What to Expect from an 18 Day Cruise

An 18 day cruise? That sounds pretty intense, doesn’t it? A friend of mine, travel agent and cruising expert Ben Bielkiewicz recently went on such a 2 1/2 week cruise around the Caribbean, as well as South & Central America and had a fantastic time. So I decided to interview him and share his adventures on board and out exploring nine countries during this fabulous cruise. Here is what he had to say: 

Ben, you recently went on an 18 day cruise that took you around Central and South America as well as the Caribbean. Where did you stop on this adventure?

 

 

Miami  – Key West – Cozumel

    I was very fortunate to be able to sail with Azamara Club Cruises.  Azamara is unique that their ships itineraries are contently changing and rarely do the same routes twice.  On this particular route, we set sail from Miami FL.  From there we headed to Key West and then onto Cozumel where we spent two days. 

In Cozumel, I rented a scooter for a day to get a feel for all that the island had to offer.  If you are ever in Cozumel, I highly recommend checking out Coconuts bar and grill, Its a 20 min drive from downtown to the east coast of the island.  The beer was cold, and views were spectacular!  Located on a remote bluff that overlooks the crashing waves of the Caribbean Sea it is truly a special place. Next, we were off to the Banana Coast (Trujillo), Honduras.  Trujillo is different because only three ships have ported there this year.  Trujillo is also unique because the city sits on a mountain side and is still untouched by tourism and outside influences.

Costa Rica

    From there we headed to Puerto Limon, Costa Rica where I spent the morning exploring the Tortuguero Canals.  It was an amazing experience to travel by boat up and down the canals.  In the distance you could hear howler monkeys talking to each other and high in the trees tops sloths were sleeping.  Surrounded by Caymans, we were reminded to keep our hands inside the boat at all times.  There were various species of birds and giant blue butterflies that would emerge from the surrounding jungle that made for an incredible adventure. 

  

Panama Canal

One of the highlights of the cruise was the Panama Canal, indeed a wonder of the world and engineering marvel.  The canals were finished in 1914 and to be able to travel on a ship through the canal felt like I had touched history.  We did not go all the way through. Instead, we were raised to the huge lake, Gatun Lake where we were surrounded by cargo ships from all over the world patiently waiting for passage from one side of the world to the other.  As we sailed around the lake, I had the opportunity to speak with a wise gentleman: Jim Snyder, who was on his 85th cruise.  Through my binoculars, I could see some of the most pristine untouched beaches I had ever laid eyes on.  I inquired with Jim about these beaches and why I could not see any people or well anything on the beaches.  He directed my eyes to another beach a bit further away.  I could barely make out what looked to be fallen trees. He told me that they were not trees but massive crocodiles! So this lake where the jungle seemed to fall into the water with gorgeous beaches belonged to nature and the crocodiles that call it home.

Cartagena, Colombia

    The next leg of our journey brought us to one of the most beautiful cities I have ever set foot in, Cartagena, Colombia.  Truly like something out of fairy tale, the old town boasted history, romance, and beauty around every corner.   From the vibrant locals to the bustling street vendors, every corner I turned had more to offer.  There was music flowing from shops and bars, local dancers in every park and sellers offering local hand-crafted art and jewelry.  And what a time to go, being the holidays the whole city changed and came alive as the sunset.  Every home and building lit up in festive Christmas lights, and every church was overflowing with weddings and ceremonies. It was a city unlike any that I have ever experienced.

ABC: Aruba – Bonaire – Curacao

    Next on our journey were off to the ABC islands, Aruba, Bonaire, and Curacao.  These islands are part of the Netherlands, and you can still see the influence.  Little known by most visitors these islands are all dessert islands, full of sand and cactus.  Aruba is quite well known to tourists and travelers alike, and here I spent the day on De Palm Island.  A short drive from Oranjestad, De Palm is a small all-inclusive island that offers snorkeling, a water park, banana boat rides, a grill and bar and so much more.  The weather was supreme, and I spent most of the day in the water warm turquoise waters surrounded by Blue Parrotfish and got a glimpse of my first ever octopus while snorkeling in the coral reefs that surround the island.

