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Cruise Port — San Juan, In The Heart Of Cruises

This week, we're featuring ports you may find on your cruise itinerary, to give you a snapshot of what it's like, what ships usually go there and what some of the options are once you get off the ship. Today it's San Juan, Puerto Rico.

San Juan-1 copyTwice we've had the pleasure of being on a cruise ship in San Juan, once to depart and once as a port stop. And it is a pleasure because, among other things, the place where our ships docked was in the heart of Old San Juan.

Like, almost across the street.

That means, if you're flying in to catch a cruise, you can stay at the Sheraton Old San Juan and — depending on how close your ship is — roll your luggage down the street…you also can, if so inclined, also spend some time (and money) at the casino in the hotel's lobby.

That means you can take your own walking tour of Old San Juan and visit places from San Cristobal Castle to San Felipe Del Morro Castle to the Governor's San Juan-Gov Res copyResidence (easy to find), where there are two free tours a day.

That means there's a Starbucks in the heart of the old city so that if you're not hooked on the coffee you can still hook into free WiFi for a cyberspace update, and the streets are filled with people, shops and restaurants. Even better, a hop-on, hop-off shuttle takes you from one end of town to the other, if you get tired of walking.

Between our visits, the Puerto Ricans made the waterfront area even more appealing and safety is generally not an issue. In a restaurant late one evening, we met a server who said she regularly walked home alone after her shift ended at 1 a.m., and even at that hour she felt completely safe.

While there are many cruise lines going in and out of San Juan, we were on Celebrity and Royal Caribbean ships. The last time, we were on Explorer of the Seas and did notice that a sister ship, Grandeur of the Seas, was moored on the other side of San Antonio Canal from Old San Juan.

To us, that was their loss, although one that could be overcome with a short cab ride around the water.

Today at portsandbows.com: The latest in cruise news

Crown Princess
7 nights
September 13, 2014 
VancouverVictoriaSeattleAstoriaSan FranciscoSanta BarbaraLos Angeles
Inside: $699
Cost per day: $99

Cruise Port — San Pedro, Accessible And Unique

This week, we're featuring ports you may find on your cruise itinerary, to give you a snapshot of what it's like, what ships usually go there and what some of the options are once you get off the ship. Today it's San Pedro, California.

If you're driving to San Pedro, parking can be an issue. We've boarded ships there after parking in the adjoining lot ($12 a day) and after leaving our car with friends who live nearby (free, but you'll probably take them for lunch).

This port is about 20 miles south of Los Angeles on Interstate 110 — although sometimes Los Angeles is 20 miles from Los Angeles — so there are plenty ofSan Pedrotransportation options and no shortage of things to do, depending on how much time you have. 

Here's one: Stay at the Westin Los Angeles at LAX and you can park free for a week. If you're flying into L.A., there are several shuttle possibilities, usually for San Pedro-5 copyabout $15 per person.

At your departure point, it's easy to find things to fill your time. If you have a short stay before boarding a ship, there's a free shuttle that runs every day a ship is in port, through downtown San Pedro, which of course has shops and multi-cultural restaurants and tourist points. At this time of year, at least for another couple of weeks, there are whale-watching opportunities with priced at $15-$20 for two to three hours on the water.

It's not far to many museums, beaches and "Old San Pedro" is almost walking distance from the cruise ship…Fisherman's Wharf is not much farther.

Sometimes we've scheduled our arrival at a cruise port to be as close to departure time as possible, but that means missing the boat — so to speak — for an interesting visit to a unique area like San Pedro.

There are several cruise lines using that port but Princess and Norwegian are the two that regularly have ships leaving from San Pedro.

Today at portsandbows.com: Cognac is more than an apertif

Celebrity Reflection
7 nights
April 12, 2014
Miami (return): San JuanSt. ThomasSt. Maarten
Inside: $429
Cost per day: $61

A Flight Plan That Attracts Tourists


PHILIPSBURG, St. Maarten — Go ahead. Call us crazy. Unless you think it's normal to go halfway around the world on planes and boats and taxis to see a jet fly over a beach?

For hundreds of cruise passengers in St. Maarten, that's normal.

The beach is Maho Bay, or near Maho Bay. The locals know it well because the tourists want to go there. The beach is at the end of the runway (yes, the only one) at Princess Juliana International Airport. That's the "front" end of the runway, where planes first land or begin to take off.

The beach is across the street. Literally.

Hundreds of passengers from the Royal Caribbean's Explorer of the Seas gather on the beach or in the bar on the beach to wait for the next arrival. Nobody bothers to check a flight schedule. It's the Caribbean way.

Sure enough, here comes a jet and…whoosh…just like that's flown over your head faster than the shutter speed of your camera, which inevitably misses the mark. No problem. Wait for the next jet. Whoosh again…empty air again.

This is billed as "the closest you'll ever come to a plane in flight without being on the plane" and it is hard to imagine being any closer. Big and small, the planes look like they're going to land on the beach or, worse yet, you. The jets are especially low because by the time they're going to touch down — right there on the other side of the road — they have to be low.

The site of this world-wide moment is about a half hour from Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch half of the island known as St. Maarten in the south and Saint-Martin in the north, which is French. That's half an hour by bus, which costs $2, or one-tenth the price of lunch when you get there.

