Category Archives: Caribbean Islands

St. Kitts Sugar Train A Sweet Ride

train smoke bright white lead

It has an unlikely association with Skagway, Alaska

Many of us seated in the fifth and last of the two-story passenger cars are acting like jacks-in-the-box as we continually pop up from our seats, photographing one stunning island view after another as our toy railroad chugs along at a maximum of just 8 mph.

On the right we have the coastline to shoot and, later, the islands of St. Eustatius and Saba in the distance. The left is dominated by seemingly endless fields of sugar cane with a dramatic backdrop of cloud-capped mountains, villages and old estates.

Whenever our energy starts to flag from all the activity, our waitress always seem at hand to provide a free rum punch, pina colada or Diet Coke. Or the gospel chorus may appear on our car and sing something uplifting to bolster our spiritual sides.

train choir   train waitress drinks  
We’re riding the St. Kitts Sugar Train, a one-of-a-kind tour in the Caribbean that’s likely to remain that way. Unlike most other islands, St. Kitts never tore up its train tracks even after they went out of use back in 1970’s when sugar cane stopped being the island’s main economic mainstay, replaced by tourism.

Also called the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, this 90-minute tour uses a 500-hp diesel engine (made in Romania, of all places) to pull its five passenger cars along a 30-inch narrow gauge railroad bed built between 1912 and 1926 to transport sugar cane from the fields to the processing factory in the capital city of Basseterre.

sugar cane field   statia in background

The tracks still extend for about 30 miles but the Sugar Train uses only 18 of them, among the most scenic. The train departs Basseterre to travel northward where the tracks parallel and sometimes hug the Atlantic coastline. Chugging along at a maximum speed of just 8 mph, the train crosses three bridges up to 200 feet long over chasms as much as 90 feet deep.

When we board the train, almost everyone chooses the canopy-covered, open-air top deck of our car and its bench-style, cushioned seats extending along both sides. A few chose the lower level, which is enclosed and air conditioned. Seats there are in the form of rattan chairs clustered around a table located beside large vaulted, tinted windows.

 inside car   train big windows

We definitely get more of a feel for St. Kitts out in the open but the train also shakes, rattles and rolls up here quite a bit. People susceptible to motion sickness may find conditions more to their liking at the lower level. Ours is the last car, #5, and that allows us to notice how much #4 right in front keeps pitching and rolling from side to side. Not the steadiest photo platform whenever we shift to our “top” 8 mph speed.

sugar cane fieldIt’s important to choose the correct side of the car when you board: right for the coastline, left for the inland region. I go right, Linda sits across on the left; that way we can quickly trade places if necessary. With large tour groups, there may not be any open seating (like today). And the lurching train makes it impossible to stand in the center and take photos on both sides.

We choose the last car since it allows us to lean out and photograph the entire train whenever it comes to a curve. Best morning sunlight starts out with the sun on the right side of the train but as we circle the northern end of St. Kitts the light shifts to the left.

  train close to plants   train mountain

Wherever you sit, everyone hears the live running commentary, not taped, which makes the experience much more spontaneous and entertaining. And this is how we learn of the amazing association with this Caribbean narrow gauge train ride with one in Skagway, Alaska: they were both started by the same person who chose locations where many miles of abandoned but still usable rail lines were available. (This trivia should be good info for making small wagers the next time you’re in Skagway or St. Kitts).

Ever since the Sugar Train began running in January, 2003, there has been a kind of waving contest between passengers and the locals, who are known as Kittians. We’re advised by our conductor that passengers always are supposed to wave first. Whenever we pass a school yard or a group of youngsters, they gallop toward the train with their arms waving in the air. Their unadulterated enthusiasm always exceeds our best waving attempt.

train black beach   train end roundabout

After our 18-mile trip from Basseterre, we arrive at a roundabout where the train stops in a circle. We will not return to the city by train but by buses, the same ones that took us from the cruise port to the train station. They arrive with another group of passengers who will retrace our route as the sun moves even higher in the sky, not as good for photography.

Depending on demand, the train may make another round trip later in the day. In summer, outside of the cruise ship season, the train may not even run every day. For more information, visit .

For a quick overview of the northern half of St. Kitts, no other tour offers such high vantage points, visits the same out-of-the-way places or does it with such style and fun.
If you’re not into photography, you may find the last 20 minutes of scenery a bit repetitious. If so, sip a rum punch and just relax to the rock and rolling of the Sugar Train. And see if any more of that sugar candy is left. That stuff is addictive!

train bottom cover

St. Thomas: Making Lemonade Out Of Lemons

Or stranded in a strip mall

The clock goes off at 6am and after a few minutes I drag my groggy-eyed self out of bed. Before heading up to the Lido Restaurant for a quick breakfast, Tim checks the weather outside via the camera HAL has mounted on the bow connected to our stateroom’s TV. It looks fine and I’m anticipating a fun day of sightseeing and photography on beautiful St. Thomas.

As I step off the elevator and peer around the corner toward the window-lined dining area, all I see are gray clouds. Then as look more, I wonder, “Where in the world are we? It doesn’t look anything like the Charlotte Amalie I remember. ”

                                               Maasdam Cruise
                                                    Crown Bay Cruise Terminal

Then I remember we docked at Crown Bay, which looks like an industrial park instead of a cruise terminal. With the threat of rain heavy in the air, Tim and I head toward the plain buildings and recognize the names of a few jewelry stores.

