BONAIRE

   NETHERLANDS ANTILLES

ITS HISTORY

Bonaire essentially has the same history as the other two islands.  It is small, with only 14,000 people living here.  It is not surrounded by a reef—it is a reef, perched on top of an undersea mountain.  Its capital city is Kralendjck.

I must confess, I was less than happy the ship was stopping at this sparsely inhabited and little-known island.  But when I saw how many passengers disembarked with their scuba gear or ready to go birding, I began to understand why. Bonaire is still unspoiled by civilization, and its waters are pristine; in fact, it is rapidly becoming one of the diving hubs of the Caribbean.  Over 15,000 pink flamingos call it home, as well as over 200 species of birds.  It too has lovely beaches and lonely scenic roads.

The blue, blue waters of Bonaire

One travel guru in the know declared that ten years from now, at the current rate of growth, Bonaire will be the next Aruba.

REACTIONS

We explored the capital city—between downpours!  We’d shop, walk around, flee for shelter when each downpour came, then repeat the cycle.

Waiting for the rain to stop . . . so we could shop some more

Finally, we returned to the ship, this time for good, as we were boarding early: a long way back to Fort Lauderdale.

The gangplanks were pulled back in, the ropes were cast off and cranked in, smoke began to pour out of the smokestack, the great engines thundered into life, and the ship began to leave the dock.  As usual, the top deck was thronged with hundreds watching another departure take place.  But this was different from all others!  Blocks away a young man was running at top speed, frantically waving his arms, and shouting.  Closer and closer he came—but it was too late.  We could see him rush up to the boarding area, gesticulate wildly, and cover his face in despair.  We discovered he was a crew member, probably in a romantic tryst, and forgot the time.  We asked what would happen to him.  We were told that he’d have to fly back to Florida at his own expense (they are paid oh so little!), and if this was his first offense, most likely he’d be forgiven—for this time.  But woe be unto him if he missed another!

It sobered all of us.  Perhaps because we applied being left behind to so many possible situations in our own lives.

Finally, the dim outline of Bonaire disappeared—we were at sea.

Next week – sea days . . . and home.

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Curacao

NETHERLANDS ANTILLES

CURACAO

ITS HISTORY

This strategic island is the largest of the Netherlands Antilles, with 383 square miles of land mass, and a population of over 140,000. It was one of the first Caribbean islands to be inhabited: The Amerindian Arawaks came across from South America about 4,500 years ago.

Alonso de Ojeda came here in 1499 and claimed it for Spain. Interesting story about the island’s name: many of Ojeda’s men came ashore gravely ill of scurvy, that bane of sailors in those pre-refrigeration days. Once on the island, citrus fruit cured the scurvy; in gratitude, the Spaniards dubbed the island “Corazon” (heart), hence Curacao.

The Dutch invaded the island in 1634, and have held it almost continuously since then. Willemstad, with its natural deep harbor, made it a natural as a slave depot. During centuries of slavery, close to half of all slaves being ferried across the Atlantic from Africa, stopped here.

Great forts such as Fort Amsterdam, Fort Riffort, Fort Nassau, Fort Beekenburg, and Fort Wankzaamheid made the island close to impregnable. During World War II the Allies used the island as a military base.

Capitol City of Willemstad

Shell Oil came here in 1915 to begin the oil era.

Other than the slave period, which came to an end in 1863 when King William III abolished slavery in all Dutch possessions. Curacao has always been known for its tolerance of all, religions as well as races. In fact, the oldest Jewish synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, the Mikvé Israel-Emanuel Synagogue was constructed here in 1651. Over fifty different nationalities peacefully coexist here.

Today, the port is one of the largest and most active ports in the world.

REACTIONS

Colorful buildings on waterfront.

Here too, Connie and I had spent considerable time during our 25th anniversary trip, so we just savored Willemstad. It was a stunningly beautiful day, the temperature balmy. It is a great shopping city. But what impressed us both—and the Earps and Riffels as well—was the cleanliness of the city and the harbor. We can thank an early island governor for the visual tour de force tourists experience here. He complained loudly that the blindingly white buildings gave him excruciating headaches; as a result, the buildings were painted in lovely pastel shades.

Swinging bridge opening to let barge in

The main action appears to center on the famous Queen Emma Swinging Bridge. Whenever a ship or yacht comes through—which is often!—the people are stopped at both ends, and the long bridge slowly begins to swing open. While this is happening, passengers can cram into free ferries and cross that way. As Bob and I sat sipping Cokes at a wharfside café, we watched the people throng by—people from all over the world—the Queen Emma’s bridge with mimes bringing traffic to a halt in the middle of it (when its gates open again, of course).

