction (or maybe restoration) going on at some of the historical buildings that we passed. While walking around for the day, we noticed several dogs roaming around freely, and lots of people had small motorcycles for getting around the town. The Zona Colonial area seemed kind of dirty to me, lots of buildings in need of repair, and just about every window and door of every building had bars on it making you think that maybe it wasn’t too safe of an area. Supposedly it is safe, day or night, but the window bars definitely took away from the attractiveness.
We also found that you really don’t need pesos to get by in Santo Domingo; everyone either takes American money, or credit cards. Knowing some Spanish would definitely come in handy here though as most people spoke little to no English and at times we had a hard time communicating. My wife and I took Spanish a long time ago in high school and remember very little of it. It was gradually coming back to us a bit here and there in the two days we were there and I think if we spent some time in a Spanish-speaking place, we’d pick it up again in a while.
We walked all around, saw great things and took lots of pictures of the buildings, monuments, and the area and by 11:30 we arrived back at our hotel drenched in sweat from the heat and high humidity.
Shortly after we got back to our room, it started raining for about a half hour so we used the time to clean up a bit and then headed out for lunch when the rain stopped. We decided to try a buffet at the Atarazana Restaurante (no relation to our hotel which also has the word Atarazana in the name). The restaurant got decent reviews on Trip Advisor and was right around the corner from our hotel. It turned out to be a good choice. We wanted to try some Dominican Republic food while we were in the country and this restaurant served it buffet style so we could try a bunch of different things. The restaurant is apparently popular with tour groups because several came in for lunch while we were there.
The buffet was small but had enough variety so we could taste some local dishes such as chicken in a tasty sauce, pulled beef, rice, beans, soup, potatoes, rolls, salad, fruit, etc. and a sweet tasty dessert. I’m not quite sure what the dessert was but it was good. The meal included a drink and cost the two of us about $29 with tip. We were told that the restaurants in the Zona Colonial were expensive but the two we tried, we found to be about the same as we would pay at home. Maybe the prices are just expensive for the Dominican Republic.
While we were eating they also had a 3-man band and some costumed dancers to entertain the diners.
After lunch we walked around town a little more, taking lots of pictures of the sights, and at about 2:00 we decided it was getting too hot to continue so we headed back to the hotel again. We took a shower, did some laundry, and relaxed until dinner.
For dinner, we went to another restaurant within a short walking distance from the hotel called Mamajuana Cafe, which was recommended by two of the hotel guests we met while we were eating breakfast that morning. It turned out to be another good choice. The restaurant overlooks the Plaza España and we had a nice table outdoors.
We both started out with bowl of the pumpkin/lobster bisque that was delicious. For the main course, I had a spicy shrimp dish that came with a mixture of rice, lentils, onions, and sausage. My wife had a chicken/sausage dish that came with mashed yucca. Both were excellent.
After dinner it was dark so we headed back to the hotel.
Saturday Feb 8, 2014 – The Cruise Begins
We got up at about 7:00 AM, got dressed and packed things up. The hotel had an area up on the roof where you could sit and relax so we went up there to check out the view. We were able to see our cruise ship, the MSC Musica just pulling into the port across the river. We also heard a rooster out there somewhere announcing the new day to the city. Most Caribbean islands we’ve visited have chickens and roosters walking around. It’s a Caribbean thing I guess.
After eating breakfast we relaxed for the rest of the morning. We had the hotel arrange a taxi pickup for noon so a few minutes before that we grabbed up all our belongings and went downstairs to meet our ride. The hotel is less than a mile from the cruise port and, if it weren’t for our luggage and the fact that it was in the 80’s at the time and very humid, we would have just walked to the ship.
We couldn’t find anywhere that would tell us what time we could board the MSC ship and our past experiences with cruising told us that most ships usually allow new passengers to start boarding shortly after noon so that’s when we headed over to the port. Unfortunately MSC doesn’t allow you to board until between 3:00 to 4:00 PM for some reason so we had to sit and wait for almost four hours in the cruise terminal. We had planned on eating at the ship’s buffet for lunch as we normally do after embarking so, because of the late boarding time, we were out of luck for lunch that day. Luckily we had some protein bars in our packs. For a summary of our likes and dislikes on the MSC Musica click here.
