by Mary Jo
The Mayhem Consultant and I like to take winter vacations to warmer, sunnier places, and that generally means the Caribbean, which can be reached from Maryland with a mere four hour flight. The warmth and sunshine are reliable, but the bonus is that the Caribbean is like a spilled jewel box of islands, each with its own unique character.
This year's main vacation was a cruise on a Windstar ship, the Star Legend. Because it carries only 212 passengers, the ship can visit small, out of the way islands. Such islands don't have large modern ports, so passengers usually go ashore on tenders, which adds to the fun.
This particular cruise started and ended in Puerto Rico, which is the gateway to the Eastern Caribbean. Cruise ships sail from San Juan and there are small planes that fly out to farflung islands. I cherish the memory of our first visit to Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands, when our 10 passenger plane included a caged rooster sitting on luggage behind the seats. As you might imagine, he was not a happy rooster, but he made it safely to his new home. <G>
Antiqua San Juan
Over the years we've spent scattered days in San Juan while coming and going from vacations, but this time we decided to go two days early, partly to visit an old college friend who is a professor at the university and also as a buffer against possible bad weather that might interfere with leaving Baltimore. (This turned out to be unnecessary--there's been virtually no snow this winter. But I like to be prepared for the worst because sometimes we've been hit with blizzards when we're trying to escape .)
In San Juan, we decided to stay at a hotel in the historic area, called El Convento. which is literally a 350 year old Carmelite convent built across the street from the oldest cathedral in North America. I'm told there were tunnels to allow the nuns to go to the cathedral in privacy.
There has been a lot of remodeling since the nuns left, and the hotel rooms are beautiful, not tiny cells. But the really spectacular part is the courtyard, where meals are served under gorgeous trees. Heaven to have a late lunch after flying in from the US!
Originally founded by Ponce de Leon, Old San Juan has narrow streets and steep hills and not much parking, but it's beautiful and rich with history. Puerto Rico ("Rich Port") itself is fascinating: as a commonwealth of the United States, there is a lot of American influence and a lot of bilingual people, but the country is very much itself, with a proud Hispanic history. We want to return to El Convento as part of future getaways.
One of the first visits on our cruise was Gustavia, the capital of St. Barthélemy, a French island and known as a hangout for the glittering rich. I didn't know much about it other than the rugged island's only airport has such a short runway that only six passenger planes can land, and when they fly in over the rugged mountains, the pilot has to cut the engine and glide onto the runway! Strong men who have climbed mountains and dived from airplanes admit to being terrified. Above is a picture and yes, the runway really is that short!
The glittering part was true, too. The harbor was packed with yachts and the main street was one world class boutique after another: Hermes, Bulgari, Louis Vuitton, and other brands I'm too provincial to recognize. <G>
But what impressed me the most was getting off the tender and seeing a Windstar crewman pushing a small trolley with a very, very large fish on it. See that tail? I asked what he had and was told it was a mahi mahi and yes, it would be dinner on board ship that night. Sure enough, this placard with the chef's dinner special showed up a few hours later. <G>
All of the islands were interesting, but the one that impressed me the most was Montserrat, about which I had known absolutely nothing. I thought it was a French island because of the name, but in fact it is a British Overseas Territory. (A lot of the Caribbean islands changed hands over the years in a colonial version of musical chairs.)
Montserrat was nicknamed the Emerald Island of the Caribbean both because of its lush greenery and because of the number of Irish who settled there. Apparently Gaelic was spoken in places on the island into the 19th century, and we were told it's the only country besides Ireland where St. Patrick's Day is a legal holiday.
But what makes Montserrat so memorable is what the island has suffered. Hurricane Hugo blasted the island in 1989, leaving 90% of the population homeless. One of the things destroyed was the recording studio built by Sir George Martin, manager of the Beatles. Many famous musicians, from the Rolling Stones to Paul McCartney to Jimmy Buffet had recorded albums there, enjoying a world class studio in a tropical paradise.
But worse was to come. In 1995, a long dormant volcano in the southern section of the island erupted and continued its destruction for years. About 60% of the island was covered with lava and ash and the 18th century island capital, Plymouth, was completely destroyed. The majority of the population left the island and much of it is now an exclusion zone where entry is forbidden.
We were lucky enough to hire a tour guide who was a retired police officer. He'd been one of the first people on the island to discover the eruption, and he was in charge of the evacuation. Relatively few islanders died--about 21, he said--but the beautiful, prospering island was devastated. Slowly, stalwart islanders are rebuilding and there will be a new capital at Little Bay. This is one island I will not forget.
Jost Van Dyke:
Our last port of call ended the cruise on a much lighter note. Jost Van Dyke is the smallest of the four main islands of the British Virgins. It's only three square miles and very rugged, with only about 300 residents. Several times we vacationed on Tortola, the largest island in the BVI and only about five miles away. We saw Jost floating in the distance like Bali Hai, but getting there is complicated and we never made it over.
This time, we finally reached Jost Van Dyke. I'd contacted a local taxi company to hire a driver and guide, and the charming woman who arranged our trip joined us on our journey, which went up and over the hills and brought us to Foxy's, a well known local beach bar, where we had lunch. All the people we met were wonderfully friendly and it was fun all the way.
A bonus was the sea grapes I saw at Foxy's. Somewhere between a shrub and a tree, sea grapes love beaches and are found throughout the Caribbean, but for the first time ever, I saw them bearing fruit. And yes, they do look very much like grapes. The green turns purple and it's said that the fruit has a lovely taste. Maybe next time I'll find a some sea grape preserves.
For surely there will be a next time because there are still many islands we haven't seen!