The first time we ever set foot on the island of Antigua was on a six-hour layover at the airport enroute from St. Kitt’s to Toronto. That was a few years ago when the airport was little more than a Quonset hut with a small duty-free shop and the inevitable bar where the hordes congregated awaiting their flights. Oh, and we suppose it’s worth mentioning that the airport at the time was sans air-conditioning!
We had been in St. Kitt’s for Art’s medical school reunion and were in a bit of a group traveling back to Canada. One of the groups had been on an earlier inter-island flight so by the time we arrived in Antigua someone had already booked a van and driver and planned an island tour. So we spent our time soaking in the beauty of the island vowing to return for a longer holiday – which we did a year later.
We fell in love with Antigua and Barbuda, its beauty and its people, so whenever we take a Caribbean cruise that lands in St. John’s, Antigua’ s capital, we always look forward to our day.
Just a stone’s throw from where the ships usually dock are the small streets of the town offering an array of the usual duty-free shopping as well as some shops unique to the island. If you need a new bathing suit, you’d do well to wait until you get to Antigua so that you can avail yourself of the dizzying array on offer at Sunseekers. Then, on your hunt for a unique piece of jewelry and/or art, eschew all those shops you see as you disembark and head to Goldsmitty on Redcliffe Quay. Uniquely original, Goldsmitty’s pieces are the creation of artist and jewelry designer Hans Smit. Patty has acquired a pendant and earrings on trips to St. John’s.
This most recent visit to St. John’s though was a bit disappointing. The town was overrun with cruise ship passengers that day. The main docking area in the town was jammed with ships so that our own didn’t even dock there. The alternative port is in an industrial container port area a ten-to-fifteen-minute drive from the town through an area that you would not choose to walk – and we’ll walk practically anywhere.
We took the shuttle into town, walked around for an hour and then headed back to the ship to enjoy the Antigua sunshine from the vantage point of the deck. The town seemed a bit shabbier than on previous visits and we have to wonder if the recent recession has had a negative impact.
St. John’s is still worth a port visit and Antigua and its people are still beautiful!
St. Barth’s – the very name conjures up pictures of powdery white sand beaches with photogenic celebrities cavorting in the surf, evenings at chi-chi cocktail bars and designer boutiques with that French je ne sais quoi. And so it is. But we’ve been to St. Barth’s twice now and have never once laid eyes on a single celebrity – major or minor. Gustavia is, however, a charming Caribbean cruise port that is worth exploring on your own.
The first time we set foot on the tiny island was a few years ago when we took our first Silversea cruise. St. Barth’s isn’t a regular cruise ship destination because it does not have any cruise ship dock or dockside facilities and it isn’t the kind of place that caters to the mega-ship passenger. You’ll find no trace of Señor Frog’s, Margaritaville or rafts of duty-free shops lining sweaty streets. Instead, you tender ashore to a tidy, sleepy well-heeled French town filled with the likes of Dior, Chanel and even a Longchamp Paris outpost. It’s lovely.
During that first visit, we had organized a car and driver to give us a tour of the island (which was, by the way ‘discovered’ by Christopher Columbus in 1493) and drop us at Le Gaiac, the restaurant at the exclusive resort Le Toiny, a Relais and Chateaux property on the private, not-yet-developed southeastern coast of the island. It was a lovly, relaxing lunch. [Evidently the restaurant has been completely refurbished and is now referred to simply as Le Toiny Restaurant.]
For anyone who wants to see the island (which doesn’t take long since it’s only 25 square kilometres, not quite 10 square miles, in size) hiring a taxi at the pier would work just as well – and at considerably less expense than we spent arranging in advance. But on our recent visit this year, we decided to spend the time in little Gustavia.
Patty did have a goal in mind: when offered the opportunity to visit a French town or city, she makes her way to the nearest Pharmacie to discover the latest stash of French, drug-store skin-care products. She wasn’t disappointed. Even in this tiny French outpost, the Pharmacie was filled to brimming with the likes of LaRoche Posay, Embryolisse, Caudalie, Vichy and Nuxe to name a few.