I notice good directional signs with arrows pointing to the locations of different stores, the bank and Wi-Fi hotspots, so we decide to forget Charlotte Amalie and get caught up on some computer time. But the signs lead to empty storefronts.

          Maasdam Cruise             Maasdam Cruise
               Iguanas fighting over bread                                       The winner!

As I’m returning to the ship for a computer power cord I notice several people standing around the edge of the walkway throwing pieces of bread at something. Turns out iguanas are enjoying the hospitality of some passengers passing time in this middle-of-nowhere- port. Cheap entertainment.  The best St. Thomas has at the Crown Bay port?

Tim spends several hours on the computer while I try to get my phone to work. By now my patience is wearing very thin; my phone won’t work. Only one computer can connect off the ship. This cruise ship terminal looks like a bad dream. I’m tired and hungry. Back on the ship finishing up lunch Tim says, “I’m going to take some pictures of the port this afternoon.”

                Maasdam Cruise        Maasdam Cruise
                            The Lido Pool sign                                          My hat

I reply, “Not me, I’m on strike. The sun is finally out and I’m going to put on my bathing suit, sit by the pool and read my book.” 

               LindaOKeefe_339         Maasdam Cruise           
                             Bag and hairclip                                         Favorite Tevas

After changing and gathering my pool gear plus my camera, I go to the Lido deck for some fun in the sun. As I’m empty my bag an elderly gentlemen stops by and asks, “Like your book?” pointing at my Kindle, I tell him how much I love it and he proudly holds out a small notebook and says, “Got me one, too!”

                                               Maasdam Cruise
                                                                 Love my Kindle

Before I settle down in the chaise, I decide to take some pictures I can use this in our blog. After finishing my shots,  I pick up my things and glance around to realize everyone at the pool was watching—and probably wondering why—as I photographed everything I brought with me. I’m laughing as I put on my hat, settle back and start reading.

After a while, watching everyone walk by with ice cream,  gets to be too much. I bypass the pool bar and head for the Lido Restaurant for a pineapple sherbet waffle cone. By now, the ship is pulling out of St. Thomas.  I tote my bag containing my camera to the upper deck for pictures as we leave.

              Maasdam Cruise       LindaOKeefe_350        
                            Lido Pool bar                                  Friendly Lido Pool bar bartender

It’s a beautiful sail away and can’t help but think of Jimmy Buffet’s song “One Particular Harbor,” as we pass sunlit sail boats anchored in small coves with white sand beaches. After finding Tim, we watch the coastline of St. Thomas slip away as the Maasdam leaves Crown Bay, the worst port we’ve encountered on our cruise. 

              Maasdam Cruise      LindaOKeefe_381
                             Sail away shots                         A beach and anchorage we pass

So what started out as a crummy sour day, finally turned into frosty lemonade thanks to the beautiful sunlit island we pass on our left, no part of St. Thomas. 

   By Linda O’Keefe

Half Moon Cay, Final Phase

woman on horseback

Just when it’s starting to feel like our own backyard

Our third and final visit to Half Moon Cay, Holland America’s private island, is also the first stop on our third and final leg of our 35-day voyage. When we left Half Moon Cay on Sunday, it was a warm, beautiful day with winds strong in the morning decreasing throughout the day.

What a shock to arrive the next morning in Ft. Lauderdale where it is 50 degrees at 7 a.m. and winds are strong. Did I hibernate through the winter and wake up on an Alaska cruise? The only time it was ever this cold there was when our ship was next to a glacier.

So it’s nice to be back at Half Moon Cay in the Bahamas, where this morning it’s in the high 70s and winds are the calmest they’ve ever been.

3 half moon bch cover   3 half moon riding sea

More Island Background Info:
Unless there are two ships present and the larger vessel gets priority, the tender boats stationed in the protected Half Moon marina provide easy access for everyone, including those in wheelchairs and strollers. It’s because the upper level of the double-decked tenders are almost level with the gangway, as opposed to a steeper descent down to the Maasdam’s own tenders.

3 half moon fort   3 half moon shell fountain

After docking at the tender pier, you enter through the archway of Fort San Salvador, though technically this island’s name is Little San Salvador. The Bahamas’ real San Salvador is where Columbus may have landed, though the Turks and Caicos Islands claim the same honor.

Once inside the archway, you enter a plaza with an information kiosk, restrooms, a fountain surrounded by conch shells and a handful of shops. There is supposed to be a straw market, but if there is one it must be hidden in the gift shop, which I’ve never visited. From the plaza, you can see the replica of a small Bahamian chapel. The plaza also is where you board the shuttle trucks (with shade canopy) to different activities and to the Island BBQ at the Food Pavilion (served 11:30-1).

As for the BBQ, don’t feel the need to give up your beach time for to attend it. You’ll find the same hamburgers and dogs and bratwurst and fries at the Terrace Grill back on the Maasdam until 6 p.m., but not all the salads and fruits. Since the last tender departs around 2 p.m., just eat a big breakfast and grab some apples from the buffet for a snack.

At the same time, the buffet is not all that crowded when only one ship is anchored. When there are two, it can feel like a feeding frenzy and you may want to flee back to the ship.

