Mediterranean cruise

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 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:

https://baderjournal.com/2014/05/03/

     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 — Boarding Nieuw Statendam in Ft Lauderdale (2022)

     We arrived in Ft Lauderdale on March 15 and had a fun dinner at an Irish Pub near the port.  On March 16 we boarded the Nieuw Statendam for a three week cruise they called the “Southern Caribbean Wayfarer."  Here is the itinerary (don’t forget that if you hover your mouse over a picture the caption will appear):

image

Day

Date

Itinerary

Arrival

Departure

WED

16MAR22

Sail from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US

4:00pm

THU

17MAR22

Sea Day

FRI

18MAR22

Sea Day

SAT

19MAR22

Philipsburg, Sint Maarten

8:00am

4:00pm

SUN

20MAR22

Castries, Saint Lucia

8:00am

4:00pm

SUN

20MAR22

Scenic Cruising Soufriere Bay

MON

21MAR22

Bridgetown, Barbados

8:00am

5:00pm

TUE

22MAR22

Roseau, Dominica

8:00am

5:00pm

WED

23MAR22

Basseterre, St Kitts and Nevis

9:00am

6:00pm

THU

24MAR22

St. Thomas, U.S.V.I.

8:00am

5:00pm

FRI

25MAR22

Sea Day

SAT

26MAR22

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

8:00am

3:00pm

SUN

27MAR22

Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US

7:00am

4:00pm

MON

28MAR22

Half Moon Cay, Bahamas

8:00am

3:00pm

TUE

29MAR22

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos

10:00am

5:00pm

WED

30MAR22

Amber Cove, Dominican Republic

8:00am

5:00pm

THU

31MAR22

Sea Day

FRI

01APR22

Kralendijk, Bonaire

8:00am

11:00pm

SAT

02APR22

Willemstad, Curacao

8:00am

11:00pm

SUN

03APR22

Oranjestad, Aruba

8:00am

7:00pm

MON

04APR22

Sea Day

TUE

05APR22

Sea Day

WED

06APR22

Debark Ship Fort Lauderdale, Florida, US

7:00am

     Commissioned in 2019, Nieuw Statendam is about three years old.  But most of that time the entire cruise industry was shut down so its actual time at sea when we boarded was probably closer to a year and a half.   This is by far the youngest and the largest ship we have sailed on with Holland America.  In passenger capacity it is, at almost 2700, about twice the size of the Amsterdam and three times the size of the Prinsendam (both of which were, sadly, sold during the pandemic).  During the post-pandemic return to sea, however, cruise ships are not sailing at capacity and Nieuw Statendam  was at only about half capacity while we were onboard, about the same as Amsterdam.  It still felt like a lot of people though, and it’s hard to imagine what it must be like when this ship is full.  Even with fewer people the distance from the main dining room in the aft section to our cabin in the forward section of deck 5 (“Gershwin Deck”) seemed almost long enough to walk off all the calories!

     Many of the spaces on this ship are similar to other HAL ships we have been on, only bigger.  The atrium is lighted in purple and has no multistory central sculpture.  The crow’s nest has the usual shipwide array of front facing windows, but it also houses the shore excursion folks and a couple of interactive displays about the ports and sea routes.  There is also a section with some books (nothing like the old libraries HAL used to have), puzzles and games.  The lido pool area has two floors of seating and some casual restaurants with a huge video screen at one end of the pool.  We spent a lot of time in this area reading, with our mp3 players plugged into our ears to blot out the ship’s continual soundtrack.

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     We ate most of our dinners, and breakfasts on sea days, in the Main Dining Room, which had unusual curved pillars holding up the second floor.  During the first leg of our back-to-back we had a table upstairs by the rail, but there were several hundred fewer passengers on the second leg so they closed the upstairs and everyone had to be seated downstairs.  Presty, who many of you may know from world cruises, was the dining room manager.  He recognized our faces right away and was very solicitous, arranging a table by the windows for us when we were moved downstairs.  We had arranged to share a table with our world cruise tablemates Bob & Judy, and were most disappointed when a non-Covid medical issue made them miss our cruise at almost the last minute. 

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     The ship had plentiful alternative dining options, most for no additional cost.  Although it normally costs extra, we had a dinner at the Pinnacle and one at Tamarind gratis because we are 5 star mariners.  Both were excellent, but Tamarind is more exotic and interesting.  Our go-to place for lunch was the Grand Dutch Café, where we enjoyed the Dutch pea soup (not quite as good as when served on deck while visiting icy places) and superb ham and cheese sandwiches.  They also had humongous desserts, including one similar to an éclair and a chocolate chip cookie that fills a dessert plate.  On the second floor of the LIdo area we enjoyed pizza & sandwiches from the New York Deli & Pizza on one end and Dive-In hamburgers on the other.  The hamburgers are thick & juicy at the Dive-in, but we don’t like their fries or special sauce nearly as much as others do.   We have enjoyed their huge hot dogs on other ships, but this one had no sauerkraut or brown mustard so what was the point.  Near the Dive-in was a gelato bar, which was not free.  We love gelato, but theirs was good rather than great, and once you have had great gelato (which we have in Italy, Spain and New Zealand) good is kind of disappointing. We had lunch in the Lido buffet a few times as well, where they were carving rare strip loins that can be put between two pieces of bread to make a wonderful sandwich.