We took a walk along the pretty, tree-lined streets around the edge of the tiny harbour where the lines of yachts bobbed in the gentle waves. We did a bit of window-shopping at Cartier, Eres, Chopard, Roberto Cavalli and Longchamp to name just a few of the shops we passed and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the French-imbued surroundings.
If you have two-and-a-half minutes, join us on our walk through Gustavia.
As the rain pelts down on us here in Toronto on a blustery early spring day we have wonderful memories of our most recent cruise through the Caribbean. First stop: Nassau in the Bahamas.
Not strictly speaking actually in the Caribbean (it’s actually in the Atlantic), Nassau is the capital of the Bahamas and isn’t actually an island. The island is New Providence, but no one ever seems to say they’re going to New Providence, rather they say they’re going to be in Nassau since the city does dominate. Nassau has long been a favorite winter vacation spot for Canadians although in recent years that has skewed more toward Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Cuba (yes, there are hundreds of actual resorts in Cuba contrary to the impression you might get from the American media recently) because of the price differential: The Bahamas is much more expensive, but it does make for a nice day ashore when cruising in.
Although it’s sometimes sensible to take a ship’s shore excursion – first-time visits to European ports come to mind – we try to avoid them when at all possible. The reasons will fill a future story, but for now just accept that discerning travelers prefer to be on their own or with a private guide! Avoiding the dreaded shore excursion means that we often like to self-direct our day ashore. Here’s how we did Nassau.
A familiar stop for us, Nassau is like an old friend and we knew exactly where we were headed when we left the ship that day. We do love the chance to walk a distance so we planned our route from the cruise terminal left along Bay Street toward one of the two bridges to paradise Island (one takes traffic in one direction the other takes it in the opposite, but you can walk in either direction on both). It’s about a 1.6 km (about a mile) walk to the bridge – takes about 20 minutes going through the part of downtown that has seen better days. We hadn’t been there for about four years and the recession seems to have taken hold.
We then headed up and over the bridge. That end of Paradise Island is dominated by the monstrously large Atlantis Resort complex. We spent a week there a number of years ago and if you haven’t ever been there before, it might just be worth taking an excursion that gives you access to their acres and acres of property, lagoons, beaches, impressive aquariums and the lot. We just walked over and back along the farther bridge that passes over the Potter’s Cay Fish Shacks and back to East Bay Street.
We retraced our steps and then went on past the cruise terminal along the part of Bay Street where the requisite duty-free shops and souvenirs are located. There is little about all of this that is Bahamian, but a visit to the storied Nassau Straw Market is designed to make you feel closer to the authentic Bahamas. Sadly, that is no longer true.
Historically, the straw market showcased the traditional skills of plaiting, braiding and weaving of straw into myriad baskets, hats and other kitschy products. You used to even be able to watch the process. These days you’ll find more ‘straw’ hats from China, T-shirts and hordes of other trinkets from as equally far-flung places than traditional hand-crafted products. But if you look closely, you will find a Bahamian straw product or two. We didn’t spend much time there.
We walked along Bay Street as far as the British Colonial Hilton, a hotel where Art stayed too many years ago to even count now! Across the street there used to be a terrific spot for conch fritters, a must-try when visiting the Bahamas. Sadly, it, too had closed, and the space was forlorn and empty.
With that we made our way back to the ship to toast another warm and breezy Bahamian day.
If you have a few minutes, we invite you to come on that walk with us…
Like most people, we travel for a variety of reasons. Sometimes we travel to visit family and friends far away; mostly we travel to experience new and exciting places and cultures. However, from time to time we travel simply for an opportunity to relax, and there is nowhere better to relax than places we know and love for their laid-back ambience. For us that laid-back ambience is exemplified nowhere better than the Caribbean – and the most relaxing way for us to visit islands we know and love is on a cruise line that we also know and love. We’re just back from three weeks doing just that, and it was just what the doctor ordered.
