I was walking the upper deck the morning we steamed into St. John's, Antigua and I spotted a whale in the distance. I didn't have my binoculars, so I have no idea what kind it was, other than big. I figured that was a good omen.
Antigua, the largest of the British Leeward Islands, was where the Carib Indians made their final stand, and they kept the Europeans away for almost 100 years. The English finally took charge in 1632 and introduced tobacco and then cane. Fortunes were made.
In 1784, Admiral Horatio Nelson made it the primary British naval base for Caribbean operations and to this day Nelson's Boatyard is home to some of the world's most luxurious yachts.
We met Peter and Ester at the edge of an upscale shopping mall filled with trendy merchandise and boat people trying to figure out what to do and where to go as older and more shaped-up tour guides offered their services.
"We have a great tour guide," gushed Peter. "I talked to a lady from Ontario on the ship who spoke very highly of him after doing a tour last year. His name is Chocky and he is a walking encyclopedia. He is going to take us to the far south side of the island to a lovely park overlooking Mamora Bay and the ocean. There are all sorts of historic places along the way, including Nelson's Museum and Boat Yard. Then he'll drop us off at a nice beach and come get us when it's time to go back to the ship."
"How much?" I asked.
"It's $25 per person and the van is air-conditioned."
"We're there," I said.
A map of Antigua is all points and coves, like a misshapen star fish with many stubby arms. And that makes for great beaches. They claim to have 365 beaches - one for every day of the year. That's a goal worth attaining, if you ask me.
There were twelve of us in a somewhat air-conditioned white van.
Chocky was old school - pressed white shirt and tie. He was far different than Captain Titus but equally magnanimous and entertaining in his own unique way. His schtick was that he knew everything and everybody on Antigua. From the second we got onto the bus, it was a non-stop monologue about every structure we passed, and who lived or worked there.
We drove through the crowded city center and then south through small towns and jungle farms while Chocky told us about a church or how some guy got the money to build a cute pink house splashed against the dark green of tropical forest.
We even learned that the way to tell the difference between a sheep and a goat is that the goat holds its tail in the air, while a sheep's always points down. But this doesn't work for dogs.
It took a while to drive across the island, so Chocky's prowess as a speaker was ultimately reduced to politics and the slick American banker from Oklahoma who hosed down the whole island with a giant ponzi scheme that recently hit the economy like a hurricane.
Our destination was a place called Shirley Heights where we stopped to check out the eye-popping views from Cape Shirley overlooking a blue green ocean that defied color. Chocky pointed across a small cove to Eric Clapton's sprawling, brown estate at the edge of Standfast Point.
All around us there were ruins of British fortifications returning to the earth. The vegetation was high desert scrub land with cactus. Very southwest like.
On the way back down the narrow, winding park road Chocky pointed to another very manicured estate on a lower hilltop to the east, "That was where Queen Elizabeth spent her honeymoon."
The hilly valley at the ocean’s edge must have been quite exotic to a young English queen just married.
We stopped at Shirley Heights Lookout for some more photos and a chance to see another round of somewhat bored island ladies hawking all sorts of native gee-gaws on the back patio where Chocky told us the story of Falmouth and Turtle Bay.
We figured that since we were going to buy some nick-knacks during the visit one way or the other, why not buy something from a vendor at a park rather than a town. We wanted to contribute to the local economy whenever possible, so Inna picked up a cute wooden treasure chest covered in a leather map of Antigua, and I bought a shot glass and a frog refrigerator magnet for my mom who collects all things frog.
Falmouth is where rich people with sleek ships from all over the world go to play. I'm talking about ships with helicopters. And there are lots of them. Falmouth seems like a nice enough place, but I'm not sure why it draws so many huge pleasure craft. There's a marina and yacht club, and not much else.
Just down the road is Nelson's Harbor.
The Spanish built their naval stranglehold at San Juan, Puerto Rico. Essentially, their strategy was to catch everyone going out the Caribbean back door. So, the British decided to catch everyone coming in the front door, and built their naval command center on Antigua. Suffice it to say, they picked a nice spot on the southern end of the island, facing South America, and erected some splendid digs. But what blew us away about this isolated place where every island tour descends, was not the rather lack luster British Naval history exhibits, but the behemoth pleasure craft encircling the tree-lined historic site.
