Talk about a bucolic Caribbean island! Bequia (“Beck-Way”) certainly meets that definition.
Located in the West Indies near Barbados, Bequia is a tiny, 7-square mile, volcanic-based oasis floating on a sea of cobalt, aquamarine, Copenhagen-and-all-manner-of blues and greens. With approximately 5,000 residents, Bequia is truly quite undiscovered- no cruise ships call and the somewhat arduous connections to get there dissuade casual vacationers or those looking for even 3 star accommodations. Yachties know it well but even so it is somewhat off the beaten cruising path, unlike, for instance, the Bahamas or the Virgins.
The island offers no hi-rise hotels, no resorts, just a few restaurants, 3 little stores, and very little shopping, primarily made of the same old T-shirts and mass-market crap in the few stores and sold by street vendors.
I liked the greenery of the volcanic hills, all the Bougainvillea, every kind of Bird of Paradise and all sorts of Hibiscus and of course orchids everywhere. The fragrances were heady. Not to mention the brightly-hued little Quits, a species found throughout the Caribbean and the ubiquitous ground Dove, a smaller bird than the Mourning Dove found in North America.
Our digs were simply sublime- a 3 bedroom, 2 bath home with plunge pool, situated on the crest of a hill, offering sweeping views of the coast and steady breezes. We rented a 4X4 drive jeep which was barely adequate to climb the steep, rough road to the house.
Several mornings we sat out on the villa patio and watched a squadron of hummingbirds work over a large, flowering tree that hung out over the steep ravine below. Finches, and Magpie-like members of the Crow family called and chatted, flitting about from tree to tree all day. Two mornings we heard a throaty, raspy loud series of calls that sounded to my ear very parrot-like. I don’t know if the threatened Amazon Parrot found on nearby St. Vincent makes a home on Bequia, but I wouldn’t be a bit surprised, as the islands are a mere 9 miles apart.
The other major boon of Bequia is all that fresh, salt-sea air, a balm to those of us who live in cities with poor air quality.
Caribbean vacations are each different, in the context of the “sameness” of Caribbean travel- heat, inefficiencies, airport hassles, sullen locals, iffy and limited food selections, slow service, high prices for all goods brought to the island. But hey, one becomes more tolerant with age and experience, especially if assisted by a rum punch or two.
However, those rum punches nearly proved my undoing, as I tooled around in a right-drive Jeep on the left on extremely narrow, winding and steep “roads”, with no shoulders, just steep drop-offs on one side to the ocean and a concrete ditch between the pressing hillside and the narrow, switch-back roadway. The ditches were about 2 feet wide and 4 feet deep- just enough to capture your tire if you slipped into one, which I did when avoiding a cement truck that came whipping around a bend. I was careful to avoid snatching the tire back on the road (without power steering that was a trick!) and send us careening off the hillside. Such near-misses soon became routine and the subject of somewhat breathless giggling.
Water-borne activities included snorkeling from shore and from a dive boat. The latter trip to Shitten Bay (no kidding) featured a view of Moon Hole, an old, quirky stone home battered by too many hurricanes and abandoned in its crack in a volcanic hillside.
Near Moon Hole, we snorkeled Shitten Bay, which didn’t offer much in the way of reef structure or fishes. The divers on the trip saw more fish, but at depths beyond our reach.
Robin had a moment’s hesitation when we were sailing over to Isla a’ Quarte, a nearby undeveloped island. We were in 6-foot seas, fairly big in that small boat (32 feet) and it was quite windy so as we came up on the wind the boat heeled very steeply. Robin found herself on the lee side, sitting in cockpit facing to the stern with her elbow on the combing. Her elbow got dipped in the ocean and she asked if the boat was gonna tip over.
I laughed and Nikki, our skipper, was kind enuf to just grin. He was perched with one foot on the high side and another on the low side of the cockpit, his bare toes curled to grip the edges of the bench seat, looking very piratical. I braced my feet across from my seat to the edge of Robin’s and enjoyed the wind. This was Robin’s first sailing adventure, and she decided she likes it, even under very brisk conditions.
The stars were right down on our heads every night. Lotsa meteorites! We’d turn off the lights in the villa and that was a DARK night- no light looms from towns or cities, and headlights from a car traveling the shore road miles away lit up the night like a spotlight. A campfire on the beach over 2 miles away appeared as clear as a bell, and could see people moving in front of the light cast by the flames.
One day we were hanging on the beach. I swam out to a patch reef offshore and in about 30 feet of water watched a large Spotted Eagle ray feed for 20 minutes. Its wing span equaled my own, its tail was like 3X the body length. Elegant and magnificent. It ignored me above and grazed the top of the flattish reef and nearby sand and grasses. Too weird- they have a pointed snout but when they feed they deploy these membrane-like flaps on either side of the mouth. The ray rooted in the sand or grass, digging up crustaceans no doubt and kicking up a cloud. Then it gulped once or twice, folded in the mouth flaps and swam to another likely patch and repeated the procedure. Way cool to watch.
The marketer in me wants to trumpet this not-so-discovered corner of the Caribbean to the world, but the weary, salary-slave-seeking-respite part says “Shhh! Keep it a secret!”
Atlanta to Ft. Lauderdale to St. Thomas (STT) by plane can, on a good day, put you at the downtown (STT) ferry dock, awaiting one of the ferries for Tortola in about, oh say, maybe 8.5 hours – not counting the drive to the ATL airport or the 15 min taxi ride from the airport to the ferry dock. But, it’s the full moon in May, 2006, the Saturday afternoon sun is bright, a steady breeze blows dust and dirt along the streets of St. Thomas and ruffles the amazingly blue and clear waters surrounding Charlotte Amalie.
We are already, in our minds, on Tortola, sipping a cold something and watching the sun set from the outer edges of the Banakeet restaurant at the Heritage Inn – our home for the next 7 days or so. It will be a short, adventurous, pleasant, and somewhat painful stay. But first, the hour ferry ride over to Tortola, which gives us plenty of time to slowly get into limin’ mode, which is slang for, well, limin’. Think of it. A lime. A drink. Sittin’ in the shade on a breezy beach – limin’.