Also consider the Lido Restaurant closes at 2 p.m., although the deli—which closes for a brief time and then reopens about 2:15-2:20 after a fresh restocking—stays open until 5.
3 half moon sand castle   3 half moon church   3 boy on slide

Moon also has a mini Aqua Park for youngsters 2-5, but the kids seem to ignore that as much as they do swimming in the Caribbean. From what I’ve witnessed, the kids prefer building sand castles and digging in the sand and turning their holes into wells with sea water they scoop from the sea. The huge (pirate?) ship mentioned in my first Half Moon Cay post is much closer to completion than when we first saw it 24 days ago. It’s now so prominent it’s easily seen from the Maasdam at anchor well offshore. And it dwarfs people on the beach.

3 half moon ship   3 half moon kids running

For those with mobility issues concerned about visiting Half Moon Cay, the busiest areas have three handicapped-accessible areas joined by hard-surfaced pathways. In addition, all the island’s facilities meet and exceed ADA requirements, including beach and jitney trams.

Here’s a summary of all the activities and facilities on Half Moon Cay.
Special Features:

  • Aquasports center with beach gear and watersports equipment
  • Fully-equipped Club HAL children’s playground
  • Free beach chairs
  • Volleyball, shuffleboard and horseshoes
  • Par course trail with exercise stations
  • Network of nature trails with interpretive signs
  • Bridges across dunes for beach access
  • Designated Wild Bird Reserve (you won’t find signs to it)
  • All facilities meet and exceed ADA requirements including beach and jitney trams
  • Hard-surfaced pathways connecting venues

3 half moon bch bottom

Half Moon Cay Part II

Half Moon Cay-3

Thanks to HAL’s Digital Workshop, I can show it to you now

I also provide much more detail about where and what HAL’s Half Moon Cay is. The real name of the 2,400-acre is Little San Salvador, which Holland America purchased in 1997 and shares with some Carnival Cruises.

This was an uninhabited island, 17 from the nearest landfall. With nine miles of beach, the island is little developed except in a 45-acre section bordering the mile-long crescent-shaped bay near the tender dock,. There is no cruise dock here.

The Half Moon Cay name is based not only on the crescent shape of the beach here but Holland America’s logo, which depicts explorer Henry Hudson’s ship, the Half Moon. From my point of view, they could just as well name it Paradise Beach or any combination of descriptive terms and they would be accurate.

I’ve seen most of the Caribbean’s major beaches and many out-of-the-way ones, so I feel qualified to say this one is truly spectacular, no hype.

Since we visit Half Moon Cay almost back to back, there to Ft. Lauderdale and then back again, I’ll wait to describe the facilities in that post. Let shut up and let these images show you the island.

Half Moon Cay-4   Half Moon Cay-11

Half Moon Cay-9   Half Moon Cay-6

Half Moon Cay-5   Half Moon Cay-7

   Half Moon Cay-14   Half Moon Cay-15

Half Moon Cay-12   Half Moon Cay-22

Half Moon Cay-23   Half Moon Cay-27

None of these images do justice to the beach.  Will try to do better today.

A Maasdam Day-At-Sea

Maasdam underway at sea

From acupuncture to a casino slots tournament

Today was exciting and informative. Holland America offers everyone the chance to turn their cruise into a learning experience by offering demonstrations, classes, and seminars in four diverse areas.

The subjects are Explore Our World (travel talks), Food & Entertainment, Technology (digital workshops) and Wellbeing. Our daily newsletter, called Explorer, lists each day’s topics. Fortunately, the same 60-minute sessions are repeated several times during a cruise since many classes are held simultaneously.

Since I went the culinary route last time, I make my way downstairs for a Wellbeing seminar on “How to Lose Weight Through Acupuncture.” The burning question in my mind is why acupuncture on a cruise ship? That question along with many others is answered by MacPherson Jaegerson, the Maasdam’s MSTOM Certified Acupuncture and Chinese Herbalist NCCAOM.

Maasdam Cruise
MacPherson Jaegerson

Acupuncture: No Points for Me
Jaegerson explains that traditional Chinese medicine, which has been around for thousands of years, has helped millions of people when more modern methods fail. Her treatment program begins with a free consultation to determine each person’s needs and goals. Then she decides which approach to take: whether to use acupuncture needle or herbal medicines or a combination of the two.

It is an interesting talk. Ironically, most people are here seeking relief from seasickness and little interest in weight loss. I decide to book a consultation. Hey, it’s free after all!

Our meeting is not what I expect and I am totally unprepared for what she tells me after I explain my goals and answer her questions about my often hectic lifestyle. She says she will not take me on as a patient unless I give up a full week of the cruise and spend it sleeping. Sleeping!

HA! Who would write my blogs or take my pictures? And I would miss so much I’ve never seen, which is the point of being here. I politely respond I need to think about it. But she already knows my answer.

Her theory, probably accurate, is that I need to completely recharge in order for my body to function better. So afterwards I will make a better effort to sleep as much as I can but still go as much as I want.

Maasdam Cruise

A Poor Sales Pitch
I still have another class to attend today, a seminar in the fitness center about “Secrets to a Flatter Stomach.” What a disappointment! Ruurd Halverhout, one of the Maasdam’s two personal trainers, starts by explaining the importance of exercising three to four times a week (nothing new here) and good nutrition, which he cites as being more important than exercise. He advocates eating all you want for breakfast followed by a smaller lunch and even smaller dinner, basically the opposite of the way most of eat today.

Then he begins to stress the importance of detoxification, of cleaning the body from the inside out. Ruurd says detox is necessary because the liver can be overworked and water may infuse the fat around our lymph glands, which makes us jiggle when we walk or raise our arms.

