Tag: Caribbean

St. Maarten and St. Martin: A Tale of Two Cultures on One Island Paradise

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St. Maarten harbor

If you ever wanted to visit Europe without having to fly to the European continent – you’re in luck! Hop on a cruise ship or plane heading to St. Maarten/St. Martin and you can visit the only place in the world where the Netherlands borders France! St. Maarten/St. Martin is divided by two nationalities and cultures, approximately 60% French and 40% Dutch. Unlike many other Caribbean islands that were former colonies now turned independent, this Caribbean paradise is different. St. Maarten is a constituent country of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and St. Martin is an overseas collectivity of the French Republic. These two jurisdictions share the same island paradise.

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Warm welcomes!

Greeted by sunny skies, bright jewel-toned sailboats, lush green mini-mountains, pristine beaches… and with the remnants of colonial muscle-flexing, like old forts, standing down… this is an inviting place. Plentiful pirates (in costume!) will have you dreaming of the days of buried treasure and seafaring adventure… without the danger! St. Maarten/St. Martin has been hit hard over the years by hurricanes, but the resourceful and resilient people here have worked hard to recover and restore their beautiful island after the damage. It was rewarding to be able to visit this place that locals take great pride in, and do business with them to help play a role, albeit small, in helping boost their economy after the hardships they have endured in recent years. The real treasure here isn’t buried, and wasn’t looted by the pirates of old – it’s St. Maarten/St. Martin’s people.

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Boat tour

A great way to see both sides, French and Dutch, is to take a boat tour. You can catch one in Phillipsburg, on the Dutch side, that will take you all the way around to the French section. After my boat tour, I took a bus ride to Marigot, on the French side, for a closer look at faraway France’s quaint colonial charms!

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Eglise Saint Martin de Tours church, Marigot

While I’ve received some disagreeable reactions from locals in France making my best attempt to communicate in the local language, the people of Marigot were pleasantly surprised and impressed with my, admittedly broken, French! There is something infinitely satisfying about being able to converse with locals in their own tongue – it’s another element of immersion that fully envelops you in the travel experience. It is also rewarding when locals are pleasantly surprised and flattered by your efforts. Regrettably, I didn’t know any Dutch yet (note to self: bucket list!)

The cultural immersion doesn’t stop at sights and sounds, however. If you long for the tantalizing tastes and sweet scents of the continent, you can find them right here too. Stroll into a cafe in Marigot for cafe au lait and croissant to savor while you watch the tide roll in by sunset… it’s the best of both worlds!

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National pride on the French side

If you romanticize about Caribbean pirate culture, breathtaking beaches, and a laid-back life of nautical wonders, or the charms of Europe right in your back yard (if you live on the North American continent), then this may be just the place for you!

You can view my full tour of St. Maarten/St. Martin, here!:

 

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Underwater Fun in Nautical Nassau, Bahamas!

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Abandoned lighthouse & Atlantis

Nassau, Bahamas is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the Caribbean, and given all that there is to see and do here it’s not surprising! Besides the endless sunshine, bountiful beaches, and cool Caribbean vibe, the historical architecture and underwater adventures are well worth reveling in! The old and new captured by the rusty, whitewashed abandoned lighthouse facing the ultra-modern seashell pink towers of Atlantis Resort epitomize this island paradise: sentimentally historic while forward-thinking.

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Historic old town

A stroll through Nassau’s old town delights with vibrant pastel colors, colonial classical design, and a boisterously beachy vibe. Service is always delivered with a smile. It’s said that greater exposure to sunshine can lead to greatly improved mood and outlook – judging by the optimism ever-present among the locals here I believe it! The heavy hordes of tourists, while a common sight year-round in this tropical paradise, do not diminish the charm of this lively city!

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Parliament building

After a visit to the historic colonial buildings in town, the short trip to Fort Fincastle offers another perspective. This tenacious fort built in 1793, and still standing proud, reminds us that multiple colonial powers would have liked to have a piece of this paradise. Once you visit, you will wish you had one too! Cannons can’t keep you away as you invade these limestone walls, marking one of your own greatest victories in history – your amazing and unforgettable Nassau vacation!

