Thanks for visiting and we appreciate your support.
We will be traveling starting April 14th with very limited access to the internet until mid May. I will hope to make a few posts along the way provided I can get to the net. Hope to see you again when we get home.
Wouldn’t it be great if we could move tropical seas, palm trees and great beaches to Northern Europe? It’s not going to happen, but the next best thing is to move the Netherlands into the Caribbean. Welcome to Curacao.
There are a number of European influenced islands in the Caribbean but no place expresses it as well as this little Dutch island. While Aruba has succumbed to run-away Americanization you can still stroll the streets of Willemstad, sit in a café for a Cappuccino or stop in a small bistro for lunch and it isn’t hard to think you are in Amsterdam. Add to that the great beaches and resorts, balmy weather and turquoise seas and you have Curacao.
We’ve been visiting Curacao for over twenty-five years and while we have seen explosive growth in upscale resorts and residential neighborhoods, the old world charm has remained intact. Over that period of time there was a huge migration in of Dutch retirees, much to the consternation of the locals, and that drove up the cost of living, but it didn’t negatively impact that sense of old world charm.
In the center of Willemstad is a channel that is part of St. Anna Bay and the primary way of getting across is the Queen Emma Pontoon Bridge. The bridge opens by breaking its connection on one side and an outboard motor pushes it out of the channel anchored by a hinge at the other end. Fun to watch and fun to ride.
On the northwest side of town is a neighborhood that has been restored and turned into a resort, visitor center and museum known as the Museum Kurá Hulanda & Sonesta Kura Hulanda Village & Spa. Where you can walk cobblestone streets and visit cafes and shops. There is also a floating market in town where boats come over from Venezuela, only 70 miles away, to sell produce (current conditions in Venezuela have probably eliminated this business). The island also boasts the Curacao Sea Aquarium and Dolphin Academy Curacao which is worth a visit.
If you like to dive, snorkel or just relax on the beach, you have come to the right place. There are dive shops everywhere and great resorts around every turn. The currency is the Netherlands Antillean guilder and the language is Papiamentu which is a blending of Dutch, Spanish and local Indian. Greetings are Bon dia – Good morning. Bon tardi – Good Afternoon. Bon nochi – Good Evening/Good Night and Danki – Thank you, Di nada – Your welcome.
We just left St. Croix having not been there in over fifteen years. We scheduled this trip last summer, long before hurricane Maria made a visit. Our original plan was to visit some old haunts and see who was around. Unfortunately this trip became more a series of comparisons between hurricanes Hugo and the recent Maria.
First let me say that we really love St. Croix. In fact in 1989 we were beginning plans to move there but in September Hugo ripped thru. At the time we had an office in Gallows Bay and after Hugo it was six weeks before we heard from anyone there. Even then the only working telephones on St. Croix were at the Buccaneer Resort because they had their own generators and satellite link.
On this recent trip we had a number of discussions with Cruzans regarding which storm they thought was worse. Generally people that were adults at the time of Hugo and continued to live on the island thought Hugo was a more destructive storm. Younger people were emphatic that Maria was worse. It looked like there was some “my storm was bigger than yours” thinking.
Major hurricanes are nothing new to the Caribbean and while some people will use disasters like Maria to push a case concerning climate change there is a long history that tells a very different story. If you examine what we know about hurricane history you realize that, with the exception of a volcano or two and an occasional earthquake, hurricanes are the most destructive force in the region and simply a fact of life in the Caribbean.
In August 1772 a hurricane swept across St. Croix devastating the island.
Alexander Hamilton was a resident at the time and wrote in a letter
I take up my pen just to give you an imperfect account of the most dreadful hurricane that memory or any records whatever can trace, which happened here on the 31st ultimo at night.
It began about dusk, at North, and raged very violently till ten o’clock. Then ensued a sudden and unexpected interval, which lasted about an hour. Meanwhile the wind was shifting round to the South West point, from whence it returned with redoubled fury and continued so till near three o’clock in the morning. Good God! what horror and destruction—it’s impossible for me to describe—or you to form any idea of it. It seemed as if a total dissolution of nature was taking place. The roaring of the sea and wind—fiery meteors flying about in the air—the prodigious glare of almost perpetual lightning—the crash of the falling houses—and the ear-piercing shrieks of the distressed, were sufficient to strike astonishment into Angels. A great part of the buildings throughout the Island are levelled to the ground—almost all the rest very much shattered—several persons killed and numbers utterly ruined—whole families running about the streets unknowing where to find a place of shelter—the sick exposed to the keenness of water and air—without a bed to lie upon—or a dry covering to their bodies—our harbour is entirely bare. In a word, misery in all its most hideous shapes spread over the whole face of the country.— A strong smell of gunpowder added somewhat to the terrors of the night; and it was observed that the rain was surprisingly salt. Indeed, the water is so brackish and full of sulphur that there is hardly any drinking it…
I am afraid, sir, you will think this description more the effort of imagination, than a true picture of realities. But I can affirm with the greatest truth, that there is not a single circumstance touched upon which I have not absolutely been an eye-witness to.
