Archive for May, 2014

Southern Caribbean, Part 4: St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten, St. Thomas & Ft. Lauderdale

St. Lucia

     We docked at Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, on Sunday, March 30.  We had explored Castries during a previous visit in 2012 (our pictures of that visit can be seen at:  <> ).  So we decided this time to take a bus expedition to Soufriere, the old French colonial capital, to see the Pitons, twin peaks that are the symbol of St. Lucia. It was a drizzly day, but quite rewarding.

   The drive through the mountains to Soufriere was pretty long but quite pretty in the forest & on the hills. We stopped on the way at a small fishing village called Anse La Raye.  It was in a nice spot but the town wasn’t much to look at. We drove by another fishing village called Canaries but didn’t stop.


     As we approached Soufriere we stopped on a mountain side overlooking the town for our first look at the Pitons. The Pitons are twin mountains rising very steeply right out of the sea.


     Our next stop, after driving through Soufriere, was the botanical gardens.  It was filled with exotic flowers in all shapes and colors (hang on, there are a lot of flower pictures here).


   Not just flowers here; this is a rainforest, complete with rain. It included some familiar house plants in their natural habitat, dieffenbachia & philodendron. And at the end of the trail was a picturesque waterfall.


   We went next to see what is billed as “the world’s only drive in volcano.”  Of course, anyone who has been to Yellowstone knows that isn’t really true. But it does have interesting steam vents & boiling mud pools (as does Yellowstone). These are made by pressure from the intense heat below from this active volcano.  We were told that you used to be able to walk down to the vents, but one day a guide fell in when the one he was standing by collapsed. He recovered, but you can’t go near them any more.


     Our last stop was for lunch.  We had a very good Caribbean lunch (with a delicious hot sauce) in a restaurant on a mountainside overlooking Soufriere.  I’m not sure I have ever eaten in a restaurant with a more spectacular view.





     We arrived at St. Johns, Antigua, the last island that was new to us, on Sunday, March 30. St. Johns is the capital of the nation of Antigua & Barbuda.


     We left the ship after breakfast & walked along the long pier into town.  On the dock was a steel band that was pretty good. The town was pleasant enough, although the streets had deep water ditches similar to Grenada.  At the some of the major intersections there were low walls on each corner, presumably to protect pedestrians from cars cutting the corners. Our first visit was to the library. It was founded in 1854, but now is housed modestly on the second floor of a fashion shop.  However we did see people coming and going so it must get some use.


   Our next stop was the Antigua museum, housed in an old Georgian building that was once the Courthouse. The museum was small but very interesting, with artifacts and explanations about the lives of the Arawak & Carib Indians who once lived on the Island & of the early European settlers.  Columbus was the first European to set foot on Antigua, during his second voyage in 1493, and he named the island after a statue of Mary in the Cathedral of Seville. One item of interest here was the Warri board, a game that originated in Africa & was said in the museum to be the oldest board game in the world.  I’m not sure about that, though, since last year we saw a game board in Crete dating from 1,500 B.C., and in Turkey we saw a picture from an ancient Greek pot showing Greek soldiers playing a board game. There was also a larger than life statue of Sir Vivian Richards, an Antiguan soccer hero who was knighted for his athletic prowess (unfortunately we didn’t get a picture of that).


86. Iraklion Crete, Archeology Museum96. Antalya

     The last landmark we visited was St. John’s Cathedral, an Anglican church built in 1845 on a spot where churches had been built twice before.  It is the dominant structure of the inner city skyline. Unfortunately it is undergoing extensive renovation so, as has been true too often on this trip, we could not go in to see the interior.


     So we walked back to the ship, partly through a lively market.  There were lovely flowers, as usual in the Caribbean. As we walked along a wooden sidewalk I was looking at the colorful buildings around us when suddenly my whole leg up to the knee dropped into a space left by a missing board! Fortunately I was wearing leather shoes & long pants, so the scrapes were minimized, but it sure did hurt for a few days. I decided not to sue, and we made our way back to the ship. On the pier was a fellow in an elaborate headdress playing a drum. You never know what you are going to see on a trip like this! Anyway, that was all for Antigua as we spent the rest of the day on deck chairs while my leg recuperated.


Sint Maarten

     On the morning of April Fools Day we docked at Philipsburg, St. Maarten.  This island is divided between the French & the Dutch & Philipsburg is the capital of the Dutch side. It has a nice beach & mind-boggling shopping, including the funky Guavaberry Emporium that we have always enjoyed. 