Clearing customs in any port is no joy but the standard operating procedure at West End, Tortola, treated us gently, and so we made our way out of the breezeway and into the sweltering sun to ask around for Denzyl Clyne, who showed up, as agreed, to take us 2 minutes down the shore road to his car rental shack, where we yakked with other eager vacationers doing the same paperwork drill to secure the must-have 4WD jeep capable of negotiating the steep, winding, treacherous hills and switchbacks of this 59 sq. mile chunk of the British Virgin islands.
Tortola is located some 90 miles east of Puerto Rico, a stone’s throw from the USVI’s St. John and a world away from the stress of work, household upkeep, lawn chores and other bothers. Officially, some 22,000 humans call the island home, about 2/3 of them living in and around the capital and seat of commerce, Road Town, which we steered clear of as we went up, up, up and over and down, down, down one of what would be many “hills”, to cross to the side of the island where the tourists tend to congregate.
Driving along the North Coast Road (a fairly flat section), we enjoyed the water views, the pelicans and frigate birds wheeling, flapping and, in the pelicans’ case, diving. The driver, Lynn, managed to negotiate narrow streets, parked cars, stopped cars, chickens and the odd goat and wandering pedestrian with aplomb, while driving on the left of the skinny road. Luckily, driving on the left is like riding a bicycle, (for those who have done it before, I should say) – although here it’s not recommended one falls off – it can be a very long, very direct way down to sea level.
Soon, it was time to shift back into 4WD and head way up, up and winding and up and switchback (4 of them, keep count) and here we are, home for the next week. Park the jeep and walk toward the edge of that precipice just under the Tamarind tree and, oh my gosh. Look at that view. From over 400 feet up, on this breezy hill, where you can smell the salt sea air, the loamy soil, green growing things and the singular tart odor that always reminds me of the jungles of Mexico and Belize. The islands to the north are clearly etched against a soft, dusty blue sea way below. Boats sailing between us and the nearby island of Jost Van Dyke make tiny white scratches on the surface of that incredibly blue Caribbean Sea. I don’t have enough names for the different hues of blue I’ve seen these waters reflect – it’s been a few years since I’ve been in this section of the Caribbean and I’m almost overwhelmed again by the intensity of the sight and my reaction to it. Or maybe I just need a pina colada. Time to unpack and head for the bar of the Banakeet!
The sunset was awesome, the food and drinks at the Banakeet lived up to the restaurant’s reputation. The room at the Heritage Inn was rather small, cramped really, but we didn’t spend much time in there – well, except for the days it poured rain and threatened to wash the place off the mountain. Speaking of which, Sage Mountain, the highest point on the island at over 1,700 feet rose directly behind the Heritage Inn. The peak was often shrouded in mist and light rain during our stay, except for the one day we managed to hike the trails in the Mt. Sage Nat’l Park. It was dark and cool under the canopy of huge fig trees and other, rampant growth. Birdcalls surrounded us as we trekked through the jungle-like greenery- it was a tiny piece of rain forest on an otherwise rather arid island that boasts mostly cactus, succulents and other moisture-hungry plants.
During our stay we drove to various beaches, discovering chilly waters and interesting snorkeling at Brewer’s Bay, as well as a delicious meal at Nichol’s beachside grill there. At Brewer’s Bay, cattle were resting in the deep shade of the sea grapes well above the high water mark and chickens pecked through the leaf litter. A small village of tarps sagged in the deep gloom of the shade. More like a hobo camp than party destination, the place was abandoned (except for the cows and chickens) and gave me the willies as I curiously poked around.
Another scenic and out of the way beach is Smuggler’s Cove, way down at the west end of the island. Negotiating the very rough and steep track is made worthwhile when you arrive – no real facilities here but you can buy a t-shirt or sarong from the ad-hoc beach vendor or even get a frozen drink, mixed to your specs with the assistance of a car battery.
One night’s dinner at Myett’s in Cane Garden Bay, the main tourist center on the north side of the island, gave us reason to avoid the place and try Coco Plums in Carrot Bay- a much tastier proposition. In spite of the resident and voracious no-see-ums that hang out at Coco Plums, we ate there several times and came away delighted with the quality of the food, service and atmosphere. Funky place, great prices, decent service and the seared pan mushrooms were a much-anticipated appetizer! Just don’t hit that big fig tree when you go to back out into the street…
Early in the week we caught the 8am ferry for a 20-minute ride over to nearby Jost Van Dyke island. Frequent Caribbean travelers know that early morning ferries are mostly peopled with workers, and so we weren’t surprised to discover no taxis waiting at the other end to take us across a steep hill to White Bay, a well-known gorgeous beach area with a string of bars and small boutiques along the white sands. So we grabbed our stuff and hiked into town, which we could see just around the curve of the harbor. Found a taxi driver awake and secured a quick trip over to Ivan’s on White Bay, where we set up camp for the morning under the shade of yet more sea grapes. A handful of sailboats, mostly 40+ foot catamaran’s, rode anchor or mooring balls on the beautiful, crystal clear water, providing a picture-perfect backdrop.
After swimming and limin’ for a coupla hours, we hiked down the beach and around a pointy-and-jagged ironshore headland with the aid of a slippery goat trail. We stumbled, sweaty and hot from our trek, down the soft beach sand to the famous Soggy Dollar bar. Party boats had made their way to anchor just off-shore by then and a crowd of rowdy high school kids were raising a ruckus, but that didn’t keep us from enjoying a delicious lunch, a couple of pain killers, a couple of beers, and taking pictures.
Dinah used her Blackberry to call back over to our hostess Rosa at the Heritage Inn to follow up on arrangements for a sail/snorkel day trip for the morrow- all was set!
Wednesday (the morrow), we were up and at ‘em early to drive back down the North Coast Road, through Carrot Bay and around Apple Bay, across the mountain on Zion Hill Rd., shifting out of 4WD again and tooling over to Soper’s Hole in West End, the yachting mecca and upscale shopping area catering to folks with a lot more money than sense. Just kidding- Soper’s Hole is scenic and justifiably famous for something or other. Lotsa slips at the marina, anyway. One of them hosted our skipper Robin’s catamaran Kuralu.
