We recently embarked on a 10 day #MyEndlessSummer Celebrity Equinox Cruise, in the middle of winter. Read more to find out how you can experience your own #MyEndlessSummer adventure, any time of the year.
When spending time on the vast Celebrity Equinox, it’s easy to forget that you’re in the middle of the ocean. Caught up in the music and the food and the stage shows and the shopping and the many activities scheduled throughout the day and well into the night, I quickly realized that the ship and its meticulous staff could provide everything I needed for a memorable vacation.
But there was another side to our ten-night Caribbean cruise, a duality that added a richness and depth to the experience. I found that even the tantalizing whirlwind of sights, sounds, tastes and smells offered on the Equinox couldn’t lure me away from the ocean for long. I was relentlessly drawn to it — No matter where I was or what I was doing, it wasn’t long before I’d find myself peering over the nearest railing or staring, mesmerized, out one of the Equinox’s picture windows. My memories of our cruise include a fabulously decadent meal of lobster and chateaubriand — and the deep and endless blue of the ocean at a depth of 55,000 feet. I remember the aerialists who performed perilous contortions right over my head in the Equinox Theater — and the explosive sunsets every evening that often brought tears to my eyes. I still dream of swimming in a sun-warmed pool with my children while a Spanish guitarist played just a few feet away — and I still think of the miraculous colony of flying fish we watched in awe one afternoon as they soared like birds over the water before splashing back in and wriggling away, scales flashing in the sun. I won’t forget dancing with my 9-year-old son at an exuberant outdoor stage show — nor will I forget the wonder I felt at the ever-changing colors of the water as our ship powered through the Caribbean Sea.
I slept like a baby each night in our comfortable bed aboard the Equinox, but I always woke at some point between 2 and 4am and stumbled out to our balcony, where I’d stare at the billions of stars jockeying for position in the sky and the dark, foaming ocean that seemed to stretch on into infinity. Mornings would find me on the balcony again, mesmerized by the achingly beautiful colors of ocean and sky at sunrise. As we sailed on for days at a time without ever once spotting land, I gained a much deeper understanding of just how big our world really is and how tiny we are in it — a perspective I’d missed in my decades of air travel.
It took two full days and nights of sailing before we arrived in St. Thomas, a 32-square mile island that’s part of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Although we’d had a spectacular two days on the Equinox (more on that here), we were excited about spending a day exploring St.Thomas’s capital city, Charlotte-Amalie and snorkeling off the coast of nearby St. Thomas.
We had booked this shore excursion ahead of time with Celebrity’s Shore Excursions staff. At each port, a range of activities are offered that help you make the most of the limited time you have at each destination. What I loved about the selection of excursions was that there was something in each port for absolutely everyone. Athletically-inclined adventurers might choose a rainforest hike or SCUBA diving, for example, while parents with small children might opt for a relaxing day at the beach. There were many, many excursions to choose from at each port and the only problem we had was deciding which activity we wanted to do most!
No matter what you decide to do in St. Thomas, you’ll want to keep an eye out for one of its most famous residents as soon as you get off the boat. Look at the rocks surrounding the water and you’ll notice they are covered in iguanas!
They are Green Iguanas, to be precise — Scientists believe they originated in Central and South America and either floated to the Virgin Islands on debris or were brought over by Amerindians as a food source. They look a little scary, but they’re actually pretty harmless, and they’re definitely fun to photograph!
I loved St. John from the moment we arrived, and want to return to spend more time there in the future. 60% of this island is national park and the island is rich with history. There are petroglyphs here carved by the Arawak Indians, as well as a 500-year-old archaeological dig site in Cinnamon Bay, where volunteers are helping scientists uncover the secrets of the Taino Indians’ ceremonial activities.
On this day, though, we boarded a bus bound for Caneel Bay.
Our bus let us off at the ruins of a 1780 sugar plantation inside the Virgin Islands National Park. From here, we took a trail into the forest for the ten-minute guided walk to Caneel Bay. It was a beautiful day and the birds and plant life were fascinating to us- We didn’t mind the walk at all.
How could we when this was where we’d be spending our day?
Caneel Bay was purchased by Laurance Rockefeller in the 1950s. He later gave the land to the United States, on the condition that it always remain in its natural state. Today, Caneel Bay is only accessible by boat or ferry — Consequently, it’s a perfect place to escape from the crowds and swim and snorkel in pristine waters.
Our children have only discovered a passion for snorkeling this year, so this spot was perfect for them in particular. They were able to take their time in the shallow waters getting used to their gear before we went out deeper for a swim over the nearby coral reefs. We loved gazing down at the brightly colored fish and seeing coral for the first time. We also spotted a stingray and were able to watch it for a long time before it swam away.
