On our latest Dancing with the Stars: At Sea cruise on Holland America Line‘s Nieuw Amsterdam, we journeyed to the Western Caribbean, experiencing a number of shore excursions that were new to us. From Key West (seen above) to the shipwrecks of Grand Cayman, we had much to explore.

Half Moon Cay

Prior to visiting Half Moon Cay, my Caribbean private island experience had included Castaway Cay, Princess Cays and Labadee. For my first visit to Holland America Line’s secluded retreat, I was pleased to discover a lush island with plenty to do or where you could simply relax. Since my family once owned personal water craft, the Aqua Trax Adventure was on my itinerary.


A Fleet of Sea-Doos
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

Usually, Yamaha is the PWC rental brand of choice, so I was overjoyed to see that I would be riding a superior Sea-Doo, the brand we used to own. It was just me, one other couple and two guides on the excursion. They were slow and I was fast, so it was nice that one guide took them under their wing and the other took me out into the ocean at full, albeit governed, speed of 42mph.  It was a blast to once more get some airtime off the waves like in my PWC glory days.


Half Moon Cay from the Best Seat in the House
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

Grand Cayman

I had visited Grand Cayman countless times before, so I set out for a different kind of excursion there. The Seaworld Explorer, Semi-Sub Reef & Shipwreck Expedition with Fish Feeding was only an hour in length but proved to be quite enjoyable. What looks to be a regular canopied boat on the outside actually features a deep submerged keel with wide glass panels and a comfortable sitting bench on the inside. The effect really is like a more spacious version of the Submarine Voyage attraction at Disneyland.


The Shipwrecks of Grand Cayman
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

The semi-submerible visits two nearby shipwrecks which are easy to see, although not much of either vessel remains. Nonetheless, the sights are still something else and make you a feel a bit like Bob Ballard or James Cameron exploring the ocean floor. Interestingly, if a new cruise ship pier is approved, the wrecks will need to be cleared to accommodate. At another stop a diver enters the water to feed the nearby fish for photo ops. Lastly, be on the look out for rays as the semi-sub scours the seafloor near the cruise ship anchors.


Fish Feeding Frenzy
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

Key West, Florida

Key West has always been a gem of the Caribbean and is infrequently included on cruise itineraries. We had visited just twice before ourselves and were delighted to check out a number of locations that were new to us like the Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center, an educational facility on the Naval base near where the cruise ships dock there. Interactive exhibits include The Living Reef coral aquarium and a mockup of the Aquarius undersea lab. The Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary is further explored via a 17-minute video at the onsite theater.


The Living Reef at Florida Keys Eco-Discovery Center
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

Another popular island destination is The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum, itself a national historic landmark. A tour of the late author’s residence and grounds reveals both the local architecture and the lore of the man who once lived there. Highlights include his two-story house, writing loft, pool, gardens and curious litter of six-toed cats. The home now is filled with memorabilia dedicated to the man’s life such as posters of films adapted from his literary works. It’s truly a beautiful property.


The Ernest Hemingway Home & Museum
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

As a native San Diegan, the Old Town Trolley Tour we took as a whole was pleasantly reminiscent of home since our city features the same excursions and open-air buses of vintage appearance. Our last trolley stop was at The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory where the winged insect is explained and displayed in large living numbers in an isolated greenhouse. My fear of creepy-crawlies subsided upon taking in the vibrant colors and relishing the opportunity to photograph the creatures.


A Close-Up from The Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

Even after our tour concluded, there was still plenty to do in Key West, not the least of which was to enjoy the delicious local conch fritters and famous Key Lime pie. After an overview tour, the charming and eclectic island is easily walkable to take in more of the details and local vibe. Also, be sure to get your photo taken with mile marker zero, indicating the beginning and end of U.S. Route 1, and the southernmost point buoy, marking the farthest point south on the continental U.S., 90 miles from Cuba.


U.S. Route 1′s Mile Marker Zero
(Copyright © Jason Leppert)

For more information about Western Caribbean itineraries on the Nieuw Amsterdam, visit Holland America Line‘s website here.

Have you been to any of the destinations listed above? Please feel free to share your thoughts about them in the “Leave a Reply” section below…

HEADER IMAGE SOURCE: JASON LEPPERT

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