ST. LUCIA

ITS HISTORY

Well, that flippant Celebrity spokesman couldn’t have been more wrong: no two of these islands could possibly be confused with each other!  Each has its distinctive charm, beauty, and uniqueness.

Arawak Indians came here over 2500 years ago; the Caribs replaced them around 800 A.D.  Apparently, in none of Columbus’s four voyages to the New World did he even come close to St. Lucia.  Some say Juan de las Casas discovered it around 1502, but no one is sure.  The French settled the island first in 1660.  After 150 years of being victorious and being defeated, the British, in 1814 gained ultimate possession, but not until 1842 did English become the official language.  Consequently, with most towns French in origin, today’s language and culture is a synthesis of both.  The language is a French-based Patois.

 Another claim to fame St. Lucia has, is that France’s Empress Josephine (Napoleon’s first wife) was born here.

Castries Harbor

How special it was to wake up to the sight of the most mountainous island yet.  The tear-shaped—others say “Mango-shaped”—island is 238 square miles of land mass; in size, 27 miles by 14 miles.  160,000 people (85% of African ancestry) live here; 50,000 in Castries, the capital.

Since it changed hands language and culture-wise fourteen times by the British and French, the island has been dubbed “Helen of the West Indies.”  And indeed it is beautiful!  No small thanks to islanders’ determination to preserve what rain forest they still have (19,000 acres of mountains, valleys, and luxurious greenery), the island receives, depending on locale, 60 to 150 inches of rain a year.  Travel writers, when describing the island’s magnificent and dense scenery, exhaust superlatives.  No other island we’ve seen can lay claim to two side-by-side iconic half-mile-high volcanic peaks: 2620′ Gros Piton and 2460′ Petit Piton, soaring skyward straight out of the sea, that are known around the world.  Its lovely beaches are both of gold sand and black sand.  Not surprisingly, it has long been a favorite site for movie producers—such as Dr. Dolittle, starring Rex Harrison; Water, starring Michael Caine; Firepower, starring Sophia Loren, and Superman II.

No small thanks to the environmentally concerned islanders, the last remaining species of indigenous parrot in the Eastern Caribbean, the Jacquot, that had been reduced to fewer than a hundred by hunting, was saved just in time from extinction.  Today their numbers have swelled to over 400.

We have learned that some islands in the Caribbean are today populated by up to 80% who weren’t born there; that state of affairs can’t help but have a major impact on the culture, traditions, achievements, and way of life.  Not so on St. Lucia.  Case in point: St. Lucia is the only country of its size to have produced two Nobel price winners: Derek Walcott – Nobel Prize for Literature; and William Arthur Lewis – Nobel Prize for Economics.  It also fields one of the world’s most successful jazz festivals and one of the most famous carnivals in the West Indies.

The island is blessed by a number of ports; most cruise ships, however, moor at Castries.   Rodney Bay is the island’s leading leisure community.  Two international airports provide other tourist entry points.

View of Castries Harbor

 

OUR IMPRESSIONS

 Well, our first impressions, coming into the Castries Harbor, were extremely positive; but our second brought no discredit to the St. Lucians, but rather to a certain self-annointed tour “director” who persuaded Celebrity land trip coordinators to let her group of friends gather much later than the other tour groups did, yet hold back all the other cruisers patiently waiting to board their buses, and leapfrog ahead of them all.  Almost, there was a riot!  Even after we’d finally boarded our bus, and our affable guide had introduced herself to us, suddenly she was rudely interrupted.  Apparently, that same individual, not content with the havoc she’d already wreaked, now all but demanded that six of us trade places with some who were determined to ride in our bus.  When no one moved, the same “authority” returned again and again until finally some grudgingly agreed to move!  In all my years of traveling, I’ve never before experienced the like of it—perhaps best described by one of my father’s favorite expressions:

No one is ever completely useless:

You can always serve as a horrible example.