Only detox, not exercise, will cure all our evils. And he has the magic pills to sell us that will accomplish that. Just take two pills each morning, with a month’s supply costing $100.

This whole thing is nothing but a sales pitch. And since the trainer is not completely forthcoming, he is setting people up for failure: He never mentions that a genuine detox regimen requires giving up things like caffeine, red meat, dairy, alcohol and gluten. Detox isn’t easy at any age but especially not for cruisers between the ages of 40 to 80. I know, because I’ve done a real detox program under medical supervision. I wish it was as easy as taking two pills a day.

slots tournament sign   slots linda playing
The promise of wealth                                                                     Linda losing her $20 entry

The Slots Tournament
I decide to push health and well being off the front burner for now and head to the Casino to compete in my first-ever slots tournament. The rules are simple: pay $20 and wait for one of the tournament machines to be free. Then I work the one-arm bandit for 200 spins. The person who ends up with the most points at the end of the tournament wins.

I score almost 3,000 points, which may sound good, but many others are far ahead of me. The current leader has more than 10,000 points. Just think what kind of jackpot they might have won if they were playing normally. The tournament’s top prize is $500.

The Casino hostess offers me the chance to buy 400 spins for the price of 200, a two-for-one. It was fun but I pass. Surprising how what a short time it takes for 200 spins, lasting just long enough for Tim and me to share a free glass of wine.

The Maasdam’s program for our days-at-sea can make them full of learning and experiencing new challenges, or we can just relax by the pool reading a book. I love the fact that we have that kind of choice.

By Linda O’Keefe

What Is Your Favorite Waffle Topping?

Peanut butter and banana is another possibility

Since the Eggs Benedict Dilemma post is such a hit, here are some more breakfast ideas from the Maasdam breakfast buffet we’re taking home. This time it’s from the Waffle Bar.

waffle with blueberries
Waffle with blueberries

Personally, I’ll take a waffle over a pancake or French toast anytime. Not only do waffles sit a lot lighter in the belly, you can actually taste the waffle toppings because they’re not overpowered by the batter, as in a pancake or thick French toast.

Making waffles at home is easy these days. Seems like every time I look in a newspaper, waffle irons are on sale and their prices keep decreasing, some as low as $15 or $20. So there’s no barrier to making your own.

But you need a deep waffle iron to match what the Maasdam produces. Notice how thick these things are! It may require a commercial waffle maker, which we’ll research when we have unlimited free wireless all the time back home.

waffle with cherries
Waffle with cherries

What makes a good waffle? We can tell you what the waffles are made from but not the exact proportion of everything, at least not yet. The fixings: Flour, milk, egg yolk, melted butter (not margarine!) and a pinch of sugar. We believe a key ingredient to the waffles airiness is not only the thickness of the waffle maker but not filling it to the top. Leave a little space for the waffles to rise.

We’re working on getting the exact measurements. Feeding 1,250 mouths keeps a chef busy. Send me a message in a couple of days and I’ll let you know what we find (offer expires Dec. 17, 2010, the end of our cruise).

Waffle with peaches
Waffle with  peaches

The toppings I’ve already suggested peanut butter and sliced banana. It could even be good old peanut butter and jelly. How about cooked apples and cinnamon? Chocolate and whipped cream? Sliced pineapple? Bananas and chocolate sauce? Pears with chocolate sauce? Strawberries and whipped cream?

(In having Linda check this before posting, I learn chocolate sauce and whipped cream are available at the Waffle Bar. But you have to ask for them. If the presence of chocolate sauce was public knowledge, people might form lines to put in on their French toast, bowl of fresh fruit and who knows what else.)

Have a favorite topping of your own you’re willing to pass on? Send it to me and if I receive  enough of them, I’ll share them in a later post.

waffle with strawberries
Waffle with strawberries

Unwelcome in St. Thomas

Crown Bay 1
Balcony view from starboard side—inside cabin walls look better

Maasdam
exiled from Charlotte Amalie, which is nowhere in sight

What does the Virgin Islands Port Authority (VIPA), which owns and operates all public seaports in the Virgin Islands, have against Holland America? Or the West Indian Company Dock, which owns the cruise dock at Havensight, St. Thomas’s best cruise port?

Here in St. Thomas, we are marooned at a new cruise dock far from Charlotte Amalie and all its attractions. Some might call it Hell but its real name is the Crown Bay cruise dock, which has the forlorn feeling of a quarantine facility. Few people man the port and many of the stores either are not open or are vacant, seemingly abandoned.

Consider the huge, empty Jumbie Bay and Visitor Bar large enough to function as the main cruise terminal facility. Like much of this place, it is deserted. The numerous restaurants and shops that Crown Bay advertises on its web site simply don’t exist; neither do the links to them on http://www.viport.com/cbc/index.html. This may well be the worst cruise facility in all the Caribbean.

crown bay 2
Balcony view from port side—and you paid extra to see this?

With only two other cruise ships docked in St. Thomas at Havensight on this day, it makes no sense why we also are not docked there. Mooring space obviously is available. Or, at the very least, why isn’t the Maasdam anchored just offshore of Charlotte Amalie where we can be tendered in and set ashore almost in the middle of the city, as on my last HAL cruise to St. Thomas not so long ago.

