Pamplin Media Group – Carribean cruise leaves lasting memories

Two week cruise goes to nine islands plus Puerto Rico with lots of sun, and plenty to see and do

On a typical vacation, I do something that causes other people question my sanity.

Then, because it’s expected, I write about the experience. As many of you know, my wife and I took a two-week vacation in late November, but this time there really wasn’t much in the way of excitement.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Salt is stored in giant piles next to shallow pools that are used to extract salt from sea water in Bonaire's salt mines, which are still thriving today.You see, we took a two-week cruise. Well, actually, two one-week cruises on the same ship, just different cabins.

It’s hard to challenge yourself physically on a boat. Sure, there was a rock-climbing wall, and a surfing simulator, as well as basketball and volleyball. Once off the ship, there were opportunities for snorkeling and hiking. Still, it isn’t like spending three days alone in the wilderness.

No cold, no physically difficult weather conditions, no carrying a 70-pound backpack.

So, if you are expecting my normal vacation column, you are sure to be disappointed. Still, there was plenty to see and do on the trip and there are some things to talk about.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Aruba is one of several Dutch islands in the Carribean. The Island has beautiful beaches, but the interior is an arid desert.When we left Redmond Airport early in the morning in mid November we were concerned that we didn’t hav time to make our connecting flight in Orlando, Florida as the two two airlines we were flying had moved our flight times in opposite directions. We arrived with just an hour to get our checked bags, go to the ticket counter and get through security.

We needed have worried. We actually got through security in plenty of time. That seems incredible since I frequently get stopped on my way through security and my bag is hand-checked. I guess they think my camera remote controls look like a device for detonating a bomb, or something like that.

Anyway, my carry on was hand serached in Redmond, but it did not happen in Orlando. In fact, we got through security in time for me to get a snack before boarding the second flight.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREOGNIAN - Like Aruba, Curacoa is a Dutch island. The capital city of Williamstad is filled with colorful buildings. Just a short walk from the tourist areas brings you to deserted streets away from the crowds.Once checked into our hotel in San Juan, Karlene went to bed while I headed outside to find a restaurant.

All of the people in the restaurant spoke Spanish, and at best broken English. Me, I speak English and to call my Spanish broken would be an understatement.

So anyway, I pointed at a menu item and a few minutes later I received what I think was a salad and some bread. When I finished that, I received what I believe was a sandwich, although I believe that instead of bread it was wrapped in fried plantains (think bananas only larger, mashed, then spread fried and folded around the meat in the sandwich.

I have no idea exactly what I ate, but I would try it again.

With a day in San Juan before our cruise ship departed, we looked at Google maps to see what there was that we could do to kill time.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Water sports are popular throughout the Carribean.We were staying in a district of San Juan called Candado. Apparently, it is a tourist district. There are restaurants all over the district as well as a lot of fancy hotels.

Well, not our hotel, but plenty of others were fancy. We didn’t really see much to do other than hang out on the beach all day. Perhaps fun, but not really my thing. So we decided to take a walk.

Looking at Google maps, it was six-plus miles to Old Town San Juan, which is filled with museums, historical buildings, forts, etc… In other words, lots of things to do.

However, our budget didn’t plan on money for taxis in San Juan, so we decided to take a walk, see how far it led us, and then we would return to the hotel when we got tired of walking.

Seemed like a good plan. Problem is that between Candado and Old Town San Juan, there is an area that is kind of void of any services. Karlene wore a couple of blisters with her sandals and decided that she needed to stop and purchase a box of band aids. Only we didn’t see any place to do that, so we kept walking.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands has some amazing views of small coves filled with sailing boats.Next thing you know, we are committed. We are in Old Town San Juan and have at least six miles to get back to our hotel. Eventually we purchased band aids and soft drinks. Next, we walked through a portion of the streets in Old Town surrounded by buildings built in the 16th century.

Eventually we ended up at Castillo San Felipe del Morro, the largest fort on the island the 16th century fort is pretty amazing, but man is all the stonework hot in the afternoon.