Queen Emma Swinging Bridge - Connie talking to Mime

That evening, we watched Obama’s “State of the Union” message on our stateroom TV. How interconnected our world is today!

Rarely have I ever been more reluctant to leave a harbor city than I was when, toward sunset, the Constellation sailed out to sea.

Next week – Bonaire.

Aruba

NETHERLANDS ANTILLES

Our last three ports of call were Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire, the so-called ABC Islands, part of the Leeward Island group. Our ship docked at each island for a day, so we had time to savor the Dutch experience.

ARUBA

ITS HISTORY

Aruba is small (only 75 square miles), with a population of 75,000. As is true with all three islands, the languages spoken include Dutch, English, Spanish, Portugese, and Papiamento (a mixture of Dutch, Spanish, Portugese, and African dialects). Orenjestaad (meaning “Orange City”) is the capital.

It was “discovered” by the Spanish conquistador, Alonzo de Ojeda, in 1499. The Arawaks, however, would beg to differ: they’ve been on this island for over 2,000 years. In 1636, the Dutch, hearing that Aruba was only lightly defended, invaded and took possession. They’ve been here almost continuously ever since.

In 1824, gold was discovered on the north coast; the gold rush lasted until 1916. Aloe came next—and continues; today Aruba is the world’s largest producer of aloe. In 1929, oil replaced gold, as Standard Oil of New Jersey (today, Exxon) initiated an oil boom that continues to this day. In 1959, the first cruise ship arrived; more have come every year. Today, over a million tourists come here every year, consequently Aruba’s 6,000 plus hotel rooms are often full. Some of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean can be found here.

Politically, Aruba is a state within the Kingdom of the Netherlands.

REACTIONS

Coffee time on Bob & Lucy's veranda

We awoke early, went out on the veranda to watch the harbor come into view. Overhead were the Southern Hemisphere’s almost ubiquitous frigate birds. Tankers, tankers at docks, tankers coming, tankers going—tankers as far as the eye could see! Filling the horizon beyond which lay Venezuela.

Since our children, Greg and Michelle, sent us here as a 25th anniversary present back in the 1980’s, we’d already thoroughly explored the island, so this time we contented ourselves re-exploring Oranjestaad. Since it rained periodically, our gang seemed to always be seeking cover.

Our group of 6 in Oranjestaad.

Near the Equator, there is no twilight; one minute the sun flames across the sky, another, and it is pitch dark. Since it is cooler then, that’s when many of us do laps on the top deck. As an author, I’m always watching people, listening to them, creating mental pictures of those who stand out from the crowd. One young woman I can’t help but notice because she keeps passing me. I’d liken her to a slim goddess, long hair, fast-moving, light as thistledown, never speaks, never an opportunity in the gloom to get a good look at her—just enough to know she’s that rarity: understated beauty and radiant health. Ascended stairs like a puff of smoke, fluid movement rather than steps—grace personified. She reminded me so much of Lygia in my story, “Journey”; just more athletic than she. Some day this one too will show up in one of my stories.

After the ship moved out to sea, we finished Phase Ten, then went down to eat. Afterwards we listened to an Argentinian singer for a while, before turning in.

Next week – Curacao.

GRENADA

“The smells we encounter on the road probably rate as our most intense—and lingering—travel experiences, though we tend to disregard them…. In search of that ever elusive sense of place, we travelers often skip over the one quality that couldn’t be more essential to it…. Smell is the outlier of our five senses, primal but powerful, but evanescent….What smell denies us in the moment of experience, however, it returns a hundredfold in the long run….That is the big difference between photographs and smells: one reminds you of where you’ve been, the other returns you there.”
—Daisann McLane (National Geographic Traveler, April 2011)

ITS HISTORY

Columbus (on his third voyage) in 1498, was the first European to set eyes on this island. The Caribs (a fiercely independent race) considered it their home. But what chance did they have pitting their small numbers and Stone Age weaponry against hordes of invading British and French? Cornered at last in 1651, after a century and a half, rather than leave their beloved island, the last surviving Caribs (men, women, and children) leaped off precipitous cliffs to their deaths

The nation of Grenada (the southernmost tip of the Windward Islands) is in size 120 square miles (21 by 12 miles), and consists of three islands: Grenada, Carriacou, and Petite Martinique; 90% of the approximately 100,000 population lives in Grenada.

