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.

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.

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.

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll move on to Barbados.

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!

* * * * *

Next stop is Antigua.

SEEN ONE, YOU’VE SEEN THEM ALL?

What a joy it is to wake up with no schedule for a change!  Indeed, there is something about waking up at sea that trumps any other awakening that I know.  So much of what each of us does, where each of us goes, is repetitive: the radius of our living consisting of intersecting ever-deeper grooves of habit.  This is one reason why travel can be so energizing, especially when it encompasses places where you’ve never been before.

The sea, unlike paved roads, is never repetitive.  Not without reason is it referred to as the “trackless sea.”  And 71% of our planet is water.

On cruises, however, most travelers—surprisingly—experience very little of the sea.  In most cases, the ship leaves a harbor near sunset and by the time the passengers awaken next morning, the ship is either docking or already moored in another locale.  Only during “sea days” are passengers able to revel in the sea itself.

The Caribbean is sometimes referred to as “The Mediterranean of the Americas” a quadrangle enclosed on three sides by land (South America, Central America, and North America).  I had already experienced Panama, Costa Rica, Nicaragua, Honduras, Salvador, Mexico, Cuba, Jamaica, Haiti, and Dominican Republic, but other than Aruba, I’d never explored the rest of the Caribbean.  Nor would we on this cruise: only part of it.  That is one of the most frustrating aspects of this thing called “life”: so many places to see—and so little time!

I wondered how much variety there would be in our various ports of call.  Especially did I wonder after listening to a day-trip coordinator lecture to us on board Celebrity’s Constellation about the places we would be “seeing”— I use “seeing” advisedly, almost tongue in cheek, because I have ruefully discovered that all too many cruisers don’t really “see” much of anything but the ship itself and port city curio shops.  Some never get off the ship at all—except at the end.  Well, this particular lecturer, in an effort to seem “with it,” after describing many of the islands we’d be visiting, sabotaged the entire cruise by quipping, with a laugh, “Really, though, they’re all the same—beaches and palm trees; once you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.”  A summation about as profound as Ronald Reagan’s classic put-down of one of nature’s greatest wonders: “Once you’ve seen one redwood tree, you’ve seen them all.”  In retrospect, I wonder how many of those who listened to that particular lecture ended up not booking any day-trips at all!  I strongly suspect that there were many.  As for me, even though I’d spent several of my growing-up years in the Caribbean, I couldn’t help but wonder, Could it be that he’s really right?  Oh, I hope not!

Well, we’d soon find out.

* * * * *

Next Wednesday, we’ll stop at the island of St. Martin/San Maarten.

REGENERATION

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE
REGENERATION

Each of us has instilled in our DNA two virtually equal drives: the urge to work, achieve, and become; and the urge to escape completely from the workaday world. And herein lies the built-in tragedy inherent in the very concept of “living” a life without having to work—at any age! In Scripture, there is no such thing as “retirement,” but rather the divine expectation that each of us is to continue growing, achieving, until that very last breath.

So it is that those whose lives consist of perpetual leisure (vacation, if you will) are of all people the most miserable and unhappy. Just ask any manager of a Five Star resort or hotel what it is like to serve the super rich who play rather than live! What they discover by observing goalless trust kids is that they are incapable of enjoying a vacation—because vacations are all they know! Only those who work can enjoy vacations; only those who work can even comprehend the value of a vacation—or need one.

Though, in the Bible, there is no such concept as retirement, there is much said about Sabbaths, jubilees, changes of pace. Secular studies confirm that, admit it or not, without regular Sabbaths (once every week), the human mechanism quickly begins to misfire, break down, reach the point of ever diminishing returns. Those who are paid to be creative by bosses who demand of them seven-days a week on the job, soon realize that work without continual regeneration is a recipe for failure and burnout.

I concluded last Wednesday’s blog with these words: “My last conscious thoughts having to do with, How will this cruise change me? We shall be exploring the significance of that rhetorical question during the upcoming Southern Caribbean blogs.

Authors (authors worth reading, that is) all share one common trait: they are fascinated by this thing we glibly label “life” and the people (young, middle-aged, and old) they meet along the way. Before an author can write words worth reading, s/he must first do a lot of observing. And journaling. Without daily journaling, all one can remember later on (even just a day later) is just so much mush. For God only gives us a thought or epiphany that rings like a golden bell once. Thus, failing to chronicle such a thought within seconds or minutes, is to lose forever the benefit of having momentarily harbored these quicksilver thoughts that come to us but once in life. Both Matthew Arnold and Emily Dickinson (America’s greatest poetess) wrote about this phenomenon.

But the purpose of these blogs is not just to “hear my head rattle,’ but to share insights that come to me but once (in their full multidimensionality) with each of you who honor me by being willing to tune in each Wednesday to hear what I have to say.

Let me hasten to qualify that: to hear what God has to say. The reason being that long ago I realized that my own wisdom wells are shallow and my own thoughts are insipid; only God’s are worth reading. Thus it is that I daily pray the Prayer of Solomon: that God will grant me, just for this day, access to His wisdom wells, so that whatever I write will be worth whatever time it takes to read it. Consequently, if you discover perceived value in these blogs, dimly and inadequately phrased though they may be, written down in my earnest desire to be of service to those who are finding it difficult in the daily onslaught of 24/ media (produced, with all too few exceptions, by those who acknowledge no Higher Power other than themselves to give value to what they say and write), to find thoughts worth living by, it will be because God honored my request to access His wisdom.

Next Wednesday, we shall pick up from here.