Saturday, January 30, 2016

Carnival's 7-Day Southern Caribbean Cruise--Alluring Islands With A Connection to Charleston's Past

Petit Piton
Cruising south from Castries City, for a glimpse of the island's major attraction, the rugged cliff-lined coast of St Lucia was dotted here and there by stretches of secluded beaches overshadowed by thick droves of palm trees and dripping wet rainforest-covered mountains. Glistening in the equatorial sun, well positioned luxury resorts clung to the lush, rocky landscape for optimum views. We exchanged cutesy group poses and soaked in the natural beauty as the boat cut through the warm Caribbean waters and balmy breezes. Despite the rolling surf, I strategically positioned my bobbing camera to record each passing panorama.

After many snapshots and a couple of complimentary rum concoctions, the islands oldest town, Soufriere, came into view and not far beyond, the two volcanic spires of the Pitons--our first stop. From peak to surf, the steeper Petit Piton sharply descended from a dizzying height of 2,469 feet before disappearing into the surrounding arsenic blue waters to a depth of 3000 feet. Separated by Sugar Beach, the taller Gros Piton descended from a height of 2619 feet. The captain slowed the boat to a crawl. We humbly gazed upon its majesty and fantasized about diving from its rocky ledges. With first leg of our excursion accomplished, it was time to move on to our next stop--a sandy beach and a relaxing swim.

The preceding commentary described one of the memorable highlights of my first trip to the turquoise-wrapped islands of the Caribbean. An extra special trip because I spent it with my oldest daughter and a group of some thirty other spirited vacationers brought together by our cruise organizer and friend, Tony Colon of Tony's Travel Service. Initial destination was Old San Juan in Puerto Rico. Moored in its port, Carnival's 2974 passenger ship Liberty awaited our presence. For 7 days, we cruised around the sundrenched, rum soaked islands of the Southern Caribbean to five different ports-of-call: St. Thomas/St. John, Barbados, St. Lucia, St. Kitts, and St. Maarten, respectively. We were nurtured by an abundance of sunshine, caressed by warm tropical breezes, gently rocked by calm seas, soothed by the rhythmic sounds of the steel drum, and treated to an abundance of food, drink, and entertainment.

After a 20 minute drive from the airport through the busy, narrow streets of Old San Juan, we arrived at the terminal around 4:30 pm, Puerto Rico time. Docked nearby Carnival's drop-off point was a fully outfitted replica of a pirate ship--a tantalizing preview of what was yet to come. We checked in, received our sail and sign cards, and made the exhilarating walk to the gangway where we crossed over and through Liberty’s teak-trimmed entryway into its beautifully decorated Main Lobby. We located our cabin on Main Deck 2, went to Lido Deck for our first buffet dinner, returned to cabin to unpack our suitcases, hung out with fellow travelers, attended the safety meeting, back to Lido Deck and the RedFrog Rum Bar for a celebratory drink, and at 10 pm, stood on Panorama Deck to view the historic sights of Old San Juan as the ship gracefully exited the port and entered the open sea. Destination--the cosmopolitan island of St. Thomas/St John.

Day 2: St. Thomas/St. John. The Liberty eased into the port of Charlotte Amalie around 7 am. I was up early on Panorama Deck to watch the 110,000 ton steel behemoth gently make contact with the pier bumpers for a picture perfect docking. Our plan was to spend the day at Cinnamon Bay on John's Island. We didn't purchase the excursion on the ship, Tony nimbly negotiated transportation. We would take a tour bus to Redhoook Bay for $16 round trip, board a ferry to Cruz Bay on St. John for $12 round trip, and then take another tour bus to Cinnamon Bay for $8 round trip. The beach was picturesque, the water pure Caribbean, and offered terrific snorkeling for the hearty swimmers. We tossed the football and drank Carib beers (reminded me of a Corona).

Day 3: Fun Day At Sea. We hung out at the pool, watched drink mixing contests, played corn hole, sat in the hot tubs, and ate awesome burgers from Guys Burger Joint on Lido Deck--Liberty's onboard activities.

