Upon leaving Casablanca we sailed north and entered the Mediterranean Sea the next morning, October 22, sailing through the Pillars of Hercules past the Rock of Gibraltar.
By the morning of October 24 we were docked in La Goulette, the port for the city of Tunis. It lies across a large but shallow salt lake from the city. Dating back some 2,500 years or more, Tunis was originally a Berber settlement that was taken over by Phoenicians from Tyre in modern Lebanon after they founded Carthage nearby. Today it is one of the largest cities in northern Africa with a metropolitan population of about 2.7 million. This was our first visit here.
As mentioned, ancient Carthage was located near Tunis on Byrsa Hill and this was our first destination. As we walked to our excursion bus there were camels and musicians in the port area.
Founded in the 9th or 8th Century BCE, Carthage grew to become a great power in the Mediterranean world. After three major wars with Rome (the Punic wars), Carthage was completely destroyed in 146 BCE by the Roman general Scipio Africanus. About a century later Julius Caesar established a colony on the site which later grew to become the largest Roman city in Africa. The Romans levelled off the hill, pushing what was left of Carthage to the sides and burying it. So little is left to see of Carthage itself, because of its destruction & burial and because the Romans and others later built on top of its remains. Byrsa Hill provides a panoramic view of Tunis laid out below.
We stood on a large open area in front of the Carthage Museum (which we didn’t get to visit). At one end was a large ancient column in good shape. There were a few statutory remains in that area. Below the column on a lower level were the excavated ruins of the “Hannibal” section of the city, one of the few remnants of ancient Carthage that have been uncovered. This was a residential neighborhood built in the 2d Century BCE on a site previously housing metal workshops. In the distance below is the site of ancient Carthage’s ports (they had two, one commercial and the other military).
Dominating the view of Byrsa Hill behind us was the Cathedral of Saint Louis. Built by the French in the 1880’s while they controlled Tunisia, it sits on top of the ruins of a Punic temple. It was dedicated to King Louis IX of France, canonized as St Louis, who died near here trying to conquer the area during the 8th Crusade in 1270. It has not been an actual cathedral for several decades but still dominates the skyline. Across the parking area from the cathedral was a row of vendors, one invoking the name of St Louis.
We next visited the Roman amphitheater, which supposedly was the site of some Christian martyrdoms. It looked pretty much like all the other amphitheaters we have seen. It has been restored (notice the smooth seats nearby and the stone ones further away) and is used for performances.
Our next stop was the Tophet, a cemetery for children. The Romans promoted the view that the Carthaginians regularly practiced the sacrifice of children. This Roman propaganda about their greatest enemies is neither supported nor refuted by Carthaginian records because they were virtually all destroyed by the Romans in 146 BCE at the end of the Punic wars. It seems likely that there was child sacrifice here, but probably only in times of extreme crisis. Many children are buried in the Tophet but there is no definitive evidence of which we are aware as to which were sacrificed and which died naturally. The grave stones generally lack inscriptions but contain simple carved images, probably to represent who was buried there. Below the graveyard we walked through a Roman cistern.
We were told that the Emperor Hadrian (we think) visited Carthage and was appalled by the lack of water, necessary among other things for a public bath. He ordered the building of an aqueduct to supply water, which took some 20 years to complete. We passed by the remains of the aqueduct as well as some huge pipes that were used to distribute the water. The public baths were built and their remains can still be seen, although we didn’t visit them.
Although it wasn’t on the excursion agenda, we were taken next to the WWII American North Africa cemetery. In addition to lots of graves of Americans who died here during World War II laid out in neat rows, they had large mosaic maps of the North Africa campaigns. In Egypt we have seen cell phone towers disguised as very tall palm trees. Here we passed some cell towers disguised as some sort of evergreen trees, looking something like ornaments in the branches of an artificial Christmas tree.
Sidi Bou Said is a town perched on a hilltop overlooking the Mediterranean. The name is derived from a holy man who lived here centuries ago but it wasn’t until the early 20th century that it became a fashionable retreat for the rich and famous. Many well known artists and authors have lived or visited here. Since the 1920’s the buildings here have been painted blue and white. It would be a very charming place but for the hordes of tourists and vendors crowding the streets of the town and the challenging steep uphill walk to reach the Mediterranean views, but it is well worth a visit regardless. The vendors here are known for their ceramics, some very fine and some just souvenirs.
