Friday, November 21, 2008

St. Augustine and Jacksonville

On November 7, we left Daytona Beach and drove up to St. Augustine, originally settled in 1565 and the oldest continuously settled city in the U.S. We found out that there’s a national monument there, Castillo de San Marcos, and being fans of National Park Service sites, we decided to check it out and learn the history of the area.

The Atlantic coast of Florida was strategically important because the Gulf Stream, the best shipping route to carry products from the New World back to Europe, flows right by Florida. The French established the first fort there, but the Spanish, under Don Pedro Menendez de Aviles, ousted the French and took control of Florida. British pirates were the new threat, and with the establishment of a settlement at Charleston, the English were encroaching on the Spanish space, so they built a fort to protect St. Augustine. Begun in 1672, Castillo de San Marcos was completed in 1695. In 1702, the English burned all of St. Augustine, but even a 50-day siege failed to take the fort.

The Spanish held Florida until 1763 and then, in the treaty that ended the French and Indian War, traded Florida to Great Britain for Cuba. With the end of the Revolutionary War, the Treaty of Paris gave Florida back to Spain, which then gave it to the United States in 1821. Finally, in 1935 it became a national monument.

The walls of the fort were constructed of Coquina, a sedimentary rock mixed with small shells that was used because it was readily available but turned out to have the happy property that cannonballs bored into the walls but didn’t break them.

Here’s the bridge over the moat to the inner entrance of the fort.

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The top of the fort afforded nice views of the bay.

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Some of the artillery atop the fort was museum-quality, including this mortar.

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After touring the fort, we walked around the old center of St. Augustine. It turned out to be disappointingly touristy, but it did have some nice sights, including this steeple.

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Here’s the view looking down George Street, the main pedestrian street in St. Augustine.

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And the self-proclaimed oldest wooden schoolhouse in the U.S.

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We left St. Augustine in the early afternoon and discovered in our guidebook that one of Anheuser-Busch’s 12 breweries is in Jacksonville, just an hour north of St. Augustine! We’re not particular fans of Budweiser beer, but we’ve done several microbrewery tours and thought a tour of an industrial brewery would be interesting for comparison.

At the brewery tours are offered every half hour, and we arrived just a few minutes before the next tour was to start – just enough time to admire the wide variety of Anheuser-Busch beers on display.

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As it turned out, we were the only people for our timeslot, so we got our own private tour. We got to learn about the history of Anheuser-Busch, in which the money came from Mr. Anheuser and the brewing and marketing expertise came from generation after generation of Busches, starting with Adolphus Busch, who married Mr. Anheuser’s daughter and applied many innovations that allowed for selling Budweiser nationwide, including pasteurization and refrigeration on railroad cars. After Adolphus, the Busches all seemed to be named August, with August Busch IV serving as the most recent CEO and signing off on the acquisition of Anheuser-Busch by InBev after 150 years of family control.

We learned that the difference between lagers like Budweiser and ales is in the yeast. The yeast used for lagers is bottom-fermenting and works at lower temperatures, while ales are fermented with a top-fermenting yeast at higher temperatures.

We found it interesting that Budweiser is made with rice mixed with the barley malt. In fact, we learned that the amount of rice vs. corn is one of the big differences between Michelob (Anheuser-Busch’s premium beer), Budweiser, and Bush (the low-end beer). Another difference is the barley used – Michelob uses all two-row barley, while Busch uses a mixture of two-row and six-row. A third is the hops – Michelob uses imported hops, while Budweiser uses a blend of imported and domestic hops.

Here’s a view of the massive, shiny beer-making equipment:
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The tour ended in the bar, where we got to sample our choice of Anheuser-Busch beers. Brian had the Budweiser American Ale and the Michelob Porter, and both were surprisingly good! Anheuser-Busch isn’t just Budweiser – they actually make good beers! This was a major discovery for a microbrew lover.

After the tour, Sarah got her picture taken with a life-size Clydesdale figure.