 

Next was Kralendijk, Bonaire.  Bonaire is widely known to have some of the best diving and snorkeling in the world.  So when in Bonaire…  Of course, I had to check out the famous coral reefs.  I boarded a small boat (the Sea Cow) with about 15 other passengers from the ship, and we set out for Klein island.  Klein island is part of the Bonaire National Marine Park and is truly a marvel.  A short trip of about 15 minutes brought us to the edge of an underwater drop off, within 25 feet of the spectacular beach was a 90-foot drop-off.  Lining this drop was the most diverse and unique coral I had ever experienced. Teaming with life, schools of fish, coral and sea turtles surrounded us as we swam through this amazing underwater forest, it was a marvel to experience.

    Our final destination in the ABC Islands was Willemstad, Curacao. Here I disembarked the ship to take a tour of the island and walk in the footsteps of runaway slaves.  First, we headed to the Kueba di Hato caves.  I relatively easy climb (about 50 stairs) brought us to the entrance to caves like I had never experienced before.  Located on the side of a hilltop the caves were first discovered by runaway slaves who used them to hide during the day from their previous captures.  Dark and slippery and full of fruit bats these caves surprised me, unlike any other caves I had explored they were hot!  Sweltering, it felt almost like a sauna inside, stuffy and humid very different than what I was expecting. And bats everywhere, small only about the size of a mouse these caves have been home to these bats for centuries.  From the caves, I was given a tour of the city, the history, the people and the lands.

 

 Jamaica

 On the final leg of our 18 day cruise, we stopped in Ocho Rios, Jamaica.  Jamaica, unlike the ABC islands, is a tropical island, covered with lush jungles and diverse in species.  Here we set out for the Blue Hole, massive waterfalls emptying into a magnificent blue body of water.  Was really a unique and amazing adventure followed by tubing lazily down a calm river that ended with ziplines through the jungle.  I could not have asked for a better way to round out the trip of a lifetime.

 

What were your top 3 stops on this cruise and what made these stops so special?

 Wow, this is a tough question…  I guess I would have to start with Trujillo, Honduras.  Unlike any of the other ports, Trujillo was just so unique. The city that sat on a hillside and was I guess for lack of better words destitute. The buildings were a bit run down, but for me, that added to the beauty of the experience. Tourism has not yet got its hands on this untouched area. 

 

Trujillo & Black River Waterfalls

It was here that I had heard about La Cascadas de Rio Negro (black river waterfalls).  I had been exploring the city when in the distance I heard a woman’s voice say in perfect English “I live here” while speaking to other guests of the ship.  I approached her and asked if she could direct me to the waterfalls.  Her face immediately lit up, and she grinned at me with a sparkle in her eye.  I was fortunate to have run into a local woman (who was from the States and living in Trujillo). She was so sweet and beyond helpful.  She inquired as to how I knew of this local secret, and I informed her I  had done my research before arrival and just happened to come across a mention of the falls in an article I had been reading.  She told me of her last hike to the falls and how as she sat on the banks of the river a cougar had come out to get a refreshing drink from the flowing water.  I was beyond excited to see and experience something that only the locals knew of. 

She put me in a cab and a 15-minute drive later I was dropped off on the property of yet another American.  Two brothers had been living in this quiet town for eight years, and now they call it home.  I spoke with this gentleman for about 20 minutes on how to navigate my way through the forest.  There was no real trail to follow, but there were mule trails used to bring goods to the few people that lived in the jungle. 

 

After discussing the best way to find the falls I set off on my journey.  It was hot and humid, as I made my way through the jungle.  A canopy of large palms and local fauna surrounded me.  Sunlight peered through the rare openings in the trees and bounced off the huge elephant ears that surrounded me.  As I hiked, I thought how untouched and quiet the jungle was, in the distance I could hear the roaring sound of the black river and my excitement grew.  About 20 minutes into my hike a beautiful thing started to happen…  Butterflies began to emerge from the thick jungle that engulfed me.  Huge blues and purples, reds and magentas, colors I had never seen before, large butterflies would dart across my path and be gone as quickly as they appeared. (Too fast to get any photos, unfortunately).  

It was about 30 minutes into the journey that I came across my first set of small falls.   The “trail” led me to a small opening where I was able to navigate via rocks and boulders to the middle of the river.  It was here I sat and listened, nature all around me, untouched by modern man.  I honestly felt like I was one of few people to ever sit on this rock and that I was experiencing something that, so few will ever get to touch, to see. 