After bickering over the islands for over a century and a half, the British (no small thanks to the Treaty of Paris in 1783) finally took full possession. In 1877, it became a Crown Colony; in 1974 it became an independent nation. But its post-independence road has been anything but smooth. It entered the U.S. history books on October 25, 1983, when Reagan invaded it; in the process, 70 Cubans, 42 Americans, and 170 Grenadians died. Indeed it was the long arm of Fidel Castro that caused Washington to step in.

REACTIONS

Today this lovely mountainous island, graced by rainforests and waterfalls and 45 white sand beaches, attracts 400,000 visitors a year, 285,000 disembarking from cruise ships such as ours. Fully one-sixth of the island has been set aside in parks and wildlife sanctuaries.

Coffee time on the veranda

We awoke at 6 a.m., with still no land in sight. About half an hour later, a knock on the door; it was Tondi (our butler), smiling as always, with his wake-up goodies (croissants, butter, jellies, Danish rolls, orange juice, and steaming hot coffee), who, after spreading a spotless white tablecloth on our veranda table and napkining us, left us reveling in luxury and the sound of the waves breaking against the ship. Now this was really living! Afterwards, we trekked to the rear of the ship for our real breakfast. 🙂

Shortly after we returned to our room, Grenada began to loom ever larger out of the mists. And later yet, we saw ahead of us the picturesque capital city of St. George, one of the loveliest port cities of the Caribbean.

As we came into port, slowly nosing into position next to the just arrived Princess Cruise Line’s Emerald of the Sea, I was jolted by an epiphany: Only feet away, in matching cubby holes, were men and women, a number still in bathrobes. They were watching us as intently as we were watching them—out of these few seconds came this unsolicited epiphany: In each matching cubicle across from us are others just like us. Each, like us, with kindred dreams, yearnings, hopes, aspirations. Like us, they’ve come here hoping to learn, to grow, to make the most of whatever life is left to them. Each of them is perhaps wondering the same thoughts about us!

As a result of those sudden insights, people I’d never even met before suddenly seemed like friends I’d like to know.

Chenille plant

Then, at 8:12, a voice over the intercom: “Time to disembark!” Today, Bob and Ed were taking the Estange Rain Forest tour with me, and Lucy and Jo taking the Spice tour with Connie. And speaking of spice, for good reason, Grenada is known around the world as “The Spice Island,” growing one-third of the world’s nutmeg and mace (second only to Indonesia); also growing cinnamon, ginger, cloves, and cacao (chocolate). A blind person would have known where we were by the fragrance: Daisann McLane was writing about just such a place as this. For the rest of our lives, the smell of nutmeg, mace, and cinnamon would transport us back to Grenada.

Netfishing

Since it was raining, we raced for our bus (#100/600); our genial guide’s name was Roger. Grenada receives 60 inches of rain a year, but the rainforest where we were headed, much more—up to 200 inches! First we experienced city streets, followed by narrow scenic roads along the coast. Then up, up, up, into the mountainous rainforest. We stopped at a spice plantation. Fascinating! Roger educated us in spice lore (specifically spices, cacao, cinnamon, bay-leaf, nutmeg, etc). How cinnamon is merely a stick off a tree, with a strong fragrance. Cloves – always reminds me of unfond memories in dental offices. Pain too—especially during my growing-up years. Observing other groups led by noncommunicative guides, we felt blessed. Farther on, Roger would stop periodically so we could see the kind of tree each spice grew on. We were now up to around two thousand feet; here and there we passed rivers, creeks, and waterfalls.

Nutmeg drying

Headdress on woman outside rainforest museum

Listening to Roger, I was struck again by how pathetically eager he (like our guides in sister islands) was that we come away from this all-too-short visit to the island with a deep appreciation of its uniqueness, its beauty, its friendly people—most important of all: That we’d come back! Oh there’s so much insecurity in our world—reminding me of Thoreau’s timeless observation that, around the world, the average person lives a life of “quiet desperation.”

Grenada certainly lives up to its beautiful namesake in Spain.

Then that poignant moment, back on the Constellation, when we joined hundreds of other passengers on the top deck, then watched for the lines to be cast off, the smoke begin to rise from the smokestack, the waving at passengers in Emerald of the Seas (next to leave the harbor), the mournful blast of our horn echoing across the water, and then the slowly receding city—and finally the island itself. No matter how many times I experience such a leaving, it never fails to move me deeply. Especially when I wonder, Lord, how many more such leavings are left to me?

Next week: Netherlands Antilles

BARBADOS

ITS HISTORY

Barbados, the easternmost island of the Caribbean, was first discovered by the Portugese explorer, Pedro a Campos en route to Brazil in 1536. He named it Los Barbados because of the island fig trees with their long hanging aerial roots. The island, however, remained uninhabited until 1625, when Captain John Powell landed here and claimed it for England. As was true in most other Caribbean islands, slaves were brought here from Africa to tend the sugar plantations, hence the predominant African population today.

