The Magic of Traveling with Friends
By Kim Walker
It is no surprise to anyone that knows us that we love cruises, especially a Disney Cruise. Like most, we work incredibly hard. We own a marketing agency and therefore we find ourselves “connected” digitally practically 24/7. So, that explains our love for cruising. We are disconnected from email, social media and work. It is when we find our center. We relax. We re-connect with each other and make amazing memories. This most recent vacation that Stephanie Miller Murphy planned for us was much more special than the ones before. We loved, loved, loved them all but this one will forever hold a special place in our hearts. Let me explain.
We lead a small group at our house on Wednesday nights for our church, The Mission Church. We get together weekly for snacks, hanging out with each other, we watch a video together, discuss it, and pray. But we also have grown very close to our friends and following in line with our church’s mission to “do life together” we decided last year to take a cruise together. Two families had already selected a cruise. It was a 5-night Disney Wonder repositioning cruise leaving out of San Juan and returning to Miami, Florida. For a 5-night Disney cruise the price was nice so in addition to the two original families, 3 others jumped in, including us.
Throughout the year leading up to the cruise, we joined the private group on Facebook for that cruise, joined the Fish Extender group and then even created our own private message for our group of 18 going on this trip. As you can imagine the excitement started brewing and continually grew, as we got closer to the trip.
We booked our flights from New Orleans to San Juan, selected shore excursions, found our San Juan hotels, and then did the same for our debarkation port of Miami. Sadly, my husband Brian had a work commitment that caused him to join us two days into the trip, but he was the one who found us the absolutely most incredible, quaint hotel in Old San Juan. La Terraza de San Juan is a true gem! We cannot wait to get back to San Juan to stay in “our place”. Truly it felt like home and the hotel staff seemed like friends from the moment we met them. Greeted with a “cold beer”, and coffee that Elaine says is the best she’s ever had, came fresh from their vintage espresso machine. She’s already missing it! They also seemed to always have some fresh baked yummy treat at the front desk just waiting for us. Once we checked in, the hotel staff escorted us to our room and helped us get settled in. The 2-bedroom suite we were in took our breath away with its sweet charm and from the kitchen and living room area we opened two large doors looking out over the beautiful streets of Old San Juan.
Almost immediately after getting settled in we went out for our first walk into Old San Juan. A long day of travel meant we were all hungry and thankfully almost immediately we came upon El Jibarito where we found authentic, delicious Puerto Rican food. We enjoyed several appetizers together and the most amazing Sangria ever! We needed rest for our exciting adventure the next day so we returned back to our hotel for a good night sleep.
Enjoying a nice long night’s sleep in luxurious beds, we awoke to start our day. Joe & Elaine took a day-long tour of Old San Juan while Payton and I joined the rest of our group for a day of ziplining at ToroVerde, an ecological adventure park featuring the longest and highest ziplines in the world. Yes, that’s right – that’s what we did! Following the 8-zipline tour we topped it off with their “Beast” which is a 1-mile long zipline done “superman” style, safely strapped into a harness face-down allowing you to enjoy the beautiful earth over 800 feet below you! Truly one of the top experiences of my life! Our 13 year old son Payton was terrified when we first arrived seeing what we thought was “The Beast” but once we learned it was “The Monster” we both felt a little better about our adventure that was about to begin. Just as we were finishing our day and had experienced the 8-ziplines followed by “The Beast”, we found ourselves in the midst of a San Juan rainstorm while in the back of the truck. It topped our day off with lots of laughs and fun memories.
That evening Payton and I met back up with Elaine and Joe at our hotel, heard about their tour of San Juan and decided to grab dinner and take an exploratory walk through Old San Juan. We found ourselves on the Princess Walk which was a gorgeous path around the perimeter of Old San Juan taking you along the waterfront and next to the huge stone wall build to protect the city. We were pleasantly surprised by the hundreds of cats in the city that are well taken care of, and enjoyed by the residents since they keep the rodents away. A final stop for ice cream at Ben & Jerry’s (and pizza for my 13 year old son) ended our night on a sweet note!
