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Postcard: From Miami Airport

Up at 3am. It was a chilly morning at Detroit Metro. Despite the early start, we arrived at the departure gate after the plane was already boarding. But we managed to grab coffee and sandwiches from the Earl of Sandwich. By 6:37 we were rolling down the runway.

It was a smooth flight into Miami, and we landed by 9:27. Here it is 84 degrees, but overcast.

11am. Our connecting flight to San Juan leaves at 1:30, so we are eating at La Carreta, a Cuban restaurant recommended by a flight attendant. We share a Cuban sandwich. I have a bowl of chicken noodle soup and my wife has a pork and corn tamale. The soup has huge chunks of potatoes and carrots. Everything is delicious, including the Cafe Cuban–a demi cup of high octane caffeine.
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Travel Gear: One Day to Go

Our travels begin tomorrow. Below is an inventory of our travel gear. We encourage other travelers to comment below on what they think are important items in their travel gear inventory.

iPhone

When it comes to travel outside the United States, the iPhone is not very practical. Telephone calls and messaging are just too expensive when you use cellular service. The only monetarily sound approach is to turn off cellular data and use WiFi (when it is available). Here are a number of iPhone apps that we will be using when possible:

  1. Data Monitor app: This is a free app that monitors data usage and WiFi usage.
  2. WordPress app: The free app provided by WordPress to post and check on our blog. We plan on sending as many real time “postcards” (small reports with pictures taken on our iPhone) as we travel. When we return, we will make more substantive posts to document our experiences.
  3. Twitter app: The free app provided by Twitter to post and check on our Twitter account.
  4. Hurricane Tracker app: An app that provides information on weather developments in both the Atlantic and the Pacific.

Cameras

In order to cut down on baggage, we won’t be taking our camcorder with us. But we will be taking two other cameras—both of which have video capabilities. They both fit into a single camera bag.

  1. Fuji Finepix 1000: We don’t like the video quality on this camera, but it is excellent for taking photographs. And for a point and shoot camera, it has many useful settings.
  2. Nikon Coolpix S31: The quality of pictures on this little camera seems to depend upon how much light is available. It has built in ability to create time-lapse video, though not as much as a SLR camera does.  It will automatically snap a picture every 30 seconds, every minute, or every five minutes. The video is HD 720p and the camera can be taken underwater up to about 10 feet. One drawback is that it is so small that it is easy to block the microphone with your finger. We plan on using this to video and take pictures while snorkeling.
  3. Photolapse: This free program will remain on our home computer, but it has the ability to stitch together the jpgs taken with time-lapse and create an avi movie. It is simple, but very efficient and very easy to use.
  4. St-6 Floating Foam Strap: This is to use with our Nikon while snorkeling. We don’t have any desire to have to dive down to the ocean floor to retrieve the camera if it slips off our hand.
  5. Zeiss Lens Cleaning Wipes: There’s nothing worse than having a great piece of video marred by smudges on your camera lens.
  6. Two Tripods: One is 49 inches and the other is a mini tripod. Both break down and fit into a small carry bag.

A 7 inch Android Tablet

This tablet also depends upon WiFi, but it has more ability to interact with the internet than the iPhone. And like most tablets, it has the ability to take pictures and video.

Belkin Mini Surge Protector with USB Charger

Outlets are very limited on board ship. Not only does this surge protector give us two extra outlets, but it also provides two USB outlets.

Snorkel Equipment

This is a potpourri of masks, snorkels and snorkeling vests, along with a Pelican snorkelbox for taking our valuables with us into the water. We aren’t taking fins, though. Too bulky.

Gear We Decided not to Bring

We decided against using the iPhone app called TripCase. This program was supposed to outline our travels as well as give us weather updates, but it didn’t work well with a cruise.  So we simply are relying on a paper outline made using a Trip Outlinetable created in InDesign. Weather reports we can get from the ship as well as the standard weather app on the iPhone and from the Hurricane Tracker app.

Final Note

Just this morning, our Hurricane Tracker app sent us a message about a new tropical storm coming to life Erinoff the coast of Africa. Its name is Erin, and it is the fifth tropical storm of the season. Currently, it has 40 mile per winds and is moving west-northwest at 15 miles per hour.

Anticipation: Puerto Rico

2329599717_d3c496f0a5_oIn five days, we will be in the air above San Juan, Puerto Rico flying east. As we begin our descent, we will turn south, skimming across the Puerto Rican countryside, to land at San Juan Luis Munoz Marin International Airport (SJU). This will be our first time flying to Puerto Rico—but not our first visit to San Juan.Radiance

In March of 2008, we also visited Old San Juan. That time we came into San Juan harbor on the Radiance of the Seas, steaming slowly past the imposing walls and turrets of El Morro, a world Heritage Site. We tied up at the dock near the entrance to the city and spent most of the day exploring the old city with its cobbled streets and brightly colored Spanish Colonial buildings—often decorated with baroque style, wrought iron balconies splashed with brightly colored flowers, vines and ferns.

