March 7, 2012

Touring Puerto Rico

Dear Epic Readers,

I hope this post finds you well. As promised, here is the fifth and final issue in my Travel Tuesdays series. So grab a pirate’s punch and let’s hoist off on an epic adventure to stunning San Juan Puerto Rico.

Located in the Caribbean, nestled between the Caribbean Sea and the North Atlantic Ocean, and just east of the Dominican Republic is the beautiful island of Puerto Rico.  Historically speaking, this island is a colourful cultural and racial mix of Spanish, Taínos and African.  The Taíno Indians who inhabited the territory, called the island Boriken or Borinquen which translates: “land of the great lords” or “the great land of the valiant and noble Lord”.  A little fun fact is that San Juan named for (St. John the Baptist), was the name of the island and and the town was called Puerto Rico.  It was only later that these two were switched.

In San Juan, we chose to go on the Old and New tour of the city and it was exceptional.  Even though it was an overcast and rainy day we still had a blast exploring the town.  Our guide Charlie had a wealth of knowledge about the people and places of Puerto Rico that kept us thoroughly engaged.  We explored the tunnels and other defenses of the 17th-century military fortification, Fort San Cristobal.  We visited the Cristo Chapel, the Governor’s Mansion and other historical sites.  We checked out San Jose Church, El Convento Hotel, the Condado section of New San Juan, and popped by the gated community where Ricky Martin’s parents live! 

Here are some of the most exciting highlights of the island:

  • The Vieques Biobay (go kayaking then take a swim in the green, glowing bioluminescent bay)
  • Camuy Caves (rappel down the mouth of the cave, go mud-sliding, body rafting, and free jumping)
  • Old and New San Juan Tour (interesting architecture and fascinating oral history of the island) 

Cheers,

From the beautiful island Puerto Rico,

Char a.k.a Epic Mom

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February 29, 2012

Visiting St. Thomas and Snorkeling in St. John

Dear Epic Readers,

I hope this post finds you well. As promised, here is the fourth issue in my Travel Tuesdays series. So grab a pirate’s punch and let’s hoist off on an epic adventure to serene St. Thomas and St. John.

Located in the Lesser Antilles of the Caribbean, between the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea is the beautiful gem of St. Thomas. For centuries, the island has been a notable pirate refuge, as evidenced by historic sites like Blackbeard’s Tower.  Charlotte Amalie in St. Thomas has been one of the busiest ports and trading centers in the Caribbean since the 19th century.

We chose to take the ferry from St. Thomas to St. John and go snorkeling.  St. John was an untouched breathtaking vista of loveliness. It was lightly populated and quiet. We did the St. John Champagne Catamaran Sail-away excursion and I couldn’t recommend it highly enough. We took a catamaran from St. Thomas to St. John, had two hours for snorkeling, where you could either dive directly off the anchored catamaran or get ferried to the beach and go snorkeling from there. This excursion lasted four and a half hours, 90 minutes of which was sailing back to St. Thomas, sipping on champagne and nibbling fresh bread and cheese. Since we were on St. John, we could have also opted to spend a day in the U.S. Virgin Island National Park and experience the beaches and bays, while exploring the ancient rock carving and hiking trails.

 Here are some of the most exciting highlights of the island:

  • Eco Boat, Hike & Snorkel of Cas Cay
  • Donkey ride in Coral Bay via Carolina Corral; you can also rent horses.
  • The National Park Service offers a guided hike that lasts 5 and a half hours. You will see part of the park’s rain forest, the Reef Bay Plantation ruins and at the base of the trail, you can see their famous rock carvings.

Cheers,

From the beautiful islands of St. Thomas and St. John,

Char a.k.a Epic Mom

February 8, 2012

Snorkeling in Grenada

Dear Epic Readers,

I hope this post finds you well.  As promised, here is the third issue in my Travel Tuesdays series.  So grab a pirate’s punch and let’s hoist off on an epic adventure to Grenada.