At our isolated leper colony of Crown Bay, the island scenery consists mainly of commercial facilities, such as the 20-acre Crown Bay Cargo Port filled with scores of red containers that are a lousy substitute for the red rooftops of Charlotte Amalie.

crown bay 5
This is all of Crown Bay; note lack of people

Curious about why we’re outcasts, I check with two sources. The woman at the Maasdam’s Front Desk seems apologetic; the tourist board rep stationed in a small shed on the dock obviously is tired of hearing such questions and complaints. Both explain we are isolated here because the Virgin Islands Port Authority says this is where HAL must dock now and forever more.

Seems to me HAL’s mid-size ships are being discriminated against while the gigantitus vessels of other cruise lines enjoy priority. Whatever the reason, HAL is stumbling badly on its promise of “A Signature of Excellence.”

Crown Bay 6
Ever seen a cruise port parking lot with so few cars before?

As for our own day the Crown of Thorns Point, we arose at 6 a.m., looking forward to exploring St. Thomas on foot. However, heavy cloud obscures the sky and rain appears imminent. We have no incentive to go into Charlotte Amalie and pay $8-$10 for a taxi (one way) to update our photo files.

In the afternoon, the sun finally emerges but I’ve lost all incentive to visit Charlotte Amalie. Crown Port has one saving grace, a small convenience store called Love and Joy that offers unlimited internet for $4 if you have your own laptop. This is how I’m able to make multiple blog and twitter posts this afternoon. Convenient wireless service is the only positive thing I can say about being docked in St. Thomas.

As we depart Crown Bay and the Maasdam makes its short journey out into open sea, the lush green island and gleaming white sailboats and fishing boats anchored beside it are a poignant reminder of how beautiful St. Thomas can look, compared to the industrial slum where we docked for the day.

crown bay 3
Finally!  A good view as we depart.

If HAL can’t negotiate a better location than Crown Point, it should boycott St. Thomas. The shopping is no better or different there than on every other island we’ve visited. As for Magens Bay, continually promoted as one of the world’s top 10 beaches, that rating is misleading because it is decades-old. Many far better beaches have been discovered since then.

St. John is a far superior choice for superb beaches, particularly Trunk and Maho Bays. St. Croix has more interesting historical architecture because its two main cities, Frederiksted and Christiansted, haven’t been demolished to build strips malls for more jewelry stores.

When it comes to outstanding beaches, it’s hard to top the clean, gorgeous white sand of Half Moon Cay. And passengers can enjoy their day without the same risk of crime that might befall them at a public beach on St. Thomas. Not only is the island’s crime rate almost 13 times greater than the U. S.  national average, a teenage girl on a cruise was shot and killed this past July while riding in a tour bus near Coki Beach.  Authorities at the time said they believe she was an unintended target, caught in the cross fire of two rival gangs.  On Half Moon Cay, something like this would never happen.

We didn’t visit St. Thomas on the first segment on our 35-day cruise and we never heard anyone complain about missing it. Instead, we heard several wishing they could stay on the ship for our third and final segment when the Maasdam visits St. Croix.

HAL tries to put the best face on the Crown Bay situation but what it says is kind of sad in the Explorer, our daily bulletin: “… there is also a shopping complex in Crown Bay, which has a variety of shops similar to Havensight.” Hardly. Havensight has more than 60 shops and many more nearby. Crown Bay is a failed mini-mall that echoes like a deserted building.

More importantly, the Explorer makes it sound like shopping is the main reason for cruising the Caribbean. Maybe it once was but not anymore. You can find better bargains on the Internet.

How about this as the ultimate St. Thomas insult to HAL. I’ve been told the Maasdam will be the only one visiting St. Thomas on New Year’s. Guess where the Maasdam will be docked? The same old Crown Bay ghost town, better suited to Halloween.

How is that for another slap in the face to “A Signature of Excellence?”

Note:

Those who have docked at Crown Bay, please send comments:
1) Whether you disagree or agree that the Crown Bay cruise facility ranks among the Caribbean’s worst cruise port based on location and facilities.

In terms of Caribbean ports regardless of where you are docked
2) How important is a St. Thomas stop to you?

I want to publish these responses. Please indicate if I can directly quote you in my posts.
Thank you!

crown bay 4
What it felt like to be abandoned at Crown Bay

Curacao Shopping

Maasdam Cruise

A few stores actually carry some interesting items

Bon Bini (warm welcome) to Curacao, largest in both size and population of the ABC islands of the Dutch Caribbean. Curacao boasts an amazing array of colorful Dutch architecture that blends well with the natural beauty of the dry, rugged island.

The floating market where locals gather to buy their fresh fruit and vegetables is a work of art in itself. Oddly enough, this line of floating produce platforms is only a short walk from stores such as Benetton, Diesel and Lacoste Boutique. Curacao has done such an admirable job of blending traditional with new, the transition is barely noticeable as you walk through Willemstad’s different shopping districts.

But since the Maasdam is docked on the Otrobanda side, my first stop is there, at the relatively new Renaissance Mall located inside Rif Fort. The large oblong open area within the Fort’s walls is lined with a mini-mall consisting of open air cafes, business offices, coffee bars, restaurants, boutiques and upscale shoe stores such as Birkenstock. The shade trees and table umbrellas provide a unique ambiance that reflects island life. It’s also home to the recently built Renaissance Curacao Resort & Casino.

cur renaissance square
Courtyard at the Renaissance Mall

Leaving the Renaissance Mall, I pass a group of local vendors selling paintings, clothing, bags, hats and the usual array of touristy artifacts. Unlike other islands, there is no harassment or pressure from any of the locals wanting to make a sale. Not a single “Hey lady, come take a look—it cost you nothing!” What a pleasant surprise.

