I’d be lying if I said I saw much of Aruba. I’d also be lying if I said I saw much of its capital city Oranjestad, except in panorama from the observation deck of our cruise ship. I did experience the shopping areas within a few blocks of the cruise terminal. A true encounter with Aruba will require a second and extended visit, not one that starts with a submarine ride out in a reef in mid morning, an hour or two in a mall near the cruise terminal in the WiFi hotspot, plus some time shopping to prove you were somewhere exotic. As far as marketing is concerned, the Aruba Chamber of Commerce at least is consistent. Their motto is “Aruba: One Happy Island”. It is hard to argue otherwise. Its logo adorns almost all the T-shirts, hats, trinkets and other stuff that goes home with tourists.
Of the three adjacent Dutch “ABC” islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao) that hug the Venezuelan coast, Aruba definitely matches your mental image of what an Caribbean island should look like. It looks a lot like Miami Beach, at least in better times with its golden and sandy beaches, aquamarine water close to shore and blue water a bit further out, palm trees lining its popular beaches (probably planted there to draw tourist traffic) and a mixture of well-moneyed tourists and residents jamming its streets. For an island of about a hundred thousand people, Oranjestad itself looks like it has more residents than that. It comes across as a large city, certainly bigger than Willemstad on Curacao. Moreover it is a stylish city. It’s easy to tell the tourists from the residents. The tourists are largely Americans or Canadians, and we are in shorts and T-shirts and our bellies precede us by a significant amount. We are also largely Caucasian. The residents frankly look a whole lot better. They are stylish and for the most part slim, mostly mixed Caribbean in the darker hues. They are not just stylish but overall they are attractive and look very healthy. It must be due to the tropical fruits that they eat. I do my best not to lear at attractive women. I was having a hard time Friday. Sorry dear, if one of these slim dark brown goddesses in high heels and slit skirts gave me a come hither look, you’d be history.
If Willemstad on Curacao is the Caribbean’s nexus, Oranjestad is its Los Angeles, minus the air pollution. In fact, residents of LA sick of the pollution might want to move to Aruba instead. It’s just as dry and sunny, and it has all its fashion with fewer of its bums and winos. And frankly, the view in pretty much every direction is satisfying for lovers of the tropics. While it lacks a tropical rainforest and much in the way of rain, it makes up for in its beaches, water, general cleanliness and general prosperity.
The ABC islands do have their language in common: Papiamento. Unsurprisingly, English is widely used in the tourist areas. One difference in Aruba is that it has its own currency. The U.S. dollar is widely used too, but the official currency is the Arubian Florin. At our other ports of call, dollars were the official currency. Shops may not accept dollars, as we found out at a local Subway, but plastic seems to work instead.
Aruba is clearly growing, as evidenced by the new construction near the cruise port with luxury condos under construction. As in Curacao, Americans are likely to find their favorite brands here, including two Starbucks with a couple of blocks of each other. The local mall was definitely high end. Also conveniently available are port side casinos and slow traffic on roads near the cruise port.
With its dry climate, vegetation tends to be more bush-like than tree-like. There are no mountains, but there are hills that look like mountains, sometimes poking up in relatively flat areas.
I do expect to be back to Aruba someday. If you like tropical ports of call, you will feel quite at home.
Just to the west of Bonaire is the island of Curacao (pronounced Kew-uh-so), the biggest island of these former Dutch colonies in the south Caribbean. It is about forty miles long and averages about five miles in width. It is also likely the most vibrant: populous (it has over a hundred thousand people), prosperous and probably the place to be down here. There are four languages spoken on Curacao: Dutch, English, Spanish and the native language, which is a mixture of all of the above plus Portuguese. They borrow words from each but over the course of time many have been been bastardized. That’s a lot of languages for the populace to learn, which is why people born here have to learn all of them except Portuguese. This has some great advantages. Residents are fluent in multiple languages, probably unlike any other country on the globe. Tourists can usually speak and be understood. All that linguistic fluency also facilitates commerce. A lot of commerce passes through Curacao. It makes a compelling destination not just for tourists but for anyone passing through the Caribbean. The Middle East has Dubai. Although smaller, arguably, Curacao is the Dubai of the Caribbean: it is its center of life, commerce and culture.