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     Music venues also were plentiful on board the ship.  The Main Stage had shows most nights, usually featuring the ship’s dance company or its four man singing quartet.  The main stage here is surrounded by huge video screens stretching back along either side of the audience and it rather overwhelmed the unfortunate performers on stage.  There was no live music in these programs; instead the music was recorded along with large displays on the screens moving with the music.  We found this all very distracting and much preferred the performances we have seen on other HAL ships focused on live musicians and performers on stage.

     HAL’s music walk, on all of the larger ships, consists of performing groups in four different genres.  Lincoln Center Stage features a classical piano quartet and alternates in the same venue with the BB King Blues Club.  It was a lovely venue with a glass fronted balcony where we usually sat.  Billboard Onboard was a lounge with two pianists playing and singing together (not “dueling,” as is sometimes said) and the Rolling Stone Rock Room across the hall housed a really good young band with a very fine lead guitar.  We visited all of these venues except the BB King (a matter of timing rather than taste), but the Lincoln Center Stage received most of our attention because their classical performances were really outstanding.  We were told that these musicians auditioned separately for the gig and were formed into a group after being hired by HAL’s music contractor.  Their repertoire was determined by the contractor who employed them.  We had different quartets on the two legs of our cruise, but both played exactly the same shows with almost exactly the same pieces.  We don’t see how that could work on a Grand Voyage, since a week’s worth of repertoire wouldn’t go very far on a three or four month cruise.

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     As on other HAL ships, there is a lot of art scattered around the Nieuw Statendam.  But while other ships we have been on have antique or classic looking artworks from around the world, this ship’s collection leans heavily toward the pop art genre.  The ship has something of a musical theme, though it is not overdone.  For example, some of the hallway carpets have images of musical instruments woven in along one wall. Among the musically themed art were a portrait of Jimi Hendrix, a reflective infinity piano hanging in an elevator bay, a melting guitar sculpture by the elevators on another floor, a sculpture made of cymbals in the front of the Main Dining room, and two huge violin hangings covered in what looked like Delft ware on the wall behind the front desk.

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      There were some artworks on walls composed of unusual media.  A copy of Vincent Van Gogh’s Starry Night on a stairway landing turns out, when viewed up close, to be made of small plastic toys and other items, and a portrait of Van Gogh was similarly made.  Some soft stripey  portraits of women turn out on closer inspection to be painted on feathers.  There was also an elaborate painting in a classical style on a surf board.

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     Elevator bays on several decks had displays of ordinary items wrapped in what appears to be needlepoint.

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      A very interesting photo was on a wall near the Lincoln Center Stage.  If you look only at the center section it looks like a large wood paneled room lit by skylights.  But viewing the picture as a whole makes clear that it is something entirely different.

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   Near the atrium was a sculpture of a lady’s head with a very elaborate hairdo topped by a sailing ship apparently under attack by a giant squid.  And near some elevators was large copy of Michelangelo’s David made of glass (or possibly plastic).  If you look closely in his lowered hand is an iphone with which he is taking a selfie. Quite unusual.

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     We have no pictures of it, but we can’t end a discussion of the ship without some mention of the Casino.  It seems that a few weeks before we sailed HAL decided to make the first leg of our back-to-back a gambler’s cruise, without informing the other passengers.  This means that they invited casino mavens from previous cruises to sail on this one at a big discount or even for free, as we understand it.  Presumably this is a money maker for HAL since all those rooms would have been empty and not generating revenue anyway because the ship’s passenger complement was so limited during the post-pandemic restart.  This meant there were about 300 more passengers on the first leg of the cruise than on the second.  To make matters worse, at the same time HAL ended the prohibition on smoking in the casino that has been in place since the return of cruising.  The result was that the casino was very crowded most of the time with many people smoking.

     The unpleasant smell from all of this smoking floated down the open stairway to the  music walk, where it was often impossible to enjoy the music.  Worse, there was an increase in folks being quarantined for COVID near the end of the first leg of the cruise (they don’t tell you how many), and it seemed to us that a casino jam packed with people sitting cheek to jowl without masks and blowing smoke around was probably a Covid superspreader.  Some passengers we talked to were forced to move to new staterooms just a day or two before we reached Ft Lauderdale so that HAL could establish a separate quarantine area on a couple of decks (since passengers had been quarantined on earlier cruises and there were so many empty cabins on the ship, why couldn’t they plan for this possibility by setting aside a quarantine section before the cruise?).  We found HAL’s handling of all this to be very disappointing, reflecting either a failure to think it through or a reaching for every last dollar regardless of the safety and enjoyment of the other passengers.

    So that’s enough about the ship.  We set sail heading south to the islands that are the main point of the trip.

