Archive for August, 2022

Caribbean Journey – Part 6: Willemstad, Curacao & Oranjestad, Aruba (2022)


     The morning of April 2 found us docked in Willemstad, the capital of Curacao.  We have visited Willemstad previously several times, so if you want to read more background about Curacao you can go there:

We had spent our previous visits entirely in the town of Willemstad, which is a fine approach because this is a very interesting and enjoyable city.  But we decided on this visit to spend some time seeing the rest of the island, which we were able to do on an excursion.  Our first stop was a “Kunuku House,” a slave house from an old plantation.  It is a small structure with white walls and thatch roof and only a door and two small windows in front.  As in Bonaire, there was a cactus fence around the property.  Our guide on the property gave us an extraordinarily detailed and interesting tour, demonstrating just how people used the items on display in their daily lives.  A bit of a downside was that most of the lengthy presentation involved standing outside and it was very hot.  During the presentation a nice little bird with an orange head sat in a bush listening.

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     In 1795 more than 60% of the population of Curacao were enslaved.  A slave named Tula led a revolt that continued for months before finally being defeated.  Tula and others were executed but later the slaves were granted some additional rights in an effort to stave off another revolt.  We saw several modest monuments to this revolt consisting of a raised fist on top of a column a few feet tall.  A broken chain was hanging from the fist on the one at the location where the revolt began.  Slavery was not finally abolished in Curacao until 1863.

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     Shete Boka (Seven Inlets) National Park stretches some 7 miles along the seashore.  It was established in 1994 to protect these inlets that are nesting areas for sea turtles.  We didn’t see any turtles but the surf pounding the rocky shore was quite a sight.  There was some interesting small flora eking out a living in the dry, hot and rocky area behind the seashore and also some cacti.  And a monument to the island’s ubiquitous iguanas.

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      On the way back to Willemstad we stopped to look at Playa Kenepa Grandi beach, which the guide said is the most beautiful on the island.  We also saw flamingoes in a salt lake.

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     It was still lunch time when we got back to the dock so we decided to walk to our favorite restaurant, which is built over the water in a large inlet (you can see it in the previous visit postings).  We crossed the Queen Emma Bridge, a 130 year old pontoon bridge that is moved aside for ship traffic in and out of the bay, and walked along the colorful streets of the city to the site of the restaurant.  Sadly, when we got there it turned out to be permanently closed.  The lack of tourism during the pandemic has undoubtedly taken a toll on stores and restaurants on these islands so this wasn’t a shock, but definitely a disappointment.  Hopefully someone will buy it and open a new restaurant here. 

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     The Mikve Israel-Emanuel Synagogue in Willemstad is reputedly the oldest surviving synagogue in the Western Hemisphere (not sure how it compares to the one we visited in Barbados).  As in Barbados, the first Jews here came from Brazil and the Netherlands in the mid-17th century and this synagogue opened in 1730.  We had seen the building before but this time we wanted to tour the inside and see the museum.  Unfortunately for us it was closed to the public on this day.  Foiled again!

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     We did find a nice place for lunch on our way back.  I think it was called the Iguana Café and we were seated under a canopy right on the edge of the bay on the Punda side.  We had a great view of the bay, the Queen Emma Bridge and the Otrabanda waterfront across the water.  A cruise passenger at a nearby table spent the whole time talking with friends and family at home in England.  From what we could hear it sounded like most of them didn’t know where Curacao is and didn’t know that this woman was away from home.  She was trying to impress them with her exotic Caribbean locale and I think she was rather disappointed.  She told them she was sitting near the world’s oldest bridge, but I would wager that there are older bridges where she lives in England.  The lunch was good and the ambience pleasant and the day was warm, so following lunch we walked back to the ship after a very full day in Curacao.

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    We spent April 3 in Aruba, the last of the Dutch ABC Islands (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao) and our last port on this voyage.  We have been here several times before:

As with Curacao we had never ventured beyond Oranjestad on our previous visits, so we decided on an excursion around the island.  Our first stop was at the Casibari Rock Formations, a hill made of huge boulders in the middle of the island.  The origin of this striking rock formation in a desert setting is unknown, and apparently the indigenous people who lived here considered it sacred.  The rocks are surrounded by attractive garden areas.  On the way there we passed an interesting cemetery with rows of above ground tombs. Behind it was Mount Hooiberg, a volcanic cone mountain rising straight up out of the desert, known locally as The Haystack

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     You may have noticed in one of the pictures above that people were on top of the large hill of boulders.  In fact, two routes have been built for climbing to the top.  Mary stayed below but Rick climbed to the top.  The path on the side we were on went up through the rocks.  At one point it seemed to come to an end well below the top & I (Rick) was about to go back down in defeat.  Then I saw two teenage boys disappear into what looked like a cave in the rocks about ten feet before the end of the path.  Following their lead, I found the path branched into the rocks.  Climbing on some rocks was required and there wasn’t always sufficient head room to stand up, but ultimately this branch of the path emerged on the top of the hill.  This provided panoramic views in every direction, including the Nieuw Statendam all the way back at the dock.

