My husband and I recently went on a Royal Caribbean cruise to Aruba as a way to celebrate my recent retirement. What a wonderful trip! We actually visited several of the islands, as part of the traditional A-B-C cruise – Aruba, Bonnaire, and Curacao as well as Puerto Rico and the island of St. Maarten.
It was definitely an unforgettable trip in part to celebrate the freedom of retirement. I wrote a post recently on how I was able to retire 7 years ahead of time due to my freelance VA business.
First Stop – Aruba
After departing from Puerto Rico on the gorgeous ship Freedom of the Seas, our first port of call was Oranjestad, Aruba. One thing I love about the Caribbean Islands are the beautiful colors of the buildings – pink, orange, turquoise, bright yellow, just every pretty color of the rainbow.
We had a wonderful lunch on the veranda of this building at Iguana Joe’s. We split an order of supreme nachos and some delicious shrimp. For a while we just enjoyed getting out of the blistering heat and looking out at the city views. That’s sometimes my favorite part of a vacation to just have a relaxing moment like that.
We are big excursion-takers as I covered in an earlier post – Cruising for Chubby People. I talked about how I pick our excursions and which ones are the most fun. Our Aruba excursion was an underwater dive in an actual submarine. We got to go down to 130 feet and saw tons of beautiful sea life and several wrecked ships that are now serving as artificial reefs. It was super cool and very fun!
Sadly, the pollution and the warming of the waters have damaged and destroyed a lot of the coral. We noticed that later during some of our snorkel excursions. Coral should be bright, vibrant oranges, pinks, and reds, but they were mostly ghostly white.
Interesting facts about Aruba
- They have a large desalinization plant, so the water is safe to drink right out of the tap – that’s rare in foreign ports.
- Aruba is known for their flamingo preserve, but the birds are not native to Aruba.
- Aruba’s Eagle Beach is rated one of the top beaches in the world.
- The climate in Aruba is unexpectedly dry, with almost desert-like terrain. It was very, very HOT and humid there, although I’ve not experienced other Caribbean ports during September. They get very little rainfall and since it’s mostly below the hurricane belt, there generally aren’t a lot of dramatic storms that plague much of the rest of the Caribbean.
- Most people in Aruba speak several languages – Dutch, Spanish, English and a local language called Papiamento. Most of the people we met in shops and around town were Dutch and the same in St. Maarten where half the island is Dutch and half is French.
- San Nicolas, Aruba is famous for their lovely street art. We didn’t have a chance to travel there since we only had part of a day in port, but I’ve seen pictures and it’s wonderful.
- Oranjestad offers a free double-decker streetcar where you can see the sights of the city and various landmarks around town. Wish we’d had the time to ride on this.
Curacao – Our Second Island – feeding the sharks!
Our day on Curacao was the most wonderful and memorable day, but unfortunately, we were so busy having adventures, that we took very few photos. Our favorite experiences are always with animals and various wildlife and we always try to do something special. We had swum with stingrays before, a couple of times, actually, so this time, we decided we wanted to add in SHARKS. This was literally, the craziest thing we’ve ever done. And all we can think is that they would NEVER let you do this anywhere in the US. It would be a liability nightmare!
We went to their sea life park/aquarium and they had this little man-made lagoon. It was very pretty and peaceful and filled with lovely fish and tons of stingrays. But around the edges – sharks were everywhere. They were only separated from us by sections of plain ol’ chain link fence. There were juvenile lemon sharks in one section, full-grown lemon sharks in another section and full-grown nurse sharks in another one. And you’re swimming just inches away from them – you do NOT want to put your fingers through that chain link!
Then we get to FEED them by hand. Each section of chain link had a plexiglass panel with little fish-sized holes drilled in them. They give you a fish, you duck your face down under the water a bit and you carefully poke the fish through the hole and wiggle it a little. And then you watch the shark come and eat it right out of your hand. It’s CRAZY!
Especially with the nurse sharks. We learned that the nurse shark has the strongest suction of any animal on earth. For the nurse shark, you carefully hold the fish slightly ABOVE the hole. The shark comes over and you hear a loud POP and you can feel the percussion in the water and the fish disappears into the shark’s mouth. Apparently, during the morning session, one of the guests was a bit careless with his hand position and he got a nasty scrape from getting his fingers partly sucked in. Looking back, I think this was not the smartest, nor the safest excursion we’ve ever done, but it certainly was the most memorable!
Interesting Facts about Nurse Sharks
- Unlike other sharks – the nurse shark does not have to keep moving to breathe. It has an independent breathing system that works while it rests.
- A nurse shark’s teeth are like cheese graters delivering an exceptionally painful and damaging bite. During the summer months, they grow a fresh set of teeth every 10-14 days.
- Nurse sharks like to cuddle – with each other. They are quite sedentary compared to other sharks and will pile up in groups of up to 40 for naps. That would be a scary thing to stumble upon during a dive.
- They can “walk” across the ocean floor and sometimes prefer to. Then they can drag their whiskers – called “barbels” through the sand and suction up small creatures to snack on. Their suction is the strongest of any mammal and can rip a full-sized conch right out of it’s shell.
The rest of our time in Curacao was spent seeing the rest of the aquarium and doing a bit of light shopping on the way back. We were pretty worn out after all the swimming, heat, and excitement, so we opted to head back to the ship and enjoy the charms of this port from our balcony.
