Southern Caribbean, Part III: St. Kitts and Nevis, St. Maarten, and Old San Juan

Written on the Carnival Valor
Sailing between St. Kitts and Nevis and St. Maarten
Evening, December 19, 2014

Today was an interesting day of firsts! I saw my first squid, played my first games of blackjack (I know!) and roulette, and visited my first Taiwanese restaurant in the Caribbean (!!!!!). St. Kitts is a beautiful long island with rolling green hills and crags that look very much like what we saw of Edinburgh and Scotland, on Holyrood Hill. It’s gorgeous, and not very settled. The island is long and to the south is a smaller island called Nevis, and together they make up the island nation of St. Kitts and Nevis. I definitely thought it was one of the more beautiful places that we’ve seen on this trip. St. Lucia and St. Kitts and Nevis are both up there, I think.

The rolling green hills of St. Kitts and the capital city of Basseterre.

This morning, we met up with a large group of people for a Catamaran Fan-ta-sea and Nevis Beach excursion (this entire name was made up by Carnival, NOT me). We walked off the ship and to the very nearby pier where we got on a large catamaran run by a few fun guys. Every time I see people who work in this industry, I think about Rob at Spicythai Backpacker Hostel in Chiang Mai, and how every day is like Groundhog Day. How many times did he lead a group up the mountain to the temple? Honestly. I think what really made me think about it was hearing Bob Marley being played on our way out. I think about how many times they must’ve heard this song by now – hell, I’ve heard it five or six times already on this cruise – and I just wince.

Our party catamaran.

We started out with a long cruise down to “Shittens Bay.” The mocking may now commence. Contrary to the name, Shittens Bay is quite clean and lovely, though rocky and not a good place to approach by land. There are lots of large rocks in the sea… perhaps their resemblance to turds gives it the name? Anyway, they threw some bread overboard and we got to swim among the fishes. It totally started raining as we were in the water, and en route to grab our own bags from being rained on torrentially, I also grabbed some other people’s bags and threw them under cover. I was thanked twice for this later on, which was nice. =) But really, I’d want people to do that for me if I was swimming too far away and couldn’t rush back!

Also when it’s raining, it’s nice to be in the water, because it’s warmer than being out in the rain and wind. We saw a great deal of fish, but not very impressive coral. The snorkeling we did around Koh Ma in fact is probably some of my favorite snorkeling. It was just splendid the size and amount of things that we got to see when we swam out to it… that’s about on par with what we saw in the US Virgin Islands, which is also splendid. As my mother lamented today, we were totally ruined for other kinds of snorkeling. What we did see as we were about to leave though was our first SQUID. Yes, a real SQUID. I was so freaked out that I actually wanted to just swim away immediately, but we stopped to take pictures. It wasn’t a very large squid, maybe just about a foot long or so, and it wasn’t one of those that have long tentacles and stuff. It was more a run-of-the-mill inky squid. Still freaked me out, though.

I took a picture of this fire coral while we snorkeled.
My first squid in real life! Maybe more accurate to say cephalopod.

After an hour of snorkeling, they called us back to the boat and we were served some lunch, which wasn’t bad at all. We then cruised on our way to the beach at Nevis Island, just south of St. Kitts. As soon as we were done with the snorkeling, they started serving us alcohol right away. I’m sure people drank entirely too many beers by the end of the day, and I myself had two cups overall of the rum punch (rum, pineapple, and orange juice), which was quite strong! Lying on the catamaran as we cruised toward the beach was actually very relaxing and lovely. We had to reapply sunscreen and hang up the clothes in our bag that had gotten wet when it rained, but it all turned out okay. Nevis Beach wasn’t bad but not much to talk about. The sun can burn terribly here. Thank goodness my mother brought an umbrella, or else it literally starts to burn to have your skin out under this sun, no matter how much sunscreen you have on! I read a book while my mom swam, and then we switched places, and after an hour, they picked us back up and cruised back. They even played some Top 40 as we went back. (NO MORE BOB MARLEY!) I didn’t take another pill for motion sickness and by the time we were back in port, I felt a little queasy and lightheaded from the cup of punch I drank, so while my mom flittered about in the boutiques for souvenirs, I had to sit outside and recover, watching other tourists walk around and a few guys with small monkeys on their back try to get money for photos taken with the monkeys. Goodness gracious.

Mama and I hanging out on the catamaran. A glorious day out!

Eventually, I recovered, helped my mom buy a few dresses, and then while walking around, we happened upon a restaurant in the docking area called Taiwan Tasty!!! I was floored to find this in St. Kitts, of course, just like anyone would be. Immediately, I bought a milk tea and was very gratified to tell it had the right taste. It was a little too sweet, but otherwise very perfect.

Taiwan Tasty! This is the first Taiwanese restaurant I’ve been to since Lyon’s Taste and See.
Very authentic and delicious bubble tea.