Flowery Overlook

It is to the credit of our guide that she finally managed to calm us down, and by her smiles, humor, and insights into what made St. Lucia into such a romantic paradise (reinforced by the obvious crush she had on our driver), she won over us all.  Thanks to her, we learned much about her people.  We reveled in the canopied rain forest; all too soon, however, our lecture was over and it was time to shop for curios and post cards in Castries, then board the ship.

One of the frustrations travelers face has to do with choices—especially those having to do with day-trips to area sites of interest.  The reason being that cruise ships company bean-counters have figured out that they, at best, break even with state room income; they make money in other ways—one of which is day trips.  So their itinerary descriptions appear to be directed to making each one look equally attractive.  Result: the average cruiser more often than not blindly chooses one, and hopes it will turn out to be the best option.  Only later on, after debriefing with cruisemates who chose other itineraries, and reading up on travel literature (especially travel magazines), does s/he find out if the choices were wise or not.  In my case, I did not.  Not that we failed to learn much from our highland tour—for we did—but later on I discovered that it was unthinkable to have visited St. Lucia yet failed to view the world-famous Pitons.  Every time I see them on another calendar, I sigh.  Just as I do when I see pictures of the Minoan Palace of Knossos on the island of Crete; instead we opted for the general island tour—and may, as a result, never get back to rectify my omission.  But that’s life.

Rainbow over the Constellation

Nevertheless, when our ship sailed out of the harbor into another Caribbean sunset, of one thing I was certain: It is not mere coincidence that St. Lucia is called the “Helen of the West Indies.”  As was true with Helen of Troy—said to be the most beautiful woman who ever lived”—there was a valid reason why the French and British fought a century and a half to win St. Lucia.

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Next Wednesday, we’ll move on to Barbados.

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ANTIGUA AND BARBUDA

THE ISLAND’S HISTORY

If you are a history buff, Antigua is the one must-see destination in the Leeward and Windward island chains. It is also the largest in the Leewards: Antigua (13 by 9 miles) covers a land-mass of 108 square miles; Barbuda (11 by 6 ½ miles) covers 62 square miles. As a basis of comparison, St. Martin and Sint Maarten together total up to only 37 square miles.

It was discovered by Columbus in 1493, who named it Antigua, after a church in Seville, Spain. But the Arawak Indians first settled here about 2000 years ago, followed by the Caribs around 1200 A.D. During the 18th and early 19th centuries, Antigua was all but impregnable because of numerous forts and because it was the headquarters for the British fleet. In fact Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson commanded here from 1784 – ‘87. In those days this region was ranked higher in importance to Great Britain than North America, no small thanks to sugar. Like most Caribbean islands of the time, it was populated by African slaves. Because of sugar, Antigua was deforested, consequently today it is covered mainly with scrub brush.

Today, most of its 65,000 population lives on Antigua, only 1200 in Barbuda (mainly a wildlife sanctuary), 30 miles away. Because of its 365 beaches, thirty plus hotels, deep-water port for cruise ships, and modern airport, it has become one of the Caribbean’s major tourist destinations.

Nelson’s Dockyards (lovingly restored), with its yacht-filled English Harbour, is today the world’s sole remaining Georgian shipyards; it is also the site of one of the world’s top five regattas. Antigua is also one of the best places to spot celebrities such as Eric Clapton, Oprah Winfrey, Denzel Washington, and Morgan Freeman, each of whom own or have owned homes here.

Antigua and Barbuda are today an independent nation within the political umbrella of the British Commonwealth.

Falmouth Harbor

View from Shirley Heights - Nelson's Fort

REACTIONS

We were the first cruise ship of the day to dock in St. John’s harbor. On this tour, Bob Earp, and Ed Riffle joined me for a tour of the island. For us, the piece de resistance had to be Shirley Heights, with its fortified hilltop buildings that once housed the officers’ quarters. The views from here are breathtaking! It was high enough so that there was less risk of dying from malaria. Even more than in the Nelson Dockyard below, it was easy here to close your eyes to slits and imagine the continuous coming and going of redcoated officers in their horse-drawn carriages—the center of attention Lord Nelson himself, destined for immortality in the later Napoleonic wars.