So it’s interesting to stand at a street corner in Curacao for a while and hear the various languages spoken around you. Most of the signs are in English, although many are in Dutch and some are in Spanish. English is a practical choice for most signs because it is the world’s de facto global language and also because the oversize presence of the United States in the Caribbean. As in Bonaire, the U.S. dollar is the currency in use and it is used to price everything.
American tourists will feel completely at home in Curacao. There is a Starbucks near the cruise terminal, but also McDonalds, Burger King, KFC, Subway, Pizza Hut and many other American brands. And yet Curacao is still exotic. Take the Punda, a shopping district along a shipping canal in Willemstad, the chief city and the country’s capital. The canal and the area around it is just a neat place to hang out. All sorts of colorful merchant houses line the canal and the area. What makes it exotic is its waterfront and its large open air vegetable market. At the Punda, you can also walk onto boats that carry vegetables and other items from Venezuela, about sixty miles away. Need something exotic, perhaps an exotic snake? Ask one of the vendors from Venezuela and they will arrange to deliver it in a subsequent port call. This is the kind of capitalism Ayn Rand would definitely approve of.
There is a landmark of sorts in Curacao: the Queen Juliana Bridge that towers well above the canal, allowing large ships to get to the Parera, something of an inland bay but mostly the site of a huge oil refinery. The refinery is just enormous and you can’t possibly miss it. You can see its plumes of smoke from the refinery and bright gas flames from its vent stacks. These put out quite a bit of refinery smoke, most of which appears to drift out to sea. If there is a downside to Curacao, it is the refinery. It is like a bit of New Jersey was plopped down into the middle of the island. Still, the refinery is impressive to look at.
Otherwise, Curacao feels a lot like home, just very tropical. There is elegant housing here. If you are a drug lord you can make yourself a nice home on a hill around here without anyone caring. All it takes is money. While still part of a larger Dutch commonwealth, Curacao is its own independent country, so it feels free to allow drug lords and offshore banks to make their homes there. It certainly doesn’t feel crime ridden. It feels safe and well managed. It also feels prosperous. It has poor residents too, but they at least they get treated decently, unlike in the United States. There is good subsidized housing available and if they stay there long enough they can buy the property for bargain rates of $6,000 to $10,000 from the government. I don’t think Ayn Rand would like this aspect of Curacao. Unlike the United States, which is just now catching up, national health insurance comes are part of being a citizen too. Any citizen of Curacao is lucky to live there.
One other unique aspect of Curacao impressed me: a pontoon bridge that spanned the canal. It’s a pedestrian-only bridge. Most bridges have a draw bridge to allow water traffic through. This one swings horizontally. It serves a vital purpose of connecting two banks of the Punda.
We had two activities to keep us busy and which also allowed us to see much of the eastern side of the island. In the morning we visited some caves inside limestone cliffs near the airport. We have toured many caves over the years and this one was no more impressive than the last one we toured in the Caribbean island of Jamaica. However, it was unusual as you had to ascend to get into it. Curacao is the result millions of years of coral reefs compression. In short, it’s made of limestone, basically compressed coral, that was slowly pushed up over so many eons. The caves were once underwater but now are well above the water.
We also took in a sunset cruise, which involved a bus trip to Caracas Bai (Bay). That area of Curacao is where the well-moneyed people and tourists live. There are lots of opportunities to enjoy life on the water. We saw sailboats and windsurfers, restaurants along the bay and five-star resorts. It looked like a good life indeed if you can afford it and you like a tropical climate. Like Bonaire, because of the coral reefs around this island, diving opportunities exist here too. The climate is about the same as Bonaire as well: dry and hot, although brisk winds today made being outside quite pleasant, despite the heat. Perhaps I missed them on Bonaire, but on Curacao it’s hard to miss the many cacti on the island.
Our last stop is Aruba, just to Cucacao’s west, then a two and a half day non-stop cruise back to Fort Lauderdale, and then home where record cold and snow await our return. We might just refuse to get off the cruise ship.
