Category Archives: Travel

Curacao Photo Tips

 

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Maasdam in front of Grenada cruise terminal

Holland America’s Free Digital Workshops

  

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Thank them for the increased use of photos in most recent blogs

 While many cruise lines offer computer classes, Holland America operates at a higher level. By partnering with Microsoft Windows, HAL is the first to offer a free digital program at sea. Other cruise lines usually charge $20 a session, and their classrooms and instructors are of varying quality.

The workshops are available on all HAL ships. On the Maasdam, which is a typical setup, our PC lab is connected to a wireless network and outfitted with 16 new 17-inch Sony laptops with the latest Windows software . Frank Barcelona, the “techspert” during my 35-day cruise, has been well-trained by Microsoft.

Frank not only knows the programs inside out, he is current on the latest developments throughout much of the digital world. A patient and methodical teacher, Frank has turned my days-at-sea into an unexpectedly enriching and productive time.He focuses on the practical applications of Microsoft Live for tweaking, storing and sharing photos of our trip, which keeps his 20-seat classroom packed and sometimes has standing
passengers lining the sides of the room

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Thanks to Frank, I discover the wonders of Microsoft Live Writer, a program intended specifically for blog posts. Now my layout as well as writing are done offline, to be uploaded into my normal blog post templates whenever I go online. This has made the process easier and faster. Having to paste photos into the template using the ship’s sometimes slow Internet speed is incredibly frustrating and sometimes doesn’t work. With Live Writer, the page is complete before I ever sign on.  Microsoft Live is available for free download at microsoft.com.

This class also is going to make life easier when we return home. I’ve hesitated to upgrade to Windows 7 after fighting with the maddening quirks of Vista. After a few days, I realize I’m using Windows 7, which seems as user friendly as XP.  Moreover, Frank says that with some versions of Windows 7 you can even go into XP mode to work with particular programs.

The Microsoft Windows classes are another way HAL distinguishes itself, providing useful activities on either days-at-sea or in port, since different classes are offered four to six times a day, with an hour set aside for Frank’s help on our projects. The schedule makes Frank one of the busiest people on the Maasdam.

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Large flat screen monitors make it easy to follow course instructions

What the classes cover:
Offered from morning until early evening. the classes last for an hour followed by a 60-minute break.

  • Edit your cruise photos
  • Turn your cruise photos and videos into a slide show
  • Getting your photos out of the camera and into the computer
  • Advanced editing of your cruise photos
  • Sharing your cruise photos via email and the Internet
  • PC safety and maintenance
  • Learn fun ways of staying connected with instant messaging and webcams
  • Learn the basics of staying connected through social networking
  • Understanding the basics of your digital camera
  • Learn what PC is right for your lifestyle and how to find the best offers
  • See how Windows 7 can simplify your PC and your life

HAL’s Digital Classroom program sure beats the belly flop contests offered on some other cruise lines.

Don Stewart, The Man Who Made Bonaire Famous

 

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Don and Janet at Habitat, on our cruise lunch stop on Bonaire.

Captain  Don Stewart, Bonaire Dive Pioneer
For days a number of people on the Maasdam have talked of nothing but Bonaire and theie chance to snorkel or dive the island’s famous close-to-shore reefs. Linda and I won’t get wet with the others. Instead, we are having lunch with Captain Don Stewart, the dive pioneer who made Bonaire’s underwater world internationally famous.

More than that, he took the first concerted steps anywhere in the Caribbean to protect the island’s fragile reef system, which has become the basis for most Bonaire tourism. While dive operators throughout the Caribbean and even the Florida Keys in the 1970s were still throwing out anchors on each dive, crushing great clumps of coral each time they did, Don spearheaded a campaign to have permanent dive moorings placed at each dive site. That way the boats only needed to tie up to the moorings to unload their divers.

We are meeting Don at Habitat, the dive resort he founded in the 1970s and in which he still remains a minority shareholder. As it turns out, this is a good day to be on dry land with Don. For the first time since I’ve come to Bonaire in 1975, the island is experiencing a thunderstorm, a real frog strangler.

Shortly before noon, right on schedule, Don Stewart and Janet, his fiancée and sidekick for 28 years, enter the open air Rum Runner restaurant. I have been trying to figure out a special way to greet the 85-year old Bonaire legend. Since I last saw him he has become an honest-to-god Knight of the Netherlands. But I immediately forget about his “Sir-ness.”

