April 2017 – Cruising the Caribbean
Everything was set. Erica and I were both flying direct from our home airports—me from Dulles and her from JFK—and the plan was to meet at the airport. Her flight was a little late, but I saw that it had landed while I waited at baggage claim. 15 minutes pass. Then 30. Okay, well we definitely texted this morning saying we were both past security and ready to begin this adventure. Please, God, tell me this girl found her way to the hotel. Of course since I couldn’t get a wifi signal at the airport, I couldn’t check email to see what had happened to her. So I grab a cab and spend the 15-minute ride hoping we can reconnect at the hotel. And like a pro, homegirl’s just sitting on a couch waiting for me so we can check in. Brilliant!
To accompany our pitcher of Piña Coladas, we also ordered some food to share. One thing we came across was a local favorite, a sandwich called a tripleta, or “triple” for the three types of meats: usually cube steak, ham, and pork (lechon). Our tripleta was fancified with pastrami instead of cube steak (because we were at a Hilton property—we’re not savages)! We also ordered some sort of plantain chip/deep-fried/pork cracklin’ deliciousness, so I feel we got off to a good start with the food situation. Neither of us had eaten much that day, so we most definitely shoved more food than necessary into our faces. The way I look at it, we needed to adjust to “vacation mode” by eating at least twice as much at every meal. After we completed our pitcher, we decided it was time to head downtown
I appreciate that when I travel with a woman most people generally assume we’re together. What threw me for a loop was when the cab driver asked us if we liked to party, like go out and have a good time late at night. The thought I had in my head was, “bitch, it’s an imperative that I have my pants off by 10:00pm!” That being said, it sounds like there are plenty of bars and dancing options for those who care to venture out for that type of frivolity. Erica and I hopped out of the cab right at the edge of Old Town, exactly where I was let loose in Old Town the first time, and picked a direction to wander off. Long story short, we did eventually find the other establishment, the restaurant called Barrachina, that claims to have created the Piña Colada and immediately ordered a couple. I was disheartened because I saw rows of frozen drink “slushy” machines filled with pre-made mixes. While that didn’t make the best first impression, I was more than happy with the end result (read: the bartender poured a crapload of rum into a glass and just dumped the pre-made mix on top).
Erica had heard several people mention the old fort, El Muro, and wanted to see it while we were down in Old Town. The hotel had told us it would be closing soon, but at least we got to the other side of the street from where you hike across the field to gain entrance into the historic site. Erica and I found a bench, because we’re old and it was hot. We sat there panting (really just sweating…a lot) and needed a quick break. Officer McHottie Pants was directing traffic right in front of us, so we just sat there going back and forth on how we could lure said officer of the law into our requisite lairs, so sayeth the spider to the fly.
Sunday, April 9 – Cruise Day
Waking up early, we paid of an overpriced breakfast buffet at the hotel, since we gathered we wouldn’t really be paying for a lot of food over the course of the next week. Because then we asked the front desk if we could have a late checkout, we then sauntered over to the pool and lagoon area to find some chairs getting direct sunlight. I could’ve definitely spent more than a couple of days at the Caribe Hilton, though things were extravagantly expensive. I was glad we were only staying in this hotel for only one night, but I’m glad we started our vacation out this way.
We eventually cleaned up, after sipping iced vanilla lattes by the lagoon, and checked out of the hotel. Everything is within 15 minutes of one another on this part of the island, so it was a super quick to arrive to the cruise boat terminal. There was a Disney ship and our ship, the Jewel of the Seas, docked. They were both ridiculously large machines, but I knew they were only one-third the size of the latest super-cruise ships. We were only going to have something like a measly eight bars to choose from while onboard.
The registration process was fairly straightforward, since the cruise company had sent us rather detailed instructions on what to expect beforehand. Once onboard, we decided to explore the ship (with our personal ID cards for the ship, which we had picked up during check-in and includes our unlimited beverage package). We scoped out the multitude of bars onboard and quickly checked out the pool deck. Already crowded, it was clear this area would be the heart of recreation onboard. They often had YouTube-style video clips playing on a projection screen over the pool during the day, maybe a reggae band playing in the late afternoon (or when pulling out of port), and then a kid-friendly movie at night. I remember thinking I’d enjoy watching Storks or Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them.
