Going Dutch - Antilles That Is - December, 2017

Oceans and Seas » Caribbean
December 31st 2017
Published: December 28th 2017
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Going Dutch – Antilles That Is! December 2017

It has been a long time since I was last in and around the Caribbean Islands, as the region really isn’t on the top of my “must revisit” list. However, when Celebrity published their new sailing rates for this holiday month and I saw how dirt-cheap cabins were going for, I simply couldn’t resist. And so I begin my next adventure by flying into San Juan, capital city of Puerto Rico. I know, I know……I had reservations about flying there after the recent hurricane devastation same as everyone else, but as tourism is the life blood of this tropical island, everything possible is being done to get back to normal. Hotels are reopening, cruise terminals have been repaired and airlines are returning to regular flight schedules. What’s the worst that could happen?

Why did I pose such an asinine question….first, a snow storm which virtually brought Atlanta and parts of the east coast to a standstill a couple of days ago, then a pipe bomb explosion in the Port Authority area of NYC the morning I’m leaving….this should be a lesson to keep my thoughts to myself - LOL

I start my latest adventure with a redeye flight to JFK where I narrowly connect with the non-stop to San Juan (thank all the gods on high, my arrival and departure gates were less than 100’ apart), putting me wheels down in this tropical isle just before 1pm. After the frigid temps of Las Vegas and New York, the balmy warmth and humidity of PR was very welcome. Having been here on previous occasions I was familiar with the small airport, so finding my bag at baggage claim was a no brainer. No sooner had I grabbed it, when I was approached by a Celebrity Cruises representative offering a complimentary transfer to the ship. As my three favorite words on earth are Free, Cheap and On-sale, it took me less than a nano second to accept this generous offer, and I was off in a shuttle to the docks along with a dozen other passengers from my flight.

Less than twenty minutes later, I had completed the check-in paperwork, got my Seapass card and walked onboard to what will be my floating hotel for the next 3 weeks. I had been upgraded to an ocean-view cabin in midships – virtually identical to the one I had months earlier when I sailed from Abu Dhabi thru the Suez Canal – very nice, plenty of room/closet space and a large round picture window on the starboard side. I can handle this and no doubt, will be extremely comfortable.

We had a late departure from San Juan (8:45pm) which meant the mandatory emergency lifeboat drill was held around dinnertime. Geez what a bore…. although I did half listen to the part about procedures for abandoning ship, if and when necessary. Don’t know what all the excitement is about, I already have my plan in place: grab the nearest tall and good-looking crew member, toss his ass over the railings and he then becomes my personal floatation device – screw everyone else, it’s every man (or woman) for himself!

Dinner followed a predictable pattern. I had a table for 8, sat alone and dined on French onion soup, salad and a very rare slab of aged prime rib – delicious. I find many people don’t make the first night’s dinner for a variety of reasons, but I expect it to be much more interesting and lively by night 2.

San Juan is the capital and most populous municipality in the Commonwealth of Puerto Rico, an unincorporated territory of the United States. As of the 2010 census, it had a population of 395,326 making it the 46th-largest city under the jurisdiction of the USA. San Juan was founded by Spanish colonists in 1521, who called it Ciudad de Puerto Rico. Puerto Rico's capital is the second oldest European-established capital city in the Americas, after Santo Domingo, in the Dominican Republic. Several historical buildings are located in San Juan; among the most notable are the city's former defensive forts, Fort San Felipe del Morro and Fort San Cristóbal, and La Fortaleza, the oldest executive mansion in continuous use in the Americas. Stepping into Old San Juan’s blue cobblestone streets will feel like stepping out of a time machine. Once the crown jewel of the Spanish Empire in the Americas, the walled city still preserves its stunning colonial architecture, ranging from imposing fortresses to brightly colored buildings, many of which have been declared World Heritage Sites by UNESCO. Amidst this beauty, lie some of the island’s best museums, restaurants, shops, and nightlife. No first trip to Puerto Rico is complete without a visit to Old San Juan.

Founded in 1521 by Juan Ponce de León, who named it City of Puerto Rico (Rich Port). The capital of Puerto Rico is the oldest city under U.S. jurisdiction, but some people argue than St. Augustine, Florida, founded in 1565 is the oldest city in the continental United States.

The history of San Juan begins a long time before its official foundation, in 1493, during his second voyage, Christopher Columbus landed in Puerto Rico. He named the island "San Juan Bautista", in honor of John the Baptist. But was not until 1508, that the Spanish government appointed Juan Ponce de León as the first governor of the island. He founded the original settlement in Caparra, now known as Pueblo Viejo, behind the almost land-locked harbor just to the west of the present metropolitan area and the city quickly became Spain's most important military outpost in the Caribbean.