This is the first time I’ve seen him since he had his lower right leg amputated several years ago. Don, rather than wear prosthesis, opted for an artificial leg with much more flair. Always fond of pirates and dressing like one, Don now has a peg leg. And the massive black crutch he leans on is a perfect replica of one used by Long John Silver in the various Treasure Island movies.

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Capt’n Don lives out his pirate fantasy in ways he never imagined

Instead of being dressed as a pirate, Don is wearing a black shirt with white fringe I gave him between 20 and 25 years ago when he and Janet appeared at Habitat as cowboy and cowgirl for their weekly slide presentation on Bonaire’s dive history. The shirt doesn’t quite fit anymore; too hard to button thanks to all the “muscle” he’s grown from using his crutch.

“I hope you are impressed that I am wearing this thing,” he says with his trademark, abrupt greeting as he touches the fringe. “Can I take it off now? It’s too hot to be wearing it.” I’m honored he still has the garment.

He raises his leg and puts his foot—uh, peg foot?—in the chair beside me to examine. “You know how much that always hurt, for 25 long years after the accident. It was a lucky day when I met that doctor who owned an axe and told me “I’ll take that pain away for you, Capt’n Don.’”

So what did you do with the leg, I ask him. Bury it?

“As soon as they removed my leg, they wrapped it up and took it out to Janet. Now it’s buried in the small pyramid with two doors, one for me, one for Janet. You could say I have a foot in the grave, already,” he jokes.

Don Stewart, always with the jokes, always just a little outrageous. It’s why some people have a hard time taking his ideas seriously. And why one noted writer called him “macho, arrogant and bumptious,” which he declared was a great compliment.

Always surly, he is now an official “Sir”

But not just anyone is knighted, as Don was just a few years ago. Formally, his title is Knight (Dutch: Ridder) within the Order of Orange-Nassau, founded in 1892 on behalf of Queen Wilhelmina of Netherlands. This is considered the most active military and civil decoration of the Netherlands, according to Janet, who can be relied on for factual information.

This is the highest of his many awards, which include the DEMA Reaching Out Award, the highest award in the dive industry; he also was inducted into the Diving Hall of Fame, which includes Jacques Cousteau, inventor of the aqua-lung; Hans Haas, an underwater explorer years before the more famous Cousteau; and Lloyd Bridges, who portrayed Mike Nelson on TV’s “Sea Hunt,” the first series about diving.

So significant has Don Stewart’s impact been on Bonaire that in May of 1992 the island celebrated his 30th anniversary on Bonaire with a reenactment of his arrival. When Capt. Don stepped ashore–accompanied by many old dive buddies–he was met by about 500 applauding Bonaireans and the Lt. Governor, Bonaire’s highest ranking official, who officially recognized Capt’n Don’s contributions to Bonaire.

Don laughs deeply. “I wonder if the Lt. Governor knew when he made that speech that when I anchored here in 1962 that I was nothing but a boat bum who possessed only 63 cents and a 70-foot topsail schooner.”

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Bonaire and Don found each other when he was 36. He’d joined the Navy at 17 during World War II, then afterwards patented a method that made it possible to fit screens into sliding glass doors, floated the Mississippi on a raft, and tried to become a Hollywood actor but claims “Lloyd Bridges upstaged me!”

Realizing he was never going to be another Errol Flynn (an actor he resembled closely) and “bored silly by instant success,” Capt. Don sold his very successful screening company, set sail for the Caribbean and floated around for almost 2 years before stumbling upon Bonaire.

Only a few thousand people and a lot of goats and cactus lived on Bonaire then. However, it didn’t take Capt. Don long to realize that this desert island surrounded by an oasis of magnificent, reefs located an easy swim from shore offered plenty of diving potential.
Very quickly, Capt. Don and Bonaire diving became synonymous. Anyone who looks through the dive publications of the 70s will recognize the stories are not really about Bonaire.

Instead, they focus on Capt. Don and what he says about Bonaire’s diving: “Some of the best in the world,” he claimed.

This former screen salesman and budding actor said it so convincingly and so colorfully that no one doubted him. However, Capt. Don has always made it plain that he never guarantees more than 85% truth; having people pick out the 15% that’s hogwash is game he’s always loved to play. “I knew the diving was good here but I never really thought it the best in the world,” he has admitted in recent years. “It’s just that everyone believed me.”