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Orlando and Daytona Beach

On Halloween, we left Miami after our cruise and headed up the Atlantic Coast of Florida. It was a gray day, with rain threatening, so we didn’t embark on any major outdoor activities, but we did stop in Boca Raton at the Gumbo Limbo Nature Center, which turned out to be surprisingly cool. It’s a 20-acre section of a nature park that’s reserved for education and research. First we played a game of matching bird photos to their names in the nature center. We did remarkably well after our weeks in Florida. Then we walked along the nature trail through the tropical hardwood hammock, which was habitat that we’d seen many times before during our Florida travels. Next we headed to the research area where a gender study was being performed on sea turtles. There’s apparently no easy way to tell whether a sea turtle is a boy or a girl, so the study was testing a new technique.

Now it was time for the afternoon fish feeding, which turned out to be the highlight of the whole day. Outside the nature center was a set of large cylindrical tanks holding a variety of sea life. We got to see a pair of loggerhead turtles, Milton and FeeBee, which were soon to be released back into the wild, where they would roam the world, literally – apparently, sea turtles can range over thousands of miles during lives that may last 80 years. As it turns out, they were released within the week, and their tracking devices showed that they swam six miles in their first two days of freedom.

Next we saw a green sea turtle named Wiggie that was extremely lazy – the feeder had to poke it to wake him up, and even then, it would only eat food placed right in front of its face. It had been captured in 1971 and lived most of its 60- or 70-year life in captivity, so we figured it was entitled to be lazy. There were many other interesting sea creatures in the tanks, including several varieties of lobsters, but the turtles were definitely the highlight. The only disappointment was that they didn’t have any leatherbacks on hand – leatherbacks have been found weighing up to a ton! They’re the largest reptiles outside of some crocodilians.

After the fantastic nature center, we continued up the Atlantic to West Palm Beach, where we admired the multimillion-dollar homes and the gorgeous windswept beach. Then we drove on to Kissimmee, where we would spend two nights.

Our plan was to go to one of the Disney water parks, but a check of the weather forecast made clear that it was too cold for an enjoyable trip to the water park. So we played a thrilling game of mini golf whose outcome was decided on the final hole and went to downtown Orlando to check out Fall Fiesta, a weekend art festival at Lake Eola Park. The lake was quite pretty.

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After that, we went to the discount theater to see Wall-E, which we found enjoyable but not quite as good as some of the earlier Pixar movies. We had to admit that the filmmakers had done a great job with the difficult task of making a compelling character out of a robot. That night, we went to Giordano’s for dinner. Giordano’s is a chain Chicago deep-dish pizzeria, and Brian’s favorite. We’ve never seen them outside the Chicago area except in Orlando, where there are several. We had a wonderful pizza of cheesy decadence before heading back to our hotel.

The next day we checked out one of several flea markets in Kissimmee. It was an impressive market – hundreds and hundreds of booths, all selling random crap like knock-off sunglasses, three-for-ten-dollars T-shirts, and cheap batteries. We paid a dollar for a sunglasses clip for our car that seems like it’s going to break any day.

After that, we drove to Daytona Beach, where we would stay in an oceanfront room for three nights! We’d found a great deal online, so a room that might be several hundred dollars during one of Daytona’s big tourist times (spring break, biker weeks, or race weeks) was less than $30 a night. Along the way, we stopped at the Southeast Museum of Photography, a small photography museum. It had several exhibits, including one really cool set of behind-the-scenes photos of American presidential life. The photographer was part of the White House press corps, but instead of just taking standard newspaper photos of presidents, advisors, etc., he photographed the entire scene – Secret Service guys, other members of the press – and in doing so, did a great job of capturing the scene.

After spending a long time enjoying the photos, we finally headed to our hotel, which was everything we hoped for and more. The exterior was a gaudy lime-green color, but the room itself was very nicely decorated and cheerful, and the view was absolutely fabulous. We didn’t wind up doing a whole lot in Daytona. The resort had DVD players available to borrow, so we got one and rented a bunch of movies from the nearby Redbox -- Sex and the City, The Bucket List, The Visitor, Forgetting Sarah Marshall. The resort also offered water aerobics at the pool of their sister property next door, so we did that a couple of times. The pool was beautiful – it was in a tropically landscaped atrium and had a water temperature somewhere above 90 degrees! We went running on the beach each day, too, which was fun. Daytona was like a ghost town in the off-season, so the beach was lovely. We loved the sound of the ocean so much that when we were in our room, we mostly kept the sliding door to our balcony open so that we could hear the crashing waves.