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     The climb up had been steep and twisty but not too exhausting.  However there was a lot of wind at the top which made me feel unsteady unless holding on to the railing.  And it seemed that going back down through the hill was going to be tricky to say the least.  Then I saw that on the other side of the hill a very steep staircase had been built all the way down, complete with hand rails.  So that’s where I went, holding tight to the hand rails the whole way.

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     Leaving Casibari we drove on to our next stop, on the Atlantic coastline.  On the way we passed several old farmhouses surrounded by cacti.

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    Arikok National Park encompasses a stretch of dramatic sea coast that includes a natural bridge.  There was originally a large bridge, 100 feet long and more than 20 feet above the water, but it collapsed in 2005.  Still standing near it is the Baby Natural Bridge, measuring 25 feet long and about 3 feet above the water.  Still beautiful though.  There is a sign reading “Caution. Possible Collapse” and who could doubt that after what happened to its big brother.  But some people still walked out on it.  The surf on the nearby shore line & what is probably the remains of the larger bridge is pretty spectacular.

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     We drove through more cactus country to the Alto Vista Chapel.  The first Catholic Church in Aruba, it was originally built in 1750.  After a plague devastated the area the church was abandoned in 1816.  The current building was opened in 1952 on the same spot as the original church.

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     The California Lighthouse is situated above a cliff at the northwest corner of the island.  I had the idea that perhaps it was called this because it is the closest spot on Aruba to the state of California.  But actually it was named for the SS California, a British steamship that went down here in 1891. Opened in 1916, the lighthouse was intended to ensure that this wouldn’t happen again.

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     While we were there we saw cactus flowers, birds and lizards.  And there was a nice view across the bay of some of the resort hotels on Palm Beach (which we later drove through).

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     We drove along the beach hotels back to the pier.  It was still early enough for lunch so we took a chance and walked to our favorite beach restaurant (which can be seen in posts of previous visits).  To our delight, unlike in Curacao, this restaurant was still open and fully operational!  We enjoyed grouper sandwiches and french fries along with local Balashi beer.

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     After lunch we walked back to Nieuw Statendam, a fairly long walk on a hot day (especially after a beer).  On the way we stopped in Queen Wilhelmina Park, a popular hangout for iguanas.  So here are pictures of a few of them because, who doesn’t love iguana pictures?

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     After boarding the ship we sailed back to Ft Lauderdale, retrieved our car and drove home.  We were glad to get home, still in good health, but we did enjoy the ports we visited.  Originally envisioned primarily as a pandemic get away the trip turned out to have many interesting and engaging moments.  The ship and its management could have stood some improvements in our view, as you may have read in the previous episodes, but all in all we are glad we went on this voyage, particularly since it had been three full years since the last time we were at sea.  We are still keeping our fingers crossed that it will be a much shorter time until our next adventure, because in the time of Covid you just never know.

Caribbean Journey – Part 5: Amber Cove (Puerto Plata), Dominican Republic and Kralendjik, Bonaire (2022)

Dominican Republic

   We spent March 30 in the Dominican Republic, which we had never visited before.  Like most Americans, prior to booking this cruise our knowledge of the Dominican Republic extended little beyond Columbus’s visit, long time dictator General Trujillo, and the astounding number of Major League baseball players who originated here. 

     Amber Cove is a self contained cruise ship port built by Carnival in 2015 with swimming, shopping and even a zip line, we think.  Having just been to Grand Turk and Half Moon Cay we didn’t need any more of that so we signed up for an excursion to Puerto Plata, a city of about 330,000 some five miles away on the island’s north coast.  Some ten or twenty miles further is the site of the first European settlement in the Western Hemisphere, La Isabela, founded by Columbus on his second voyage.  There had been an attempted settlement in 1492 but it had been destroyed by the local people by the time Columbus returned.  La Isabela lasted until 1496 when Columbus decided to move the settlement to what is now Santo Domingo.

     We didn’t get to visit La Isabela but at least we saw Puerto Plata.  We rode in a bus that was decorated like some grandmother’s parlor.  Our first stop was at the home of General Gregorio Luperon, a hero of the struggle for independence from Spain in the 1860’s who had a long and storied career as a soldier and politician.  If you have ever visited a 19th century house containing period furniture and clothing you would not find much here that is new.  However the tour guide gave an interesting talk about Luperon, his family and Dominican history. 5a. 2022, 03-30  Amer Cove (Playa Plata), Dominican Republic_stitch2. 2022, 03-30  Amer Cove (Playa Plata), Dominican Republic3. 2022, 03-30  Amer Cove (Playa Plata), Dominican Republic4. 2022, 03-30  Amer Cove (Playa Plata), Dominican Republic18. 2022, 03-30  Amer Cove (Playa Plata), Dominican Republic

     We next drove down near the edge of the bay to visit the Fortaleza San Felipe.  Completed in 1577, this is the oldest structure in Puerto Plata.  It was built to protect the town from English and French pirates who frequented the area.  In 1800 US Marines captured the fort briefly during the “Quasi-War” with France that lasted from 1798 to 1800.  It was officially opened to the public as a museum in the 1980’s.  The fort is made of stone on a hilltop overlooking the bay.