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With Bonaire a diving mecca, Capt. Don decided to build a special resort designed just for divers, so he invested everything he had to open his own resort in 1976. Called Capt. Don’s Habitat, it was one of the Caribbean’s first resorts built by and especially for divers.

It was at Capt. Don’s Habitat that the concept of “Dive Freedom,” where divers could dive anytime they wished, literally 24-hours a day, was initiated. It was another Caribbean first.

Yet Capt. Don was always more than a hotelier. Long before Habitat he began preaching what he calls his “man/sea concept” which holds that “It is our right to realize an unrestricted use of our world seas, for pleasure, for knowledge, and economic advance, while ensuring that our human trespass shall leave no mark.”

A one-man Greenpeace, Capt. Don carried out his words with some considerable deeds. He had spearfishing banned on Bonaire in the 1970s as well as eliminating the need for reef-destroying anchors with the first mooring buoy system in the Caribbean, perhaps in the world.

When Bonaire decided to designate its reefs a national Marine Park, they were still pristine. Because the good Capt’n and many of the island’s other dive operators (whom Don had trained) along with the visiting divers who believed in his philosophy made it so. Yet the first guide to the Marine Park never hinted at any of Don’s contributions. He was not a trained scientist and moreover he was an outsider, he wasn’t Bonairean or Dutch.

It sometimes has been amazing how little known Capt’n Don’s contributions have been recognized on Bonaire or by its people. Some always will view him as a comic character who wore pirate garb or cowboy duds to Habitat parties, drank too much (he stopped drinking 16 years ago) and told lots of bawdy tales.

Some on Bonaire were jealous of this 5th grade drop-out who’s gained so much international attention when they have not; of course, they never had Capt. Don’s acting background to create their own flamboyant persona.

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Linda videos green iguanas (lower right) basking on coral ledge
beside Habitat’s Rum Runner’s Restaurant

Capt. Don’s days of serious diving, however,  ended in 1980 when he injured his foot and ankle in a salvage accident. He remained at Habitat until 1987, when he sold the resort and became a minority shareholder.

The hotel still uses his name and his famous symbol of the skull and cutlass to form the diver’s flag that he originated almost 5 decades ago. (Capt. Don has no affiliation with Curacao’s Habitat, which does promote many of his concepts though not his name.)

Capt. Don appears at Habitat once a week to narrative a slide show on Bonaire’s early days of diving. For information, http://www.habitatbonaire.com/.

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Today, Capt. Don lives in a modest home at his plant farm, Island Grower. He shares his kunuku (farm) with Janet Thibault, his lady and sidekick since 1982. His house has no electricity. In Bonaire’s hot sunny climate bathed by the trade winds, Don uses solar and wind power to charge his stockpile of batteries.

If the home is unpretentious, the plagues, trophies and other wall hangings there are amazing. Among the many environmental awards is a framed 1977 Sunday front page comic strip from the New York Daily News in which Dondi is learning scuba from “Captain Don” on the island of “Bonairy.”

The comic strip panels impart a very strong marine conservation message, something that made Capt. Don particularly pleased because of the comic strip’s 4 million readers.

Janet interjects, “Remember how you broke his Dondi frame? We never have been able to get it fixed.” That was a bad day, when we took the frame outside so I could photograph it in the sunlight. A sudden gust of wind flattened it against the gravely ground. Janet smiles. “Not really your fault. It was the wind.” I know I will never hear the end of that day, even though it happened last century.

Still bursting with energy, Don continues to push ahead on new projects. He already has helped make cyclists aware of Bonaire’s ideal landscape: flat at one end, hilly at the other. Now he is looked for a new group to attract. “Maybe it should be alcoholics,” he says, noting his own problem in that area. “We could have them come here to dry out. Or maybe just drink as much as they want. Still don’t have a handle on that.”

On a more serious level, he is advocating a conservation-based comic book for the island’s school children so they will learn from an early age the importance of Bonaire’s reefs to their futures.

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Best of all, Don finally is doing what his fans have wanted for years: publishing his exploits. Don always has been an avid writer, but his style is as unconventional as is his life. Although he tried for years to interest someone, no agent or publisher would touch his material. So, like Benjamin Franklin and Arthur Frommer (at first), he is self-publishing. See his titles at http://captaindonbooks.com.