Day 4: Barbados. On this day, the group went two different directions. Some went to Harrison's Cave, but the majority of us purchased the 4 hour Jolly Roger Pirate Party Cruise and Snorkel for $69.99--this was the only excursion purchased on ship. It was a short transfer from the ship to 110 foot Jolly Roger pirate ship--not exactly a tall ship, no sails, but it did have a big ship's wheel. We snorkeled around a sunken ship and cruised the coast to a location to snorkel with sea turtles. Though I personally did not see a sea turtle, I did have a blast walking the plank for a twelve foot plunge into the warm Barbados waters. We partied like pirates, drank rum and Banks beer, danced on the upper deck, and made one water rescue--an over-enthusiastic partier did a face-plant overboard while dancing on the boat’s rail--courtesy a little shove.

Day 5: St Lucia. By far my favorite island, the scenery was dramatic and strikingly impressive. After fellow cruiser, Dane, skillfully haggled for a $25 boat excursion, we piled into the tour bus ($18 round trip) to the boat where we traveled the rugged coastline of St. Lucia to the island's number one attraction--The Pitons. After taking in the splendor and grandeur of the Pitons, we spent the rest of the excursion on one of the island's secluded beaches. Rum concoctions were served on board and I learned how to blow into a conch shell like a fog horn.

Day 6: St. Kitts. The ride ($20 round trip) to Cockleshell Bay at Reggae Beach Bar and Grill was filled with winding, steep hills and picturesque vistas--expensive homes and beautiful, emerald bays. The beach was crowded. "There is nothing free on the beach," the local beach attendant said in a typical island accent. Negotiating for a chair and umbrella for a large group was tricky, but Dane did his best--two chairs and an umbrella for $10. The snorkeling wasn't the best and the beach was narrow, but the view of the volcanic mountain on Nevis was spectacular. We played beach volley ball and drank $2 Caribs.

Day 7: St. Maarten. A beautiful tropical breeze greeted us in port. We secured a tour bus ($18 round trip) that would take us to the Pinel Island ferry at Orient Bay on the French side of St. Maarten. It was a pleasant ride through the small towns of the interior. The ferry was $8 round trip, which was a short ride over shallow waters. The beaches on Pinel Island had soft sand and marked off swimming areas. Two chairs and an umbrella was $15 for the day. The snorkeling was decent near the rocky shorelines outside the swimming areas. On the beach, the Karibuni Restaurant served excellent food and selections were made from your chairs and brought to you by beach attendants. We soaked in the warm, tropical sun and drank Presidente beer and Pina Coladas.

I have always said, "I am happy doing anything, along as I am doing something," and my cruise to the Southern Caribbean on Carnival's Liberty was something. It was well worth the $625 per person fee for an Ocean View cabin. The Liberty was nicely presented and graciously represented. The dinners were satisfying, the buffet filling, the shows entertaining, and the dining service top notch.

It was a wonderful 8 days spent with my daughter, revisiting old acquaintances, and forming new friendships. The group of fellow cruisers I had the pleasure of hanging out with, mostly young couples, were refreshingly open and exceedingly entertaining. My late seating dinner group were a pleasure to break bread and tilt a glass with. I partied like a pirate, drank rum like Captain Jack Sparrow, busted a move with our head server, participated in a dance-off, and succeeded at not embarrassing my daughter. For everything else I did, blame it on the Malbec.

St. Thomas/St. John Excursions
Barbados Excursions
St. Lucia Excursions
St. Kitts Excursions
St. Maarten Excursions

Monday, January 11, 2016

The Victor Social Club On Hutson Alley--Enjoy A Double Dose Of Hemingway In Your Daiquiris

Ernest Hemingway was an American novelist, short story writer, and journalist. He published seven novels, six short story collections, and two non-fiction works, most of which were produced between the mid-1920s and the mid-1950s. He won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954. Additional works, including three novels, four short story collections, and three non-fiction works, were published retrospectively. Many of his works are considered classics of American literature.

Hemingway was a seasoned traveler. His journeys took him from Key West to Cuba and distant places like Kilimanjaro, Venice and Paris. To get a real taste of local life, he advised, "Don't bother with churches, government buildings or city squares, if you want to know about a culture, spend a night in its bars." Hemingway did exactly that, and in the process acquired a self proclaimed reputation.

