Tuesday, March 27, 2012

To Cruise or Not To Cruise - Day 4

          We began the day as our ship ever-slow-slowly moored along the dock at the long pier in Casties Harbor on St. Lucia, a 27-mile by 14-mile island in the Lesser Antilles that was settled in 1605 by the English, who came looking for treasure. Then the French tried their luck during the 1700s with sugar cane. And finally, the Brits returned in the 1800s and made the island a part of the British Commonwealth, which it remains to this day.

By now, we had established our morning routine.  Inna got up at six and went to the gym to workout as the sun came up. At seven we were off for breakfast at the Reflections buffet on the eleventh deck aft. Every morning we were greeted at the entrance by this tiny black lady with a soprano voice who sang "Woop!  Woop!" and welcomed us to the dawn of a new day. She always brought a smile to our faces.

  I lived on pineapple, watermelon, bacon and sausage. Inna went for a more rounded breakfast, including a made-to-order omelette. Every morning, we would dine outside on the fantail overlooking whatever the harbor-of-the-day happened to be and bask in the morning glow of another foreign land.
            At 8:30 we exited the ship and Peter and Esther were waiting for us at the end of the dock with big smiles.
            "We have a great tour lined up," exclaimed Peter. "It's a six hour boat ride for $65. We'll motor down the coast to check out some fishing villages, stop at Soufriere where we will get in a van and drive up into the mountains and visit an active volcano and a waterfall in a rainforest, then come back to the boat and head over to the Pitons and a bat cave. On the way back we'll stop at a private nature reserve and go snorkling on a coral reef, and then end our trip with a stop at Marigot Bay before returning back to the ship. Oh, and there will be rum drinks too."
            We walked into the bustling town of Castries while our captain and crew found more clients and readied the boat. We noticed several things right away that were different than Grenada. There were four tour boats docked in the busy harbor and the town was more upscale and clean. The tour operators in their bright shirts were much more low key.  Sidewalks and chickens lined the winding street that led us toward the bright town. But it was still dirt poor. We only had about thirty minutes to play with, so we walked to a gas station by the harbor bridge and picked up some bottled water. The gas pumps were running non-stop as St. Lucians filled their cars, trucks, and motor scooters. One guy even pushed a huge hand cart to the pumps and filled large blue plastic containers with fuel. Gas was $3.50 a gallon when we left the States. It was about $6 in the Caribbean.

            Upon our return, the steel drum band was cranking out the tunes and we were herded to the boat by a charming young lady named Ariel, in a tie-dye shirt. There would be 12 of us on the trip and we were riding in a sleek, white, thirty foot power boat sporting three Merc 150's. It was like a rocket.

            Captain Titus introduced himself and his able crew which included two young deck hands named Aaron and David, along with his perky girlfriend Ariel.
  The weather was sunny and hot, but rain clouds drifted across the mountains in the distance like swirling lace. As we left the lovely harbor a large plane suddenly landed right in front of us and seemed to be swallowed by the jungle.
             Down the coast we went, past an idyllic Sandals Resort, the tropical fishing villages of Anse La Raye and Canaries where yellow, blue and red houses spread like jelly across the lush walls of glistening basalt that rose from the ocean. 

             We watched five fishermen pulling their nets into a brightly-colored skiff and marveled at the insanely blue color of the water. It looked like it had been photo-shopped. We were at the northern edge of the Caribbean Sea. From St. Lucia north, we would be sailing through the darker blue waters of the southern Atlantic Ocean.
              At Soufriere, we left the boat and were greeted by Ricardo, who drove us in a large van through the narrow, bustling streets of the island’s southern hub and then up into the mountains. Wildly-colored houses clung to the hillsides like pieces of fruit on a tree. The roads were not for the faint of heart and people drove like they were just kind of paying attention.
   We soon came to one of the world's only drive-in volcanos - St. Lucia Volcano. 
           We parked at the edge of this yellow cauldron of steaming sulfur that looked like something science fiction and our tour guide led us along a stone step trail engulfed by rich jungle vegetation that clung to the edges of the smoky volcano. The place reeked of sulfur and when a light rain began falling, the whole volcano became shrouded in misty delight. On a bluff near the volcano's edge, vendors sold necklaces and spices.
           More than a mile away, you could see the precipitous edges of the original caldera and it was easy to imagine that when this volcano popped it must have had world-wide climate implications. While interesting in a very surreal sense, I can't say that I was unhappy to leave.