His novel Sea Trauma—the name reveals the book’s strong conservation theme—is one he has worked on and promoted since I’ve known him. The parts of Sea Trauma I read long ago convinced me it had real potential.

Sir Don growls at me, “Still can’t believe you got someone to publish a book called 99 Uses For A Dead Cockroach. Disgusting! Who wants to read about cockroaches?” I remind him how rare a book that title is, and how lucky he is to have it in his collection.
Our three-hour lunch passes much too quickly. When it’s time to leave, he waves and hobbles to his jeep in the rain. “We don’t say good-bye” he calls over his shoulder. I remember the custom. With no good-byes said, it means you’re welcome back.

I wouldn’t know how to say good-by to Don, anyway. After all this time, it’s still hard for me to pinpoint all his achievements and my affection for him. Perhaps the underwater plaque placed at Don’s Reef, a dive site on Klein Bonaire dedicated to Capt. Don on his 30th anniversary, best summarizes how many of us feel about Capt’n/Sir. Don Stewart: “From all of the marine life his efforts have helped to save, and from all who have enjoyed the wonders of the sea…thank you.”

In this instance, a “thank you,” no matter how sincere, doesn’t seem sufficient.

RIP: Captain Don Stewart, the man who seemed larger than life, died at the age of 88 on May 3, 2014. Stewart, who always liked to tell a good story, claims he receive a medical discharge in World War II because he was diagnosed with terminal lymphatic cancer. Captain Don is buried in the same plot where he interred his amputated leg shortly after the surgery removing it. That’s Don, who tried never to do things the way most people do.  Those who knew and loved him should find this video a fine tribute.

Laundry Schedule for a 35-Day Cruise

Keeping Our Scents Fresh

Actually, the what-to-wear factor on a 35-day Caribbean cruise isn’t difficult. The real issue is how to have enough clean clothes without packing a dozen suitcases. Holland America doesn’t care about how many suitcases we bring aboard. And since we’re driving to Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale, we truly can bring as many bags as we want, even as many as a dozen. It’s a matter of the size of your stateroom. Except for a suite, not many staterooms can accommodate luggage that can fill our rental vehicle.

If you’ve traveled to the Caribbean before, ever noticed a self-service laundry? Although there are quite a few of them in the islands, I never recall seeing one, or if I did, remember its location. Because even if I had, I don’t think I’d want to roll down the gangplank a suitcase of dirty clothes to a laundry dry near the end of the cruise pier. Efficient, but not convenient or classy. And certainly a waste of time while in port.  Out of curiosity, on the first 11 days of our cruise where we have been in a port almost every day. I looked byt never saw a Laundromat anywhere.

A Great Convenience—For How Long?
Of course, most cruise lines like Holland America offer laundry service and dry cleaning. But some HAL ships like the Maasdam offer self-service laundry facilities, a necessity for long-term voyages in order to avoid paying a per-garment cleaning charge. The washers and dryers on several decks stay open 24 hours a day.

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Three stacked washers and dryers in a
laundry room on the “Maasdam” 

In our situation, laundry day is going to be every 2 weeks, beginning as the Maasdam returns to Fort Lauderdale to discharge and pick up new passengers. Competition for the laundry facilities is minimal, even towards the end of the cruise. Linda is able to get one washer immediately, a second 10 minutes later and the third—and final washer available-in just another 10 minutes.

A special low-suds detergent is provided free, and it is precisely measured by a dispenser. If you use more than the quarter of a cup dispensed, the washer will bubble over with suds, which will make the floor slick and create other possible disasters.
The washers take 30 minutes for each load, the dryers about 45 minutes. She says the three loads done on the ship would be two loads at home, that these washers take a smaller load.

The Maasdam will soon undergo a renovation. Let’s hope it will keep the laundry facilities for guests on what HAL calls extended “Collector Voyages.” It’s only fair.

Caribbean Christmas Decorations

Best tree ornaments I’ve ever seen are at Barbados cruise port

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All these Christmas decorations are made from sea shells

Christmas ornaments are good souvenir from anywhere since they remind you over the years where you’ve traveled. But good Christmas tree ornaments are hard to find in the Caribbean.

Except in Barbados. If you ever visit Barbados between October and April, take the time to seek out Daphne’s Sea Shell Studio located in the cruise terminal shopping area. Don’t look for a store but probably a lone vendor seated under a sizable Christmas tree placed on a table.

