Thursday, September 22, 2016

The summer 2015 Eastern Caribbean Adventure

A little over a year ago, my parents, Kirby and myself took a trip to Puerto Rico and a handful of island nations in the Eastern Caribbean. After I returned, I began writing the following entry, but never completed it, and essentially forgot all about it. A few weeks ago, when I started thinking about writing about my summer 2016 trip to Europe, I realized that I never posted anything about my previous summer's adventure.

I thought about finishing this entry and postdating it to last summer as a retroblog. I also thought about just hitting the "delete" button and forgetting all about it. In the end, I decided to just finish it and post it today, because even though the trip is over a year old at this point, it was still a lot of fun and is definitely worth sharing. Besides, here's nothing here that's particularly dated: the things we visited and the sights we saw are all still there.

The trip consisted of a week on Royal Caribbean's Adventure of the Seas (which sails to the Leeward Islands out of San Juan), followed by a week at a timeshare in the Isla Verde area of San Juan, Puerto Rico. We got there via United's nonstop service from IAH to San Juan.

The Adventure of the Seas is part of Royal Caribbean's Voyager Class of vessels, and was the largest cruise ship in the world when it* was launched in 2001. Even though I know there are now bigger and better cruise ships out there, I was still pretty impressed by it (this was only the second time in my life that I had ever been on a cruise, and the previous cruise had been aboard a ship that was much older and smaller).

The Royal Promenade down the center of the ship contains stores, bars and restaurants. The food and service aboard the ship were top-notch, and drinks, while pricey, were not outrageously expensive. On-board wifi, on the other hand, was ridiculously costly. We took advantage of free wifi at restaurants and bars in our ports of call.

The four of us opted for "official" royal Caribbean Shore excursions at each port. Some travelers prefer not to use in-house shore excursions because of cost or inflexibility, but we had no complaints with any of ours.

Our first port of call was Philipsburg, on the Dutch-administered south side of the island of Saint Martin (the north side of the island is administered by France). One of St. Maarten's better known attractions is Maho Beach, located directly at the end of the runway for Princess Juliana Airport. Our tour boat anchored right off the beach, so we could snorkel, drink and relax when we weren't watching the planes pass next to us. The Delta flight in the picture above was coming in from JFK.

Here's a video I took of a KLM 747 from Amsterdam on final approach. Pretty impressive. If you go to St. Maarten, I highly recommend our operator, Airport Adventure SXM. They were very friendly and helpful.

As I noted in my original list of countries I've visited, I've now been to three out of the four "constituent countries" of the Netherlands. (You're next, Curaçao!)

Unfortunately, we did not have time to visit the French side of the island. Maybe next time...

Our second port of call was St. Kitts and Nevis, which is the smallest independent nation in North America. Here, we rode the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, which is a tourist train operating on a rail line that used to be used for transporting sugar cane.

The scenery from the train is very picturesque, and it didn't hurt that they provided us with plenty of rum punch and traditional snacks during our journey. This is the only active railway in the West Indies.

This is the remnant of an old sugar cane refinery on St. Kitts. The cone-shaped building on the left was a windmill and the smokestack is on the right. The island of St. Kitts is dotted with these ruins. However, sugar production is no longer a profitable industry for St. Kitts, and the economy is being diversified into other sectors such as tourism.

Of all the islands we visited during our cruise, St. Kitts appeared to be the least developed. This isn't necessarily a bad thing; there's something to be said for a country that doesn't have a single traffic light!

Our third stop was Antigua, the larger of the two islands that comprise the nation of Antigua and Barbuda. We took a bus tour of the island and stopped at many scenic overlooks, including this vista of English Harbour from Shirley Heights.

My father surveys some of the buildings at Nelson's Dockyard, which was named after Lord Horatio Nelson (the hero of the Battle of Trafalgar). This was a key Caribbean base for the British Royal Navy during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. It keeps its British charm to this day, right down to the red phone booth in the background.

Our fourth port of call was the beautiful and lush volcanic island of St. Lucia. This is a view of Marigot Bay, which is just south of the island's capital city of Castries. The island was the object of back-and-forth fighting between France and Great Britain for centuries, which is why most of the island's place names are French even though the island's official language is English.

This is a picture of St. Lucia's iconic Pitons - Gros Piton in the back and Petit Piton in the front - with the town of Soufrière in the foreground. Traveling from the capital of Castries to Soufrière required a lengthy bus ride over winding mountain roads, but the scenery was worth the trip. In Soufrière, we also toured a delightful botanical garden as well as the Caribbean's only drive-in volcanic crater.

Our fifth and final stop was Barbados. Unlike the other islands of volcanic origin we visited, Barbados is a coral island. Therefore, its terrain is gentle and rolling, rather than mountainous, and is heavily cultivated. Barbados also appeared to be the most economically-developed of all the islands we visited.

