Caribbean Travel: Island Destinations
by Lee Foster
As a travel region, the Caribbean retains a special flavor of cultural adventure. Nowhere else close to the U.S. and Canada is there such a diverse cluster of islands, so proximate, yet so different from each other. In the Caribbean you could explore 30 different island countries, each with its own identity.
A traveler can sample the Dutch, Spanish, English and French colonial legacy, hopping from island to island, recalling some of the adventure felt by Columbus, who never knew what lay beyond the horizon. Columbus, the first traveler to these parts, docked his ship Santa Maria on Haiti in 1492. Later, he died in disgrace, seven years before Balboa discovered from a mountain in Panama that there was indeed a Pacific Ocean and a route to the East Indies. The name Caribbean derived from the Carib Indians who populated some islands.
Added to the diversity of the islands’ cultural environment is the dependable year-round sun and warmth of the Caribbean, a sure antidote to the “wind chill factor” that grips large parts of the U.S. and Canada each year.
Within each island the European heritage, mixed with a black African sensibility, expresses itself in the island’s language, history, music, and food.
Here is a quick portrait of five typical Caribbean destinations. You could choose a single island for a vacation or select two or three if you have more time. A cruise ship traveler sometimes samples two or three on a week’s cruise.
Curacao: Holland with Sun
Of all the European countries that penetrated the Caribbean, the Dutch were most appreciative of sun. Sections of the Curacao capital, Willemstad, look like a slice of Amsterdam or perhaps a provincial Dutch city, maybe Blokzijl, but on one of the rare sunny days each summer in the Netherlands.
The town of Willemstad is sliced by a narrow inlet that resembles a Dutch canal. The canal divides the town, which is joined, for foot traffic, by a pontoon bridge called the Queen Emma. The population of the town streams across this bridge during the day, scurrying when a signal indicates that the pontoons will swing around to allow passage of a ship. Willemstad, as a town, embodies a substantial Dutch colonial legacy with gabled houses painted in pastel colors and roofed with red tiles.
The importance of nearby Venezuela to this New World Dutch presence is apparent. The morning floating market of Venezuelan boats laden with fruit, produce, and fish is colorful to observe, as the townspeople bargain for their basic foods. The boats stay in town for a couple of days to sell their stocks and then return to sea to fish or proceed back to Venezuela for a further supply of fruits and vegetables. The market is most active in the 8-10 a.m. morning hours.
A short distance from the floating market is the Mikve Israel Synagogue, said to be the oldest in the western hemisphere, dating from 1732. The dignified structure has a sand floor, symbolizing the route of the Israelites, wandering in the desert before reaching the Promised Land.
While walking in the central city, stop on the village square for rest and refreshment in the outdoor bars. Some serve the local Amstel Beer, made from distilled sea water. The square is alive with people, such as Rastafarians weaving hats for tourists or local musicians performing on rasp instruments.
Explore to your satisfaction this central shopping area of the city, where visitors find bargains on all manner of luxury goods. Then take a stroll across the Queen Emma pontoon bridge, as thousands of locals do each day. The bridge serves as the town promenade for the local population, which is almost totally black, with a smattering of the white Dutch still present. A child growing up here might learn a local polyglot dialect called Papiamento at home, then receives instruction in more precise Dutch, English, and Spanish in school. From the bridge and from the opposite (west) end, you get your best view of the picturesque gabled houses along the Willemstad waterfront.
Walk toward the sea from the Queen Emma bridge to enter a large fortification with one rusty cannon still on view. The entrance to the harbor was well fortified, with this bunker and with yellow-walled Fort Amsterdam across from it, befitting Willemstad’s importance as one of the best harbors in the Caribbean.
A 10-minute taxi ride or an energetic walk further west from the bridge takes you to the charming Curacao Museum, Leeuwenhoek and Donder Streets, where you can see primitive Indian artifacts, Dutch colonial furniture, and a modern art gallery with changing shows. A statue of Luis Brion recalls the local hero who participated with Simon Bolivar in the political development of South America. Brion’s memory is honored because he pursued the attacking British in 1805.
Consider engaging a taxi for an hour and ask the driver to take you first to the Fort Nassau restaurant, located on the area’s highest hill. Formerly a fort, this engaging bar and restaurant provides the best view in Willemstad. Looking south, you gaze down at the town, framed by arching and modern Queen Juliana Bridge, a fixed automotive bridge built to allow constant use without interference from the ships passing underneath. Looking north, you gaze out on the vast, protected, inner harbor of Curacao, with its large oil refinery capability. The refineries transform crude oil brought in from Venezuela and Mexico. Other major maritime investments here are elaborate ship drydocks, said to be some of the largest in the Caribbean. There is also a substantial container loading facility. On a given day several ships will glide in and out of the Curacao harbor, watched by the locals as they parade down the narrow inlet that separates the inner harbor from the sea.
