General – This island is divided into two parts, Sint Maarten is the Dutch side while Saint Martin is the French side. It is a favorite cruise destination because the cruise port can handle several large cruise ships at one time.
Where You’re Docked – The cruise ships dock on the Dutch side close to the town of Philipsburg. The cruise ship docking area includes a large shopping village with several food and drink outlets. The Dutch town of Philipsburg is less than half a mile away walking. The town on the French side is Marigot and is decidedly French in character with a number of good bistros and restaraunts.
Transportation – From the cruise dock there is a boat shuttle service that goes directly to Philipsburg for about US$5 one way or US$8 for a day pass. It will require a taxi or a minibus to reach Marigot and you should be cautioned that with several large ships in port traffic can back up badly late in the day returning to the cruise ships, so allow plenty of time for the trip back. Taxi service is reasonably priced with a trip to the other side of Philipsburg costing less than US$5. A minibus to Marigot should be about US$5.
Money – While the two half’s of the island have their own currency the U.S. dollar is welcome on the Dutch side but Euros are usually required on the French side. Giving a 15% gratuity is common practice also.
Port St Maarten has a web site with a schedule of ship arrivals here.
Philipsburg – The main town on the Dutch side with a large beach.
Maho Bay Beach – Located at the end of the main airport runway. People seem to like to stand in the jet blast as planes land and takeoff. There is a bar on the beach.
Marigot – A sleepy town on the French side noted for good food.
Orient Beach – A beautiful beach near Marigot on the French side. Topless and nude bathing is common.
This is somewhat travel related but it is more a commentary on the nature of things in general.
A few years ago at an outdoor art fair in Ft. Lauderdale there was an artist showing watercolors of scenes in the Caribbean. One caught my eye as it was an old house that I thought I recognized and I asked if it was on St. Croix. She said yes and that she had lived there for a while so I bought it. In January of this year we made a trip back to St. Croix and without any real intent I found myself across the street from what I thought was that same house.
I can’t be sure it is the house as much of the house has probably changed over time and the architecture is common in the Virgin Islands, but it didn’t stop me from thinking about these kind of properties and how the island has failed to protect much of its history.
This house sits one street back from the sea on King Street in Frederiksted, St. Croix and is in an advanced state of disrepair. I have spent a lot of time in St. Croix over the past thirty-five years and can remember seeing this particular house a great number of times. I can never remember it being worthy of a spread in Architectural Digest but mostly it was one of the better properties on the street.
A major hurricane swept across St. Croix last September doing a significant amount of damage all across the island but the condition of this particular house appears more the result of time and neglect than that storm. The watercolor, which I believe was painted between ten to twenty years ago, shows it in much better condition than now.
Looking at this house from a historical perspective I am sure that a few hundred years ago this was a large and elegant townhouse in a thriving Dutch colonial town. Virgin Island towns were wealthy places with sidewalks covered with brick colonnades to protect people from the tropical sun and the frequent passing showers. Construction was mostly of locally fired brick with stucco coatings and upper floors were built of heavy wood with tall windows to catch the ocean breezes. Roofs we usually of hip-roof design to prevent hurricane winds from finding something to push against and windows and doors were protected with substantial shutters. Most townhouses also contained inner courtyards or rear gardens for comfortable outdoor living in the shade of mahogany trees.
Today as back than, St. Croix has two principle towns. Christiansted on the Northeast side of the island and Frederiksted on the West-end. Christiansted sits within a protective reef and features a good sailboat anchorage. In addition to housing the government buildings it also has a thriving tourist economy. Frederiksted, which is blessed with a deep water pier and a very attractive beach along the waterfront has struggled for decades just to stay alive.
On that January visit it was obvious that the island government had invested* in improving the pier, nearby support buildings, streets and waterfront parks. Unfortunately this seems to be just a facade on a crumbling town. Just one street back from the waterfront many buildings sit empty. There are few shops and restaurants, the streets are littered and there seems very little to engage cruise passengers when their ship docks here. If you look past the current decay you can catch glimpses of what this town once was and maybe imagine what it could become again but it is going to take a new plan and commitment by land owners and local residents to work a real change.
Consider cruise stops like Costa Maya, Sint Maarten, Roatan Island, and Willemsted. If other Caribbean locations can build cruise piers and entire visitor villages from scratch, why cannot St. Croix simply rehabilitate the town that is already there?
While cruise lines seem to be showing increased interest in St. Croix as a destination, we believe Frederikstead is now the biggest obstacle to developing this business for the island.