After a quick dip in one of the natural pools had carved out by the falls, I decided to press forward and hopefully catch a glimpse of the large falls I had set out to experience.  Another 20 minutes or so I came to a fork in the path, one direction seemed to disappear into the jungle, and the other looked relatively easy to navigate.  I, of course, chose the easier looking route being that I was hiking alone through a strange jungle.  About 10 minutes into this path it was made clear to me that I had chosen wrong, as I was climbing the side of the mountain.  So I turned around to explore the other path.  While retracing my footsteps to the fork in the trail, I came across an un-nerving site.  There next to one of my footprints was a huge paw print.  It looked like I had some company on my journey.  Remembering earlier about the story of the cougar seen here a few months prior I decided to push on with great caution.  As I approached the fork again I heard a most unexpected sound, children laughing.  For hours I had been alone in nature with just my thoughts and the sounds of the jungle, and out of nowhere the joyful sound of children laughing and playing.  As I followed the laughter, I came to yet another natural pool with half a dozen local kids (no older than 12) swimming and playing in the fresh waters.  They were, to say the least, shocked to see a traveler emerge from the trees into their hidden playground.  They let me swim with them briefly to cool off from my long hike.  And I was off once more as I was running out of time before I had to turn back to make the ship before it left. 

In the distance, I could hear massive amounts of water rushing down the river, and I knew my destination was fast approaching.  Another 15 minutes or so and I had arrived!  The most beautiful, untouched spectacle of nature stood in front of me.  A massive waterfall pouring out of the jungle, no people, no signs of modern man, just me and raw beauty!  It was truly a sight like none other.  Unfortunately, I was hard pressed on time and had to snap a quick photo and head back to the ship or face being stuck in Honduras for who knows how long.  As I made my way back down the mountain, it occurred to me that I had not seen any wildlife (other than butterflies)  and the occasional insect.  No birds chirping, no lizards, nothing at all.  While I trekked through the jungle I thought could this be due to my “friend,” the cougar who had been checking me out?  I had to put that thought out of my mind though I still had quite the long hike ahead of me. 

 After 5 hours of walking through the jungles of Honduras and experiencing what only the locals know about I have to put Trujillo on the top of my list of destinations I have experienced not only on this journey but in all of my life.

 

Cartagena & Hanging out with the Locals

The next stop on my list of top 3 would without a doubt have to be Cartagena, Colombia.  I honestly did very little research before arriving. Instead, I phoned a dear friend of mine who is from Bogota. She informed me that the city is one of the most gorgeous that I will ever experience and that all I needed to know was enjoy and explore.  So I took her advice and upon arrival Ivar (a Norwegian travel agent I met on the ship), and I set off to explore this deeply historical and romantic city. 

A short shuttle ride from the port dropped us at the entrance to the old town.  We were greeted by a massive historic building painted in a vibrant orange color that set the stage for wonders that unraveled with every turn we took.  The narrow streets were all paved with cobblestones and surrounded by high stone walls of the old fort that once protected the unique city.  Canons still lined the tall stone walls aimed out at the sea warning any would-be intruders to keep their distance.

 

As we maneuvered our way through the city, I couldn’t help but notice all the doors were large pieces of art adorned with massive decorative handles and door knockers.  The building all maintained in the traditional fashion, brightly painted in oranges, yellows, and pinks, street vendors lied on every corner selling their hand-crafted jewelry, hats, and paintings.  Every turn opened up new sights and wonders that kept my eyes dancing and opening wider with excitement. As we navigated our way around the city, the skies started to darken, and an eerie storm rolled in.  Ivar and I stepped back into a doorway to avoid the impending rain. As we stood there waiting for the storm to pass the massive 12-foot wooden doors opened behind us.  There stood the sweetest women beckoning us to come in out of the rain.  We now stood in a dark tapas bar; the woman was just cleaning from the night before and preparing to open for the day. 

She invited us to sit and have a cold beer with her.  We both let her choose some local beers, and she poured them into cold mugs and proceeded to tell us about her bar and her life.  Her English was quite good and made us both feel at home.  As we chatted and got to know her the oddest thing came up, not only does she speak English but also Norwegian!  What were the odds that an American and a Norwegian walk into a bar in Colombia only to find the shop owner spoke both our languages!  We enjoyed a few beverages and great conversation before heading on our way. 

Ivar had to return to the ship, however, I wanted to see what this gorgeous city looked like at night.  As the sun set, I had just made my way to one of the massive walls that surrounded the town and snapped an amazing picture of the sun setting over the ocean where the new city met the old.  It truly added to the fairytale of a city that I was reveling in.  I then headed back into the ancient town which was now adorned with Christmas lights and music radiating from every shop.  As I continued to explore, I came across a small park.  Here I found a slew of local dancers all done up in traditional attire, with drums and unique instruments that were very foreign to me. As the music played, the dancers broke out in the most amazing dance routines that I had ever seen.  But beyond the beauty of the dances, it was the genuine smiles that stretched ear to ear of every performer made the experience so much more. This was truly a perfect end to a perfect day.