Respectfully, Alexander Hamilton
It was also probably the reason Hamilton relocated to the continent.
Eight years later in October 1780 another storm literally leveled Barbados and devastated three other islands with a loss of life above 20,000. Both those storms were estimated to be category five.
Literally hundreds of these storms have ravaged the Caribbean over the years. in 1819 Hurricane “San Mateo” was a major hurricane. It moved over the Virgin Islands causing 101 deaths then over Puerto Rico the night of September 21st. The storm sank a lot of ships in San Juan and it is estimated that this storm destroyed most of the houses and crops in most of Puerto Rico.
1825, July; Hurricane “Santa Ana” is one of the strongest hurricanes on record in Puerto Rico. Caused 374 deaths and 1,200 injured.
On August 22, 1850 a major hurricane impacted Havana, Cuba, destroying fruit trees, many structures and disrupting shipping.
“San Ciriaco” hurricane in 1899 is the longest lived storm on record in the Atlantic. It produced major damage in Martinique, St. Kitts, and killed 3,369 people in Puerto Rico. It went on to produce serious damage in the Dominican Republic, and continued thru the Bahamas.
The good news is that each year the people of the islands continue to improve the quality of their structures, add more and more shelters and are also taking steps to bury vital utilities. While people bemoan these storm’s devastation, the truth shows the death rate from these disasters continuing to decline all over the Caribbean. Property damage may be on the rise mainly because there is more and more building going on.
On our recent visit to St. Croix we saw a lot of damage to buildings, uprooted trees, roads strewn with power lines and broken utility poles but also, after four months a great deal of improvement has also been reported. On the lesser populated east end of the island the power crews were still restringing electric lines. There they were still going up on poles but that is because there just aren’t enough properties to justify the expense of going underground. Elsewhere on the island a lot of utilities and major power lines have gone underground.
After Hugo in Christiansted there was major damage to structures. Most of the boardwalk along the water was seriously damaged or swept away. Boats were swept up into the towns streets and buildings showed a lot of roof damage. After Maria, while there was damage to roofs and some buildings, the boardwalk remained in pretty good shape even though some of the docks suffered. Most of the old decking wood had been replaced with new composite materials some years ago and seemed to fare much better. It also remains impressive how some structures, several hundred years old seem to survive completely intact storm after storm.
After these major disasters, people start talking about how will they ever put things back and will the island ever be the same again? After Hugo a popular T-shirt on St. Croix was a quote from Nietzsche “That which does not destroy us, makes us stronger”.
After having had experience with major hurricanes and the recovery afterwards on St. Croix, St. Thomas, Antigua, St Maarten, Jamaica and Grand Cayman it is obvious to us that these islands will always come back, very often better than before. Besides being home to many people, these islands are just too beautiful not to be visited and there is just too much money to be made welcoming tourists back to this paradise of sun, sand and turquoise waters.
Our recommendation is that if you are thinking about a Caribbean vacation keep making plans. The impacted islands will be back in business sooner than you think and they could certainly use the business.
Please Note: All pictures in this post, except the Hugo damage, were taken on the Jan. 2018 visit. Many of the hotels were not taking guests, including The Hotel on the Cay, or are occupied by FEMA or power linesmen working on the island.
St. Thomas was the very first Caribbean island I ever visited and that was over fifty years ago. Over the next couple of years I had reason to go back often and even today I get back to St. Thomas every couple of years. I also frequently return to those times on St. Thomas in my daydreams.
Back in those days a fifth of Cruzan or Brugal rum sold for 85¢ and it seemed like duty free was really almost free. The waterfront was packed with small island freighters advertising for cargo to places like Antigua, St. Lucia, Barts, Montserrat and other exotic islands. The beach at Megan’s Bay was so beautiful and often almost empty and it seemed to cast a spell over locals and tourists alike. Even so my favorite spot was a sandy cove east of Charlotte Amalie around a point of land. The beach was Morning Star with a great patio bar, changing rooms with lockers and a half dozen rooms right on the sand. The reef itself was a moderate swim from the shore and I spent hours floating over its coral heads – it was my first encounter with snorkeling a coral reef and I have been enchanted by them ever since.