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Fort Fincastle

Perhaps one of the greatest pleasures of all in Nassau, however, is not by land, but by sea! Aboard the SeaWorld Explorer submarine, you can dive the depths to be amazed by the dizzying variety of boldly colored fish and exotically shaped coral occupying the brilliant aqua depths below. While “wildlife” type tours can be extremely hit-or-miss (and, unfortunately, more often than not “miss”) there is no shortage of sea life to be seen from this submarine! Enter another world entirely as it is the people who inhabit the “fish tank” here, surrounded by a whirlwind of fascinating and fanciful fish!

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Views from the SeaWorld Explorer submarine

Of course, the most popular tourist attraction of all in Nassau may be Atlantis. While this may be a positive or negative for you depending on your perspective on travel, there’s no denying it is a massive and impressive structure. Resembling a castle, it invites you in to be “king or queen” for a day getting the VIP treatment in the casino, or being lavished in hedonism among its spectacular pools, waterfalls, and other luxurious surroundings. Wherever you go in Nassau, your memories are sure to be priceless!

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Atlantis

You can view my video tour of Nassau, Bahamas here!:

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St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands, Perfectly Paradisiacal!

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Scenic St. Thomas views

St. Thomas, an island paradise in the Caribbean, and United States territory, is a playground of crystal clear waters dotted by lush, jade islands, all viewable from an endless supply of scenic mountain overlooks – each one more spectacular than the last! Basque in the beams of sunshine, be refreshed in the surf of the ocean, and inhale the essence of intoxicating Yellow Trumpetbush and Frangipani flowers as you explore the wonders of St. Thomas!

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Magen’s Bay Beach

Magen’s Bay Beach consistently ranks in the world’s top ten for beaches. With spectacular views, sand the consistency of baking powder, water so clear you can see your feet – and so warm it feels like bathwater… lounging out here will leave you feeling super spoiled while the sun soaks you in warmth amidst the sea-salt scented breezes. It’s the perfect place to relax… and escape!

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Charlotte Amalie

The United States purchased St. Thomas from Denmark in 1917 for the unbeatable bargain of $25 million in gold, or, what would be the equivalent of $489 million today. The transaction allowed the island to remain free from adversarial hands and boost Denmark’s coffers during the hefty expenses of World War I fighting. Much of the old Danish colonial architecture remains in the capital of Charlotte Amalie, and is indubitably charming.

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Danish colonial architecture

St. Thomas is a varied landscape of crystal clear waters, island formations big and small, and mountains and hilltops boasting amazing views of the expanse below.  It is truly one of the greatest jewels in the string of islands adorning the Caribbean! If you still have time for shopping in Charlotte Amalie, I highly recommend seeking out the paintings and photography by local artists in the AH Riise outdoor mall. The locals’ sources of inspiration are numerous, and talent enviable! The local art is my favorite souvenir to leave this beautiful place with.

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Cruise ships views

You can view my video tour of St. Thomas here!:

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I am extremely grateful for your generous donation to help keep the site running! This site and individual posts are not sponsored! A dollar may not be a lot, but every dollar counts!

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Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos by HXT Electric Hummer – an electrifying experience!

 

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HXT Electric Hummers

The first stop for week two on my back-to-back cruise on the Carnival Pride out of Baltimore was Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos. Grand Turk is an outstanding cruise destination and one I would gladly re-visit time and time again. Not only are the excursions I have taken here some of the best I’ve ever taken, but back at port there is a breathtaking public beach (with free lounge chairs and umbrellas) with the most crystal clear waters and spectacular views I have ever seen on a beach anywhere! Hedonists rejoice!

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Views of the beach and salt flats of Grand Turk

As you wander through the playful port, you realize quickly that John Glenn is highly honored here. Consistent with my tour guide’s proclamation that “John Glenn put us on the map!” there is an exhibit at port highlighting Glenn’s significant contribution to the island. The exhibit includes a life-size statue of Glenn and replicas of the Atlas rocket and Friendship 7 capsule (which landed here in the waters a couple of miles from Grand Turk in 1962 after completing the Mercury 7 mission – you can see the original nearby, one of the stops our Hummer tour made.) If you can pull yourself away from the incredible beaches, it’s worth a look!