In the South Eastern Caribbean, about 100 miles north of Venezuela, you will find the gorgeous island of Grenada (pronounced Gree-Nay-Dah).  It is also known as the Spice Isle or the Isle of Spice.  Over the centuries, the island has been inhabited by Black natives of African descent, British, French and Amerindians – both Arawaks and Caribs – whose artifacts and carvings can still be found throughout the island.

More than 70% of Grenada’s exports go to the United States and European Union. Their growers are increasingly adopting sustainable farm management practices, which is why their clean, green organic approach to agriculture is recognised around the world.  Cocoa, Banana, Nutmeg and other spices for export have been the island’s main source of foreign exchange for hundreds of years, and in fact Grenada is the world’s second largest nutmeg producer.

One huge highlight for me about Grenada was going to the world’s first Under Water Sculpture Park at Molinere Bay.  Wow, that was an exhilarating experience!  All of you who have read my blog from the beginning know that I’ve always struggled to learn how to swim.  This summer, I had a breakthrough at my local swim school and was able to swim the entire length of the pool and back.  Even accomplishing this feat, I still have no clue how to tread water.   So you can imagine how the voice in the back of my head was screaming at me to stay on the cruise ship and let hubby go on this adventure by himself.  Still, I resigned myself to put on my swimsuit and take a book with me on the tour so I could stay in the catamaran if I changed my mind at the last moment.

Off I went on the catamaran, zipping over the waves, my hair streaming behind me, the wind whipping in my face – what a feeling of freedom and exhilaration!  Then we slowed down for our guide to share some details about the aquatic life around the island.  After this tutorial, our next stop was Molinere Bay.  It felt almost like an outer body experience, floating outside myself as I watched the real me get into a life jacket, flippers, and goggles, climb over the edge of the boat and ease into the ocean.   Now, all my friends will tell you that I am an extremely cautious person.  I am not a risk taker, and never have been.  Had you asked me about this last year at this time, I would have said, “I never will be a risk taker!”  Yet, having children changes you.  Having watched my kids learn to walk and talk and do all those incredible feats that they do in their first few years; having encouraged them to try again when they literally fall on their bums when learning how to walk; having been their cheerleader for three years and encouraging them to try something new even if they are scared, I decided to take the same advice myself:  to be brave and bold and try something new too.

Before I knew it, I was holding on to a little lifebuoy, swimming along looking at the most amazing, breathtaking vista before me.  Seeing fish in an aquarium pales in comparison to watching those iridescent luminous shimmering fish swimming everywhere.  It was breathtaking.  Then I glimpsed something off in the distance, coming into focus and taking shape as I approached.  There were beautiful sculptures dotted along the ocean floor!  My favorite was one called ‘Christ of the Deep’ standing majestically with arms outstretched and head looking up towards heaven.   Christ of the Deep was placed in St. George’s Harbor to commemorate the people of Grenada for their help and to thank them for the hospitality they extended to the people on board the Italian ship Bianca C after it caught fire and sank in the harbor. 

If you are in Grenada, book a Seafaris Powerboat Eco Tour and ask for Albert.  He is passionate about sharing the history and ecology of Grenada and is a wonderful guide of the underwater sculptures.  He was truly awesome at making the excursion interesting for both experienced and novice snorkelers!

Here are three of the most exciting highlights of the island:

  • Visit the Mona monkeys that live near Grand Etang National Park.
  • Tour St. George’s market for ginger, cinnamon, mace, turmeric, nutmeg, coconuts, bananas, and so much more.
  • Snorkel in the world’s first Under Water Sculpture Park at Molinere Bay.

Cheers,

From the beautiful island of Grenada

Char a.k.a Epic Mom

February 1, 2012

Cooking in St. Kitts

Dear Epic Readers,

I hope this post finds you well. As promised, here is the third issue in my Travel Tuesdays series. So grab a pirate’s punch and let’s hoist off on an epic adventure to St. Kitts.

Located in the Leeward Islands, St. Kitts and its sister island Nevis are two beautiful jewels in the Caribbean.  St. Kitts was originally settled by the Kalinago people, who named the island "Liamuiga," which means fertile land on account of its rich volcanic soil.   St. Kitts has since then been settled by the Spanish, Huguenots, English and French. It is an independent Commonwealth realm and Queen Elizabeth II is the head of state.

