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Caribbean Cruise: Part 4, Hurricane

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 4, Hurricane

The islands of the Caribbean may appear to be paradise, but even paradise on earth has its downside. Weather. The best and worst of weather is the story of many of the Caribbean islands. Mostly good, but there is one time of the year when fingers are crossed and prayers said. That would be during hurricane season. The one in September of 2017 was particularly nasty in the Caribbean.

And so when we had returned to Barbados from St Lucia to let off half the passengers and pick up some more for week 2, we headed for St. Maarten (Dutch side of St. Martin – the French side) and then Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We couldn’t believe what awaited us. Everything looked pristine from the sea, but up close? Another story.

We docked at Philipsburg and took a shuttle boat to the long beach that fronts the city. We were only the second boat to visit the island since Hurricane Irma hit at the beginning of September 2017. As we approached the shore, we could see the damage done by this Force 5 Hurricane. Store fronts were gone. Roofs had been ripped off and palm trees broken. All was calm when we arrived except for the sound of hammers and drills along the beach front.

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The beach at St. Philipsburg.

We walked along looking for a place on the beach, feeling a little guilty that we had come to enjoy ourselves while so many on the island had very little since the storm hit. Then, out of the door of one of the restaurants came smiling, effusive Ahmed. He guided us to his booth on the beach, pointing to the water’s edge, assuring us that he would look after our every need for the day, including the supply of his ‘world famous’ beach umbrellas and chaise lounges.

Problem is, he pointed toward some beautiful umbrellas and chairs already set up that weren’t his to rent. Wait here, he said, and he’d be right back with our beach needs. He returned not long after with umbrellas that looked as if they had barely survived a hurricane, torn, twisted and rusty from years of abuse. The chaise lounges fared no better. We ended up replacing the umbrellas a few times due to collapses.

We stuck with Ahmed and his tattered gear, paying full price because we felt bad for all his troubles. And the endless stream of hawkers continued all day. Hats, bags, jewellery and island clothing, every kind of tat known to man was flogged at ridiculously high prices. We ended up buying the lot. They played on our sympathies and it worked.

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More destruction on St. Maarten

We all took a walk into the town. I have never seen so many jewellery and gold shops on one street. We talked to a guy who was fired from the police after the hurricane. Apparently, he was guarding one of the jewellery shops and at the height of the storm rushed home because his family were in danger. When he left, a gang of Jamaican looters robbed the shop and because this guy left his post, he was fired. We were told by more than a few islanders that this happens during hurricanes. Looting gangs from Jamaica come over and wait until the storm is at its worst before looting. Some of them die trying. Madness.

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Road Town, Tortola, from the bow of our cruise ship.

After a pleasant day at the beach, we headed back to the ship and left for Tortola. A depressing sight awaited us. We moored at Road Town and went ashore to the mini bus awaiting us. We were the first ship to visit Tortola since Hurricane Irma hit. Everyone was grateful to see our money. This was to be another beach day, but we had to drive across the island to Brewers Bay to get to it.

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Some roofs fixed but ships wrecked at Road Town, Tortola.

The drive there was not jolly. None of us in the bus could believe the scale of destruction wreaked all over the island. Some of it had been cleared away by the time we got there 2 months after the storm, but the level of ruination was still palpable. Everywhere we saw people sitting beside the road, dejected and lost. Homes were blown apart. Many had roofs missing. Roads were washed away. Vehicles were slammed against houses, up in trees, blown down valleys and abandoned altogether. Boats and ships were washed up on land and torn apart. Bits and pieces of buildings, ships, cars and all kinds of detritus were everywhere. This was 2 months after Irma hit.

We arrived at the beach in silence, having witnessed what we all hope we’ll never see happen where we live, feeling deeply for all those who had suffered such loss. The beach had been cleared of debris before we arrived. It was a depressing scene, all these mini bus folk shuffling onto a beautiful beach on a hot day having just weaved our way around the destruction. But we found a spot and sat in silence for a while. We knew the islanders needed the tourists but it seemed cruel to enjoy ourselves at others’ expense.

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The beach on Tortola just before the rain.

