Tag Archives: caribbean cruise

Cruise Insurance—Yes or No?



No Bahamas cruises this weekend!

THIS WEEKEND will be an unhappy one for many cruisers. They will be traveling to destinations they didn’t intend—or want—to visit, thanks to Hurricane Irene. Some cruisers will be able to cancel with no penalties, while perhaps the majority will have to put up with a cruise to not-where-they-wanted.

Now is a good time for anyone planning a cruise to consider the need for cruise insurance. Because of more than just Hurricane Irene.

This week has been a bizarre series of natural events no one could forecast. Just as last summer–who could have predicted that the eruption of an Icelandic volcano would make air travel to Northern Europe impossible for lengthy periods. (Which also made it impossible for countless cruise passengers to leave port on time.)

The 5.8 earthquake that originated in Virginia was felt from Atlanta to Maine. And it closed JFK airport for a short period of time. (As one who is in Virginia in an old river cottage 8 feet above the ground, the cautious JFK delay is understandable. Our cottage swayed right and left and the chair I was sitting in started tap dancing. It was like a simulator ride at one of the theme parks, only it was real.)

Now, Hurricane Irene is in the process of plowing through the Bahamas after visiting its destruction on the Turks & Caicos as well as parts of the Dominican Republic. Based on the latest forecast, Irene will spend its next few days bordering the U.S. Atlantic coast with its final destination near Boston. Irene will close many of these airports, making it impossible to fly out.

Airlines are waiving rebooking fees for travelers where Irene caused havoc and made a decent vacation impossible.

Cruise ships, on the other hand, normally depart come hell or high water because of their high overhead. For one, they can’t be as tolerant because each vessel has hundreds, if not thousands, of waiters, stateroom staff, cooks and other crew most other cruisers never know about who receive their main income—not from the cruise line—but from the tips they receive from passengers. And, there are other factors.

Back to cruise insurance: Anyone booking a Bermuda, Bahamas or Caribbean cruise between Aug. 15-Oct. 15 is gambling they won’t have to worry about a tropical storm or hurricane. Cruises normally offer discounts during this time for a good reason.

Beyond seasonal weather problems, there always is the chance of accidents while on a cruise. In Greece, I once watched a family left behind at the cruise dock (they had been waiting for their luggage to be unloaded) because the father had decided to rent a scooter. He was an M.D., who probably thought he could handle any of the family’s medical problems. Normally, he would have been correct. Only, this time he was the problem.

All cruise lines offer their own insurance. Travel agents do, too. And there are other independent insurance companies, too. Many exclude “acts of god” which would include storms, volcanoes and earthquakes. None that I know of state you can cancel because your cruise ship changed its itinerary due to a storm.

Fortunately, more companies are offering the option of Cancel for Any Reason, and that would include your cruise ship deviating from its scheduled itinerary—but only if you know this in advance. Here are the normal requirements for Cancel for Any Reason.

To qualify for this coverage, typically you must buy the of insurance within two weeks after your booking or your first trip payment. This type of policy allows you to cancel your trip for any reason not on the list of “named perils or otherwise covered.”

To insure your trip, you must buy coverage for the cruise’s full pre-paid price. Also, to cancel a trip for a reason that is “not otherwise covered” or in the list of “named perils” you must cancel at least 2 or 3 days prior to departure. 

Cancel for any Reason could require a “co-payment” on your part covering between 10 to 50 per cent of your trip cost, depending on the plan. Or the policy could require none. That’s why you truly need to read the fine print when considering any policy.

A web site I like is one not sponsored by a travel insurance provider. To rely on one insurance company to compare the policies of its competition for you seems like inviting the fox into the hen house.

With over 50 plans from leading insurers to choose from, QuoteWright was voted “Best of the Web” by The Washington Post for its quality comparisons. In their comparison of  Cancel for Any Reason policies from different companies, the links spell out whether the coverage is 100% or 50%, which helps to cut down the time needed to study coverage and policy prices.

In addition, don’t overlook the coverage that you may already have through the credit card you used to book and pay for your cruise.  You did use a credit card and not a debit card or a check, right?


The end of September in 2009.

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 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.

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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.

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.  

Holland America’s Free Digital Workshops

  

microsoft classroom-3

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

.microsoft classroom-1    microsoft classroom-7
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.

microsoft classroom-2
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

 

capt don today-1
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.

capt don pirate and peg leg-1 capt don today-2
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.”

capt don license plate-1

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.”

capt don on side of store-1  capt don divers on ladder-1  capt don dive board-1

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.

capt don linda shoots iguanas-1
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/.

capt don aquaventure flag-1  capt don habitat sign-1

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.

capt don book -1  capt don book CD-1

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.

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.