Dubbed “Little England,” it lives up to its name by being the most English of all the Caribbean islands. The islanders remained loyal subjects of the British crown for almost 350 years, then since declaring independence, have remained British because of their Commonwealth status. It is British in so many ways: (1) they drive on the left-hand side of the road; (2) their national sport (make that obsession) is cricket; (3) not far behind being polo and soccer; (4) they love, cultivate, and cherish traditional English gardens; (5) Saturday horse races are part of the culture; (6) most Barbadans are Anglicans; and (7) they still celebrate the monarchy.

The island’s land mass is 166 square miles (21 by 14), and has a population of 285,000. Unlike most Caribbean islands, it is largely of coral formation rather than volcanic. Much of it is relatively flat; its highest point is 1161′ Mt. Hillaby. It is blessed with many lovely beaches: calm turquoise seas on the Caribbean side, wild Atlantic breakers on the east side. Since most of the forests were cut down in order to plant sugar cane, not much is left; even so, Barbadans have created a wildlife reserve to safeguard the species they have left (including over 8000 green vervet monkeys.

As was true with St. Lucia, Barbadans have created over the last four centuries a vibrant and rich culture. In sports, their cricket heroes are known around the world: especially the Three W’s: Clyde Walcott, Frank Worrell, and Everton Weeks (all three knighted by the Queen), and Garfield “Gary” Sobers, generally considered to be the greatest cricket player of all time. One of the Eastern Caribbean’s leading poets is Edward “Kamau” Brathwaite, and their foremost novelist is George Lamming.

Through astute planning, and investing, Barbadans have made Grantley Adams Airport the main eastern Caribbean hub for flights from North America and Europe. Cruise ships disgorge over 500,000 tourists a year.

Here’s a trivia item for you: Did George Washington ever leave the North American continent? Yes, but only once. In 1751, then only 19, he accompanied his half brother Lawrence on a voyage to Barbados. Lawrence, suffering from tuberculosis, came here, and rented lodging, seeking a climate conducive to curing his ailment. George, on the other hand, during the six weeks the brothers spent here, contracted the dreaded disease smallpox, which left his face permanently scarred. As for Lawrence, he was dead within a year—as a result George inherited the Mt. Vernon estate.

Concorde

REACTIONS

It was pouring rain when we disembarked from our ship in Bridgetown. Ed and I were drenched in our mad dash to get to the safety of our bus. Jason, our guide, was most informative. We learned that Trafalgar Square, erected in honor of the greatest naval hero of the age, Lord Admiral Horatio Nelson, had sailed out of Barbados in 1805, only months before dying in the great battle of Trafalgar, which ended Napoleon’s hopes of dominating the seas. We also learned that Barbados was one of only four permanent airport destinations for the near mythical supersonic passenger jets, the Concordes. Not only that, but one of the few intact Concordes ended up here in a large building constructed around it. Of course I had known of the Concorde’s flying at twice the speed of sound, but never could imagine coming up with the price of a ticket to fly in one. Only princes, potentates, and wealthy people had that kind of money.

Joe inside the Concorde

When we walked into the building, I was overwhelmed by the reality of its size and configuration. It looked otherworldly and forbidding. In a sound and light show we learned that it was supposed to usher in a new age of ever faster flight: getting to places before you left them (time-wise, that is). But few airports could handle them and their thirst for gasoline was the stuff of legend. And they could only accommodate 80 people a flight. After the show we were permitted to ascend the steep flight of stairs into the plane. Never in my life had I seen a plane standing so high off the ground. At rest, the long nose dropped like a mosquito’s proboscis; in flight, it straightened out. Inside, it felt like we were in a rocket instead of a plane—very little headroom, and dark. Thanks to the sound and light effects, we really felt like we were flying in it. The blue-lighted cockpit seemed the stuff of sci-fi or dreams. They even gave us a facsimile ticket just as though we’d paid full price. Tiny windows, because of the extra pressure exerted by mach 2 speed. Though the Concorde never became cost-effective, before the last flight took place, it had changed aviation forever.

Concorde's blue cockpitEd in the aisle of the Concorde

Anything after that was anticlimactic, but we did enjoy our tour through the rest of the island. Our guide also told us that Barbados is the place where rum (distilled from sugar cane and molasses) was first concocted in the 1600s. From here, rum spread around the world; but even today, the island is one of the world’s leading processors of it.

Then it was back to Bridgetown, shopping, and reboarding our ship.

* * * * *

Next week, it’s on to Grenada.