After three nights in Daytona we hadn’t had enough, so we found a web deal for two more nights. We checked out the Angell & Phelps Chocolate Factory, which offered a free tour. They don’t actually make the chocolate there, but rather make all sorts of confections using chocolate from elsewhere. We were amazed at how labor-intensive the process was – for instance, we watched a guy open a huge bag of potato chips and then dip each potato chip, one by one, in chocolate. What a crummy job! They gave us free samples at the end, though, which were fantastic – then we were grateful for all the employees’ hard work.

We also checked out the downtown pier area, which was a bit disappointing. It was pretty small and, not surprisingly, very quiet. It would probably be an entirely different scene during spring break. But we mostly hung out around the resort. We’d moved to a different room due to some noisy construction work that was going on in a nearby room. Our new room wasn’t officially oceanfront – instead, it had an ocean view – but it also had a full kitchen, so Sarah enjoyed being able to cook real meals without having to use our camp stove. The view was still pretty good too…

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After five nights, we finally decided we’d had enough and headed up to our next stop, St. Augustine.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Bahamas cruise

Although we had a lot of fun on the Gulf Coast of Florida, our drive down the coast was really just a precursor for the end-of-October highlight: a cruise to the Bahamas! We would leave on October 27 from Miami for a four-night cruise, visiting three ports in the Bahamas.

But as we left the Everglades, we had two nights left before the beginning of our cruise, so we headed to Homestead, where we had booked a hotel. The hotel turned out to be a dive, a far cry from the inviting photos online – so much so that Sarah wrote a letter to the hotel to complain. But it was only for two nights, and we survived.

We had a quiet stay in Homestead. We went to the movie theater to see Nick & Norah’s Infinite Playlist, which was cute. And the next day, we went to Biscayne National Park for a picnic lunch. The park was basically a city park – we were joined by lots of groups of Miami-area locals picnicking and hanging out on a Sunday afternoon. A boombox was blasting Latin music while parents and kids tossed balls and snacked.

Monday finally came – the day of our cruise! We got to the cruise terminal right at noon, which was the earliest time we could board our ship, the Norwegian Sky. When we boarded, we were welcomed with champagne. We ate an enjoyable sit-down lunch in one of the ship’s restaurants while we waited for our room to be ready, and then with great anticipation, we went to our room. Although it was tiny, as expected, it was also bright and clean, with a comfortable bed and a TV showing CNN and Fox News so that we could track the final days of the presidential campaign. Particularly after the disappointing Homestead hotel, this was fantastic!

After relaxing in our room awhile, we went back up on deck. A cruise ship was just leaving from another terminal.

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The harbor was pretty, packed with boats and backed by the Miami cityscape.

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Here’s Sarah, enjoying the sunshine.

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And then within half an hour, we were moving! As we crawled out of the port, we got views of how the rich and famous live. This looked like a sweet boat:

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Another yacht, with oceanfront mansions behind it, with some palm trees to protect them from prying tourists:

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As we left the port, we passed Miami Beach.

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And then, just as we were about to enter the open sea, we passed a newlywed couple taking photos.

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Way out in the ocean, we passed this surfer, standing on his board and paddling.

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It wasn’t long before we were looking back on Miami to the west, and beyond the city was a gorgeous sunset!

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And then the sun was gone.

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We took each other’s photos in front of the sensational sky.

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If anything, the sky just got prettier after the sun had set.

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We spied the other cruise ship that had left Miami ahead of us, also making its way to the Bahamas.

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As the sun dropped further below the horizon, the clouds burned a brighter and brighter orange.

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On the deck of the ship, a few other people were also starting off their cruise by enjoying the sun’s last light.

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That night, we sat down for dinner with two other couples. The guy sitting next to Sarah was born in Italy and lived in Africa, and Sarah had a great time talking to him. After dinner, we went to the opening-night cruise show, which was a sampler of the attractions to come. The Broadway-style singers and dancers performed a couple of songs, and the cruise’s comedian/magician did a short show. The cruise director was a little bit lame, but we enjoyed the other acts.

The next morning, we got up early, ate the breakfast buffet, and watched as our ship pulled into Freeport on Grand Bahama Island, our first stop in the Bahamas!