If you are trying to figure out the ideal time to visit St. Kitts, a very special treat will be waiting for you if you go between December 18th and January 3rd. During that time you will be able to visit their annual Carnival and join the party, or as the locals say, "jump-up in de band".

We arrived in St. Kitts on a cloudy day that quickly became sunny and bright. While waiting for our tour group to assemble, I meandered my way over to one of the locals and we had a wonderful conversation about her view of modern St. Kitts.   She shared that the changing social landscape of the island was creating a clear division in St. Kitts between the haves and the have nots. I thought this was too bad since they have many academic opportunities for post secondary graduates, such as the International University of Nursing, the International University of the Health Sciences, the Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine and the Clarence Fitzroy Bryant College.   If only young Kittitians had more intentional opportunites to access that education, maybe that systemic divide would eventually diminish.  It was a refreshing and honest take on island life that I have definitely heard before from other natives of smaller islands but I was still fascinated to get her take on it.   All too soon, I had to say goodbye and hurry off to join my group.

We were herded into a van and ambled on our way past a few of the universities mentioned above, to the Fairview Great House & Botanical Garden. When we arrived there we were greeted by a beautiful Kittitian woman in traditional garb who gave us a guided tour around the great house and later on throughout the botanical gardens. She was very well versed in the history of the Fairview and had a great knowledge of the traditional plants and their nutritional and medicinal usages. We were also able to sit in a cooking demonstration with their head chef.  My only disappointment was that I had anticipated participating in the cooking of the traditional Kittitian dishes but instead had to observe as the chef lectured and cooked.

Now if you are curious about the historical Fairview great house, it was once the residence of a French military commander before becaming home to various significant families such as the Mannings, humanitarian and New England lawyer John Gardiner, abolitionist lawyer James Stephen, and the great grandfather of the reknowned English Novelist Virginia Woolf. Later on the Lam family ran one of the island’s first full service hotels, “Fairview Inn”, which was known for its parties, especially the New Years Ball.  Mr. Kishu Chandiramani purchased it in 2008 and restored it to its former glory.

Now that you have some background, let’s check out some pictures of the Fairview great house and its surrounding botanical gardens in the vlog below.  I am also including a recipe that I was given for ‘Creole fish in a tomato broth’.  To all my foodie friends…bon appetit! 

 

Cheers,

 

From the beautiful island of St. Croix

 

Char a.k.a Epic Mom

 

   

Creole Fish in a Tomato Broth

1 Fish Fillet of your choice

½ cup diced tomatoes

½ cup diced green bell peppers

½ cup chopped onions

½ clove garlic

1 sprig thyme

1 sprig parsley

1 cup tomato juice

1 tablespoon olive oil

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

1 teaspoon brown sugar

1 tablespoon lime juice

1 cup water

Cajun seasoning to taste

 

Method:  In a hot pan add olive oil and unsalted butter.  Lightly sauté onions, garlic, and green bell peppers till golden brown.  Add brown sugar, Cajun seasoning, tomato juice, water and lime juice.  Bring to a boil and let simmer.  Submerge fish fillet in pot and reduce the liquid by half to intensify flavor.  This should take 10-15 minutes. 

Recipe courtesy of Fairview cooking class.

 

January 18, 2012

Review of The Celebrity Summit

The Celebrity Summit is a fine ship.  She is ten years old but still quite lovely to look at.  The Summit has beautiful exterior glass elevators that offer its guests a stunning panoramic view of the ocean.  As you move along the corridors, you will be fascinated by the works of art, reminiscent of an art gallery. 

The ship was inaugurated October 1st 2001.  It is 91000 tons, goes at a cruise speed of 24 knots and has occupancy of 2,034.  The Summit is a member of the Celebrity Cruises’ Millennium-class ships.  It offers 80 % ocean-view staterooms and 74 % with private balconies.  This ship has accommodations (like modifications in suites) for physically challenged guests.  Her passenger demographic is 30-65 years old, including couples, singles and families with toddlers to teenagers.  There are quite a few North Americans, South American and European passengers on board. 