After a bite of breakfast at the little Pisces restaurant, we joined 4 other folks on board Kuralu for a terrific day of sailing, snorkeling and enjoying the company of our skipper, his hunky son Tom, Kaley-the-wonder-dog and fellow passengers. Just enough wind to push us along, so off we tacked to the Indians, some tall rocks sticking up out of the ocean bottom, swarming with more soft corals and fish life than I’ve seen for years, outside of the reef off Ambergris Caye in Belize. Cool water didn’t keep us away from almost an hour communing with the fishies – I was in heaven. Snorkeling the Indians was just like snorkeling a wall, except one could move from one wall to another. Depth to the sand was approx. 40-50 feet and lotsa sun shining down lit everything up beautifully.
This stop proved to be the highlight of this snorkel trip and provided a potent visual that is indelibly etched into my memory. One of those magical moments unfolded, simply out of nowhere, when I swam around one of the rocky outcrops and encountered a huge school of silversides. Thousands of 4-6″ long fish formed a large ball, approximately the size of a car, creating a dazzling, shimmering display in the rays of sunlight spearing the blue water. As I swam toward the ball, it parted just wide enough to let me into the center, and then the gap closed behind me. I found myself in the core of a solid vertical tunnel of fish that stretched from a foot below the ocean’s surface down to the sandy bottom below. I held my breath as long as I could and slowly corkscrewed toward the surface, mesmerized by the fishy envelope around me.
I lost track of time, but likely only enjoyed a few minutes of this amazing swim before the fish shoal moved out into open water, leaving me behind, where I floated, dazed and grinning from ear-to-ear.
Back aboard Kuralu and drying off, we were entertained by Kaley, who would leap off the stern with a big SPLASH and swim like mad to fetch the Frisbee that Tom tossed overboard. Once Kaley had it in her mouth, she’d turn around, swim back to the stern and board the boat using the swim ladder! Truly a wonder-dog!
The cobalt blue of the ocean slipped astern as we headed over to anchor off Norman island for a fantastic lunch aboard Kuralu and some desultory snorkeling in a somewhat brisk current over mostly boring, half dead and fishless reef. That swim didn’t last long, although the two nubile sisters from Miami Beach did spot a turtle. Darn, we missed it.
The sisters got to show off a bit more skin than previously displayed around their miniscule “swim suits” when we headed around the corner to another bay, where the infamous “pirate ship” (think Disney with rust stains), the “Willy-T” lay at permanent anchor in an almost pristine setting of soaring green hills.
The old scow of a boat was anchored in about 40 feet of crystal clear water over a white sand bottom, with a few, long and dark shadows lurking just under the surface in the shade of the boat. I thought the fish were Jacks. I’m sure they and other critters are accustomed to eating anything that falls or is tossed off that boat.
Anyway, the thing is, if one jumps off the upper deck of the ship into the water some 30 feet below, er, naked, one Gets The T-Shirt. Of course the girls went for it.
A few fellas were hangin’ at the bar and happy to provide an appreciative audience. The girls were concerned that the impact of hitting the water might damage the investment they had in their superstructures, but a self-entitled “surgeon” who claimed he had “done a million of them” (I doubt he meant jumps) suggested the girls might hold onto their attributes tightly as they struck the water. Some fellas thought this was bad advice, as it might ruin the view. The women all encouraged the girls to protect their investments. I was given the task of capturing the seminal leap, using their digital camera, which I managed to do, quite to their satisfaction. They decided that was one shot they weren’t going to share with Dad and StepMom…
Post-leap and the donning of “swim suits” in the pellucid waters, we all (Kaley included) piled into the dingy for a quick run back to Kuralu and headed back to port, where the beginning of what was to be a day and 2 nights of torrential rainfall awaited us.
The Big Rains caught us at breakfast at Rhymer’s down in Cane Garden Bay the next morning. Like the 15 or so other patrons, we were stuck there for well over 2 hours, with no letup in sight. Finally, we headed out in the rain to the Suzuki and carefully made our way toward the Heritage Inn, crossing the bridge over a “ghut” (large gully that drains water from the steep hills around) that was filling faster than it could drain into the bay.
Half way up the first of several steep hills, we could go no further – the road in front of us was awash with fast-flowing, muddy water with boulders and rocks tumbling along, easily as deep as the tires on the Suzuki. Turning around, we were stymied when arriving back at the bridge over the ghut – the bridge was under water and there we sat, waiting for the water level to drop. It was about an hour later that the rains let up and we slowly picked our way past rocks, boulders, holes in the road and hillsides washed onto the roadway, to arrive back at our room.
At some point I managed to slip on wet tiles on the stairs to our room and damaged my leg rather severely, which laid me up with ice and Ibuprofen for an evening or two, but didn’t keep me from snorkeling and, luckily, had no direct affect on the articulation of either elbow.
Our last full day we drove down (up?) the island, getting lost along the way and finally found Lambert Bay – a very scenic place with the added attraction of Lambert’s Resort. We hung out on the resort’s beach loungers, which allowed us to put the little sand chairs we’d packed all the way from the ‘states back in the Suzuki (later we donated the sand chairs to the Heritage Inn, which had none for guests to use.) Lunch at the resort’s restaurant and a coupla pina coladas later and soon it was time to head back to our room and head back out for dinner.
On our ferry ride back to STT, I overheard someone say that he preferred to take the slower route to and from Tortola (vs flying in), because it gave one the time to slowly either wind down (upon arrival) or wind up (to get ready to clear Customs and Immigration and deal with the hassles of modern-day air travel). I couldn’t agree more, I thought, as I watched Tortola and St. John slip astern and, later, as I got my final glimpse of those incredible blue Caribbean waters just before the plane rose above the clouds.
Belize City airport (BZE) is hot at 11am on a Saturday morning in May. After a direct flight on the big Delta bird from Atlanta, we get in line to catch the 30 minute Tropic Air flight over to Ambergris Caye. Some 25 miles long, Ambergris Caye is the largest and most developed of about 200 small islands off the coastline of Belize. Most of the island’s 7,000 inhabitants live in the town of San Pedro, located in the southern part of the caye. San Pedro has the cosy, laid-back atmosphere of a small village with its wooden houses and sand streets.