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John Glenn exhibit, port of Grand Turk

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Beautiful beaches at the Port, Grand Turk

It was daunting facing driving on the “wrong” side of the road (yes, they do that here!) in the electric Hummer, but once I gave it a try, just following the guide and hearing the frequent reminders to “stay on the left!” after every turn, it was no problem at all. I think anyone could handle it with no issues. Perhaps in a big city it would be more overwhelming – but here it was easy with very little traffic. The Hummers are convertible, allowing the warmth of the sun and light breeze of the wind to wash over you while you enjoy quite a comprehensive tour of the island. The Hummers are an absolute blast to drive, and being fully automatic they are easy to drive too, allowing you to focus on the amazing views.

The tour was very intimate and personalized, with my son and I in one Hummer, and only one couple in one other Hummer on the tour. Apparently not a lot of people booked it – and boy were they missing out! We made a few stops where the guide offered us more information about the island, including a wildlife sanctuary, a salt flats, the “downtown,” (shown above… very peaceful and relaxed!), and the original Friendship 7 capsule I mentioned above. You can see more on these stops in the video posted below. The stops were informative and fun… but to be honest I couldn’t wait to get back in the Hummer!!

I was disappointed when the tour had to come to an end, but having a beach break to look forward to before curfew on the ship made leaving my trusty hummer behind more tolerable!

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Beach bliss

Want to see more? I filmed the tour and you can watch it here!:

I am thrilled to report that I upgraded my filming equipment for these videos – however, this trip was filmed before then. I will be posting soon on my trip to Europe where you will see the difference! Please subscribe to my YouTube channel to further satisfy your travel fix!: Heather Anne’s Ultimate Travel Adventures.

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Next stop next week: Princess Cays, Bahamas, which was stop two of week two of the cruise! Thanks for joining in on the adventure!

Southern Caribbean on the Norwegian Dawn, Part 2: St. Kitts, Antigua, St. Thomas

Welcome back for the second installment of Southern Caribbean on Norwegian Dawn! St. Kitts was the third stop on the cruise, and I opted for the St. Kitts Scenic Railway excursion, which turned out to be a great choice. The train circled the island, with the views becoming increasingly spectacular as the tour progressed. Rum drinks were served, but what was really intoxicating were the scenes of the magnificent volcano capped in puffy clouds, mountains rising out of the flattest plains of lush green fields, grasses blowing in the breeze, and cute, pastel house dotted villages. Locals waved to us every step of the way, warm welcomes complementing the warmth of the noon-day December sun and temperature in the 70s. This was paradise.

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There was time to spend at port after the train ride, and in contrast to the peaceful glide through the countryside, the port was bustling with a fun, party-like atmosphere. It was fun to stop in at the local shop, purchase the local beer (Carib – a personal favorite so difficult to find in the U.S. – such a treat!) and wander the streets beer in hand (something that would be impossible at home!) taking in the laid-back island atmosphere and people watching.

Antigua was the next stop – an alternate stop to St. Maarten which was substituted on the itinerary due to hurricane damage. I did not book an excursion for this port as none were posted until the last minute, so instead I opted for a self-guided tour. There was a tremendous contrast between the touristy shopping area close to the port dominated by tourists and the streets further out where primarily locals were to be found. Sadly the area appeared poor and in need of some repair and restoration.

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The church above is an example of this. The two towers stood out like exclamation points from anywhere in town (and even from our cabin’s balcony!) enticing me to approach. I didn’t realize until I could view it up close the urgent need for restoration. I was very glad to have been able to, hopefully, do my part to help the local economy doing some shopping at the port and paying my port taxes. Once back on the ship, I settled in on the balcony to enjoy what turned out to be the most spectacular sunset views of the entire cruise, with layers of deep blue, purple, orange, and yellow bleeding into each other in a stew of brilliant color as a backdrop to the dark outlines of islands. My imagination drifted to the days of pirates commandeering these incredible views – the ultimate Caribbean treasure. It was a beautiful ending to a beautiful day.

The final stop on the trip was St. Thomas. I was expecting to be underwhelmed, because I tend to enjoy destinations the more exotic they are and St. Thomas is a U.S. territory, but I could not have been more wrong. St. Thomas ended up being a highlight of the tour!