            Our next stop was Diamond Waterfall. The parking lot was filled with other tours and people speaking every language on earth were scampering around the boardwalk to the falls.  The falls were nothing special and the swimming hole at the base of the falls was tiny and muddy. The water was frigid. Winding cinder trails led us into the rainforest adorned with blooming jungle flowers and trees that seemed to hang in the air like gem stones.
            We were back on the boat by noon and Titus broke out what ended up being an endless supply of rum drinks. Things got a bit fuzzy after that. Calypso music blasted from the cockpit sound system as we headed over for a closer glimpse of the Pitons, a World Heritage Site, featuring two towering, jungle-covered volcanic plugs - Gros Piton at 2,530 feet and Petit Piton, standing over 2,300 feet high.
             We were now at the southern end of St. Lucia and it was time to head back north to Castries. We approached a narrow cleft in the volcanic coastal wall and Captain Titus pointed ahead to the Bat Cave which was teeming with big bats doing a creepy-crawly dance over one another. Several other tour boats vied for the best view at the same time. 

            "St. Lucia is a female island," said our Captain, pointing to the twin pitons and then back at the rock slit.

            Our next stop was Anse Chastanet, a snazzy Eco-resort complete with 600 acres of white sand beaches, a dive shop, tropical dining cabana and seaside bar, art gallery and fancy grass-roofed shops that looked vaguely Polynesian. They filmed a season of "The Bachelor" at the Aztec-like Jade Mountain resort perched above the beach where sky rooms went for $1,800 a night.

            "We'll be here about an hour and a half. Enjoy yourselves and be safe," said Captain Titus as he dropped us at a slippery rock dock on the south end of the beach.

            Inna explored the various out buildings while I grabbed my swimming goggles and headed for the reef. As soon as I hit the water and looked down, I was surrounded by a zillion different tropical fish - neon blues and all sorts of crazy-ass fish darting amongst the sea urchins and bright coral. The current was a bit tricky and I had to steer clear of the sharp rock walls while trying to avoid being pulled out to sea, but I had a ball swimming through schools of small, dazzle fishies.
            Our time at Anse Chastenet, was way too short, but other amazing sights awaited.

A brief rain shower engulfed us as we headed back north and Captain Titus slowed the boat and broke out more rum. The rain was delightful and a welcome relief from the hot sun.

            As the sun broke through the clouds we came to Marigot Bay, an Eden-like harbor rimmed with the stoner mansions of the rich and famous. Mick Jagger, George Foreman, and Poprah Winfrey have palatial estates overlooking the bay and ocean from jungle cliffs.

           We docked at the Marigot Yacht Club, a funky green building rimmed by an outdoor dining patio. The scene was laid back and then some. We were only here for the bathrooms and a quick look-see.

            I felt like getting in the water again, so I walked over to a narrow spit of sandy beach with a good view of the bay.

            After a brief swim I was making my way back to the boat when I heard a voice cry, "Did you lose somtin, Mon?" It was one of the local craftsmen who I had stopped to chat with earlier while he was making a banana leaf basket under the palms. He held up my hiking staff and smiled. It must have fallen out of my pack.
            I thanked him and ended up buying one of his bright green baskets - much to Inna's chagrin. And then we were back on the boat with "Big Bamboo" blasting from the sound system and several of us doing the rum dance as we made our way back into Castries Harbor where Serenade of the Seas sat moored like Moby Dick, the giant white whale.
            Titus said we were the best bunch of tourons he had hosted in a long while and asked us to take a group picture with him before we went on our merry way.

            We thanked Peter and Ester for finding the tour of a lifetime and we agreed to meet the next morning when we docked at Antigua.

            Back on board, we grabbed a snack at the buffet and then headed for the pool for a few tropical beverages and a refreshing swim atop our heavenly perch overlooking Castries and its white houses on the hills, their orange roofs blazing in the late afternoon light.