Leaving behind a snowy Toronto (oddly that day it did snow although the winter, by and large, has had very little of the white stuff), we waited with sixteen aircraft in front of our plane for the inevitable de-icing that characterizes any kind of air travel in a Canadian winter, then waited in an equally long line-up to take off. But it was worth it.
After six days in Miami Beach (we’ll tell you about that and South Beach’s art deco history in the next few weeks) we boarded our transportation that would take us back to islands we’ve visited many times in the past. That transportation for this trip was Oceania’s Riviera, an elegant and quiet 1200-passenger beauty. We were bound south and planned to enjoy each of the stops on our own terms – NO shore excursions with gaggles of other people!
Our first stop was Nassau in the Bahamas where we’ve been many times over a period of some thirty years. Not strictly speaking in the Caribbean – it’s the Atlantic really – Nassau has changed over the years. We took a long walk from the cruise pier through the main street of Nassau and over the bridge to Paradise Island. The first time we visited that little island it was dotted with small resort properties like a Holiday Inn and Flagler Hotel, not to mention Club Med in more recent years. Now, however, it’s been gobbled up by Atlantis, where we have actually spent a week-long vacation in the past, one of the most expensive for this kind of vacation for us. The Atlantis complex has practically taken over the island these days. Back over the bridge, we visited the well-known straw market to find that it has disappointedly changed with hand-made straw products vastly outnumbered by trinkets and T-shirts imported from Asia. And not a single local woman actually making a basket on the premises. Pity.
Then we arrived in San Juan, Puerto Rico. When we first visited this island, we weren’t impressed – perhaps it had something to do with the ‘shore excursion’-type experience. However, on subsequent visits where we actually stayed on the island, we came to love it for its mix of the new and the old. On this visit we returned to a numbers of spots in old San Juan including Senor Lopez’s wonderful vintage and estate jewelry shop which is now run by his widow. [We wrote about it in more detail here.]
Next stop was Gustavia in St. Barth’s. The last time we were there we toured the island; this visit we confined ourselves to exploring the town of Gustavia. A little bit of France in the Caribbean, Gustavia is home to a variety of the best-loved high-end French brands. But we were on a mission to visit the French Pharmacie so that Patty could purchase several French drug-store products that you can’t buy elsewhere. Stuffed to overflowing with brands like LaRoche Posay, Emryolisse, Bioderma, Vichy, Nuxe and Caudalie to name only a few, a French Pharmacie is nothing like drug stores in North America and always worth a visit!
When we arrived in St. John’s, Antigua, we were looking forward to revisiting an island we had spent a vacation on a few years go and that we loved. Unfortunately, it was crawling with cruise ship passengers from several mega-ships and we gave the town short shrift noting that some aspects seem to have deteriorated since our last visit.
We then arrived on the scene of our honeymoon some 28 years ago: the island of St. Lucia. The last time we visited the island about four years ago, we took an island tour and noted that Castries, the capital seemed as down-trodden as ever. We were pleasantly surprised on this visit to see that St. Lucia seems to have weathered the recession better than some other islands. The town was vibrant, hopping and wonderfully hot.
St. Maarten was our last island visit. Having spent several wonderful holidays here before, we were looking forward to our early-morning stroll along the boardwalk in Phillipsburg. Morning is the very best time to do this since most people on cruise ships are off on those shore excursions and won’t return to town until later in the afternoon. So we had it all to ourselves. A quick pop into the Flip-Flop shop where Patty always buys her flip-flops and then we were back to the ship.
In spite of this being a kind of return for us – no surprises to speak of – there is still much to tell you about. Stay tuned as we tell you stories about learning new skills while on vacation, Art Deco architecture in South Beach including the Blue Moon Hotel where we stayed, and how we plan independent cruise port visits – eschewing those cattle calls they refer to as shore excursions.