We buzz over to Ambergris Caye, enjoying the views of the shallows between the reef and the mainland. Spotted a group of 3 sharks swimming in the shallows off an islet and a Mayan Air flight headed back to BZE.
We find ourselves standing out in the hot sun at Ambergris Caye airport, getting windblown and dust-coated and grinning stupidly while waiting for luggage to be brought out of the plane’s belly. Grab a cab and off we go to the Super Mart to get water and beer and other goodies. Back in the cab for a very short ride to the entry of Xanadu, our home for the next week. We’re here!
Alex meets us, grabs our luggage and, after we check in at the desk and chat with Susan, we chill at the pool for a bit while our room is prepped. Soon we’re unpacked and organized in our lovely, comfy and cool digs. Let’s go make arrangements to get on a boat for snorkeling tomorrow!
The week flies by, each day taken up with activities.
We snorkel Hol Chan preserve, visit sharks & rays at Shark Ray Alley, snorkel Mexico Rocks (our fav spot), where we swim with spotted eagle rays and a couple of large, curious barracuda. We spot a sleeping nurse shark and get eyeballed by a passing loggerhead turtle.
One day we trip over to Lamani ruins on the mainland– a highlight. We’re accompanied by a group of middle-school age kids, who are on a romp. One poor soul, Carlos, gets motion sickness at the drop of a hat and between the 2 hour long fast boat from AC to the village of Bomba in the jungle, he’s pretty green with the twists and turns as we zip along, banking crazily around tight turns in the mangroves, throwing up a 10 foot wall of rooster tail.
We get to Bomba mid-morning, where it is hot, still, dusty. Some avail themselves of the “one star” el banyo while others poke their heads into dim, hot huts sporting local crafts that are, IHMO, overly priced and not particularly unique. A local boy is walking around with two orphaned baby parrots on his shoulders. People take pix and chat with the young man, who explains he found the birds in the nearby jungle and is taking care of them. They seem perfectly content to be perched where they are.
We hop aboard the dust express, where, after about 10 mins of roaring down a dusty track, zigzagging potholes, we screech to a halt to let Carlos rush down the steps and outside to lose his breakfast. The other kids peer curiously out the widows at Carlos then, all together, go “ughhh! Argh!!” and make faces. The adults roll their eyes and speculate on what can help settle his stomach. He will keep this up all day, on the bus, on the boat, back on the bus, back on the other boat… it will be a long day for poor Carlos.
The bus arrives at our mid-way point, where we break for the “two star” el banyos (toilets) baking in the heat. A large, open pavilion next to the New River gives some shade and catches fitful breezes as we await the signal to hop aboard the next boat and another fast, windy, twisting and high-banking ride 25 miles up river to where Lamani ruins perch on a high hill overlooking a large lagoon.
Gee, we’re here just at noon, when the equatorial sun is at its zenith. We wilt in the heat under a pavilion, eating a nice, hot meal (!) of BBQ chicken and rice and plantains and oh-my-God I just want a frozen drink. Water and soft drinks are disappearing fast from the cooler. We soon make our way up to the airless museum, where we politely swelter and drip while our extraordinarily knowledgeable guide and boat captain attempts to hold the kids’ attention while pointing out certain artifacts in the glass cases. Most folks wander outside to catch a breeze.
Off down the canopied trails to the ruins. This is the fun part, stomping along these high mounds made centuries ago by these ancient peoples, surrounded by jungle growth, bird calls and howler monkey grunts, groans and growls that echo through the trees. We trip over roots as we crane our necks- look, there’s a toucan! Very cool to spot one in the wild. Our guide knows all the critters by their calls and keeps us fully informed about all things Mayan, including trees and shrubs like the “stink toe” root, which, when cut, smells just as you might imagine—really yuk! Soon we approach the first of 4 excavated temples, one of which is a tomb.
Soon we are looking up at the steep stairs of the largest temple, and of course I break my promise to myself that I’ll not clamber up another danged pyramid again, not after doing my share in Mexico but no, it’s mid-day and the sun is baking me while I start up, up those steep and eroded steps to the top, where I doubt there is a stick of shade but where I know I can count on a breeze and a hellofa view across the jungle canopy to the lagoon below.
Yep, there’s a view after all, and I perch on about 9 square inches of crumbling limestone, with a sheer drop all the way to the jungle floor at least 8 stories below, where I know there’s shade, if only I can get down these dang steps without falling headlong as my head swims from vertigo. Those dang teenagers are frolicking like mountain goats and I feel every bit of my middle age years. Ouch, that stone is Hot!
Safely back on terra firma, sucking on the warm water bottle like a mother’s teat. We catch our collective breath, round up the stray kids and stumble off to the other temples that have been torn from the jungle overgrowth.
We know we are faced with at least 4 more hours of back-tracking, including the flying boat ride down the New River to the bus to the other boat. We run out of water, soft drinks, fruit, food and energy and poor Carlos never gets to keep anything in his stomach, all day. We finally approach the dock at Xanadu just as the sun is sinking rapidly into the sea, tired but happy travelers.
I seem to recall walking up the beach to, I think it was Blue Water Grill, where I intended to slowly sip a frozen Kalua Colada, but which I gulped greedily to “drop my core temperature”. This is critical therapy after a long, hot day’s trek into the jungle, be sure to make a note.
The day drew to a close with a wonderful meal (vaguely recalled), followed by a leisurely stroll (a bit wobbly from the boat movement still going on in my head) under the full moon back to Xanadu, and oblivion. We enjoyed our nightly walks along the beach under that full moon, in a brisk onshore breeze as we went to and from different restaurants.
The sun comes up and the birds start squawking about 5:30 am, so we were up too, getting an early (and s l o w) breakfast at Coconut’s up the beach. Later, we caught a boat to Hol Chan and snorkeled with the crowds – heaven knows what the place is like on season. It reminded me of cattle boats dumping crowds off at any number of sites in John Pennekamp State Park off Key Largo in Florida, my home. Oh well, it was cool and wet, with plenty of fish to see and hear.
