A 10-day journey aboard the Celebrity Infinity ship gives one traveler a chance to find a way to sound sleep again. Sailing the open seas and hopping between the islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao, she rediscovers cruise travel and follows her curiosities into the colorful streets of the Dutch Antilles.
My last Caribbean cruising experience was not exactly magical. Seduced by an image of a big boat splitting through ocean waters, at 21, I had booked a three-day trip to the Bahamas, only to learn by day two that the image in my mind was a mirage. The boat was old, the food average, and the entertainment choices onboard amounted to trips to a shabby casino in between conversations with a handsome South African bartender.
I am older and wiser now as I step aboard a striped blue-and-white ship, the Celebrity Infinity. But after a year filled with tumult—a breakup, the loss of a friend and a sequence of sleepless nights that follow—I am ready for a new beginning. When the 12-story high-ocean vessel fills up with travelers and the crew makes final arrangements, I find myself at the bow, looking out into the deep blue. The ship slowly turns and off we go, leaving Miami in rear view.
An independent traveler, I tend to be skeptical toward cruise experiences. Ever since that first fateful voyage, I’ve traveled solo. I’ve stayed with a family at a hillside village in Northern Thailand and bargained with aunties in the markets of rural India. I’ve trekked through the mountains of Vietnam and explored Cappadocian caves. I have always arranged where I’d stay, what I’d eat and what I’d do on my journeys myself. To have someone else do that for me is unnerving.
But we all deserve second chances sometimes, and I decide to give one to cruise travel. Just as the sun sets over the distant horizon and our ship glides across the smooth Atlantic waters, I begin my new journey. It starts with food.
Qsine, a forward-thinking concept onboard select Celebrity Cruises ships, may just be this line’s best secret weapon against the skeptics like myself. Designed by a James Beard Foundation-acclaimed chef, the restaurant wins hearts at first sight with its regal setting of high-backed chairs and delicate crystal ware. The menu is built around adventurous and whimsical recipes. The humble-sounding Vegetable Du Jour features a selection of four light concoctions, such as a cardamom-carrot puree and a whipped cauliflower and apple. Sushi Lollipops and the poblano-steak Taco “Royale” invite me to play along.
“Over the next several nights, I discover that cruise dining experiences have come a long way since my last trip.”
Over the next several nights, I discover that cruise dining experiences have come a long way since my last trip. Onboard Celebrity ships, the Michelin-star chef Cornelius Gallagher personally curates each menu, including one with simpler versions of popular dishes from the spa restaurant, Blu. At the flagship Italian restaurant, Tuscan Grille, I sample the award-winning wine list and check out traditional recipes such as Pizza Caprese. The renowned Italian pastas are made daily in the hi-tech kitchen behind a large window at the back of the restaurant. I watch a busy chef prepare pappardelle in front of me and eat it in a steamy ragù a few hours later.
But I haven’t come here for food. By the time I’ve had my fair share of treseviches and chicken vindaloos, it is time to go offshore. Once a pirate outpost and later a Dutch colony, our first destination, Aruba, is known today for its pristine beaches and all-inclusive hotels. The ship’s shore crew has a different trek in mind. We are heading to Bushiribana, the drier part of the island’s northwestern shore. On the way to the jagged coast made of sharp volcanic rock, we pass tall cacti and yellow-and-pink tidy homes nestled up high in the shrub-covered hills.
At Bushiribana, incessant surf beats up the ages-old rocks. Whimsical stone formations, hundreds of them, are staggered upon the coast. Our guide explains that people stack stones to make wishes, one stone for every wish. No one knows for sure the origins of this custom (some say it is a local tradition of the native Arawak Indians, while others claim it came from Hawaii with the American tourists), but to this day, stone stacks continue to grow. I pick up three small stones and make a wish of my own.
Next morning, I wake up early and climb to the 12th-story deck, while the sun slowly rises behind me. I do a bit of stretching and yoga (the ship offers a daily class for a more structured approach, but I prefer a solitary practice today), then promptly return to my berth. Bonaire awaits.
Bonaire is the second largest of the three Dutch Antilles islands—Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao—but its vibes have fooled me. Once a mining industry’s darling, today, it is a sleepy place reserved for divers and windsurfers. Azure waters lap against the rocky shore as we head southeast towards Pekelmeer’s salt flats. On the way, we spot cacti again, this time manicured into a waist-high natural fence to keep wild donkeys and iguanas at bay. At last, I see white conical giants—the salt deposits—raise up in the distance against the carotene pink-laden waters. Two stray flamingoes step out from around a prickly bush. I lose my breath for a moment.
Later on, I roam around Kralendijk, the island’s miniature capital. The streets, by the bay, are dotted with airy cafes, wooden benches and a string of orange, yellow and blue houses. At a small central street market, I try sòp`i yuana (iguana soup), which tastes, strangely, like chicken, and buy a crystal of local salt to keep myself connected to this mellow land.
The laid-back island, with its distinct Dutch architecture and novelties — such as the wonderful cheeses and smoked meats — deserves a long stop of its own, but we must go on. Just as the crew prepares to unmoor, I return to the ship and fall into my bed. It feels good not to worry about any arrangements for once and to simply come down to dinner at seven.
I wake up early again when the Celebrity Infinity maneuvers into the waters of Willemstad, Curacao. We approach the island just as the sun peeks over the eastern corner of the seemingly endless horizon. The light turns the sky into a golden-hued cotton candy pink natural canvas. The iconic rows of Willemstad’s cheery houses glow in the distance.
Curacao is the largest of the Dutch Antilles and Willemstad’s streets come alive with strolling visitors and locals going about their business. I start the day in Otrobanda, the offbeat, more industrial neighborhood, and move south to Punda, Willemstad’s historic center, as the sun travels across the bottomless sky. Crossing the busy Queen Mary’s drawbridge that glides back and forth between the shores of St. Anna Bay, I get to the other side.
Once in Punda, I lose track of time in a maze of pink, yellow, blue and brown buildings surrounded by calm bay waters. Just further up from Handelskade, Punda’s main street, I stumble upon a morning fish market, where locals come in search of the day’s best catch. Fishermen from nearby Venezuela line up their boats alongside the pavement and sell large marlins and tuna, some still flapping their tails, right from the boats. Women haggle. Men cut up the choicest parts. Hungry seagulls are circling overhead, and the air is filled with buzz. In my half-broken Spanish, I strike a talk with Tony, a fisherman from the Dominican Republic. Swiftly handling a sizable marlin with his knotted hands, Tony smiles; the trade has been good today.
Lunch consists of a flavorful Kabritu Stoba (goat stew) at a nearby large covered dining hall, where fish buyers and sellers both come to eat. The varied influence—Caribbean, Dutch, Surinam Indonesian, African and even, Chinese— is what makes the cuisine here as colorful as the architecture, with an unusual blend of flavors, such as papaya berde (stewed papaya with nutmeg) and the staple cornmeal funchi.
I stroll through several narrow streets before stumbling upon a neat little square in the shadow of sprawling watapana trees. Sitting down for a cup of foamy European-style latte, I am for a minute transported into an unhurried Amsterdam summer.
By the time I get back to the ship, I feel a little lighter, leaving a bag packed with worry deep in the blue island waters. We set sail to Miami that evening, and just before soundly falling asleep, I dream up a plan to take my mom cruising the world with me sometime soon.