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Freeport is a very industrial port with not a lot to do right near the port, so we decided to book a shore excursion for this day. A bus took us to Port Lucaya, where we boarded a catamaran for snorkeling! The seas were a bit choppy, but it was another bright sunny day!

After a short ride out to sea, the crew dropped anchor and told us we could jump in. The seas were so choppy that they made us all wear life vests. Almost immediately, we were looking at coral and brightly colored tropical fish below us. We got so caught up in admiring the fish and following them around that we got too far away, and one of the crew had to swim out and tell us to come back closer to the boat. There was lots of fish action close to the boat, too, in part because the crew threw food into the water to attract the fish.

After a long while of snorkeling, Sarah was cold and finally got out. She shivered violently for a while in the breeze before finally warming up a bit. Brian stayed in for the full 1.5 hours and wound up being the last person out of the water. It was a wonderful excursion!

The catamaran had a water slide that dropped straight into the water, but we were so busy watching the fish that we never used it. The boat also had a climbing wall, though, and on the trip back to shore, Sarah tackled it.

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The other passengers, many older, were amazed at her climbing prowess. Here she is, basking in her newfound climbing celebrity, and just a bit wind-blown.

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When we got back to our ship, we admired its cheerful paint job.

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We took one more photo of the industrial port area before heading back to our stateroom.

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In our room, Miss Potter, with Renee Zellweger, was playing, and we had to watch, since it brought back good memories of Beatrix Potter’s children’s book, The Tale of Peter Rabbit, for Sarah. After that, we had another nice sit-down dinner before heading to the theater for a Broadway-style show. We were lucky to get seats just a couple rows from the stage for what turned out to be a great show. The Broadway group was really talented – great singing and dancing, lots of enthusiasm, and mostly in sync. They performed songs from a variety of different musicals, including a few from Mama Mia.

On our second full day of the cruise, we were in port at Nassau. The morning started out a bit cloudy, but it was good weather for walking around. Unlike Freeport, the Nassau port is close to town and there is a lot to see within walking distance.

We got off the ship and walked down the pier, dodging the myriad ship photographers who wanted to take our picture with a person in a parrot costume, under a Bahamas sign, in front of the ship, etc. They sure are persistent.

Looking back, here’s our ship, docked in its home port.

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We strolled down Bay Street, a major shopping center, and admired the brightly colored buildings and alleys. It was still early, not even 9 am, so the streets were nearly deserted.

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We were looking for the straw market, where locals sell their wares, but nearly missed it because it was further down Bay Street than our guidebook indicated. The market burned down several years ago and is now located under a huge tent. There were dozens of vendors with tiny stalls and tons of goods packed under the roof. Some of the vendors weren’t at work yet and their stalls remained covered in tarps. Bags and purses were popular items for sale, as well as lots of touristy trinkets.

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We were practically the only tourists in the market. It was hard to imagine maneuvering through the aisles when the place would be filled up with people later in the day.

Right next door was SeƱor Frog’s.

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From there, we continued our walking tour. We found that drivers were quite pedestrian friendly. One actually stopped so that Brian could take this photo of the Government House without having a car in the picture.

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Our next stop was the Central Bank of the Bahamas. The lobby area housed a fairly sizeable collection of paintings by several local artists.

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Next door, was the Balcony House Museum, which is also run by the Central Bank of the Bahamas.

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There, we were given a tour of the house. The house is noteworthy for being the oldest wooden structure in the Bahamas, dating from the 18th century. The house was eclectically decorated from different time periods when it was lived in and included a number of features that were salvaged from wrecked ships, including a beautiful mahogany staircase.

Moving along, we passed the library.

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We aren’t sure what this building was, but the red shutters were eye-catching.

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Finally, we reached the Queen’s Staircase.

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The 65 stairs are carved out of solid limestone and were named in honor of Queen Victoria’s 65-year reign. The staircase originally served as a quicker route to Fort Fincastle, which was located on the highest part of the island and was used as a lookout.

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The views from the top were indeed expansive. Among other things, we could see our ship in the port.

There was another straw market at the base of the fort.

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From here, we resumed our walk, planning to cross the bridge to Paradise Island and see the Atlantis resort.

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Before crossing the bridge, we stopped at Potter’s Cay (pronounced, unintuitively enough, “key”) under the bridge. There we got a look at the third-biggest industry in the area – fishing (the first two are banking and tourism).