Later, back on board the Maasdam, I will overhear several people discussing the gifts they found at this group of vendors and how pleased they were with the variety of merchandise and the prices.

I still have yet to explore the Punda side, so I walk the Queen Emma Bridge connecting Otrobanda to Punda. I come to love this bridge because of the way the whole thing is able to swing away on huge hinges and go from perpendicular to paralleling the Otrobanda shore. Warning blasts warn when the bridge will close and guard rails come down to stop pedestrians whenever the bridge opens to allow freighters through. Yet a few hapless tourists (cruise passengers?) seem to get stuck on it. I can’t help laughing when I see them impatiently waiting to get off.

Looking to find stores that carry more than the usual same old tourist fare, I turn to the left after reaching the Punda side. As I walk the busy waterfront street, dodging traffic and steady streams of pedestrians, I see Maravia, a jewelry and sculpture shop. Unfortunately it is not open but peering through the window I can see beautiful works of turquoise and bronze. According to a sales clerk in one of the other stores, Maravia customizes all her artwork, both jewelry and sculpture, and everything is handmade.

Walking into Little Gifts, I expect to see displays of mugs, t-shirts, shot glasses and the like. Am I wrong! Instead, there are racks of washed soft white cotton eyelet dresses, skirts, blouses, tanks, capris and shorts. The material is 100% cotton so it will shrink some, admits the clerk, but everything is no iron. Little Gifts also carries children’s sizes as well. The price of every piece of clothing I ask about is $39, with kid’s prices half that. A truly perfect store for a little gift.

Down the block, I walk into Ackermans, a fabric store with bolts of cloth hanging from the ceiling to the floor. Bright colors, stripes, plaids, and brocades–you name it, Ackermans probably has it. But you’ll be interested in the merchandise only if you can sew.

Maasdam CruiseWith my sewing abilities ranging between little and none, I next visit The World’s Closet, a small boutique with some the most unusual jewelry I’ve seen so far in the Caribbean: Bracelets, necklaces and earrings, all reasonably priced between $5 and $150 for designs I have not seen anywhere else. The World’s Closet clothing is more typical of an upscale department store in the U.S. in terms of variety, quality and prices.

Iguana Too is a small store combining the usual touristy fare of t-shirts and hats but also an ice cream bar. Although the one-price $16.96 t-shirts are of higher quality than usual, at this point I am so hot and tired I would buy a big bowl of ice cream, pay the t-shirt price and find it reasonable.

Maasdam Cruise   Maasdam Cruise
Iguana t-shirts                                                 Christmas placemat from Mr. Tablecloth

Trying to watch the tummy, I bypass the ice cream and head over to Mr. Tablecloth where Battenberg tablecloths, runners, placemats and napkins abound. I feel like I have been transported to tablecloth heaven: every size, shape and style, along with Christmas décor. A 14 x 20 table runner is $28, regular placemats are $6.50 and Christmas placemats go for $9.50. A beautiful silk placemat with rose colored sequins can be yours for $35. Pillow casings and cushion covers are also available at Mr. Tablecloth.

A few doors down are several Jewelry stores. Freeport Jewelers and Gifts carries the complete line of Tag Heuer sports watches as well as Italian gold designs by master John Hardy. Also in stock are Hublot Big Bang watches and diamonds by Hearts on Fires that claims to use the world’s most perfectly cut precious stones. Freeport Jewelry also carries more upscale jewelry and watches along with crystal and porcelain. The prices are not outrageous and I see some items on sale.

As I head back to the ship, the sun is setting but I notice Queen Emma Bridge is not open. So I take a ferry instead. It drops me off close enough to the Maasdam for a leisurely stroll back to my stateroom. Exhausted, I desperately need a shower after another day of window shopping. Nothing of interest yet we can’t usually buy at home, or almost every other port.

By Linda O’Keefe

Curacao Photo Tips

 

cur cover-1

Willemstad appears like a wedding cake on steroids

Willemstad, the capital of Curacao, has to be the prettiest port in all the Caribbean. Dating back to 1634, it boasts hundreds of mansions and commercial buildings in the classic Dutch  style.  This distinctive architecture gives Willemstad considerable cultural and historical significance, which is why UNESCO in 1997 declared the entire city a World Heritage Site, one of few such designations in the Caribbean.

The Dutch buildings typically are painted in bright blue, green and yellow and often framed with white trim, reminiscent of cake frosting. Willemstad contains many outstanding  subjects like these, best photographed at only certain times of day. Here’s my guide about what to shoot, when and where; including the green and white building locally known as “the wedding cake.”

Background:
St. Ana Bay divides the city of Willemstad into two distinct sections. Punda, on Willemstad’s east back, is the older district and contains the government offices, the more upscale shopping and most of the best photo opportunities. The cruise ship dock is on the west bank, known as Otrobanda, which also has quite a few good photo subjects.