02a Philipsburg

However, we were tired after 4 consecutive port days, my leg wasn’t completely rehabilitated, and St. Maarten was subject to a State Department health warning about a nasty mosquito borne disease called Chikungunya making its first appearance in the Western Hemisphere. So we decided to spend the day relaxing on the ship instead of going into town. But we made an extensive blog posting of our last visit to St. Maarten during our South America trip in 2012, so if you want to see our adventures in this city use this link:  <> .

St. Thomas & St. John

     We arrived at Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas on the morning of Wednesday, April 2. St. Thomas & St. John are sister islands in the  U.S. Virgin Islands. These islands were owned by Denmark from the mid-17th century until they were bought by the United States in 1917 as part of the effort to protect the Panama Canal. The city of Charlotte Amalie was named in the late 17th century for the queen of Denmark.

     The ship was docked about 2 miles from town, but your intrepid travellers walked into town anyway. Much of the walk was along the large and beautiful harbor, in which seaplanes land and take off all day long.  We had been here before and had a few places we wanted to visit. However, again our map was poor & the streets here are not easy to follow once you get away from the water, so it took quite a bit of walking to find what we wanted. That is why, despite the relative paucity of pictures here, we ended up walking more than 8 miles on the day.


     Our first stop was the St. Thomas synagogue, which is the oldest continuously operating synagogue in the United States. Called Beracha Veshalom Vegmiluth Hasidim, it was built in 1833 to house a congregation founded in 1796. It contains an 11th century Spanish menorah (which may be the one on the wall in the 3rd picture below). The floor is covered in sand. Some say this is to represent the Israelites’ 40 years in the desert, but more likely it derives from the Spanish tradition of the Sephardic Jews who founded the congregation who covered the floors of their secret places of worship during the Inquisition to muffle the sound of their services. As we were walking back down the hill we heard a tourist who obviously had little English asking directions to “the church with a sand floor.”  It was amusing, but we presumed that church was the only word she knew for a house of worship. On the wall outside is an unusual “reserved parking” sign. There was a car parked in front of it but I’m pretty sure it hadn’t been there since 1830.


     As usual in the Caribbean there were a lot of beautiful flowers here. Also some odd sights, like a ramshackle bar apparently run by a large male chicken & Roosevelt Park, named in 1945 after a visit by the President of the United States.


     We searched quite a while for the library but it wasn’t anywhere near where our map said it would be. Disappointed by that, we headed uphill to Blackbeard’s Castle. Local tradition has it that the pirate Blackbeard used this as a lookout, but it was built by the Danes in the 1670’s as a watchtower. It sits high on a hill overlooking bright red Fort Christian, named for the Danish King Christian V, built around the same time, where the actual defenses of the town were located. There is a restaurant just below it where we enjoyed lunch on our last visit to St. Thomas in the early 2000’s, with a fabulous view of seaplanes landing and taking off. But sadly today it is restricted to people who buy a ticket for a self-guided walking tour of the tower and a few other sites below that also used to be open to the public. Below the restaurant is the Three Queens Fountain, erected in 2005, commemorating three women who led an uprising in 1878. The approach to this area from below is via the “99 Steps,” a stairway built in the mid-18th century with bricks from Denmark that had been used as  ballast in Danish ships. It actually has 103 steps, but who’s counting?


  By now we were pretty tired from all the uphill walking, so we headed back toward the ship.  We walked through the shopping district (mostly diamonds, watches, t-shirts & trinkets) on the way.  I was walking along with my head down looking at the sidewalk (even though this one was safely made of stone) when I noticed a receptacle labeled “book return.”  I looked up &, sure enough, this building was the library that we had spent so much time & energy searching for in an entirely different part of town. What serendipity, & a great way to top off our visit to Charlotte Amalie.


   Having only 1 day here we chose to spend our time in Charlotte Amalie rather than taking the approximately 1 hour boat trip to St. John, only about 4 miles from St. Thomas. Only a little more than 4,000 people live on St. John & it has no airport, so boat is the only way to get there and it is a full day trip. But in 2011 we did spend a cruise stop here in St. John, so I thought I would include a few pictures from that visit.  The boat dropped us in Cruz Bay, the town where the dock is. It is in a lovely spot with very blue & clear water.


     In the town the one thing we have pictures of is, of course, the library.


