By Lee Foster
The southern Caribbean offers an intriguing itinerary for the modern cruise traveler, especially for the historic treasures of Old San Juan, Puerto Rico, and the natural environments of the small islands in the region.
Because the terrain is about a thousand miles from the major Florida port of embarcation, Miami/Fort Lauderdale, the pattern is to leave on a ship from San Juan, Puerto Rico. This provides a cruise trip more island time and less transit “time at sea.” My particular cruise happened to start in San Juan, Puerto Rico, and end in St. Thomas, USVI.
San Juan, Puerto Rico, of course, is a “quasi” U.S. port in that the citizens of the island are U.S. citizens, though they don’t vote for the U.S. President.
History-rich San Juan is one of the main pleasures of this trip for anyone aware of the cultural story of the Americas. Heavily-fortified San Juan was a bulwark of Spanish political influence in the Americas from the 1500s until 1898. As competing European powers projected a presence in the Caribbean and extended their influence into Latin America, Spain assured its strategic role partly by creating an impregnable port and fortress at San Juan. The San Juan fortress could assist Spanish treasure ships in their chancy sailings across the Atlantic, back to Spain.
Cruise passengers contemplating a southern Caribbean adventure should consider flying in a day or two early to explore thoroughly “Old San Juan.” If you like New Orleans’s French Quarter, for example, you’ll be pleasantly surprised that Old San Juan equals New Orleans in inherent cultural interest, plus all the amenities that food, drink, music, and art can add.
Besides Old San Juan for history, the small islands of the southern Caribbean offer immense nature resources, partly because they are close to the Central American mainland. Many of the plants, animals, and birds that one would so enjoy on a Belize or Costa Rica trip can be found on these islands.
Another special aspect of this trip will be your cruise ship. The mega-lines–Princess, Carnival/Holland America, and Royal Caribbean/Celebrity–all sail their ships on this route.
Old San Juan for History
Walking within the walls of Old San Juan is a little like strolling the ramparts of Dubrovnik in Yugoslavia, another beautiful, walled city that resisted invaders. For 400 years San Juan repelled the attacks of its European competitors. In 1898 Puerto Rico fell to the Yankees from the North in the Spanish-American War.
As you walk El Morro, the most prominent of the forts, you will notice that the technology for protecting the narrow entrance to San Juan’s harbor is positively ingenious. Cannons placed high in the fort would fire down on approaching ships. Cannons at water level would fire cannon balls preheated in fires to red-hot. The glowing cannon balls would skip along the water until they hit the ship, made entirely of wood in those days. The fiery cannon ball would penetrate the ship and start an internal conflagration.
Low-rise, pastel-colored houses within the walled city of Old San Juan are treasures to appreciate. For a traveler who routinely sees destinations either in decline or ascendance, it is encouraging to note that the Old San Juan of today, after a couple of decades of serious investment in historic preservation, is flourishing.
Walk at will through Old San Juan, using your own visual sense of what is interesting. You can’t go wrong. Just enjoy the scene, making sure that you get to the main forts, El Morro and San Cristobal.
One delight is that there is much refreshing public art in Old San Juan. This is modern art that is lyrical, representational, and full of affection easily communicated to an audience. The sculptures called The Races and The Rogativa are two wonderful bronzes among many not to miss.
After a serendipitous walk, pause for lunch at some typically unpretentious Puerto Rican-food restaurant, such as Tio Danny’s on Fortaleza Street. Choose one of the local specialties, perhaps chicken breast in orange sauce, with rice. Wash it down with the local beer, Medalla Light.
Then spend the afternoon looking at the same terrain with more specificity. Stop in at the museum for Ponce de Leon, the Spanish founder, and his family, called the Casa Blanca. Peruse the house, now a museum, of a gifted woman named Felisa Rincon de Gautier, who was the mayor guiding San Juan and Puerto Rico for some 20 years in the post World War II period, setting up the favorable U.S.-Puerto Rico relations that immensely benefited the island.
The morning in San Juan is a cooler time to walk and the light in agreeable. Afternoon is typically hot and the light is harsh, making an indoor, aircon, museum itinerary advantageous in the afternoon.
Island Exploring for Nature
After immersing yourself in history at San Juan, consider opting for nature tours on the various islands typically visited in this cruise area. Nature exploration is the joy of many of these small islands.
Cruise itineraries will vary, but it is likely that some of the islands I visited will also be on your ship’s route.