            We had a great dinner in the dining room as the sun set and we exchanged St. Lucia stories with our dinner team. Everyone had a different tale to tell, even those who decided to just stay on the boat.

            After dinner we walked the deck and watched a huge moon rise out of the ocean. We could see the other cruise ships that had been docked in Castries following behind us in ragged formation.
            Upon our return to our stateroom that night, our friendly and helpful attendant Sherrie had made a little monkey out of bath towels that swung from a hanger at the foot of our bed.  We had to pinch ourselves to make sure we weren't dreaming.
            St. Lucia was by far my favorite island on the trip and I hope we can come back one day and stay for a spell.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

To Cruise or Not To Cruise - Day 3

We got to St. George's, Grenada at 8:30. This was as far south as we would sail. We were just off the coast of South America. It was tropical hot.

Grenada is a small island, 21 miles long and 12 miles wide, known as the spice island and is famous for its nutmeg, cloves, cocoa and cinamon.

The Spanish were the first ones to drive off the native Carib Indians and plant their flag. They made a fortune off of the slave trade until the French took charge and started changing the names of everything. The British eventually laid claim to the volcanic treasure chock-full of rain forests, spectacular waterfalls, and shimmering beaches.

We were an hour late because of the medical detour, so it was pretty much a Chinese fire drill getting off the boat. A steel drum band played energetically outside the sprawling visitors center at the shore-side end of the dock.


Everything was very laid back and chill until we walked out into the parking lot. We were unprepared for the aggressive cab drivers who tried to sell us a tour of the island or some other magnificent adventure.

You can book an excursion directly from the boat for almost anything imagineable, but we had been warned that they charge almost twice the going rate as on land. They justify the cost difference by pointing out that their tour operators guarantee that you will return to the boat at the appointed time - usually 4:30 - while private tours may get you back late and leave you standing on the dock watching the Serenade of the Seas sailing into the sunset.

About five people miss the boat at every stop.

And, yes, you are totally screwed if that happens.

We didn't know how to deal with all the different tour guides shouting offers and claiming to be the best ride in town. We got confused when the cost seemed higher than than the RC excursions, so we fled the scene, crossing a busy road and climbing a very steep dirt trail to the ruins of a crumbling stone fort that overlooked the harbor.

One local guy kept following us up the path, spouting insane gibberish and Inna finally ordered him away. She was awesome.

We paid a couple bucks to walk around the fort and were amazed at its rundown condition. There were people living inside colonial-era brick barracks that were being taken over by blossoming plants and trees like building-strangling snakes. But it had an outstanding view of the whole town and there was a fragrant sea breeze to cool us down.

The first thing we noticed about St. George's was its decrepit condition. It was like the place had been hit by a bomb. And it sort of had. On September 8th, 2004 Hurricane Ivan devastated the island with 130 mph winds. They have never really recovered from that killer storm and many of the structures, from churches to homes, have no windows and look abandoned, but for the hanging laundry.

It was the day before Grenada's independence day and everyone was amped up, wearing their national colors - red, green and yellow - and drum bands were parading around the crowded streets clogged with cars. The whole place seemed a bit sketchy but everybody we encountered was friendly.

We ended up down at the market where large, happy ladies tried to sell us spices. We bought a hollowed out coconut filled with various spices, and checked out the local scene while reggae and calypso music blared around us.

There's definitely a strong Rasta feel to St. George's. Lots of dreads. I had several offers to purchase fresh weed.  I just laughed. 

We were drinking water non-stop but it was dangerously hot and by the time we had climbed to the top of town to see a beautiful Catholic Church, I was in the initial stages of heat exhaustion.

Churches are always a good sanctuary. They are open to the public. They are attractive, quiet and peaceful. They usually have a bathroom. And they are forgiving.

I soaked the Grenada flag bandana I had purchased in the market in cold water from the tap and then sat under a fan by a large window, cooling my neck and head. A wonderful sense of happiness washed over me and we lingered until we were recharged.

You take your life into your hands walking the streets of St. George's. Not because of the people - hell, they are as nice as spice - but because there are no sidewalks and you are usually walking along the edge of the chaotic streets.

