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Floating on a Caribbean dream <br> Whether on land or sea, first-time cruiser has an experience that will last a lifetime

Taking a cruise was always one of those "some day" dreams -- the ones that we all have and many never experience. But recently, that dream came true for me.

For cruise veterans, it will be no surprise to know the choices are almost overwhelming. I chose the Eastern Caribbean, specifically the islands of St. Thomas and St. Martin, with a stop at the cruise line-owned island of Coco Cay, Bahamas, traveling on Royal Caribbean's Freedom of the Seas.

Before we arrived at Coco Cay, I was determined not to get off the ship. My rationale was simple. I've been to beaches before. Plus, there was more than enough to keep me occupied on the ship -- pools, whirlpools, spas, fitness centers, surfing and rock climbing areas, an ice rink and my own stateroom balcony appointed with a table and chair perfect for reading.

What could the beach have that I couldn't get without having paid to board a 1,112-foot-long, 3,634 passenger ship?

Apparently, quite a bit.

We arrived at Coco Cay early in the morning of the second day. Since I wasn't planning on going to the beach, I didn't get down for the first tender ferry. (Our ship was too large to dock in the port. This was the only stop where we had to take another vessel to get to land.)

Breakfast in the glass-walled Windjammer & Jade Cafes was leisurely and amazing. I expected the food to be abundant and wasn't disappointed. I didn't expect it to look and taste so good. I honestly had anticipated that the meals would be similar to those at a conference or a college cafeteria. That was my first wrong assumption.

After breakfast, we decided to head for the ferry. I realized I'd left two essentials -- sunglasses and a hat -- at home. They were the first things I purchased onshore from the souvenir shops made to resemble island huts.

The beach was pristine and the harbor had a natural breakwall, allowing the waves to roll gently to the shore. Instead of being one of the first to head back to the ship, I spent the day walking through the surf and snoozing in a beach chair. When we left the island, it was with regret. I wanted to see if we could stay another day.

>U.S. Virgin Islands

Our next stop was St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. We docked at Charlotte Amalie and took a daylong tour of the island. It included walking down the 99 steps from Blackbeard's Castle through the Government House, the seat of the St. Thomas government, down to the Market Square.

The 99 steps are made of bricks once used as ballast on Danish and British ships. Although we didn't make it down all 99 (we took a wrong turn when we got caught in a tropical rain that was like standing in a warm shower), the steps and the views were amazing. Charlotte Amalie is a quaint city of old and new set on a tropical canvas that healed me in some way. I don't know if it was the clear blue water, boats small and large coming and going to the sea or the nearby islands dotting the horizon.

Charlotte Amalie has a rich history, including a longstanding relationship with pirates and privateers. In addition to Blackbeard's Castle (which isn't really a castle, just a watch tower), there were a pool and plaza with statutes depicting other pirates of the region, including Bluebeard, and a rum-making exhibit. If you're looking for strict history of the pirate era, this is probably not the place. But what it lacks in history it more than makes up for in ambience. The view from the top of the tower is wonderful. When the clouds parted, the shades of blues from sky and sea were so vivid it was at once peaceful and startling.

The walk down the hill includes stops at several historic houses. One is Haagensen House, an exquisitely restored Danish house from the 18th century containing several examples of West Indian antiques.

Another stunning view came at Drake's Seat, where it is believed Sir Francis Drake sat and watched ships return home. What you see today is a beautiful view of the harbor and the neighboring islands, like St. John, which has become an exclusive resort for the rich and famous. St. John, four miles from St. Thomas, is accessible only by ferry and is now being called "the Beverly Hills of the Caribbean." Despite some lavish resorts on St. John, 60 percent of the 19.61-square-mile island is owned by the National Park Service.

Our final stop on the tour was the beautiful beach on heart-shaped Magens Bay, north of Charlotte Amalie. The land was donated to the people of the Virgin Islands by Arthur Fairchild and has been named by National Geographic magazine as one of the top 10 public beaches in the world. Since it was a little overcast and raining at times and not the height of the season, the beach wasn't crowded, adding to the overall picture of paradise.

(By the way, although I'm not big on shopping, my fellow cruisers seemed more than happy with the quality and cost of goods on St. Thomas.)

>Next stop St. Martin

We docked next in the port town of Philipsburg, which is under Danish rule, and visited the countryside and the French town of Marigot. The Dutch side is "Sint Maarten," the French "St. Martin"; the two nations have shared this 33-square-mile island for 350 years, and the border is marked by an inconspicuous monument.

The highlight of the day was visiting the Women's Market, near Fort St. Louis and the chic West Indies Mall. Steps away from the water in the main section of Marigot, where million-dollar yachts compete with homes of the rich and famous for a piece of paradise, the huge open-air market features everything from food and spices to jewelry and souvenirs. There are statues honoring the women who started this market and carry on the tradition to this day.

Another spot of note is Orient Bay (clothing optional) Beach, which is noted for its white sand and crystal-clear water. The day we visited, high winds made surf rough with a dangerous undertow.

Shopping seems to be one of the biggest draws for both Philipsburg and Marigot. Both shopping districts contain the quaint buildings with cobblestone streets and the startlingly bold-colored buildings popular in tropical regions.

>Change in attitude

It seemed that, even though I had dreamed of this cruise, I had kept my expectations unreasonably low:

We had two days of cruising to get back to Florida, and they were as special as the days in port. There was great entertainment on board every night, the service was impeccable and people were friendly.

I was prepared to suffer through cheesy entertainment on board, and instead I found quality shows for a variety of tastes, like the Broadway-quality musical "Once Upon a Time." There were also magicians, acrobats, singers and music for every taste from jazz and swing to big band and rock 'n' roll.

I'm not a fan of big crowds, but there were numerous nooks and crannies to get away from everything and enjoy the ride whenever I needed a break.

I expected to feel regimented, with meals at certain times, being told to do this now, that then. What I found was flexible, luxurious relaxation dictates only by whatever I wanted.

I had been prepared to feel seasick, even though many people told me I wouldn't know the ship was moving. I did notice the movement, but it wasn't a problem. The motion turned out to be an effective sleep aid, as I slept deeply every night.

And when I was awake, I found my dream coming true -- and one I hope to have again.

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