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     Next stop was the Macorix House of Rum.  Before our tour began we spent some time in a park area with some very nice flowers.  The tour consisted of walking through rooms filled with barrels of aging rum, then a short film about the history of Dominican rum and how Macorix makes the best.  Then the best part, a rum tasting in a large room with exhibits from the history of the company.  Dominican rum is reputed to be particularly smooth because of the process used here and the 8 or 9 types of rum we sampled were smooth and flavorful.

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     I mentioned that the rum was very smooth, and it really snuck up on you.  Those of us who participated in the sampling staggered out to the bus and we drove to the center of town.  Puerto Plata was founded sometime between 1496 and 1506 (contemporary reports vary) .  The first British ship of enslaved people delivered 400 captives from what is now Sierra Leone here in 1563.  In 1605 the Spanish depopulated and destroyed the town to counter English pirates and a hundred years later it was reborn with immigrants from the Canary Islands. Then in 1863, during the Dominican Restoration War for independence from Spain Puerto Plata was entirely razed, then rebuilt beginning a couple of years later.  This is why the Fortaleza is the only surviving building from before that time and also why the city is characterized by Victorian buildings.  Independence Square, the central square of the city, is surrounded by such buildings.

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     On one side of the square is the Cathedral of St Philip the Apostle.  The first church here was built in the 16th century and burned down, with the rest of the town, in 1863.  Reconstruction began in 1870 but wasn’t completed until 1956.  It became a cathedral in 1996. In the square is an ornate round building that looks like a sort of kiosk.  There is a lot of action in the square; one fellow was wearing a riding outfit complete with horse and some walls nearby have impressive paintings.

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    We walked down Calle de las Sombrillas (Umbrella Street), a pedestrian block covered by a matrix of hanging umbrellas lined with restaurants and boutiques.  Very colorful and different, of course, but we couldn’t tell whether this was built for tourists or has a local history.  We also spent a good deal of time in a large store full of souvenirs and local crafts and products.  Then we had a nice lunch sitting in the patio of a restaurant in the area whose sign outside just said “Kaffe,” so maybe that’s its name.  In the time of Covid its always better to eat outside if the weather permits and this courtyard was nicely surrounded with greenery.

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     The excursion over, we returned to the port where we spent some time examining the shops then back on the ship.  In late afternoon we departed for the Dutch Antilles.

Kralendijk, Bonaire

   After a sea day we arrived in Kralendijk, Bonaire, on April 1 (yes, April Fool’s Day, but this really happened).  Part of the Dutch Antilles until it was disbanded in 2010, Bonaire today is a special municipality within the Netherlands (although it uses the US dollar for currency rather than the Euro).  Located some 50 miles off the coast of Venezuela, Bonaire’s population of about 20,000 is mostly Dutch citizens but the predominant language is Papiamento, a creole language with Spanish and Portuguese roots.  In explaining the language the guides love to tell you about the word “sushi”, which means garbage rather than a Japanese dish (although left over Japanese sushi could become Papiamento sushi I guess). 

     This was our first visit to Bonaire and we booked a tour around the island.  Driving north along the coast road we passed several diving spots and beaches.  Bonaire is known as a first class scuba diving venue and there are some 80 diving spots around the island, most accessible directly from the shore without need for a boat.  The coral reefs and coastal waters surrounding the island make up a legally protected national park.  Ascending a hill also gave us a nice view back toward Kralendijk, a city of about 10,000 that is the capital and largest town on Bonaire.1. 2022, 04-01  Krejelijk, Bonaire14. 2022, 04-01  Krejelijk, Bonaire18. 2022, 04-01  Krejelijk, Bonaire13. 2022, 04-01  Krejelijk, Bonaire

         During this part of the drive we saw a good deal of flora and fauna.  Unfortunately, much of it was hard to photograph from a bus window, since it was often far on the other side of the bus and the birds were not inclined to pose for pictures.  But here are a caracara, a type of hawk, and a yellow shouldered parrot.  We passed a huge termite nest as well.

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     Driving further inland we stopped at an overlook of Gotomeer (Lake Goto), a large saltwater lagoon that is not connected to the ocean.  It was quite beautiful and some pink flamingoes were hanging out near a long skinny island in the lake.  Near the overlook we saw iguanas too.

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     You may have noticed some large cactus in the lake pictures.  In fact, much of the island is covered in cactus, some quite beautiful and some looking a little worse for wear.  The people here actually build fences out of cactus lined up against a wire and wood frame.  This is very effective, as you can imagine, in keeping wild and stray animals out and domestic animals in.

