Thu. Oct 22nd, 2020

Travel: Windjamming In The Caribbean |1979-7-8

On a brisk March morning at 5 am, I left my apartment en route to a romantic adventure: a five-day barefoot cruise to the secluded, enchanted Caribbean isles. Rushing down to the Grand Concourse, I hopped aboard the D train, which took me to 50th Street where I caught the-train-to-the-plane [the JFK Express to Kennedy Airport]. Several minutes after six, I boarded the JFK Express, paying $3 to the conductor, who informed each passenger which airport bus to take at Howard Beach. We enjoyed a pleasantly comfortable ride in attractive, air-conditioned cars. Passengers, carrying light hand baggage, boarded at 42nd, 34th, West 4th, Chambers and Broadway-Nassau Streets.

Once the train reached Jay StreetBorough Hall in Brooklyn, we proceeded nonstop to Howard Beach, where buses awaited to ferry us to our respective airline terminals. Unfortunately, no porters were on hand to help us with our bags; people traveling with several pieces of luggage may therefore be better off taking a taxi. However, if the-train-to-the-plane excursion appeals to you, the service is available seven days a week, with trains running every twenty minutes from 6 am to 11 pm. The JFK Express originates at the 57th Street IND platform but may be picked up at seven stations along the way. Journey time is one hour.

At 8:15 am, I boarded Eastern Airline’s Whisper Jet for St. Maarten. Three and a half hours later, I arrived in Phillipsburg, the capital of St. Maarten and a busy, commercial center.

Lying at the southern tip of a 37 square mile island [half Dutch and half French], Phillipsburg is a cosmopolitan city whose two main thoroughfares, Front Street and Back Street, are lined with duty-free shops, selling everything from French perfume to Japanese transistor radios. Indian-owned shops offering wraparound madras print skirts complete with elegant boutiques featuring sexy Japanese sarongs.

Jewelry shops abound, and if you are in search of unique souvenir for a loved one, you should try the Gem Center on Front Street. Its proprietor Andy Kovach, an American who migrated to St. Maarten two years ago, specializes in a variety of precious and semi-precious stones, as well as in good conversation.

Phillipsburg, a gourmet’s paradise, offers visitors a wide range of international and regional cuisine. One can either sample such traditional local fare as yambo and bullfoot soup in out-of-the-way eateries like the Summer Garden or dine more formally and conventionally at Antoine’s, which serves a delicious salade Nicoise. The West Indian Tavern whose specialty is lobster also offers superb yellowtail snapper. Pulsating discos, hidden in alleyways leading to Great Bay Beach, are only a short distance from Front Street.

Situated on the pier is a picturesque little square, resembling a European fishing town. Its wine and cheese shop, ice cream parlor, gift store and outdoor harbor side cafe greatly enhance the square’s appeal.

What a view the harbor presented that day! Small boats topped by stark white sails bobbed like fragile toys alongside of the huge cruise ships, amid a sea of the deepest azure. The peaks of the surrounding hills were draped with clouds. Giggling children were spotted diving off the side of the pier. Within this scene stood our ship, the Polynesia, a 50 year old, 248 foot Portuguese schooner. The only four-masted vessel in the water, it loomed as an image of adventure and romance, as it patiently waited to take on its expectant passengers — all 126 of them.

As we waited for the launch to reach the pier, young boys, their wet bodies glistening in the sun, begged us to “Tro a coin in the waater, mum.” With darting movements, they swam after the coins and were soon back on the pier repeating their request.

Entering a launch requires a sturdy yet agile set of legs, which we soon enough developed through our daily boarding of the launches for our trips to shore. As the launch sways to and fro, one must contrive to grasp a wet pair of ropes and quickly step onto a set of crooked steps. What a comical sight we were: a bunch of landlubbers joking, ribbing and clumsily assisting each other. However, the experienced crew made sure that we transferred to the ship safely.