Around 4am, I was awakened to Brian’s arrival on a very late flight. A quick hello and chat and we were both sound asleep in that incredible La Terraza de San Juan bed! The next morning we grabbed a quick bite for breakfast at a local favorite “Café’ Manolin”. We were pleasantly surprised by the fast service, great food and energetic environment. From there it was time to meet the entire group at our friend’s hotel for our group outing. Joe rented a van for all 18 of us and we had planned a day of exploring the rainforest and then off to our “Bioluminescent Bay Kayaking Tour”. But first, there was a problem. Brian forgot his bag in the taxi and inside that bag was a very important document. His passport! Stress anxiety and fear immediately set in for not only Brian, but for our entire group. He has already missed two days and arrived at 4 am and started his vacation with this tragedy. Immediately jumping into action, Brian began making phone calls and reaching out to our hotel to find the taxi driver. Teri, Bekki and I joined in prayer right there in the middle of the hotel asking God to intervene and help us find this passport. An urgent text and phone call to our amazing travel advisor Stephanie prompted her to reach out to Disney to alert them and find out the protocol. We learned that the passport was definitely needed. That only caused our fears to escalate but with that our action. Brian and I jumped out of the van at the airport (where we had stopped to see if there was a passport agency) and grabbed a taxi back to our hotel. Upon arrival to the hotel, we were greeted with a huge smile and a relief-causing statement that they had found Brian’s bag! I cannot speak highly enough of the people of San Juan. We had already fallen in love with San Juan but the people and their genuine care for us made our love even deeper for this great location. Thankfully the hotel has a select number of cabs they call regularly so it was not a huge issue to reach out to the driver since they knew who it was. That is something I never thought would be important but now, we know! Within minutes the cab driver was there with our “key to the world”, Brian’s passport. After a few hours of trauma, we were quickly back on track. We met up with our group and headed to our “Bioluminescent Bay Kayaking Tour” with Kayaking Puerto Rico. Can I tell you how incredible this was? Thank you, I think I will. Granted that it was not the best night because of the moon’s phase and the organisms were not being incredibly vibrant, but the experience itself was one to remember forever. As we all were entering our kayaks, laughter and anticipation ran high. We began our 1-mile kayak trip through the most beautiful mangrove trees I’ve ever seen. Imagine kayaking through a tunnel of mangrove trees on each side and above you. It was magical. All of us lined up one behind the other, yelling happily from one kayak to the other with happiness over the journey we were on. The tour guides from Kayaking Puerto Rico entertained and directed us with great enthusiasm. After a mile of kayaking the meandering waterway, we emptied into the bay and the night sky grew darker and darker. We found ourselves in the middle of the bay all tied one to the other’s kayak and we sat and enjoyed the still of the night while our tour guides gave us a brief education on the bioluminescent bay and the organisms in the water beneath us. We ran our hands through the water bringing some of the organisms to light up right there next to us. We held one of them in our hands and enjoyed the experience. Behind us we could see the lights of the city and to our right and left we could see the dark horizon of the tree line. The wind began to blow more than before and we could see darker clouds rolling in so our journey back to the mangroves began. As we got closer to the entry into the tunnel of mangrove trees we were informed of having a few moments of our own play or exploratory time. That proved to be tons of fun for the children in our group. The rain drops began and got heavier and heavier as we kayaked through the mangroves. We were completely drenched by the time we got back to the origin. The rain fell so hard I could barely see as I was kayaking back to the starting point. But, we laughed so hard and left with a memory we’ll never forget!
Returning that evening to Old San Juan, we explored the city a bit more and retreated for a comfy night of sleep. The next day, our Disney Cruise would begin! We awoke Sunday morning, took our last time exploring Old San Juan and grabbed some breakfast. We learned that there was an arts fair happening along the Princess Walk that afternoon so we explored it for a few minutes, took a walk through one of the streets we found by accident and got a frozen treat from the awesome Senor Paleta. So delicious! Next stop, the Disney Wonder!
We said goodbye to our home away from home in Old San Juan and happily left for the Disney Cruise Terminal. One of my favorite moments of the cruise is when you step onto the ship and hear the following words from the cruise staff, “Welcome aboard, Walker family!” It’s like the moment your vacation begins. The phones turn off, email no longer works, and the little umbrella fruity drinks begin. A huge sigh of relief overcomes you and, if you’re silly like me, a tear of joy escapes your eye. We did our normal ritual of exploring the ship, finding our favorite spots, taking our photo from the top deck, posting one last final goodbye to our Facebook friends, and visiting our cabin. If you’re a Disney Cruise Line Fish Extender participant, you hang your fish extender and decorate your door! We have enjoyed participating in the fish extender groups for every Disney Cruise we’ve had. It’s not a Disney sanctioned activity, but one you have to find for your ship, on your dates, in the DISboards.com. We brought a little gift for every person in our FE group and nearly every time we returned to our room we were greeted by a surprise FE gift from those in our group. They came to our door and left the gift in our hanging fish extender. It’s a great little addition to your trip and brings a smile to your face every time you return to your cabin.