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Upon arrival, we were enthusiastically greeted by locals in vibrantly-colored local costumes energetically dancing in the street, including one on stilts! I had booked an excursion to Megan’s Bay beach – ranked one of the 10 most beautiful beaches in the world by National Geographic, and shopping and Charlotte Amalie. Our tour bus stopped at a thrilling scenic overlook high above Megan’s Bay, and then continued down the mountain to the shores of this magnificent beach. The tour guide claimed that the beach was damaged during the hurricanes – but other than palm trees being propped up by wooden braces I couldn’t tell. The beach stretched on so long it was easy to escape the crowds by strolling further down the vast shoreline. The water was warm and crystal clear, and the sound of the waves rushing in accompanied by peaceful silence was a delight to my ears. I wanted to pitch a tent and stay there forever!

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We proceeded into Charlotte Amalie afterwards, where high-end shops, especially jewelry shops, were over-represented, but I did manage to find a couple of real local gems, in particular a shop featuring the work of artists capturing the beauty and spirit of St. Thomas. As an Art History major in college I found their wares irresistible, and picked up a painting, photographic work, and drawing for my home office. The scenery here was so unforgettable that I wouldn’t need these reminders, but I would cherish them nonetheless. After shopping I did a self-guided tour to view the unique Danish architecture and brilliant, bright pastel colored structures abundant in both St. Thomas and the Caribbean.

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I left St. Thomas determined to pack up and move! (At least eventually!) I have traveled extensively throughout the U.S., and never encountered a more delicious expanse of eye-candy anywhere else on U.S. soil.

Back to the ship and it was time to return to San Juan, overflowing with amazing memories and a long checklist of places to which I “absolutely must!” return to. This includes the Dawn cruise ship itself, which will have its own post, (video tour included!) after our next Dawn cruise coming up this March!

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Southern Caribbean on Norwegian Dawn Part 1: Barbados & Martinique

After spending the night in San Juan, it was off to the port to embark on a Pirate’s island-hopping journey (sans pillage and other objectionable activity!) through the Southern Caribbean for 7 days aboard the Norwegian Dawn. She’s a fine ship – meticulously well maintained and brimming with a wealth of great entertainment and bounty of good food – but that is for another post, for the highlights of this trip are the magnificent islands – a strand of fine gems dotting the Atlantic and Caribbean Sea. I wore it well.

The first stop was Barbados, the southernmost point of our itinerary. Despite the fact that it was December and snowing when I left home, in Barbados it was in the mid 70s with a gentle breeze of sun-drenched, fresh-scented air. I would be meeting some new friends this day – the “green monkeys” of Barbados, on the Green Monkey Encounter and 4×4 Adventure excursion.

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To my surprise, I was greeted by far more than adorable monkeys, but tortoises and deer as well. These animals were fearless – approaching people with reckless abandon, allowing for very close contact (sans touching – the sign warned they bite!) and amazing photo ops. The monkeys also interacted with each other – grooming each other, screeching at each other, and chasing one another swinging limb to limb through the trees. They sat on the tortoises, who showed no indication of minding. Surrounded by monkeys, out in the open – not in a zoo, this was a truly unique experience (despite the joke-cracking about the monkeys down here from the Caribbeans who claim they have been overrun a la “Planet of the Apes!”) After our visit with the monkeys, we proceeded to scenic areas for more amazing photos as long as we could evade the distraction of eager local vendors.

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The final leg of the journey involved a 4×4 romp through the jungle, our rum punches sloshing out of plastic cups as we bounced around in our seats. It was great fun! Barbados was a beautiful island, with crystal clear water beaches, an upscale economy, and architecture unimpaired by hurricane damage (our tour guide advised us this is because of the location of Barbados and wind stream in the area.)

Martinique was the next day’s port – and the highlight of the trip. Happy to brush up on my college French, I wasn’t just in Martinique, I was in France. Martinique remains a region of France, rather than having become independent as many of her sister islands had done. Transported to another culture, and with magnificent scenery of mountains plunging into ocean, black sand beaches, and the most vibrant flowers I’d ever witnessed, it was “très magnifique!”

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We stopped at the church (shown above) of Sacre Coeur, said to be a miniaturized version of the landmark church in Paris. The residents I encountered on Martinique patriotically displayed their admiration for their compatriots in continental France. The tour bus traversed steep mountainside roads, bright colors splashed along the roadside in the form of beautiful flowers. Enormous peaks shadowed deeply plunged valleys – those with a fear of heights be forewarned. We continued on to a rum factory, DePaz, which showed the process of creating this intoxicating (literally) drink. The rum was prepared in gigantic vats, and aged in perfectly crafted barrels. The best part, of course, was the tasting at the end of the tour – especially since it was the finest rum I’d ever tasted – sweet but not overbearingly so. The final stop on the tour was the local museum, which had displays on local famous (and infamous) citizens, and some historic artifacts. Outside cannons lined the elevated overlook, wary of battles against the British in bygone days.