They started checking us in at 3:20 and we were onboard at 3:30. When we checked in we found out that our travel agent had bought us a bottled water package that provided us with one liter of water per day (regular or sparkling). That was a nice surprise.
We went to our cabin, dropped off our stuff and headed up to get something to eat, hoping the lunch buffet was still open. It was already closed so we had some pizza, which is available most of the time.
After lunch we walked around the ship, took some pictures, and unpacked all our stuff in the room until the mandatory lifeboat drill at 6:30. Then we had dinner, a shower, and relaxed on our room’s balcony. This was the first time we had a room with a balcony so we sat out there quite a bit. We always book an interior room because we figure we’re not going to be in the room much except to sleep and shower, but this time the cruise line upgraded us to a room with a view.
Shortly after 10:00 we hit the sack and the ship left port at 11:00 PM bound for La Romana.
Sunday Feb 9, 2014 – La Romana, Dominican Republic
We rolled out of bed at 7:30 and we were already docked so we headed up to breakfast.
We couldn’t pre-book or even view excursions for La Romana through the MSC website for some reason. Unfortunately we decided to not book anything for this port, even though we could have gone to the excursion desk onboard the night before to find something. We instead opted to pay to take the shuttle into town to look around.
The shuttle into town cost us about $10 each and was good for the whole day, as many trips back and forth between the ship and town that you wanted, but it turned out to be a disappointment. The town turned out to be nothing more that a square with lots of street vendors selling souvenirs and locally made items, stuff we really don’t need. There was one church that all the tourists were photographing and that was about it. The town itself was dirty and rundown and didn’t appear too safe for us to wander too far from the center of the town. We only spent about ½ hour there before deciding to head back to the ship. The whole round trip to the town lasted only one hour. We had headed off the ship to go into town at 9:30 and we were back onboard at 10:30. We both were disappointed but agreed that it was still better than a day at work.
If we ever go back to La Romana we want to take an excursion to the Village of Altos De Chavón, which is supposed to be a recreation of a medieval village. We discovered this excursion while perusing the tour magazine provided at the Shore Excursion desk. That probably would have been a much better choice for our time.
After lunch we were going to sit out on the balcony some more but the sun was beating down on that side of the ship and it was just too hot so we walked around the ship for awhile, and hit the food line for some afternoon snacks. The ship left port at 4:00 PM headed for Antigua.
Before dinner we took our showers and shot some pictures of the sunset. After dinner we headed up to the nightly show in the theater, which began at 8:00. The show had a Samurai theme to it and was very good.
For some reason the ship was shaking and vibrating the whole route to Antigua, which made getting to sleep difficult, but we managed. Engine vibration I guess.
Monday Feb 10, 2014 – St. John, Antigua
We got up at 7:00 AM and had breakfast. We weren’t scheduled to arrive in Antigua until 2:00 PM but we had to make an emergency stop outside of St. Kitts on the way to drop off a passenger with a medical emergency. Luckily we didn’t need to go all the way into the port to drop them off; the pilot boat met us out in the open waters to pick up the passenger. This was the second time a pilot boat saved us some time for a passenger’s medical emergency onboard one of our cruises. The stop delayed us by an hour but we still arrived in Antigua early at 1:45.
At 2:45, we took the 3-hour “Main Sights of Antigua” excursion offered by MSC, which took us on a bus ride around the island with a few stops in the south part of the island. The stops included a couple scenic overlooks, and a 45-minute stop at Nelson’s Dockyard.
The two scenic overlooks we stopped at were English Harbour, a wealthy section of the island with lots of nice houses, and Shirley Heights, where we could see Eric Clapton’s large house off in the distance on the coast. It looked more like a fortress overlooking the sea (see picture to the left). It must be nice to have that kind of money.