Your taxi driver can then take you to a unique Curacao institution, the Curacao liqueur factory at Chobolobo. Here orange rinds become the sweet after-dinner beverage that carries the island’s name. You can sample the product, glance at the steel-tank operation, and buy the liqueur in its classic transparent form or with added flavoring from chocolate, coffee, and rum-raisins.
Willemstad is a compact and interesting outpost of Dutch culture. The town is small enough so that you feel you have a grasp on it after a day’s exploring.
Grenada: Nutmeg as Magic Dust
The fragrance of nutmeg and other spices lingers in Grenada.
Spices are the magic dust of the Caribbean, and the Grenada capital, St. George, is a main spice port. A basket of spices is the traditional souvenir from Grenada. The reed baskets come in little six-packs that make attractive gifts. Ironically, spices were also an original impetus for discovering the Caribbean.
Grenada offers marvelous white sand beaches and good snorkeling. One of the best ways to encounter these beaches is to take the Rum Runner boat. The boat leaves the main pier at Grenada, laden with enough rum punch to keep everyone happy, plus a steel drum band that is the essence of Caribbean rhythm. The boat proceeds from the city of St. George along the Grand Anse (Great Pines) beach, passing several low-rise hotels.
The Grenada airstrip, originally envisioned by Grenadians, partially completed by Cuban and Soviet help, and then finished with U.S. aid, provides unique opportunities for Grenada. Militarily, the airstrip controls the immediate sea channels through which much imported oil comes to the U.S. The airstrip also has potential as a refueling stop on the route to Africa from North America. Grenada benefits with the arrival of planes laden with tourists.
As the Rum Runner proceeds away from St. George, you get a superb view of the city. Then it rounds a bend and places you on a beautiful, secluded beach, with good swimming and sunning opportunities. All the while the rum flows freely. Craft sellers peddle fabrics, coral bracelets, conch shells, and green reed hats.
The Rum Runner trip takes about three hours. On the return trip, usually in late afternoon, when the dancing is proceeding in full swing, you get a superb view of the city with the final hours on sunlight on it.
Part of the pleasure of Grenadian beaches is that they are all public, by law, up to 30 yards beyond the high water mark. A Grenadian or a visitor may use any beach on the island.
When back in the city, the pastel-colored buildings and their red roofs are interesting to see. On the top of the hills are forts, with St. George Fort nearest the sea. If you hire a taxi, the driver can take you inland to a nutmeg farm and factory.
Grenada’s capital city, St. George, has about 90,000 people, and the island itself is the smallest country in the western hemisphere. The capital might pass for an idyllic small town on the French Riviera. Christopher Columbus discovered Grenada in 1498. Over the centuries the French and English traded back and forth control of the island. In 1974 Grenada became an independent country. The main event of consequence here was the introduction of nutmeg is 1843. Success in growing nutmeg earned for Grenada the moniker “The Spice Island.”
Matinique: Department of France
Gallic influence in the Caribbean focused partly on the island of Martinique, sandwiched between two British-run islands. The French and British fought over Martinique fourteen times and traded ownership four times before French domination was no longer contested. Today the island retains a status as a department of France, with full participation in the rights and duties thereof. The French franc was the island’s currency until the era of the euro.
The best way to see a part of this lush and beautiful island is to hire a taxi in the capital city, Fort-de-France, for a two-hour tour along the coast to the historic town of St. Pierre and then inland through a rain forest and tropical fruit farming area back to the city. After this introduction to the countryside, spend some time perusing the capital.
The taxi tour, most likely conducted by a driver in a Mercedes who definitely speaks French and may speak English, will take you initially to Case-Pilote, the first village on the island and site of the oldest church. Beyond is Bellefontaine, a typical fishing village, where fishermen leave in small boats to spread nets over the water, drop the nets, then pull the nets in communally. Next is the town of Carbet, where Columbus landed in 1502.
All these towns are a prelude to the “ruined city” of Saint Pierre, the highlight of the tour. Saint Pierre was the island capital until May 8, 1902. On that day the volcanic mountain in back of the town exploded and killed instantly the 30,000 inhabitants with a rain of ash and a blanket of asphyxiating gas. Remarkably, one man survived, although badly burned. His name was Cyparis, and he had been languishing in an underground dungeon beneath the city jail. A small museum at St. Pierre can acquaint you with the details, complete with before and after photos of the city.
When the French first arrived, they eliminated the fierce Carib Indians after a protracted struggle. Some of the Caribs are said to have leapt from the cliffs to certain death at the final battle rather than surrender to the French. Legend held that the volcanic mountain, Mt. Pelee, would someday erupt and vanquish the conquerors. Events of 1902 were seen by some as this predicted act of retribution.