We were also excited to spot a few of the island’s wild donkeys. These donkeys were originally brought to the island in the 1600s to work on the sugar plantations, and were left behind when the colonists moved away. Today, about 300 wild donkeys live on St. John — Some islanders love them but others see them as a nuisance since they bite and kick without warning and love to eat the food of unwary travelers. We kept a safe distance, just in case!
After a full day of swimming, snorkeling and suntanning, we headed back to the bus and then onto the ferry, where rum punch awaited the adults and fruit punch awaited the kids.
As we headed back to our ship, I looked up at the majestic Equinox and felt so excited and grateful to be getting back on board, where a clean room, hot showers, and the promise of a decadent evening of food and fun awaited.
We headed out to sea at sunset and I managed to snap this last picture of St. Thomas. It’s one of my favorites of the trip.
After a night of fun and a restful sleep, we woke the next morning in beautiful St. Kitts.
It’s impossible to capture the beauty of St. Kitts and nearby Nevis in a photo- Both islands’ landscapes are dominated by dormant volcanos (I heard rumors that Nevis residents have started hearing some rumblings over the last few years!) and both are wild and sprawling and gorgeous. This is another Caribbean destination I’d like to return to and explore more.
If we hadn’t had the kids with us, I would definitely have chosen to climb to the top of the volcano here in St. Kitts — That was one excursion option. Instead, we chose what would end up being the children’s favorite shore excursion of the cruise: swimming with dolphins.
Dolphin Discovery was just a short shuttle ride from the port. The marine mammal specialists were very professional and the dolphins’ habitat is as close to the real thing as it’s possible to get. This is a perfect shore excursion for children who are comfortable swimming in a lifejacket in deep water. And if they get a little frightened even then, don’t worry- A staff member will swim out in the water with those who are nervous, whether they’re children or adults!
Here, we got an up close lesson in dolphin physiology.
But the best part, of course, was actually swimming with the dolphins. In this shot, a dolphin is actually pushing my nine-year-old to shore with its nose. Later, we were each pulled to shore by a dolphin.
A word of advice– There are two dolphin shore excursions available — Spend up on this one. With the less-expensive option, you basically just pose for a few pictures with the dolphins and give them commands. With the ‘Dolphin Swim, Push & Pull’ experience, you actually get to swim with them, and this was absolutely the highlight of our experience.
We still had a few hours left when we took the shuttle back to the port, so we decided to explore the capital city of Basseterre. Once a British sugar colony, St. Kitts is now an independent country, but much evidence of its British heritage remains, from the historic Treasury Building to the Circus roundabout in the town center, a replica of London’s Piccadilly Circus.
The Circus is easy to find and only a couple of minutes walk from the port. If you’re hungry, consider eating at Ballahoo, a breezy upstairs open-air restaurant in the square. We’d read that Ballahoo’s conch chowder, chicken and shrimp roti, and conch fritters were all delicious — Unfortunately, the waitress informed us, they were out of everything except the fritters.
No problem, mon– Fritters it was! They were, indeed, delicious — so delicious, in fact, that we ordered more and endured the long wait to get them. We didn’t mind — Food service in the Caribbean is notoriously slow, so as long as you go into a restaurant expecting a wait, you’re good. Besides, the Equinox was just minutes away– We weren’t concerned about going hungry!
After lunch, we walked a couple of blocks inland to Independence Square, named when St. Kitts gained its independence in 1983. Back in the 1700s, this square was the center of business and social life in St. Kitts. It was also the site of a slave market.
Basseterre is an interesting town, full of crumbling colonial structures in various states of disrepair and cheap souvenir shops selling shellac-glazed conch shells and brightly-colored caftans wafting in the breeze of the entranceway. On the street corners, women sell fresh melons to the locals, cutting them open with enormous carving knives. Green monkeys are frequent visitors here– In fact, there are more green monkeys in St Kitts than there are humans. While most of them stay up in the hills and mountains, a number of them have made their home in the city, where they fight in the fruit trees and steal what food they can find. We were warned several times to avoid vendors on the street with trained monkeys — They try to coax tourists into taking a picture with the monkey, then demand $20 for the ‘privilege.’ Also, the monkeys have been known to bite.
We wandered the streets for a while, then headed gratefully back to the Equinox. Our next stop would be Barbados.
Once a British colony, Barbados is now independent but as with St. Kitts, the British influence on this island is evident. Barbadians speak perfect English – Our guide there told us they take great pride in speaking a purer form of English than what’s spoken today in the United Kingdom. Today, Brits account for 40% of tourists who come to the island.