The table is covered with small baskets of the most amazing Christmas ornament, perhaps as many as 20 distinctive items, made almost entirely from sea shells. You will find all the popular Christmas themes, including toy soldiers, snowmen, angels and lots of Santa Claus himself. The care in making them and then hand-painting faces on most of the items individually is amazing.

There is real ingenuity and artistry from the original designs in the how the shells are glued together. And which colors of shells are chosen for a particular subject. Some large white shell decorations, such as the split nautilus with a gold ribbon, really don’t carry an obvious Christmas theme but they are perfectly appropriate for the holidays.

I wish Daphne was present at the display so I can talk to her. All I can learn about Daphne  from the saleswoman is that Daphne is about 65 years old, has been making these ornaments for years, and now several of her daughters are helping her. They make the decorations over a period of five months, from May to the beginning of October. Late fall through early spring is the prime selling season at the Barbados’ port.

The following photos describe more about the originality of these decorations than I can possibly say. Sorry, no sales are made on the Internet. You need to be in Barbados to purchase these decorations, which makes them all the more special.

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Barbados Photo Safari

In clouds and drizzle, of course               

The Maasdam’s Barbados Photo Adventure shore excursion with a local photo pro to take us off the beaten path really appeals to both Linda and me, but on docking in Barbados we discover we’re not there on one of the island’s famed 360 days of sunshine. Instead, the ssame gloomy weather of Martinique is in the famously blue skies overhead. I’m astonished. In my many previous trips, I’ve never seen such depressing skies.
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The Scotland district of Barbados on a cloudy day.

How can a decent photo safari take place in this weather? The 18 of us on a small mini-bus are about to find out. Even our tour leader, Barbadian photographer and producer/director Ronnie Carrington, cheerfully admits it will be a challenge but is optimistic.

As we drive into the countryside toward the east side and the always windy Atlantic coast, Ronnie explains that the Barbados landscape is built on a series of terraces, created as the land rose out of the ocean, in different stages, over millions of years. It’s why even the poorest landowners always have a “terrace view.”

Why Students Should Always Ask Questions

We stop at the entrance of a great estate with a long driveway lined by tall stately palms. Ronnie asks us to take a photo of the driveway which, in this sunlight, is not going to look like a black and white shot. Most wander off to their own thing, ignoring Ronnie, trying to take as many different subjects as possible. Yet he has a reason for making this our first photo stop.

Linda and I and a few others hang back to confer with Ronnie. I hand him my camera. “I’d like to see what you’re seeing. Do you mind?” I ask him. He quickly agrees and takes a photo from his point of view. Looking at various points of view is the object of this lesson. His emphasis is on the tall trunks and palm fronds as seen from below, not the driveway. It’s mostly a silhouette with a hint of blue sky behind. Nice. The lesson is to take whatever stands out in the conditions you’re presented.

Barbados Traditional Chattel House
As the bus proceeds, Ronnie tells us how slaves were given land to build on but sometimes their plantation owner would give them short notice to move. So islanders began constructing small wooden “chattel” houses that easily could be taken apart, relocated and rebuilt. Once Barbadians were able to purchase their own land, they could expand their homes by adding one room at a time in the back, one clearly defined segment at a time. clip_image003
Old chattel house with three additions  and a new car.

These traditional wooden homes gradually are being replaced, but a few fine examples remain. Ronnie takes us to a tiny village with a chattel house that has a unique style, a blend of old and new. The two front sections are of wood, the next two of concrete. Unfortunately, under the overcast skies, none of the newly painted color stands out. Ronnie explains why many homes are not painted as well: paint costs $58 a gallon.

Blue Snails In A Dumpster


Returning to the bus, someone notices some unusually large snails clinging to the inside of a 55-gallon blue metal drum. Ronnie informs us they are African snails, which cause considerable agricultural damage.
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Can you tell the weather make us desperate for subjects!?

With colorful subjects so scare without sunlight, a group of us gather around the blue drum to photograph the snails. Well, they do have a colorful background and they are related to Barbados, in a round-about-way. Can you tell we are desperate for something to shoot?

We start roaming again, passing several fields with the distinctive brown and black Barbados sheep out to pasture in amazingly green fields. The cloudy skies actually make the scene more photogenic than it would appear under the glare of the usual mid-morning sun.