We were back onboard at 6:00 PM. We had dinner, went to the nightly show in the theater, which was an interesting take on Sherlock Holmes. Then we took a shower, did some laundry, and went to bed at 9:45. You’re probably wondering why we go to bed so early every night on our cruise. My wife and I are not night owls. We prefer going to bed relatively early and getting up early; that’s just our style.
The stop in Antigua was a short one (only 6 hours) due to the fact that the next port, Martinique, was 424 nautical miles away. At the ship’s normal traveling speed that would take about 20 hours.
Tuesday Feb 11, 2014 – Fort-De-France, Martinique
When we woke up at 6:30, we were already coming into port. We weren’t scheduled to dock until 9:00 AM so we got some extra time in Martinique. That’s one of the things we found with this cruise. We often arrived into port early.
I have to say Fort-De-France is not an attractive port. It has a lot of industrial unsightliness on all sides, parking lots, and rows of rundown houses. Luckily the port city is not representative of what the rest of the island looks like. With 400,000 people, Martinique is one of the most populated islands in the Caribbean. That’s a lot of people for the size of the island.
We hadn’t pre-booked an excursion for Martinique before our cruise but once we got onboard the ship we browsed through their excursion list and found one that looked interesting. We attempted to book the “Saint Pierre Panoramic” excursion but there weren’t enough people interested so we ended up going with the “Folkloric Martinique & Rum Distillery Tour” instead. The tour guide spoke in French first, and then English. Martinique is a territory of France so that may be why.
The first stop on the tour took us to the Cathedral at Belata. Then we drove through the island’s rainforest along steep winding roads while the tour guide pointed out various tropical plants including bananas, papaya, nutmeg trees, bread fruit trees, cinnamon, plantains, cocoa, sugar cane, bamboo, mahogany, and some flowers such as anthurium, heliconia, and birds of paradise. The island is very lush with beautiful mountains, which were unfortunately covered in clouds while we were there.
Then we arrived at the Rhum Depaz rum distillery for a tour and free samples. The rum tour wasn’t overly exciting. We had been on a rum distillery tour before on another island. The rum samples were good though, especially the coconut punch. They had all kinds of flavors of fruit and chocolate rums.
After that we headed to the town of St. Pierre to see the ruins of when the town was destroyed by a volcano eruption in 1902. The eruption killed 30,000 people in 3 minutes. Only 1 person survived, a prisoner in the jail. The ruins are scattered throughout the town among the modern buildings. Overall, the tour was pretty good but I wish we had more time to take pictures in St. Pierre. That’s one problem with taking organized tours, not enough time in most locations.
While driving around in the tour bus in Martinique we witnessed the many uses for a horn as a form of communication.
We were back on the ship at 2:30, had lunch, and then went back to our room for a bit to clean up. At 3:30 we decided to head back out into the town to walk around for a while and take some pictures. We walked down to see if we could get into Fort Saint-Louis but apparently it’s part of their military base and not open to the public.
At 4:45 we were back onboard again, took a shower, did some laundry, and then had dinner. We checked out the nightly show in the theatre, a tribute to Frank Sinatra.
We were kind of tired and we had to get up early for tomorrow’s excursion so we went to bed at 9:00.
Wednesday Feb 12, 2014 – Pointe-A-Pitre, Guadeloupe
Today was our stop in Guadeloupe and we got up at 5:45, had breakfast and took some pictures as we were coming into the port of Pointe-A-Pitre. At 7:30 we went back to the room to get ready for our excursion and we were on the tour bus shortly after 8:30.
We took the 4-hour “Panoramic Tour to the Pointe des Châteaux” excursion offered by MSC. Unfortunately due to the high number of French and Italian speaking passengers on the ship, the excursion was only offered in those two languages. We decided to take the tour in French anyway and it turned out fine.
The tour took us around the island first stopping at St. Anne, a small village with a seashore, where we took some pictures, and a building with some vendors. That was about it for that town.