Back in the sixties Charlotte Amalie was a vibrant town with a good nightlife and included a great club called Lion In The Sun. There were a number of talented musicians that played there including The Mamas and Papas before they became famous. On the waterfront was a cafe bar called The Green House where John Updike wrote a short story for The New Yorker titled In A Bar In Charlotte Amalie and it was a popular spot to sit and have a drink or two and watch people and boat traffic glide by. For a special evening we would end up at The Caribbean Hilton sitting high above town. I remember sitting out on the pool deck with a drink in hand and looking at the million lights of St. Thomas defining the shape of the island below. Off in the distance the few lights of St. John and the British Virgin Islands seemed to blend in the stars lighting up the night sky. Way off in the distance was the glow from the lights of Puerto Rico.
Much has changed since those days but a lot remains the same. Megans Bay is still one of the world’s best beaches. The Green House is still there but maybe a bit more refined. A massive complex has taken over Morning Star called Frenchman’s Reef Resort but the original beach and reef are still there. Blackbeard’s Castle Resort has become the new destination with its nearness to town with a cablecar riding up the hill from Havensight. No longer do island boats pick up freight on the waterfront and the duty free liquor and shopping aren’t exactly a steal anymore but they are still worthwhile. There is still much to recommend this island.
St. Croix is actually the largest Virgin island but it’s St. Thomas that attracts the crowds to the beach resorts, shopping and nightlife. In fact it is the central port for most eastern Caribbean cruise itineraries. The cruise ships visit and tie up at either Crown Bay east of Charlotte Amalie or The West Indian Company Dock next to Havensight just to the west of town. Getting into town from the Crown Bay, which used to be referred to as the Sub Base area, will require a taxi or one of the tourist buses unique to St. Thomas (currently $4 per person each way from either dock). There is a great walking trail along the water from the docks near Havensight, which goes thru the shops of Yacht Haven and into town. Yacht Haven is an upscale marina with a number of designer shops along with cafes, bars and a good grocery store. It’s also from Havensight where you catch the cablecar up to Blackbeard’s Castle Resort for a drink and to take in the views.
In Charlotte Amalie the main downtown stretches about ten blocks east from the fort along the waterfront. The waterfront road is Veterens Highway and one block up is Kronprindsens Gade with dozens of alleys and streerts connecting the two. When in town take a walk down Creque’s Alley immortalized by the Mamas and Papas in their song by the same name. Stroll down the ten blocks of Kronprindsens Gade for some good duty free shopping or visit the shops, cafes and galleries in the many alleys with names like Drakes Passage. Because of treaties from the time the United States purchased the Virgin Islands, St. Thomas and St. Croix still feature some of the best “duty free” shopping in the islands. The best duty free buys are European goods like Lladro, Rosenthal, Rolex, Dior, L’Occitane as well as duty free liquor where each person can bring back 5 liters duty free to the U.S. (see customs information here).
Take some time to get over to the far side of the island to visit Megan’s Bay, which is consistently named one of the world’s ten best beaches. My old favorite, Frenchman’s Reef beach is still a good choice and the reef is still there. The Frenchman’s Reef resort is also an excellent selection as a place to stay. We would also recommend a visit to the sea life park, Coral World, especially if you have younger children with you.
You can also take a ferry over to St. Johns for the day. St. Johns is the other US Virgin Island and is mostly preserved as a National Park. If you go, don’t forget your beach gear, mask and snorkel as St. John is famous for Trunk Bay with its beach and its laid out snorkeling trails. The shortest route is between Red Hook on St.Thomas and Cruz Bay on St. John. That trip costs only $6.00 each way, takes approximately 20 minutes and runs hourly between 6:00 am and Midnight. A longer ferry route runs from downtown Charlotte Amalie to Cruz Bay on St. John.
Hurricane Update:We stopped in St. Thomas just this January and while on the surface the island seems to be ready for business and is enjoying the return of the cruise liners there is still much that needs to be done. Unfortunately if you are planning on traveling there for a visit you need to be cautious. Many of the hotels are still closed and many that are open are booked by people from FEMA and construction companies. Attractions like Coral World and some water excursions will also need more time to be ready for visitors. While there are plenty of jewelry stores and duty free shops offering special deals just to bring shoppers back, there are a number of shortages that become quickly apparent. St. Thomas has always been famous for its duty free liqueur prices and its extra duty free allowance from U.S. Custom, but as of January, a number of famous outlets are not yet open and prices may not offer any real advantage over stateside prices.