     Most of St. John is a U.S. National Park. The land was donated for this purpose by Laurence Rockefeller, with the stipulation that it be forever protected from development. We stopped at the park ranger’s station for directions, then set out to hike through the park on a trail beginning just behind it. It was not a particularly easy walk, lots of up and down and irregular pathways impinged upon by roots and potholes. Notably there were a lot of interesting cactus in the area. Eventually we came to a quite beautiful isolated beach, accessible only from the sea or by this hefty hike. I am not sure what the beach is called, but I have seen a picture of Oppenheimer Beach, once owned by the American physicist J. Robert Oppenheimer, and it looks like it could be the same one. We walked back after that along a different path, then took the boat back to our ship.  Notably, the boat trip included unlimited rum punch.


Ft. Lauderdale

     After two more days at sea we arrived back in Ft. Lauderdale very early on the morning of April 5.  On the last day you are no longer a passenger to the Cruise line but an obstacle to getting the ship ready for the next set of cruisers who will begin boarding before noon.  Therefore we were up uncharacteristically early so we could be out of our room before the deadline, & hopefully catch a very quick breakfast before the buffet was shut down to prepare for the new passengers. The upside of this is that we were awake in time to see a very dramatic sunrise over the same bit of land (island?) where we had seen a rainbow when we first set off. After a less than enjoyable disembarkation (it took over an hour from the time they called our disembarkation group to the time we got a taxi, most of it standing in line) we retrieved our car and started for home. A good two weeks & a fun time was had by all.


Southern Caribbean, Part 3: St. George’s, Grenada & Bridgetown, Barbados


     We docked in St. George’s, the capital of Grenada, early on March 28. Most people of a certain age (in which I include myself) know of Grenada mainly from the American invasion of the island in the 1980’s, but we saw very little that would remind you of that.  Grenada is known as the Spice Island because it is an important exporter of a variety of spices, most notably nutmeg. As I read somewhere, Columbus would have liked that since spices were one of his primary goals when he first came to the Caribbean (the other being gold). But sadly for Columbus, nutmeg trees were brought here long after his time (he didn’t find gold either).  The island was devastated in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan; most of its buildings and its nutmeg trees were destroyed. A stronger variety of nutmeg was planted after the hurricane, but it takes almost a decade for nutmeg to begin fruiting, so the industry still isn’t back to where it was.  We also saw buildings damaged by Ivan that still haven’t been restored.


     So after breakfast we left the ship to explore St. George’s on foot. The streets here have few sidewalks & most are lined on each side by deep ditches, so where there is traffic it can be difficult to traverse. Our first stop was on top of a steep hill where we visited the Catholic Cathedral. The tower was constructed in 1818 and the rest of the building in 1884. However, we had read before arriving that the roof was missing as a result of Ivan, so the bright orange roof we saw must be quite new. Just down the street was the Grenada parliament building.  At least it used to be, because now it is a ruin open to the elements, presumably as a result of Ivan.  It is a nice building so hopefully it will yet be restored.


     After that we walked over to the Carenage, a horseshoe shaped harbor area (too small for cruise ships). This is really the center of activity in St. George’s, with a number of shops & restaurants. There is a sidewalk (yay!) lining the water all the way around the harbor, which is also lined with small boats. It’s a very colorful spot.


     On one side of the Carenage we found the public library in a distinctive old pink building.  At least it used to be the library, before Ivan. Now it is empty and unrestored.  The library was established in 1846 and moved into this building in 1892. We were told that the library is now located in the soccer stadium.  On the other side of the Carenage is the bright red Fire Station. And in the middle is a statue of Christ Of The Deep, erected to honor the people of St. George’s who, using all their small boats, rescued all the passengers of a cruise ship that burned & sank in 1961. The cruise line that erected the statue was Costa, the same company whose Costa Concordia sank in 2012. So there is a history there.


   Next we had a delicious lunch at a restaurant on the second floor of a building near the library called The Nutmeg.  It is a well known restaurant, apparently partly because Martha Stewart once ate there (go figure).  The food, mostly Caribbean specialties, was very tasty and reasonably priced, but the main reason for eating here is the view through the 3 front windows which open (literally) on the harbor front. We had a table right next to the middle window, with a great view of the sunny harbor & of the well known Grand Anse beach in the distance. This was relaxing (we were hot and tired by then) & to top it off we had home made nutmeg ice cream, which was really good.