After Sidi Bou Said we went to a local restaurant for lunch. Happily the restaurant served Tunisian food (and lots of it). Our Zaandam table mates Robert, Bill, Karen & Mel were at a table behind us and beyond them was a patio with a nice Mediterranean view.
After lunch we drove into Tunis, passing what looked likeit might once have been gates to the city.
Begun in 698, about the time the Muslims took control of Tunis, the Medina covers some 700 acres and houses a population of more than 100,000 people. We left the bus in Kasbah (or Government) Square and walked past a famous old Madrassa (school) and the National Monument of Independence toward the Medina. A large mosque was on our left and some government buildings were on our right. We think the mosque is the Kasbah Mosque, built in the 13th century. After entering the Medina we walked past the Youssef Dey Mosque. Built in the 17th Century, it was the 11th mosque in Tunis and its large eight sided minaret was the first built here in the Turkish style. Next to the Mosque is the mausoleum of Youssef Dey and his family.
The streets of the Medina are mostly narrow, crooked and crowded with visitors, vendors and cafes. Some are open and some are covered. It is a fun place to explore. At one point we spotted what we think is the minaret of the Al-Zaytuna Mosque looming above the rooftops. This is the oldest mosque in Tunis, built mostly in the 7th – 9th centuries. Its current minaret was built in 1894, replacing a much shorter one constructed several centuries earlier.
As we came to the exit from the Medina we stopped for a while to permit the rest of the group to catch up before leaving. On our right was a colonnaded wall that we think is the eastern wall of the Al-Zaytouna Mosque. We have read that rooftop patios are important social venues here and we saw one above where we were waiting. And of course there were vendors, including one with a stack of stuffed camels.
So we left the Medina, climbed on the bus and headed back to the port after a very interesting day. Driving past the salt lake toward the port we saw pink flamingoes (standing on the very shallow lake bottom), but they were too far away for a picture. There was no dramatic sunset today, so I will leave you with one we saw out in the Atlantic.
October 19 brought us to our first new port on this trip: Arrecife, capital of Lanzarote, a Spanish island in the Canary Islands. It was a beautiful sunny day as we docked in a spot with a nice view of Arrecife’s mostly white skyline. One landmark we could see from the ship was (we think) the Castillo de San Jose, built in the late 1770’s for protection from pirate attacks.
First populated by the Majo people who arrived from Africa around 1,000 AD, Lanzarote became the first Canary island captured by Europeans in 1402. The Majos were mostly sold into slavery and the island was battered by pirates from North Africa and Europe over the next few centuries. Massive volcanic eruptions devastated the island in the 1730’s, destroying at least 11 villages but without a single death. This left almost a fourth of the island covered in lava, which cooled in many places into very fertile soil particularly good for growing wine grapes. But the central area of the eruptions, now called the malpais, or badlands, continues to be largely free of flora and fauna because the temperature reaches well over 200 degrees just a few feet under the surface.
In 1852 Arrecife became the capital of Lanzarote. Today the island has a population of about 150,000, of which about a third live in Arrecife. We didn’t visit Arrecife, however, opting instead for a three hour hike through the badlands in Timanfaya National Park. While the city residents appeared to be living mostly in multi-unit dwellings, the area through which we drove was characterized by very bare looking hills and mostly white houses.
Lanzarote fields are divided into small pieces of land dug into the ground and surrounded by walls of lava rock. These serve the dual purposes of concentrating waterfall into the pit where the plants (often grapes) are grown and protecting the plants from high winds. We saw a variety of ways these fields are laid out; mostly devoid of plants either because of the time of year or because many of these fields now lie within the national park. While there is a flourishing wine industry here, we were told that Lanzarote wine is rarely exported because this intensive growing method makes it too expensive to compete with wine from other countries.
We were dropped off along a roadside in the park and began our walk. This turned out to be a challenging hike for those of us who are of a certain age, since it was quite warm, the paths were very irregular and often strewn with rocks that required care to remain upright, and the guide was not disposed to slow her pace to accommodate the older group members. At least one fellow dropped out well before the end and the van came by to pick him up. You will see a lot of pictures today of very bleak and craggy landscapes.
The mountains in this area are known as the Montanas del Fuego (Fire Mountains), probably because they were formed from burning lava. They appear to be lifeless, but some have very nice colors, particularly red.