Then we headed on to Pointe Des Châteaux, a very picturesque coastal area with rocks, cliffs, and a giant cross atop a high peak. We spent about an hour here taking pictures and it was the highlight of the tour.
On the way back we stopped briefly in the town of Morne-à-L’Eau at a cemetery where all of the graves are above ground and are black and white in color. We didn’t get off the bus for this stop but viewed the cemetery from within the stopped bus.
We were back onboard the ship shortly after 1:00, had lunch, took a shower, did some laundry, and relaxed until dinner. Then the night show, which was a combination of dancing and some impressive acrobatics. Then we went off to bed at 9:15.
While in this port, we saw a cruise line we had never seen before, Aida from Germany.
Thursday Feb 13, 2014 – Philipsburg, St. Maarten
We got up at 6:00 and took some pictures as we were docking in St. Maarten. We had completed the docking by about 6:45 so we headed off to breakfast. We had gotten up so early because we thought our excursion met at 8:00 but when we got down to the meeting place in the theater they told us it didn’t meet until 11:00. Swell! Since our excursion wasn’t scheduled to meet for another three hours, we got a few things done and relaxed for the remainder of the morning.
We had been to St. Maarten before and had done an island tour so this time we opted for the “Underwater World and Magnificent Views” excursion offered by MSC. The excursion was 3.5-hours and we both enjoyed the unique experience. We took a tour van out to the north side of the island to the town of Grand Case. That’s on the French side of the island, St. Martin.
If you’re not familiar with the island of St. Maarten, it is divided in half, the south side of the island, where all the cruise ships dock, a bunch of casinos, and the airport is located, is Dutch. The capital of the Dutch side is Philipsburg. The north side of the island, called St. Martin, is French, and its capital is Marigot.
In Grand Case, we boarded the Seaworld Explorer XIII, a tour boat with a unique design. From above, it looks just like any tour boat with seats and a place for the captain to drive the boat. But below, accessed through a hatch in the back, is a hollow bow with windows on both sides running the whole length of the boat. This allows people to see the bottom of the ocean and that’s what this tour was all about. We saw many kinds of tropical fish, turtles, stingrays, starfish, sea dollars, coral, and other sea life.
After the boat trip, we headed to the town of Marigot and, since we had already been here once before and it was lunchtime, we decided to just get something to eat. We tried Rosemary’s Seafood Creole Cuisine, a small outdoor restaurant with delicious food. I got the Dominica Tangy Creole Shrimp, which came with rice and beans, a plantain, some potato, and coleslaw. My wife got the Trinidadian Style Creole Chicken, which was also yummy. We shared with each other so we could try two dishes each.
After lunch we headed back to the ship, with a stop at a viewpoint first for a few pictures, and we were back onboard at about 2:45. A shower, some laundry, some relaxing, then dinner brought us to show time again at 8:00. This time the show was a unique take on 007 From Russia With Love, another excellent performance. Then we hit the sack at 9:30.
Since St. Maarten is such a popular port and probably the majority of Caribbean cruise itineraries stop here, we were one of five cruise ships docked that day. One was another cruise line we had never seen before, Thomson Dream from the UK.
Friday Feb 14, 2014 – Road Town, Tortola, British Virgin Islands
For our last full day on the cruise we got up at 6:30 and we were approaching the port in Tortola. We were docked by 7:00, an hour earlier than scheduled. We had breakfast, took some pictures, and met for our excursion at 9:15.
We took the 3-hour “Island Secrets” excursion offered by MSC, which took us on a tour around the island. We found Tortola to be a nice island, clean, well maintained, lots of mountains and scenic views, and almost no rundown houses that we saw. We did see chickens, sheep, and cows wandering around freely. We both agreed it was one of our top picks for island that we’ve visited in the Caribbean.
By 1:00 we were back onboard the ship and ate some lunch.
The rest of the afternoon we relaxed on our balcony, took a shower, had dinner, and then took in the show in the theater at 8:00. Tonight was a tribute to Italian music.