All was going smoothly until the required muster drill sounded (where you have to go stand at your designated spot in case lifeboats have to be lowered). There was an announcement over the loudspeaker 30 minutes beforehand telling everyone to get ready. During that time, the bars would be closed. Reasonable, I thought, though I still had 30 minutes to worry about this. At that very time I wanted another Patron pineapple margarita, and the bartender said they’d be open again after the drill and closed down in our faces. Oh HELL no—this boy needed cocktails in both hands for this exercise! Alas it wasn’t to be, and Noel and Erica had to go to the muster drill without cocktails. ☹
Monday, April 10 – Finding the Jews of St. Thomas
The boat normally left port around five o’clock most days, and by the time we were up and dressed each morning we were docked at the next day’s port of call. The first day was St. Thomas, one of the U.S. Virgin Islands. Because it was formerly a Danish overseas territory, the street names are in Danish and they drive on the left-hand side of the road (the only American territory that does this). After getting turned around because I thought we’d be docking on the east side of the capital, Erica and I started walking in the general direction of downtown. It surprised me that signs were in miles and gas was measured in gallons (because Puerto Rico had signs in both miles and kilometers, but gas was definitely measured in liters). These bi-cultural islands had me all confused!
Once we finally found the building, the most noticeable thing about the interior was that sand covered the floor. A woman named Judith quickly greeted us, and we began talking about the history of the building. She explained that this wasn’t the only synagogue that had sand floors, others included synagogues in: Amsterdam, Barbados, Curaçao, and Jamaica. Judith told us the sand symbolized three things central to the Sephardic Jewish tradition: it was to remind the congregation of the River Jordan (this was river sand, which wouldn’t harm the building’s foundations), it harkened back to when Spanish Jews had to practice their faith in hiding during the Inquisition when countless Jews and Muslims were forced to convert to Catholicism or leave the country (hence the emigration to what were then colonies more accepting to outsiders), and each grain of sand represented every blessing to the people, which also harkened back to the Sephardic Jewish tradition in their prayers. It was truly a great way to start this Caribbean adventure.
The other spot I wanted to check out while on St. Thomas was Creeque Alley, or better known as Creque’s Alley to the locals. Creeque Alley is the name of one of the 60s group Mamas and the Papas more famous songs, which starts out with “Joan and Mitchie were gettin’ king of itchy to leave the folk music behind…” Apparently they named this song after this area of town, which was originally a collection of alleys that connected the waterfront to the warehouses where goods from all ships (pirates included) were stored. I had just learned this while listening to an oldies station on my Sirius radio less than a week before the trip. So before we got off the boat, I Google mapped from the synagogue to where Google told me Creque’s Alley was. I found the main street, where all the high-end shopping was, and headed away from the dock. I turned uphill at what I thought was about the right spot, and a friendly shopkeeper hollered out to us, “what are you looking for?” I told her the name, but she didn’t recognize it. I told her I thought it was up that way, but she urged us not to continue that way since it got rather sketchy quickly after that. Another local woman saw that we were generally confused leaving the marina where the cruise boat was docked at the beginning of the day and happily pointed out the main road around the corner from where we were. While the people were certainly approachable and friendly enough, I was disappointed at how their capital hadn’t been kept up as much as I would’ve liked. This was also where the boats came into, so I’m sure other parts of the island are different. I heard from other cruisers who took a ferry over to St. Johns that it was lovely.
Tuesday, April 11 – Visiting Hamilton’s Birthplace
After getting to port without incident at Nevis, I was surprised when we were accosted by taxi drivers outside the pier asking us if we needed a ride. “A ride to where,” I thought. Turning right outside the harbor area, we quickly hit the edge of town. Turning around and walking to the other side of town, we stumbled across the Museum of Nevis History (and birthplace of Alexander Hamilton). The Jews were spoken of positively here, mainly because they came up from Brazil at one point and modernized the sugarcane processing technology and made the whole industry on the island more efficient and profitable. The best thing about this museum: they had the Hamilton soundtrack playing on a loop. Because I only knew the Hamilton Mix Tape, I was surprised to see how different the actual soundtrack is. Another wild surprise while on this property: Erica and I saw a plaque outside on the gate’s exterior to the courtyard that acknowledged that the same English colonists there were on their way to settle Jamestown, back in 1607, stopped over on Nevis during their trip to the New World. Wow, what a cool little place!
