With 1,600 cruises to the Caribbean and the Bahamas each year, Carnival Cruise Lines is trying to mix up the lengths and destinations on its itineraries to give loyal guests something new to try. Cruise editor Tom Stieghorst recently sampled one of the more unusual itineraries, an eight-day cruise out of Fort Lauderdale on Carnival Freedom with two port calls, Aruba and Curacao, deep in the southern Caribbean. His first dispatch follows.
CURACAO — By the time we got to Curacao on the fifth day of our cruise, my 15-year-old daughter had made friends aboard, including a boy who persuaded my daughter that organized shore excursions were a waste of money, and that the way to go was to debark, explore and meet the locals on their own ground.
We decided to give it a try.
The first half hour was spent walking into Willemstad, across the pontoon bridge into the old Dutch downtown. It felt pretty touristy, full of clothing stores and watch purveyors. We stopped to buy a batido, a tropical fruit smoothie, from a street cart vendor and talked with her for a while.
We had arrived in Curacao at 1 p.m. and, less than a week after the summer solstice, the glare and heat were relentless. Carnival Cruise Lines is trying to offer some new itineraries, and the late arrival meant we would spend until 11 p.m. docked in the city, with an evening to spend ashore.
But the afternoon stretched ahead. We were on our own and none too sure of what to do next. We pushed on, walking out of the downtown into a new district that turned out to be rather fascinating.
The Pietermaai area of Willemstad is on the rebound from what was a low point in its history. It is full of old Dutch residences and small commercial buildings. Some of the mansions along the shore were obviously showcases in their day. Today, many of them are in shambles.
Among the ruins, however, are restored buildings housing a fine dining restaurant or a chic boutique. In contrast to the bleached concrete and faded red roof tile of the abandoned buildings, some of the restored ones sported deep blue or bright red paint jobs.
We scouted several attractive restaurants as potential dinner venues. But we had walked for a good hour in the heat and we were a mile or more from the ship. It was time to think about getting back.
Just then, a jitney pulled up to us. We were obviously tourists in need of transportation to Mambo Beach. We asked the fare and it was $2 each. We didn’t know where Mambo Beach was or if the jitney was safe, but one way or another, our adventure was about to get more interesting.
On the way to the beach, we chatted in Spanish with the driver and passengers about the multiplicity of languages spoken in Curacao. We got to Mambo Beach and it turned out to be where many of our fellow cruise ship passengers had been taken on their excursion.
Later that night, we returned to Pietermaai to dine at the Cristal restaurant, a small home that had a beautifully lit bar, white walls, a cool tile floor and hurricane shutters on the open windows. The Caribbean night had turned magical and my two daughters and I enjoyed a great meal and local hospitality before heading back to the ship for our late departure.
It was a fine ending to an interesting day, made possible because we got out on our own and did a little exploring. Over the course of the eight-day cruise, we also took some fun excursions organized by the ship, but the day and night in Curacao is what I’ll remember most from our trip.
Follow Tom Stieghorst on Twitter @tstravelweekly.