On Trinidad, my Trinidad Rainforest Adventure tour went to the Asa Wright Nature Center, a tropical forest environment at a 1200-foot elevation in the northern mountains. The island is one of the great birding places in the Caribbean, with 430 recorded species. From the veranda of the Asa Wright Lodge, I could watch dozens of species in the forest canopy immediately below me. An expert guide pointed out a Chestnut Woodpecker, Green Honeycreeper, and Crested Oropendula. Then I walked with the guide through the preserve and made the acquaintance of other avian species, such as the White-bearded Manakin and the Bearded Bellbird.
For Barbados I chose the Barbados Ecotour option and was pleasantly surprised. The tour took me to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve, high in the hills on the north side of the island. The wildlife reserve was originally established to protect the Barbados Green Monkey, which is responsible for providing the cells for 70 percent of the world’s polio vaccine. Green Monkeys were actually introduced to Barbados from Africa about 250 years ago. Among Barbados’s native animals, I saw tortoises and blackbirds. There were also many other Caribbean region species, such as the Cuban Iguana and the Cuban Spectacled Caiman, a member of the alligator family. From the nearby mainland there were Brocket Deer.
Adjacent to the Barbados Wildlife Reserve is the Grenade Hill Forest and Signal Station. The Signal Station, built on a high hill, was one of six in a chain that could relay messages around the island prior to the telephone and telegraph era. Historically, of course, the main message to fear was news of an invasion. Below the historic Signal Station are trails in a mature mahogany wood forest. As you walk the trail, thought-provoking messages about man and the environment are posted on signs.
On Antigua I chose the Tropical Trails Jeep Safari tour to the rain forest, which proved to be quite adventuresome. Many of the most interesting parts of this island require an off-road vehicle. We drove through a terrain of agriculture and bush off-road to the historic hilltop fort known as Fort George, overlooking the port of English Harbor. These old ruins could only be accessed by a four-wheel-drive jeep. Then we drove through the rain forest along Fig Tree Road, with the guide pointing out the flora of the island. Finally, we stopped at Johnson’s Point Beach, one of the many good beaches on Antigua, an island that is said to have a good beach for each day of the year. I looked out at the coral reef, which is reported to be in pristine condition, and regretted I didn’t have time on this trip for a snorkel excursion to see nature below the water line.
When we arrived at Tortola I selected a Tropical Forest Walk tour. Our small tour bus left the main island town, Road Town, and wound up the steep hills to get promontory views of the harbor. Tortola proved to be an engaging island, only only 30 square miles, 13,000 people, and relatively less development than most other islands. Our purpose was to hike for two miles in Sage Mountain National Park, a 96-acre rain forest preserve at 1,780 feet. This was a steep, but intriguing hike, and our local driver and guide happened to have an excellent knowledge of the local flora, the main feature in the reserve. Tropical hardwoods along the trail included Mahogany, Bulletwood, Spanish Oak, Greenheart, and White Cedar, the national tree. Fruiting trees included the Guavaberry and the Rose Apple. On the floor of the forest one visually dominant plant was the large-leaved Elephant Ear Philodendron. The plants were well labeled for a visitor who might want to do this hike without a guide.
St. Thomas and St. John islands in the U.S. Virgin Islands were my final island visits. The ship docked in St. Thomas. I selected the St. John Eco Hike tour and took a ferry over to this nearby island. With roughly two-thirds of St. John a U.S. National Park, I expected this to be an interesting nature hike. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the hike was lead by a guide who was easily the best-trained nature guide I met on this trip. We started our walk on the drier leeward side of the island, where Barrel Cactus and Agave Cactus are typical plants. Then we crossed a ridge to the wetter or windward side of the island, which receives the bulk of the moisture riding in on Atlantic storms. The same tree species, such as a Gumbo Limbo, might be twice as large on the wet side of the island as it would be on the dry side.
My guide had a good sense of the mix of plants that now populate St. John. Some plants are natives, of course, such as the fragrant Bay Trees. But the Guinea Grass is an “escaped” plant, meaning it had been brought here deliberately, in this case as a cattle pasture grass, and it went wild. Other plants were “invasives,” such as the Tamarind, which man had brought in accidentally, only to have the plant escape and become a pest. The guide also had a knowledge of the original Taino Indians that Columbus encountered. The Taino were expert botanists and had numerous uses for the native plants. The hike ended at Honeymoon Beach, which sometimes makes the list when someone decides to choose the top ten beaches in the world.
If a “Southern Caribbean” cruise adventure intrigues you, November through March is the best time for dependable sun and moderate temperatures when traveling this region. Summer can be hot and humid, with storms and hurricanes a factor, especially July-September.