Hemingway was well known for drinking. Many of his stories and most famous quotes are laced with references to drinks and drinking. In The Sun Also Rises, Jake Barnes has a Jack Rose while waiting in vain for Brett. In A Farewell to Arms, Frederic Henry has a couple of "cool and clean" Martinis; they made him "feel civilized." In For Whom the Bell Tolls, it is the ritual of dripped absinthe that gives Robert Jordan’s temporary solace from the rigors of war. And in "Islands in the Stream," young Tom Hudson made a drink for his father, with the assurance, "I put lime, bitters, and no sugar in it."--Hemingway did not like sugar in his drinks. "Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut" and "An intelligent man is sometimes forced to be drunk to spend time with his fools” are just a sprinkling of quotes ascribed to Hemingway.

During an extended stay in Cuba, whenever someone made the trek to Havana to be introduced to the novelist, Hemingway would meet them at La Florida bar, affectionately known as the "Floridita." A. E. Hotchner, the playwright and biographer who wrote "Papa Hemingway," reported after shaking Hemingway's "thick and square" hand, the first round of giant Daiquiris arrived. Hemingway himself described a properly beaten Daiquiri as looking "like the sea where the wave falls away from the bow of a ship when she is doing thirty knots." The giant Daiquiris, christened Papa Doble, were double frozen Daiquiris made to Hemingway’s particular specifications. Hemingway boasted to have "made a run of sixteen here one night."

Hemingway, as far as I know, never visited Charleston, but his drink has found its way into one of its drinking establishments. The place is The Victor Social Club and the drink is called The Hemingway. The sophisticated social club is quietly tucked away off of busy King Street on classy Hutson Alley.

Part of a multi-establishment concept of Holy City Hospitality called the Hutson Alley Project, it is flanked on both sides by Michael's on the Alley and Vincent Chicco's. Originally, there were hints of another registered name to be called The Blue Marlin Bar, but it appears the idea was woven into the character of The Victor Social Club. A prominent feature of the club's ornamentation is a huge painting of a marlin mounted high above its bar. It fits the Hemingway theme--The Old Man and the Sea, one of his most famous works, tells the story of Santiago, an aging Cuban fisherman who struggles with a giant marlin far out in the Gulf Stream off the coast of Florida.

Hutson Alley is beautifully adorned by a brick lined, patterned-cement walkway with evenly spaced palm trees and black light posts while green, leafy vines cover the building's aged red brick walls. Each establishment has its own glass door entrance and each is marked by a rustic, sliding steel door leftover from the building's honored past. Although, each has their own entrance, they share one central kitchen headed by Executive Chef Aaron Lemieux.

As you step through The Victor Social Club's entrance, you're greeted by a room with vaulted ceilings, exposed brick, and a most engaging bar. Nautical paintings highlighting more of Hemingway's favorite fish adorn the outer walls, intimate table settings for two line its perimeters, and a grouping of cozy, black couches set in a circle embellish the middle of the spacious room--perfect for socializing. For private events, it offers rooms that can be transformed to host professional gatherings or celebratory affairs.

The Victor Social Club menu features classic cocktails, icy cold beers, as well as an extensive wine list. Holding to the Hemingway theme, a New Happy Hour Menu combines Cuban inspired fare with innovative cocktails. Available Monday-Friday between 4-7pm, the new menu delivers an array of flavors from fresh local ceviche to a pulled pork Cuban sandwich.

Some of the elite clubs of Charleston's past included the St. Cecilia Society, the Charleston Club, the Huguenot Society, the Carolina Yacht Club, Emerald Social Club, the Annex Club, and the Harmony Social Club. Today's Victor Social Club pays homage to the social club legend of eighteenth-century Charleston with some Papa Hemingway whirled vigorously in.

Both Michael's on the Alley and Vincent Chicco's are on the list for Charleston Restaurant Week--January 6-17, 2016.

Want to try Papa Doble in true Hemingway fashion? Combine two and a half jiggers (or 3 3/4 ounces) of Bacardi White Label Rum, the juice of two limes and half a grapefruit, and six drops of maraschino, all placed in an electric mixer over shaved ice, whirled vigorously and served foaming in large goblets.