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     We stopped for a little while at the visitor center of Washington Slagbaai National Park, which lies beyond the lake and covers the northern fifth of the island.  Again plenty of cactus and a few buildings.  Most notable, though, was the skeleton of a 40 foot Bryde’s whale that was accidentally impaled on the prow of HAL’s Nieuw Amsterdam (not the current one) in 2000.  The skeleton was reconstructed by a team of high school students and went on display here in 2005.  It is the largest whale skeleton in the Caribbean.

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   Next came the long drive to the southern part of the island to see the salt works.  We passed more cactus & encountered a wild donkey on the side of the road.  Apparently these wild donkeys are descended from some brought to the island several hundred years ago.  We passed a number of fairly plain but colorful back country houses and we drove through Kralendijk and past Flamingo International Airport, the buildings of which are pink (no pictures, so you will have to take my word for it).

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     When the Spanish first visited Bonaire in 1499 it was populated by the Caquetio people.  Concluding that the island was devoid of metals and unsuitable for agriculture, by 1515 the Spanish had enslaved them all (between 500 and 2000 people) and transported them to work in the copper mines on Hispaniola.  Some of them were returned 10 years later to work on animal plantations stocked with domestic animals from Spain (we saw a descendant of the donkeys above).  After an 80 year war with Spain the Dutch conquered Bonaire in 1636 and built a fort (still standing) in what is now Kralendijk.  It was the Dutch who began to exploit the salt resources of the island, with African and Caquetio slaves and convicts doing the labor.

     The slave population grew and the salt works expanded.  Today Cargill Corp. operates the huge salt works occupying the southern 15% or so of the island.  They export some 400 tons of 99.6% pure salt each year, produced from large fields of salt water (called pans) from which the sun evaporates the water.  The pans of drying salt look pink because of bacteria that reside there.  There is a white foam on top of the salt pans which (I think) is caused by the bacteria.  When the salt is harvested it is stored in large pyramids, each of which contains about 10,000 tons of salt, before being loaded onto ships.  The sun was VERY bright when we were there, making the white and pink strikingly bright as well.  Beyond the salt pans is a salt water lake that is the nesting grounds for the flamingoes, but we did not see that as they are protected.

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     By the seashore are arrayed several rows of old slave quarters.  They are tiny stone houses, too short to stand up in with entrances that are only about chest high.  The door and single small window are open to the elements.  It was very hot the day we were there and these quarters must have been very uncomfortable for those living there.  While many slaves had been freed earlier, emancipation came in 1862 when the last 758 slaves were freed (607 owned by the Dutch government).

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     Bonaire is mostly a coral reef lifted out of the water millions of years ago and still surrounded by offshore coral.  The gravel on the beach near the salt works was, upon closer inspection, mostly coral.  There was a very bright red sea plant growing among the gravel and we also encountered a small sandpiper called a Ruddy Turnstone walking in the water.

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     We returned to Kralendijk and walked around the city for a little while (not too long, as it was very hot out).  In some of the sidewalks were flamingoes made of stones and there was a nice view of the waterfront to the north from the entry to the pier.  Black headed gulls (or maybe terns) were swarming near the dock, probably expecting food from the departing tourists.

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Caribbean Journey – Part 4: Half Moon Cay, Bahamas; Ft Lauderdale, Florida ; and Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos (2022)

Half Moon Cay

     After a relaxing day at sea we dropped anchor off Half Moon Cay on March 26.  During the sea day the ship held a Mariner event (Mariner Society is HAL’s loyalty program, giving credits for time at sea and onboard purchases).  They award medals for number of days on board HAL ships and we received gold medals this time.  They look like you won an Olympics event, but actually they represent being one of HAL’s best customers.  Our picture was taken with the Captain (left) and Hotel Manager.

HAL Gold Medal ceremony (1)

     Located about 100 miles from Nassau, Holland America purchased Half Moon Cay, then called Little San Salvador Island, for $6 million in 1996.  It has developed just 50 acres into a cruiser’s playground with the remainder of its almost 4 square miles left as wildlife habitat.  The current name of the island comes from its 2.5 mile long soft white sand beach.

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     There is no deep water dock here, at least so far, so we had to tender ashore.  We waited for the early rush to subside while having a leisurely breakfast, then boarded the local tender (not one of the ship’s lifeboats) which dropped us off at the pier (on the right side in the picture above).  We walked through the facility, mostly shops, and down to take a look at the beach.  There are cabanas at the beach that can be rented for the day, but at a very high price in our opinion.

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     We walked down the beach for a while, beyond the cabanas to the paddock where the riding horses live.  A platform was set up on the beach to help cruise passengers mount the horses and a donkey was wandering around the paddock.

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     We returned along the inland path surrounded by many flowers, palm trees and other fauna.

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     On the way back to the pier we passed a small white wooden church that is used for weddings and a conch shell fountain in the vendor court. The children’s playground had an impressive pirate ship to climb on.

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     We were back on board in time for a late lunch and spent the afternoon reading before the ship set out to sea toward Florida.

