Vero to the Caribbean Part One

MiltThomas head shot 2011smallerMILT THOMAS

In case you are wondering why I haven’t appeared on this site the past ten days, my wife and I are on our anniversary cruise in the Eastern Caribbean. My intent was to write as I go, like I did in February while I was in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. But, dare I say, cruises are relatively mundane and don’t normally afford the same kind of opportunities for relatable moments.

On this trip, the average age of passengers was deceased. Obviously, my wife and I were well below the average. We have toured some interesting places, like St. Maarten/St. Martin, which is the smallest island in the world ever partitioned into two different countries. Our port was on the Dutch side and we took a taxi to the French side, a drive of about six miles. Legend has it that a Frenchman and a Dutchman decided to divide the island by running from opposite shores until they met in the middle. Apparently the Frenchman ran faster.

The Dutch side seems more industrial, while the French side is more, well, French. Both sides were crowded and overwhelmed by traffic. It seemed the only way to get a parking space was to buy a parked car. The return trip to the Dutch side took twice as long, but that may be due to the taxi driver. He was a black man who loved bluegrass music, which he had turned up full volume. And while the music was clearly American mountain music, the lyrics were entirely religious. He sang them all at the top of his voice and we suspected he was holding us captive in his cab until we started singing along with him and throwing money in the collection meter. Religious or not, that was the highlight on St. Martin/St. Maarten.

As you might expect, most Eastern Caribbean islands offer pretty much the same benefits, shopping, music, food and drink, even though they represent a number of European countries. Aside from Martin/Maarten, they are all representative of either their Spanish, French, Dutch, English or American colonial origins. Each had an indigenous population of Carib or Arawak Indians who were wiped out by the Europeans and replaced by slaves from Africa. The slave populations spoke their own dialects so the masters did not understand them, or in modern days, so the tourists don’t understand. Every island has its KFC and McDonald’s franchises and upscale white tablecloth restaurants. My wife and I prefer local foods wherever we travel and those were more difficult to find.

On the island nation of St. Vincent, my Anthony Bourdain iPhone app suggested a place called Earl’s Rum Shop, which he visited on one of his No Reservations shows to try an island specialty, barracuda. However, neither our cab driver nor any folks on the street seemed to know where it was. Maybe they were sick of hearing about Anthony Bourdain or he was a bad tipper, but the driver finally took us to his favorite haunt, a hole in the wall cafeteria style shack in the industrial district called VeeJays. Trivia afficiandos will recognize that as the name of the Beatles’ first U.S. record label, but this eatery had nothing to do with anything English or white. Sandy and I had a dish called Roti, which is meat (chicken, beef or goat) and potatoes cooked in an indian-style curry sauce and wrapped in a thin flour tortilla. I had two Hairoun beers, the brew of choice to locals and quite tasty. Their Wyllie’s hot sauce added a new dimension of zestiness to the food.

Our other local dining experience was in Fort de France, Martinique. It is the most developed of the islands we visited, crowded with retail shops on traffic-jammed narrow streets with an actual drainage system under the streets. Most restaurants we wanted to try were closed during the day (we were shipping out by 4:30), but we found one upstairs near the beach, La Crosserie. I had delicious lamb chops and Sandy had a shrimp roulade with more than 20 decent size shrimp. Their local beer, Biere Lorraine, complemented the meal on a hot, sunny afternoon.

In St. Croix, we did eat at the number one restaurant, Turtles Deli. It is located at the far end of the business district, right on the beach with feral chickens running about. We were advised not to feed them because they are nasty and used for fighting. One large tomcat maintained order and kept undesirables away from the tables. It was a sandwich shop, of course, large ones on homemade bread. I had a Blackbeard Ale and was disappointed to see its home office was in Wisconsin.

Ziplining is thrilling unless you hit a tree.
Ziplining is thrilling unless you hit a tree.

The highlight for me, other than our experiences on board, was to go ziplining in Barbados. If you have ever been to Barbados, you know that it is not a mountainous volcanic island like most of the others. Rather, it is on a base of coral and limestone, its highest point is around 1000 feet above sea level. It is also far enough south of the Caribbean chain to avoid most hurricanes. The last bad one was Hurricane Janet in 1955, which virtually wiped every building off the island.

It doesn’t sound like ziplining on flat land would be very adventurous, but there are a number of limestone caves, some that have collapsed over the centuries forming gullies. We went ziplining over Jack in the Box gully, 120 feet over the ground. There were seven ziplines on the course, the longest 300 meters. For those who have never ziplined, this was less thrilling than Space Mountain but more so than a New York City cab ride. You just need faith in that strap that supports your body dangling over the forest as you go flying along a thin cable that represents the difference between life and death. Actually, the only chest pounding experience is when you step off the platform into thin air. The ride itself is like a roller coaster on the straightaway, building up speed as you come ever closer to the next platform and feel like you will crash into it. You clasp the strap that supports your body with one hand and lightly hold the cable with your gloved free hand. You have a tendency to tighten your grip, which slows you down before reaching the platform. Then you have to reach up with both hands and pull yourself forward with the cable. A certain amount of arm strength is necessary to accomplish that before the next zipliner comes crashing into you.

So, I did all that, including a sudden stop as my long legs caught the top of a tree in the gully. You do this seven times to complete the circuit and there’s no way to get off without finishing. A cold beer awaits you at the end along with a photo of your first zip. You can buy the photo for $7 if you look confident and they will destroy it for $20 if you don’t. just kidding about the $20.

By the way, green monkeys live in the gully and their claim to fame is that they are the source of all polio vaccine. I didn’t ask if they were also the source of polio.

That was kind of an overview of our island hopping experiences. Our experiences on the ship will come tomorrow.

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