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St. Maarten/St. Marten Dec 17

Two is the key number for St. Maarten. The island has a Dutch and a French side. The port in St. Maarten (note the two “a’s”) Has two piers and they are working on doubling its capacity. They even have two tourist areas. The port, of course, serves those who don’t want to go anywhere, just show me the shops, but a pleasant half-mile walk along the road with shipyards on one side and a mountain on the other takes you to the capital with its two-street shopping area. With two ice cream stores.

St. Maartin rewards the curious shopper. The two main streets are connected by clean, crowded alleys, full of interesting shops. here are two: A little cigar and sundry shop, called Juggie’s Place. The motto on his door is “We don’t do fakes,” and it’s run by a somewhat intimidating-looking but friendly fellow. His claim to fame is that he advertises “You can use clean restrooms, free!” Apparently the islond gives you two restroom choices—be a customer, or use an uncared-for facility. He said he suddenly started getting people into his store when he offered this third alternative. He has this guy outside his door:

Rasta Claus

Rasta Claus

The watchword for this guy is the vaguely sinister admonition that you need to watch out for what he might bring you for Christmas.

The other remarkable business is an excursion available from your ship, called Snorkel Safaris. “Safari” might be a bit of an overstatement, but the two young guys (mid-20′s) who run the operation have fixed up a pretty good underwater park (scuttled some wrecks, built an underwater walkway) a few minutes by water from the port. They have a nice, well-equipped pontoon “island” equipped with a grill and coolers for beverages. They serve the best hamburger I had on the whole cruise. You get some training and gear, and spend as long as you want poking around the bay. When you’re done, they’ll drop you off in town or at the port. Money well spent. I can’t find the photo of the very photogenic couple who was with us, or I’d share it. Maybe my wife deleted it. :-)

We saw two retired America’s Cup sailboats on the way to town. St. Maartin is the only island to offer a ride on one, and you get to pick between them.

America's Cup racers

America's Cup racers

The town has a reputation for good shopping— the price one place offered on a Nikon camera body was really tempting. But the town has a million jewelry stores—at this point the theme of two breaks down.

Have you been to the French side? Tell us about it.

Antigua Dec 11

Pronounced “an tee gah, accent on the “ee” (that’s the penultimate syllable, for you grammar geeks).

If Dominica has 365 rivers, Antigua boasts 365 beaches. It also has the best harbor in the Caribbean, bar none. Admiral Lord Nelson built a naval port there, and now it’s a World Heritage Site. It was restored about 20 years ago, and it’s the finest example of Georgian architecture in the Western Hemisphere (my opinion). The harbor reaches far into the island, and by way of an S-shaped channel, so it’s even safe during a hurricane, unlike the other ports in the Caribbean.

Sailors have a long tradition of music. One song has the chorus:

I’m marching inward from the shore
Over me shoulder I’m carryin’ an oar
When someone asks me “what’s that funny thing ya got?”
I know I’ll never go to sea no more no more.

All that to mention that the song mentions Lord Nelson in one of its verses (sorry—I don’t know the exact words). He has a cure for seasickness: “Sit underneath a tree.”

Nelson's bay seen from a home on one of the hillsides.

Nelson's bay seen from a home on one of the hillsides.

Have you ever sat underneath a tree in Antigua? Tell us about it in the comments.

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Barbados Dec 09

Sounds rather like a cattle brand from southern Texas—bar-bay-dos. But it’s an island in the southern Caribbean; the eastern-most, as a matter of fact, quite a long ways from Texas.

The island is noticeably different from Dominica. Barbados, unlike many Caribbean islands, is not volcanic. It’s a pile of limestone, so the hills are low and rolling, and grass is clearly evident on the slopes. This has the advantage that the ground water on the island is drinkable—the limestone filters the water, unlike the hard basalts of the volcanic islands that let their rainwater run off.

Barbados is by far the most touristy of the islands mentioned so far in this series, and that’s saying a lot. You have to walk through a (bright, clean) shopping building to get to the tour buses, and the port is in an industrial area, so you pretty much need to take a taxi or tour bus to get anywhere.

The snorkeling is pretty good. The island is dotted with wrecks in fairly shallow water, and the sand on the beaches is a beautiful white. Beware the word “pirate,” though. It means “party, rum included.” they might take you to a nice wreck to snorkel around, but it’ll be accompanied by unbelievably loud Caribbean music and a lot of carrying on on the way back.

You'll note that not everyone on a cruise is beautiful.

You'll note that not everyone on a cruise is beautiful.

If you care to go on a more land-based excursion, a fellow named Carlos has a little shop outside the terminal. He will rent you a four-wheeled ATV and lead you to the northern tip of the island and back, and you get to stop at a nice beach or two while you’re at it. Barbados supports other water sports than diving, by the way. The east side—they call it the Atlantic side—is pretty rocky and windy and the surfing is excellent there, not to mention highly popular wind surfing on the south. Which I don’t think you can do in Texas.

Have you ever visited Barbados? Tell us about it in the comments.

More South Caribbean Dec 08

Not the Dominican Republic, but Dominica. Same root word, but completely different places. Well, different islands. They’re both tropical islands in the Caribbean, and both nice places to visit. Dominica boasts 365 rivers (compared to Antigua has 365 beaches)
Dominica is a common cruise destination, a volcanic island, and almost entirely covered by rainforest. Although the volcano is dormant, you can find a hot spring or two. One is underwater, and escaping gasses bubbling up have given it the name “champaigne reef.” It’s a popular snorkeling site.


Buildings dot the mountainsides

Dominica is one of the islands they recommend you not visit independently, but join a tour group from your cruise ship. The place does not look dangerous, but as you travel around the island you will see a lot of rusted corrugated sheet metal patchwork, peeling paint, and buildings either incomplete or utter disrepair. The streets are narrow and often steep.

A lot of homes are both occupied and extremely shabby. The building code must be a lot more casual than in the US. English is the official language, but unless you speak Creole French or Spanish, and know the island and the culture already, you will probably feel uncomfortable. And you’ll probably look like a tourist no matter what you chose to wear.
The island has some industry, particularly coconut products and bananas, not to mention tourism.
All that aside, though, the island is beautiful and the people are friendly. The tops of the unbelievably tall and steep mountains are in the clouds. Rain forest is no exaggeration, either. The dry side of the island gets maybe 50 inches of rain a year, and the wet side gets several hundred. You need all those rivers!

Found a friend in the travel blog business Dec 06

Take a look at this place. It’s a lot bigger than this humble blog, and it’s not associated with a travel club like Serenity, but it looks pretty good, full of information and experience. Here’s their blurb:

Travellerspoint – Active online community of international travellers. Travellerspoint features a wiki travel guide, forums, blogs, photography, interactive trip maps, accommodation and more. (I’d put a comma before the “and more,” but hey, I’m a curmudgeon.)

I applied to see if maybe they’d include us in their list of associates, but even if they don’t, their site is worth a look.

In other news: Look for an ezine article about costs they don’t tell you about when they advertise a cruise. It should be out in about a week. Start saving up—the fare is the least of your worries.

Have you found another good travel site? Mention it in the comments.