* I’m not sure I approve of thinking about government using the word investing when it relates to using tax dollars.
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 .
This island is probably our favorite Caribbean destination. It is one of the oldest English outposts and has been an independent nation since 1966. It also has one of the Caribbean’s highest literacy rates and standards ofliving. . Its’ location puts it deep into the southern Caribbean and east out into the Atlantic so that its western shores are washed by the Caribbean and the east coast is famous for good Atlantic surf. Because Bathsheba, on the east coast, has nothing between it and Africa to block waves coming all the way across the Atlantic it has become the site of some major surfing competitions.
Beaches & Nitelife
Geography places a majority of the activity and hotels on the west side of this island stretching from the northwest coast to the western south shore. Starting out on the northwest coast is Speightstown which features a couple of good places to eat and beach clubs and not far away is one of our favorite restaurants, The Fish Pot. From Speightstown south along the sea, you come to the high rent part of Barbados. This area is dotted with palatial estates and upscale beach properties. The center of this neighborhood is the Royal Westmoreland Golf Course and Sandy Lane Beach. The Sandy Lane Resort is a destination for celebrities and jet setters with upscale shopping at Limegrove Center nearby. Limegrove and the local area also feature a movie theatre, cafes and upscale restaurants. Traveling farther south you pass a
number of good beaches and then the seaport as you approach Bridgetown,. the capital. It is the island’s government center and features a number of restaurants and shopping including the major department store Cave Sheppard. Leaving Bridgetown and again heading due south you find another beach with good resort hotels along with the Garrison and Drill Hall areas. In the center of this is Harbour Lights, one of the island’s destinations for nightlife for tourists and locals alike.
Heading further south you will find resort properties with names like Hilton, Marriott and Radisson dotted along more great beaches along with many smaller local hotels. There is also a nice boardwalk that starts near Bridgetown and winds its way south for a number of miles. It’s a great walk with a number of cafes and restaurants. Near the end of the boardwalk is Rockley Beach. This is one of our favorite areas to stay. There are a number of places to eat from fast food (Chefette is Barbados’ own fast food chain featuring chicken) to upscale eateries, gift and beach shops and grocery and wine stores. The center of this is the Accra Beach Hotel which, while older, is a nice beachfront property. We have also stayed at Coral Sands which is very nice, as well along with several other smaller properties in Rockley. For dining check out Bubba’s Sports Bar, Mojo’s and the Tiki Bar. One of our favorite places in this area is Champers which is a good upscale restaurant overlooking the water.
A little way south down the coast again is the St. Lawrence Gap area, usually referred to as just “the Gap”, another neighborhood for restaurants, bars and nightlife on the island. There are a number of hotels in the Gap area but be warned that the party scene can be pretty loud late into the night. Following the coast out of the Gap you will find another stretch of great beaches with good resort hotels. We have had good experiences staying at Bougainvillea Beach and Coral Sands in this area as well.
Friday Oistin’s Fish Fry
Next comes the town of Oistin where everyone regularly goes on a Friday night for a waterfront fish fry. Oistin is a traditional Bajan fishing village and the Friday Oistin’s Fish Fry is an event that has been going on forever: fresh fish cooked amidst a carnival atmosphere. It is something not to be missed.
Next comes the airport area and after that is the Crane Beach and Crane Beach Resort. The area features cliffs with pocket beaches below and gets its’ name from a crane that was used to lift cargo up the cliffs in early days. The hotel is an excellent resort but somewhat isolated. If your intention is to relax and spend quality time with the family, sand and surf it is a good choice.
Getting around Barbados can be a challenge. There is public bus service and a number of tour operators but to really see the island it is best to rent a car. You need to be warned though, because the traffic is English drive or driving on the left. The roads can be narrow and unmarked and the island makes use of lots of traffic circles (remember that the traffic in the circle always has the right-of-way) that they call round-abouts. Also, the roads in some areas can be a maze where even Bajan friends of ours have admitted to getting lost.
Things To Do
Visit the Barbados Historical Museum and the George Washington House
Take a sunset cruise
Go snorkeling or diving
Eat flying fish with Bajan hot sauce
Visit Harrison’ Cave and Hunte’s Gardens
Take a ride out to Bathsheba and the northeast island
Take the tour at the Mount Gay Rum Distillery
Cross a street without looking both ways (your instincts can kill you)
Wear clothes with camouflage pattern (it’s against the law)