It turned out that the island of Bonaire, relatively just a spitting distance from the northern coast of South America, is not quite the Hawaii of the Caribbean as I had heard. The Dominican Republic was definitely more tropical, in the sense that it was lusher. At least in this way Bonaire is more like Hawaii: it is more prosperous. This is probably due to it being settled by the Dutch instead of the Spaniards. The official language is Dutch, the unofficial language is English and is what most people speak and what most of the signs are in. Dollars are what are in the cash registers and listed as prices, at least among the tourist areas of the city next to the cruise port, Kralendijk. You can find modest traffic jams in Kralendijk, a factor of a surplus of yield and stop signs and a lack of traffic lights, but also due to a shortage of four lane roads. It’s just at thirteen degrees or so of northern latitude. I checked on an atlas on the cruise ship and Bonaire happens to be the furthest south I have ever been, beating out even a trip to Manila in 1987.
At least its port city Kralendijk (really more of a neighborhood) did not come with yet another Margaritaville. In fact, I heard no Jimmy Buffet music whatsoever from shops along the tourist district. This suggested a Caribbean island with some class. There are a few chain stores on this island like a KFC, but most of the businesses seem to be one of a kind. Its small downtown strip is mostly anchored around Kava Carlos A. Nicollas Street, and includes a modest number of restaurants and boutiques. The sun rides high in the sky here, even in winter, so for us pasty white Americans it meant putting on a heavy coat of sunscreen. (We did cackle a bit learning that the temperature at home hit seventeen today and there were three inches of new snow on the ground.) Geography keeps hurricanes and a lot of rain from falling in this part of the south Caribbean. Which means that the island is at least as brown as green and tropical trees are relatively few with scrub bushes more prevalent. There are no mountains on Bonaire, but there is a hill on the north side of the island that look mountain-like due to its jagged features and lack of deciduous vegetation. The island itself is about eighteen miles long, shaped like a boomerang, and about three miles wide on average. You would expect that such a relatively flat island would be surrounded by shallow seas, but that is not the case. The beaches quickly deepen as evidenced by the densely blue seas close to shore. Getting out of the surf, as we discovered, is a bit of a challenge unless you ascend on a relatively modestly sloped spit of beach. You must also be careful when snorkeling to avoid touching the coral reefs, unless you want lacerated skin.
So Bonaire is not Hawaii, but it is quite pretty. Perhaps due to its distance from the continental United States, it seems amazingly clean and natural. Its waters are crystal clear, aquamarine in the shallower areas and deep blue elsewhere. For divers, Bonaire is something of a paradise with many healthy coral reefs to explore, mostly on the leeward side of the island. If you like proximity to the ocean, it has much to offer.
Is there industry in Bonaire? If there was much beyond the tourist business it was not obvious. Offshore banking is a big feature of many Caribbean islands. It would not surprise me if there were a few on this island too, such as we found on Grand Turk. Overall the economy is good, as evidenced by its first world standards. But overall its population is modest. We were one of two cruise ships in port. By hosting us, we had temporarily doubled the island’s population. The only other industry I noted was its salt works on the south side of the island. Grand Turk had salt works as well but it wasn’t profitable enough to remain in business, and closed in 1967. Not so in Bonaire.
Those looking for a first world place in the Caribbean to retire to should consider Bonaire. We saw houses under construction near the airport, many with private docks for owner’s boats. Given the island’s absence of hurricanes, its tropical and generally dry climate, and the prevalence of English on the island, it would make a compelling retirement destination for many Americans who want some of the benefits of Hawaii without the long flying times and higher prices.
Every American child learns that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. Most though have no idea exactly where Columbus first touched down in the New World. I had heard it was somewhere in the Bahamas. Close, but no cigar. Columbus and his sailors first landed on Grand Turk, a small island about seven miles long and three miles wide, south and east of the Bahamas. He actually came ashore on the leeward (westward) side of Grand Turk, which today is one island in a British protectorate of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is a bit north and east of Cuba.
I happen to know this not because I had studied this obscure fact, but because we paid for a driving tour of Grand Turk on Sunday. During the driving tour you quickly learn that there is not a whole lot to do on Grand Turk, and few things that a tourist will find noteworthy. In fact, its pier where our ship the MS Noordam docked was the center of excitement on this small island.