It's for curiosity-seekers and thrill-seekers alike. The curious are, well, us. The thrill-seekers stand on the beach, which is to say behind the jets, as they take off. One woman allegedly was badly hurt when she gripped the wire fence at the start of the runway — right there, across the street — and was blown away as a jet was taking off.

On this day, the thrill-seekers and their belongings were only blown across the beach and into the water. There was only one injury.

"I'll never do that again," said the middle-aged thrill-seeker. "I just got sand-blasted."

And he probably flew, sailed and drove just to have it happen.

Carnival Glory
7 nights
July 21, 2013
Boston (return): Portland, Saint John, Halifax, Sydney
Inside: $429
Cost per day: $61

Perilous Time for Gem of the Gulf


GALVESTON — Let's start with mea culpa. Full disclosure. We love Texas. From Houston to Dallas to San Antonio to Austin to College Station to Galveston. Great places to visit that made great memories.

Ah yes, Galveston, a special place that doesn't always look special.

It can be pretty, and it can be pretty sad. Saturday, as the Crown Princess left its shores, was not one of Galveston's happy days. A mardi gras in the streets but no sunshine. A storm brewing and the ship had to, as they say in this part of the country, "get outta Dodge" before the "weather" arrived. The ceiling so low it seemed to be caressing the funnels of the ship.

Galveston has it tough.

Like a boxer with his hands down, it can be defenseless, sometimes looking into the eye of a hurricane as if to say "bring it on" and when Mother Nature's knockout is over "is that your best shot?" Hurricane Ike roared through the Gulf of Mexico five years ago and the devastation it left behind included an empty cruise ship terminal.

The cruise lines come and go. They can be as skittish as the forecast. Each time the Disney Magic leaves port, as it did again Saturday afternoon, Galvestonians wonder how many times she'll return. There are rumors the Magic is headed for Fort Lauderdale next winter. The Crown Princess, which just arrived in November, will definitely relocate to Florida and be replaced in Texas by the Caribbean Princess…but to Houston, not Galveston.

Yet it's Galveston that is the Gateway to the Gulf, the tip of the funnel for cruisers from America's heartland wanting to sample the Caribbean from a ship. Whether they fly in or not, it almost always means a 60-minute drive from Houston to a port that is, well, a port. Upon entry, industrial and colorless, especially on an overcast day. First-time visitors, like one boarding the Crown Princess, may see it as a once-in-a-lifetime visit…vowing never to come back, searching for charm you will never find in an industrial area — anywhere.

However, near the port is a funky and fun area where you can breakfast at The Original Mexican Cafe, dine at Fisherman's Wharf, lounge on 32 miles of beaches or visit The Strand, a district that focuses on the area's historical connection to the sea. Unless you're overnighting, you're unlikely to see much of it, and that makes staying an extra night or two in this seaside resort worthwhile.

There are currently five cruise ships based in Galveston. Next year there will be four…maybe three. As recently as a year ago, the only major cruise port in Texas seemed to have a bright future. Galveston deserves better, but the people here know so well not to get complacent because they also know their lives can change in a hurry…cane.

Too often, they have.

Celebrity Eclipse
13 nights
April 20, 2013
Fort Lauderdale, Nassau, San Juan, St. Maarten, Southampton
Inside: $599
Cost per day: $46

Upon Reflection, People are Special

Quite by accident — or by failure to follow directions — we enjoyed our most pleasant evening on the Celebrity Reflection in the company of a junior waiter, a waiter and a sommelier. This is typical for us. We make more friends among cruise ship staff than we do passengers, which means either we enjoy working class folks, or we're anti-social, or both.

This was in the main dining room on the ship, called Opus. We were supposed to arrive at the Deck 3 entrance as part of a group, but we mistakenly went to Deck 4 and were seated in the section manned by our three amigos, so in the end we formed our own group.

The most animated was the junior waiter, whose name is Paramanandham Jayakumar — Param for short — and not all junior waiters are so outgoing. He came to Reflection from the Millennium, a favorite ship of ours, and we ran down a list of people we both knew. Yes, staff people. Param (right) is from Mumbai, India, and two of the nicest cruise-ship people we have ever met are from Mumbai. No, they didn't know each other (only 12.5 million people live there).

The sommelier was Sandeep Naik (left), who's from Indonesia. If you're surprised that a sommelier is from Indonesia, don't be. There are many, and Celebrity specializes in having lots of sommeliers. Eloquent and wine-wise, Sandeep knew two other Celebrity sommeliers we'd enjoyed on the Eclipse, only one of whom was from Indonesia. Sandeep recommended a wonderful California cabernet to go with our dinner.

And don't think, just because there are specialty restaurants which charge extra on cruise ships that you're getting a second-rate meal in the dining room. One of us had decided on seafood until our waiter, Suparsa ("Call me Superstar") recommended beef tournedos from that evening's fare.

The beef tournedos — in fact, the entire dinner — was outstanding. Just like the people in our group.

Note: We're also covering the North American debut of the Reflection for our colleague Phil Reimer this week. You'll find more from the new ship at www.ports.andbows.com.

Holland America Volendam
14 nights
March 4, 2013
Kobe, Nagasaki, Busan, Dalian, Beijing, Shanghai, Hong Kong
Inside: $799
Cost per day: $57

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