After two hours visiting the fort, we were out of energy and still had a 6.8-mile hike back to our hotel. So off we trudged, passing a series of interesting tourist attractions that we just didn’t have the energy to stop and look at.

Eventually we made it back to our hotel.

My phone said that we walked 14 miles, but I know that it was more than that since Google maps says it’s 6.8 miles directly from the fort to our hotel and we did not take a direct route either direction.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Stint Maarten or Saint Martin, depending on whether you are on the Dutch or French side of the island is one of the most densley populated islands in the Carribean and also one of the most popular with tourists.Needless to say, since I am not used to that much walking — or to 90-degree heat with 70-plus percent humidity — I was tired by the time we got back to our hotel.

Anyway, Sunday we checked out of our hotel and then waited in the hotel lobby with a number of other people who had either just returned for a cruise or were waiting until time to board theirs.

There were three cruise ships leaving San Juan that day, so there were tourists everywhere.

Anyway, eventually we set out for our ship and went through security.

Since our room was not ready yet, we did one of the things that I do best. We went to the buffet and ate.

Anyway, something I ate did not agree with me, and by midafternoon I was sick.

It’s a great way to start a cruise.

I missed dinner Sunday night, but by Monday I was more or less OK.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Street art is popular in the Carribean. This mural was off the beaten path in St. Kitts.That afternoon I played in a volleyball tournament. My team had five Puerto Ricans, only one of which spoke English, and I.

We struggled with communication but did finish second in the tournament. I also climbed the rock wall Monday afternoon. The wall, a 32-foot-high monster with eight climbing stations, was set up so that once you got as high as you wanted you could just let go and you would drop to the ground. The free fall was nice, but the distance from the wall to the rope was a little short for someone my size and I skinned my knee on the way down. Unfortunately, I also turned myself around and landed in an inglorious heap with my back against the wall.

One thing I learned about rock climbing walls is that they are made for short people. There are easy handholds and difficult handholds, mostly alternating. Being tall, I was able to skip almost all of the hard handholds and, until reaching heights over 25 feet, the climb was easy, seemingly no matter which of the eight routes I took. And I should add that the free fall back to the ground was a lot of fun once I learned how to get off the wall without crashing.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - At most places you go in the Carribean, there are people on the street looking for money. Some are selling trinkets while others are just looking for handouts. For the price of a beer, most are willing to pose for photos. This individual in St. Lucia was attempting to trade a handful of U.S. dollars for St. Lucian money, Eastern Carribean dollars, despite the fact that American dollars are accepted in virtually all stores.The first week we saw Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire and St. Thomas.

What I can tell you about Aruba, Curacao and Bonaire is that they are all hot and humid.

Even with food available 24 hours a day, I lost weight that week. Lots of weight. I don’t really know how much, but I know that I had to cinch my belt up two notches to keep my pants from falling down.

Anyway, we took tours in each country, all mostly sedentary, except for Bonaire. In Bonaire we took a tour in a van and saw some interesting history. Then, Karlene returned to the ship and I took a snorkeling tour.

The last time I snorkeled was several years ago, but I didn’t think that would be a problem. Boy, was I wrong.

Several years ago, I missed a couple of days of work with atrial fibrillation, or A fib, a condition that causes an irregular heartbeat, and worse yet, sometimes an overly fast heartbeat. Mine was over 190 when they hospitalized me. Since then I have had no problem with A fib, however, the medication that they gave me suppresses my heart rate.

Most of the time that isn’t a big deal. Unfortunately, I have had trouble making steep climbs as my heart rate won’t go above about 120, leaving me gasping for breath when I try to hike steep hills.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Like Curacao Old Town San Juan, Puerto Rico is filled with narrow, colorful streets.It never occurred to me that I would have the same problem snorkeling, but apparently swimming takes a lot of oxygen and I struggled to keep up with everyone else.

