Friday, November 16, 2012

November 14th – St Croix

St Croix (pronounced St Croy) is probably the least known of the US Virgin Islands. St Thomas is famous for its duty free shopping and resorts (and for being over-commercialised), while St John is famous for being so unspoilt. That leaves St Croix (which is 40 miles to the south of the other two) as a little bit different – it's bigger, it has more history, and its economy is more diversified.

In the morning, I joined a tour kayaking around the mangroves of the beautiful Salt River National Park – the only place on American soil that Columbus actually set foot. Not only was the kayaking a good workout, but it was fascinating to see this well-preserved ecosystem that does so much to keep the coastline clean.

In the afternoon, we did a bit of exploring our little port of call, Frederiksted. Even though it's a cruise port, Frederiksted seems little affected by the cruise trade – in fact, the whole place seems like it's asleep. That does mean you can walk around its wide, empty streets without being assaulted by vendors, and you can soak up its historic atmosphere and grandiose buildings, without the neon signs of the duty free shops and clothing stores.

In fact, if you ignored the peeling plasterwork and the lack of people, the place seems little changed from its heyday during the shortlived Danish Empire, when it was a prosperous port trading sugar and slaves. Frederiksted made for a gentle final stop on another lovely cruise (although we have two days at sea to recover from its less than high octane pleasures).

It's nice to see that this US Virgin is still fairly untouched by man.

November 13th – St Barts on the Cheap

As St Barts is one of the most expensive and exclusive islands in the Caribbean, I get a strange pleasure out of experiencing its delights on as low budget as possible.

After a snorkelling tour in the morning, Tracy and I decided that we would walk over to St Barts' most exclusive beach area, to St Jean. This is a walk that almost no-one attempts, because firstly you have to climb up the very steep hill behind town, and secondly because there's no pavement on these winding roads that can get quite clogged with traffic.

So, we armed ourselves with plenty of water and a baguette from the boulangerie, and we began our ascent. Actually, even though it was extremely hot and sweaty, the walk wasn't too bad (in spite of the person from the tourist office almost insisting that we didn't do it). We made our way over to St Barts' tiny airport, where the private jets and propeller planes have to climb above a hill and then make a rapid descent to the short runway, stopping abruptly before they disappear into the sea. And, at the end of the runway, is one of the most expensive beaches in the Caribbean – St Jean beach.

Although a sunbed may set you back €30, and a bottle of Perrier €10, you can still lay out your towel on the powdery white sand and enjoy the same idyllic views of milky turquoise seas for free. So, we had a swim and imagined ourselves to be millionaires, as we tucked into our €1 baguette.

Of course, at the end of their time at the beach, the millionaires would have been able to shower off before getting into their air-conditioned limo, rather than trudging up the hill again, covered in sand – but, for me, the best things in life are often free.

November 12th – Segway Adventure in Antigua

I was really excited today to be joining the ship's Segway tour, to explore the island on this amazing piece of technology. As we got our briefing I was getting increasingly nervous that I wouldn't be able to get it working and would steer myself off a cliff. And, when we started, it immediately felt alien and awkward, as I jerked back and forwards, trying to find an equilibrium.

Then, all of a sudden it clicked. It quickly felt entirely natural as we whizzed around, leaning into the turns like a skier, and after 10 minutes we were able to get out onto the roads and start to explore the island. The top speed is apparently 12 mph, but as we were beginners we rarely got over about 5 mph, but it was excellent fun, weaving around the potholes, and off-roading next to the beach.

I'm going to have to buy a segway.

November 11th – St Kitts

As we got off the ship in St Kitts, our little ship was dwarfed next to a monster Royal Caribbean ship, and we were then greeted by a large, brash and modern duty free shopping centre in the cruise terminal. If you just went on first appearances, you'd have been forgiven for thinking that St Kitts was just another over-commercialised, bog-standard Caribbean port.

That impression is really the opposite of the reality of St Kitts – the island is a charming, friendly, largely unspoilt, and a slightly gritty place to visit. Aside from that modern cruise terminal, tourism is still in its infancy here, and it's all the better for that.

I joined a tour that explored the island's sugar history and some of its colonial heritage, left over from the time when the lucrative sugar industry made this one of Britain's most important and best-defended possessions in the West Indies. Sadly, the sugar industry finally closed down in 2005, but, in the array of ruined sugar mills and chimneys that you see dotted around the landscape, you can tell that sugar would have once totally dominated the island.

One of the most interesting legacies of the sugar days, is the old railway that rings the island and once served the sugar plantations. Yet, even though the sugar industry has sadly died, this is the last railway left in the Caribbean – but, only just. Only about one-third of the railway track is still in working order, and what is left is very clunky, so you shake, rattle and roll your way around the island at top speeds rarely exceeding a stately 5mph.