A year later, the original settlement was relocated to a nearby coastal islet (to the site of what is now called Old San Juan) and named Puerto Rico. Sometime during the 1520s, confusion over the names led to a switch, the island took the name of Puerto Rico and the town became San Juan. Today, San Juan is known as La Ciudad Amurallada (the walled city) and is one of the biggest and best natural harbors in the Caribbean and is the second oldest European-founded city in the Americas (after Santo Domingo, which was officially founded on August 5, 1498.)

The metropolitan area known as San Juan has 3 distinct areas: Old San Juan, the Beach & Resort area, and other outlying communities, the most important: Río Piedras, Hato Rey, Puerta de Tierra, and Santurce. Río Piedras was founded in 1714 but became incorporated into San Juan in 1951. During the early 16th century, San Juan was the point of departure of Spanish expeditions to charter or settle unknown parts of the New World. Its fortifications repulsed the English navigator Sir Francis Drake in 1595, as well as later attacks. In the 20th century the city expanded beyond its walled confines, known as Old San Juan, to incorporate suburban Miramar, Santurce, Condado, Hato Rey and Río Piedras.

San Juan is the largest processing center of the island, the metropolitan area has facilities for petroleum and sugar refining, brewing and distilling and produces cement, pharmaceuticals, metal products clothing, and tobacco. The port is one of the busiest in the Caribbean. San Juan is the country's financial capital, and many U.S. banks and corporations maintain offices or distributing centers there. San Juan is center of Caribbean shipping and is the 2nd largest sea port in the area, after New York City.

After a good night’s rest, I awoke as we approached the first port of call, St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands. Charlotte Amalie is the capital and the largest city of the Islands, founded in 1666 as Taphus. In 1691, the town was renamed to Amalienborg after Charlotte Amalie of Hesse-Kassel, queen consort to King Christian V of Denmark-Norway. It has a deep-water harbor that was once a haven for pirates such as Henry Morgan and St. Francis Drake, and is now one of the busiest ports of call for cruise ships in the Caribbean, with about 1.5 million cruise ship passengers landing there in 2004 alone. Protected by Hassel Island, the harbor has docking and fueling facilities, machine shops, and shipyards and was a U.S. submarine base until 1966. The town has been inhabited for centuries. When Christopher Columbus came here in 1493, the area was inhabited by Island Caribs and Taíno. It is on the southern shore at the head of Saint Thomas Harbor. In 2010 the city had a population of 18,481, which makes it the largest city in the Virgin Islands Archipelago. Hundreds of ferries and yachts pass through town each week, and at times the population more than doubles.

The next few ports of call are going to follow a definite pattern: endless green mountainous islands, rising from a sparkling blue Caribbean Sea at set intervals….by the time I complete the circle, I won’t be able to tell one from the other!

The Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis, also known as the Federation of Saint Christopher and Nevis, is an island country in the West Indies. Located in the Leeward Islands chain of the Lesser Antilles, it is the smallest sovereign state in the Western Hemisphere, in both area and population. The country is a Commonwealth realm, with Queen Elizabeth II as head of state. St Kitts' bustling capital, Basseterre, has a compact downtown next to the cruise-ship terminal in Port Zante, which teems with duty-free shops, souvenir stalls and outdoor bars. If that and cold beer don't do it for you, bone up on island history at the National Museum, then plunge into the charmingly ramshackle maze of narrow streets radiating out from the Circus, a roundabout anchored by a Victorian-style clock tower. While wandering around this “downtown” section, keep an eye out for the occasional architectural gem (Princes Street is especially rewarding), then wrap up by joining locals in ‘liming’ on grassy Independence Square.

The island is really quite small, and 3 hours is more than enough time to view it from the comfort of a tour bus or even an ATV. In these few hours, make the most of your time in port in St. Kitts and see some of the island’s best attractions and most beautiful sights on a panoramic tour shore excursion. First, you’ll drive around Basseterre, where you’ll visit Independence Square, formerly known as Pall Mall Square, and have time to purchase a few gifts if that’s your thing (not mine). Then, continue along a scenic coastal road to Romney Manor, home of Caribelle Batik fabric. Here, watch the art of dyeing and drawing on Sea Island cotton and purchase dresses, wall hangings and other accessories at the on-site gift shop.