The ride back to Fort-de-France passes through rain forests and tropical fruit farms. The forests are thick with bamboo and mahogany. There are also drier forests called wind forests. Fruit farms grow banana, avocado, pineapple, papaya, lemon, sugar cane, mangoes, and the island vegetable staple, breadfruit.
Throughout the route you will see the flowers for which Martinique is famous. Aptly named The Flower Island from a Carib word that was Gallicized to read Martinique, the island provides ideal growing conditions for bougainvillea, hibiscus, fuchsia, and a yellow blossom called alamanda.
The final stop on the taxi tour before reaching the city is a church that is a miniature of Paris’s Sacre Coeur, similar in architectural detail, identical in name.
Within the city of Fort-de-France, which sits beneath an imposing fort, stroll around the large town park at the waterfront park, called La Savane, where abundant handicraft goods of straw, shells, wood, and fabrics are for sale. Across the greenery of this park walk the statuesque, beautiful women for which the island is famous. Manner and costume here have a French flare for style. The pre-Lenten Carnival is the most festive annual event on the island. La Savane park honors with a large statue the French founder, Pierre Belain d’Esnambuc. Alongside the park are restaurants that serve creole cuisine for which the island is well known. Wash down these creations with local Lorraine beer or with the ubiquitous rum punch of the Caribbean.
On the main street, Rue de La Liberte, stop in at the Museum, which houses Carib and Arawak Indian artifacts, and at the baroque Schoelcher Library, an ornate building originally constructed for the 1889 Paris Exposition.
Martinique is another Caribbean Island at which the visitor sees the mosaic of historic European domination in the Caribbean. Unlike many the other islands, however, Martinique has maintained especially strong ties with the mother country.
St. Thomas-St. John in the USVI: Shopping and a National Park
The liberal customs allowance from this U.S. protectorate makes the island of St. Thomas one of the most popular stops in the Caribbean. Duties and tax exemptions give the Virgin Islands an edge over some stateside competition. The capital city of Charlotte Amalie, named after a Danish Queen, enjoys one of the loveliest names ever bestowed on a city.
Shopping in St. Thomas occurs in two places, downtown and at the cruise ship dock, a short taxi ride from downtown. Adjacent to the cruise ship dock are clusters of shops in former warehouses. Downtown, there are eight blocks of shops along Main Street. Some stores have shops at both locations. The range of goods, from cameras to liquor, clothing to perfume, is extensive.
Beyond shopping on St. Thomas, the National Park on St. John Island is a favorite outing in the Virgin Islands. The open-sided bus ride out, a 30-minute ferry ride across the channel from St. Thomas to St. John, then another bus ride to one of the park beaches, is a memorable outing. You can do this on your own or participate in a tour that will take you out there, provide snorkel and mask, and refresh you with rum punch.
St. John boasts one of the more unusual National Parks in the U.S. park system. Located in a protectorate, this park in the Virgin Islands assumed full status in 1956 as our 29th U.S. National Park. The park is an intriguing mix of coral reefs and tropical jungle.
Once you are on the island, two-thirds of which is park, the drive proceeds to Trunk Beach, the main accessible swimming beach and one of the world’s outstanding stretches of white sand. The drive passes along a hill ridgeline from which you’ll see Hawknest Beach and then Caneel Bay, where Laurance Rockefeller built a major resort. Rockefeller originally bought most of the island and deeded two-thirds of it to make the National Park.
At Trunk Beach you can enjoy the sun, sand, and palm trees or don a snorkel and peruse the underwater snorkel trail set up by the Park Service. All plant, animal, and inanimate objects in the park are carefully preserved, so no collecting is allowed. Trunk Beach and other white-sand beaches in the Virgin Islands tend to find their way onto lists, such as The Ten Best Beaches In The World. While such lists are always subjective, the Virgin Islands beaches seldom disappoint and often exceed a visitor’s expectations.
Subsequent visits to the park can include hiking or snorkeling at more outlying areas. You can lodge either at campgrounds, luxury facilities such as Caneel Bay on St. John, or hotels in all price ranges on St. Thomas. St. John was once a prominent producer of sugar cane, but the commercial crop grown there today is bay leaves, used as a spice.
Columbus discovered and named the Virgin Islands on his second voyage, 1493. Buccaneers (such as Captain Kidd and Edward Teach, aka Blackbeard) and highborn collectors of gold booty for their countries (such as England’s Sir Francis Drake, preying on Spanish galleons) used St. Thomas freely, even constructing towers from which to evaluate their potential victims sailing by. As European countries carved up the Caribbean, Denmark assumed control of the Virgin Islands. The Danes retained their influence here until 1917 when the U.S. purchased the area (the three main U.S. Virgin Islands are St. Croix, St. Thomas, and St. John). People on the Virgin Islands have the status of U.S. citizens.