Bathsheba
I realize Ronnie is saving the best for last, the high-point of any visit to the Atlantic coast or Barbados: the Bathsheba area with its iconic shoreline of random boulders, perhaps more impressive than the Baths on Virgin Gorda because each huge piece of limestone can be seen as an individual object, not part of a huge, overwhelming clump.

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The sun, surprisingly, decides to appear. Bathsheba’s long sandy beach with its famous hit-and-miss rockline begins to show its true colors. Since this Atlantic shore is one of Barbados’ most recognized symbols, we camera buffs couldn’t be happier.

The Rum Punch Recipe
Just before arriving at the beach, Ronnie suddenly reveals a secret. “Want to know the recipe for the best rum punch?

Repeat after me: 1 of sour
1 of sweet
3 of strong
4 of weak”

Using these measures as ounces, sour is lime juice, sweet is syrup, 3 is dark rum (from Barbados of course!) and 4 is your favorite fruit juice, though Ronnie suggests keeping the recipe simple with orange juice.

“The longer it mixes, the better it tastes. If I make a gallon, I put it the refrigerator and let it sit for a month,” Ronnie says.

Now, that’s a long time to wait for a good rum bunch. And Ronnie knows he has us hooked to taste a good one. Stopping at a rum shop in Bathsheba is another part the tour but the spot of rum is optional. Ronnie promises we will like it. I believe him.

After three decades in the Caribbean, I consider myself a connoisseur of rum punches. Not a difficult role since most rum punches are dreadful swill. It’s why I rarely drink them. But as Ronnie promised, this rum punch comes as close to divine as a rum punch possibly can.

The last half-hour of the tour has the sunlight we craved for the entire morning. Even if the sun hadn’t shown up, the photo safari would be a success.  I’m touching on only a few of the tour’s highpoints, but it illustrates how Ronnie smartly merged Barbados’ history and culture into our photo stops.

Martinique: Pompeii of the Caribbean

It’s St. Pierre, Martinique

 Today we join our first Maasdam tour, and I am particularly interested in it because it will allow me after 15 years to revisit St. Pierre, where each and every of its 30,000 inhabitants—except one—died following the eruption of Mount Pelee in 1902. St. Pierre is located on the east coast about 45 minutes north of Fort-de-France, too far for the volcanic explosion to have impact there.

 Although St. Pierre was designated by France as a “Ville d’Art et d’Histoire” in 1960, the town of is not a frozen-in-time archaeological relic. Today, according to our guide, St. Pierre has about 5,000 residents (a net loss of 25,000) who rely on fishing and agriculture for their income. 

This is a big contrast to St. Pierre at the beginning of the 20th century. It not only was the thriving capital city of Martinique, it was called the “Petit Paris” of the West Indies due to its economic and cultural vitality. The people who died were, literally, the victims of politics. 

This was because early May was the eve of elections. And, according to our guide, the sitting governor used soldiers to block the single road leading in and out of the city so everyone was forced to remain so they could vote for him.  The residents of St. Pierre knew Mount Pelee was going to erupt. The volcano—still active today–had given all the warning it could: spewing sulphur and jolting the countryside several times. Nonetheless, everyone was kept under house arrest, unable to flee..

 When the volcano erupted at 8 a.m. on the morning of May 8, 1902, some people were praying in church. Others were asleep at home.  In perhaps 3 minutes or so, a cloud of ash erupted from Mount Pelee and covered the city.  The hot ash ignited wooden roofs and sides of buildings blazed in fire throughout much of the town. Yet the people probably were dead already at this point, killed by the volcano’s poisonous fumes.  Almost instantly. Petit Paris was transformed to Petit Pompeii.

Is there a moral to this catastrophe? Or only blind, dumb luck? Just one person survived the explosion: A man thrown in prison overnight for drunkenness due to too much “demon rum.” He was protected  by the walls of his thick stone cell about the size of a small mausoleum.  

When rescued from his cell, the prisoner had severe burns over part of his body and needed hospitalization. After recovery, the man (whose named is variously reported as Cylbaris, Syparis and Cyparis) celebrated his fame by traveling the world in the sideshow of Barnum & Bailey Circus. This real-life “survivor” not only became rich from circus life, he did not pass away until the 1950’s.  