On to Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO heritage site. Brimstone Hill did not disappoint. Perched atop an 800-foot hill, this massive monument of the colonial era took 100 years to build. The British built the fort with African slave labor, beginning in the 1690’s. There is a short film about the fort, but I decided to explore instead. The climb to the main fort is strenuous, but should be manageable for most people. It was fascinating to wander around and contemplate the history of the place. The views of the fort, the island, and the deep blue sea were gorgeous.

There are several ruins around the fort and it was fun to explore those too. The vegetation on St. Kitts was interesting because it was desert-like compared with the other islands visited so far. I found what looks like a cactus on the grounds of Brimstone Hill Fortress. There is a US$10 fee for adults and $5 fee for children to visit here. I spent about an hour at Brimstone Hill which was adequate, but I could have easily spent a lot more time there. However, as with all shore excursions, time is of the essence and must be utilized to the fullest before returning to the ship just prior to sailing.

Fun factoid about St. Kitts/Nevis: there are a surprising number of medical and veterinary schools that attract students from many nations, including the United States.

It’s been a couple of days onboard now and I’m settling into the cruising way of life faster than I expected. This is, no doubt, a direct result of getting good solid sleep in a bed which is surprisingly comfortable, and a cabin which has excellent air conditioning, to combat the heat and humidity of this tropical paradise region. I suspect the ship is probably less than 55%!o(MISSING)ccupied, as there are never any great crowds for the dinner seating times, or even to get a good seat for the evening theater performances. Works for me…..crowds of locusts (aka cruisers) give me the hebbie jebbies.

Another day, another island…..on Antigua, life is a beach. Its corrugated coasts cradle hundreds of perfect little strands lapped by beguiling enamel-blue water, while the sheltered bays have provided refuge for everyone from Admiral Nelson to buccaneers and yachties. If you can tear yourself away from that beach towel, you'll discover that there’s a distinct English accent to this island. You'll find it in the bustling capital of St John's, in salty-glamorous English Harbor, and in the historic forts and other vestiges of the colonial past. Yet, Antigua is also quintessential Caribbean, full of candy-colored villages, a rum-infused mellowness and bright-eyed locals that greet you with wide smiles.

If life on Antigua is a beach, Barbuda is a beach: one smooth, pink-tinged strand hemming the reef-filled waters. Birds, especially the huffing and puffing frigates, greatly outnumber residents on this Caribbean dream island. Unfortunately, after the recent hurricane (which hit this island very hard), the damage is extensive. Naturally tourism has been negatively impacted, but Antigua is struggling back to normalcy.

St. John's is the capital and largest city of Antigua and Barbuda. With a population of 22,193, St. John's is the commercial center of the nation and the chief port of the island of Antigua. Here, farmers markets, candy- colored architecture and the ruins of sugar plantations vie for attention with a kaleidoscope of coral reefs and sailing adventures. Salute the white baroque towers of St. John's Cathedral that dominate the skyline before joining the flocks of cruise passengers on a Heritage Quay shopping excursion. To experience the island's early cultures, a visit to the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, housed in a 1750s colonial courthouse, is mandatory.

Next day was an “at sea” day and close to noon we got a little excitement. A small sail boat had sent a Mayday signal with a medical emergency, so of course the ship altered course to assist. I’m all for assistance if and when necessary, but when the free champagne at the Art Auction is held up due to this, then I’m NOT a happy camper……note to all, do not ever come between this woman and free booze! But it was a worthwhile effort….turns out, six people (2 adults and 4 kids) had been adrift for two weeks and without food or water for the past 4 days! They were brought aboard and are currently being treated in the medical facility. An update later in the day from the captain, informs everyone that 8 lives were actually saved in this emergency rescue, as the two women were pregnant.

Here we go again….another day, another island…..Willemstad is the capital city of Curaçao, an island in the southern Caribbean Sea that forms a constituent country of the Netherlands. Formerly the capital of the Netherlands Antilles prior to its dissolution in 2010, it has an estimated population of 150,000. The historic center of the city consists of four quarters: the Punda and Otrobanda, which are separated by the Sint Anna Bay, an inlet that leads into the large natural harbor called the Schottegat, as well as the Scharloo and Pietermaai Smal quarters, which are across from each other on the smaller Waaigat harbor. Willemstad is home to the Curaçao synagogue, the oldest surviving synagogue in the Americas. The city center, with its unique architecture and harbor entry, has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Leaving the ship after breakfast, I headed across the harbor and into the tourist enclave, where the buildings are all painted in bright pastel colors. It was hot, sunny and humid but at least the many shops were air conditioned which made for welcome breaks. Not being much of a shopper, I browsed for maybe an hour, then found a shady outdoor restaurant next to the harbor and ordered a beer. Spent two hours just sipping a cold one, people watching and enjoying the cool off-shore breeze under an umbrella, before making my way back in the early afternoon.