Next stop was Shark Ray Alley. If one hasn’t been close to somewhat tame southern sting rays and nurse sharks, it’s a fun stop—perhaps. Personally, I’ve been there, done that after 30 years of diving and I truly don’t approve of grabbing sting rays or any other animal and forcefully holding it and stopping it from locomoting as it will. Much less do I approve of grabbing rays by their sensitive noses, where there are literally thousands of minute sensing cells that they use and need to help them feed. One large female had her tail bobbed off at the root and nobody can convince me that wasn’t done by a human hand—I was appalled to see her mutilation and she was particularly shy of being handled. Good for her!
Subsequent snorkel trips were private charters or nearly so, as we were visiting on off-season. We took a day trip over to Caye Caulker and snorkeled a half day there on broken, beat up, bleached-out reefs lacking the fish life we had seen off AC. Operators on AC told us the business is unregulated on CC and the folks there simply don’t care for their reef as do the operators on AC—I believe it. I’ve seen some pristine reefs in my time and I’ve watched the Florida keys decline from the late 1960s through the late 1990s, when some areas have begun to recover, but slowly. The shape of things to come off CC is not a pretty story- the reef will take decades to recover, if it gets the chance, between storms and being loved to death.
We spent a day sailing and snorkeling up the coast with Steve Rubio, owner of Unity Tours and captain of the No Rush catamaran. Steve is a friendly, knowledgeable and delightful host for an all day excursion snorkeling, fishing and beach BBQ-ing or an evening sunset sail or a ½ day snorkel trip.
Xanadu was our wonderful, relaxing, quiet home, not too far, not too close to the bustle of San Pedro town, which was as close as a walk or a bike ride.
All too soon it was time to retrace our steps, back to Tropic Air at the airport then to Belize City and the shock of arriving back in Atlanta to a cold, dreary, rainy Memorial Day weekend. We couldn’t even show off our tans, hidden as they were under long sleeves and jeans! Wahhh- take me back to Ambergris Caye, “la isla bonita”!
Post Script: We returned for a rainy Xmas week in 2006, where the highlight of the trip was snorkeling Bacalar Chico, a magnificently untouched marine environment up on the north (currently undeveloped) end of the island. If you want pristine snorkeling, get there quick, before the developers do!
Off-season Caribbean island travel has its rewards…like less expensive stays, fewer people at the popular spots around the island, a personalized rain forest tour and having restaurants to yourselves.
It was May, early off-season for our destination, the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis. These sister islands can be found in the Leeward Island group in the Eastern Caribbean Sea, to the west of Antigua. Perusing the Internet in preparation for our trip, we discovered that just 2 miles separate the islands at their closest point, and according to official websites, offer visitors …” a relatively authentic island experience, (with) luxuriant mountain rain forests; uncrowded beaches; historic ruins; towering, long-dormant volcanoes; charming if slightly dilapidated Georgian capitals in Basseterre (St. Kitts) and Charlestown (Nevis); intact cultural heritage; friendly if shy people; and restored, 18th-century sugar plantation inns run by elegant, if sometimes eccentric, expatriate British and American owners”.
Thus adequately prepped by our research, we arrived on St. Kitts with realistic expectations. As seasoned Caribbean travelers, we’re accustomed to traveling off season (southern natives don’t mind the heat and humidity), quickly adjusting to the slower pace of life that typifies most cultures in the Tropics.
After clearing Customs at Robert L. Bradshaw International Airport on St. Kitts, we were met by a helpful employee of our car rental company and, before we knew it, we were tooling merrily along (on the left, of course) toward the brilliant sunset, headed for the Timothy Beach Resort (TBR), our home for the next week or so. Having arrived on a Saturday, we looked forward to a delightful introduction to the island via the highly-recommended Sunday Brunch at Ottley’s Plantation Inn, a lush, tropical oasis on the Atlantic side of the island.
Ottley’s was virtually deserted when we visited on that windy, rainy morning. Heavy mist swept across and obscured the peaks of the rain-forested mountains in the near distance, leaving behind large dewdrops on the flowering bougainvillea and carefully tended lawns and ornamentals.We were enjoying the silence and solitude accented by bird calls when we were approached by a large, friendly, wet and smelly golden retriever, who greeted us with a gentle tail-wag and a wet nose then led us down the royal palm-lined track that skirts the main building.
Our canine host paused to munch on a ripe mango then followed us as we explored the rainforest trail located behind the property.We spent a few minutes quietly stepping over fallen mangoes and looking up at the towering trees festooned with ferns and liana vines, then made our way back to the swimming pool area, where we were greeted warmly by the staff and served one of the most outstanding meals we enjoyed during our stay.
Noon is a bit soon for us to be drinking alcohol, but the rum punch or mimosa comes with the meal, so we threw all caution to the wind and went for it!
During our meal, we were amused by the black and white cat that slept on a low wall of the open-air dining area. A quiet older couple dined right next to the cat, which snoozed quietly. Four businessmen showed up and started a loud conversation, which startled the cat and grated on our ears, formerly accustomed to the sound of the wind through the rainforest. The cat sauntered over to us to extend greetings, which we cordially returned. The reception it received at the loudmouth table, however, was a rude kick. We decided to steer well clear of such dismissive and arrogant interlopers.
After the meal we walked the grounds some more, as the sun came out and bathed the hillside in heat and a white-gold light. We ran into the operations manager, who greeted us warmly, inquired about our stay, where we were from, and offered to take a photo of us with our camera, which we accepted. The manager inquired if we were enjoying our stay, and indeed throughout our time on the island, we were continually asked by servers and others we met “How are you enjoying your stay? Are you having a good time?”
Thoroughly stuffed with excellent food and mellowed from the serenity of Ottley’s, we hit the shore road and continued our island tour, counterclockwise, a direction that friends on the island suggested would help us to unwind. We passed numerous sugar processing ruins that dot the island.
After a couple of photo ops, we came to Black Rocks. Parking the car at the top of the headland in what appeared to be a small park, we dodged a flock of the ubiquitous goats that inhabit the island. The goats had more sense than we did — they didn’t even get close to the loose, steep track that led down the dangerously sheer hillside to the volcanic rocks below.