 Today, more than a hundred years later, St. Pierre looks like it still is recovering from a war. Although many structures have been rebuilt, quite a few of the old stone constructions exist in various phases of destruction, resembling the burned out remnants of a bombing raid. And the new town of St. Pierre growing up around the old one seems somehow more tired than the empty stone cubicles sometimes framed by modern buildings.  

 Our tour bus stops for a 30-minute at the small Volcanological Museum containing relics found in old St. Pierre.  Our guide does not mention—although the sign is in plain view—that the ruin of a great 800-seat theater is only a half-block away.  Perhaps she does this for a good reason. Our group is traveling on two buses, and a fair number of people are not that good at climbing or walking on building foundation stones that are wet due to the drizzle that harasses us everywhere.   

 Thanks to a previous visit, I know what to look for. It turns out Linda and I are the only ones who visit some of the actual ruins of old St. Pierre, leaving the others to view pictures of the destruction.  First we climb the stairs to the hallways and stage of a once elaborate 800-seat theater. The theater was built in a grand style, constructed as a smaller replica of the theater in Bordeaux, France.  The citizens of Bordeaux, in turn, referred to  St. Pierre’s building “Little Red Riding Hood.” 

To me the most striking aspect of what befell St. Pierre is a statue inside the theater that was prominently displayed during my last visit but now shunted to the side so that most visitors overlook it.  Although badly weathered, I find this a haunting statue: It is of a woman who appears to have been instantly calcified during the eruption. Struggling on her hands and knees, her face cries out in agony, symbolizing the pain and loss of everyone that day in St. Pierre.

At the back of the theater, on the left, you look down on more ruins that surround the famed jail cell. It is easily identified by its rounded roof and the fact it is the only unblemished structure amid the rubble. Access to this second site, not well marked, is located on the main road a short distance from the theater.

Today, Mount Pelee is actively monitored by the government so inhabitants of St. Pierre will have good warning if /when the volcano threatens again.  Which it probably will at some point. Brave to rebuild St. Pierre or foolish?

 Consider all the people in the States who– with government permission–rebuild year after year in proven flood areas, knowing they will be flooded again; and probably yet again. Seems we should become a smarter species.

Well, let’s not get morbid! Rum was instrumental in single happy ending of St. Pierre. And in my Barbados post tomorrow, expect a rum punch recipe you are guaranteed to like because you get to choose your favorite flavors.  Rum, remember, was invented in Barbados. It’s considered some of the Caribbean’s finest, if not the best.

Martinique, Well It IS a Rain Forest

But it also can rain anywhere, all day

It’s me, Linda, here to tell you about our trip to  Botanical Gardens of Balta on Martinique. 

It is a dark and stormy morning as we disembark the Maasdam to find our guides for our first ship-sponsored shore excursion.  I come armed with two umbrellas and a rain jacket to hex away any threat of liquid sunshine.

After standing around waiting for what seemed to be much longer than it is we’re escorted to an awaiting tour bus.  The bus seats are comfortable though they won’t recline and the AC works excellently. Everyone locates a seat and the journey began.  And so did the rain. 

Our guide quickly renames the tour to “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” trying to dissuade any bad attitudes in our group–her “sweeties,” she calls us.  All of us sweeties turn out to be real troopers. 

The Balta gardens are located at the edge of the rain forest but it’s not raining when we arrive and make our way down the steep parking lot to the garden entrance. An old Creole stone house serves as an entryway. A comfortable entryway it is, too, with rattan furniture in the sitting area that opens to a veranda and the terraced gardens in the back.  

Down the steps we go where a concrete path discretely wound through a tropical canopy of flowering plants and trees.  The foliage is amazing. Elephant ear plants are almost as large as that of a small elephant.  Unfortunately, it starts to rain almost immediately. Tim heads back to the porch, since he only has an umbrella but asks that I stick with the tour. 

This happens to be my first day using our new video camera and I am determined to get some good footage even in these conditions.  The term “come hell or high water “ comes to mind but after waiting about 15 minutes for those ahead of me to maneuver their way carefully down the steep, slippery slope,  I change my mind.

The gentleman in front of me turns around and I can tell by the look in his eye he too is planning to escape from our guide, something of a control freak.  I stare at him as water drips off the hood of my rain jacket, the camera bag tightly clutched beneath it.

I announce, “I’m bolting.” He simply nods and follows me back the porch where I locate Tim photographing almost a dozen hummingbirds eating from a feeder at the edge of the verandah, well out of the rain. I am able to get some amazing footage of those beautiful tiny birds.