We then went to bed just before 9:30.
While in this port, we saw another cruise line we had never seen before, Croiseres De France.
Saturday Feb 15, 2014 – The Cruise (and trip) Ends
We got up at 6:30, packed, and went up for our last breakfast for the cruise. We docked in Santo Domingo at around 7:30. My wife had to go down to the reception desk to straighten out a mix up on our account balance. MSC had told us that it would be fixed the night before, but it wasn’t, and we had to scramble to get it resolved in the short time we had before disembarking.
Our trip home was less than enjoyable for many reasons.
After disembarking the cruise ship at 8:45 AM, we had a pre-booked airport transfer through MSC. That turned out to be a serious screw up. MSC didn’t give us any kind of transfer ticket so we were told to just disembark and the shuttle would be waiting for us. Not quite! When we got on shore, we went through immigration and customs and looked everywhere for our shuttle. We asked several MSC employees and they had no idea what we were talking about and kept asking us for our transfer ticket. We finally found a guy who had a clue and he took us out to pick up our shuttle. The problem now was that the shuttle driver had no record of us on his passenger list. We finally got it all straightened out after awhile. We should have just taken a taxi to the airport. It would have been cheaper and without all the problems.
But backtracking a bit, when going through the immigration line, you have to pay the entry Visa fee of $10 per person, unless you have a copy of your boarding ticket for that day showing that you are on your way to the airport. Since we entered the Dominican Republic a week prior to this (and paid the $10 fee each) we thought we could show them our receipt from the first time we paid and wouldn’t have to pay again. But no, we had to pay again because we had no way to print out our boarding passes to show them before we got to the airport. The date on our Visa fee receipt from the first time was Feb 6 and today was Feb 15 so they made us pay the fee twice. Swell! By the way, the Dominican Republic makes you pay an exit fee of $20 per person whenever you leave the country and we had to pay that too when we got on the ship. Is this country freakin’ greedy or what?
We got to the airport at 10:00 and had just under a 3-hour wait until our flight. Our JetBlue flight left for home at 12:50 PM, about a 2.5-hour flight, landing at 2:20. We then originally had a 1.5-hour stopover in Fort Lauderdale but our JetBlue plane was delayed several hours and we didn’t end up leaving until 6:26. We ended up arriving back in Austin just after 8:00 PM. But the fun wasn’t over yet. We headed down to pick up our SuperShuttle ride home and the guy said it would be an hour wait because all the shuttles were out. Swell! Our shuttle finally picked us up at 9:12 PM and, wouldn’t you know it, we were the last of three stops. We ended up getting home just after 10:00 PM, quite tired, and dropped our stuff, and went to bed.
Overall the trip was good. We weren’t too impressed overall with MSC for several reasons and we’re not sure if we’ll sail with them again. I will be writing an article about all that in the coming weeks. The weather was quite decent, warm/hot and sunny every day except for a couple brief periods of rain while we were in Santo Domingo, Martinique, and Guadeloupe.
If you’re a regular reader of this website, you’ll remember that we posted a pre-cruise article that said we were going to try new luggage for this trip. We tried using one large backpack instead of our usual combination of a wheeled carry on with a small backpack. I haven’t made up my mind on whether this is a better option for me. My wife seemed to make out fine with her backpack. I found my Osprey Farpoint’s zip off daypack to be a little too small to hold everything I needed on the plane, and the main pack a little too large to carry the rest of the stuff. The main pack is 40 liters and the daypack is 15 liters. I think a 35/20 or even a 30/25 combination would have been better for me. For our next trip, Iceland in August, I think I’m going to go back to my old configuration and see if that works better.
I also need to look into getting some kind of small laptop computer (probably a MacBook Air) to bring with me on my trips so I can get some of my work done in the down times. For this trip I just took notes along the way and now I have the dreaded task of compiling all those notes into articles for this website now that we’re back from our trip. I also have over 1600 pictures to process. If I can work on this every day or two while traveling, it would break up the workload.