At Black Rocks, huge waves crashed all along the shore, as far as one could see in both directions, tearing themselves into spume and mist against the jagged, massive volcanic rocks below. The scene was one of immense energy and I couldn’t shake a sense of foreboding. Normally, I readily clamber over rocks and boulders encountered on hikes and tramps, but this place engendered in me a caution that kept me well away from the edge. Besides, the wind was blowing so hard that it I was afraid of being blown overboard, so we hung out, snapped a few shots and returned to the car.
Further along we came to Dieppe Bay, passing the Golden Lemon Inn, which we aimed to visit for a luncheon later in the week.
Around the top (northern end) of St. Kitts, we spotted Brimstone Hill fortress on our left– a Must See and, on a clear day, you enjoy the most magnificent views available (unless you do a rainforest hike — more about that later.)
We typically bring along a small, collapsible cooler on our trips, and this visit was no exception. Fortified by bottled water, a Yoohoo, local soft drinks and Carib beer (potable if Very Cold), we didn’t hesitate to leave our comfy digs at Timothy Beach Resort early every morning to spend the day exploring the island. Power bars and other snacks kept us going until we chose a time and place to stop, eat, and chill.
One day we drove over Monkey Hill just below TBR, and made our way down to Turtle Beach. The rusted A-frame of a destroyed building, litter and the overpowering smell of cattle crowding around a fresh water tank greeted us at Turtle Beach. It was a holiday, and large groups of partiers were having their revelries.
We bumped along through the soft sand, skirting the shore, to a quiet place where we could get out of the car, hoping to enjoy the view of Nevis across the way – only to be scoured by sand whipped up by the gale blowing across the channel between Nevis and St. Kitts. Oh well, not much snorkeling here today! In fact, it was difficult to keep one’s feet.
As to snorkeling – I’m a SCUBA diver from Way Back but do enjoy exploring island shorelines for snorkeling. Having done my homework by reading posts on the St. Kitts/Nevis message board for several months, I determined we might head to the southern end of South Friar’s Bay area for snorkeling. Hmmm. Not much to see, except a couple of coral-encrusted canon which we were told had been recently “studied” by students from I-forgot-where. When we snorkeled over the canon, which were lying in about 10 feet of water approximately 70 feet from shore, we spotted dozens of small plastic Zip-Lock bags strewn all around the site. Each bag had a white, flat plastic “stake” in it. Each plastic “stake” had cryptic writing on it. Some of these bags were tucked in among the surrounding rubble, but most of them had floated free and were lying on the sandy bottom. It wouldn’t take much of a sea to scatter these bags all along the bay bottom and onto the shore, or out to sea. This “research” effort struck me as little more than litter, for certainly those plastic bags and tags would only add to the flotsam and litter we found everywhere piled above and below the high-water mark. Not to mention the danger to turtles and other animals, fish and coral reef structures. Not to mention the half-life of plastic litter.
The best off-shore snorkeling we found was the shallow, man-made reef structure that parallels the shoreline along the northern end of South Friar’s Bay, from the Shipwreck bar north. This “reef” is located approximately 25-30 feet offshore (depending on the tide) and in about 8-10 feet of water. We found the structure best suited to early morning exploration, before the winds and seas kick up.
One can ride the gentle current that slowly pushes you northward, drifting and peering under the shallow ledge for shy critters like boxfish, trumpet fish, damsels, blennies, angelfish and all manner of juvenile reef fish. If the waves kick up, the visibility gets pretty low, so we learned to stick with the early morning dip for best results.
We were dismayed by the amount of garbage and trash piled up behind the Shipwreck bar, at the base of the hill. Rusted out beach chairs, boxes, broken wooden seats and every manner of plastic container were heaped with no consideration for aesthetics or safety. As a commercial photographer, I am typically careful to crop such eyesores out of lovely beach scenes, but I did take several shots of the “alternative” views. On one hand, I can’t help but believe this is a sign of laziness and Not My Job attitude on the part of people who own and operate these beach-side “businesses.” On the other hand, throughout my travels across the eastern and Western Caribbean, over the past 25+ years, this sort of visual has been all too common and reflects the difficulty of solid waste disposal on islands, the lack of infrastructure, funds and planning for such disposal, the dismal attitude of poor and struggling islanders and the nonchalant attitude of tourists who are, for the most part, completely oblivious to their contributions to the plight of these closed ecosystems.
But, back to the travel log flavor of this story: We made a point of visiting Romney Manor, the 350-year-old estate once owned by a British earl, and the home of Caribe Batik.
What gorgeous surrounds, lovingly cared-for, well- tended lawns and exotic plants and fruiting trees! The batik goods at this tropical “factory” are breathtaking – we just had to buy a gift for ourselves as well as family and friends back home.
However. Once again Reality bit us in the butt. Like the approach to Ottley’s and the Golden Lemon and other destinations, we passed through horribly run-down and poverty-stricken areas, with sights like a huge sow sleeping underneath a wrecked and rusted truck carcass and the troubling sight of a naked toddler wiping herself clean (and dropping the rag) after defecating in the bushes across from her home (a shanty, really), which apparently sported no running water or sanitary facilities. Such scenes do not hearten the tourist, however enchanting some areas may appear.
Leaving such painful sights behind, we opted for a rainforest hike so early one morning we met our erstwhile guide Hugh Rodgers for a personal, guided hike on Mount Liamuiga, the dead volcano that is such a massive feature of the island. Over the course of a couple of hours, we were guided up and down well-tended (but not well-worn!) trails under and through the triple-canopy as Mr. Rodgers shared with us his prodigious knowledge of the fauna, flora and history of our surrounds.
We appreciated that Mr. Rogers could strike just the right balance between informational chat and allowing periods of silence to stretch out so that we could enjoy the sounds of the animals, insects and the smell of nutmeg on the wind– an enveloping, sensory experience.
After our rainforest hike, we decided to spend a day visiting Nevis. This smaller island is just across a deep water channel from St. Kitts but, in many ways, seems slower and much more a reflection of the imperial era of European influence.
