New Southern Seas

Iguana trolling for tipsby Mary Jo Silversea Wind cruise

I like having four seasons, I like when the snow lies on the ground 'deep and crisp and even,' and I don't mind sunny days with sub-freezing temperatures. Nonetheless, a mid- winter break to a warmer place is always welcome, and often that means a Caribbean cruise.

This year's cruise started in Panama, followed the Central American coast north, and visited Cozumel and Key West before ending in Ft. Lauderdale. We chose it because the itinerary included places we'd never been before.

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Sailing the Southern Seas

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

Serious birdwatchers keep life lists of all the varieties of birds they've observed, and I've known travelers who keep track of all the countries they've visited.  I don't actually keep count, but I've certainly noticed that if you want to build up the list of countries you've visited, the Caribbean is a great place to travel.  So many islands, most of them sovereign nations, and each with its own history and identity.

Which is how I was able to add four new countries to my list on our recent cruise on the Windstar MSYWind Star, a combination sailing and motor yacht that carries only 148 passengers.  (It was the first ship of the Windstar Cruise line, so it can get confusing. <G>)  

I've been on cruise ships of all sizes from the Queen Mary II down to a sailboat with only the Mayhem Consultant and me and the British couple who sailed the boat, and I can honestly say that all were well run and very enjoyable.  But I have a particular fondness for small ships, whether Windstar or Viking or Lindblad/National Geographic or UniWorld.  I'm never keen on crowds, plus on a smaller ship, it's easier to get acquainted with interesting fellow passengers, and easier to get on and off.  

We left Barbados at dusk on a Saturday afternoon, one of six cruise ships docked in a U Unfurling the sailsshape.  The ships peeled off one by one.  We were the smallest.  It's usual to have a "sail away" party on deck with music and free drinks as the ship heads out to sea.  This sail away was special because once we were well away from the island, the sails were unfurled while the most wonderful music was played.  I had to find out what it was, and discovered it was Vangelis's theme for the movie 1492: The Conquest of Paradise.  Here's a video playing the theme with powerful images of the movie intercut with images of Vangelis and other musicians as they played.  It was REALLY great theater!  My all time favorite sail away. (The sails are motorized, or it would take a much larger crew to sail the ship.)

Caribbean islands overview mapWe visited Barbados, St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.  (That last country could be a rock music group. <G>) All had been British colonies.  (Map to the left by KMusser, from Wikipedia.  The islands we visited were all in the lower right corner.  Click on the map to make it larger.)  


As an Anglophile by inclination and profession, I love seeing the British elements that have gone into shaping each individual country.  (The same is true in Bermuda, Jamaica, and the British Virgins, other British influenced islands I've visited.)  Typically they are divided into parishes that are formed around the Anglican churches built by the early settlers.  They have names like St. Michael's Parish or St. Peter's.  (Almost always male saints, but there was a St. Lucy's on Barbados, I think.  <G>)

Barbados and cats 2015 140This picture from Barbados shows a common theme on all these islands:  Cannons and fortresses for defense, since all these islands were fought over, not infrequently changing colonial masters.  I've already blogged about how the Caribbean islands were passed around so I won't go into that here. Suffice it to say that the British ended up with a lot of the islands in the Southern Caribbean, the French acquired islands such as Martinique and Guadeloupe,  and the Dutch landed several, also.  

St. LuciaMany of these islands became independent in recent decades because the desire for freedom is powerful, but small countries can be on shaky economic ground.  The ones we visited all retained helpful ties with the UK, and they largely rely on tourism.  

But each island is unique and delightful.  This picture was taken from a grand mansion on St. Lucia, a ruggedly volcanic island.  We visited the mansion, owned by one of the island's most powerful families, when doing a tour of the island.  (With most cruises, there are a variety of land excursions you can take.  Sometimes free, more often at an additional charge.  The Mayhem Consultant and I tend to choose overview tours that show us a fair amount of a place.) 

Usually the Wind Star would leave St. Lucia at 3:00 in the afternoon to head for her next destination. But THIS was SuperBowl Sunday!  An American cultural rite not to be ignored.  So the Wind Star spent the night moored on St. Lucia, and arranged for a large screen TV to be set up outside a nice beach bar so that football fans could watch and eat and drink and hoot and holler together.  I'm not at all a fan, but I thought that was a pretty nice thing to do for people who actually care about football.