As soon as we stepped off of the Equinox, we got on another boat and headed back out into the ocean, where the boat sputtered to a stop. For a long moment, nothing happened. And then…
I was a little nervous about how we were going to get from our boat to the submarine in fairly choppy waters, but the process was remarkably easy. The toughest part was actually going down the ladder into the submarine.
Inside the submarine, it is cramped and packed with people — This tour is definitely not for the claustrophobic! Once we all got on board, we slowly descended 150 feet down to the ocean floor, where we a fish-eye view of a coral reef and a shipwreck.
My poor camera couldn’t do this coral reef justice — We saw vibrant corals, anemones and sponges and watched schools of brightly colored fish dart past our windows. My daughter even spotted a green turtle.
It was another once-in-a-lifetime experience, and at 45 minutes, it managed to hold my kids’ interest. Once we resurfaced and took the boat back to shore, each of us received a certificate so that we could prove to the world that we’d participated in a submarine dive to a depth of 150 feet.
Back on land, we boarded a bus and took a two-hour guided tour of the island. It wasn’t the most adventurous way to spend the day, but I loved getting to see so much of the island in such a short time. Our driver took us past million dollar mansions and resorts and showed us where Tiger Woods got married and where you could have dinner for $400 per person — but what really stood out to me was what was all around the expensive homes and hotel — houses like this one:
And lots of little bars like this one:
As our bus puttered up into the hills of the island, the houses gave way to fields and acres of sugar cane.
Back in the 1600s, Barbados was a leader in sugar production, but over the centuries, its sugar production has gradually lessened to the point that it’s now almost non-existent. Today, high-priced developments are springing up in between tumbledown houses and tire barns and roadside markets. It’s an uncomfortable juxtaposition, yet we found the people of Barbados to be among the friendliest we encountered on any of the islands.
Our tour culminated in the shade of the world’s largest mahogany forest, at the top of Farley Hill National Park. Here too were the remains of a grand mansion that once boasted 99 windows and was considered to be the grandest estate in Barbados. Today, it’s home only to an inordinate number of feral cats.
Just steps away from the ruins is a spectacular panoramic view of the island:
Once our tour came to a close and our bus returned us to port, we gratefully boarded our ship and got cleaned up back in our stateroom. While the kids rested and watched one of the free on-demand family movies available in our room, Dennis and I sat on the top deck with a glass of wine and watched Barbados fade into the distance.
Next up was an overnight stop in St. Maarten, an island whose control is divided between the Netherlands and France. It ended up being our favorite port stop on the trip. We arrived late in the afternoon the first day, just in time for a sunset cruise around the island.
There wasn’t much more to this shore excursion than sailing around the island, sipping on delicious rum punch, listening to a musician play on steel drums and chatting with friends, but it was one of my favorite shore excursions. The weather was beautiful, the music was great, and the late afternoon sunlight gave the island of St. Maarten a fairytale-like quality.
Our boat returned to shore after dark, and while we had debated making the ten-minute walk into town, in the end we decided to head back to the Equinox for dinner. After all, our next day in St. Maarten was going to be a big one.
We got up bright and early the next morning for what would be THE GREATEST SHORE EXCURSION OF ALL TIME. And don’t take it from me- Everyone in the group, which included a few diehard cruise veterans, agreed it was the best shore excursion they had ever booked. Our party included my family, our new friend and photographer for the trip, Bob, two sweet retired ladies from North Carolina, and Javier De Jesus, Executive Chef for the Celebrity Equinox. He would be spending the day with us and showing us around the island, along with our very knowledgeable guide, who’d lived in St. Maarten for nearly two decades.
We began at a St. Maarten cheese shop, where we learned all about Dutch Gouda and got to taste several varieties of it for ourselves. More than 80 varieties of Gouda are made in The Netherlands, including goat milk Gouda, aged Gouda, wasabi-infused Gouda, honey-flavored Gouda, and many more. It was amazing how different each cheese tasted based on its age and ingredients, even though all were technically Gouda.
You might think a cheese testing would be a little dull for our kids — NOPE. My kids are cheese fanatics and were 100% on board with this activity. They even helped us select which cheeses to buy and bring home afterward — My son has been having Old Amsterdam-flavored macaroni and cheese ever since we’ve returned home and I have to admit, it’s divine.
