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 Wind 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 shape. 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.)
We 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>)
This 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.
Many 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 the 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. (!)
But 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 happy.
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!)
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>