Small as it is, Nevis almost proved more than we could see in a day, even though we were perfectly mobile in a rental car. Our research unearthed key points of interest, so after a quick early morning bite to eat at a cute restaurant overlooking the ferry dock in Charlestown, we set off on a day-long drive around the island, taking in the Botanical Gardens (beautiful and worth banging down a rough track, with little signage to point the way) and places to stay, several of which are built around historic sugar plantations.
By the time we’d visited the Golden Rock Estate’s one hundred acres nestled high up in the foothills of Mt. Nevis, the all-inclusive Nisbet Plantation Beach Club (built in 1778 and the home of Fanny Nisbet, eventual wife of Admiral Horatio Nelson), the Four Seasons Resort Hotel with its extravagant pool and exorbitant drink prices, and a few smaller, out-of-the-way beach properties, we were satisfied we’d pretty much “done” Nevis. Tired but happy wanderers, we turned in the rental car, boarded the ferry for the short trip over to St. Kitts, and a lovely dinner at one of several restaurants near the center of Basseterre.
Segue to the town of Basseterre, one of the oldest in the Eastern Caribbean, which retains much of the Georgian character of Nelson’s days. The town is the main commercial and industrial center of St. Kitts, and features bustling port traffic, ferry traffic, foot traffic in and out of stores and along narrow streets, and animal traffic in the form of goats and chickens that wander about, dodging, well, traffic.
Driving to, from and about in Basseterre proved a challenge, even for this driver accustomed to tight spots in and around Boston and squeezing into tiny parking places on the streets of Atlanta. Roundabouts do little to sort traffic but do provide picturesque distraction as one attempts to avoid being side-swiped while negotiating the myriad of 90 degree turns that define the entrance or exit of these somewhat dysfunctional traffic managers.
Of particular interest was the center of a roundabout featuring a half-size concrete statue of a faintly Victorian lady, clad in a (as-best-I-recall) diaphanous, wind-blown gown. Adopting a Statue-of-Liberty stance, the figure, situated on a chipped concrete pedestal, held what once must have been a light fixture. Somehow, through the years, the light had been lost, the fixture broken and replaced by what appeared to be, yes, a rusted metal drainpipe! Just as our island-dwelling, ex-pat Brit friend had informed us, “Our Lady of the Drainpipe” stood forth for all to see, but try as I might, I could only capture a wildly tilted image of her outside the widow of our car as we furiously went around and around. Tiring of the life-threatening adventure, we soon bailed from that roundabout and headed to one a bit more genteel.
The centerpiece of Basseterre’s evocative Georgian architecture is its Circus, a positively spacious and well-organized roundabout modeled in proper Victorian patriotism after Piccadilly, in London. In the middle of the Circus stands the bright green bronze of the Berkeley Memorial Clock, an ornate, cast iron tower with four clock faces and more than a little architectural decoration. Decorously immobile, it posed for several pictures, much to my satisfaction.
With one of the longest written histories in the Caribbean, St. Kitts and Nevis reflect some of their pre-Columbian past and a great deal of their European history dating from the 1400s to the Spanish, French and British periods. Whether you choose a little bit of history, a lot of local color, ancient volcanoes surrounded by rain forests, wind-swept hillsides dotted with the ruins of old sugar mills, modern romantic getaway resorts, or a mix of them all, St. Kitts and Nevis offer a variety of material from which any visitor can craft a unique Caribbean vacation.
Experienced Caribbean travelers generally prefer to avoid heading toward the equator in the heat of July. However, the timing of our visit was determined by our Bahamian friend from the States, who invited us to join her for a family reunion on the island. The event was scheduled for the week of July 4, so off we went, in planes that decreased in size and became hotter and more cramped as we traveled from Tampa, Florida to Miami to Nassau, and then on to Long Island.
On our previous visit, we’d experienced Long Island in the heat of May, which is off season, where we had enjoyed the relative luxury of the Stella Maris Inn resort situated at the northern tip of the island.
This trip we looked forward to “Livin’ Like The Natives Do”, discovering local hangouts and foregoing expensive resort amenities.Our destination was one of only two airstrips on the island- the one closest to Cartwrights, the settlement named for our friend’s family, where I hoped a rental car awaited us.
Arriving on Long Island during a torrid summer mid-afternoon afforded a small taste of the heat and sun we were to endure for the week. But hey, we were used to the heat so we came prepared. Of course the (high-mileage, beat-up, standard shift) rental car had no air-conditioning but it did have fairly new tires, very critical to getting around on the extremely rough, boulder-strewn and potholed limestone roads that crisscross the island.
It is worth noting that the island is a bit over 100 miles long, with one major asphalt road (The Queen’s Road, which our friend’s uncle helped develop in the 1960s) that runs the length, along the leeward shore of the island. In places the island may be six miles wide. Rough roads that connect from the Queen’s Road to the rocky, windward shore are few and far between, due to the cost of bush hogging and putting in a (typically very steep) road. A consequence is that the beaches are deserted. It also helps that, the year of our visit, less than 5000 people were living year-round on the island, which made it rather sparsely populated.
After we collected our little Geo-type car at the tiny airport, we managed to make our way “up island” to hook up with our friend at the new Shell station, one of only two gas stations for many miles.
Numerous family members had turned out to meet our friend at the airport, and at least five adults and four kids were piled in the family pickup truck, squeezed in the rusting cab and packed into the open bed. After hasty greetings in the broiling sunlight, we formed a caravan and headed down the road, looking like a vanguard from the Grapes of Wrath.
We soon arrived at the Cartwright family compound and the home that our host and his wife shared with their 2 pre-teens and Maw-Ma, the 85-year-old matriarch of the clan.
The three photos illustrate a 20th century homestead, the remains of a home circa late 1800s; and the ruins of a home from the early 1800s.
The family home was quite 20th century: a small, unfinished cinderblock house, like most homes on the island, situated close to the Queen’s Road and surrounded by several acres of banana and fruit trees. Across the road squatted the little community store, which, during our stay, the clan cleaned out of chicken, soft drinks, bottled water and Vienna sausage until the next arrival of the island supply boat. Next door was an uncle’s house and down the road was Aunt So-and-So and Cousin so-and-so and on it goes.
