Monday, March 17, 2008

Aboard Fred. Olsen's Balmoral cruise, port stop: Antigua

Our story so far, as chronicled in Smarter Cruising on March 12-14:

I'm aboard the Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines' newest ship, the Balmoral, on its maiden voyage out of Miami into the Eastern Caribbean. Previous port stops have included Grand Turk, St. Bart's, and St. Maarten, along with two full days at sea. Fred. Olsen is a longtime, well-respected British cruise line with a fleet of five ships, and is starting to acquire greater name recognition in the U.S. High points on the Balmoral have included great food, lots of deck space, and a friendly, low-key atmosphere.

The Balmoral arrived in St. John's, Antigua, at 8 a.m. March 8 and tied up at Heritage Pier, a short walk from town.

I wanted to get out for an early walk since I had to fly back to the U.S. that afternoon (after an all-day stop in Antigua, the Balmoral and most of the rest of its passengers would continue on to St. Kitts and Tortola before returning to Miami in a few days). I was off the ship before 9 despite feeling a bit woozy that morning. Having to dodge a number of zealous taxi drivers offering rides around the island didn't help my equilibrium, but I was able to have a look around St. John's before heading back to the ship for final packing. (The only advantage to leaving a ship before the end of the cruise is a more leisurely, less crowded disembarkation.)

While the area near the pier is fairly colorful and seemed a bit more authentic than your typical cruise ship pier shopping complex, I can't promise you great things from St. John's, which overall seemed a bit shabby. Its major landmark, the twin-spired Anglican Cathedral of St. John the Divine, which dominates the city from a hilltop, is in severe need of a landscaping makeover.

My suggestion is to take a look around on foot and then head for one of the island's 365 beaches (whether this number is entirely accurate, I can't say, but it does make for a great tourist slogan: "a beach for every day of the year"). There's not much in the way of public transportation so you may want to make a taxi driver's day and hire him for the trip.

I got to see a fair amount of Antigua's coastline on the ride to the airport in early afternoon, and it does appear to be a lovely island, though one with a good deal of development (Barbuda, which together with Antigua make up the island nation of Antigua and Barbuda, is more pristine). No less a celebrity than Eric Clapton maintains a home here, though I must add that he also has a house in Columbus, Ohio, so we may have reason to question Eric's taste. (That gratuitous slam at Columbus was brought to you by a University of Michigan grad -- Go Blue!).

But I digress. En route to the airport the group of travel writers I was with stopped at a very scenic local resort for lunch, complete with views of the turquoise Caribbean and a menu that could have been out of a, well, Columbus, Ohio, diner: burgers, hot dogs, fries. Most people opted for the one interesting-sounding item, curried chicken, and liked it. I was still feeling woozy or worse and the owner, taking pity, brought me a delicious pumpkin soup, not on the menu. But where was the grilled fish? Still swimming in the Caribbean, I guess.

Antigua has a beautiful little airport, and after forfeiting my half-finished bottle of water to airport security, which I'm sure made everyone feel safer, I was winging my way to San Juan and later to cold, grim Newark, New Jersey, and then into New York City.

Starting next fall, the Fred. Olsen line will begin Caribbean sailings out of Miami aboard the Balmoral's sister ship, the Braemar, which carries between 700 and 800 passengers. As did the Balmoral last fall, the Braemar will be undergoing a lengthening and refurbishment, adding more cabins with balconies and an English-style pub.

Meanwhile, the Balmoral will return to Europe and other destinations for the near future.

To check out all that Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has to offer, go to its website here or call 800/843-0620 in the U.S. or 44 (0) 1473 746175 in the UK.

Photos courtesy of Peter Knego.

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