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Ft Lauderdale, Florida

     The first leg of our voyage ended in Ft Lauderdale on March 27 and we sailed again that evening to begin the second leg.   More than 200 passengers were staying on for the next leg but everyone had to leave the ship and be re-identified before reboarding. This process has been known to take up to a couple of hours so we decided that rather than waiting around for that we would take an excursion to the Everglades, where we had never been.

     The Everglades ecosystem covers much of southern Florida up to Lake Okeechobee, basically a slow moving river 60 miles wide and 100 miles long.  Florida has been inhabited for 15,000 years by indigenous people, who were driven into a much smaller area of southern Florida during the Seminole Wars of the 19th century.  European settlers wanted to drain the area for plantations and in 1882 construction of canals began, continuing through the first half of the 20th century.  In 1934 the Everglades became a National Park. A flood control project established by Congress in 1948 led to more than 1000 miles of canals and other water control measures being built, much of the water being diverted to the booming metropolis of Miami and to support the farming of sugarcane.

     We were bussed across the metropolitan area to a place called Everglades Holiday Park.  Located on the edge of one of the Everglades canals, they provide rides in large airboats throughout the nearby canals.  An airboat is a flat bottomed boat with one or two large fans or propellers mounted on the back.  These fans blow air back from the boat, which propels the boat forward at speeds up to about 60 miles per hour.  Mounting the propulsion system above the water ensures that it will not get tangled in the grass and other things growing below it.

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     As we were waiting in line to board an airboat (this works much like a Disney World line to board a continuous ride) we spotted some birds relaxing on a float and a fellow out fishing in the canal in a small boat.

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     We cruised through several canals lined with saw grass and what appeared to be some sort of water lilies.  This marshy area is natural but the canals are man made.  Everglades means “river of grass” and there was plenty of grass in the water and on the marshy shores to explain why.

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     We went down a side canal that was lined with grass and very pretty trees growing in clumps with above ground roots reaching into the water, which we think are mangroves.

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    The Everglades is famously home to alligators, among other indigenous species.  In the 21st century, however, Burmese Pythons began appearing here.  It is speculated that some young ones were purchased as pets (exotic pets being popular in Florida) and were released by their owners when they became more difficult to control.  Accurate assessment of their numbers is almost impossible for a number of reasons but it is estimated that there are between tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands living in the Everglades today, eating indigenous animals and causing many to become endangered.  We did not see any pythons (they hide and are tough to spot) but we did see alligators along the edge of one canal.

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     The  airboat ride was a lot of fun, but that wasn’t the end.  We have never seen the TV show Animal Planet but apparently they have featured an alligator rescue group called Gator Boys.  This rescue facility is located in this park so I guess those TV shows were filmed here.  Anyway, after the ride we were ushered into a small amphitheater where a bunch of alligators were on the stage with a guy who kept up a running patter about how dangerous these alligators were and how brave he was to be there with them.  The alligators actually were mostly lying all over each other and looked like they were having trouble staying awake.  It was all in fun, though, as he performed some tricks with them amid the humorous monologue.  There were also some large turtles in this facility.

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     We returned to the ship and when I took off my glasses to download the pictures to my computer, this happened.  These glasses are about 20 years old and fortunately I brought a backup pair, because you never know.  But it still was a pretty distressing end to an otherwise fun day.  We sailed away from Ft Lauderdale with a mostly new (and somewhat smaller) passenger complement to begin the second leg of our cruise.

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Grand Turk Island, Turks & Caicos

     On March 29 we visited Grand Turk Island, part of the Turks & Caicos archipelago.  We had stopped at Half Moon Cay again on March 28 but unless you were planning a day at the beach there was no reason to go ashore here for the second time in three days.  So we didn’t, staying on board and treating it as a sea day.

    The passengers continuing on the second leg were required to have a new COVID 19 test, which was administered before we reached Ft Lauderdale.  But that same day they apparently discovered they had a lot of positive people on board (not us, thankfully), because they suddenly re-imposed a mask mandate for most indoor venues and set up a quarantine section of the ship.  We don’t know why they didn’t anticipate needing this and set it up at the beginning of the cruise because quite a few passengers had been quarantined over the previous month or two & there were quite a lot of unused cabins on our cruise.  So with a minimum of planning they could easily have had a quarantine section prepared just in case.  Instead, to create a separate quarantine section now  they required a number of passengers to change staterooms to other areas of the ship . . . for one night before reaching Ft Lauderdale.  We talked to one couple in this situation who were, to put it mildly, not pleased.  Anyway, once most of the old passengers left in Ft Lauderdale the Captain eliminated the mandatory masking order and made masking only “recommended.”  You can imagine, I am sure, the low percentage of people who followed this recommendation (we did).  Then, on our first morning out of Ft Lauderdale it was announced that continuing passengers would have to get yet another Covid test; it was unclear why, but apparently something had been wrong with how the tests were administered on the way to Ft Lauderdale.  We duly lined up, took the test and were negative again.  We don’t know if anyone tested positive and was quarantined . . . they don’t release that kind of information to mere passengers. 