I was bemused to see the reception area plastered with banners for the Seattle Seahawks, and not anything for the New England Patriots.  Wouldn't it be more fair minded to have both teams represented? Then I learned that Windstar is based in Seattle, so fairness didn't come into it. <G>

Grenada, called the Spice Island, is as lush a place as I've ever seen. They supply 20% of A Barbados Buffetthe world supply of nutmeg as well as producing cinnamon, cloves, mace, bananas, organic cocoa, coffee, and more.  The central highlands are a secondary rain forest where different crops are intermingled, which is healthier than monoculture, which is the practice of planting masses of the same crop.  This makes them vulnerable to disease.

They also have the famous St. Georges University where Americans who want to become doctors study if they failed to get admitted to a US university.  It's a good school, too.  We shared a dinner with a couple where the husband had graduated from St. Georges and now has a successful practice as an ENT in New Jersey.  The University has grown tremendously in recent years, with many foreign students bringing money to Grenada. We were told that the university represents 20% of the island's GDP.  (!)

Barbados and cats 2015 251But tourism is by far the most substantial source of revenue, and the islands do it well, each with its own special flavor.  I loved Bequia (pronounced Beck-way), a small island in the St. Vincent and the Grenadines archipelago. One of the lovely things about a small ship is that it's possible to visit small islands that could never accommodate the giant cruise ships with thousands of passengers and crew.  The residents of Bequia were wonderfully warm and welcoming.  In fact, these four tour guides tended to break into song with dance moves when we stopped at different sites.  They were pretty good, too! 

The Grenadines contained the sort of beautiful, unspoiled tropical islands that we dream of.  In fact, scenes from the Pirates of the Caribbean movies were shot on some of the islands.  

I'd always thought it would be marvelous to explore the Caribbean on a sailing ship, and I was right.  The Wind Star used motor power when necessary, but unfurled the sails whenever possible.  Not only is wind power silent and free, but it made the passengers Elephant towelshappy.  

So as I gaze out my window at Mid-Atlantic snow and watch the temperature drop, I dream of sailing the southern seas in comfort, with good food and much pampering.  Really, cruising doesn't get much better than this!  (Often cabin stewards will make towel critters when they make up your cabin. That cute little elephant to the left is a good example.  Fun!)

If you could fly away for a warm winter vacation, where would you go?  The Caribbean?  Florida?  Arizona?  Or would you rather go to Colorado MJP at Sailawayand ski?  <G>  Let me know so we can share our holiday dreams.

Mary Jo at the Sail Away. For the record, I was drinking ice water but the Mayhem Consultant insisted on lending me his rum punch since that was more in the spirit of the occasion. <G>

Islands of Dreams

Cat 243 Dover by Mary Jo

“Caribbean!”  Just the name evokes heat and mystery and beauty and treasure.  There’s a reason why the Disney movie trilogy wasn’t Pirates of Long Island Sound! 

Having recently spent a lovely week there, I thought it would be fun to riff on the islands so those who are snow and ice bound can dream a little.

I love the beauty and variety of the Caribbean islands.  There are thousands of islands, some very sizeable like Cuba, Santa Domingo, and Puerto Rico, others not much more than jagged shipping hazards. Some belong to adjacent mainland countries, some are independent, but many are overseas territories of European countries.

Caribbean Islands Caribbean islands come in two flavors: flat and sandy, or rugged, volcanic, and dramatic. The Virgin Islands are of the jagged volcanic variety, and they're fabulously scenic.  

Looking from a beach on Virgin Gorda ("Fat Virgin"), one can see half a dozen islands scattered around a watery channel that was once called “Freebooters Gangway.”  Later it was later renamed “Sir Francis Drake Channel” because Drake sailed through with some regularity in his career as sea captain, explorer, privateer, and even, sometimes, an unblushing pirate.

We often head to the islands in midwinter to get recharged with sunshine and Virgin Gorda sunset warmth. In recent years, we keep going back to the British Virgin Islands because they are amazingly peaceful and beautiful.  The American Virgins are equally beautiful, but much busier because until recently, Americans could vacation there without a passport.

When I sent a friend a picture of the place on Virgin Gorda where we stayed two weeks ago, she asked in amazement, “Is the water really that color?”

Yes.  It really is turquoise and indigo and other amazing shades.  I never tire of Virgin Gorda from Gorda Peak
watching the sea there.  The Mayhem Consultant and I have a code phrase for Caribbean vacations: “Rum drinks with fruit on sticks!”