Located 15 miles north of Venezuela in the warm waters of the southern Caribbean, Aruba is home to beautiful white-sand beaches, 82-degree days, and some of the warmest people in the world. The island is 19.6 miles long and 6 miles across, with a total area of 70 square miles. Situated just below the hurricane belt and unlike many islands in the Caribbean, the climate is dry, so it rarely has a rainy day. On the south and west coasts of Aruba, you’ll find Oranjestad, and miles of beaches that have been named some of the best in the world. Here, you’ll also find most of the hotels and all-inclusive resorts in Aruba, and Queen Beatrix International Airport.

In the interior of the island, you’ll find Arikok National Park, a desert like preserve with a variety of wildlife, cacti and dramatic rock formations. You’ll also find some of Aruba’s most striking views, as the ocean crashes against the rugged shoreline below. On the northeast coast, along the windward shore, you’ll see the island’s unofficial mascots, the fofoti trees. The constant trade winds have permanently sculpted them into graceful, southwesterly bending forms.

Compact Aruba is a study in contrasts: a pastel rainbow of economic downtown and high-rise hotels. Creole seafood and classic Dutch cuisine. Crystalline blue waters and rugged desert. Oranjestad is a unique blend of old and new that lends a distinctive charm to Aruba’s capital. A bustling harbor city, Oranjestad’s streets and malls are dotted with international luxury retailers, diverse boutiques, and dazzling jewelry stores. Fascinating restored landmark buildings are found along the way, such as the green “stadhuis” housing the City Hall where legal marriages are performed. A scenic linear park lines the coast from Oranjestad to the airport. A new state-of-the-art tram begins at the cruise terminal, meandering through town, all along the sparkling new landscaped Main Street.

Oranjestad is also a jumping nightlife mecca, filled with restaurants, cafes, clubs, lounges, bars and casinos. Fort Zoutman, Aruba’s oldest building dating back to 1798, was built to protect the city from pirates. The Willem III Tower was built in 1868, once a lighthouse and public clock tower. The Historical Museum, positioned between the two buildings, houses a permanent exhibition outlining the main events in Aruban history and changing themed exhibitions. Stay in town for the Bon Bini Festival on Tuesdays at 6:30 pm in the outdoor courtyard. Enjoy the island’s history, traditionally-costumed folkloric dancers, local music, culinary specialties and local art.

The historic Ecury family home in downtown Oranjestad has been transformed to house the Archeological Museum, an impressive modern museum that strikingly presents Aruba’s Amerindian cultural heritage and archeological finds. Inspiring monuments honoring political leaders are found near the Parliament building. The statue of Queen Wilhelmina of the Netherlands resides in a park carrying her name. World War II heroes Boy Ecury, and the National Guard and volunteers, are also honored.

The Cas di Cultura is Aruba’s national theatre, where local and international artists perform throughout the year. Aruba’s economy was once dependent upon aloe. The Aloe Museum and Factory, located at the Hato Plantation outside of town that dates back to 1890, tells the fascinating story. Getting around downtown Oranjestad has never been easier or more fun with the addition of a state-of-the-art tram, inaugurated in 2012. Connecting the cruise ship terminal with the center of town, the tram passes through the Main Street, now totally remodeled and an attractive pedestrian mall. The tram makes six stops, at monuments and museums along the way, as well as at key shopping areas. In 2015 Oranjestad has welcomed the new cultural/historical project Paardenbaai Aruba, which features 8 blue horses showcased around the downtown area.

Getting to know some of the ship’s crew members has been a real treat. Shaun, one of the bartenders in the Rendez-vous Lounge on Deck 4, hails from Jamaica and has been working on different Celebrity ships worldwide, for the past 7 years. He was a bartender back in Jamaica prior to joining Celebrity, and plans to work another 4 or 5 years before returning home and hopefully opening a bar/restaurant in his home town. He obviously loves what he does and makes every guest feel welcome with his warm smile and outgoing personality. The only “down” side to his life onboard is being away from his wife and son for months on end, but he knows that right now, this is where he needs to work while he saves money for the future. I also got the chance to chat with the financial officer, who has been with Celebrity for more than 10 years and plans to make this her lifetime career….like me, she is totally obsessed with worldwide travel. Each crew member I met were all delightful to chat with, and more than willing to tell me their stories of life on a cruise ship, both pro and con.