     So that brings us, finally, to Grand Turk.  We had never been to Grand Turk before, but it turned out to be essentially another beach stop similar to Half Moon Cay.  The island’s population is only about 5,000 and we had read that there really wasn’t much to see here that would make an excursion worthwhile.  The island is named after the Turk’s Cap Cactus found there.  Some experts believe this was the island where Columbus first stopped during his first voyage of 1492 but apparently that is not the majority opinion. 

     We were docked at a long pier which we walked down to reach the port.  We walked through the usual collection of vendors’ shops, the central feature of which was a Jimmy Buffet Margaritaville bar & restaurant complete with crowded swimming pool, and took a look at the very nice beach.

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     It seemed a lot more people were in the water here than in Half Moon Cay, perhaps because of the weather (hot) and because two ships were here at once.  But we spent the rest of the day on the ship relaxing until the ship left for the Dominican Republic.

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Caribbean Journey – Part 3: Basseterre, St Kitts & Charlotte Amelie, St Thomas (2022)

St Kitts

     March 23 brought us to the island of St Kitts (shortened from its original name  of St Christopher, bestowed by Columbus in 1493). Basseterre, the capital where we docked, was founded in 1627 and has a population of about 14,000.  While the island was claimed for Spain by Columbus, it was settled in the early 17th century by the British and French.  Control went back and forth between them until 1783, when it became British after the Seven Years War. 

     We visited this island a number of years ago, before the beginning of this blog in 2012.  At that time we rode on the small gauge railroad that takes you around the coast in cars with an open upper level.  It was built in the early 20th century to transport sugar to the port from plantations around the island and was converted to a tourist attraction after the sugar industry was closed in 2005.  It’s a nice ride, but since we had already done that we decided this time to take an excursion to see Ft Brimstone, a world heritage site.

     The excursion started with a panoramic (stay on the bus) tour through the streets of Basseterre.  You can’t really get to know a city through the windows of a moving bus and it’s also hard to get decent pictures.  Among other things we saw in passing was the Berkeley Memorial with its clocktower standing in the middle of the Circus, said to be modeled on Piccadilly Circus in London.  We also passed St George’s Anglican Church, originally established in 1710 then rebuilt after being largely destroyed by an earthquake and hurricane in 1842 & 1843.  The current building was consecrated in 1859 then restored in 1869 after a devastating fire.

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     We drove along the coast road, at one point passing some trees full of white egrets.

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     Our first stop was at the Romney Manor Gardens.  Originally probably occupied by Carib people, this is the oldest plantation on St Kitts, established in the early 17th century shortly after Europeans took control.  Owned by an ancestor of Thomas Jefferson in the early 17th century, it became Romney Manor when purchased by the Earl of Romney, who was the first on the island to free his slaves inn 1834.  Today it is a gorgeous botanical garden.  We were there in the Spring, so it was filled with colorful flowers and splendid vistas.  There is a Saman tree that is more than 400 years old, the oldest living organism on St Kitts.   The bell tower in the picture below was used to notify the slaves when to go to and come in from the sugar fields and when to go to sleep.

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     On the grounds is Caribelle Batik, where beautiful wax-resist dyed cloth is created and made into colorful clothing and other items, all of which are for sale in their shop.  We watched as this process was applied to cloth by a woman who was very much in charge:  each time someone entered without a mask she stopped working and instructed them in no uncertain terms to put one on.  We wished that were done more often in crowded public spaces in the Caribbean.  The cloth is hung outside to dry.  Their products are not cheap, but are excellent quality.  Mary purchased a batik Covid mask while we were there.

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     Brimstone Hill Fortress is a stone fort built on a steep 800 foot hill by the seashore.  It was built by African slaves under the direction of British military engineers.  The British began fortifying this spot in 1690 and by 1790 it was considered impregnable, called the “Gibraltar of the West Indies.”  Yet just two years later the French gained control of it through a siege.  The British reacquired it in 1783 under the Treaty of Paris that settled the US revolutionary war and the fortress was never lost again.  The British abandoned it in 1853 and it fell into disrepair (many stones carried off to build other buildings).  Restoration began in the early 20th century and reopening for visitors began in the 1970’s.  UNESCO recognized it as a world heritage site in 1999.

     The drive up to the fortress was not easy for our bus driver as there is a sharp turn into a narrow gate to enter.  We got out at the visitor center where we watched a film about the fort’s history, then walked up the very steep stairs to the Citadel, called Fort George.

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     In the Citadel were a number of canon arrayed along the walls.  To the northwest from one canon was a great view of the town of Sandy Point and the Dutch island of St Eustace in the sea beyond.

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     Among other things, we saw a bell tower growing out of one wall, the Prince of Wales bastion on a lower outcropping nearer the sea, and the ruins of the Artillery Officers’ Quarters down the hill.  There were pretty spectacular views in all directions from the top of this hill.