Start from the ship’s top deck
: This high vantage point gives you many unusual perspectives. In the morning, the light is on the Otrobanda side, which is at your feet thanks to the cruise dock location. Photograph the city from bow to aft, taking both wide angle and telephoto shots. Most of Punda will be still in the shade, though you may have good sun on the famous floating market—also your first photo stop. If the ferries are running, take one across St. Ana Bay to Punda. The Otrobanda ferry terminal is next to the cruise ship dock and the Punda ferry dock is just down from the floating market. Leave the more distant floating bridge until later.

curacao from ship-13          curacao from ship-14
Always shoot verticals and horizontals

Floating Market This iconic landmark, near the customs house, consists of a line of wooden Venezuelan boats displaying the city’s freshest fish and produce. The market, open before daylight, is covered with mostly plastic tarps to protect the produce, the sellers and the shoppers from sun and rain. To begin, concentrate on what each boat is selling as possible photo subjects. Don’t overlook the people, too. Locals at the floating market are accustomed to photographers, yet it never hurts to ask.

floating market-2      floating market-1

After reaching the last of the boats, take the bridge immediately on your left. This will allow you to use the morning sunlight, which is on the back of the boats, not on the produce side. This is a better view than you would expect, with lots of color and sometimes action, too, as men row small boats shuttling produce between boats. To take advantage of the  sun when it does shine on the colorful exhibit of fruits and vegetables, return about two hours before sunset. You may have to wait a short while for the sun to get at the perfect slant but better to be early because tall buildings block the sunlight far too early.

Scharloo: The bridge from which you photograph the floating market in the morning also leads to a neighborhood of wonderful old mansions in a section known as Scharloo, also part of the World Heritage Site designation. To be honest, I have photographed this area only in the afternoon since sunlight is on “the wedding cake” mansion only in the afternoon. There are equally good subjects morning subjects as well, though I can’t document them.

If you have plenty of time, take the first road on the right you encounter. To be honest, the number of photo subjects on this walk are few. However, after a short walk you will reach a yellow mansion on the left I consider one of the best reconstructed buildings on the island (afternoon shot). This street ends at a main thoroughfare where you’ll see some excellent architectural styles as well.

cur wedding cake-1   cur scharloo-1
Which of these mansions is the “wedding cake?” The green one.

Once you reach the main highway, go left; then take the first road on your left. Among the first buildings you’ll encounter on this street is an oblong, elaborately decorated green and white building introduced to me by a tourist board rep as “the wedding cake.” You will find no sign designating it as such.

On the Maasdam cruise, the building is undergoing some renovation; so no telling what it is being turned into or what it will be named. Continuing on this street, you’ll encounter old mansions in all the popular colors—purple, blue and yellow, all on the right. Those on the left have the morning sunlight.  The first road this street intersects with will take you back to the floating market if you go left.  But feel free to explore the rest of this relatively small district.  

Queen Emma Bridge:
Affectionately known as the “swinging old lady,” this floating pontoon bridge is the only route for pedestrians to cross the channel dividing Willemstad. The city uses a floating bridge instead of a permanent structure so cruise ships and huge oil tankers can transit in and out of St. Ana Bay. When a ship needs to enter or exit, the bridge disconnects from Punda and almost its entire length swings to the Otrobanda side.

While it is quite a humbling sight to be at the waterfront when one of the huge tankers passes through, the prime location to capture the giant ship with Willemstad in the background is from your ship’s highest deck.

But back to Queen Emma Bridge itself. Photograph this Caribbean one-of-a-kind throughout the day since the background will change from Otrobanda in the morning to Punda in the afternoon. When you walk its length, take varied horizontal and vertical images that include people as well.  Also shoot the bridge on show to capture the side of it to show the series of pontoons that keep it afloat.

cur queen emma-1
Queen Emma Bridge with Otrobanda in background

You’ll notice electric lamps placed in the middle of the series of metal arches that line the bridge. These lights do not provide enough illumination for an interesting night-time photo subject compared to when the metal arches were wrapped with strands of  seemingly brighter Christmas-type lights. Now, that was a picture worth taking. Maybe this new lighting system will be, too. I just didn’t have time to experiment and see the results.  

Punda waterfront: The waterfront’s main commercial street is the iconic image of Curacao. Its narrow but tall series of buildings were built by Dutch merchants who made built them so high because they served as offices, warehouses, stores and living quarters. Each of the adjoining buildings this a different color, most in bright shades but some also surprisingly bland. The best known is the bright yellow Penha building, definitely worth photographing as a single subject while on the Punda side.

cur punda day-1        cur punda nite-1

Best time to photograph the entire line of buildings is the afternoon, the later the better.

Your best straight-on view is from the Otrobanda side. Be creative. Shoot horizontals and verticals. If you use a wide angle lens to capture all the buildings in a single frame, sky and water will dominate the picture and the buildings will look like miniatures. Now is the time to take advantage of your camera’s panorama mode. Or stitch together a series of close-in views for a panorama in Photoshop.

On this 35-day voyage, the Maasdam does not leave until after dark. Unfortunately, the sun sets sooner than I expect and I miss the chance to shoot the Punda at twilight from the Otrobanda side. The lights on buildings are not as bright as the photo above indicates. I used a slow speed with a tripod.  This is the one time that having a lot of water in the photo is a good thing since it reflects the lighted waterfront and makes the picture far more interesting. This is another good opportunity to make or stitch together a panorama.

Finding other photo subjects
: There are many more good picture opportunities on the Punda and Otrobanda sides to find on your own. Such as Punda’s Fort Amsterdam, worth visiting in morning and afternoon. And the fort at the mouth of St. Ana Bay on the Otrobanda side, both AM and PM. Finding unexpected and special locations is what travel photography is all about.  

Grenada Harbor Walkabout

grenada-10

St. George’s looks like brand new after Hurricane Ivan

Grenada (pronounced “Greh-NAY-dah”) so reminded early Spanish sailors of the beloved green hillsides above their home port they named it Granada (“Grah-NAH-dah”). The spine of a steep hill divides St. George’s, the island capital. The harbor side of the hill, known as the Careenage, is the most picturesque.