There are many options of things to do on board.  Hubby and I actually went on a self guided tour on our first evening on board.  We started at the top and worked our way down, making our own fun along the way and joining in the regularly scheduled activities as we encountered them.  We had a great time.  Here is a summary of the highlights to be had when you are cruising the decks of The Celebrity Summit.

The Restaurants

Dining at the Normandie Restaurant on the Celebrity Summit (named after the French ocean liner), is an elegant affair.  There is a $40 per person surcharge for the dinner that lasts three hours.  From the moment you step foot into the room you are greeted to a gastronomic experience of extraordinary proportions.  Immaculately dressed waiters will present you with cheese trays to tempt you, cook flambé entrees at your table, and lure you into choosing that last tempting piece of dessert.  The service is exceptional and for the true foodie, you will want to sample the signature dishes that only The Normandie has to offer.  Hubby and I enjoyed an incomparable birthday meal there, complete with a surprise slice of birthday cake courtesy of the kitchen.   

We ate most of our meals in the wonderfully elegant two-level Cosmopolitan Dining Room.  It has glass windows that are two decks high that allow the warm, natural light to cascade in and offers remarkable views of the sea. The food was delicious and its presentation exceptional.  Every night, guests are offered select options of gastrointestinal treats featured from the Normandie Restaurant and other Celebrity ship restaurants.  There is also the choice of planned seating or paying a bit more at the beginning of the cruise for flexible seating. 

The Waterfall Cafe offers casual dining from 6:30 a.m. to 12:30am.  This includes breakfast and lunch buffets, pizza, afternoon tea and late night snacks. There are four buffet lines so you don’t have to wait in line.  You can get Asian food and pasta.  Check out the pancakes and waffles section with a selection of toppings for breakfast. The particular location of the waffle and pancakes seems to be the best kept secret on the ship because most people didn’t realize it was there until later on in the week.  Don’t forget to pop by this section at lunch to get a tasty sandwich made to order, including yummy Paninis.  The Waterfall Cafe also has floor to ceiling windows and glass floor areas so you get great views while you eat. 

Poolside during the day, you can get hot dogs, hamburgers, chicken breasts and fries. Look forward to the themed midnight buffets.  

The Aqua Spa Café by the thalassotherapy pool serves breakfast, lunch and light dinners. The menu includes low-fat cereals (including oatmeal), bagels and yogurt for breakfast. You can also get salmon, salads, wraps or chilled soups for lunches and dinners.  All of the meals offered here are exceptionally healthy.

Passengers can also order room service meals from the lunch and dinner menus during the hours those meals are being served. While on board, don’t forget to try Celebrity Summit’s Cova Café di Milano, which features sumptuous pastries, chocolates and specialty coffees from Cova of Milan, Italy.

Coffee, tea, milk and hot chocolate are available at no charge in the buffet and in other dining venues when meals are served. In the buffet they also have no-charge dispensers which offer several kinds of juices in the mornings and switches to iced tea, lemonade and fruit punch etc. later on. You can also get any of these drinks from room service at no additional cost. There is a charge for pop and any bottled or canned beverages. Drinks beyond fountain drinks, non premium coffee and tea are extra everywhere on the boat so your options are to charge your drinks to your room key and take care of the tab later or to purchase a drink plan at any of the bars.

Entertainment

There is a kids club called The Fun Factory which has an indoor playground with a ball pit and an outdoor playground.  It also has a cinema, small pool, Wii, play stations, etc.  They have activities for the whole family including arts & crafts, movie night, talent shows, food making and decorating.  They had “dinner parties” for the kids so parents could have a date night. 

If you have tweens or teens, they will enjoy going to hang out at the video arcade or checking out a movie at the theatre.

The Celebrity Theatre is the place to catch all full production shows.  It is a beautifully designed space spread out on the fourth and fifth levels of the ship.  It has shows at 7pm or 9pm so it is never uncomfortably packed.  Grab a seat, order a cocktail and get ready to be wowed.  Enjoy a spectacle of Broadway shows, comedians and other musical extravaganzas.  The performers are enthusiastic and talented, especially the aerial performers, who were out of this world.   