Tourism is the big industry in the area now, and they do it very, very well.  But delightful as it is to walk a sandy beach with the waves splashing over your feet, it’s also fun to look at the history.

Christopher Columbus was the first European to discover the islands now known as the Virgins.  He called the Caribbean islands in general the West Indies because he thought he’d reached India.  Ooops. <G>   At the time, the Carib Indians were the main inhabitants, and the sea takes its name from them. 

The Virgin Islands were named after St. Ursula and her 11,000 virgin handmaidens, all British_virgin_islands flag 3 of whom were slain by pagans.  If you look at the BVI flag, you’ll see a maiden with 11 lamps, each standing for a thousand virgins.  (Hard to get all 11,000 on one flag.  Though I did find an account of St. Ursula that said maybe she’d had only a single handmaiden, and the number was inflated. <G>)

In the age of sail, explorers were always landing places and making claims.  For a mainland American example, the state of Delaware was first settled by the Dutch.  A few years after they were killed off, the Swedes moved in and established a colony called, rather unimaginatively, New Sweden.  17 years later the Dutch returned and took over, creating New Netherland. 

A few years after that, the English defeated the Dutch, and it wasn’t long before the territory was being squabbled over by the Duke of York, William Penn of Pennsylvania, and Cecil Calvert, the proprietor of Maryland.  No wonder colonial history is so confusing! 

DSCN0865 The Spanish, French, Dutch, English and Danes were always stomping around the Caribbean laying claim to various bits of real estate.  The large islands of the Greater Antilles are nation size.  In fact, Santo Domingo contains two sovereign nations: Haiti and the Dominican Republic. 

The small islands were good strategically for pirates and traders and fortresses.  (But a deadly military post because of the high death rate from diseases.) 

Many went through multiple ownership.  English, French, Spanish, and Dutch are spoken in different islands, along with different creole languages

Though Spain got a good head start ("the Spanish Main"), I believe that the British ended up with the largest number of islands, most of them considered overseas territories of the United Kingdom.

But there are also the French and Dutch Antilles.  The Danish West Indies ended in 1917 when they sold their islands to the US for $25 million dollars.  A bargain at the price since those islands are now the American Virgin Islands.  The principal town is named Charlotte Amalie after a seventeen century Danish queen.

Copper Mine Virgin Gorda The Virgins were discovered by an Italian, Columbus, who sailed for Spain.  (The picture to the left shows the ruins of a 19th century copper mine on Virgin Gorda.)

The first European settlers were the Dutch.  They didn't manage to hang onto the Virgins, but they were great sailors and retained their share of islands.  They found the Caribbean a convenient midpoint between the Dutch colonies of Surinam and New Amsterdam (modern New York City.)  They also ruled what is now Indonesia.  They were seriously good at the colonial game! 

Sint Maarten--St. Martin The Netherlands Antilles include the island of Sint Maarten/ Saint-Martin. And it’s shared with the French.  The Spanish got to the island first, but later both France and Holland claimed the island.  It’s said (this may be folklore) that territory was divided by choosing a Frenchman and Dutchman to start walking from the same place in opposite directions.  Where they met on the other side became the opposite end of the dividing line between the territories. 

Perhaps the Frenchman had longer legs which is why the French section is larger. At the time, the French said the Dutchman walked more slowly since he refreshed himself with fierce gin rather than civilized wine, like the Frenchman.  The Dutch said the Frenchman cheated by running part of the way.  International diplomacy is often not polite.  <G>
Sint Maaren/St. Martin is the smallest island in the world to belong to two different nations.  We stayed there once.  It’s one of the flat sandy islands, with great beaches.  It was fun to move Dutch to French and back again.

Salt Cay 075_edited-1 The Bahamas and the Turks & Caicos Islands aren’t technically in the Caribbean since they’re further north (and not quite so reliably warm in winter), but they have plenty of beautiful beaches and frozen rum drinks.  The very small T&C island of Salt Cay was once the world’s largest supplier of salt, which was produced with evaporation ponds.  We’ve stayed there, too.  <g>  The donkeys were citizens of Salt Cay.

Salt Cay 054 I was fascinated to learn that singer Jimmy Buffet of “Margaritaville” was the grandson of one of the salt ship captains, a man also named James Buffet.  So when Buffet did an album called “Son of a Son of a Sailor,” he was entitled.

So many islands!  So many tales!  So many frozen fruity rum drinks!  Have you visited a Caribbean island?  Would you like to?  If so, which one?  Share the sunshine!

Mary Jo