Nieuw Statendam


South Pacific update (I hope)

This is our first try at an email posting. We are currently in the future, having crossed the international date line a couple of days ago (I would share a picture of it, but of course it is invisible). Somewhat surprisingly, we made it ashore to all of the South Pacific islands on the itinerary. All but Tahiti are tender ports & Rarotonga & Niue lack outer reefs that create lagoons with calm water for easy tendering. So those two islands are often missed because of bad weather or rough sea conditions. Boarding the tenders was pretty dicey on both of these days, especially at Rarotonga, but we did make it ashore. So that is probably a pretty good omen for the rest of the cruise.
For the last two days we have been sailing through a real gale, with wind speeds up to about 60 mph. The ship has really been rocking, both side to side & front to back. Actually, the captain says we are threading our way between two big storms, so we are getting it from both sides. The weather on our port days has been mostly quite good, so we can’t really complain about bad weather when we are confined to the ship anyway. Day after tomorrow we will be in Auckland, New Zealand, which is actually the last of the Polynesian Islands we will visit on this cruise.
I have attached a couple of pictures, so we will see if they get posted when I send this. The first is a view of the island of Moorea from Tahiti. The second is the early morning sail in to Bora Bora.

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Monaco

     On April 17 we docked in Port Hercules in the middle of Monaco (legend has it that Hercules passed through here & made the area habitable by getting rid of all the wild beasts).  Monaco is the world’s second smallest sovereign state (after the Vatican), covering less than a square mile. But it is also the world’s most densely populated state with some 37,000 residents (just about a third of whom are citizens). It is only about 5 miles from Italy but is surrounded by France on all land borders, and by treaty France is responsible for the defense & foreign policy of Monaco.  Although not a member of the European Union, the Euro is Monaco’s official currency.  Monaco is, of course, famous as a playground for the rich & famous, so the harbor is full of (big) yachts, the streets are full of fancy cars & everything is expensive.

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     It was a gray rainy day, one of the very few we have had on this trip.  Mary was still feeling pretty bad from the illness she picked up in Dubai, the previous two days in Rome & Florence had been pretty taxing & we were planning a big day in Barcelona the next day.  Monaco really wasn’t a priority for us, so we decided to take it easy & just took the HOHO bus tour around the city/country.  We didn’t hop off the bus at all, though, so all the pictures in this episode were taken either from the open top of the bus or from the ship.  Thankfully the heavy rain didn’t begin until just after we got back to the ship.

     Our first stop was at the Casino of Monte Carlo.  Monte Carlo (Mount Charles) is one of the five districts of Monaco.  The casino was first built in the mid 19th century because the ruling family was in dire financial straits. It worked: they aren’t in any danger of bankruptcy any more. You have probably seen James Bond walking up the steps to the entrance in Casino Royale or Never Say Never Again. The back part of the casino, facing the harbor, is the opera house, built a few years later.  And on one side of casino square next to the casino is the Hotel de Paris, built in 1863, very ritzy & expensive.  The tennis ball decorations are to celebrate the 110th Monte Carlo Masters tennis tournament (actually held over the border in France), the final day of which was the day of our visit.

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     We rode through the narrow, sharply curving & hilly streets of the city to the Palace.

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     The Prince’s Palace was first built in 1191, but has been expanded, renovated & enhanced many times since then.  Built on top of a huge rock overlooking the Mediterranean, it was initially a Genoese stronghold & you can still see some of the more castle-like walls at the edge of the rock.  The Grimaldi family, Genoese noblemen who were on the losing side in a struggle for control for Genoa, captured it in 1297 & have ruled here most of the time ever since.  The princes were absolute rulers until 1910, when a rather ineffectual parliament was established under a constitution granted by Prince Albert I in response to public unrest. But even today Prince Albert II is the dominant political power in Monaco & his offices & residence are in the Palace. His predecessor (& father) was Prince Rainier III, who famously married the movie star Grace Kelly (Albert’s mother) in 1956.

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     From the Palace grounds there were some stunning views of the harbor & the mountains.  Next to the Palace on the edge of the rock cliff is a statue called “hommage aux colonies étrangères,” built in 1914 to honor the 25th year of the reign of Prince Albert I.  Across the square from the Palace were some interesting buildings that look like they date from the 19th century.  We drove on, down through an arched road, to St Nicholas Cathedral.  It was built at the turn of the 20th century; Prince Rainier & Princess Grace are buried there.

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     We passed by the Oceanographic Museum.  It was built in 1910 by Prince Albert I, who had an avid interest in the subject, and presided over from 1957 to 1988 by Jacques Cousteau.  The collection inside has a first rate reputation, including an aquarium with more than 4,000 species of fish, but of course we didn’t see the inside.  Outside the museum was a very colorful exhibit, but we have no idea what it was about.

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     The Monaco Grand Prix auto race was first run in 1929.  It is a challenging course through the streets of the city, with hairpin turns, changing elevations & a tunnel. The 2016 race was to be at the end of May & they were already preparing when we were there, building viewing stands in several places on the water front.  One of the excursions offered by HAL was to walk the course of the race (it might be a lot cheaper to buy a map & walk it yourself).  We saw several of the viewing stands that were under construction (built anew every year).

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     Well that’s it for our short bus-top tour of Monaco.  We returned to the ship & it then began raining pretty hard for most of the afternoon.  We will leave you with a few pictures taken from the ship.

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