Kralendijk is the capital city and main port of the island of Bonaire. In Dutch, Koralendijk (of which the name Kralendijk is a degeneration) means "coral reef" or "coral dike". In Papiamentu, the town is often called Playa or "beach". Kralendijk is a lively and colorful Caribbean town center. Year round you can stroll the streets enjoying the Caribbean architecture while shopping in the main street Kaya Grandi and the area around it. From November till April there are cruise ships docking at the North or South Pier. On those days there is a market on the Wilhelmina square with island-made products. Tourism is the economic mainstay, though salt mining is also a significant industry. The island is known for its fine beaches, skin diving, and pink flamingos, lots and lots and lots of pink flamingos!

A small island with a desert landscape, Bonaire is not for everyone – but it is for divers and snorkelers who want to immerse themselves in that vibrant world under the sea. The beauty of Bonaire is that the coral reef, designated a national park, is just a few feet from the shoreline. Dozens of exceptional dive sites are easily accessible from the shore and teeming with life, making this island an independent diver's (and snorkeler's) paradise.

Above the surface, there is world-class windsurfing on Lac Bay and excellent kayaking among the mangroves. Biking trails wind through the arid hills, while driving routes show off the island's historical and natural sights. Classy but low-key resorts and restaurants complete the picture – perfect for travelers who prefer their adventure with some amenities.

And there is the convenience of having the ship docked virtually a few feet away from the town, with shops lining the waterfront – I could easily throw a rock from the deck and hit a window – they are that close. As with all the islands under the Dutch influence, the architecture is identical to those found in the last couple of port stops – it’s getting to be that I can no longer tell one from the other. Plus, I will no doubt have difficulty identifying my photos after I download them. Such is life in the Caribbean islands, I guess.

The history of the Dominican Republic is an interesting one, starting with Christopher Columbus landing on Hispaniola Island in 1492, thru 1791 when slaves revolted in the French part of the island and finally declaring independence from France in 1804. In 1844, the eastern part of the island declared independence from Spain; in 1930 General Trujillo established dictatorship over the island, until he was eventually assassinated in 1961.

Today Punta Cana is a world-famous resort, located on the east coast of the island, but less than 60 years ago, only few people of, or visited, Punta Cana. In 1969, a group of American investors bought 30 square miles of undeveloped land bordering about 5 miles of the east coast of the Dominican Republic. The land was mostly impenetrable jungle with no access roads. There were only a few fishing villages along the coast. However, the beaches were some of the most beautiful on the island with their white sand, coconut palms, crystal clear waters and protective coral reefs. The land they bought was known as Punta Borrachón (“Drunken Point”) and the investors quickly realized they needed to change that name to something that sounded better, and so Dominican entrepreneur and Frank Rainieri decided to use the name of the first hotel in the area called The Punta Cana Club.

It was not long before Punta Cana started to attract attention from the rest of the world. This group of investors attracted, among others, Dominican fashion designer Oscar de la Renta and international music artist Julio Iglesias. In 1971 the first hotel was built in Punta Cana. This hotel could accommodate 40 guests and consisted of 10 rustic cabins. Access to the hotel was by a dirt airstrip for small planes.

In 1978, the French resort chain Club Med built a 350-room Club Med Punta Cana. The area is still fairly isolated. However, toothpaste company Colgate was forced to invest in the first paved road that connected Punta Cana with the rest of the island. Instead of 6 hours, it now only takes 30 minutes for the trip to the town of Higuey. In 1982, after many years of negotiation with the Dominican government, the owners of Punta Cana resort were permitted to build an airstrip that would allow big jumbo jets to land here.

In 1984, the airstrip opened and during the first year of operation the number of visitors topped 2,976. It is estimated that within the next 30 years, there will be almost 4 million people landing at this airport every year. Currently there are over 60 resorts in Punta Cana. These resorts, along with other tourism related business are the backbone of the local economy. About a quarter of the country’s gross domestic product comes from Punta Cana.