The cruise dock is located on the wrong side at the Esplanade, which has been developed extensively due to the fairly recent opening of the cruise port. The most obvious way to walk over the hill is by sidewalk.

No thank you. The streets of St. George’s are so steep that during the annual carnival, steel band platforms have had to be winched up and down the main roads because motorized vehicles had difficulty hauling and breaking with such heavy loads on the dramatic inclines.

The easiest access to the Careenage is to go through the hill, not over it. The Sendall Tunnel, was built in 1895 a shortcut to avoid contending with all the hilly ups and downs, is not a walking route most visitors would consider since the narrow one-lane road is used mainly by vehicles. This being the Caribbean, islanders figure if cars and minibuses can use the tunnel, they can, too. And do.

I urge Linda to follow me into the tunnel and walk on the right side, hugging the wall. Vehicles go only one-way in the narrow confinement, and it happens to be towards us. Good! That way we know if we might be run over and press ourselves into the tunnel wall when it looks like we might get clobbered.

Foot traffic in the tunnel goes both ways and we sometimes have to stop to wait for a minibus to pass but with most cars it’s possible to pass the person coming the other way. We should have no problems unless we encounter a tourist with a rental vehicle hogging too much of the road.

I’ve always been wary of walking through this tunnel but the Maasdam is in port only until late afternoon and we have a lot to see. I do not tell Linda about my previous misgivings about using the tunnel on foot; she knows I have been here many times and figures I know what I’m doing. No reason to upset her.

grenada-6
An exciting walk through the Sendall Tunnel

We exit into bright sunshine and only two flat blocks from the waterfront. The cobblestone street When our access street intersects with the Careenage, we stand next to the National Library, a brick warehouse is where it has been located since 1892. The library itself was established in 1846.

Many cruise ship visitors don’t come over from the Esplanade to the Careenage since St. George’s harbor remains a working, commercial hub with few attractions for tourists. For me, the harbor’s authenticity is part of its appeal, along with the old homes bordering it.
I have a long history with Grenada and the Careenage, first visiting them about six months before Clint Eastwood, assisted by other U.S. forces, invaded the island in what grateful Grenadians term “The Intervention.”

This is my first visit to Grenada since Hurricane Ivan wrecked the city, leaving most of the structures without a roof. The color of the harbor has changed dramatically.
Previously, there was a much greater variety of colors, delicate shades of yellow, beige and rose. Now almost all of the wooden buildings have been painted white, which makes them glaringly bright. Fortunately, most have reclaimed a red roof of some sort, which helps brighten up the scene.

Expecting to find more reminders of the previous St. George’s appearance, such commonality of color is a disappointment. But I’m thankful how well the town has been restored following such devastation. One battered building right on the waterfront in the center of the Careenage has yet to see any reconstruction. The stone dwelling, basically an empty shell, starkly illustrates how badly St. George’s suffered.

grenada-7
A structure on the Careenage still to be rebuilt. It is a
good indicator of how St. George’s suffered from Ivan.

Several large wooden boats are taking on cargo to transport to neighboring islands. The diversity of supplies is intriguing. One boat is filling its open bow with 20-gallon propane tanks. I assume these are empty the way one man on a truck platform tosses them to the crewman on the boat. Several dozen cylinders have been loaded already and the men show no fatigue.

Another boat is loading sacks of potatoes and onions. These heavy loads have to be tossed up and caught as well. Not that I ever could do this, but appreciating this backbreaking task reminds me how out of shape I am from sitting in front for a computer for sometimes 12 hours a day. Either of these two men could probably win a championship arm wrestling contest.

grenada-13   grenada-12

About half around the horse-shoe shaped Careenage is a statue of Christ looking toward the harbor and with his arms raised skyward. This is the Bianca C Statue, which commemorates the courage of the Grenadian people in saving passengers aboard the 600-foot Italian luxury liner which caught fire in St. George’s Harbor in 1961. Three crewmen were killed in the boiler explosion. The “Bianca C” now rests in 160 feet of water offshore, one of the largest Caribbean wrecks accessible to scuba divers.

I’ve dived this wreck four times. Three were in early morning to avoid the strong current that always picks up during the day, regardless of the tides. And once I visited the ship at night where I found a green turtle sleeping in a hold of the ship. A storm before Ivan broke the Bianca C in two; what might Ivan have done to it?

In the afternoon I make the dreaded steep climb up to Fort George, which has the best panoramic overview of St. George’s for that time of day. Built by the French in 1705 to overlook the harbor mouth, Fort George is now the city’s main police station. The imposing fort supposedly still contains a system of underground tunnels once linked to other fortifications.

grenada-4
St. George’s harbor from Fort George

Fort George is the best vantage point to understand how Grenada and St. George’s harbor were formed. Like many Caribbean islands in this region, Grenada is of volcanic origin. And the harbor of the capital city, St. George’s, is actually the crater of an extinct volcano. Scientists say that the crater was an inland lake before an opening was created to the sea.

So, the Careenage has a long history of violent natural forces, with Hurricane Ivan perhaps the worst in human history. Considering the havoc the storm created, St. George’s is fortunate to have bounced back as well as it has. I decide to get over all that bright white paint blinding me from the surrounding buildings. Thank heaven they and their residents are still here.

grenada-3
Maasdam in front of Grenada cruise terminal