While we still had time, the last thing we did was to head for a whirlwind tour of historic Brasseterre, which is the capital of St. Kitts that we had docked in. It had some beautiful structures that we took pictures of, and a beautiful Independence Square. Mama usually has problems figuring out what island is a part of what country or used to be a part of what country, but the Independence Square is usually a pretty dead-giveaway that it’s not a colony anymore! Finally, we made our way back on board, washed ourselves, and headed for dinner. The whole time we were in St. Kitts today, there was another cruise boat the same size essentially, from P&O Cruises, which I understand to be a European or maybe UK line. It looked a bit nicer than ours, and we watched them set sail first, which was pretty neat.

Watching the P&O cruise leave from our deck.

Finally, after a quick dinner, Mama and I went to check out Guest Services. We had received a note in our room that the Sea Trek we had booked in St. Maarten tomorrow (it was the one where you get to walk around the bottom of the ocean) was cancelled due to not fulfilling minimum quotas. =( On the bright side, they had refunded our amount to our sailing cards, which we could cash out over there. Thus, we went ahead and cashed it out. That led to my eventually downfall: finally playing backjack.

This is a thing I’ve watched my dad and countless other people play, mostly on cruises, for a long time. I think the first thing with gambling that you have to accept is that you’re going to lose. The odds are generally against you, and you’re not going to win especially if you keep playing. If you want to win, you have to leave as soon as you’re up by any small amount. But if you want to keep playing, you’re going to keep losing. But if I feel like I actually understand any games in the casino, it’s blackjack and roulette. So I traded in $60 at the roulette table because we had over $200 on us from getting our shore excursion refunded. My mom watched as I played about a dozen or fifteen hands of blackjack. It goes incredibly fast, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep up with what’s going on most of the time. Before you’ve even figured out how much the dealer had, she’s taking your bet because you scored less than her. I was incredibly lucky in the beginning, and at one point had about $75 or $80. (The other problem that it’s really hard to figure out how much money you have at any given point and whether you should keep betting or not! They don’t give you a lot of time to figure that out, so if you want to cash out, you have to speak up immediately.) I’m a pretty conservative player. If I have 14, I’m not going to ask for another card, generally. Then the luck turned, and I went all the way down to $20 before I just left with that. I had kind of thought to myself that I would leave with that and some shreds of dignity. It was a good idea. For the first four or five hands, I was feeling incredibly tense and almost scared, and thankfully I won a bunch, and then I relaxed some more and started taking more chances, and started losing. But this exhilaration of losing is really what is very interesting.

The $20 and shreds of the dignity I managed to keep after losing $40.

But I took the rest to the roulette table where I played that for a while. And roulette is also pretty interesting. I think there are certain tides to your luck, and I got lucky a few times, going up to about $35 or $40 with those initial $20 I put in. But when I got down to $20 again, I just up and left again. I consider it a nice treat to get to play the roulette wheel without actually losing anything but ten minutes of my time! Finally, I treated myself to one more ice cream cone as my mom and I took another few turns around the ship. In good weather, we walk the eleventh-deck track for nine circles to do a mile after/before dinner, but recently, it’s been quite windy, so we walk the 10th floor track which is longer and we only do seven circles. Thus, after this second ice cream cone for the evening, we took three more circles, and then retired.

The many towel animals we accumulated during our cruise.

And now we’re reading about how we’ll need to disembark in Puerto Rico the day after tomorrow. It’s nice how the last half of this cruise has gone very quickly. The first half seemed to drag on forever! Tomorrow should be nice in St. Maarten. Instead of booking another excursion, we’ve simply decided to roam around the historical downtown Phillipsburg and then after lunch head to the Princess Juliana beach to watch the planes land! There’s even supposed to be another football game tomorrow evening for the 49’ers, which is just such a sad story with Jim Harbaugh and all (I never thought I’d compose that sentence). Hopefully I’ll get to watch it. The other day, I spoke to a nice old guy who lived in Woodlawn in the 1960’s up until he was in high school, and then his family moved him to his grandparents’ in Nashville because he was “hanging out with the wrong crowd” as he put it. But we talked about Jay Cutler getting benched with real satisfaction, and hoped that Jimmy Clausen was going to be better!

Written on the Carnival Valor
Sailing between St. Maarten and Puerto Rico
Evening, December 20, 2014

Disembarking the ship at Philipsburg, St. Maarten.

Today was a great day in Saint Martin. Or St. Martin. Or Sint Maarten. However you want to spell it! At least it all sounds the same when you say it. Last night, we discovered one of our shore excursions had been canceled, so at first, that left us a little at odds. In the morning, we disembarked around 8:30 am and lingered walking around historic downtown Philipsburg, which is the Dutch capital of that side of the island. It is rather pretty in parts, and also rather full of shops. We lingered on the beach for a while until it became clear we really didn’t have anything to do before heading to the beach with the airplanes. Thus, we took ourselves to the tourist office and asked if there was anything else on the island to be seen that was fairly historic. They directed us to take a bus to Marigot, the capital of the French side, which ended up being a great idea.