Stowaway Night — the first official festivity of the trip — began with a cheerful greeting from the crew. Rum swizzles [strong rum punch], dinner and moonlight dancing were just some of the treats of our pre-sail party. After dinner, during the first of his many storytelling hours, Captain John Green set the tone of the cruise by telling us we were free to create our own fun in any manner that suited us — provided no one complained. According to Captain Green, If you need a social director, you are on the wrong ship. The luxury liner is your best bet. That introduction, coupled with sleeping on sliding deck pads or in small cabins with narrow bunk beds, cold showers and cabin lights that flickered off for ten minute periods when overheated, left no doubt in my mind that this was no luxury cruise — we had to rough it. Together with a chance to experience ocean sailing, however, this was assuredly part of the trip’s lure.

At noon, after breakfasting on homemade sweet rolls and Bloody Marys, we began our voyage. Soon, passengers from eight to eighty were sunbathing, diving, snorkeling or playing Tarzan, as they swung from hanging ropes into the sea. Reading and card playing were other favorite pastimes, but nighttime found us dancing under the stars to steel band rhythms or hot disco beats. Crash courses in navigation and safety rules aboard ship were conducted by the crew, who also let us try our hands at manning the helm.

Another exciting daily activity aboard ship was the hoisting of the sails. Pulling on thick ropes, bare chested shipmates raised huge white sails up lofty masts. Passengers eager to join in the task lined up behind the mates and, in unison, pulled the ends of the ropes, while others cheered them on. As the last sail was eased into position, the crowd’s fervor reached its highest pitch, and a loud hooray resounded throughout the ship. A peaceful calm then settled over the boat, conforming to the calm of the sea.

It was not unusual for passengers to remain in their bathing suits for the entire cruise, only donning a skirt or a pair of cut-offs to go ashore. On deck, mostly everyone walked barefoot, especially the captain, who never wore shoes either on or off the ship. Sitting on the pier at Phillipsburg one day, I overheard someone refer to him as the barefoot man.

The food aboard ship, while not suitable to the delicate palates of gourmets, was homey, hearty pastel tinted seafare. Breakfast consisted of the usual staples — eggs, sausages and pancakes — but was enhanced by sea baked bread and rolls. Lunch, the best meal of the day, was a smorgasbord of meats, vegetables, salads, relishes and desserts served on the top deck. Dinners were not remarkable, except for the finale when we feasted on lobster and champagne. It was so deliciously prepared that we chanted a five minute chorus  We want D.J., to bring the chef out of the galley to take a bow.

On shore leave, we engaged in the exploration of a group of entrancing islands, including Saba, St. Eustatius, St. Barthelemy and St. Kitts. Marigot, the capital of the French side of St. Maarten, also cast its spell on us.

Behind steep hills which rise out of the sea like huge boulders are tiny, dollhouse villages, either nestled in valleys or spilling out of the mouths of extinct volcanoes. Exotic flowers and lush rain forests fill the landscape. Winding roads circling tall mountains provide breathtaking vistas as they curl to their peaks. Although on each island one encounters the gentle ways and friendly manners so characteristic of West Indians, every one of them possesses its own unique personality and charm.

Marigot, for example, is a sleepy French town nestled in a cove in the Caribbean Sea. Around its picturesque harbor are a cluster of tiny shops and a central marketplace. Restaurants perched on top of hills overlook the yacht basin. Every Wednesday, the harbor bristles with the sounds, smells and colors of market day. On the pier, men sit at wooden tables playing dominoes and watching jet-set couples motor to and from yachts bobbing lazily in the water.

Although we arrived in Marigot very late in the afternoon, there was still some time for us to explore its narrow streets, lined with pastel tinted houses and French boutiques.

That evening we went to La Creperie to sample some French cuisine. My high school French so failed me that I ended up with the weird combination of escargot [snails] and hamburger. However, the tasty food, garden-like atmosphere and moderate prices [$7-$12 per person] more than adequately compensated for my faux pas.

