Holland America Lines has one-upped its rivals by bringing the Le Cirque dining experience to The Pinnacle, its fine dining room. As mentioned in an earlier blog, Le Cirque debuted aboard the Maasdam several weeks ago. It still is not yet available on board all Holland America ships but is expected to be by the end of December.
The search for the menu is one of the hotter topics in cruising, and here the genuine menu is in its entirety, perhaps for the first time. At least we know it’s not published on HAL’s site or anywhere else we’ve looked.
The Le Cirque evening usually occurs once or twice on each cruise. It is an extra fee of $39 per person, and formal attire (coat and tie) is required.
Wine is additional. Single glasses are available for $8 while full bottles begin at $39.
The Le Cirque Menu
As you will see, the menu is limited. There is much to be said for doing a few things perfectly vs. many of them mundanely.
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.
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.
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!)
After a morning of hiking the beautiful hills above Gustavia, we intend for me to shop part of the afternoon. Mistake! Many shops in town are open only from 10 am to 1 pm, then reopen from 4 to7:30 pm.
With the last tender back to the Maasdam departing at 4:30, that didn’t leave much time to check out the upscale, exclusive shops in much detail.
A few stores were open, including Goldfinger, a jewelry store recommended by the ship. When I walked in to take a look around and no one said a word. Not “bonjour,” “hello,” “go jump in the water.” They completely ignored my presence. With my fanny pack and Nikon, I am obviously from the cruise ship or another tourist group. That is fine with me, since no prices are visible on any of the diamonds or the Rolex or Tag Heuer watches. All tags intentionally are turned over. If you have to ask the price of an item, Goldfinger is not for you.
Next, I make my way to the Cour Vendome which I believe means the place of shops or maybe the place of spending. This is where the most impressive shops were but the renovated mini-mall is an unimpressive location for shops such as Hermes, Cartier, Louis Vuitton, Bvlgari and Ralph Lauren.
As I approach the Robert Cavelli store, I hear a man inside say, “I don’t mind spending the money but this is ridiculous!” The entry door is suddenly discreetly closed by the sales clerk. I am intrigued and interested is what is happening.
As I enter the store and begin looking around, I overhear a “May/December” couple and the sales clerk having a three-way exchange. The man is furious that his wife wants a dress costing 700 Euros. The clerk tries to convince him what fine material the dress is made of. At this point the man lolls his head back and rolls his eyes, saying, “Oh brother!”
The young trophy wife stomps her foot and complains, “But I really like it! And I can wear it Palm Beach, too!”. The husband counters, “You could buy the same dress for $100 in Palm Beach. This is crazy”!
Trying not to laugh, I continue to look through the clothes. For 400 Euros, I can purchase an off-white cotton eyelet halter sundress. With the exchange rate (US$1 = 1.40 Euros), that’s almost $600. For the rest, you can figure out the exchange rate easily by simply increasing the price 40-percent.
In Robert Cavelli, a cute white cotton ruffled white shirt that would look great with jeans goes for 700 Euros; a silk floral tank top is 840 Euros; a sweater with tags of material like fringe 1,180 Euros; with a matching tank top for 700 Euros.
Stuart Weitzman Shoes is closed but Lolita Taca is open. There, I can buy the same cotton eyelet dress for 350 Euros (50 less than at Robert Cavelli) but a beach cover up robe goes for 450 Euros! Lolita Taca does have a stunning sequined halter cocktail dress I like, but not at 690 Euros.
At You and Me, a shoes and purse store store, I find a black straw bag for 130 Euros. It looks like something any of us would find for $30 at Target in the States.
A man’s bathing suit catches my eye at Vilbrequim. It appears to be a child’s size because it is so small. Instead, it turns out to be a man’s large. That brings up unpleasant images of how squeezably tight it must be on the average guy. Still, because it’s a white bathing suit with little blue turtles, it really looks better suited for a boy. It’s 300 Euros, big boy’s prices, while kid’s suits start at 280.
In a state of shock, I stumble into Edgar, a store for young men. Just their T- shirts range from 145 to 180 Euros, jeans 285 to 510 , base price for baskets (Converse style tennis shoes) 295. Men’s sports coats average 1000, ties 240, pants 290 upward and shirts start around 240. Please realize these not extraordinary pieces of clothing. Just basic black pants, white pants and gray shirts. All very Gap-like in quality.
At Louis Vuitton, I locate a nice carry-on tote for 1,390 Euros and a pair of Jackie O sunglasses from 285 Euros.
Finally, I end up down the block at Tom’s Shop, The Funny Store where I’m greeted by Zoltar (the mechanical fortune teller in the Tom Hanks movie Big). They have a large variety of things, from beach mats for 14.57 Euros, towels, shot glasses and mugs to pirate flags, magic cards and ice cream. We actually buy something here: a pirate Christmas ornament for our tree.
St. Barts is a good day of fun, shooting pictures, exploring and laughing. Now, on to Martinique.