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     We drove back to the port, where we wandered around in the shops for a while then boarded the ship.  Another interesting day.

St Thomas

     We spent March 24 in Charlotte Amalie, the capital and largest city (18,000+) in the US Virgin Islands.  The city has a huge & protected harbor that attracts a lot of cruise ship visits.. We have been here 3 times before (although we spent the second visit on an excursion to sister island St John), but we have only one blog entry from those previous visits:

     Occupied by indigenous people when Columbus visited in 1493, the town was founded by the Danes in 1666 and named Taphus (tap house) because of its plentiful pubs.  The town received a less colorful name in 1691 when it was renamed Charlotte Amalie after the queen of Denmark at the time.  For a long time it was a pirate hangout.  In 1917 the US bought the Danish West Indies for $25 million and renamed it the US Virgin Islands.32a. 2022, 03-24  Charlotte Amelie, St Thomas, US Virgin Islands_stitch

       We had seen many of the sights here on previous visits but had been unable to visit Fort Christian, the Danish fortification at the water front, because it was closed for renovations.  Today it was open so after breakfast we walked into town to see it.  Named for the Danish King Christian V of Denmark (Charlotte Amalie’s husband), the distinctive red and yellow fort opened in 1680 in what is now the heart of the city.  It is the oldest existing structure in the US Virgin Islands.

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     The entrance is under the clock tower on the side away from the water, so we walked  around there and up a small hill to enter.  The tower was originally round but was replaced with a clock tower over a new entrance in 1874.

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     When it was no longer needed for defense the fort was used for a time as a prison. We walked down the steps to the prison area, which looked like a dungeon but with a small window.  As the views from the windows confirm, the water line on the other side of the street in front of the fort continues in a nearly straight line in both directions.  When the fort was built it sat on a small peninsula jutting out into the water; the land now on both sides of the fort was created later from fill.

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     After walking around a while we crossed the inner courtyard and exited again under the clock tower.  Then we walked back to the port where our ship was docked.  It rained, and we got wet despite our umbrellas on the way back.

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     Next to the ship at Havensight port is, you guessed it, Havensight Shopping Mall.  But this is not just any mall.  There are some seven large buildings, each lined with vendors.  And most of them seem to be selling pretty much the same stuff, all kinds of souvenirs of St Thomas:  clothes, jewelry, knickknacks, etc.  It’s a puzzle how so many businesses selling the same or similar goods can survive right next to each other. 

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     So in late afternoon we left our mooring and sailed across the harbor and out to sea.  From our balcony we spotted Blackbeard’s Castle, a lookout on top of a hill built by the Danes in 1679 because Fort Christian’s location on the water did not give it a view of possibly hostile ships that might be approaching from a distance.  On our first visit here we sat in a restaurant just under the Castle and had a leisurely beer while we watched seaplanes landing and taking off in the harbor below.  It made for a really fine afternoon.  Sadly, last time we were here the whole area around the Castle was enclosed and an admission fee was required to enter.  Not an improvement.  As we reached the end of the land there was a small rainbow to bid us farewell.  Outside the port we passed a couple of islands as we headed out for a full sea day before our next stop, which was much appreciated after six consecutive days in different ports.

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Caribbean Journey – Part 2: Bridgetown, Barbados, and Roseau, Dominica (2022)

Bridgetown, Barbados

     We visited Bridgetown, Barbados. on March 21.  We were told the night before that Barbados only allowed cruise passengers onto the island as part of a ship’s tour or with a certified taxi.  This was not a big surprise since we had read that a number of Caribbean islands had disallowed cruisers from setting out on their own, and this wasn’t a big disappointment since we had been here twice before:

    But it never hurts to ask, so we left the ship after breakfast and went into the port to see if we would be restricted.  Low and behold, no one said anything to us as we walked through the port and up the lovely seaside walk into town.

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   In the center of town we walked past the legislature building and the Careenage, where small boats come into town.  Our primary goal was the synagogue, which had been closed when we were here before.  It wasn’t that far from downtown but was hard to find without a map.  We had a map in a smartphone app but when we tried to follow its directions we ended up walking in circles (even less fun because it was so hot).  Finally, we just used the map in the old fashioned way without directions and found the synagogue fairly quickly.  Outside the entrance was a bush with nice purple flowers; the lady in the ticket booth said that on some days it blooms purple and on others white.

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     The Nidhe Israel Synagogue was first built here in 1654 by Jews fleeing Recife, Brazil, after the Portuguese instituted the Inquisition there when they supplanted the Dutch.  Rebuilt after being destroyed by an 1831 hurricane, it was ultimately sold in 1929 and was altered for several other uses after that.  In 1986 the Barbadian government agreed to donate the building to the National Trust and it was restored to its original condition and rededicated as an operating synagogue for the small Jewish community here.  They continue to hold services here to this day.