Jamaica & Waterfall Adventures

Finally, on my list of top three places would have to be Ocho Rios, Jamaica.  This was the last stop of my incredible journey and really left me wanting more.  From the port, I boarded a small tour bus and headed to the Blue Hole.  It was about a 20-minute drive up a mountain on a rough, winding dirt road (of which the driver assured me was a two-way street) I had a tough time believing that, though.  When we arrived at our destination, I was in awe.  I was handed a life vest and helmet and set out on my final adventure.  As I climbed a small hill the jungle opened up and in front of me was a gorgeous waterfall that fell into a, well for lack of better words a blue hole. I was still unsure of exactly what was yet to come. 

    My group and I climbed down the hill and ventured into the crisp cool waters of the river.  From here we ventured upstream to a few small falls where we jumped and swam in the natural pools carved out by the falls.  As we made our way down the river, we came back toward the large fall.  Now we were at a Tarzan rope swing that dropped you into beautiful turquoise waters.  This was a bit tricky for some in my group, and they simply climbed down to the natural pool.  I was in my element and grabbed the rope tight, and the guide whispered in my ear “backflip”!  I am not one to turn down a challenge so off I went…  Flying over the fresh waters, I tucked and leaned back as I let go of the rope.  Landing, well pretty close to a full backflip haha.  But the cold waters and unique experience made my awkward attempt at a flip all worth it.  Now we were off to the large falls that I first saw when we arrived. (I’m not the best judge on heights, but I guess maybe 40 feet tall)  off to the side of the fall a large platform had been constructed that jetted out over the falls. I never hesitated as I ran off the platform and flew over the edge and came crashing into the Blue Hole!  What a great way to start my day!

The day was far from over. Next, we took another short bus trip to yet another river.  Here we ditched the helmets and traded them for inner-tubes.  A short walk from the bus we came to a calm opening to yet another turquoise river.  A fantastic guide was in the water helping everyone in their tubes and sending us on our way.  A few minutes into floating through the jungle, I hear in the distance behind me; our guide had broken out into song!  How surreal to be floating through the jungle and “One Love” by Bob Marley was being echoed throughout the surrounding forest.  As I laid back, I thought: “How could this day get any better?” 

 Well, it did!  We floated around a bend in the river, and suddenly, just ahead of us, a local man stood in the river with a  cooler and bottles lined up.  He sold selling refreshing cocktails and cold beers! Who could turn down a refreshing Red Stripe (local Jamaican beer)  while floating down a river?  This was just such a unique experience and a relaxing way to contemplate the journey I had been on. 

We were still not done yet!  After exiting the river, we made our back towards the tour bus.  Here yet another group of guides was waiting for our arrival.  And for the last time that day we traded back to our helmets and harnesses.  The final leg of the day’s adventure was zip lining through the jungle.  We listened to a brief intro on safety, and how to control our descent and off we went.  After a relatively short and easy hike, we were once again on the top of a hillside staring into the pristine jungles of Jamaica.  Surrounded by lush vegetation and birds echoing throughout the jungle, I was strapped in and off I flew, allowing gravity to pull me through the canopy of the trees on a wild and exhilarating experience.  I was still not done; this zip line was attached to a huge tree, where I was then strapped to another and finally one more that brought me back where we started. 

All this adventure and excitement left me starving!  And right on queue as if the guides had read my mind we were ushered into the small lodge overlooking where we had spent the day.  And a traditional meal of jerk chicken and rum punch was served.  I can honestly say that might have been one of the most amazing days I have ever had.

 

Tell me a little bit about the ship? What does the ship have to offer and did you enjoy your time on board during sea days?

 

   The Azamara Quest is a relatively small vessel in comparison to some of the giants that sail the seas now.  The ship accommodates just 694 guests and boasts a fantastic staff.  The Quest still boasts all the modern amenities that you would find on any other major cruise line.  Cabaret lounge with shows nightly, casino full of slot machines, cards tables and all sorts of great games.  Buffets and cafes, sit down breakfasts, lunches, and dinners as well as two great specialty restaurants.  A gorgeous pool with hot tubs, Spa, gym and of course bars and lounges all over the ship.  My veranda room was smartly adorned with a king size bed, 40″ flat screen, small writing desk and a comfortable couch with table.  A notable perk when booking Azamara Club Cruises is that the basic alcohol package is included!  (including things like Smirnoff, frozen drinks, and domestic beers).  Also, all sodas and bottled waters are included throughout the ship and gratuities are also part of the cruise fare. 