The “at sea” days are full of social activities (duh!) but I think my favorite is the Park West Art Auctions. Not only do they serve flutes of champagne (did someone say free booze – I’m in), but I generally walk away with a piece of complimentary artwork. Over the years I have collected quite a few pieces, one day I just might get around to framing them all. This cruise, the art gallery is staffed with South Africans and as most people know, Cape Town owns my heart when it comes to favorite cities. Just hearing the lilting tones of that magical country, immediately whisks me back to the V&A Waterfront, Hout Bay, Table Mountain, Stellenbosch and the colorful facades of the homes in the Bo ’Kamp region of the city. Definitely has me yearning for my next trip back to the dark continent!

One of the most beautiful capitals in the Caribbean Islands is found right here in Saint Lucia. Castries is a pleasant town and a friendly beacon of welcome at the base of its harbor. It was originally called the "Carenage" - a name which was commonly assigned to careening places in the West Indies. In 1785, Castries got its name in honor of Marshal de Castries, the French colonial Minister for the navy and the colonies, which was instrumental in having the island returned to the French in 1784, following the Treaty of Versailles. When the republican raged for altering names and abolishing institutions extended to Saint Lucia, the name was suppressed and the homelier one "Carenage" was substituted. Then in 1803 after many changes, the city finally adopted "Castries" as its name.

The Cathedral Basilica of the Immaculate Conception, locally known as The Castries Cathedral is the largest church in The Caribbean and is located next to The Derek Walcott Square, a St. Lucian Nobel Laureate for literature. Morne Fortune, a short distance from Castries, was the scene of many battles between the English and The French for control of the strategic island of St. Lucia. Remnants of those battles can be seen at The Morne and is a popular spot for visitors to St. Lucia.

I opted to take a local tour company by the name of Cosol which offered a full day exploration of the island, including food and drink lasting over six hours, for the grand price of $75.00. What a bargain I got. Evidently other passengers from the ship thought the same, as 12 of us boarded one of the buses dockside just after 8:30am and off we went. Our driver Yellowtail (I kid you not), was also the tour guide – he was a riot, born and bred on the island, with more stories than he knew what to do with. He was a firm believer in multiple “photo stops” which I always appreciate, and the first one was at a banana plantation along the roadside. Here we were regaled with the story of banana production, offered some to eat along with a shot or two of spiced rum – you can imagine which I preferred over the other!

As there is only one main road which circumnavigates the entire island (the center being uninhabited), so it made it easy to visit and photograph the various towns and villages along the drive. Two fishing villages were of note: Anse La Raye where, every Friday night, a street festival and fish fry is held, with dancing, food and gallons of the locally-produced rum….funny, I didn’t get an invite to this how-down in my mailbox. Note to self: next trip ensure it’s over a weekend to attend this Friday night event. Followed by Canaries village which appeared more prosperous than the first but probably not half as much fun overall. Shortly after we left Canaries in the rear-view mirror, we began climbing the winding and twisting 2-lane highway up into the mountains, with glorious coast views at every turn. One beautiful beach was Marigot Bay where the movie Dr. Doolittle was filmed.

10:00am was a breakfast stop at a local house/restaurant where a variety of local dishes and fresh fruit was served. Here is where we were told a mobile bar in a small van was following the few tour buses owned by Cosol, and it was an open bar – didn’t have to tell me twice – just start pouring the rum punch. From here we headed towards The Pitons, which are two volcanic plugs in a World Heritage Site, linked by the Piton Mitan ridge. The two Piton Mountains are the most photographed landmark on the island. The larger of these two volcanic plugs is called the Gros Piton, while the other is the Petit Piton. They are a stunning site for sure. There is a world-class resort located between the two called Sugar Beach – it used to be a Hilton Hotel, but is now a private resort. The story goes that the new owners decided to restrict access to the fabulous beach by refusing anyone but registered guests to use the only road in. Being the resourceful people that the islanders are – no problem man, we go by water instead. Hence the brisk tourist trade in power boat, skiff and kayak rentals. As all beaches in St. Lucia are public, nothing these new owners could do….you have to laugh.

Part of the tour included a water taxi from a nearby public beach over to Sugar Beach for a couple of hours of snorkeling and swimming – that was not my idea of a good time, I had something better in mind. Letting the other passengers take off in the water taxi, I headed down the brown lava sand beach and parked myself under swaying palm trees, near a group of locals running a dive shop. Within minutes dark clouds covered the sun and the regular afternoon deluge began. One of the locals ran over with a large beach umbrella before I drowned, and we started talking. Augustus and Martin were two beach vendors and over the next two hours, we became fast friends. Between serving their customers, we shared a gallon jug of home made spiced rum….oh god, I think I crawled back to the tour bus when the rest of the group showed up later on in the afternoon. We must have a really cute picture, three of us under this beach umbrella, swigging rum while the rain pelted the plastic like a tom-tom. I had a blast and left the beach in an alcoholic haze. No more mobile bars for me for a while, that’s for sure!

