Contrasting calls on Royal Caribbean sailing

Labadee is situated on a mile-long peninsula, with the ocean on one side and a bay on the other. Royal Caribbean’s Harmony of the Seas at Labadee’s concrete pier, built in 2009 to accommodate Oasis-class ships. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom StieghorstBy Tom Stieghorst
I recently had a chance to visit two of the Caribbean destinations developed at least in part by Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd. One, the Haitian private port of call of Labadee, exceeded my expectations. The other, in Falmouth, Jamaica, did not.

Both are big enough to accommodate the largest cruise ships in the world: Royal Caribbean International’s Oasis class, which includes the hulking Harmony of the Seas, my transport to the two ports. Neither is devoid of interest. But for my money, Labadee is the more enjoyable of the two.

Part of it is simply a matter of time. Labadee has been around since 1986 and has had a chance to grow into itself. Its facilities don’t look like they just came out of the box, as do those at Falmouth, opened in 2011.

Labadee is situated on a peninsula perhaps a mile or so in length, with the ocean on one side and a bay on the other. Forested mountains offer a backdrop. There is a stout pier built in 2009 to accommodate the Oasis-class ships, making it easy to go back and forth between the ship and the facilities.

The giant Labadee sign is a good spot to pose for photos. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
The giant Labadee sign is a good spot to pose for photos. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

The setting is quite attractive, more so than I expected. The bay side, in particular, has some beautiful, calm swimming beaches and is a natural spot for the rentable cabanas that have been installed along its shores.

There are actually three distinct beaches on the bay side, which feels nicely sheltered and different from the ocean side. The Barefoot Beach Club area includes the cabanas close to the water. At least some are reserved for the use of Suite Class guests who shell out for the top-end suites on Royal ships.

It also has the more elaborate of two spa treatment areas at Labadee.

A bungalow at Columbus Cove. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
A bungalow at Columbus Cove. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
Nellie’s Beach is somewhat similar. Columbus Cove, the largest of the three beaches and the most distant from the ship, is a good spot for families. It has a collection of inflatable floating slides and rafts offshore as well as the Dragon’s Splash waterslide, a twisty, low-slung, blue metal slide that must look like it’s worth every penny of its $27.50 daily cost to kids of a certain age, if not their parents.

One could easily make a day of it at Columbus Cove alone. There is a cafe, bars, restrooms, a trading post, beach chairs and a station for the island tram.

There is also a free one-way shuttle boat from the pier.

The tram operates on a sand road that forms the spine of the island and really makes it easier to get around, especially for guests who are older, have young kids or are not very mobile. I walked the length of the place to see it but was happy to hop the tram to go back.

One of the most pleasant parts of Labadee is that there’s lots of shade provided by mature Australian pines, coconut palms and other trees. The walk from the ship along the pier was hot on a late October morning, but the rest of it was pretty breezy.

The ocean side of Labadee is protected by a reef, so the waves broke rather gently on shore when I was there. A promontory point anchors the crescent curve that at the far end becomes Adrenaline Beach, where there is a breakwater and daybed-style cabanas.

The Dragon’s Splash waterslide. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
The Dragon’s Splash waterslide. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

As for activities, personal watercraft, parasailing, kayaking and snorkelling are all available. There’s a nicely done splash park for little kids and volleyball for adults. The star attraction is undoubtedly the five-line, 2,600-foot-long Dragon’s Breath zipline that starts high atop an overlook and swoops over the ocean beach. It costs $95.75 per ride.

There’s also the Dragon’s Tail, a tracked coaster with two-person sledges that curves around the side of a steep, forested hill. It costs $19.75 for a five-minute ride.

Entertainment at Labadee includes Haitian musicians and dancers. There is an extensive Artisan’s Village with native crafts of a somewhat higher calibre, I thought than those for sale at other Caribbean ports. Be prepared for a friendly but aggressive pitch.

Falmouth a port in progress

I left Labadee wanting to spend more time there. The next stop on the Harmony’s itinerary at Falmouth left me feeling I’d seen it all in an hour.

