Caribbean Sea Days – Part One, Birthday at Sea

  “Go stand at night upon an ocean craft
And watch the folds of its imperial train
Catching in fleecy foam a thousand glows—
A miracle of fire unquenched by sea.
There in bewildering turbulence of change
Whirls the whole firmament, till as you gaze,
All unseen, it is as if heaven itself
Had lost its poise, and each unanchored star
In phantom haste flees to the horizon line.”
– Robert Underwood Johnson, “Ilusions”

The sea — 71% of this earth God entrusts to us is sea, so how could we possibly remain unaffected by its might, its ever-changing moods, its broad palette of colors, its spectrum of aromas and sounds—its indefinable mystery?

Always I have loved it.

Many people fear entrusting their lives to the open sea (out of sight of land), but for me, being released from the importunate demands of land-based civilization frees me to soar.  If a storm should conclude my life there—well, what a way to go!

* * * * *

Over a third of our two weeks was spent at sea.  And let’s face it: only at sea do you really get to know a ship.  When you look up and up and up from a gangplank, all you can see is a species of skyscraper.  But once the ship sails out of port and land slips away, the ship becomes a living person with its own unique personality and idiosyncracies, just as is true with flesh and blood human beings.

Invariably, whenever one sails out of a harbor, we are exhausted by the trauma of completing all the thousand and one things that had to be done before we left home, packing (and hoping one didn’t forget anything), getting to the airport in time, making it through security and the check-in process, finding a seat, traveling in another airborn cattle car (with little elbow or knee room and nothing to eat but snacks), disembarking and getting to a lodge or hotel, making it to the dockyards, going through the endurance contest of security, checking in, finding your stateroom, and worrying that your luggage will fail to catch up with you; then unpacking your suitcase, and finding places for all that was in them, sailing out of the harbor, lifeboat drill, return to your stateroom—and crash!  You sleep—if you are not too exhausted to do.  Lucky are you if sea days separate you from your first port of call.  In our case, we were blessed with 60 hours at sea before we’d see land again.  During those hours, regeneration flowed in upon us, as soothing as the eternal sounds of the waves breaking against the ship.

 FIRST SEA DAY

Slept in until 8:00 a.m.  Connie, who’d not slept as well as I had, was reluctant to uncoccoon herself.  We had  a delicious breakfast in the San Marco Restaurant, all the while reveling in the sight of the sea outside the great windows.  Afterwards I found my way to the Excursion Desk and pumped a daytrip counselor about the pros and cons of the day-trips our group was considering taking.  It took some time before I’d decided which ones to take and booked them.  Later I shared my findings with the other five of our six-pack.

Later, I climbed up to the top deck so I could get my daily quota of exercise in.  For a number of years now, I have religiously maintained a daily exercise regime; never missing even one day (reason being I know myself too well to ever again miss so much as one day, for the pattern would then be broken, making it all too easy to miss the next, and the next).  This far north, it was still relatively cool, so making loop after loop on the jogging track was relatively easy.  But the further south we’d go, the higher heat and humidity would force all of us to exercise either in the early morning or late evening.  And if any of us failed to exercise, given the omnipresent food on the ship, we’d be blimps by the time we disembarked at Fort Lauderdale.

Then I napped. Afterwards, we gussied up for our first formal dinner.  A little over two hours later, we filed into the Celebrity Theater to take in a Hollywood variety show.  Fast-paced, well choreographed and performed, and relatively free of blue material.  Sadly, not true of some of the subsequent evening programs.

One thing I must compliment Celebrity on.  Now that cruise lines lure passengers on by heavily discounting the staterooms, management is forced to make it up in other ways—especially by pressuring passengers to purchase liquor.  We’ve been on some ships where you could hardly walk ten steps without being accosted by a liquor purveyor.  That was not true on the Constellation.

Back in the room, I caught up on my journaling, crawled in, then blissfully listened to the waves until those sounds segued with my dreams.

 SECOND SEA DAY

Ah bliss!  At 8:45 Tondi (our genial Philippine butler) brought in our pre-breakfast, on a silver tray, to the veranda, spread a crisp white tablecloth on the table, tucked us in with napkins, and artistically arranged the croissants, pastries, butter, jam, orange juice, and coffee pot on the table, poured our coffee, and slipped away.  As our son-in-law Duane would have said, Now this is living!”

We finished in time to make it downstairs for the real breakfast: a monstrous buffet!  With every kind of breakfast deliciosity imaginable.  Live easy-listening music was performed as we ate.  When we finally hoisted our bulk out of our chairs, we could hardly move.

Lucy's birthday cake

By 3 p.m., we were “hungry” enough to knock on the Earp’s stateroom door, there to join the Riffels for a surprise birthday party for Lucy. Actually, that’s what started the whole thing: Almost a year before, Bob had asked us if we’d like to join them for a special birthday celebration . . . on the Constellation.  Obviously, it turned out to be the most expensive birthday party we’ve ever attended!  Tondi knocked, and entered with a big cake and beverages on a silver tray, we sang Happy Birthday to Lucy, and we snarfed down enough cake to stave off starvation for a few more hours.  That was followed by a no-holds-barred game of Phase Ten, that lasted until dinner time.  After which it took me fifteen loops on the top deck to work off some of the day’s caloric intake!

Jo, Lucy and Connie ready for the birthday cake

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Lucy cutting her cake

* * *

Next Wednesday’s blog will continue the saga of our sea days.

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

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.

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.