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Brightly colored market stalls filled the spaces under the bridge, though many of the stalls sat empty.

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Conch seemed to be the primary catch this time of year.

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The fishermen were very friendly, even though we weren’t interested in buying their fish. This man spent a long time telling us about fishing conchs.

The fishermen dive down to remove the conchs off the bottom of the sea. In the past, some fishermen have dumped the shells overboard where they fished, and that created problems with the conch population because the conchs will not re-inhabit an area strewn with previously used shells.

Another fisherman invited us onto his boat to see the fish stored in the hold below the boat. The entire bottom of the boat was used to store fish and had holes to allow water to circulate.

We took some more pictures of the harbor and then continued along.

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We backtracked to one of the bridges and crossed over to Paradise Island, home of the Atlantis resort. From the middle of the bridge, it was easy to get a sense of the enormity of Atlantis.

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This is the original Atlantis building. The brightly colored buildings in the foreground are also accommodations associated with the Atlantis resort.

Up closer, here’s the main Atlantis building, the Royal Towers.

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Inside, we passed through a huge casino to get to the Great Hall of Waters, where we could see the Ruins Lagoon. We opted to view just the free portion of the aquarium instead of paying $36 each to see the whole thing. The lagoon was fascinating. The best part was the two manta rays.

There were a number of other fish as well.

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After spending about a half hour watching the fish, we skipped the upscale shopping and exited the building, hoping to walk around the outdoor lagoons. As it turns out, most of the outside area was off-limits unless you are staying at the hotel or willing to pay $65 to use the pools and beach or $150 to use the water park. We decided to pass.

Right next to the resort was a public beach, Cabbage Beach. It took some walking to get there since the resort itself is so large, but we weren’t disappointed. The sand was bright and clean, there were enormous waves crashing, and it wasn’t too crowded.

Sarah enjoys lounging on the sand.

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Here’s Brian nearly being swallowed by a wave even though he’s only about 10 feet from the edge of the water.

For as few people as there were on the beach, there was no shortage of people trying to sell us drinks in coconuts or offering to braid Sarah’s hair.

We hung out and enjoyed the beach for a couple of hours before heading back to the ship.

We’d done a lot of walking in the morning, so instead of walking back, we took the water taxi from Paradise Island back to the main island and the cruise ship terminal.

We spent the rest of the day just hanging out on the ship – using the exercise room, enjoying another sit-down dinner, and watching the comedy show of the evening. We were surprised to see that we were still in port in the evening but later discovered that the ship had stayed late in port for maintenance. We could have gotten back off the ship to take advantage of the local nightlife, but we decided to pass.

We spent the final full day of our cruise at Great Stirrup Cay. Great Stirrup Cay is a private island owned by Norwegian.

The cruise ship anchored off the island, and we were taken over to the island on a tender boat.

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The island had a large beach on a lagoon that was set up with beach chairs and umbrellas. There were also numerous picnic tables and hammocks, volleyball, ping pong, and a small straw market.

We took the first tender boat of the morning, so the beach was pleasantly quiet when we arrived and stayed that way for a couple of hours. We lounged in the chairs reading for a while, played some ping pong, and enjoyed the hammocks. Eventually, the beach started to fill up. About this time, a band started playing and they fed us a barbecue on the beach.

After lunch, we took a stroll to the other side of the island where there is a lighthouse and a small, hard-to-find beach. There were only a couple other people on the beach. We finally started back to the main beach area, planning to go for a swim.

By the time we got back, they were loading people onto tender boats to evacuate the island early because the water had gotten so choppy. We were a little disappointed, but since we’d come over early we did get quite a bit of time on the island. Apparently a couple of years ago, a number of cruise ship passengers got stranded overnight on a nearby island when the seas became too rough to get them back to the cruise ship. That sounded like not much fun.

Back on the boat, we enjoyed dinner looking back on the island. As we sailed away, we could see lightning in the distance.

That evening, we watched the final Broadway-style dance show before calling it a night.

Friday morning, we were back in Miami. We took our time eating breakfast and getting off the ship. When we did finally get off, we noticed some oddly dressed port employees. It took us a few minutes to realize it was Halloween. We’d completely forgotten.

Next, we’d start our journey up the east coast.