Shops and streets in Philipsburg.

We got on a very slow local bus that literally went around at the speed of less than five miles an hour for a good 15 minutes while we made our way out of Philipsburg. Then we sped up and went over hills and scenery. It was a lovely way of seeing more of the local color on the island. There are a lot of Chinese restaurants and shops in Saint Martin. I have no idea why. But there were a ton. There were also funny looking things such as fifteen mailboxes on top of each other when you got to fairly crowded apartments and such. I took lots of pictures of roadside signs and things like that.

Pretty much the raddest bar and restaurant I’ve ever seen. Take that, Violet Hour.
So many mailboxes. This gives Hong Kong a run for its money.

We eventually crossed from the Dutch to the French side, and things were pretty neat when they changed. The roads got nicer (interesting) and also pretty quickly, I saw one of those French town signs that said MARIGOT. (When we left, there was a sign saying MARIGOT with a red slash through it!!! JUST like being back in France!) I also started seeing French advertisements. The Dutch side had mostly English with some things in Dutch, like streetnames (Wilheminastraat and such). When we disembarked from the bus (for a lofty $3 each!) we walked around and made our way to the Fort Louis, which is on a very high hill. I got distracted while walking up to the Fort because we passed a Catholic church (Eglise Catholique de Saint Martin de Tours) where there was a wedding being held. I checked the time and sure enough, it was high noon on a lovely Saturday. I lingered around the doorway (nobody saw me, I can tell you’re wincing now and saying, “Connie, don’t disturb the ceremony”) long enough to hear “vous acceptez cet homme…” and such. It was great. We then walked around a little bit trying to figure out where the Fort was, and I approached a few boys, and asked, “Comment on se monte à la forte?” And got back “Aller tout droite, et puis, tourner à droite et monter l’éscalier.” And then a “Merci beaucoup!” I came away feeling a little pleased with myself and glad that it wasn’t so hard to communicate. We did go straight up the street and then took a right turn to go up the stairs, and were rewarded with a richly lovely sight.

The remnants of Fort Louis, which guarded the French city of Marigot.

Fort Louis is the highest point around Marigot, and just has a spectacular view of the sea and the mountains around as well as of the entire town. We took a lot of photos, and I even went for a panoramic shot. It was the site of some battles where the French defended the city against the British. You can tell pretty easily that the fort really is a strategic location. Much like Edinburgh Castle or even Qijin Island, the cannons are well-arranged to basically defend against an invading force no matter where they’re coming from.

The view from Fort Louis overlooking Marigot Bay is probably the most gorgeous I’ve seen on this trip.

We walked down to find a taxi to Maho Bay Beach, which cost us $20.  We arrived there around 1 pm, and That’s when I figured out the beach bar (which made delicious mango daiquiris) had in fact also free Wifi. Mama had so much trouble tearing me away from it… I read all of Steve’s emails, perused photos of Stella, and generally updated myself with the rest of the universe, tweeting a few cool photos. Then we settled down to the fine business of appreciating aviation.

Mama taking a picture of a large plane. I could’ve spent the whole day here!
Another giant one!

I think this was one of the things Steve truly would have loved about this trip. We must’ve watched at least 20 planes come in. Most were smaller puddle-jumper planes from the nearby islands. On a clear day, it’s easy to see other islands nearby, like St. Kitts and Nevis or Antigua, so a flight from those are pretty frequent. When they came in, they often flew fairly high before dropping down. But there are also longer flights from bigger destinations that boast pretty large 747-style planes, and they typically had to get down very low before they crossed the beach. It was enormously entertaining to watch. They came in so close and were so loud that it was almost frightening, but very very enjoyable indeed. You had to be careful because it would invariably make a large wave from the water and come further up the beach than usual.

People waiting for a plane to take off. This is how close the runway is to the beach.

Then, whenever any large planes were about to take off, that was when people would congregate on the beach and also on the fence across the road from the beach, which had the clearly demarcated DANGER signs because the blowback from those are really intense. We didn’t see anyone being blown away, but then I didn’t watch that closely. What mostly happened was that people standing in the stand staggered back and a few tumbled down the beach into the water. Perhaps on purpose. I was in the water after one large jumbo jet landed, and had to turn around to avoid the sand when I felt it flying by. I did hear from someone that a girl died here because she hadn’t held on tightly enough and got tossed to the ground where she hit her head on the concrete. That’s a pretty sad story, and I mean, so not worth it just to try that experience. I was happy to stay back and watch.

