After 9 days at sea crossing the Atlantic Ocean aboard the Britannia, I was looking forward to setting foot on land and seeing something other than water and sky. The Caribbean, with 9 ports of call, beckoned.
Our very handy television port guide gives an introduction to each island, so I shall begin with a brief history. Antigua was inhabited by the native Arouwat tribe who were ousted by the more fearsome Carib Indians, who harken from Columbia. The first European to set eyes on the island was good old Christopher Columbus, but it wasn’t until the mid-15th century when the British laid claim and began to settle the island, killing or exiling all the Caribs in the process.
Sugar was the new craze in Europe and the Caribbean islands were ideal for growing it, along with some tobacco and cotton. Sugar cane cultivation is labour intensive and when the Brits ran out of indentured Irish servants, they began importing African slaves in droves. They worked the plantations for centuries, enduring long work hours, horrible conditions and little opportunity for freedom. In 1838, Britain abolished slavery, causing the newly emancipated slaves to become landless labourers at the mercy of absentee plantation owners. One hundred and fifty years of reliance on sugar cane ensued, before the sugar market collapsed, destroying the economy. Since the 1970’s, tourism has become the lifeblood of the island.
Upon disembarking, I walked through the purpose built “terminal” which should be called what it is, a shopping mall for the cruise crowd filled with duty free jewelry shops, souvenir stalls and a few restaurants promising local cuisine. I escaped as quickly as possible to the centre of the capital, St. John’s. The downtown was typical Caribbean city: modern buildings mixed with colonial houses sporting wrought iron railings, a few empty shells and a cathedral that loomed over the city. Broken sidewalks lined both sides of congested streets. Stores were what I would expect: clothes, groceries, digital phone carriers, handicrafts, etc.
Not wanting to do any shopping, I boarded a public bus/, large mini-van, to Nelson Dockyard. Horatio Nelson, of Waterloo fame, was posted here when it was Britain’s major Caribbean naval base. He referred to it as an “infernal hole.” Apparently there was a view and an old fort in the Dockyard, but the cost to enter along with the need to hire a taxi to reach the view was more than I wanted to spend, so I contented myself with a walk to a nearby harbour and another min-van bus ride back to town.
My fellow passengers did not fare much better. Antigua promotes itself as the island with a beach for every day of the year, 365 of them, so many fellow cruisers had booked shore excursions to various beaches. But by noon, the skies were overcast, the shore excursions to the beaches were cancelled and the scenic tours of the island were, according to my dinner mates, a bit of a bust as a thick fog hung over the island, making scenic views impossible.
St. Kitts /Nevis:
I walked off the ship to the port shopping mall, with its duty free jewelry stores, restaurants and souvenir shops and onto the Main Street of its capital, Basseterre. It looked remarkably similar to Antigua, narrow streets jammed with vehicles, dodgy sidewalks lined by stores selling more tourist stuff and also groceries, telephone carriers and an abundance of banks. The familiar CIBC logo stood above one, but it was called the Bank of the Caribbean. A 5 minute walk took me to Independence Square, where a relic of the old British rule stood abandoned and rotting:
Back towards the port, in the former Treasury building, the National Museum exhibits cultural and historical information about the island, with a focus on the importance of sugar to the island and the economic devastation when the last sugar mill closed 2005.
St. Kitts’ history is similar to Antigua. In 1493, Columbus stopped by and it is believed it is named after his nickname, Kitt. Britain settled it in the 16th century, as did the French so the next few centuries saw the two European powers battling each other, along with occasional forays by the Spanish and Portuguese.
It became Independent in 1983; currently has a population of 52,000 and is 100 square miles in size. I am sure a lot more could be written about it, but after walking around Basseterre for an hour, I found a bar, ordered a daiquiri and surfed the internet.
The ports and their shopping terminals were starting to look the same. As some of the stores are part of a chain, that’s not surprising. In Castries, the capital of St. Lucia, I had to walk through the Diamond International store to get out onto the street to the city centre. A pretty walk along a haphazard sidewalk brought me to the same types of stores and service shops I had seen in Antigua and St. Kitts, so I returned to the port mall, where the sidewalks were in markedly better shape than the rest of the town centre. I wandered into two clothing stores seeking a sundress, but to my chagrin, the labels said “Made in India.” I found a coffee shop, ordered a muffin and surfed the internet.
Its history is akin to the others, although its first settler, Captain Leclerk, was a pirate. In the 17th century the Dutch arrived and tried to establish a colony, whereafter battles broke out for it between the Dutch, British and French. The British prevailed, until 1979 when it became independent.
It has the usual beautiful sandy beaches, turquoise waters and lush green interior. To the north are its famous mountains, The Pitons, after which the local beer is named.
Going out of order, the Britannia visited St. Lucia twice on my tour. On my final day aboard, I signed up for the Farewell to St. Lucia tour, basically a cheaper way to get to the international airport than the $US 100 cab fare. A mini-bus drove us to on the winding road to the airport, with stops along the way at a woodworker’s shop, a craft emporium, a chocolate making store, lunch and some viewpoints before depositing me at the airport for a 5 hour wait for a late (grrrr…..) Air Canada flight to Toronto.
Sorry if this is starting to sound monotonous. We docked in the capital, Kingstown, at a small, purpose built port/mall with familiar looking stores. I walked into town, saw a Subway, a KFC and a Burger King, along with lots of fruit stalls. I walked back, found a coffee shop with wifi and surfed the net.