Nestled below the church we spotted an inviting harbor area filled with white-washed stone buildings capped with orange roofs. We decided to check it out and maybe find some air conditioning.

We passed through urban blocks of "we have everything and we have notin", dodging cars and other walkers in an intricate dance. And it was hot as hell.

There were small, colorful fishing vessels bobbing in the sheltered bay and very few tourists in this part of town. Frigate birds and brown pelicans dived for fish with graceful abandon.

Inna went into meltdown from the relentless heat and there were no cool places to escape the sun. At that point we just wanted to get to Grand Anse Beach a few miles south and get into some cool water. But there didn't seem to be any cabs working the dock and we couldn't figure out how to get away from the scorching sun and hustle and bustle of the busy commercial fishing market.

A young Grenadian girl suddenly came up and asked us if we needed a bus. "Follow me. I will get you to the beach."

The Grenadian bus service is a trip.

A dirty white van pulled up with music blaring, two smiling young happening dudes in command. Technically, there are bus stops - though no actual busses. Most of the time the drivers just careen along the narrow, twisty roads, honk-honking their horn at the multitude of people doing their thing along the road. If you need a ride you wave. The bus stops - illegally - and people get on and off. The driver plays DJ as he toots and jams while his buddy pops the doors, loads and unloads, and takes the money. Then you're off to the next wave.

A few minutes later we stopped at Grand Anse Beach, a major destination for the boat people. The beach is kick ass. We dickered with one of the many young men renting beach recliners and staked out a shady spot under a giant Sea Grape tree. Then we ordered food & drink from Sarah, one of the colorful vendors working the beach.

After swimming in the crystal blue Caribbean Sea and lathering on the Bull Frog sunscreen, we settled in to read. 

Our cruise ship was still within sight, a few miles up the beach. All was right with the world.

Suddenly two people appeared with lawn chairs and planted themselves right in front of us. Two white people seeking refuge from the sun. They quickly realized that they were blocking our view and apologized. We suggested they join us to our right in the shade and they did.

They were from Manatoulin Island, on Lake Huron in Ontario, the largest island on a freshwater lake in the world.

They told us about their adventures, which sounded enticing.

Somehow the conversation turned to politics and my wife Inna said, "Please don't start talking politics around Steve because he won't stop."

Esther laughed and said, "Well, Peter was the mayor of Gore Bay for twelve years so I'm sure he will love chatting with your husband."

And so we did.

After listening to them explain how they had only paid $20 for an island tour that included a jungle rain forest and a place where locals dived off a big waterfall, and then were delivered to Grand Anse Beach, it was clear to me that these people knew how to find a very nice excursion at a reasonable price.

Something we didn't.

As they left to hook up with the van driver who was waiting for them as part of their original tour, I said, "I don't want to be the gum on your shoe that you can't get rid of, but you obviously know how to find a cheap tour that rocks, so could we join you tomorrow in St. Lucia and see what you find for us?"

Peter and Esther said they'd love to have us on their team.

Not wanting to take any chances missing the boat, at 3 o'clock we walked a little way down the beach where a jovial father and son ran a water taxi service. We motored along the coast basking in the afternoon, cathedral light sun and taking in the lush beauty of St. George's harbor and the see-through ocean.

We were dropped at the dock in front of the long pier where the ship was moored. Small groups of happy passengers made their way back to the ship carrying bags of loot and laughing like children.

We noticed Brent, the Royal Caribbean language jukebox, walking nearby and Inna walked over and asked him why he had not greeted her in Russian at the Captain's Reception the night before. He giggled and then started talking Russian. He was like a little doll that spoke every language in the world.

Back in Margaritaville, we downed a few boat drinks by the pool as the ship steamed away from Grenada, and then we cleaned up for dinner with a relaxing sauna & shower.

After another five star meal and good conversation with out friendly table mates, we walked around the upper deck, caught the nearly full moon, and then checked out the Showtime Production - a "Salute to Broadway shows that made their way from Broadway Stage to Silver Screen." It was "Hairspray" and "Little Shop of Horrors" with a very tight big band that kicked out the blocks. The dancers and vocals were spot on.

We went to bed singing a little tune from "West Side Story".