Mama is incredibly happy to be here!
Mama caught this great photo of me and a smaller plane!

We got a lot of photos of each other with the beach too, and finally around 3 pm packed up our stuff and left with two other couples who were going back to the ship. It was a good thing because it took us a whole hour to get back and we were supposed to be back around 4:30 pm at the very latest. We came back, cleaned up, and hung out on board watching the ship sail away from St. Martin from the boardwalk.

Sunset over St. Maarten.

The rest of tonight has been pretty normal. We watched a few hands of blackjack (my thirst for gambling has been thoroughly assuaged now!), had a lovely dinner, walked 7 circles around the tenth deck of the ship, returned the library books I read on the trip, and then decided to go take a few pictures of ourselves around the ship. There have been photographers with these backdrops all over the ship, looking like prom, and people have been getting their pictures taken with them a lot. My mother finally figured out we didn’t have a portrait of us around the ship, so we went to a few locations. Unfortunately, the problem with being a good photographer is that people generally suck at taking the photos you really want. Never mind that, we got a few good ones and I am still the queen of selfies, so we’re good on that end!

Written in Washington D.C.
Evening, January 4, 2015

It’s been a few week since our trip ended. I never wrote about the last day of our trip because these posts were adapted from a long rambling letter I wrote to Steve every evening on our trip, and the last day when we saw old San Juan ended with me arriving in Greenville and being able to see Steve and Stella and his whole family for the first time in a long time. Thus, I’ll wrap this up here.

In the morning, we woke up pretty darn early (before 7 am) to eat our last plentiful breakfast and disembarked using self-assist, which is the non-sensical name they give to the disembarkation process where you walk out with all your baggage by yourself. I know, crazy, right? It was early, though, so we left before 8:30 am, and there we were with all our nonsense standing just to the south of old San Juan. I had on my traveling backpack which I wore around the world; my pride at wearing the emblem of backpackers had a heavy cost, though. I was in no shape for the walking tour of old San Juan Mama proposed. She ended up taking one of my bags, shaking her head and calling me all kinds of a fool, as we embarked on what I can only refer to as a highly beautiful forced march. Having forgotten about smartphones, we didn’t know the way to the old forts and so stumbled along (in the wrong direction) for about 20 minutes before we figured it out and stumbled back along a different route. We took shelter in a square and took turns walking around. I ran into a fellow Ingress player (a highly fun location-based online game that Google makes), who was actually a Puerto Rican police officer! We exchanged some fun greetings, and I went on my way to explore.

Old San Juan is colorful, humid, and really, really gorgeous. There are narrow streets, many of them cobblestoned, which only permit one car at a time whose wheels would skate dangerously close to the curb. Houses are pressed up against each other, washed in shades of sea green, tangerine, red, and shaded by palm trees or other large trees with spanish moss dangling in the wind. It was Sunday morning, so very quiet in old San Juan. We took a look at the Fort San Cristobel as well as the other more famous fort of San Felipe Morro, which lies at the very tip of the small peninsula. They’re both immense and look pretty well maintained. We had visited the Fort San Felipe Morro seven years ago when we first came to Puerto Rico for a visit. From Cristobal Colon square (which I realized very lately meant Christopher Colombus), we persisted on through the Paseo de la Princesa, which leads to the water and a giant beautiful fountain. The back of my shirt was beginning to soak through at this point! Then we took a look at some churches and meandered our way over to the Fort San Felipe Morro, which Mama reasoned would have some taxis for us to take to the airport. She ended up being right. We spent a little time sitting in the shade and admiring the view, before taking a taxi to the airport. Mama left earlier, so I spent a good three hours sitting at the airport bar, getting to know a really nice couple who had been on the boat with us as it turned out and were also from Raleigh/Durham. Small world, eh?

It’s been an interesting adventure. I’m closer to making up my mind about cruises. There were many things that I disliked about the cruise, from all the endless eating to the very cheesy and kitschy shows and trivia contests to the multi-cultural (read: mostly Eastern European and South Asian) crew who washed our towels, made our food, and swept the floors all for I’m sure too low a wage. I thought a few times it would actually be nightmarish to work on a cruise ship, and there was totally a 1:1 or 2:1 ratio of the crew to passengers. There are many more intentional, socially responsible, and environmentally friendly ways of spending a vacation, and that’s why this is only the second cruise I’ve ever taken. Aside from all of that, there are worse ways (especially considering the destinations) to see some far-flung destinations that would be difficult to organize travel to on your own, and it would be so very much better with that special someone. I love Mama, and she loves me, but a week alone with your mother is quite a lot, and I think overall, she was more content with it than not.

Now I’m in DC for a networking trip for school and within a few days, will be back in Durham celebrating the beginning of the spring semester. I’m not sure when we’ll post again next, but travels are most certainly in our future.


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