The Rendez-Vous lounge located on deck four is the place to be if you want to dance the night away.  You can also check out Michael’s Club for cigars and Cognac. Then pop over to the Summit Observation Lounge for spectacular panoramic views, live piano music and dancing.   If you’re feeling lucky, then try your hand at Blackjack, Roulette or Craps all at the Fortunes Casino.

The musicians throughout the entire cruise were truly talented and clearly passionate about their music.  They had us singing to the oldies and dancing to calypso, pop and Latin beats.

Fitness

If you’re in a Zen mood, then start out with a yoga or “Chilates” (Celebrity’s moniker for Pilates) class*.  Then head on over to the AquaSpa.  It has full Service Treatments. Their Renew spa and health program is broken down into three categories: “Ageless” (medi-spa stuff like Botox), “Longevity” (pain management options like acupuncture) and “Energy” (fitness classes).  There are classes available to learn how best to take care of your body and skin.  I chose to forgo most of those options and just get a hot stone massage that was out of this world followed by a stint in the Sauna & Steam Room.  I was totally relaxed by the time I got back to my room.  

The Thalassotherapy Pool comes from the idea that you can use seawater as a form of medical therapy.  Stand under the streaming water or lie on the slats and luxuriate in your surroundings. 

If deep sea diving has done irreparable damage to your do, then pop into the beauty salon for a touch up as you contemplate the ocean view laid out in front of you.

For more strenuous fitness activities, check out the Fitness center with free weights, treadmills, rowers, exercise bikes, step units, and aerobics exercisers etc.  If you want to work out some more, there are Aerobics classes and deck sports including basketball, golf simulator, ping pong, shuffleboard, and a jogging track.

Activities

Daily activities include shopping for duty-free items such as jewelry, fragrances, and souvenirs etc. at The Emporium.  Check out the Photo Shop for cruise photos of you and your friends.  Other fun activities include Modern Line Dancing, Karaoke, Latin dance lessons, swimming and playing water volleyball in the pools. You can also join the staff for themed activities like the poolside dance party at 10pm, which was led by the Cruise Director and the lead singer of the main band.  It was lots of fun (I danced so much I had to throw off my pashmina and shoes just to keep going).   If you need a quiet moment, head to the library or board games room. 

An activity that was affordable yet completely worthwhile, was their iLounge classes.  It was $15 per class or all 6 classes for $30 which is virtually unheard of anywhere else. You can take classes from an Apple-certified staff member, Learn how to use iPhone®, iPad®, iPod touch®, and MacBook Pro® and see how easy it is to use applications like iTunes®, iDVD®, iPhoto®, iMovie®, iWeb®.  You can also browse the web on MacBook Pro laptops, or buy the latest Apple iPods, laptops and other gadgets, duty free.   

General Pros and Cons

Pros:

·         It’s nice to have such a diverse staff on the ship; we really enjoyed looking at everyone’s name tags to see where they’re from.  This prompted some interesting conversations.

·         Champagne, hors d’oeuvres and fresh fruit upon arrival was a wonderful welcome.

·         Getting the itinerary of the following day each night so we can plan accordingly.

Cons:

·         The cabin bathrooms need some serious work.  Ours was quite dated and in need of repair, especially the shower.  (On a positive note, I hear the Celebrity Summit is scheduled to be renovated in early 2012.)

·         Passengers on Celebrity Summit can surf the Web in the cyber cafe at a flat or package rate, but their Wi-Fi leaves a lot to be desired.  They also disabled Skype and all other VOIP communication on board so you will not be able to Skype your family back home.

*Means extra charge

Conclusion

All in all, we had a wonderful time on the Celebrity Summit. I wholeheartedly recommend this ship to anyone considering going on a cruise.  I would give our overall experience on the Summit two hearty thumbs up!  Tune in next Tuesday for my travel review, “Fashion & Fun in the Sun in St. Croix”.