The Harmony of the Seas looms over the buildings of the shopping village at the cruise port in Falmouth, Jamaica. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst
The Harmony of the Seas looms over the buildings of the shopping village at the cruise port in Falmouth, Jamaica. Photo Credit: TW photo by Tom Stieghorst

The cruise port, developed by RCCL and the Jamaican government along with some partners, is a triangle jutting into the sea with two long wharves with new shops meant to mimic Falmouth’s 18th-century Georgian architecture. There’s a very healthy assortment of jewellery shops along with a large Margaritaville complex and not a lot of natural shade.Outside the gates of the triangle lies the town of Falmouth, which boomed in the late 18th and early 19th century as a slave market and sugar depot and thereafter fell into decay. Jamaica tourism minister Edmund Bartlett said there are efforts underway to restore some of the historical architecture, and a cab driver who took me to Montego Bay Airport confirmed they have started, but most of the town remains somewhat ramshackle.

Two showcases of the Georgian era, the courthouse and the Anglican church, fit squarely in the colonial style of much of the Caribbean, and I was mildly disappointed that the quality wasn’t as high as in some American colonial villages, much less the London originals on which they are based.

Beyond the gates, there are vendors and would-be tour guides trying to drum up business, but I didn’t find them as aggressive as some reports might suggest. On the whole, however, a first-time visitor to Falmouth might be better off taking the excursion to Ocho Rios rather than hanging around in town.

Jamaica Port Authority plans $40 million Montego Bay Upgrade

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Montego Bay Cruise pier

The Port Authority of Jamaica (PAJ) will spend $40 million to upgrade the country’s cruise ship port in Montego Bay according to local media reports. The upgrade is being designed to create a “regional, multi-purpose port” operators hope will host more cruise ships.

Jamaica officials anticipates “homeporting” cruise ships for scheduled departures from the revamped Montego Bay facility, said Dr. Horace Chang, a ministry of Economic Growth and Job Creation official, in a Jamaica Observer report.

“The current cruise ship pier has to be improved significantly to support the traffic we are going to have with home porting,” he said.

William Tatham, PAJ’s vice president of cruise shipping, said  Montego Bay “will have seven [ships] home porting, up from five” in the 2016-1017 season. Carnival Cruise Line’s Carnival Breeze, Carnival Dream and Carnival Freedom will sail regularly from Montego Bay this fall and winter along with ships from MSC Cruises, Princess Cruises and several European cruise lines.

In an earlier interview on the government-run Jamaica Information Service (JIS) website, Chang said PAJ is placing “serious focus” on expanding and improving the resort city’s cruise shipping facilities. “We expect cruise shipping to grow in Montego Bay and not just cruises coming through, but home-porting in particular,” he said.

Montego Bay is the smallest of Jamaica’s three major cruise ship ports, hosting 210,000 cruise passengers in the 2014-2015 season, trailing Ocho Rios (400,000 passengers) and Falmouth (800,000) passengers according to PJA data.

Jamaica’s 1.5 million cruise passenger arrivals during the 2014-2015 season represents the country’s best-ever annual total and is a 20 percent increase over 2014. Overall cruise ship calls increased 19 percent to 433 compared with 363 in 2014, according to PAJ data.

The ports of Falmouth and Ocho Rios accounted for 44 percent and 32 percent, respectively, of ship calls and 52 percent and 30 percent of passenger arrivals

MSC Divina will return to Miami in 2016

MSC Cruises said that MSC Divina will sail from Miami during the summer of 2016, giving it a year-round presence in the Caribbean again.

MSC had said that Divina would return from the Mediterranean this fall but hadn’t announced deployment beyond April 2016.

With the announcement, MSC published itineraries for Divina through March 2017. They will rotate between eastern and western Caribbean routes and call in St. Maarten, Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Cayman Islands, Mexico and the Bahamas.

As previously announced, MSC plans to deploy a new ship, the MSC Seaside, from Miami starting in November 2017. The MSC Seaside is expected to sail to the Caribbean year round.

Divina sailings from April 2016 through March 2017 will go on sale on Friday, May 1. In an introductory promotion,  MSC said it will offer consumers a shipboard credit, a beverage package and a WiFi package, depending on the category of stateroom booked.

The line will also offer 18% flat commission for group bookings, along with complimentary stateroom upgrades and shipboard credit for guests in the group.