West Indies ports of call

Cruising is supposed to be about relaxing, but it’s often more about being busy which usually means getting off the ship and on one or more shore excursions. While we got a few sea days at the start of our cruise, at it winds down it becomes a haze of memories of various islands, most of them independent countries, here on the far eastern edge of the Caribbean Sea.

Some general impressions though should set expectations if you are planning to cruise this part of the world. First, most Caribbean islands are quite mountainous as most are volcanic and arose from the sea. Second, because they are mountainous and tend to be narrow, plus that many of these countries are not particularly rich, the roads are bad and steep with hairpin turns and narrow lanes. On most islands, the traffic moves slowly if at all because the roads can’t keep up with the number of cars. Also, almost universally, cars drive on the left because most are former or current British protectorates. This includes, strangely, the U.S. Virgin Islands. On Barbados, for example, if you want to tour the east side of the island, it means taking a lot of these back roads that are poorly marked and not well maintained. But in general all these islands are gorgeous to look at and enjoyable to visit. Most are second-world countries and the islanders are overwhelmingly Black. Many are suffering from high unemployment rates and some from civil unrest related to covid-19 and limited opportunities for its citizens.

St. Martin. More frequently referred to as Sint Maarten (Dutch spelling), the island is quite small and compact. It’s also split into a French and a Dutch side, with just one road connecting the two parts of the island. Civil unrest kept us out the the French side. It’s nice to visit but unfortunately our tour of the island revealed it was nothing special with a large gap between the haves and the have-nots.

St. Martin
St. Martin

St. Lucia. Of the islands we visited, this is the one we could most want to live on, if we were the type to prefer to live in the tropics. Pronounced LOO SHUH it looks a lot like Hawaii. It’s not as expensive as Hawaii, but a pretty expensive place to live nonetheless. It is one of the few islands in this area that is still part of the British Commonwealth. It also has two incredible natural landmarks: the volcanic cliffs of Gros Peton and Pitit Peton, with Petit Peton’s sheer cliffs dropping nearly straight down over 2000 feet into the Caribbean Sea. To sail past them was the highlight of our cruise, made all the more special by localized showers that produced a vibrant double rainbow. Plenty of resorts are here catering to well moneyed tourists. This is definitely an island to spend a week or two at if time and money give you the privilege.

Gros Peton and Pitit Peton, St. Lucia
Gros Peton and Pitit Peton, St. Lucia

Barbados. This is a sizable island by local standards but it sits so far east and south that it avoids most hurricanes. Unlike most of the other islands, its origin is not volcanic. The eastern coast, which is hard to get to, is more picturesque. The beach at Bathsheba looks a lot like Oregon’s memorable coastline, just with palm trees. The main city of Bridgetown is pricey and flashy with a huge wealth gap, but is a favorite playground for wealthy mostly North American tourists. Rhianna grew up here and has a huge and pricey seaside estate, but our tour operator also took us by the house she grew up in a lower income neighborhood.

Bathsheba, Barbados
Bathsheba, Barbados

Dominica. Pronounced DOH MEAN E KUH, this is of course a completely different country than the Dominican Republic elsewhere in the Caribbean, though just as thoroughly Black. This is an island for people that live in Seattle and want to leave because they want more rain. Parts of the island get 400 inches of rain a year. We arrived in the dry season and still got drenched a few times. Overall, it’s a poor country with an unemployment rate north of twenty percent. The capital city Roseau looks modern, but if you get off the main roads most of the housing is cheap and distressed.

Roseau, Dominica
Roseau, Dominica

St. Thomas. Part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, this was a port of call on our first cruise in 1995. The island is more bustling, bigger and busier than I remember. It’s practically a desert and was devastated by two back-to-back hurricanes a few years ago, from which is looks fully covered. Five cruise ships were in port when we were there. You can get some amazing views if you can make it to the top of its mountains where you can also see the picturesque islands that comprise the British Virgin Islands. I can see its popularity as you are technically in the United States and if you like shopping it is plentiful and prices are low. Also, there are no sales taxes. Frankly, it’s a gorgeous and modern island and feels all grown up now. Perhaps as a result though it feels somewhat conventional rather than special.

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands
St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

St. Kitts and Nevis. If you are worried about an upcoming civil war in the United States (a distinct possibility, in my opinion) and have $150K disposable, then construct a home in St. Kitts and Nevis. This will entitle you to citizenship and you can keep a dual U.S. citizenship. Land prices are cheap, and the traffic almost doesn’t exist. Certain neighborhoods like Frigate’s Bay are somewhat pricey and pretty tony. The island definitely feels like the bargain of the West Indies, plus it’s a nice and pretty island. A huge dormant volcano with rain forest dominates the island and is usually partially covered by clouds. Nevis (pronounced NEE VIS) is a twenty minute ferry ride away. Alexander Hamilton was born on Nevis and as a result could not become U.S. president, as he was not born in the United States. Close by is an island we did not visit but came close to, which is important in American history: St. Eustasius (Dutch). In 1776, the Dutch garrison here was the first to salute (by firing its cannons) at a U.S. naval vessel carrying the new American flag. This pissed off the Brits enormously, who later ransacked and burned much of the island. But as we know both the Dutch and the Americans got the last laugh.

St. Kitts from a scenic railroad
St. Kitts from a scenic railroad

And that was it for our ports of call, except for Holland America’s private island of Half Moon Cay tomorrow. We should berth in Fort Lauderdale on Sunday morning and be come an hour or two after sunset there, where snow finally paid a visit in our absence.

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