While most of the terrain is barren there is some life here and there. You have already seen cactus and palm trees. We saw orange and white lichen as well, along with several kinds of succulents. At an old well that was inside a small stone building we saw a lizard and even some flowers.
Beyond this we mostly just hiked through very rough territory. Mary fell down twice despite being very careful and using a walking stick. A lot of it was very beautiful, but it seemed somehow to get less beautiful as the walk dragged on and we got more tired. One interesting feature was some rocks at the top of a valley in which you could actually see what appears to be the flow of the lava.
We were glad to get back in the bus (pretty unusual because we don’t like bus rides) and rest our feet. We drove back to the port and after we left the dock we watched the pilot jump from the ship to a boat to take him back to the port. Then we sailed away during a nice sunset to complete an interesting if tiring day on the island of Lanzarote.
On October 18 we finally stepped off the ship in Funchal, the capital of the Portuguese island of Madeira near the coast of Africa. We have visited here twice before and you can learn more about Madeira in these posts.
Last time we were here we planned to take the cable car up to Monte, a mountain above the town, and visit the church and gardens up there, but the top was covered in clouds so there was no point in doing that. This time we planned to finally do that, but guess what? Monte was covered by clouds again, so no go. Maybe next time.
So instead we took the shuttle bus into town and walked to the Municipal Gardens. It is filled with many varieties of flowers and trees. There is also a pond with a fountain and a sculpture; last time it had swans but not today and the fountain was off. Oh, well, the gardens are still beautiful.
One feature of current and former Portuguese cities that we always enjoy is the mosaic sidewalks and plazas. We have seen these throughout Brazil as well as here. Made with about two inch square stones these often have intricate designs and even pictures. It must be a lot of work to create and maintain them because it is all done by hand. We saw a fellow today who was trimming small white stones in preparation of restoring part of a sidewalk, sitting on the ground with a hand chisel and large piles of stones on each side.
We walked down to the center of town where a large Jesuit church sits on one side and the city hall on another. Currently called St John The Evangelist Church, this was originally built by the Jesuits in 1640. The paintings and sculpture inside are also from the mid 17th Century. Deceptively plain on the outside, this church is surprisingly elaborate inside. A man was playing the pipe organ located above the entrance, a nice extra.
The town hall was built in 1758 and renovated in 1940, the year the blue tiles on the walls were created. The fountain sculpture in the interior courtyard dates from 1880 and originally stood in a fish market. During our first visit here a small labor demonstration was in progress outside this building but today all was quiet.
We walked on to the cable car station, hoping the clouds would clear in time for us to go up to Monte. But no luck and the cable car costs too much to just take a flyer on it being clearer from the top. So we walked back toward the Mercado dos Lavradores through the Zona Velho, a neighborhood of shops and restaurants on narrow cobblestone streets oozing character. It is known for painted doors and windows on many of the buildings.
We went into the Mercado, a delightful market in the interior courtyard of a building open to the sky. Usually the street level is filled with umbrellas over vendors’ carts but this was a rainy day so no umbrellas were there. Still there were many stands under partial roofs on both floors displaying colorful flowers and produce. It rained cats and dogs while we were there & we had to wait a few minutes after our visit before we could venture back out onto the street. There is more Portuguese tile work on the walls in the market.
Continuing back toward the port we came to the Catholic Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption. It was built in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. We had been here before but had never been able to see the inside. Today we did.
It was drizzly and gray as we headed back to the drop off for the shuttle to the ship, but there was one more thing we wanted to see. Those who have followed this blog at all know that Mary is a retired librarian with a great love of libraries. We always visit them when possible and we have seen many beautiful ones on our travels. But the one in Funchal, a steep uphill walk at the end of a full day, was not one of those. Sadly, the only part of the library visible to the street was an entrance to what looked like a office, tucked away behind a row of parked busses under a car park garage. Rather a disappointment but here it is. On top of a hill across the street we spied the Fortress of S. João Baptista do Pico, built in the early 17th century, of which we had not previously heard. It looks pretty formidable and was part of the defense of the city from pirates.
We returned to the ship after our first port on this voyage, tired but looking forward to visiting another in the morning.
Caribbean Journey – Part 5: Amber Cove (Puerto Plata), Dominican Republic and Kralendjik, Bonaire (2022)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
We drove along the coast road, at one point passing some trees full of white egrets.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
We drove back to the port, where we wandered around in the shops for a while then boarded the ship. Another interesting day.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.