Paseo de la Princesa and Paseo del Morro

2330422548_043ac325e6_o2330422690_107bbd1cac_oThe day began by following the walkway, known as Paseo de la Princesa, adjacent to the ancient city wall, La Muralla. The walkway takes you past the old jail, La Princesa, which today houses art exhibits and—very importantly—public restrooms (the knowledge of which can be especially appreciated if you’ve ever visited someplace like New York City). We were particularly impressed by some of the carvings (see some examples just above).

RacineAt the very end of this Paseo was Raices Fountain. Raices is the Spanish word for roots, and the statues there represent the diversity of the Puerto Rican people.

From there we turned towards the fort and followed the Paseo del Morro. Approaching the gate to the old city, we heard music and crowd noise. Passing through the archway of the gate, we began a climb up the tree lined street.

A Strike, a Cathedral, and La Bombonera

2330421938_cc6443dd45_oAt the top of the hill, we could see huge lines of people swaying down the Calle del Cristo near the steps of the Cathedral of San Juan Bautista. It was tough at first to make it through the crowd, but eventually we made it to the steps of the Cathedral.

This was one cheerful crowd. There was music, dancing and drums. They were moving with the joyful rhythm of island life. We eventually discovered that this was a teachers’ strike–but this was a labor strike like we had never seen in the United States. No one seemed angry. There was no apparent violence. It was a party.

Strike 2329595835_a5d7f48f63_oStrike 2

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Inside the church, a plaque gave the date of 1511. Off to the side of the pews was the tomb of the seeker of the fountain of youth, Ponce de Leon–pretty good proof that he never found it. There was lovely stained glass, religiously dramatic statuary and an altar to the Blessed Virgin of Providence.

People, religion, and finally, food. From the Cathedral we walked to one of the iconic little pastry shops in Puerto Rico, La Bombanero, located on Calle San Francisco. Unfortunately, this 100 year old restaurant is currently closed, but for us we had the pleasure of sampling their pastry, mallorcas and their great coffee.

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El Morro

2329596717_1636bf2b30_oPerhaps the most dramatic part of Old San Juan is El Morro. The construction for this fort began in 1539; its primary function was to protect San Juan from invasions. At one time, it, and the adjacent San Cristobal Fort, had 450 cannons lining their ramparts. El Morro was considered impenetrable; its walls are 45 feet thick in spots. It is the first thing you see when you approach San Juan from the sea.

FortFor us, it was a fairly long walk to the fort itself. But it was worth it for the history and for the views of the sea breaking against the rocky shoreline. Nearby the Fort is San Juan Cemetery with its beautiful statuary and columns.

Anticipation

2330416998_d2a62d113c_oFor our newest adventure we will not be staying in the Old San Juan area. Instead, we will staying in the newer, chic Condado neighborhood.

We will definitely be sampling the Puerto Rican cuisine again and perhaps the beach in Condado Bay–for sure the roof top pool at the hotel we are staying at. After a night’s stay, we will hop a cab for the Pan American cruise port.

The first time we were there, Puerto Rico struck us with its unanticipated beauty and sensuality. We’re hoping for a repeat.

Under the Deep Blue Sea

We have twelve days until we hop a plane to Miami and from there, a flight to Puerto Rico. We have most of our packing done; we have fine tuned the speadsheet of our costs; we have rechecked our list of things to do. Now we huddle together at night around a computer, our electronic campfire, the light of the screen glowing on our faces.

Diving off the island of St. Thomas

Us diving off the island of St. Thomas

We each have a glass of Merlot. We watch Youtube videos of our destinations and of our ship, even some of our old voyages. And as overly romantic as it may sound, our nightly dreams skim along the Caribbean Sea and, if we are brave, dip us into its depths. We can imagine ourselves, arms crossed against our chest, bubbles rising to the surface, falling into pre-historic names, into zones of ocean: the epipelagic zone, the zone of sunlight; the mesopelagic zone, the twilight zone, the zone of faint light; the bathypelagic zone, the midnight zone; the abyssopelagic zone, the abyss; and finally, the hadalpelagic zone, the zone of the trenches, the forbidden zone. Just south of Cuba, there is an ocean trench nearly five miles deep.

The Jewel's Godmother, Kathy Mellor

The Jewel’s Godmother, Kathy Mellor

But we will travel on a floating resort, the 90 thousand ton Jewel of the Seas. Built in 2004, it is the last of the Radiance class of ships. It is 962 feet long (over three football fields), has thirteen decks, can move at over 28 miles per hour and was built in Papenburg, Germany at the Meyer Werft shipyards and then was floated down the Eems river to Eemshaven, Netherlands for sea trials. Meyer Werft describes the Radiance class as one with “a very slim, yacht like design with extensive use of glass.” It was christened in Southampton, England on May 7, 2004 by Kathy Mellor, the American National Teacher of the Year 2004.

This floating resort has seven restaurants, numerous bars (including a sports bar and a champagne bar), room service, laundry service, a rock climbing wall, miniature golf, a golf simulator, three pools, three hot tubs,wireless service, a cinema, a theater (with live Vegas style shows), and a casino—among other things. It holds 2,500 guests who are served by 859 crew members.