Once we were loaded down with Dutch cheeses and souvenirs (the cheese shop ended up being the best souvenir stop on our trip, by far), we drove over Cay Hill to Marigot, on the French side of the island. Here, in Saint Martin, the atmosphere was totally different than in Dutch St. Maarten — Bakeries and bistros and even roadside creperies abounded. We stopped at an outdoor marketplace, where locals sold all kinds of exotic spices, herbs, and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Chef De Jesus spent a lot of time talking to the vendors and carefully examining the produce and spices. He told us about his favorite Caribbean fruits and vegetables and gave us ideas on how to prepare them. He also bought some for our meal later that night. Meanwhile, we sampled chunks of fresh pineapple and melon — Both were sweeter than any fruit I’ve ever tasted. I suddenly understood why those roadside fruit stands are so popular with locals in the Caribbean.
Next, we headed to a Marigot seafood restaurant, where the local chef challenged Chef DeJesus to what can only be described as a Ceviche-Off, using fish caught just that morning. Each chef made his own version of ceviche, while we watched and sipped on French wine. The winner? US. We got to snack on both ceviches and while they were very different, I honestly couldn’t say which was better because I loved them both.
Here, we enjoyed a leisurely lunch and got to ask our Celebrity chef everything we’d ever wanted to know about what it’s like to head up food operations aboard a luxury cruise liner. This was my favorite part of the day, because everyone in our group was inquisitive, interesting, and engaged in the experience, and we had plenty of time for conversation during lunch. I felt like I really got to know Chef De Jesus and appreciate his enthusiasm for his job. He was so devoted to the menu, the staff, and the quality of the foods he sources from ports around the world that it became clear to me why our meals on the Equinox were so outstanding. I also got a feel for our chef’s favorite ingredients, like cilantro and peppers, and for the rest of the week, I could see his signature touch in so many of the dishes we ate.
Of course, the menu at Ocean 82 wasn’t bad, either!
Stuffed and happy, we all headed back to our shuttle for a ride back to the Equinox. On the way back, Chef De Jesus pointed out the island’s ‘lolos,’ inexpensive barbecue joints that the locals love. I can’t wait to come back to St. Martin and check some of them out. Cynthia’s Talk of the Town in particular was right on the beach and packed with people.
With conch sausage, Johnny cakes, grilled lobster and fried plantains on the menu, my mouth is watering just thinking about it!
We got back to the ship with a few hours to rest, shower, and dress for dinner — but this would be no ordinary dinner, because our shore excursion wasn’t over. We met up with Chef De Jesus again at 6:15 and he took us straight to the kitchen.
Here, we got a behind-the-scenes look at all the work that went into preparing our meals on the Equinox. It was an especially fun tour because we were there at the most chaotic time– when dinner was being served in the main dining room. Servers and chefs were everywhere and we tried our best to stay out of their way.
Despite the controlled chaos, everyone seemed genuinely happy to see us. They all spontaneously whooped each time we came into the galley and laughingly posed for pictures. I love seeing happy employees because I believe their overall attitude says a lot about the quality of the business itself.
Next, Chef De Jesus led us to the Tuscan Grille for a special dinner he’d made just for us, using some of the ingredients he’d bought that day.
It’s hard to even find words to describe this meal — Suffice it to say that we were totally and completely awed by the food and the attention. Chef De Jesus frequently brought various chefs to meet us throughout our meal and was on hand the entire time to supervise the foods that came out and answer all our questions. Far more food was brought out than what was on this menu– In fact, don’t think I’ve ever eaten so much food in my life at one sitting!
Suffice it to say that we will never, ever forget this day as long as we live. This particular shore excursion is expensive, but in my opinion it’s worth every penny. We’d do it again in a heartbeat.
Our final shore excursion was actually onboard the Equinox on our last day at sea — but it’s another on I’d heartily recommend. We took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Equinox.
From the laundry…
To the pantry…
To the control room…
To the captain’s bridge, we got a look at everything, and got to ask questions about how it all works. The tour is a little dry for kids, but I think it was important for my children to see all the effort that goes into running a ship the size of the Equinox. I know I learned a lot!
Our cruise aboard the Celebrity Equinox felt a little like two vacations in one — On the ship, we felt like royalty, with delicious food available at all hours and over-the-top entertainment and luxurious five-star service from a large and attentive staff — but we also felt like explorers, mentally charting the geography, history and culture on each island we visited, and experiencing the sights, tastes, smells and sounds each destination had to offer.
I’m thrilled that my kids had an opportunity to visit four (!) new countries and to start to get a feel for the size of this beautiful earth and their place on it. We have all returned home with so many new stories to tell and experiences to share. We’ve come back forever changed, in a very good way.
Want to know more about what we did with the kids while onboard the Celebrity Equinox? Check out my first post in this series: A Celebrity Cruise with Kids: Here’s Everything You Need to Know.