Wednesday, April 12 – Sailed Off to Antigua (it was the third stop on our boat)
Before we talk about Antigua, I think it prudent to discuss the fact that I don’t know my Caribbean geography very well. I knew where a few islands were, but these southern Caribbean islands were rather mysterious to me, both in history and location. With that said, during the night we noticed we were passing just offshore of what I’d soon learn was Guadeloupe, one of the few remaining French overseas territories (the others being, to my knowledge, Martinique and half of St. Martin/Maarten). Antigua has other islands not far from it. It has its own sister island, Barbuda, which I’m told is more of an environmental sanctuary island. Be that as it may, I knew Erica was jones-ing for a beach…get it…Jones Beach? Sorry, it’s a Long Island reference, where Erica’s from. We were at least able to sit near one for a hot (and I do mean HOT) minute, but that was all we were allotted.
Doing our usual stuff-everything-in-your-face routine for breakfast, Erica and I wandered off the boat potentially looking for a guide. We quickly found Ashland LeBlanc, who’d become our tour guide for the day. He wasn’t young, but he still carried a young person’s exuberance in his personality. He spoke of worldly things, of traveling to China, but he was an orator first and foremost. Ashland told us that the name “Antigua” comes from Christopher Columbus’s second voyage, where he viewed the island said it looked old, or antique. I love it. He also told us that it was cheaper for Antigua to import its own food, though it had the fertility and ability to make it a self-sustaining island, if it needed to be one.
I could tell Ashland was proud of his island, and it was easy to see why. Unlike St. Thomas (we
It’s also worth mentioning that Antigua is within visual distance of Montserrat, a neighboring British overseas territory that had a dormant volcano suddenly shoot up flames in the mid-1990s. More than half of the island continues to be deemed an exclusion zone, so all island residents were ultimately granted UK citizenship, should they choose to leave. Something like 1,200 residents decided to stay behind and rebuild. That’s a story I need to hear more about.
Thursday, April 13 – St. Lucia and Antillean Creole
After getting a taste of a Caribbean beach the previous day, I knew that Erica really needed to get some beach time in soon. We had great luck with our spur-of-the-moment tour the previous day, so I was happy to find a tour that included some sort of island tour and beach time. We ultimately got sucked into a group deal to go to Marigot Bay, which was just up the coast from where we had docked. A small passenger boat took us out of the main harbor, past a Sandals resort, and dropped us off on the shores of a smaller bay. The other passengers on this boat with us were a Hispanic couple that didn’t speak much English and a family with two teenage boys from Raleigh, North Carolina. While we didn’t hang out with them much, I was happy to know we other families with us, just in case we all needed to get back to the ship later on. The driver of the smaller boat dropped us off at the dock, agreed on a time to come pick us up, and quickly left us. Well, okay then!
We quickly found a patch of beach and were just as quickly greeted by a small group of guys ever-so-conveniently renting out lounge chairs for the day. They were actually quite friendly and wandered around most of the time hawking cheap beer and coconut rum. This was actually the pushiest time we had on any island, though other families told us they had it much worse on other islands. As we napped and crept into the water when we were too hot, my favorite thing to do was to listen to the locals speak to each other. I knew that St. Lucia was part of the francophonie, or collective of French-speaking countries. Their French-based creole was just as unintelligible to me as the English-based creole we had heard the day before in Antigua. In fact, I could tell that it was a creole because I’d recognize various words if you listened hard, but they both sounded like the same language to me since they had the same rhythm and intonation. I only caught wind of what was being said when something like, “I don’t give a f*ck!” was added into the conversation. There were definitely times when an English creole was being used, so I found it interesting that both were used somewhat interchangeably. I read that this Antillean creole was mutually comprehensible with Haitian creole. Très intéressant!