 Another great thing that I found onboard was there were daily seminars.  The speakers were very knowledgeable and were based on the upcoming ports.  It was a great way to learn about the history and geography of the destinations that laid ahead of us.

 As far as what was offered to entertain you while at sea…  There was a lot!  Azamara knows how to through a party!  On almost every Azamara sailing there is what is called the Azamazing evening, and it def stood up to its name!  This itinerary the entire ship was shuttled to an incredible outdoor amphitheater where amongst white table cloths amazing views we were treated to our very own private concert on the beaches of Cozumel!  Food and drinks flowed as we listened to the amazing sounds of Barry White Jr.  Truly a great tribute to his father and music from the era.

I thought after the concert how could Azamara top that?  Well, they most definitely did.  Not once, not twice but on three separate occasions, the upper pool deck of the ship was transformed into some of the best parties I have ever had the pleasure of attending!  In Cartagena, 40 dancers were brought on board, dressed from head to toe in spectacular traditional headdresses and colorful outfits.  They performed and danced while we enjoyed a fantastic buffet full of fresh fish, fruits, and vegetables that had been sourced from the city earlier that day.  A few nights later, in Bonaire, a similar spectacular was put on again!  Dancers and fresh fish that was caught earlier that day.  They still weren’t done… The final and most spectacular party would have to be the white party.  For one last time, the entire pool deck was turned into a fantastic outdoor dining room, and every guest got into the spirit.  Everyone dressed to the nines in white, the servers and bartenders also adorned white, the flags and decorations, you guessed it white!  What a party, the band was out of this world.  I had met a young woman (Anastasia from Germany) earlier on the cruise.  She and I danced the night away under the stars. 

 

How is an 18 day cruise different from a 6-7 day cruise?

    Well, there are some big differences when it comes to sailing for 18 days.  The most significant difference in my mind would be the people. I truly was able to get to know those whom I sailed with.  I came off of this trip not only with some great memories and experiences but also people that I will call friends for life.  We had time to sit and chat, learn and share with each other and that has always been one of the best things that travel has brought me.  Beyond the friendships, 18 days I think allows you to be able to relax and take your time a bit more.  I had more than enough time to explore and get to know the ship as well as never feeling rushed.  I always knew that there was plenty of time to do everything or nothing at all.

 

Who is this cruise for?

 This particular cruise was most definitely not for everyone. 18 days is a long time for most people, and if you are not an avid traveler who is ok with downtime or know how to occupy your time, there could be some slower days.  Also due to the length of this particular itinerary the average age was the mid-60s.  There were few to no children on board however on shorter cruises Azamara does offer great kids programs.  The nightlife tended to die down around 11 or 12, so it was not a “Party Boat.” There were a few nights that the lounges would stay open a bit later, but for the most part, the ship was quite after 11:30. 

The shore excursions offered through the ship were very thought out and well done.  The lounge shows were very smart and entertaining, and even guest performers were flown in, like magicians and singers from Vegas, along with spectacular dancers.  Another surprising aspect of the ship was the food!  And there was always food! The menu would change daily and feature unique cuisine from around the world.  One night would be authentic Indian, while the next would be Asian.  One point I have to stress is that Azamara is constantly changing their itineraries and lengths of cruises. 

During my 18 day cruise, I had the pleasure of sitting down with various staff members from the captain to the entertainment director as well as land services.  The crew is beyond talented and constantly changing up their show and playing to the needs of that particular sailing.  I spoke to a gentleman on board who was on his 22 Azamara sailing!  He could not get enough of this cruise line, and I could honestly see why.  Everything was above and beyond.

18 Day Cruise Video 

Ben made a fabulous best-of video of his adventures on the 18 day cruise with Azamara Club Cruises. Take a look and see for yourself, how much fun he had hopping around the Caribbean, South and Central America. 

Booking Info and Contact Details

Since Azamara Club Cruises is constantly changing their itineraries, pricing and departure ports can vary.  For any questions or more information can be found via my website www.SetSailCruising.com or ben.bielkiewicz@cruiseplanners.com or 321.663.6755

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