Our adventure began and included stops in St. Kitt, Tortola, and Castaway Cay. Each day had it’s own magical touch and memories that will last a lifetime. Our group of 18 enjoyed spending each evening, as a group, discussing our day and sharing our individual adventures. We discussed dolphin encounters, The Baths at Virgin Gorda, shopping and monkeys! I want to share with you our experience from The Baths at Virgin Gorda – incredible! Brian and I have, for so long, eagerly awaited the opportunity to visit Yost Van Dyke. After hearing Kenny Chesney sing of its glory, we knew we had to go. Well, we had a chance on trip and passed on it for the chance to go to The Baths. Having said that, it was a big deal to give up going to Yost Van Dyke. But, we knew that our 13-year-old son would have a much better memory of The Baths so we cancelled our excursion to Yost and booked The Baths. One of the best decisions ever! Not only did Payton explore and have the absolute best time, we would have missed seeing one of the best things we have ever seen. Imagine walking, wading, and crawling through, under and over gigantic rocks while the ocean waves crash through it all. It is more amazing that whatever you’re imagining! We loved, laughed and cheered through every second of it. It’s certainly an experience we will remember, forever! That night we certainly had lively, excited conversation for dinner.
I have to dedicate an entire paragraph, or two, just to Disney’s Castaway Cay. It really IS all that. We have been on a Disney Cruise several times and each and every single time our time spend on Castaway Cay is every bit of magic we remember. The cleanliness, attention to detail, beauty, customer service and overall experience is everything you would expect when it comes to Disney. But it’s more. Our family connects here. Our souls come alive. We relax and literally get on “island time” when we are here. Our son loves every single second. We escape to Serenity Bay where we find, for a brief moment, serenity. It is something we take with us when we leave, and reminiscence about for days and months later. Our past experiences had been shared with our group mates and we were hoping that their first experience would live up to ours and it did!
Our day on Castaway Cay always begins with the Castaway Cay 5K. It’s an opportunity to get off of the ship earlier, get some exercise, and explore the island. We finish the 5K, earn a snazzy finisher medal, buy our commemorative tshirt and then start exploring and relaxing. We changed quickly into our bathing suits, rent our tubes and floats, find our favorite spot under a palm tree, and play. After playing for a while, we hopped onto the tram that took us to Serenity Bay. Payton spent time with his teenager friends while Brian and I grabbed lunch at Serenity Bay. With a full belly, we waddled onto the beach of Serenity Bay and took a nap in the most incredible hammocks. It was a chilly day on Serenity Bay, but the sun was bright, the waves were crashing, and our phones were not working. That, my friend, is a beautiful day. After enjoying the glory, peace and beauty of Serenity Bay, we headed back to the family area where we rented bicycles and toured the island. Castaway Cay has a great bike path to enjoy that includes stops at the lookout tower, gorgeous greenery and fun photo opportunities. We did miss the photo opportunities with all the characters, but that was our fault. Usually we grab great photos with many of the characters when we get onto the island but I think that this time, the excitement of the 5K distracted us. One of our favorite things to do is to end our day with an ice cream and time in the hammock again. These hammocks are so strategically placed. They all hang under wonderful palm trees that provide the perfect amount of shade and a breeze that rocks you into a sound nap. It’s the most amazing way to end the day at Castaway Cay.
I know that cities love to recruit cruise lines to become their home ports because of the economic impact but for this particular cruise being a repositioning cruise, we enjoyed two ports. We departed in San Juan and spent time there but after the day at Castaway Cay we enjoyed a sea day, which brought us to our final port of Miami. So we got 3 vacations in one. Our cruise, San Juan, and then Miami Beach. We reserved a quaint little spot on South Beach for a one night – 2-day stay in Miami, which proved to be far more than I ever though it would be. I never had Miami on my radar as a place to go. I had always envisioned perfect people with perfect bodies and perfect wardrobes. But while we definitely saw some of that, we found South Beach to be surprisingly fantastic! The beach was more than beautiful, the streets were clean and fun to walk through and the restaurants were incredible!
We left Miami with sad faces, but so many fun memories to share. Traveling with friends was something we had never done before but now we will surely do again and again! After the trip we all shared pictures with one another so we each ended up with hundreds and hundreds! It was fantastic. I owe a great deal of thanks to Stephanie Miller Murphy for booking our group trip for the Disney Cruise. She thanked each of us with a surprise in our stateroom when we arrived, got all our dinner reservations for the same time and grouped together so we could enjoy dinner as a group and made suggestions for our trip. Working with Stephanie is always a joy and we appreciate her time and attention, as always!