To bring home the message, it rained. We all huddled together until it passed then settled back to wait until the mini busses came back for all of us. Some of us decided to walk along the beach, gathering up shells and conches that had been washed up on the beach during Irma. I walked a little further than the rest, off the beaten track and out of sight of everyone. I found some lovely shells. But just around the bend from the beach, the hurricane debris remained. Pieces of roof, bits of boat, all kinds of rubbish. I stopped short to take in the scene before me.

Coming back from gathering shells was a single woman in her fifties. We both saw an intact conch just in front of us. I told her to go ahead and take it. She said she felt guilty, as if she were looting. I said these were articles of nature, not someone’s goods. She said, ‘Can you believe the level of destruction on the island?’ I just shook my head. ‘I hope it gets back to normal soon.’ A bit trite, but in such cases it’s difficult to know what to say.

I brought my shell haul back to the group. We brought some of them home. They remind us of our day on Tortola and we think of the people there, hoping they are all safe and sound, in homes that have been repaired and living as best they can after the hurricane.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 2

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 2

And so to the islands. Our cruise ship, the Marella Discovery, sailed all night and the next day from Barbados to Aruba, the first of 3 of the Dutch Antilles Islands we visited. Not what I expected. I had always imagined Aruba – having remembered it from the Beach Boys song ‘Kokomo’ (no Wilsons involved) about an island off the Florida keys – as a tropical island with palm trees and monkeys and all that.

Instead, most of the island was rocks, cacti (or cactuses if you prefer), snakes (including the non indigenous boa) and scrub. You may be surprised, if you’ve never been there, to realise that I refer to Aruba. Our tour from the ship took us across the island to a place where a natural stone bridge used to be. It collapsed in 2005, but we all still troupe out there to see where it was. Don’t get me wrong, there is rugged beauty where the bridge used to be….and a gift shop, naturally.

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Part of the natural bridge that is now also condemned.

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The old natural bridge….another angle

The sea on this side of Aruba faces Venezuela which is only 18 miles south of the island. It’s a rugged sea and beats against the lava rock and coral coast mercilessly. No wonder the bridge eventually collapsed. The wind here is so strong, the coast is veritably uninhabitable. No structure can withstand the beating from the  lava and coral sand laden wind. Nothing much but scrub can grow here. Not the Aruba I had imagined.

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People pile up rocks. it’s the thing to do. I didn’t.

That Aruba is on the opposite coast where all the white beaches, 5 Star hotels and resorts can be found. Very impressive. So much so that our guide drove us past the whole lot of them, bragging about it all. Didn’t need to really. It was evident. This is why people come here. An average annual temperature of around 29 degrees celsius and virtually no rain. Guaranteed great weather the year round. A no-brainer. But from atop the Ayo Rock Formation….just another pile of Aruban rocks….all you can see for miles is scrub, more rock and cactuses. Oh, and our ship way over on the horizon.

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Our ship, on the far right, from Ayo Rock.

The other highlights were the Alto Vista Chapel, only because we got watermelon there. It was a very hot 32 degrees Celsius. And the equally exciting California Lighthouse, named after the steamship ‘California’, wrecked nearby on 23 September, 1891. The lighthouse was built-in response to the steamship’s sinking. Better late than never I suppose. I walked toward the sea to see the white dunes and watch the lizards darting across the path where I walked. Speedy little buggers they are too.

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The watermelon stand near the chapel.

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The California Lighthouse. Closed for renovation.

Aruba is part of a what is known as the ABC islands, 3 islands in a row, all 3 just off the Venezuelan coast. Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. But not in that order. C, in this case, comes before B. That’s where we sailed to next, Curaçao. Straight into the harbour, docking just before going under the very large Queen Juliana Bridge. From the upper deck of our ship, either side of the inlet looked like toy town, coloured buildings set up like doll houses. Very colourful and very clean.

Two sides of the harbour. We were docked beside the Punda District. The Ortobanda District is on the other side. Our side is more residential and the other side is all business. Very colourful businesses, but business all the same. Because of its uniqueness, the whole town of Willemstad has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apparently, all buildings had to be white a few centuries ago. It was the law. Then one island governor changed the law and said everyone was free to paint his home any colour at all. He also happened to own the town’s paint factory. Enterprising.