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A local woman was selling beautiful handcrafted objects that were a delight to view along with tourist trinkets. Hot in the December sun (!) I picked up a handcrafted fan with a brightly colored plaid pattern traditional to the island. Looking back, I regret not further expanding my collection of souvenirs with her enviable wares. She had some beautiful dolls in traditional textiles that stand out in my memory. Good news, I have an excuse to return (not that I didn’t have one already!)

It was back to the ship again after another amazing adventure, and time to gaze from my shipboard balcony at the bold orange sunset blanketed in blue and violet ribbons you expect to see in paintings more than in real life.  A perfect end to a perfect day.

Stay subscribed next time for Part 2: St. Kitts, Antigua, and St. Thomas. A review of the Dawn will be covered in a future post.

December in San Juan!

75ish degrees in December? Check. Quaint, narrow streets and pastel-splashed colonial buildings? Check. Awe-inspiring glimpses into colonial Caribbean history? Check. Mountainside neighborhoods plunging into spectacular oceanfront promenades and beaches? Check. The sounds of an exotic language and scents and tastes of an exotic cuisine, right here at home? Check. A magnificent harbor dotted with the grandest of cruise ships to the smallest of sailboats, basking in the luxurious warmth of the December sun and floating on glistening pastel blue waters? Check. San Juan, Puerto Rico is a beautiful winter escape from the continental U.S. No passport required… and no parka required. Enjoy a piping hot chicken empanada as you stroll down a cobbled street gazing at the pastel hues of architecture from another era and you may as well be a million miles away.

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We stopped here before catching the Norwegian Dawn cruise ship’s Southern Caribbean itinerary, sailing out of San Juan. This city is well worth exploring before or after a cruise out of the port. San Juan is busy rebuilding after hurricane season, and tourist dollars are a big help – so do not let the damage reports deter you. Outside of the tourist areas there are neighborhoods where power has not yet been restored, and some buildings show damage. But for the most part the city is vibrant and restored, and glorious to behold. Taking a cruise out of San Juan? Do not overlook this port during your travel adventures. Sick of snow, bulky layers, and scraping ice off your windshield? Ditto. As a U.S. territory, Puerto Rico is an easy visit for U.S. citizens – so you can focus on all of the things you’d like to see and do here instead of the red tape you need to overcome to get here!

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The above photo shows the view from the top of the fort in Old San Juan, meticulously maintained by the National Park Service. This is an absolute must-see stop for any visitor to San Juan. You’ll feel like a kid again, curiously advancing through dark tunnels and running up stairs to the top of this imposing structure eager to see how high it goes, and imagining bearing down against pirates and imperial powers alike in a real-life, super-cool fort! A short film will introduce you to the history of the fort and the U.S. presence in Puerto Rico, and then wander the grounds where you will find the barracks, a dungeon complete with colonial-era graffiti (!), pop-marked outer walls given their character from repeated attacks in colonial days, and utterly magnificent views over the entire city.

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The National Park Service has clearly gone to tremendous care to restore and maintain this breathtaking landmark. Surrounded by history, and unencumbered by droves of tourists during the off-season, you are transported back in time. The fort is also surprisingly accessible for older visitors and those who may have mobility issues. An elevator transports you up to the level of the main square, and benches are available throughout to take a breather and reflect. For the disabled, admission is also free. (It’s $7 for everyone else – money well spent to help with preservation.)

I hope that you too have had or will have the chance to visit this delightful city – preferably in the winter when, if you are like me, you’d really rather not be getting buried in snow – and heavy layers of clothing – at home! Should you visit, you are sure to say “Hasta luego!” (until later) rather than goodbye when you regrettably have to leave. (Don’t forget you pack your shorts and t-shirts!) More on our cruise through the Southern Caribbean coming soon!

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I am extremely grateful for your generous donation to help keep the site running! This site and individual posts are not sponsored! A dollar may not be a lot, but every dollar counts!

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