The shops abutting its pier are apparently typical of what you will see around cruise ports in the Caribbean. There are opportunities to get plastered, opportunities to buy duty free liquor and get plastered later, opportunities to buy jewelry, watches and T-shirts, and many many opportunities to hear loud Jimmy Buffet recordings. Margaritaville is apparently something of a cruise port chain in the Caribbean. Just head toward the sound of Jimmy Buffet’s voice coming from the public address speakers and there is a good chance you are near a Margaritaville store. I figure Mr. Buffet must be obscenely rich, if only from the royalties from having his music played so often in Caribbean cruise ports. The Margaritaville store appealed to us not for Jimmy Buffet, whose music I mostly find annoying, but for its public WiFi. When you see a bunch of young adults with their smartphones in hand on the concrete outside a store in a Caribbean port, that’s a sign it’s got public WiFi. It was there that I was able to check email and put out my last blog post. (It is also possible on board, but the cost is so usury as to dissuade all but the most well moneyed passengers.)
As for our tour of Grand Turk, the highlight was definitely the beach where Columbus first landed in the Americas. The curious thing about it though is that while it should be a major tourist attraction, it isn’t. I quizzed our tour guide specifically. Was this really the first place Columbus landed? Yes, he said, but he did not point out any obvious marker. Instead he took us into St. Mary’s “cathedral” near the spot, actually the second of three churches on this small island of less that five thousand. The cathedral had some nice stained glass, but is otherwise an unimpressive and small Anglican/Episcopal church. Our tour of the island revealed a second world British protectorate, rather typical of islands in the Caribbean. Most of the roads were paved but some were not. Few houses met the construction standards common in the United States. Concrete block houses were typical instead. This should render these homes relatively hurricane-proof, but the last major hurricane that came through with two hundred plus mile an hour winds damaged ninety-eight percent of the buildings on the island. Many of these houses are still not repaired or are only partially repaired. Many others were totally destroyed. Jackasses (burros in this case, not people) wandered freely around the island, along with many mostly mangy dogs and wild horses. They were all communal property. Our tour included an unimpressively small limestone quarry, a beach at low tide, and an abandoned salt farm in an estuary. So aside from being the site where Columbus first encountered the New World, there is not much in Grand Turk to recommend a visit. By the way, it is called Grand Turk not because the Turks established a foothold in the New World. They never did. However, there is a native plant that resembles a Grand Turk’s hat, which is how it got its name.
Overnight we headed east and slipped into the Atlantic timezone. Morning found us approaching the Dominican Republic, part of two countries that make up the island of Hispaniola (the other being Haiti). Haiti’s reputation for poverty is well known, which makes the Dominican Republic the better destination for tourists. Samana (the accent is on the last syllable) is a reasonably attractive tourist destination, although its small pier requires cruise ships to use tenders to ferry passengers. The area around the pier is quite nice. Local authorities made sure there were residents in native costumes dancing by the pier as we disembarked. Yet appearances can be deceiving. You don’t have to wander more than a few blocks from the major roads to find the real Dominican Republic, which is much like Grand Turk, only lusher. Hispaniola is a mountainous tropical rainforest by nature. Paved roads are relatively few. We took a tour that included something really adventurous: zip lining much of the way down a mountain. This required our tour bus to get off the major roads and onto crazily pot-holed back roads instead.
Here is the real Dominican Republic: unpainted concrete houses within inches of the road that are small and generally have holes for windows, but no actual windows. Their roofs tend to be corrugated metal. As in Jamaica, many of the houses are long term construction projects designed to be inhabited in a few decades after their owners of modest means and inability to borrow money finish constructing them. Expect chickens in the yards, horses and ponies in backyards, stray dogs, shacks butt up against the roads peddling a variety of wares, and transportation typically via motorcycle or hoofed animal over pot-holed roads. Nonetheless the natives are friendly and usually waved to us as we passed by. The roads though were major kidney punchers, made more so when our vehicles traversed incredibly steep inclines to get us to the top of the mountain for our zip line descent.