Tour guide lecturing on Nelson's Dockyards

It was hard to leave this magical spot and descend to English Harbour and Nelson’s Dockyards. A fascinating place to explore. How we wished we’d had more time to take it all in. For being fully restored (unlike Shirley Heights), it makes it seem like just yesterday that it teemed with an average of a thousand men, and in the harbor were great ships of the line, some with their sails being furled and others with seamen racing up the masts to unfurl them so they could put out to sea. By listening to our guide and reading the tablets and placards we discovered that, for the average seaman, it was anything but romantic: life was brutal and short, no small thanks to malarial mosquitos and dissolution through rum, rum stored in leaden-based casks. Not for these semi-slave seamen the life Lord Nelson; Prince William Henry, Duke of Clarence (later King William IV), who served here under Nelson, and the privileged officers, were able to live.

Lucy and Jo shopping in St. John

Then it was back to St. John, to purchase post cards, and return to our ship. Always we were conscious of time, for if we were but minutes late, the ship would sail without us—more on that later!

Next is the island of St. Lucia.

ST MARTIN / SINT MAARTEN

After three days at sea, we were more than ready for the palm-fringed hills of St. Martin looming out of the mists. It was humid; not surprising given that the further south from Fort Lauderdale one sails, the closer to the equator—and hence ever more humid it becomes. Each day, as we did our laps on the top deck, we sweat more. Finally I learned my lesson: take my laps early in the morning—then return to the room, remove wet clothes, and shower.

THE ISLAND’S HISTORY

Before long, Phillipsburg came into view. The island bears the distinction of being the world’s smallest land mass to be shared by two countries: The Netherlands and France. Columbus it was who named it, passing by it on Nov. 11, 1493; since that was the feast day of St. Martin of Tours, so he named it.

It has had a turbulent history, repeatedly being invaded by one European power after another; in fact, borders changed sixteen times in 150 years! Finally, the Dutch and the French outlasted all others and settled into an uneasy joint tenancy. According to legend, this is how they finally divided up the place:

Concluding that settling the matter with blunderbusses (ponderous muskets much more likely to maim the gunman than the victim) was an awfully messy way to settle border issues, they selected one representative from each side, had them stand back to back, then walk in opposite directions on the coastline until they met face to face on the other side of the island. As it turned out, the Frenchman supposedly walked considerably faster than the Dutchman, consequently the French ended up with the biggest piece of the pie. Some say that the Frenchman quenched his thirst along the way with French wine while the Dutchman imbibed the more potent Dutch gin, contributing no little to his slower gait. Others with more suspicious minds point out that when the 1648 Treaty of Concordia was signed, the French had a more powerful navy. But be that as it may, the two countries have coexisted rather peacefully ever since.

The island itself is known as St. Martin, the northern part is a subprefecture of Guadaloupe (an overseas department of France) and the southern part is the northernmost part of the Netherlands Antilles, which is part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. There are no border crossings anywhere in this small island. Officially, there are approximately 27,000 people living on the French side and 32,000 on the Dutch side. But, complicating the situation no little are the 16,000 to 20,000 illegal aliens on the island, many from Haiti and the Dominican Republic. In fact, only about 20% of the islanders were born on the island.

We would notice the same fluidity population-wise in other Caribbean islands, yet each “islander” we interacted with while visiting a given island, appeared to take genuine pride in being a local. Of course, tourism, being today by far the largest cash crop, has generated a good share of these migrations. And St. Martin is one of the Eastern Caribbean’s most popular islands, no small thanks to its famous white sand beaches, attractive lodgings, good restaurants, and two distinctly different cultures.