Our 3rd Port – Snorkeling in Bonnaire
Our Bonnaire excursion ended up being cancelled, which was a bit sad. We had planned a champagne catamaran cruise and some snorkeling, which would’ve been super fun. But Royal Caribbean has lots of different options available, so we were able to select another option that was just as much fun. Bonnaire is renowned for it’s crystal-clear waters and the variety of fish and sealife, so we just opted for another snorkeling trip.
Aqua Adventures was a new outfit just getting started in Bonnaire, but they showed us a great time. They had a private water taxi to take us out to the dive site and had four different dive captains to monitor our rather large group of about 50 people. All the equipment was provided and they gave us a quick safety briefing.
The dive site was beautiful with a great variety of brightly colored fish, although we didn’t get to go out very deep – maybe 12 to 15 feet. I got warned off a couple of times when I drifted out into the darker blue water – there is a large drop off that leads to much deeper water, but also more things that can eat you, so they were smart to keep us to the shallower water.
After the main part of the dive, they took us to a small private beach for a bit of relaxation and let the kids enjoy diving off the roof of the boat into the water. The weather was a bit overcast with a bit of early morning rain, so it was cooler. Just a perfect day to drift on a boat in a pristine nature preserve and listen to the reggae music with a fruity drink in your hand. That’s my idea of paradise.
Last Island Visit – St. Maarten
Our last island visit was to the lovely island of St. Maarten. We had visited the island on a previous cruise, but had just done some shopping and visiting around town, so we were happy that we had booked a double-decker bus tour of most of the island. What a paradise! Gorgeous, lush greenery everywhere, tons of little butterflies everywhere, and just a nice view of everyday life on the island.
St. Maarten is unique in that half of the island is owned by the Dutch government and half is owned by the French and they seem to get along quite nicely in their little paradise. Actually, it’s slightly less than half on the Dutch side. The folklore is that the Dutch and French representatives decided to walk out the boundaries of each area, but the Dutch guy was drunk that day and didn’t cover nearly as much ground. That’s the story anyway.
We visited a Rhum factory (with free samples at 9:00 in the morning!) no, I don’t know why they spell it Rhum… A charming little store shaped like a windmill with lots of cheeses and wooden shoes and things. A beautiful carousel that had the most beautiful black and white mosaic tile decor I’ve ever seen.
Freedom of the Seas and Royal Caribbean
This cruise to Aruba was our first one with Royal Caribbean. We normally cruise with Carnival and we have taken one other with Norwegian back in our early days. Our feeling about RC – “meh”. Freedom of the Seas was a nice ship – it’s one of their older ones and in fact, was going in for a refit shortly after our trip. But we felt the ship layout and decor were comparable to other ships we’d been on. Our cabin was nice (definitely go for the balcony if you have the chance – LOVED our balcony and spent hours just watching the waves). And I particularly liked these jeweled art deco pieces in the casino.
And of course, the crew and support staff were top-notch! I’ve never been on a cruise were the waiters and cabin stewards were not absolutely fabulous. But the whole feel of the ship was just a little DULL. The food was delicious, but quite bland, which was surprising because half the passengers were from Puerto Rico or other areas where spicy food is the norm. The options for food you didn’t have to pay extra for were the dining rooms (my favorite), the buffet/cafeteria – which was WAY at the other end of the ship, or one little pizza place that was a mob scene. Carnival usually does a couple of poolside buffets and has some burger joints and other options – nope. So, we ate almost exclusively in the dining rooms where the fare was good, but much more limited than I remembered.
And the entertainment was just WEIRD and extremely hit or miss. The ship comes with an ice rink, so I was expecting an ice show every night – nope! There was one ice show that was shown on two nights and that was it. It was a very good show, but some of the big stage shows – they were just PAINFUL. Just really awkward and embarrassing to watch.
Although their was one night when they had a FABULOUS show. They brought in three guys from South America to do some traditional flamenco and other types of dances and music – they were amazing to watch and with so many passengers from that region, they were completely delighted – as were we.
Some nights we were in our cabin by 9:30 because we couldn’t find anything to do. Carnival has a comedy show from like 9:30 to 11:00 each night and that was one of our favorite shows, but RC had lots of disco, karaoke, piano bars, and music trivia games – which is basically the passengers just entertaining each other. It was very odd and quite disappointing. We likely will not sail with them again.
This cruise was the first one I’ve ever been seasick on. It was very slight, but I did notice just a little queasy feeling at times. Maybe it was our cabin placement or the orientation of our bed? Fortunately, I had put together a post on seasickness remedies shortly before we left and I had brought a good supply of items with me. A few ginger pills and a couple of those ear patches and I was good to go!
Ever had to spend tons of time trying to find your luggage at the end of the cruise? They put them all in a big warehouse and you have to go around and find all your bags. It’s like a very unpleasant Easter Egg hunt. This time, we hit the jackpot! I bought the bright orange handle covers I recommend in this post – 7 Items You NEED for your Next Cruise. We spotted our suitcases in less than 30 seconds and were happy to pay a porter to breeze us right past the customs line and load us into a cab to the airport.
If you are looking for the best items to bring on your next cruise, I’ve got a great checklist for you right here. I also have a page set up with Get Away Today that will help you find the BEST cruise deals for your next cruise. Adrian’s Cruise Page
Here are some other cruise posts you may enjoy:
Enjoy a Cruise Without Going Broke or Getting FAT
15 Hacks to get the BEST Cruise Deals
Tips for Cruising with a CPAP Machine