Eventually, I had to drag myself out of the water and sit and watch enviously as everyone else continued to look at the sea life, which I might add, was everywhere.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - Arches line the inside walls of one side of Castillo de San Cristobal, a 16th century fort in Old Town San Juan Puerto Rico. The fort, which covers 27 acres  is one of two large forts in the city. During our two week cruise we landed in Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire, St. Thomas, Stint Maarten, St. Kitts, Barbados, St. Lucia, and Antigua as well as two stops in San Juan Puerto Rico. The entire region is filled with beautiful beaches, plenty of opportunities for water sports, as well as friendly people.
At our second snorkeling stop, I discovered that as long as I didn’t swim, but just laid still in the water and only swam forward occasionally, I could still snorkel. It just isn’t like the old days where I swam as far and as fast as possible so I could see more things.

Bonaire left a lasting impression. Although it has some of the best snorkeling I have ever seen, that wasn’t what I will remember about the country.

Our tour went to the salt flats. They let sea water into shallow holding ponds which then evaporate leaving salt, which is then piled into literally mountains of salt. The process is currently done with modern machinery. However, that wasn’t always the case.

When Bonaire was a British colony and the slave trade was still in full force, the salt was mined by slaves.

Remnants of that time are still visible in the slave huts that dot the landscape near the salt fields.

According to our guide, the slaves actually lived an eight-hour hike from the salt flats.

Each Sunday afternoon, they would take the hike to the salt flats, then each Friday evening after five full days in the salt flats, they would have to walk the eight miles back home.

Originally, they were forced to sleep under the bushes near the salt flats. Eventually, the slave owners built the slave huts that still stand. Each hut has a small window in back and a door that was so small that in order to enter I would have had to lay down on my side. The doors were narrower than my hips and less than three feet tall. Actually, they weren’t really doors, they were doorways. No door, and no window, just openings.

Each hut was so narrow that I could reach from one side to the other on the outside of the building, and the huts were approximately eight feet long. Each had a concrete floor.

Anyway, although there were slave exhibits on many of the other islands, nothing demonstrated the horrible living and working conditions as well as actually seeing the huts and the salt flats. The day we were there temperatures were in the 90s, the humidity was high, and the salt just radiated heat.

The conditions must have been unbearable.

But enough about history — let’s get back to our trip.

That first week I also played in a 3-on-3 basketball tournament with two of the five Puerto Ricans that I had played volleyball with. Once again, we finished second. I also climbed the rock wall a couple more times and tried the surfing simulator that was on the ship.

I have trouble getting up on a surfboard, but once up, I can sort of surf.

Since you start standing up on the ship’s flowrider, I thought that surfing on it would be easy.

The trouble is, they give you a board about the size of a skateboard and tell you to stand sideways like you are on a snowboard.

Turns out I’m not good at snowboarding or using the flowrider.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - An expensive resort perches on a small cliff in Antigua. A British Island, Antigua is filled with hostorical buildings as well as having beautiful ocean scenery.Unfortunately, someone videoed my failure and sent the video to my Facebook page.

Fortunately, by the time we got off the ship and returned home, I couldn’t find the video. I know it’s out there somewhere, but I haven’t seen it. I just know it’s bad.

Anyway, after a week at sea, we returned to San Juan. Karlene and I decided to save the cost of a taxi and stay on the ship before we embarked again later that night.

However, we had to change rooms, so we spent most of the day sitting poolside, watching people.

That is something that Karlene loves to do, but me not so much.

Eventually we left port again, this time going to Saint Martin, or Stint Maarten, you decide what the island is called. It depends on which side you are on. One side is Dutch and the other side French. We also went to St. Kitts, Barbados, St. Lucia, and Antigua.

On Stint Maarten, we took a boat ride around the entire island and once again I attempted to snorkel.

St. Kitts was a train ride. On Barbados we went to an orchid garden, St. Lucia was a photo tour and finally on Antigua we took another boat ride and I once again attempted to snorkel.

In between, I climbed the rock wall some more, failed again at surfing, and played in another basketball and volleyball tournament.