But, it's all very charming and nicely done. A commentary lets you know what you're passing, and for the boring bits, a choir comes around the carriages and keeps us entertained. Aside from the attractive countryside of rolling fields of wild sugar cane, undeveloped little villages, and secluded beaches, the thing that amazed me the most was that every time we passed anyone, they'd run over to the train and give us a big smiling wave. Considering that the train runs about three times a day throughout the holiday season, the welcome of the local people can only be a genuine one.

After the train ride, we drove up to the top of the incredibly steep Brimstone Hill, to visit the forbidding old British Fortress – a wonderfully evocative UNESCO World Heritage Site that was the site of some epic battles between the British and the French. Finally, we drove down to the Fairview Great House – a superbly restored old plantation house that displays the great wealth and luxurious lifestyles of the island's rich white elite.

In the evening, we were planning to have a few drinks in town, but we hadn't remembered that on a Sunday evening, virtually everything is shut. However, that horrible modern cruise terminal does have some advantages – we found one bar open that was selling incredibly cheap beer that kept us entertained for the evening.

Life is sweet in St Kitts.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

November 10th – River Tubing in Dominica

The lush green mountains of Dominica provide plenty of rainfall that feeds 365 rivers on the island, so what better way to explore these rivers than climb onto an inner tube and float downstream. If that sounds relaxing, that doesn't give the full picture – the river we were tubing down was full of boulders and would alternate between gentle passages which you glide serenely down, and plunging rapids, where you are bounced around mercilessly by the white water.

On the gentle bits, we got to appreciate the lovely scenery as we floated down a deep gorge overhung with vines and ferns, although when the water got rough, all you were doing was concentrating on where the next boulder was (even though you had absolutely no control over where the water would take you.

This was a really enjoyable trip that alternated between relaxation and exhilaration – everyone agreed that they were glad to have come through unscathed, but would have wanted to do it all over again if they could.

November 9th – St Lucia

With its gorgeous beaches, spectacular volcanic peaks and ultra-luxury resorts, St Lucia acts as the poster boy of the Caribbean, so today was about trying to see as much of this superb scenery as possible.

From the busy capital, Castries, we headed south towards Soufriere, the island's former French capital, in the shadow of the looming Pitons – soaring twin volcanic cones rising almost vertically out of the water. On the way, we passed banana plantations and little fishing villages almost untouched by the tourist industry that brings the island most of its income.

At Soufriere, we had lunch at the opulent Ladera Resort – wedged into the hills between the Pitons (from our dining table, they looked almost close enough to touch). If that wasn't relaxing enough, we then headed down to Soufriere's port to catch a catamaran back to Castries, stopping off at a beach for a swim, and pulling into the stunning Marigot Bay (where Dr Doolittle was filmed).

It's not difficult to see why so many people rate St Lucia as the most beautiful of all the Caribbean islands.

November 8th – Speightstown, Barbados

Today we decided to take a trip up the west coast of Barbados, to the island's second largest town, Speighstown (pronounced Spikestown). We caught a local bus which seemed to have saved money on luxuries like a decent suspension system and air-conditioning, and invested all its cash on a sound system that would have been more suited to a nightclub.

So, we bounced along with the deafening music turned up to the max past all the luxury resorts and developments (like the famous Sandy Lane resort) on the West Coast of the island, and ended up at the working class town of Speightstown. It always amazes me that these holiday resorts with their high walls and even higher prices, coexist with the ordinary lives of the working people, but I don't feel any great sense of resentment amongst the local people, which is to their credit.

Speightstown was once one of the most important towns in the British Empire, as the main export port for Barbados's sugar – however, its trading links with Bristol brought far more wealth to Britain than it did to Barbados. Nevertheless, there were a few old colonial houses and warehouses to remind us of Speightstown's sugar-coated glory days, and it was fun to explore a town that's totally untouristy.

The only downside of our time in Speightstown was that we knew that we'd have to risk death-by-music once again on the bus ride home.

November 7th – Grenada

This is the first Caribbean island to feature on Tracy's "I could live here" index – even if she did have to introduce a "if only it wasn't so bloody hot" caveat. Her reasons for liking it are fairly understandable – these were possibly the friendliest people we've come across in the Caribbean, the island is truly beautiful (unspoilt rainforests, cascading waterfalls, stunning beaches), and tourism here is delightfully low-key.
I did a tour to explore the spicy heritage of this self-styled "Spice Isle of the Caribbean", visiting a nutmeg plantation and a fragrant nutmeg processing plant featuring a huge amount of a spice that in all my culinary experience I have consumed at a rate of about half a nutmeg per decade.

Considering that the nutmeg industry (along with the rest of the island) was devastated by the terrible Hurricane Ivan in 2004, things seemed to have recovered fairly well.

Grenada is still a fairly poor place, so it needs its tourist industry to grow, but I hope that they take things slowly, because this place has a special atmosphere that it would be a shame to spoil with unthinking development.