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     By happenstance, we arrived shorty before a tour conducted by a member of the congregation was scheduled to begin.  We were invited to join and were very glad we agreed to do so because we learned much more than we would have walking around on our own.  It started in the main sanctuary of the synagogue, just inside the door in the picture above, where our guide explained the history of the synagogue and the Jewish community of Barbados.  Only a few items are original to the old synagogue, notably the clock on the front of the women’s balcony above the bimah and the ark holding the Torahs (notable because those are the items I still remember).  For a transplanted American who retired here only a few years ago our guide was extremely knowledgeable.

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      In 2008 an archaeologist looking for the foundations of the rabbi’s house discovered a step leading down from the surface.  Excavation uncovered a stairway down to a tile lined pool that is thought to have been a Mikveh, a ritual bath for Jewish women, built a few years after the synagogue but probably lost after the hurricane of 1831.  The pool is fed by an underground freshwater spring and our guide told us that efforts to find its source have been unsuccessful so far.  A stone structure (seen at the right of the picture of the synagogue above) has been built over the Mikveh, but it is unknown what the original might have looked like. The alcoves in the wall above the pool were probably for lanterns to enable bathers to see under ground.

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     On the other side of the Mikveh and the synagogue is the cemetery.  Some of the Jewish gravestones date back 400 years and a few Quaker graves have been found in this area as well.  There is a sign outside the cemetery that shouldn’t be necessary, but apparently it was.

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     We walked back to the ship, taking the boardwalk path along the Careenage then the walk along the seaside again  At one point we encountered a lot of crabs congregating in a concrete culvert conveying water into the sea.  So ended our visit to Barbados.

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Roseau, Dominica

     This was our first visit to Dominica (emphasis on 3d syllable, like the Singing Nun’s song, if you are old enough to remember that).  The original itinerary had us visiting Martinique, a French province that is the next island over, but Dominica was substituted about 2 months before departure, presumably because of political unrest.

     Dominica is a particularly lush island situated between the French islands of Martinique & Guadalupe.  It was occupied by the Carib people (after whom the Caribbean Sea is named) when Columbus sailed by and named it Dominica, and there is still a small community of them on the Eastern side of the island.  Dominica became a British colony in 1763 at the end of the Seven Years War (French & Indian war in the US) and achieved independence as a republic in 1978.  Roseau is the capital and largest city in Dominica (about 15,000) and that is where we docked.

     Unlike Barbados, Dominica was still strictly enforcing its pandemic ban on individuals entering on their own.  There was a small area on the waterfront next to our dock where vendors had their tents but all the streets leading out were blocked and patrolled by police.  Since we had not been here before this was pretty disappointing.

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     Fortunately for us, though, this ban was inapplicable to ship sponsored excursions and we were booked on one.  After boarding the bus we had a quick panoramic (ie only on the bus) tour through the town of Roseau, then we drove up to Morne Bruce for a nice overlook of the city and harbor.  There were gun emplacements here from the late 18th Century to the mid-19th.  In addition to the city and the ship we had views of a cemetery and the soccer stadium.

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     Our next stop was the pleasant Botanic Gardens.  Begun in the 1890’s, the gardens were recognized as the best in the West Indies.  In 1979, however, Hurricane David destroyed a number of the old trees.  A beobab tree fell on an empty school bus parked there, smashing it.  The bus is still there, with the tree having grown a second trunk over it.  There are other trees, including palms, bamboo and a banyan, as well as flowers and shrubs with colorful leaves.  We were told the names of all of them, but the captions on these pictures only include the names I can remember (hover mouse to see caption).

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     In the gardens was the Parrot Conservation & Research Centre, working to study and preserve the endangered parrots native to Dominica.  The one below is a Jaco Parrot, also known as the Red-necked Amazon parrot.

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     Next we drove through the green and scenic mountains in the island’s interior to Morne Trois Pitons National Park.  Established in 1975, the park has been a world heritage site for 25 years.  It is named after its highest mountain, which has three peaks.  The mountain roads have street lights that are powered by the wind.  Each has what looks like a small airplane on top with a propeller to spin in the wind and a tail to ensure it always faces the wind.  Very clever.

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     We stopped at the visitor center at the entrance to the trail to Trafalgar Falls.  It is a nice walk through deep forest to reach the falls, where there is a wood viewing platform.  This is a twin falls, with the higher one on the left (about 125 feet) called “Father” and the shorter one on the right called “Mother.”  Each falls has a separate source. There are pools at the bottom of the falls and the one on the left has warm water.  The cascade of boulders on the left under the Father falls is the remains of a huge rockslide in 1996 that covered what used to be a cascade down a face of smooth rocks.

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  We stopped for a beer near the park then drove on to our last stop, also in the Trois Pitons park.  The Emerald Pool is a 40 foot waterfall feeding into a pool of green water (colored by light through the trees and reflecting on the green plants around the pool).  You can go swimming here but we didn’t.  The walk in to the pool was pretty easy, downhill, but the walk back was steep enough that steps had been built into the path.  Again, the walk took us through picturesque woodland. There were signs in the park reminding everyone of the pandemic and the rules to avoid it.

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