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.

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.