Next stop was Soufriere, the world’s only drive-in volcano, where mud pits were available for those so inclined to take a dip, for whatever medicinal purposes that slime would provide (needless to say, I passed). It started pouring down again just as we arrived, so I opted to stay in the bus and try to sober up (hope springs eternal). One last stop on the way back to the ship, was at the same house/restaurant where we were served warm bread and cheese strips – it tasted way better than it sounds and went a long way to soaking up the alcohol.

Another day closer to the end of the voyage and the following morning we docked in the English port of Bridgetown, Barbados. Wandering bustling Bridgetown, with its many sights and old colonial buildings, can easily occupy a day. There is good shopping, especially along Broad Street and on pedestrian-only Swan Street, which buzzes with the rhythms of local culture. The entire downtown area and south to the Garrison, was named a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2012 for its historical significance.

Barbados is for rum drinkers…..”there’s a time and a place” goes the slogan for Mount Gay Rum, and nowhere is the phrase more apt than the home of the world’s oldest commercial rum distiller: Barbados. This sweet golden nectar is a fundamental part of the nation's culture, the birthplace of the Caribbean’s favorite liquor. Revered in calypso and soca songs and celebrated at its own festival, Bajan rum is used to flavor local fare and is served everywhere, at all times of the day. Barbados' 'Story of Sugar and Rum', which includes its historic plantations and distilleries, has even made it onto the tentative list of

cultural heritage sites to be considered for inscription by UNESCO.

The name "Barbados" comes from a Portuguese explorer named Pedro Campos in 1536, who originally called the island Os Barbados ("The Bearded Ones"), after the appearance of the island's fig trees, whose long hanging aerial roots resembled beards. Between Campos's sighting in 1536 and 1550, Spanish conquistadors seized many Caribs on Barbados and used them as slave labor on plantations. The others fled the island, moving elsewhere.

Barbados was formally settled by the British in 1627. After several failed crops of cotton and tobacco, sugarcane was introduced, and the colony established itself as a profitable plantation economy. Enslaved Africans were the primary source of labor on these plantations until 1834, when they won their freedom through several years of rebellion, supported by increasing pressure from anti-slavery movements in Britain.

The economy remained heavily dependent on sugar, rum and molasses production through most of the 20th century. Though the shackles were removed, much of the repressive labor conditions of slavery remained on the island until the 1930s, when the educated black middle class fought for universal adult suffrage and took the control of the country's local governance away from the British-descended local aristocracy. The country began a process of social and political reforms in the 1940s and 1950s which led to complete independence from the United Kingdom in 1966. In the 1980s, tourism and manufacturing surpassed the sugar industry in economic importance. Barbados has developed into a stable democracy with one of the highest rates of literacy in the Western Hemisphere. Locals refer to themselves as Bajans and things Barbadian as Bajan.

A morning coast-to-coast scenic drive was first up on my agenda, so promptly at 9am I boarded a tour bus in the port terminal, along with at least 18 others, to spend the next 4 hours exploring this fascinating island, which is the only remaining Caribbean island still under British rule. It is relatively small – 21 miles long by 14 miles wide – with some of the most stunning beaches imaginable. Romance and adventure are in the air depending on your choice of coast. To the west, you'll find calm waters and good swimming (the Caribbean). To the east (the Atlantic), there are massive, competition-caliber waves. Wherever you visit, expect turquoise waters, fine soft sand beaches, catamaran cruises and delicious island fare. I think Barbados will end up being my absolute favorite by the time the cruise is over. I could easily see myself returning for a few weeks and just chilling out. By the time I was back onboard around 1:30pm, I had covered the island from north to south, east to west, taking fabulous photographs and having a really good time.

Fun Factoid about Bridgetown: there are too many funeral homes in the city (and apparently not enough people dying fast enough) to generate regular revenue, so the hearses are available for rental as taxis….as the local saying goes here, “we transport you one way or the other – alive or dead”….you have to admit, that’s taking entrepreneurial spirit to the nth degree!