     Rested and satiated, we began walking back to the ship by way of Fort George, which involved yet another steep climb. It was worth it, though, for the lovely scenery on the way up & the great views from the fort.  Fort George was built by the French near the beginning of the 18th Century on a spot that had been fortified since the 17th. It was renamed in honor of their king by the British when they took control of the Island in the 1760’s (Grenada is now an independent member of the British Commonwealth). In 1983 Maurice Bishop, the deposed Prime Minister, was assassinated in Fort George.  We were told this was the only violent death the fort had ever experienced. The fort was bombed during the subsequent American invasion. Today it is occupied by the police, although it is open to visitors.


   Walking down the hill from the fort we encountered St. George’s Anglican Church. Built in 1825 it was heavily damaged by Hurricane Ivan.  Despite the lack of a roof it is still sometimes used informally for services and classes.  The entrance to the cruise ship dock was a good spot to see how clear the water is around here.


     So all of this was quite beautiful and this was a very enjoyable day among the friendly and outgoing Grenadian people. We sailed away as the sun began to sink & it was a beautiful evening as we sailed along this green and mountainous island. Best of all, a really spectacular rainbow appeared, the best I have ever seen.  At its peak it was a full semicircle filling the sky from the water through the clouds and back down to the water. To top it off, it eventually became a double rainbow!  It was far too big to be able to photograph the entire thing, but here are a few pictures of its parts. This was a pretty spectacular ending to a beautiful day.




     We arrived at Bridgetown, Barbados in the early morning of Saturday, March 29.  Another former British possession, which became an independent member o the Commonwealth in 1966, Barbados is famous for its beaches. But we didn’t go to a beach (no need to pay for a cruise to go to a beach, which are an easy drive from where we live). Instead, true to form, we walked into Bridgetown to see what it was like.  We were less than thrilled, since it was hot and the streets were crowded with vendors & others. It reminded us a little of Fortaleza in Brazil, which we didn’t like very much either. And it was worse because our map was poor & we spent a lot of time trying to find the few things we wanted to see. Still, the long walk from the port to the town along the shore was nice, there were a lot of pretty flowers in the town & there were some interesting sights.


     In the center of town is Heroes Square, with a statue of Lord Nelson, who served in the Caribbean in the 1780’s before he became a Lord, and the Barbadian Parliament buildings next to it. Established in 1639, the Barbadian Parliament is the third oldest in the Commonwealth. The Parliament Buildings were erected in the 1870’s. They were quite imposing, particularly the West Wing with it clock tower topped by a Barbadian flag.


     After a long search (even though it wasn’t all that far away) we found Nidhe Israel Synagogue. The Jewish community in Barbados was begun by a few hundred refugees from Recife, Brazil, who were expelled when the Portuguese regained that city from the Dutch (you can see where their synagogue was in Recife on this page, a little way down:  <> ).  The synagogue was originally built in 1654 and rebuilt after a hurricane in 1831. It fell into neglect & was sold in 1929, but was acquired by the Barbados National Trust and restored in the 1980’s. It is said to still be in active service but when we visited it was locked up & there was a sign on the door that services were being held at a different location. Next to the building is the cemetery, with stones dating back to the 17th century.


    Next we found the Barbados National Library Service in an imposing building only a few blocks from the synagogue. Unfortunately it was closed the day we were there. It was founded in 1906 with a grant from Andrew Carnegie.  I don’t know when this building was built, but it looks like it could be of that vintage.


     We walked all the way back through Heroes Square to the Careenage (yes, spelled differently than in Grenada), the small boat harbor in the center of town. Across it is the Chamberlain bridge, at the south end of which is the Independence Arch, built in 1987 on the 21st anniversary of Barbados independence. Just beyond the arch is the tranquil Independence Square.


     From here we walked back to the ship for a late lunch and a relaxing afternoon on deck.  And so to bed.

Southern Caribbean, Part 2: Oranjestad, Aruba & Willemstad, Curacao


     We left Ft. Lauderdale in the late afternoon of March 22 to the accompaniment of a faint rainbow (so faint I didn’t notice it until I looked closely at the picture). After two days at sea (during which our only towel animal appeared) we arrived in Oranjestad, Aruba on the morning of March 25.