Suddenly the rain seems like it has been a blessing in disguise.  For as soon as the others began returning, the birds promptly leave. We never would have noticed them or the birdfeeders without the cloudburst.

  by Linda O’Keefe

Picture Perfect St. Barts

 

All the yachts in Gustavia Harbor illustrate what a wealthy playground St. Barts is

Few of us probably could afford to live in postcard land

(St. Barts in the French West Indies is one of only two islands we visit twice on our 35-cruise.  For our first stopover, I’ll cover island background and what we did as normal cruise passengers.   Linda describes what shopping in the high end stores is like.)

The middle of November is still well before the high season on St. Barts (also called St. Barths), which is one reason the Maasdam is able to tender us ashore and tie up at the postcard-sized cruise terminal at the mouth of Gustavia Harbor. Long and narrow St. Barts, just 8 square miles, is not a regular port of call for most cruise lines.

The reason: locals don’t want to be inundated by a lot of cruise passengers.  The island’s narrow winding roads already are crowded enough. The idea of numerous large tour buses rounding the island every time a huge ship is in town is frightening.  Not only to the locals but tourists like me who have driven those roads. This is why only relatively small ships like the Maasdam visit here and why the huge megaships likely never will.  

Politically still a part of France, St. Barts is an island that seems to have built its tourism on a brilliant business model. Long ago those in power apparently decided the best way  to differentiate St. Barts from the rest of the Caribbean was cater primarily to the wealthy and avoid trying to attract masses of tourists. The island has done this by charging prices only truly prosperous people can afford.  Makes no difference whether St. Barts’ beaches are the best (they’re far better on neighboring Anguilla) or whether the island is tropical and lush (it’s so dry cactus thrive on St. Barts), the point is to make the island one of the Caribbean’s most exclusive. The Plan worked.  With few commoners around to gawk at or pester them, the beautiful people were attracted to St. Barts, particularly media celebrities and rock stars.

Since mass tourism is not the main objective, St. Barts has no cruise dock. This is why we have to make a 15-minute tender trip from the Maasdam to Gustavia, capital of St. Barts. The trip ashore provides a good coastal overview and we arrive in Gustavia just before 9 a.m., about an hour after the Maasdam docked. At this “early hour,” few places are open for business.  Restaurants serving breakfast are open, the tourist bureau with its plethora of information is open but many stores won’t start their day until 10.

The previous time Linda and I were here, we made the mistake of renting a car to see as much of the island as we could. The rental car was too much hassle, especially because of finding parking in Gustavia and the time-consuming process of pickup and drop-off.  We did visit some other parts of the island but never saw as much as Gustavia as we wanted. This time we plan a leisurely, walking journey around Gustavia Harbor since we know we’ll back.   

Well, not so leisurely at the start. The first thing we want to do is climb to a good overlook of Gustavia Harbor for photos. The maps from both the Maasdam and the local tourist bureau, strangely, do not contain all the streets we encounter as we transit the harbor. So we stop to ask a French couple in the process of opening their store.

Many from the U.S. might not expect the French on St. Barts to be very helpful since there is a decidedly negative stereotype of how the French behave towards Americans.  Happily, the residents of St. Barts are naturally open and friendly to outsiders. That makes sense considering most of their exclusive clientele are from around the globe. 

Still, in order to make bridging the anticipated language problem as painless as possible, I say “Pardon” to the couple. I point to Rue Thiers which the map indicates is well off to the left but should lead us to the Swedish bell tower, which I also point to on the map. Behind the bell tower is the iconic place for a panoramic shot of Gustavia Harbor.

The man responds in English. He admits, “I do no know the names of all the roads. What is it you are looking for?” I tell him, “The Swedish bell tower.”

He says, “Oh, then follow the road here going uphill.” The road we are standing on but which is not marked on either of our maps.
I thank him both in English and French.  Then Linda and I trudge uphill, to the perfect viewpoint, which is the road just above the Swedish bell tower.  There are higher elevations but trees block the harbor view.

(The background on St. Barts seems important to understand how the island works but it, has made this post waaay too long and I’ve hardly started.  At the same time, it is necessary to appreciate Linda’s accompanying post about her  shopping experience. The rest of our St. Barts day will have to wait for another time. It’s getting late and tomorrow we arrive in Martinique, where we take our first organized tour. Can’t be late for that!)