One of our stops during our bus tour of Barbados was Orchid World, with its impressive gardens full of - you guessed it - orchids. We also made a stop at the Sunbury Plantation House, where we dined on Bajan snacks and drinks.

Barbados is famous for its rum, and Chesterfield Browne is one of the "faces" of Mount Gay Rum. Here he poses for my camera at the distillery's visitor center in the capital city of Bridgetown while he prepares a rum tasting for my group. I did the rum tasting tour with a few Royal Caribbean employees who were on shore leave, which was kind of fun.

One thing that was really cool about the cruise was that, with the exception of St. Maarten, every island we visited was its own independent nation. While there are a lot of similarities between St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Lucia and Barbados - language, currency, a fanatical devotion to cricket, even the Queen as the nominal head of state - each has its own unique culture and characteristics, and it's fun to say that we truly visited a different country every day of our cruise.

After we returned to San Juan, we disembarked from the ship and made our way to a timeshare along the Isla Verde beach near San Juan. We only spent one day at the beach, however; there were just so many other things to see and do in Puerto Rico!

El Yunque is the only tropical rainforest in the US Forest Service system, and is an easy drive from San Juan. This view of the forest was taken from atop the Yokahu Tower within the forest.

The forest has a nice visitors center and many hiking trails, where the lush beauty of El Yunque can be observed up close.

This is the red-painted San Juan Gate, which leads into the walled Spanish colonial city of Old San Juan.

Kirby sits atop a wall overlooking the courtyard of San Felipe del Morro fortress on the northwestern tip of Old San Juan. The Spanish used this fortification to defend San Juan from British and Dutch attacks until 1898, when it was taken over by the US military. During World War II it was used to keep watch for German U-Boats. Today, the fortress is operated by the National Park Service.

A rusty old cannon peers through an embrasure cut into San Felipe del Morro's walls. Behind the parapet is the top of one of the distinctive guard towers, or garitas, that dot the walls of Old San Juan and its fortifications.

A couple of hours to the east of San Juan is the Camuy River Cave Park. The caves were formed by the underground Camuy River. Due to low light levels, the above picture simply does not to justice to the massive Cueva Clara chamber, with its stalactites, stalagmites and other cave features.

Not far from the Camuy Caves is the massive Arecibo Observatory. Although popularly associated with searches for extraterrestrial life (through projects such as the Arecibo Message and its appearance in TV shows such as The X Files and movies such as Contact), much of the research conducted by this radio telescope centers on radio astronomy and atmospheric research. 

Puerto Rico Highway 22 is technically part of the Interstate Highway System, although it is not signed as such. It's designed to interstate standards, with the exception that the highway signs are in Spanish rather than English and are marked in kilometers rather than miles. The speed limits, however, are all marked in miles, which might be confusing. The big yellow vehicle to the left is a "zipper"machine that moves the movable barrier between the inside lanes of the highway during rush hour, so that the peak direction gets an extra lane.

We actually sent a couple of days exploring Old San Juan. The colonial city, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site as well as on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places, is very picturesque, with colorful colonial buildings and narrow cobblestone streets. Bars, restaurants, art galleries, boutique hotels and jewelry stores are among the businesses found within Old San Juan.

  I took this video from atop Fort San Cristobal, another former Spanish fortification and current Nation Park property on the northeast of Old San Juan.You can see San Felipe del Morro in the distance, as well as Old San Juan, the Puerto Rico Capitol Building, and some of the high rises of modern San Juan.

Puerto Rico was facing a host of crushing economic problems when we visited, and those problems have only gotten worse in the year since we took our trip. The island is straining under a massive $72 billion debt load, the island's economy is shrinking, and it it is hemorrhaging population as Puerto Ricans make their way to the US mainland in search of better jobs and quality of life. The summer we visited the island was also being ravaged by a drought; several restaurants that we visited gave us bottled water to drink because water rationing meant that they had no water service that particular day. (The drought situation seems to be better now.) Furthermore, tourism is the lifeblood of the Puerto Rican economy, and there seemed to be a lot of concern about improved relations with Cuba and the possibility that tourists will begin visiting that island instead of Puerto Rico because it is cheaper. All in all, it's a very sad fate to what is otherwise a very beautiful island.

With all that said, it was a great trip and one that I had been meaning to take for a long time. The week at sea + week at a timeshare combination worked out very well for us (especially since my parents collect timeshares like some people collect stamps and can easily exchange them for places like where we stayed in Isla Verde) and we'll probably do it again on future adventures.

*I do not subscribe to the ridiculous and archaic practice of using feminine pronouns like "she" or "her" when referring to maritime vessels. Cruise ships are inanimate objects that do not possess gender.

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