(This week's post is late, but with good reason. I've been in a Cruise Planners training, and it's been a busy cruise. Plus, the cruise ship wifi wasn't that effective, as is often the case)

Probably more than any cruise line, I’ve written most about Virgin Voyages. That’s because I’ve gone with them the most often (three times) over the past several years. I can say it’s one of my favorite cruise lines because they do many things right that others don’t bother following.

The first thing I appreciate is their food, which I have written about before. I also appreciate their inclusions, such as basic beverages, wi-fi, all eateries, gratuities, fitness classes and entertainment. If you want adult drinks, they make it easy, with a base $300 bar tab that is often automatically upgraded to double that amount.

I also appreciate how Virgin does things a little differently from other cruises. It’s just a more casual, come-as-you-are attitude. They have a drag hostess named the Diva, and they don’t apologize for it.  Perhaps the only thing they need to improve on is dining reservations. This is the second time I’ve had trouble getting times for their most popular places, namely The Wake, Gunbae and Extra Virgin. They also should re-examine how they do their “shore things” excursions, as they run into the same issues with availability.

This time  on Valiant Lady

For this cruise, I enrolled in sales training with Cruise Planners. Even though I enjoy Virgin Voyages and can always benefit from any professional development, the main reason I signed up for this is the itinerary.

I haven't been to any of these destinations besides Puerto Rico (where I was for a travel advisor conference in May). Also, this sailing would be on another Virgin ship, Valiant Lady. I didn’t see much difference between this one and Scarlet Lady, which I’ve been on twice. There are just a few layout differences, but nothing most would notice.

San Juan, Puerto Rico

One benefit of sailing from San Juan is the location. The cruise port is right in the middle of Old San Juan, which allows cruisers to drop their luggage off at the pier and explore the area before their designated check-in time.  As Puerto Rico was a strategically located island for Spain, building imposing forts in its largest city made sense for the colonial military.  They built imposing walls surrounding the entire city, including several forts along the waterfront, to guard against attacks by other countries. Two are Castillo San Cristobal and Castillo San Felipe del Morro (aka El Morro)

Since the weather was warm, we only explored San Cristobal and walked to El Morro. You can visit both with one admission price ($10). We learned some fascinating history about the island's settlement and its history.  For instance, the Spanish built massive walls around San Juan, but after a few centuries, the citizens felt trapped like prisoners, especially as the city grew. Eventually, they destroyed the imposing structures and expanded the city outward.

Tortola, British Virgin Islands

Our Cruise Planners group met the morning we ported in these storied islands. Also, most of the shore excursions with Virgin were already sold out. So, I chose something with Shore Excursions Group, a suitable alternative to the cruise line options. However, one thing I didn’t anticipate was the massive crowd that came with us – about 100 people total. We took a boat over to Virgin Gorda, the location of the Baths National Park.

We took a shuttle vehicle from the main island dock to the park. You need to hike down to the beaches (The Baths) to get there, walking on trails that look like desert landscapes. While the seas were nearly bath temperature-warm, they were quite rough during our visit, and it was difficult to swim with such a strong current. After about an hour at the beach, we headed into the Caves, which are large boulders that create narrow and low passageways, some requiring bending in ways not to hit your head on the rocks. But it was an enjoyable experience and the highlight of our stop.

Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadaloupe

This French department’s government is still in Paris, but the locals will tell you they are Guadeloupeans. Nearly all of the signs in the town are in French, but most speak English, so it’s not as intimidating as being in France itself.  My friend and I took a shore excursion to the Valombreuse Botanical Gardens. What made this place fascinating was the display of native plants used for medicinal and cooking purposes. Our guide Maura was knowledgeable about them and the half-dozen birds we saw in protected aviaries.

On the second part of our excursion, we visited the Lekouz craft brewery, which was started by a Minnesota native who married a woman from Guadeloupe and then moved here. The venue, located in a spacious warehouse, has colorful art decorating the walls and a casual vibe. We tried a lager, a lemongrass/citrus brew and an amber ale, all refreshing, especially after walking around the garden. We also tried a local sandwich called bokit. It wasn’t anything special – just prosciutto between a sliced roll, but anything tastes great when you're hungry.

Up next...the rest of the ports we visited: Bridgetown, Barbados, Castries, St. Lucia, and St. John's, Antigua.