Another couple I met on the beach that day told me they had taken a small bus there from our same cruise ship. They said the roads were not only in bad condition, but they were ridiculously winding and generally unsafe given the speed the driver was going. I never felt unsafe on the roads in Antigua, which had some hills to conquer, but St. Lucia was certainly a much more mountainous country. Taking the water taxi over and back from the cruise ship didn’t allow us to see any of the interior of the island, so I’d be happy to go back and actually explore. Plus, Martinique is only a ferry ride away.
One last thing I thought I’d share about our day on St. Lucia: I was awakened from a nap by the sound of “The Wobble” blasting out from a catamaran passing by with a group of people onboard. It looked like a booze cruise, so I couldn’t be too mad at all the people having a good time on a big, beautiful boat. The song reminded me that, while we all come from different places, we’re all very similar when we look at our wants and needs. The more I travel the more I realize how much more similar we all are to one another than different. It was a great way to be reminded.
Friday, April 14 – Good Friday
Now I’ve traveled enough to know that religious holiday weekends, like Easter, aren’t generally the best time to land in a new country. With that said, Barbados was a disappointment because nothing was open in town. This very much should’ve been our beach day, but we had already gotten royally burned the previous day. But I’m getting ahead of myself. By the time we got up each day, we were either already docked or coming into port for the next location. Barbados was rather unique because across the harbor was another ship, a smaller cruise ship called Freewinds. I didn’t recognize the cruise company’s logo, so I Googled it. Holy crap, this is a shipped owned by the Church of Scientology! Like, seriously! It was bought by the church in 1985 and is based out of Curaçao doing Caribbean voyages for the church to this day!
The rest of our time on Barbados was traveling around in a small passenger van up the west coast (where most of the developed areas are located, since it’s not the Atlantic-facing—and much windier—side of the island). Our driver wanted to show us the Rodeo Drive of Barbados where several internationally recognized celebrities keep mansions. Anyone from renowned sports celebrities (footballers that I hadn’t heard of) to Ricky Martin to, of course, Rihanna have homes on the island. Interestingly, Rihanna wanted to be at #1 Sandy Lane, which is [still] owned by a Russian Mafioso (or so says our taxi driver), so Rihanna simply built a penthouse on top of the existing building and lives there when she’s on the island.
Saturday, April 15 – Day at Sea
When we booked this cruise, I wished that the day at sea came at the beginning of the trip, just so we’d have that day to explore the boat and check out the activities onboard. With the day at sea at the tail end of the trip, it allowed us a day to truly decompress and try our mightiest not to think that the vacation was almost over and would have to go back to reality in the morning. I couldn’t remember what “hungry” felt like, and I didn’t remember how to buy food or drinks. Readjusting to real life again was going to be hard, but that just meant we had to come up with another adventure.
Speaking of drinks, the wine bar had signed us up for a wine tasting on this day at sea. That was an utter disaster because the presenter, the wine manager onboard the ship, hadn’t put together any kind of presentation and just spoke without much thought on whatever came to mind about the wine. I knew it was going to be bad when his first question was, “who can tell me the three grapes that comprise champagne?” Knowing this answer, I raised my hand and responded proudly, “Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, and Pinot Meunier.” To my horror, my “reward” for answering this question right was a full glass of moscato. That taught me to shut my mouth for the rest of the presentation. I tried pawning off this glass on someone, but no one at the table was willing to accept. While the wines were fine examples of their individual wine regions, there wasn’t really anything worth remembering from the whole experience.
Our plan was to check out a late afternoon bingo game (because why not), but the entry price was more than we wanted to spend. So instead Erica and I took a nap on some lounge chairs outside on the lifeboat deck, which was quiet and calming. Just as a Caribbean vacation should be. I wish the boat rocked more, but I do understand why they’d build these giant ships with stabilizers that jut out from the hull while the ship is moving. While our last day was relatively uneventful, that’s exactly how I wanted it to be. I miss the islands already, but there will always be other opportunities to get back.