     Originally inhabited by the Arawak people, the “ABC” islands of Aruba, Bonaire & Curacao just off the coast of Venezuela were taken from Spain by the Dutch in the early 17th Century.  We visited the first & third of these islands, which currently have autonomous status under the Dutch monarchy. Since most of the islands visited on this cruise were new to us we opted to explore most of the ports ourselves on foot. So after breakfast we set out through the town, noticing its strong Dutch influence. Our first long stop was at the Archeological Museum, housed in a block of renovated houses originally built in the 1920’s.  It had a wealth of displays about the early inhabitants of the island, all clearly explained in English and Papiamento, the local creole language. The Arawaks came here from Venezuela (only 20 miles away) long before the Spanish arrived in 1499. Finding nothing they valued here (oops . . . gold was discovered in the 19th Century) the Spanish called these 3 islands “the Useless Islands,” and removed much of Aruba’s native population to slavery on Hispaniola. Many of the survivors returned later and today a large majority of the population can trace much of their heritage to the Arawaks (although there are no pure Arawaks left). One interesting display was of a couple of amulets of the “Bat Cult” that was widespread here and from northeastern South America through Mexico.



We walked by Fort Zoutman. Built in 1798, it is the oldest building on the island. In front is the Willem III Tower, added in 1868. It has a clock (which does not keep accurate time) and originally served as a lighthouse at a time when the shore ran next to the fort.  Nearby was a small waterside park with a statue of a prominent Aruban (there are a lot of statues here) & palm trees wrapped in the flag of Aruba.


      We set out to find the library. Mary had a map of where it was supposed to be, but we couldn’t find it (we found out later that some of her library maps were pretty worthless). But the search took us through some interesting park filled neighborhoods we would not have seen otherwise, past the Beth Israel Synagogue (built in 1962 for a congregation founded in the 1920’s, it is the only one on Aruba) and a monument to Simon Bolivar.


     After giving up on the library we walked down along the seashore, which was lined with low, gnarled trees. I think these are Divi trees, which always lean sharply to the west because of the prevailing winds.


     We had lunch at a lovely open air restaurant on the beach, complete with local Aruban beer.  It sure tasted good after all that walking in the warm weather.


     After a late lunch we headed back toward the port. We walked through Queen Wilhelmina Park, named for the Dutch Queen at the turn of the 20th Century. There is (of course) a statue of the Queen and also a number of iguanas.  We actually saw a lot of iguanas on our walk through this lovely town. Near the dock was a pelican sitting on a rock posing for pictures, not to be outdone by an iguana posing on the next rock. On the way back we saw a hungry iguana with a big smile, the largest iguana we have seen!



     We arrived at colorful Willemstad, Curacao, on the morning of Wednesday, March 26. This is another Dutch island & capital of the Netherlands Antilles (I think). Willemstad is divided in two parts by the harbor: Punda (“point side”) on the right &  Otrobanda (“the other side”) on the left.  We docked in Otrobanda.


     After breakfast we set out, walking across the Queen Emma Bridge, built in 1888, to the main part of town.  This is a pontoon bridge that can swing back & forth to let water traffic in and out of the harbor. It is known locally as the “Swinging old Lady” (sounds like it might be a Duke Ellington number). Over the top are wire loops with light bulbs that must be lit up at night.


Plenty of nice views here, but once again the Eclipse towers over the town & there was also an oil platform spoiling the view past the point in Punda.


     A little further inland we came to the floating market.  The market doesn’t really float, but the goods are brought in boats that are all tied up just behind the market stalls.  Mostly food & tourist knick knacks for sale here. There was also an interesting little bridge, the middle part of which lifts up to permit boats to go underneath.


     So we set out on what turned out to be a pretty long walk on a hot & muggy day to find the library.  Unlike the day before, however, we were rewarded for our efforts with a visit to a nice, if unspectacular, public library: the Biblioteka Nashonal Korsou (national library of Curacao in the local Papiamentu tongue).


     The last site on our list to see was the Mikve’ Israel Emmanuel Synagogue.  Built in 1730, it is said to be the oldest continually operating synagogue in the Western hemisphere.  At the time it was built the Jewish community, founded by Sephardic Jews fleeing Spain and Portugal in the 17th century, represented 50% of the white population of Curaçao.


    After that we had lunch in a nice restaurant extending out over the water of the large inlet in front of the library.  We ordered the local beer, but upon examining the bottle found out that it was bottled in Florida!  It was still very good.



    So that was pretty much it for beautiful Willemstadt.  We did spend some time in a museum & we tried but failed to enter the fort, which was closed for a conference.  Really, just walking around this city would make a nice day, even without visiting any sites. It is one of the most interesting & distinctive cities we have visited in the Caribbean. So we walked back to the ship & had some ice cream & looked forward to a sea day with no walking involved!