Here’s what I learned about the country. It is made up of 32 islands; St. Vincent has 90% of the land and population. Caribs aggressively prevented European settlements until the 1700s. The French first settled, planting tobacco, indigo and coffee and corn, but ceded it to England by The Treaty of Paris in 1783. The Brits took it over and the1st Carib war broke out. Britain won. Independence came in 1979. It’s economy relies on tourism.
Feeling guilty about my lack of sightseeing at the previous stops, I succumbed to the high-pressure sales tactics on-board the ship and signed up for a Railroad and Rum tour of Barbados. On a slightly overcast day, I marched through the now standard port mall that greeted us at each stop to the mini-bus along with 20 other fellow passengers. We drove through the main city, Bridgetown, past an abandoned Sandals hotel, through a town with every high priced merchant – Pravda, Ralph Lauren, etc. – out into the country to be met with winding roads, tropical green forests and gentle mountains before arriving at the St. Nicholas Abbey Heritage Train. I was expecting a renovated old train previously used to transport sugar cane or the like, but this was a newly built track designed only for tourists. A 15 minute ride took us to the pinnacle, where a beautiful view of a harbour below awaited. If I hadn’t seen the same view a hundred times in the last week or if the clouds had been a little less threatening, I might have been less than underwhelmed.
Next stop on the tour, the St. Nicholas Abbey, which, despite its name, is not an Abbey and has no religious background. It is a large colonial house furnished in colonial couches and chairs and a chandelier. In the back was a rum distillery, where the guide explained the rum distillation process before providing us with a small tasting glass. Small turned out to be a blessing; the stuff is about 60 proof and far too strong for my taste. And that was the tour, more than enough to discourage me from signing up for any more shore excursions.
The ship was overnighting in Barbados, so I had 2 full days to explore Bridgetown, named after the numerous bridges. From the port, it was a pleasant 20 minute stroll to the main shopping area, but it was raining heavily and the shops looked all too familiar. However, the port mall offered free wifi, so I kept returning to it, along with most of the other 3,700 passengers on the Britannia eager to make contact with their family back home without paying exorbitant fees on the ship.
The “C” in the ABC Caribbean Islands (Aruba and Bonaire are “A” and “B”), Curaçao’s natives were Arawak and Caquetio Indians, who disappeared upon the arrival of the first Europeans, the Spanish, in 1499. The Dutch and its Dutch West Indies Company, set up shop in 1634, constructing a pretty colonial capital, WIllemstad, and the usual sugar plantations worked by slaves. The Dutch fought wars with other European powers and prevailed, putting down slave revolts along the way, but abolished slavery in 1863. The island underwent the same economic transitions as other Caribbean islands following emancipation but with some notable exceptions. Vast salt fields on both Bonaire and Curaçao provided exporting opportunities and the island’s vicinity to the oil in Venezuela caused a refinery to be constructed. It still operates today, but is leased to Venezuela. I’m not sure Venezuela pays its bills.
Curaçao self-governs in most respects, but it is still part of The Netherlands and its citizens Dutch. Daily KLM jumbo jets from Amsterdam bring Dutch sun seekers to the island, eager to sample its beaches, diving and hot Caribbean weather. The Dutch government has also poured a lot of money into the island. No broken sidewalks, potholed roads or shanty towns. Willemstad is all dolled up and neat as a Dutch town.
I had spent a week on the island a few years ago, so I passed on the obligatory island tour which takes in beautiful scenery, a pay-to-use beach and the stop at the Curaçao liqueur factory. Instead, I walked through the now familiar port shopping mall, strolled over the Queen Emma bridge and found free internet.
Known as a scuba diving paradise, Bonaire shares a history with Curacao. It also boasts an estimated 15 -20,000 flamingoes, but only 18,000 residents. The largest salt flat in the Caribbean is located here, along with a pink beach which isn’t pink and a pink lake, which is:
The Britannia docked in Krelendijk, the largest town on the island. I dislodged, to the usual bevy of tourist shops, malls and touts. After locating and using free wifi for a while, I signed up for a non-Britannia sanctioned tour of the southern part of the island in a brightly coloured chicken bus. The tour took us to the salt flats, the pink lake, a pretty beach and slave houses, before driving as close as we could to 1 of 2 flamingo sanctuaries on the island.
This cruise has gone from monotonous to a grind. Our 7th port in 10 days. Apologies to all Grenadians, but the island had the same feel, history, highlights and scenery as most of the other islands. I did the exact same thing I did in most of the other ports: walked through the terminal, strolled around downtown, climbed atop a hill for a view and photo, then returned back to port, found a bar with wifi, ordered a drink and surfed the web.
I suppose if I was a diver or a sunbather or in need of rest and relaxation, I would have been more enamoured with the Caribbean ports, but I don’t dive, I sunburn too quickly to laze on a beach and, having just spent 8 of the previous 9 days at sea doing nothing, if I was anymore relaxed I would be dead. Thus, for me, the Caribbean cruise was not quite boring but not super exciting. There is only so many sandy beaches/turquoise waters, verdant green interiors I can tolerate, not to mention steel bands, rum tastings and duty free shopping. The things that usually pique my interest in new places: history, architecture, economy, admittedly unfairly, became redundant after the second port and boring by the fourth. I’m glad I visited each island, but doubt I will be racing back soon.
Next: ….And now for something completely different: Ethiopia.