Ever wonder how the legendary governor of the New Amsterdam (later New York) colony, Peter Stuyvesant, got his famous peg-leg? Wonder no longer: in 1644, during one of the invasions of St. Martin, this intrepid Dutchman lost a leg to a cannon ball.

On September 4, 1995, St. Martin took a direct hit from Hurricane Luis, that roared across the island with 130 mph winds, causing a billion dollars damage. Hundreds of boats were shattered, thousands of homes and businesses had their roofs blown off, many simply disintegrating. Needless to say, the tourism-based economy was also in shambles. Ever so gradually, the islanders have rebuilt and most of the hotels have reopened.

REACTIONS

Marigot Harbor on the French end of the island

The Constellation docked in Phillipsburg, and from there I boarded a bus for a tour of the island. It doesn’t take long. Most all the population crowds into Marigot on the French side and Phillipsburg on the Dutch side. While both sides have their unique differences and distinctiveness, I couldn’t help but notice that the Dutch side appeared to be both cleaner and more prosperous than the French side. Certainly shoppers found the south side more rewarding than the other. In fact, it was surprising to discover how few of our shipmates even ventured to the French side.

There was lots of company in the harbor: two Norwegian ships (one the monstrous Epic), two Celebrity ships, a Disney ship, and so on. At any given moment, most of those passengers could be found elbowing their way through the duty-free shops.

On my tour bus—the Riffels took another bus—, we were blessed with a superb tour guide named Dahlia. I have discovered that, more than any other factor, tour guides make or break a given trip. Dahlia more than made the visit to her beloved island worth-while, filling us in on lore, history, stories, etc. Proudly, she pointed out that celebrities such as Bill Cosby and Aretha Franklin have homes here.

My seatmate was a sweet college freshman from Buenos Aires. Daniela knew very little English, but fortunately I knew Spanish, so we got along fine. A public relations major, she was being rewarded for her good grades by this cruise; family members ensconced in adjacent seats, obviously relieved that her seatmate spoke Spanish, soon ceased worrying about her. Daniela was the exception age-wise, as it being January, most of our shipmates were considerably older than she—very few children or young couples.

Dahlia urged us all to cone back! Clearly, cruisers are anything but a luxury to islanders, but rather the difference between survival—and not. To most of them, we were all “rich.” And, according to third world standards, we were.

Shopping in Phillipsburg

As to my reactions, both harbor cities were lovely. But tourist destinations, not just in the Caribbean but around the world, all suffer from a blighting same ol’ same ol’ness. First-timers almost invariably cart home a lot of kitschy items they’ll never look at again. Their general quality, sad to say, varying very little from country to country. But, here and there, astute travelers track down items of enduring value that will stand the test of time.

Most valuable of all, surprisingly, are post cards, for without them to provide identification for all the hundreds of photos you take, resulting photo albums will end up structureless and devoid of significance.

Back on the ship, those who truly love traveling can be counted on to climb the stairs to the top deck so they can take in the magic of leaving the port—more often than not around sunset. That first puff of smoke from the smokestack, the casting off of the rope tentacles, the deep mournful blasts from the mighty horn, the interchange of waves between passengers on the leaving ship and those waiting for their turn in line, are always poignant.

As Phillipsburg slowly receded from view, I wondered if we’d ever return. I sighed, because life is so short, and there are so many wonderful places we’ve yet to see!

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Next stop is Antigua.

A FAIRY TALE ROYAL WEDDING

Indeed, that’s what the April 29, 2011 wedding of Prince William and Catherine Middleton was—a fairy tale. Wisely, the greatest folk tale anthologists end their fairy tales with marriage; not with the inescapable troubles, tribulation, and traumas that, as predictably as day following night, assail all brides and grooms. The “And they lived happily ever after” is tacked on for the benefit of children, for they are satisfied with nothing less.