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Curacao, Otrobanda side.

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Curacao, Punda District.

The Punda side near the harbour had a huge square dedicated to Christmas, decorated with snowmen, a Christmas tree and even a Christmas train. Market stalls lined part of the square. I bought an island shirt at one. It seemed the thing to do. Inside the old harbour fort is another market, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. An islander played his lone steel drum on a stage set up in an open area. He was playing, ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas’. He could play until he was blue because at 30 degrees celsius, it was indeed a dream.

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Christmas on Curacao in the square.

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The Christmas Train on the square on Curacao.

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Snowmen in a row on the square in the Punda District, Curacao.

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More Snowmen. Did I mention that I love Christmas? Even in 32 degree celsius temperatures.

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The Island shirt. A must in the Islands and the first of my life.

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He’s dreaming of a white Christmas in 32C heat.

A tour guide drove us through Punda to a resort where we boarded a boat that had a compartment underneath allowing us to view the coral reef below us. They called it a mini-sub. Not quite. Anyway, everything was happening on my best friend’s side. I was looking down over a 300 foot drop. Very dark, no fish. I protested to my best friend and was called a baby. I just wanted to see some colourful fish and the Ray on her side she said they all saw. Only when our boat guide got out in his scuba gear to feed the critters did I see anything. All very lovely, but in such a confined space with the ‘mini-sub’ bobbing from side to side, I started to feel queasy. I was glad to go back up on deck.

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On the deck of the mini-sub.

From there, we drove over the Queen Juliana Bridge to Otrobando to the factory where booze is made….specifically, Curaçao Blue liqueur, made from the Laraha bitter orange citrus fruit and various spices. The blue colour comes from E133 Brilliant Blue food colouring. Not so appetizing, but it looks cool and very islandy. Nice taste. Very strong. I kept sampling the various flavours and felt quite fine after a while. I bought the Rum and Raisin flavour. It was too heavy to bring home, so I drank it in my cabin on the ship….no, not all at once.

That evening, we sailed for Bonaire, last of the Dutch Islands in this part of the Caribbean and the smallest. Most of Bonaire is a nature reserve of one type or another. We went on a tour of the Mangroves at Lac Bay. And it was a very rough ride in an open-back Mercedes truck that was about 50+ years old. Dusty road too….off-track. It was our lucky day. Half way up the rough road, the flamingos had gathered. Sometimes they do, others they don’t. Today they did, right here at the Pekelmeer. Bunches of them. They came to the shore near us and began fighting with each other. We moved on. They weren’t there on our way back.

We arrived at a beach on Lac Bay and got into a rubber raft to go through a Mangrove tunnel into a world of colourful fish, eels, Mangrove trees and upside down jellyfish. The latter look like roundish rocks on the bottom of the lake. In went our guide and came back into the rubber boat with one of the jellyfish. We passed it around, among the 8 of us. My best friend and a few others didn’t want to touch it. Yes, it was a sticky, gooey jelly thing. I felt sorry for it. It went back into the water and took its place on the bottom. No harm done. We then went looking for tortoises, saw a couple come to the surface, went back to the beach and swam until it was time to get back to the ship.

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The Mangrove Tunnel.

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A reverse jellyfish reversed.

On to Grenada, then St. Lucia. We hear about the debacle on Grenada in Part 3. And….did you know that those white sand beaches are created from a fish that eats the coral and poops out the grains, which are white. Lying on fresh, white fish poop. Why not.

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Those fish poop white dunes of Aruba.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

I think I’m the only Canadian (I am one when I need to be) of a certain age who up until the end of November hadn’t been to any part of the Caribbean. A pilgrimage had to be made sooner or later I guess. Add to that going on a cruise to visit the islands and you have the recipe for something I never thought would happen to me in my lifetime.

The occasion for this adventure was to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of my best friend’s parents. Her sister and brother-in-law came along too. Lots of fun. And other than my best friend, all the rest are seasoned cruisers. They have travelled all the best lines and are able to compare one cruising company to another. One thing’s for sure….they’re all very big ships.