We toured with a laid back American man named Terry, who runs a business in Samana under his name. Partnering with Terry, whose tour is not one sponsored by Holland America, turned out to be a smart move. Our tour took us into the country and showed us the real Dominican Republic. It included lunch at a native restaurant next to a beach, which meant a small shack with gaps between slats, a charcoal grill and picnic tables under tropical fronds. The restaurant was definitely not AAA approved but was next to a beautiful beach. The natives take this for granted but they should not. With bread fruit and other fruits available for free just for picking, one could lead a life of leisure for almost no money and yet not feel impoverished. And the people, overwhelmingly black and Spanish speaking, are genuinely hospitable to visiting tourists. They do want to sell you goods and services for a few extra bucks, which they really appreciate.
The highlight of the day was zip lining down a mountain. This involves getting into a harness and going down gentle inclines of steel cables over tropical valleys and gorges. There are times when being on heart medicines is an advantage. Monday was a such a day. My beta blocker made me largely unafraid to take the plunge. There were about a dozen stations down the Samana Zipline. We tourists got the extra protection plan where we rode two steel cables at once, just in case one were to break, which seemed unlikely as it never happened before. It was a nervy thing to do but once you do one you lose all fear of the rest, except possibly for the abrupt braking maneuver as you reach the next platform. While it lasts the view is fantastic and the air bracing. Our guides like to show off, used only one line and often hung upside down as they moved from station to station. I am someone who is naturally cautious by nature and vertigo challenged, so this activity did not come easily. Still, this was about as much fun as you can have on an excursion. It was made better when at the bottom it was just a short walk to a small pool and waterfall. I happily swam in the pool and enjoyed cool waterfall cascading over my head. Native boys hoped for a couple quick dollars escorting you down the sometimes steep path, but otherwise played over the waterfall, happily falling into the water from the swinging rope overhead.
In short, thanks to our terrific tour guide Terry and his crew, we enjoyed perhaps the best possible shore excursion. We left Samana with terrific memories but hearing rumors that our next destination, Bonaire, would have a natural beauty rivaling Hawaii. So much to look forward to in the days ahead!
Is there really that much to distinguish cruise lines? This cruise is our fifth, and each has been on a different cruise line. In general, one won’t complain about the food on any cruise line. That certainly is not the case here on Holland America’s ship the Noordam, wending its way in a leisurely fashion toward the southern Caribbean. The staterooms on Holland America don’t look much different than staterooms on Royal Caribbean or Norwegian. They all have a promenade where those who prefer to move can stroll around the ship’s periphery, smell the salt air and get a little cardiovascular exercise. I noticed the picture gallery and theaters were in the very same spots on this cruise line as they were in the last two. Differences between cruise lines tend to be more of style than anything else. Carnival, unsurprisingly, has a reputation for partying, young adults and families with small children. Royal Caribbean is more buttoned down.
Holland America is definitely not a party ship. It is mostly a well-moneyed old people’s ship. There are a few middle aged people on the ship, by which I mean thirty or forty something, but just a few. By that criteria I no longer qualify. Still, I skew younger than the average age of a passenger on the Noordam. Sixty or seventy something is more par for the course. Expect passengers with canes, walkers and motorized carts. Holland America and the Noordam in particular is just more relaxed and quiet in general than other cruise lines we’ve experiences. There are fewer long waits at the elevators. There are fewer passengers elbowing you in the hallways. The staff doesn’t try quite so hard to ply you with booze (extra of course) or to petition you to buy overpriced art. Moreover, checking in was a breeze. We were expecting a ninety-minute process and long lines. Passengers tend to show up en masse as soon as the cruise line opens its doors. Two hours before sailing, at least for us, there was no line. It took ten minutes tops to get from our drop off point at the front of the Fort Lauderdale cruise terminal until we were walking onto the ship. Why do people show up early when for most other events people show up either on time or fashionably late? I believe it’s not the ports of call that attract most people to cruises. It’s the buffet and the promise of as much food as you can eat that really has them signing up, so the sooner you can start the mass gluttony, the better. And generally if you want to find someone that’s where they are. In the case of the Noordam, it’s Deck 9, the Lido (“Lee-doh”) deck with its mostly always-open buffet. And mostly business is hopping on Deck 9, which is also convenient to pools, hot tubs and lots of lounge chairs.