The influence of the adjacent British Virgin Islands, a separate entity, can be felt here, in such details as the custom of driving on the left side of the road. A prudent visitor, especially if a creature of habit, will leave driving to the taxi drivers. One of the major problems on the islands has been the fresh water supply, which is limited, but desalinization has provided the water required to sustain life.
Nassau: Vestige of the British Empire
Nassau and the Bahamas add the British thread to the web of European influence in the Caribbean. Precisely speaking, the Bahamas are north of the Caribbean, in the Atlantic, but a traveler will consider them part of a Caribbean travel adventure. The British have been involved from the earliest days of substantial settlement within the 700-island chain, which extends some 750 miles.
After Columbus first discovered the Bahamas in 1492, British pirates became prominent among those who preyed on ships passing through the region on the sea route from Europe to the New World. British sympathizers came to Nassau, with their slaves, to settle after the American War of Independence. During the Civil War, the Nassau harbor flourished as the crucial stopping place in the highly profitable and dangerous effort to break the Union blockade strangling the South. England wanted cotton from the South, which in turn wanted arms and medicines from England. During the 13 years of American Prohibition, Nassau again assumed its role as the purveyor of contraband. Boats hiding in the labyrinth of islands could make fast runs to liquor drops in Florida.
Cruise ships and airplanes bring travelers to Nassau. Cruise ships enter the Nassau harbor and tie up at St. George’s wharf, a short walk from downtown. For shoppers, the several blocks of stores along Bay Street offer a wide assortment of goods. The product most unique to the Bahamas is all kinds of straw weaving crafts. The market where these are sold, aptly named the Straw Market, is along the waterfront near the cruise ship terminal. The market has a special vitality because the women who create the straw products do the manufacturing before your eyes, carry on their family life, and sell the products, all at the same time. The market is colorful and the quality of woven materials, from picnic baskets to mats, is superior. Women control the straw market. Men who carve wooden animals with axes and rasps also perform their craft before the eyes of the traveler, giving a rare close-up look at the artisan.
Beyond shopping, the British influence is an interesting aspect of the island. Although the Bahamas became independent and assumed Commonwealth status in 1973, the British legacy is strongly residual. Begin exploring at Rawson Square, where there is a statue of Queen Victoria, well appointed government offices, and policemen in white uniforms and white gloves, some wearing pith helmets. As they call out traffic instructions in sharp British accents, you feel that you have stepped back into the time of the Empire. Horse-drawn jitneys are available at Rawson Square to transport visitors around the city.
Similarly, you can walk back from Rawson Square to the Government House and see, from the outside, where His Excellency the Governor General resides.
A short walk west is the view of Nassau not to be missed. Climb the steps called the Queen’s Staircase, all 66 of them, cut in the soft limestone. At the top is an historic fort, called Fort Fincastle, which provides a fine view of the harbor. However, just a few steps in back of Fort Fincastle, at the Watertower, is the more stunning view, so pay the nominal charge to ride the elevator to the top of the Watertower.
From the Watertower the entire city of Nassau stretches out before you and the plan of the city becomes apparent. It is immediately obvious that the Nassau harbor is a long channel between islands, rather than a river, which accounts for the emerald clarity of the water everywhere. From the tower you get a clear view of the graceful Paradise Island Bridge that joins Nassau to the resort island across the channel.
Nassau offers several other attractions, such as the Seafloor Aquarium and the Ardastra Gardens, where the local flora and fauna are celebrated. The Ardastra Gardens is famous for its flamingos, which perform drills for the traveler. Glass-bottom boat cruises can acquaint visitors who don’t want to don a snorkel mask with the diversity of the fish and shellfish close to the city. Besides Fincastle, there are also two other forts, Charlotte and Montagu, both intriguing to see. For a visitor with ample time, there are luxurious hotels, inviting beaches, and some of the best sport fishing in the western hemisphere. Some restaurants featuring local seafood, vegetables, and fruits offer locavore lunches or dinners. All other foods are imported.
For a short visit, the area around Rawson Square will absorb the energies of most travelers. Nassau presents a fascinating glimpse into a world once controlled by Britain in all but its most recent history, but deeply influenced by events taking place in the U.S. A traveler searching for the diversity of European influence in the Caribbean-Atlantic island world will welcome a chance to learn about the British story in Nassau.
These five islands provide a sample of the variety in cultural diversity, historical origins, and natural beauty that add much to the pleasure of Caribbean travel.