We had booked the trip back in March. Seemed to be ages away at the time, but here I am, back to my own little boat, writing about a trip that has been. 2 weeks of sun, sand,  swelling seas and shopping. I could have added eating and drinking, but they don’t start with an ‘s’. Pity. And it was hot. We left Gatwick airport at 2 degrees celsius and arrived on Barbados at 32 degrees celsius. Hot, hot, hot.

Once the wings of our plane were de-iced, we were on our way. I hardly sleep when flying, so I watched some of the onboard movies. And suddenly, there it was below us….Barbados, a jewel in the ocean. We landed safely. So far, so good. And, it was one of those go-down-the-stairs de-planing. The heat hit me like a punch from Mike Tyson, except that it felt good rather than painful. The only problem was that I was dressed for English winter and not Barbados heat….32C upon landing.

The blast of hot air that hit me as I left the plane convinced me that we were truly here. An expat Canadian doing his pilgrimage to the Caribbean. It begins with queuing  for the mini buses that would take us all to the ship, the Marella Discovery, run by a company we knew as Thomson but has changed to TUI overnight. The road to the ship was full of palm trees, bread fruit trees, flowering bushes and roadside stands selling everything from beads to bananas. Colour everywhere and the occasional lizard scurrying along the roadside.

We made our way through  Bridgetown to the ship, got off the bus at the quay and queued again in a large barn to be registered before going on board. It was a very long queue on a hot day, pulling our carry-on luggage. I had my hoodie and coat draped over my arm by now. And I was sweating like 10 twats (doesn’t mean the same in England as it does in Canada). As we head to the ship, a photographer grabbed us for a portrait of our group. We all looked like we’d sagged under the weight of winter clothing and the heat of the day. Not a pretty sight.

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My Barbados persona.

Fortunately, the ship is air-conditioned. We find our way to the cabins and wait for our main suitcases to be delivered. For the entire 2 weeks, we had Milosh and Ganna looking after the cabins. Ganna didn’t understand a word I said and I had no clue what she was trying to tell me. But every day the cabin was clean and the beds were turned down at night with 2 stale chocolates on each bed. One night the towels formed a heart-shaped swan and another a monkey hanging in front of the cabin’s mirror.

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Towels made into a scary monkey.

It didn’t matter what instructions we gave to Ganna. They were always interpreted in a fashion unrelated to the request. But her beautiful smile spoke a thousand languages, brightening my days at sea. Milosh was another story. He told us he was Serbian and had worked on the ships for 8 years. He laughed at everything I said. I must be really funny or ridiculous. I’ll believe the former. The ship’s staff were generally great people, but it always felt as though we passengers were a necessary inconvenience. Cruisers tend to be very demanding. The crew lives for breaks and shore leave.

The ship is a refurb, an old Royal Caribbean cruise ship bought by Thomson. The cabin furniture is comfortable but a bit tired and worn. The refurb money must have been spent on the restaurants and entertainment areas. The spa area looks good, as does my favourite bar in the Atrium….very impressive.

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The ship’s Atrium decked out for Christmas.

The rest of the ship offered the usual pools, one out on the 9th deck and the other inside a big glass house. It is usually a very humid area. There are the usual shuffleboard and a mini-putt, table tennis, a climbing wall, shops that sell expensive stuff, bars everywhere with a variety of beverages (as many as you like with the all-inclusive package), piano bar, a running track around the top deck and the inevitable smokers corner. Guess where I spent most of my time. Rhymes with star.

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The sea from my cabin.

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The upper deck with ubiquitous sunbeds and outdoor pool below.

My very favourite spot is at the very back of the ship (the stern for all you nautical types), called the Veranda. Very peaceful, no kids allowed and lovely wicker pods with thick cushions to relax me. The only problem is that with 1800 people on board, many of them had the same idea as I did. By the time I get to the Veranda, the pods are full. I scowl at the folk occupying them, willing them to move on. No luck there. I’ll have to remember my one time in a pod. Most relaxing moment of the whole cruise.

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Yours truly in a pod.

Time to move on to the cruise itself and the 10 islands visited. Some fascinating stuff ahead. But in the meantime, have yourselves a merry little Christmas. I leave you with some of the ship’s crew wishing us all just that….

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