This time our cruise was out of Fort Lauderdale, Florida. It came with a bonus: the ability to finally see my sister Teri’s house in nearby Hollywood. She has been there for sixteen years with her husband, her dog and her boat. We avoid Florida except, apparently, as a place to catch a cruise ship. So we arrived a day early to see her and get a sense of Hollywood, Florida where she lives and the Fort Lauderdale area. My general impression was favorable. Florida has a lot of ugly beach communities, but Hollywood is not one of them. It has a long and impressive “broadwalk”, sort of like a boardwalk except it is not elevated, wider and not wooden. It has a charm to it, and tries hard to be the Florida you see in postcards, if you can ignore the condos, hotels and seaside businesses next to the ocean and broadwalk. Nearby Dania Beach to its north is also nice. We stopped at a pier for a quick lunch at a restaurant at the pier and marveled at the cool weather in the 60s and the dry and breezy winds. What soon became more interesting was a school of shark that appeared just off the pier. Everyone outside on the pier eating lunch quickly turned their attention away from their food to the sharks stalking a large school of fish nearby instead. The fish appeared to escape, but probably lost out when they went out of our range.
The Fort Lauderdale cruise terminals proved hard to get to, particularly since roads are under construction, which meant weird detours were needed. The cruise terminals are frankly in an ugly part of town, as freighters also load up there, which meant plenty of freight containers for scenery. The view was much more impressive once onboard the Noordam, particularly from the Lido deck. Fort Lauderdale looks great from that high up. It is a major city in its own right, certainly not as big as Miami to its immediate south but catching up quickly and with an impressive skyline.
So we quickly settled into our room on the main deck, enjoyed their four-star dining room, then went on our first of what will be many walks around its promenade. Miami was just a twinkling of light in the distant west. It seemed that nothing could interfere with this wonderful eleven day adventure. Then the lights went out.
Dead stop. Just an emergency light winked on near our cabin door. After about a minute the emergency power kicked in and the lights came on but there was nothing but silence from the engines. After a few more minutes the captain came on to announce us the obvious. There had been an electrical malfunction. Happily it didn’t last too long and was over in about ninety minutes. Eventually one engine came back online, then the next. Our arrival in the Bahamas this morning was not delayed, but no one will say or admit to a reason for the incident.
Cruise lines prove that they are major players when they buy their own private island in the Bahamas. Holland America bought theirs, and it’s called Half Moon Cay. It comes with the usual accommodations for cruise ship passengers: bands playing calypso music and singing Jimmy Buffet songs, white sandy beaches, gift shops and a huge outdoor barbecue where you can gorge yourself sick. That’s what most passengers were doing. Frankly, it made me ill to look at all that greasy food, so I opted for a short walk to the other side of the island instead. A fake shipwreck along the shoreline was actually a bar and allowed another opportunity to get plastered. Despite the sandy beaches and temperatures in the 70s, few were in the water. Empty beach chairs were in abundance. The water was an amazing shade of blue and closer to shore, colored aquamarine.
Work has been more stressful than I would like. And the winter has been colder than normal as well. It’s time for a sun break, which in our case means a cruise to and from the southern Caribbean. Tomorrow we are off. We’ll spend the night with my sister and her husband near Fort Lauderdale, Florida, then on Friday board the Holland America ship Noordam for a 10 night southern Caribbean adventure. Destinations include the Bahamas, Grand Turk Island, the Dominican Republic, Bonaire and Aruba. We plan plenty of shore excursions as well.
One way I relax while on vacation is to write, so I expect you will get trip reports. It’s possible you will get a couple of posts during the cruise when we are at a port of call, providing I have time and there is ready wireless. Otherwise posting will resume on or after January 27.
The hard working staff at Occam’s Razor (that would be me) are taking a well needed and blog free vacation. We leave tomorrow for Paris, France and will return on July 14th. The computer will remain at home. So please do not expect any entries until at least July 15th.
I will of course be bringing a camera and a notebook with me to jot down my observations about France. If you leave a comment, do not expect me to approve them until I return.
Thank you for reading and if you are fortunate enough to get a summer vacation yourself, have a great one.