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Cruising the Lesser Traveled Caribbean
We are not cruise ship fans--we should tell you that from the start. Much of our writing focus is on the outdoors and adventure. Most cruise ships have far too many people in far too small an area to qualify for either of these properly defined subjects. It is with some amusement that we find ourselves writing about a cruise. Here is the key: this cruise isn't like the typical cruise and it isn't a "party barge." What we found was a quiet, upscale, educational cruising experience aboard the Yorktown Clipper. The maximum number of guests, with the ship completely full--and it wasn't--is 138 passengers. The official title of the cruise is "The Hidden Islands of the Grenadines and the Windwards & Leewards." The Windward and Leeward Islands form an arc running from Puerto Rico to South America.
The food on board was exceptional--fine dining all the way. Guests have the option of breakfast and lunch in either the dining room or Observation Lounge. The lounge has a daily continental breakfast, with soup and sandwiches for lunch. Guests who choose the dining room for either of these meals have a full menu from which to choose. All dinners are served in the dining room. The chef and staff prepare each meal individually as the orders come in--no dinner buffet lines here.
The staff includes an onboard historian, biologist, and naturalist, whose evening presentations range from "The Nature of the Islands," to "The American Revolution in the Eastern Caribbean." The informative talks give guests a deeper understanding of the natural history, ecology, and history of the areas visited. In addition to these lectures, at 5:30 each evening the cruise director presents "A Look Ahead," covering events for the following day.
We arrived Saturday night in St. Kitts (whose real name is St. Christopher but few people know the island by that name). A leisurely Sunday on St. Kitts is just that, leisurely. Here people take their Sundays seriously. Sundays are for church and worship. They dress in their Sunday best with most ladies donning hats, stores and shops are closed, and the vacant streets are ruled by the strolling chickens. Basseterre, whose name is French for "low lands," reminds one of the distant French heritage. The island was long under English rule, and it is reflected in the reserved nature of the people.
The cruise offered several optional tours: Brimstone Hill Historic Tour; Rainforest Adventure Hike; and a sail/snorkel catamaran trip. Excursions are small, the maximum on any of the outings we joined was 30 people. We took the Brimstone Hill tour with historian Gregor Williams. Brimstone Hill is a fortress built by the English which sits upon a 750 feet high volcanic cone. It takes its name from the sulphurous gases rising from vents in the area. The island's four volcanic mountains are all inactive. According to Gregor the island's major sources of income arise from a medical school, a veterinary school, and tourism, in that order.
Nevis was our next stop, with a morning visit to Pinney's Beach for a game of cricket and swimming. Afternoon found us in Charlestown, the island's capital. Here guest's have the option of visiting the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton; the Botanical Gardens; or simply exploring the town.
As we made our morning approach to the crumpled mass of mountains that is Dominica, the morning sun was just breaking over the thick, firmly-seated clouds covering the mountain tops. The rain poured down on the mountains as the sun attempted to force its way through. This island receives generous rainfall, even in the dry season. Dominica, along with St. Vincent, St. Lucia, and Grenada are the windward islands of our cruise. Sometimes called the "banana islands," these receive much more rain than the drier leeward islands, and bananas are the number one export of Dominica. We see another cruise ship in port--one of the big boys. We pull up to the dock on Woodbridge Bay, on the edge of town. The downtown Roseau dock is reserved for the large cruise ships.
We opt for the Dominica Overview Tour, figuring we'll learn a little more about Dominica as well as see how the island has changed since a visit in 1987. Other tour options included the Emerald Pool Tour and a bird watching tour. The narrow, steep roads, with precipitous drop-offs, are sliced into Dominica's mountain flanks. These don't seem to have changed since 1987. The overview tour included a pass through the Dominica Museum and the Roseau Craft Market where we mixed in with the disembarked thronging masses from the large ship as they pored over souvenirs. This part of Dominica has seen drastic change since '87--all these people weren't here. A man with long, swaying dreadlocks bangs a bongo and wails loudly--in an attempt at what he thinks is singing, he then demands money from the "rich" cruise ship passengers. More changes. We will remember Dominica for its lushness and the many rainbows; a result of the bright Caribbean sun and the heavy rainfall.
Rising sharply from the Soufriere shoreline are the twin peaks of the Pitons--St. Lucia's most well-known landmark. Soufriere is located within a four-mile wide ancient volcano caldera. Established by the French in 1746, Soufriere was St. Lucia's first town. The island was ceded to the British in 1814 and gained full independence, as a member of the British Commonwealth, in 1979. Since the island is a steep volcanic mountain rising from the sea floor, deep sea diving can be done right from shore. A mere 200 feet from shore, the water may reach a depth of 600 feet. We joined the optional "Splendor of Soufriere Tour." The tour covered the Sulphur Springs (evidence of ongoing geological activity), the Diamond Estate Gardens, and a plantation owned by rich non-residents. Supposedly, the Empress Josephine bathed in the Diamond Baths as a young woman during visits to her father's Soufriere plantation. Birds fluttered about us and rain drizzled as we toured the lush gardens. Late afternoon found us to the island's north, anchored in Rodney Bay for some swimming, hiking, and exploration of Fort Rodney.
The Grenadines, a group of small islands between St. Vincent and Grenada, are shared between these island nations. Bequia (pronounced beck way) is under the auspices of St. Vincent. This small seven square-mile island, with a population of 5,000 and a rich maritime history was our favorite port-of-call. Bequia is the laid-back, easy-going Caribbean of fantasy--a very difficult find in the Caribbean these days. Whispy palm fronds dance in the salty sea breeze, cool drink in hand--no hard-sell hucksters hounding the tourists for a sell. Bequia represents the Caribbean as it should be. In fact, the island isn't well-known outside the Caribbean yachting/sailing circles. Admiralty Bay is filled with sailboats and yachts with not a cruise ship in sight (other than our small vessel). Most of Port Elizabeth's waterfront businesses, including several restaurants and bars, cater to the yacht and sailing customers. Water taxi driving, transporting clients between ship and shore, employs a number of people. Princess Margaret Beach, within walking distance and just south of Port Elizabeth, is one of the Caribbean's most beautiful beaches--and we had it nearly to ourselves.
We visited Union Island, southernmost of St. Vincent's Grenadines. The desolate, dry island, with no facilities and only a fisherman's shack was a snorkeling stop only. There was an optional catamaran sail to Mayreau and the Tobago Cays, which we wished we had taken. In our opinion, this stop could have been skipped, allowing passengers more time in Grenada.
Grenada, without other arrangements is merely a place to catch a plane. There were no organized tours and no time, with arrival in Grenada at 9:00 PM, and most guests having early flights out the next morning. The ship, with a load of new passengers picked up in Grenada, follows the same itinerary in reverse--no time in Grenada.
Text and Photos [c] PROSE & PHOTOS