On a cruise this past December we stopped in St. Kitts. It has been a number of years since we visited and a lot has changed. The center of town is The Circus with Berkeley Memorial in the middle of the circle. The Circus was the town’s focus, including nice arts and crafts shops and anchored by the Ballahoo restaurant. On this trip, the Ballahoo was still there, but the shops have been replaced by banks and commercial businesses.
It appears that the Port Zante area has expanded by a number of square blocks and that most of the Circus shops have relocated there. The Port Zante shopping center was developed by a partnership of private developers and the government over a decade ago and, in 2013, a cruise ship pier was opened. The success of the cruise ship project has initiated a pier expansion which will begin in 2018.
While Port Zante has its’ share of duty free regulars like Diamonds International it also has some real local gems that you should seek out. One of the island’s biggest successes over the years has been Caribelle Batik. Started in 1974 they have earned a reputation for quality clothing, wall hangings and accessories. The factory and main gift shop are located at Romney Manor but an outlet store can be found at the port.
While most Caribbean islands have their own rums with associated bragging rights, St. Kitt’s claim to fame has rested on a unique cane distillation. In the 1980s Baron Edmond de Rothschild established a distillery with the intent of creating a unique cane spirit more akin to vodka than rum. This clear, highly filtered spirit was named CSR for Cane Sugar Rothschild and developed a sizable following. In 1996 the distillery was sold to Demerara Rum the distillers of El Dorado in Guyana. Demerara has maintained a presence on St. Kitts and CSR is still blended and bottled here and remains associated with this island.
Points of interest in Basseterre include the National Museum near Port Zante and St. Georges Anglican Church a few blocks up the hill. The church’s outer walls are of heavy stone and the roof is covered in slate and its’ founding dates back to 1635.
Sited on the southwest coast of St. Kitts, about 12 miles from town, is Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. This fortification is a complex of walls, cannon placements and buildings established by the British in the sixteen hundreds to defend the island. It is also the largest fort in the Caribbean.
If you are looking for beaches, watersports and snorkeling, head out to the southeastern tip of the island to Cockleshell Bay and Turtle Beach. The area features nice beaches, windsurfing and excellent near-shore snorkeling. Cockleshell is a popular destination for locals for a day of beach, swimming and picnics. The beach is home to Reggae Beach Bar & Grill that serves good food and drinks. We prefer Turtle Beach for snorkeling but it does have less facilities nearby.
On past trips to St. Kitts we have been lucky enough to travel out to Ottley’s Plantation Inn with local friends for either lunch or dinner. It is a great property that includes a number of guest rooms and an excellent restaurant. On this last visit we learned that Karen Keusch and the Lowells have sold the property but the web site assures everyone that, after the transition, the new owners have promised to keep up the tradition of quality and service.
If you are going to be spending some time on St. Kitts there is regular ferry service over to Nevis which is St. Kitts sister island. The trip is well worth the time as Nevis is less developed than St. kitts and has some really spectacular premium resorts including The Four Seasons .
On a trip this December we passed through Barbados and met up with some old friends. We joined them for lunch at Champers, one of our preferred restaurants on the island. Barbados is a favorite destination of ours and is particularly well known for the quality of its’ restaurants.
Champers is located on Skeetes Hill near Rockley Beach on the south coast, and rests on a point with commanding views of the sea and beach. Sitting on the main floor deck looking out at white
sand, palm trees and ten shades of turquoise water you just know you are in paradise. The restaurant features great food, spectacular views and a very attentive staff, and you just can’t do much better for an elegant dinner or lunch while on the island.
We’ve never had a bad experience at Champers and this time was no exception. When in Barbados it’s a tradition to have flying fish, which I had
(fried with caper dressing) along with an appetizer of coconut shrimp with chili sauce, and both were excellent. Lunch was finished with an excellent warm bread pudding. My wife had West Indian shrimp curry with jasmine rice and grilled vegetables, also outstanding.
We were lucky enough to finish that day sitting on the porch of our friend’s house out at The Crane sipping famous Bajan Rum Punch.
Barbados Rum Punch Recipe:
One part Sour (fresh squeezed lime juice*)
Two parts Sweet (Demerara sugar**)
Three parts Strong (Barbados Rum (Our preference is Mt. Gay Extra Old))
Four parts Weak (Water)
Mix well and add a few drops of Angostura bitters. Pour over ice and add a bit of fresh grated nutmeg to each glass when serving
* Mexican or Key limes are preferred.
**Demerara is a type of raw cane sugar that has a large grain, hard texture, with a pale brown color. A substitute If you don’t have Dmerara sugar on hand, is to use an equal amount of granulated sugar and light brown sugar in its’ place.