Under or above the deep blue sea, we count the days and have another glass of Merlot.

Deep blue sea

(Below are two videos, one from Radio–see the link on the right–and one from an earlier cruise of ours in 2007)

Getting the Best Deal You Can on the Price of a Cruise

If you are stinking rich, don’t have a care in the world, own a Rolls Royce and several million dollar homes in the islands, don’t read this. This blog post is396591_395979850450004_728860096_n about how to purchase a cruise when your income is limited, when you have to live within a budget. In other words, when you live just like us.

Time and money are the two things that keep people from booking a cruise. But it certainly doesn’t keep people—as they sit in their cubicles at work or stand at a machine in some factory or sit in their office at some school or institution—from dreaming about the pleasures of the tropics or the old world charm of Italy. People daydream, doodle on paper, look at travel magazines, watch the Travel Channel, and wish they could. This post gives you tips and strategies on how to make wishes come true, at least from the money side of the equation.

Two Approaches

Basically, there are two sensible ways to purchase a cruise. The first entails booking very early (as close as possible to the original offering). This is when the cruise line often offers the cheapest prices. The second approach involves booking the cruise very late—just before the actual cruise. This second approach will almost always get you the cheapest price—when it is available.

The first approach affords you the maximum amount of time to pay off the cruise, and possibly at the lowest price. There are even ways to sometimes have these first prices reduced, but they demand vigilance on your part (or, if you’re lucky, on the part of your travel agent). And there is always the chance that the prices will rise—not go down. By booking early, you have locked yourself into a low price.

The second approach will give you the best deal, meaning the lowest price. But it will not always give you the stateroom you want, the exact cruise line you want, or even the exact itinerary you want. It can be an iffy approach. Still, this approach is especially good if your main concern is to cruise in general—regardless of cabin type or exact itinerary. But you must have cash on hand. Everything must be paid at once with this approach; there is no opportunity to pay off the cruise gradually. In general, you must be flexible to take this route.  And you must be flexible about everything: ship, cabin, and itinerary.

In addition to these two main strategies, there are a number of monetarily wise opportunities to keep in mind. These include such things (when available) as booking while on board; using a travel agent to get discounts, gifts and on board credits; using senior rates, state rates, military rates; taking advantage of customer loyalty perks; obtaining a cruise line sponsored credit card; and buying a cruise line’s stock.

An Example

This cruise to the Southern Caribbean is a fair example. The beginning price for a balcony room was $999 per person. My wife, who is the official family booking agent extraordinaire, watched the price of the rooms almost daily. Frequently, the best price drops are after final payment day as the cruise line scrambles to fill the ship. For this trip, final payment day was June 4th (75 days prior to sailing).

But on May 5th, the price dropped to $699 per person. Using Travelocity, she determined that the ship—while not full—was booking up and getting closer to capacity. She decided to book and by May 12th the price for an equivalent room went to $799 and never dropped lower. As of today, the ship is at capacity.

In addition, we applied for a Royal Caribbean credit card. As a bonus, Royal Caribbean gave us $100 dollars in on board credit after our first purchase. We can use this to purchase drinks, items from their duty free stores, excursions, etc.

Getting Ready to Explore the Southern Caribbean

two_atlSo about two hours ago, as I was clicking through the TV channels, a weather map popped up on the screen. In the middle of it, spinning across the ocean like a barbed, red ninja star, was a new tropical storm named Dorian. Normally, this would only be of mild interest. But next month, in the middle of hurricane season, my wife and I are sailing into the Southern Caribbean, via Royal Caribbean’s Jewel of the Seas.

Are we irresponsible? Reckless? No, more like practical. In a world that increasingly makes demands on us and places limits on us, we have to take advantage of our limited free time. So the end of August it is–hurricane prime time. But our journey has already begun, begun months ago. There was, and is, research, planning, and decisions. And already there are building expectations of airports, TSA scowls, the flight over the Atlantic Ocean to Puerto Rico (we have been there before); expectations of spicy Puerto Rican cuisine, a gorgeous ship, incredible service, pools, hot tubs, and Caribbean islands.

The itinerary includes St. Maarten/St. Martin, St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia, Barbados, and back to San Juan, Puerto Rico. Hopefully, we will hike through rainforests, visit a banana plantation, a volcano, fishing villages, snorkel with turtles and over shipwrecks, swim on a number of Caribbean beaches, and generally enjoy the people and culture of these islands. We plan on documenting all of this here on this blog using words, pictures, and video.

We have 20 days before we leave. We are aware of Dr. Edward Lorenz’s work on chaos theory and his coining of the term “the Butterfly Effect.” In 1972, he presented a paper entitled “Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil Set Off a Tornado in Texas?”; we are not concerned with Brazil, but we are concerned with the coast of Africa, where Atlantic hurricanes are born.

And so, may the butterflies of Africa flap their wings with mercy and good will, thus proving the scientists of NOAA wrong.