Given that millions of marriages around the world take place every year, it’s strange, is it not, that the most memorable ones take place in the West? I’ve often wondered why that is—that is, I did until I realized that great romance is possible only if the man and woman are equals. Only within the framework of Christianity is this possible, each wedding consisting of a bride and a groom who mirror Christ’s love for His created beings He loved enough to die for. So look around the world and search for another template to equal this one. What do you discover? Whenever polygamy is permitted—such as is true in the Muslim world—, there can be no equality at the altar. Nor in the matriarchal societies or in any society in which either sex is considered of less value than the other (as in China and India where boys are prized and girls are consistently devalued). And well over a third of this earth’s total population resides in those two societies.

Inescapably, the wedding of William and Catherine is being compared with the wedding of Charles and Diana. Only in retrospect and by comparison do we realize that the earlier wedding (also touted as a fairy tale wedding) was anything but a fairy tale wedding. For a number of reasons: (1) the bride and groom hardly knew each other (having spent only some 21 hours in each other’s company prior to the wedding); (2) the former was an arranged dynastic marriage of unequals; (3) neither of them was in love with the other; (4) the bride was forced by the palace to undergo the indignity of a physical examination in order to certify her as a virgin – the groom was exempt from questioning on the issue; (5) the “kiss” was forced and a sham on his part; (6) when asked if he was in love with his bride, Charles famously quipped, “Whatever that is.” It would later be observed that “Charles was the only man in the world not in love with Diana.”

Not so with William and Catherine: (1) They knew each other very well—indeed intimately—after an eight-year courtship; (2) in this case, the prince married a commoner; (3) both were unmistakably in love with each other, tender and empathetic and kind and supportive of each other; (4) the virginity issue was not ever raised; (5) not merely one kiss–but two; in each case, it was almost like spontaneous combustion, ignited by but a single look into each other’s eyes; (6) both clearly know what love is.

The wedding itself and the pageantry varied little from the standard British royal template, except that it was obvious that William and Catherine put their own individualistic stamp on theirs, unlike the former, planned and orchestrated as it was by the Palace.

But Charles was not all to blame for his condition. Many years before, when but a child, he’d been left with his nanny and servants for half a year while his parents went on a tour around the empire on the royal yacht Britannia. When they finally returned, little Charles rushed into his mother’s arms—not! She stopped him cold in his tracks—with an outstretched hand! A handshake all she had to give her lonely son.

But William and Harry were raised by a loving mother—and it showed . . . in so many ways. Eventually, after Diana’s untimely death, Charles did the best he was capable of in his role of single-parent. And clearly, Catherine comes from a loving united family, uncrippled by separation or divorce.

William and Catherine are beginning their married life in a simple five-room house (on a wind-swept Welsh island) devoid of butlers and servants; she will cook their meals. On the other hand, it is said that Charles has never in his entire life even squeezed toothpaste onto his own toothbrush!

* * * * *

Over two billion people watched—and half a billion more streamed—the April 29 wedding. Within mere hours, Catherine catapulted into superstardom: the most iconic face in the world.

And Americans, as always, continued to express their devotion to, and fascination with, the British monarchy by getting up in the middle of the night to watch the wedding. Perhaps because, deep down, the British royal family is still ours too; after all, we were ruled by them for 174 years (as compared to the 222 years of our republic). So why do the British and Commonwealth peoples revere the monarch so? For today, all royal power is vested in the elected Prime Minister.

One British news commentator expressed it this way last week: “True, we respect the Prime Minister, but we are subjects of Her Majesty, the Queen. In fact, no civic function begins without all singing, “God Save the Queen!”

The April 29 royal wedding, with its million people loosely attending in London alone, confirms this incredible bond between a people and their royal family—a relationship based on love rather than mandatory obedience to.

So in conclusion, the marriage of William and Catherine is not a fairy tale just because of the incredible choreography of every perfectly orchestrated second of the proceedings, but because both the bride and groom appear to love each other so deeply that perhaps for them there may be a future about as close to “happily ever after” as our troubled world ever permits.

* * * * *

Next week, it will be back to the Caribbean.