I come from Annapolis, the sailing capital of the world. I have spent a lot of time in Newport, Rhode Island and California. And I have seen some amazing yachts, both sailing and power, but I have never seen anything close to the assortment of boats docked around the perimeter of this buff stone piece of jolly old England in the tropics. Most of the ginormous ships were from Spain.
Inna had lost her camera, so I scooted out to the van, grabbed Chocky, who was holding court with some other tour guides, found the new Sony flash in the back seat, and then scooted back and checked out the buffed crews servicing the blessed boat excess.
Then it was back on the bus. We drove past cashew, mango, banana, and plantain trees being cultivated in the farming center of the island where the people have communal gardens amidst the lush forest. The dark volcanic soils produce a rich bounty. And at every turn, Chocky interpreted what we were seeing, from who owned the most spectacular ocean views to the story of Antiguan pineapples.
And then we landed at Spencer Beach, named after a nice old lady who owned the property overlooking a calm blue sea of earthly delights. Chocky promised to return at 3.
The restaurant, bar and beach were hopping.
We headed for some marginal shade on the far edge of the beach where the rocks began to create a ledge and a solitary, wind-blown sea grape tree filtered the sun.
We did the beach thing, checked out the food and drink, walked till the beach ended at a hurricane house that had been pounded into submission where the highway pinched the edge of the ocean. We swam in the ocean like lazy otters for hours. And then Chocky brought us back to St John's, depositing us in the middle of the shopping district.
We had another hour before we had to be back onboard and Inna and I wanted to see St. John's.
Esther and Peter said their goodbyes and we agreed to meet again for the next round of fun in the sun in another country.
We entered the bargain fray of the central shopping area. The place was filled with boat people from multiple cruise ships, looking like they hadn't seen jack on the island and were strictly there to shop.
I had been whining about getting a cool tropical shirt since Grenada and I would not be denied.
We stopped at a street-side store packed like a Times Square kiosk with everything under the Caribbean sun. I liked the shirts, and they were cheap. Two for $25. We picked out a shirt for our best friend Jimmy back home. And when I couldn't find anything that fit me, the "I have just what you need" stall Queen instructed her daughter, who was maybe 12 years old, to take us across the street and up the stairs to a place run by Asians where there was a warehouse of tropical shirts. Inna chose a stunning shirt of blue that still makes me purr and we were on our way.
Our destination was St. John's Cathedral at the top of town. A very nice lady in business garb led us to our destination, past every Antiguan bank that was still left standing after Mr. Sanders, the slippery American, had milked the island for all it was worth. And when our neighborly guide left us, the church was in sight.
We were hot and took refuge under the large shade trees in the cemetery surrounding the church which was undergoing major renovations and was draped in scaffolding. A bum with his jeans almost to his knees slept atop a raised grave stone. Other weary folks with time on their hands were beating the heat in this breezy oasis.
We looked down at the disheveled hodge-podge of loud-colored poverty and could only hug ourselves and smile. Money apparently isn't everything.
We walked back along the football field dock, amidst the giddy patrons of a Dutch cruise line, our two ships tied across from one another like floating towns. People lounged on their private balconies while others watched from the railings on each deck. It was like coming home. We flashed our Sea Passes and the shipboard routine of living high off the hog kicked right back in.
At dinner that night a funny thing happened. I never ate desert, so I would go up to the fifth deck with my table mate Scott and smoke in one of the very few outdoor smoking areas aboard the ship. When we returned, calypso music was blasting from the sound system. I walked into the dining room and couldn't figure out why the music was blaring, so I started dancing crazily like a fool. Everyone in the dining room started screaming encouragement and clapping their hands. I mean everyone in the whole place. It was a bit disconcerting, but I'm not easily spooked, so I continued dancing wildly to the beat. It turned out that everyone was waiting for the waiters to come dancing by in a conga line, and when I burst into the dining room, they figured I was part of the show.
It’s nice to be liked.
After dinner we walked the deck before heading down to the Tropical Theater for a very entertaining stage production, featuring "Tribute - A Salute to the Temptations". The Temps were the very first band I ever saw, at the historic Lyric Opera House in Baltimore, back in 1971, so they have a warm place in my heart. The performers hit the right notes and knew all of the dance steps. I sang along as memories danced in my head like lost lyrics.