Yeste3rday afternoon we finally posted blogs covering the past three days, it’s obvious we’ve been having some “technical difficulties.” And we needed to spend as much time as it took to get them straightened out so they won’t reoccur again.
The problem is not the internet service aboard the Maasdam. The satellite link can be fairly fast. The problem is on our end, and after spending an afternoon online it appears we have the kinks worked out.
Unfortunately, the repair process took most of the afternoon. And since we didn’t dock in Road Town on Tortola until around 11 a.m., we didn’t see much of anything. Nothing really to blog about what we did, what we experienced.
Except we found a really good place for inexpensive internet located on the right just outside the gates of the cruise port. It’s in a small building whose main business is renting cars and motor scooters. Called Urban Rental, I never would have found it except someone on the ship recommended it. The sign is small and the “Internet Café” part is secondary. They charged us only US$5 an hour.
You can either rent a computer or connect your own to their wireless. The computer room is well air conditioned but loud: You’ll likely be hearing the owner and his friends outside colorfully discussing everything from politics to insurance. If certain words offend you, consider the internet café behind the Banco Popular just another block down on the right.
Since you’re not likely to be dealing with technical problems on your trip, suggestions about what to do (I’ve been here numerous times before). Take an excursion to Virgin Gorda and the remarkable rock formation known as The Baths where huge boulders created a series of pools along a section of beach. Diving and snorkeling always are good in calm weather, though the British Virgin Islands are not noted for outstanding visibility. Or you can walk an actual hiking trail on Tortola’s Sage Mountain, the highest point in the BVI’s.
You’ll find plenty of shopping just outside the port gates in a series of white tents immediately on the left. They all seem to have pretty much the same thing. Moving farther downtown, Pusser’s Pub is know for its rum and sailing apparel; Eddie Bauer–type garb with a nautical flair.
Perhaps the most original store is Sunny Caribbee Spice Shop and Art Gallery. A Road Town institution in business for over 25 years, Sunny Caribbee sells its own blends of jerk, curry, teas and hot sauces from mild to xxx hot. Two of their best sellers are the Arawak Love Potion and West Indian Hangover Cure, both available in wooden apothecary jars. Check out their wares online at www.sunnycaribbee.com. Their mailing address is St. Thomas, which means surprisingly low shipping costs, including regular U.S. priority mail rates.
Linda and I hope we’ll be able to post daily from now on. If there is another problem, and we pray there won’t be, we’ll catch up with our posts as soon as we can. No more sitting in internet cafes for hours at a time when it prevents us from getting out and about. If we do, we’ll have nothing new to write about. Like today.
Virtually every Holland America Caribbean cruise out of Ft. Lauderdale includes a stop at Half Moon Cay, the cruise line’s private island in the Bahamas. Which is why I’ve avoided short Caribbean cruises on HAL. I’d rather be spending time on one of the islands instead of what essentially is a water sports playground for adults and kids.
So it’s ironic that 3 days on this 35-day cruise will be at Half Moon Cay. Which, after actually seeing it instead of making a biased assumption about it, I won’t mind going back to Half Moon Cay. No way you can see it all in one day and the activities are a capsule of the best Caribbean attractions: horseback riding on a beach, feeding stingrays, mangrove kayaking and fast jet-ski excursions.
Most of all, there is the truly spectacular one-mile long white crescent beach bordered by bird’s egg blue waters. It is a remarkable blue color, which I remember seeing in only one other place, in the Dominican Republic. But that beach was bare of trees where Half Moon Cay’s has a thick shade canopy thanks to the casuarina (Australian pine) trees flanking it.
If you know Caribbean beaches, think a combination of Seven-Mile Beach on Grand Cayman and Grace Bay Beach in the Turks and Caicos. Only Half Moon Cay is better—no high-rise condos or development anywhere except for 15 brightly colored wooden shade canopies clustered in a small section of the beach. They look like mini Bahamian homes, so they fit right in.
HAL is known for appealing to an older age group but construction at Half Moon Cay disputes that. The playground with mini-galleons Linda mentions in her post look new. They are being joined by a huge wooden Spanish galleon under construction well back from the beach. It is large enough to handle scores of kids or adults. Put a big pirate flag on this impressive vessel and it is a definite winner.
There’s another new exhibit on the way, which I’ll tell you about on my next Half Moon Cay visit. You won’t hear much about my third visit there. I intend to spend all my time in one of the shaded beach hammocks.
Seeing made me a believer in Half Moon Cay. Besides all the activities, I know we won’t see a better beach for the rest of the entire trip. Something everyone else will realize at the end of their cruise, whether they’re aboard for a mere 14 days or the full 35.
This is where we go, and when.
I guess I should point out that I’ve paid for this cruise and am not a guest of Holland America or the ms Maasdam. This is cruise is an incredible value, although after three stops I suspect I’ll get tired of Half Moon Cay.