This time my teammates were from Utah.

We finished second again in volleyball. As far as the second basketball tournament, that’s another story. I have no idea how we would have done.

We were ahead 6-4 in our first-round game when it rained. With the court outside, the activity director canceled the remainder of the tournament.

It was kind of disappointing, since there was a big guy on the ship, and we had wanted to play against each other. Like my teammates, he was from Utah, and they were cruising together. We warmed up playing each other and had hoped to meet in the finals.

I was really surprised that I had no trouble finding people willing to let me play on their teams.

Most of the players both weeks were in their 30s or younger, mostly younger, so I just kind of thought that no one would want someone in their 60s on their team.

What I found out is that if you hang around the courts looking tall and somewhat mobile, people will take a chance on you.

Both weeks I was at least 20 years older than the next oldest player, but both weeks players welcomed me on their team.

Even more cool than that was that the people I played both with and against continued to be friends the remainder of the week.

The same thing went for the people who went on the same excursions as Karlene and I.

LON AUSTIN/CENTRAL OREGONIAN - St. John's Parish Church in Barbados is hand hewn out of limestone and coral. The church is typical of the architecture on many of the Caribbean islands. According to our guide Bardados has many churches, which are mostly attended by women. Across the street from churches there is often a bar, where the man hangs out while he is waiting for his wife to finish attending church.I have a pen from an individual who is on the security detail for the Texas governor. I spent quite a bit of time with a satellite TV installer from Puerto Rico, and then there was the basketball coach from Utah who had just retired after 37 years of coaching. He had an incredible record with 15 state championship appearances and eight state titles.

When we finally disembarked after two weeks onboard, we took a bus to old town San Juan. Four hours later, the bus picked us up and delivered us and our luggage to the airport.

Once again, there were three cruise ships in port. Amazingly, much of the time as we walked around old town San Juan, we had the streets to ourselves. I guess everyone else gets off the ships and goes straight to the tourist shops. We apparently took the road less traveled. The cobblestone streets we walked down were mostly vacant, some didn’t even have parked cars.

With our four hours nearing an end, we stopped at Castillo de San Cristóbal, the second large old fort in San Juan.

Although smaller than el Moro, it is still an imposing fort. Also built in the 16th century, I found it to be much more interesting then el Moro. That is because the tunnels under el Moro were closed to tourists, while some of the tunnels in San Cristóbal were open to the public, including the tunnel to the dungeon.

Anyway, from there we returned to Orlando and took a taxi to our hotel.

That turned out to be a terrible idea as it cost more than it would have cost to rent a car.

Sometimes it doesn’t pay to pinch pennies and this hotel was one of those times. To call the hotel a dump doesn’t do it justice. There was gum stuck to the carpet and the bedspreads looked like they had debuted in the 1970s.

The bed was ancient and so soft that I sunk clear to the bed springs and the TV was about a 24-inch diagonal.

Anyway, when it was time to go to the airport, we downloaded the Uber app and took an Uber. We were picked up by a retired Latino gentleman in an extended cab Ram pickup.

The flight home was uneventful although we did not arrive until nearly midnight.

After arriving home early in the morning, I was back at work later that day, slightly lighter, more tanned, and thoroughly worn out.

It took me the next week of work to recover.

Anyway, that’s all there is, no epic adventures. No extreme physical endurance challenges. Just a lot of sightseeing, a little bit of sports, and thousands of photos to sort.

I will probably still be working on that for months to come. In the meantime, we are already planning our next adventures.

Karlene is running a half marathon in Washington in June, then we are traveling to Alaska in August to see family, fish a little bit, and maybe take a hike into the mountains.

So, there you have it, a long story about not much of anything. Sorry I don’t have photos of the rock climbing or surfing. I’m sure that both would be more than worth the price of admission, but we do have lots of memories and those are priceless.

One last thing. Unfortunately, I have already gained all of the weight back that I lost while on the cruise. So much for taking a vacation as part of a weight loss plan.

Lon Austin is the sports editor for the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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