Unlike Marigot with its charming French ambience, Basseterre, the capital of St Kitts, is a collection of dull, tall wooden buildings and houses. It looked like a town of firewood. As I strolled along its expansive streets, I missed the intimacy of the narrow byways of Marigot. Nevertheless, the magnificent countryside of this British Island thoroughly captivated me.

Sprawling sugar cane fields, bordered by green and silver palm trees, appear at the foot of huge hills. Interspersed among flaming red trees, frangipani, bougainvillea and hibiscus flowers, are plantation houses and the ruins of old mills. Green-backed monkeys, brought to the island by the early French colonists, roam the upper ridges of the hills, and the rain forests resonate with their chatter.

En route to Brimstone Hill, the site of an eighteenth century fort, we passed Carib Indian rock carvings dating back to the 1300s. Stopping at a batik factory, where island cloth is imprinted with hot wax and dye, we bought a few souvenirs and continued on to the fort.

This well-preserved, imposing edifice witnessed many skirmishes between the British and the French in their fight for control of the island.

After investigating these environs, we proceeded to the twin beaches [the Caribbean and Atlantic] at Frigate Bay for lunch and a swim. The ten dollar lobster I ate at the little beach cafe was dry and tough. But my dinner at the Avendale Restaurant, a delicious local dish of fish and cornmeal, obliterated the memory of the disappointing lunch.

The Atlantic beach at Frigate Bay is a deserted strip of white sand bedecked with beds of sea grapes. Reclining under a straw umbrella, I listened to John, a local chap, expound upon the marvels of St. Kitts. He gave me a list of swinging disco clubs such as City Gate on Fort Street and Palm Lodge on Fort Thomas Road, wanting to leave me with an impression of St. Kitts that would not be so easily erased by St. Barthelemy, our next stop.

We arrived on this prosperous looking French Island around 3 pm. While sipping cool drinks at Chez Joe, a small cafe on the pier, we noticed the expensive boats in the basin. They helped to confirm the advance billing that St. Bartz, as the locals call it, with its clean, well paved streets, is a haven for the rich.

At Sea Shell beach, my roommate swam while I collected shells on shore. Instead of sand, the beach is virtually covered with shells of every description. Around little bends in the beach are secluded coves where breaking waves splash their foam upon the rocks. Technically, nude bathing is prohibited in St. Bartz, but there are special beaches where bathers are permitted to swim topless. Very few men from our ship were on Sea Shell beach that day.

St. Eustatius and Saba are sparsely populated Dutch Islands that are small in size but large in appeal.

Statia, as this eight-square mile island is often called, is the historical gem of the Caribbean. Oranjestadt, its only town, boasts an outdoor museum of old landmarks and ruins, monuments to Statia’s greatness during the eighteenth century when it was the Caribbean’s center of international trade.

On November 16, 1776, the Dutch Commander fired a one gun salute from Fort Oranje in token of his recognition of the flag of the American Revolutionaries. The American colonists regarded this act as the first public acknowledgement of their independence by a foreign power. The display aroused the wrath of the British, and in 1781, Admiral Rodney and the British Navy fired on the tiny island, thereby bringing the curtain down on its golden era. In Upper Town stands an impressive monument commemorating the Dutch Commander’s courageous act.

We also discovered an eighteenth century Dutch Reform Church whose hollow, stone windows open on to the sparkling sea below. Lichen covered graves and headstones carved with the names of heroes still stand in the courtyard. The ruins of an old synagogue and Jewish cemetery can also be found there. They were erected by Sephardic Jews who fled from Spain to Statia and who eventually became the backbone of the island’s merchant population. On our way down to Lower Town, we passed by the Gertrude Library. The building is 200 years old, and I was informed that the librarian there has an encyclopedic knowledge of the history of the island.

Along the beach in Lower Town are the ruins of warehouses, merchant stalls and slave markets. Even today, one can almost hear the intermingling sounds of the loading of cargo, the hawking of the merchants and the clanging of slave chains.

