Sea of bargains awaits passengers on cruise trips
ABOARD THE CARNIVAL VICTORY – As our mega ship pulled from the port of Miami – downtown on one side, causeway on the other – activity surrounded us. Sailboats served as unofficial escorts from the harbor while fishing boats braced for the wake only a 102,000-ton cruising vessel can create.
Cheers were deafening. Shoulder-to-shoulder passengers lined the Lido and Panorama decks – excitement was electric as we began our trek to the eastern Caribbean ports of San Juan, St. Maarten and St. Thomas.
A long horn blast announced our floating resort’s departure – it signalled we were headed to sea.
It also indicated that Carnival Victory’s shops were officially open for business.
Shopping at sea is not without benefits – it’s duty-free, tax-free and top brands are abundant.
Arcades on Promenade Deck 5 were packed with buys: an assortment of $10 (all prices U.S.) belts, ties and pashminas; 18-carat gold chains sold by length ($1/per inch) and Tag Heuer watches.
And the days were equally packed. Forget the sun deck – I was in shopping mode with a schedule that necessitated a Palm Pilot – 11 a.m. perfume seminar. . . 1 p.m. art auction. . . 2 p.m. tanzanite (rare gemstone found only in Tanzania) presentation. . . 3 p.m. shopping seminar.
“This is one of the best shopping cruises in the world,” proclaimed super shoppers Rick Campbell and Hector Martinez during their one-hour tip session.
In preparation for upcoming shore visits they shared insider info collected from five years of island hopping and shopping (they disembark to buy every time the ship’s in port).
The retail-ready audience learned negotiating tips, how to purchase diamonds and gemstones, duty free allowances and received maps of each port indicating the stores these two shoppers extraordinaire recommend (merchandise is guaranteed).
It was like an accelerated class with the maps as our textbooks.
Our first test was Puerto Rico in the ancient walled enclave of Old San Juan, the second oldest settlement in the Americas. Though shops were primarily concentrated on Calle Fortaleza, many were scattered throughout its quaint side streets alongside churches, plazas and museums.
And while I used Rick and Hector’s map as a guide, I ventured beyond it.
In the process I discovered Traditions Accessories, a distinctive handbag/jewelry boutique. Purses by Japanese designer Papillon ranged between $200-$500; earrings were as low as $20.
A Mona Lisa-like painting ($12,000) caught my eye in Estudio Cajiga, an art studio showcasing the work of Luis Germa’n Cajiga. An original acrylic featuring the island’s noted red flamboyan tree ($150) was my choice.
The work of local craftsmen was displayed in Puerto Rican Art & Crafts. My selection: a copper-tubing cross ($55).
St. Maarten was a surprising shopping discovery. The stores and kiosks lining the pier in Philipsburg (the Dutch side of the island) were among the best.
Lulu’s Dolls featured handmade reversible dolls (half Dutch, half French; like the island) for $13. Irresistible silk flower raffia baskets (starting at $50) by Patricia and Alta were found in a kiosk named Solar Splash.
Best buy was the $5 day pass for the water taxi into town and shopping along Front Street. Goldfinger was the island’s Rolex dealer – its biggest seller was the men’s silver tank watch ($4,075). Guavaberry Shop sold St. Maarten’s legendary folk liqueur, complete with recipes.
A $15 taxi ride delivered me to Marigot on the island’s French side where high-style designer fashions (priced in euros) were found in the unassuming, yet unexciting town.
St. Thomas, known for its reputation as the world’s best-known duty-free shopping destination, was our final port.
Stores found in Charlotte Amalie on Main St. and Waterfront Dr. and those in connecting alleyways like Drake’s Passage ranged from diamond and gem specialists to camera, liquor and linen stores.
Though a bit overwhelming, shops were loaded with good deals. Nicole Miller’s originally priced $245 dresses were $50. Diamonds International offered a Carnival Victory special: a white gold starfish charm bracelet ($275). My splurge: one-plus carat diamond earrings (a fraction of the price tag at home).
- Don’t purchase diamonds without knowledge of the four C’s: cut, colour, clarity and carat weight.
- Be familiar with the standard prices of watches, cameras, diamonds/gemstones, perfume, cosmetics. . . whatever you’re interested in buying.