Last cruise stop before returning to San Juan, we dock the next day at Fort-de-France, Martinique's chief city (no it isn’t the capital, that would be Paris, as this island is a French protectorate), which has undergone immense change in the past decade. Beginning the 21st century as an economically backward, dilapidated kind of place, the city has very successfully reinvented itself as a cruise-ship destination, with the construction of two impressive new terminals. More than that, Fort-de-France has rejuvenated its central park, given a coat of paint to many of its buildings and enhanced itself with several pieces of modern architecture. All this has served to breathe fresh life into the largest city in the French West Indies, and cruisers and travelers alike now flock to the place. Exports include sugar, rum, tinned fruit, and cacao.

The obvious attraction is the fabulous Fort St-Louis, from which the city takes its name. Less obvious is the rich and engaging street life, the ubiquitous music and some excellent eating options. Even if you've come to Martinique for the beaches, you'll be very glad to spend a day in Fort-de-France.

Though established as the largest of all urban areas in Martinique, Fort-de-France tourism doesn't thrive quite as some might expect. Instead, the city of 100,000 residents is commended for its superb restaurants and trendy fashion boutiques ideal for a day of shopping. Located on the south western end of the island and situated at the head of a large bay, is picturesque and brimming with a wealth of history and attractions. Beginning along the water and extending into the lush hills, Fort-de-France is a place best explored by foot. The many restaurants throughout the city combined with the beautiful scenery, unique shops and boutiques, eateries, cafes, and scenic walks make it an inviting Caribbean destination.

The heart of Fort-de-France tourism revolves around La Salvane, the city core, also a tourist and local hub. Swaying palm trees, punctuated by city benches, and a gleaming marble statue of Napoleon's love interest Josephine are all highlights of the central area. For terrific shopping opportunities near the central square, head toward the harbor near the park where vendors fill their stalls with wood carvings, jewelry, handmade hats, woven baskets, and much more. Visitors looking to enjoy a spectacular meal should try La Plantation, considered one of the best longstanding restaurants in Fort-de-France. Set amid lush, tropical surroundings and within walking distance of La Salvane, La Plantation serves incredible French and Creole meals inside a beautiful colonial estate.

If trying some of the tantalizing restaurants in Fort-de-France is on the agenda, visitors are sure to be pleased with the assortment of budget, mid-range, and upscale dining available. Creole style cooking is the specialty here and all over the rest island as well. A combination of French, West Indian, East Indian, and African cuisine comprises the Creole dishes served up in Martinique. Some of the most renowned restaurants in Fort-de-France specialize in haute cuisine, which is characterized by very intricate food preparation and elaborate food presentations. Smoked salmon, foie gras, succulently roasted scallops, and classic dishes of the finest beef are often house specialties.

Though Fort-de-France tourism doesn't flourish as it does along the island's southern tip where beaches are a big draw, there are several noteworthy attractions to explore. The long history of the island can be discovered in more depth when visiting the areas around La Salvane. Place de la Salvane is a tranquil park filled with stunning gardens and fountains and perfect for a relaxing morning or afternoon stroll. Throughout the lovely area there are many colonial-era homes, charming cafes, and quaint shops offering an ideal way to graze through the day. Upon reaching the waterfront, Fort St. Louis, a seventeenth-century fortification, stands proud at the harbor's entrance. Tours of the fort are available and also afford some of the most sublime views of Fort de France Martinique.

The Cathedral St. Louis, erected in 1878 on Rue Blenac, showcases glorious stained-glass windows and incredible iron rails. Two blocks east the Musee Departemental de la Martinique features Carib and Arawak artifacts and an extensive early European collection of fine furnishings and a variety of other early items brought to the island by the first settlers. Also near La Salvane, the unusual mélange of graceful domes and arches comprise the Bibliotheque Schoelcher. They were first built for Paris's World Exhibition in 1889 and eventually shipped to Martinique for the Schoeler Library.

With walking as the most ideal mode of transportation, exploring the many unique markets and gardens exemplifies the charm exuding from the city. Don't miss one of the most impressive gardens in all of the Caribbean, the Jardin de Balata. Sweeping acres of fresh tropical flowers, gentle, rolling hills, and plenty of local tree species are found atop a large incline overlooking the ocean. The sheer beauty of the local architecture on the island speaks volumes of a city with a long and fascinating history. The beautiful, mountainous scenery is enough to capture every visitor’s attention and the many active pursuits available on Martinique, spanning across the board, strike a chord with every type of traveler.

Tomorrow is my last full day at sea – I need to start packing up my cabin and prepare to disembark the following morning and make my way to SJU for my flights home to Vegas. This has been an enjoyable break, but cruising will still remain my least favorite mode of transportation…time to prepare from the next destination. Stay tuned for upcoming events!...cheers

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