While some of us bathed in the warm sea water, others sunned on volcanic black sand. On the main road, hidden among hibiscus flowers, were little stone benches upon which people sat chatting. Ambling through the town we discovered the Happy Hooker Water Sport Center, where one can rent diving equipment for underwater expeditions. However, since we were too hungry to engage in such strenuous activities, we went instead to the Old Gin House for conch chowder and chicken with coconut.

The Mooshay Bay Inn, an annex of the House, looked quite appealing with its rustic group of tables and chairs made from small logs. Both the tables and walls were decorated with pewter plates and tankards. If it had not been for the party that was going to take place on the beach that evening, we might have lingered there. But the party [a regular feature of the Polynesia] with its whole suckling roast pig and steel band melodies was too much to resist and seemed a more fitting end to our stay in Statia.

A short distance away lay the island of Saba, which is like no place I have ever seen. Five square miles in size, it is an unspoiled garden of nature’s embroidery. But we were only to discover this later, for as the Polynesia approached the island, the dismal scene at dockside in no way prepared us for the natural beauty that was to unfold before our eyes. All we could see from the ship was a huge volcanic rock rising from the sea.

On shore we hired a taxi [a $20 fare divided among 5 passengers] to transport us over the hand — constructed spiral road, leading to quaint little villages with names such as The Bottom, which ironically is near the top of the volcano, and Windward side, which overlooks The Bottom. Both these villages dramatically rest along the ridge of the volcano’s crater. Wild orchids, giant fern and elephant ear, ginger lilies, African tulips and cedar and eucalyptus trees merged into a kaleidoscopic image, intensified by sweet and pungent fragrances. As we climbed higher, the view became panoramic, encompassing tiny hill villages and neat white houses, capped with red roofs, clinging to hillsides. In emerald valleys of lush vegetation, we could hear the trilling of the island birds blending with the music coming over the taxi’s radio — an unforgettable experience.

At The Bottom, the capital of Saba, we were greeted by little old women selling drawn-thread work — a kind of lacework native to the island. Winding our way toward Windward side, we passed Cranston’s Antique Inn, a 200 year old Anglican Church and a scattering of general stores.

In Windward side, a village of gingerbread-like houses shaded by breadfruit trees and cuddled by poinsettia and hibiscus plants, the Hassells and Johnsons welcomed us into their homes. It is interesting to note that these surnames are among the only four on the island. One woman was proud that her son was on the four-man police force. An older woman, who appeared to be in her 70s, told us she had never once been off the island. Down the road we met Arthur, an old merchant seaman, who picked herbs and breadfruit leaves for us and gave us instructions in their use for hypertension.

Through the hazy horizon we could only discern the vague outlines of St. Eustatius and St. Bartz. Someone suggested that we attempt the four hour climb through the rain forest to the peak of Mt. Scenery. We shuddered at the prospect and opted instead for a barbecued-rib luncheon, prepared by the crew on board the Polynesia and served at the Captain’s Quarters, a village hotel.

Quite frankly, there are very few touristy things to do on Saba, except to drink spice, the island drink, at the Boogaloo bar and to swim at the hotel pool, since no beach exists. The attraction of Saba lies in the friendliness of its 950 inhabitants, its relaxing atmosphere and its overwhelming natural beauty.

Returning to the Polynesia, I wondered about the routes of the other windjammers — the Fantome, the Flying Cloud, the Yankee Clipper and the Yankee Trader —  and began to visualize those places they traveled to in my imagination. Not to my surprise, others dreamed similar dreams and arranged to sail again the following Tuesday.

Any readers wishing to share this dream and to turn it into a reality should write Windjammer Barefoot Cruises, Ltd., PO Box 120, Miami Beach, Florida, 33139 or telephone (305) 373-2090 or see their travel agent. Prices range from $310 to $460 per person. Airfare is extra. Every Tuesday and Thursday, windjammers depart from the Virgin Islands, the Bahamas, St. Maarten and Martinique to some of the most exciting ports in the West Indies.

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