Living on an island means making-do and learning to live with little or no access to services and amenities to which we in the States are accustomed. One must wait for the weekly mail boat to arrive, which brings car parts and machinery and doors and furniture and the like. There are finite limits to what the boat can bring, and to what people can afford. Thus, it’s very expensive to purchase many items that we take for granted, like clothing or shoes or floor mats or nails. Example- a plastic patio chair retailing here for $4.99 is over $17.00 there.
Most of the vehicles are pretty old and beat-up. It costs thousands to ship a vehicle to the island, after having bought it typically very used, in Florida. Upkeep is sporadic, parts unheard-of and very expensive, so many vehicles are cobbled together and in extreme states of wear and tear. In fact, the family truck broke down trying to climb one of the steep, rocky, rough-hewn tracks on the windward side of the island. Luckily, we were following the truck in the little rental car, and were able to run “up island”, or south, to find a relative with jumper cables. Once underway, the truck had to be backed up a steep incline in reverse because it only ran forward in third gear. With a few people pushing, the truck got over that hill. That was the end of visits to the rocky shore in the truck!
As for their homes, island residents build as they can afford, so it typically takes a few years to complete a house. We observed many cinderblock shells about the island, overgrown and apparently abandoned, but we were informed they were merely “under construction”.
This was the first time our friend had been back to her home since she was ten years old. She was excited to be back and to show her own children where she had grown up and attended school. A real treat for us was to watch her interact with her family and revisit her childhood haunts and activities, like clawing around in the cave system that, for generations, has protected island families from hurricanes.
Our friend managed to locate carvings and scratching made by members of several generations of her family, and we even teased her uncle about a decades-old carving we discovered that advertised his attraction for a long-forgotten schoolgirl. We found a goat skull in the cave, and many bats, spiders, salamanders and land crabs. In places it was pitch black, and the damp limestone floor was uneven and slippery — thankfully we had our flashlights.
We spent our days and evenings with the clan, providing transport for the beach-or-blue-hole-of-the-day expedition. Because of the heat (and non-air-conditioned homes and businesses), the goal was to find a swimming spot with some shade and to relax for a few hours during the heat of the day, or at least until 2:00 pm when the truck was needed to go to the Shell to pick up Auntie from work. The truck also was needed at 4:00 pm to pick Uncle up from the construction site where he worked, a few miles from the house.
While Uncle and Auntie worked during the day, Maw-Ma sat in a breezy, shaded spot by a door or out back near the banana grove, weaving palmetto into strips that she would eventually use to weave hats or straw bags. Her handiwork was beautiful, and a source of income for the family.
Maw-Ma would often have visitors, including her elderly sister and her sister’s daughter. The sister was wheelchair bound, toothless and fond of snuff. She wore a John Deere baseball cap and, like everyone else, she wore threadbare clothes (folks wear their clothes ’til they literally fall off their bodies).
The elderly sister and her middle-aged daughter were intimidating when we were first introduced– I suppose because we were unaccustomed to being stared at, but we soon realized this is the way of the locals, who apparently find visitors an infinite source of interest and amusement. We soon came to know these women as gentle, simple folk — and hearty! The daughter typically wheeled her overweight mother down the sun blasted Queen’s Road for several miles, to and from these daily visitations. Plus, the daughter was always barefooted, as are all the kids and most of the adults we encountered. We were told that shoes were saved for church, work and school!
I have now digressed well beyond our first evening, which found some thirteen of us piled into the truck and the car, slowly making our way to nearby Clarence Town to one of the few restaurants on the island, and the only one open after 7:00 pm on a Saturday. It took a couple of hours for the friendly staff to cook and serve food (chicken, grouper or conch) for the clan, but time flew by as we all chattered and laughed and did our best to decipher the range of accents represented. It wouldn’t be long before we Floridians were speaking in the soft patios and deliberate delivery common to the island.
The stars were close overhead and the almost-full moon high in the sky as we caravanned home along the dark Queen’s Road. We were invited to bunk in at another uncle’s nearby house, which proved to be a sleepless night. Amenities like a shower head, a light in the bathroom, a toilet that flushed and screens on the windows were conspicuously missing. We were hot, tired and dirty from a long day of travel and didn’t sleep a wink as we tossed and turned on an ancient, soggy mattress and were devoured by no-see-ums and mosquitoes. Yikes! Tough times for even us, who camp in mosquito-infested areas in the tropics! Of course, we use a tent with fine mesh screens — no such luck here.
Sunday dawn found us on the Queen’s Road, having unceremoniously abandoned our host’s home. I drove slowly along the Queen’s road, blearily looking for one of two fishing resorts I knew were in the area. Before too long we managed to locate our home-away-from-home at the Greenwich Lodge. We spoke with the proprietress as she was cooking breakfast for her only other guests, a rowdy group of high-school students from Washington State on a church outing. She was happy to have us check in right away, as we were to be the only guests in this 8-room facility the rest of the week, after the kids departed. Once she knew we were on the island to visit with the Cartwrights, we were treated as family.
We were soon happily showering in a brand new motel-like room, one with air conditioning. We caught the morning’s breakfast, which we soon discovered to be grits and something, usually dry scrambled eggs and greasy bacon or, interestingly, tuna salad. No bread. Coffee or juice but not both. Then we took a long nap.
By mid afternoon, we were ready to go play with the Cartwright clan. Everyone piled into the car and truck and off we went to what turned out to be one of several fantastically picturesque beaches. Maw-Ma rode with us in the rental car and we had the chance to hear of her stories of being raised on the island with no electricity, before her son put in the Queen’s Road.
We learned how many of the settlers, white and black, including her grandparents, arrived at the island. They jumped from their convict ship as it stopped to provision en-route from Puerto Rico to Nassau. Many of these people were poor and had been incarcerated for petty theft (food, mostly). Some were escaped slaves. They eventually populated the island and turned it into what is now the breadbasket of the Bahamas. Nearly all of the fresh fruit and most of the veggies served in the Bahamas come from Long Island, which has numerous sources of fresh water, including cave systems, springs and blue holes.
Fresh water is what brought Christopher Columbus to the island on a number of his crossings, which is why the west tip of the island and the harbor there are named for him and a monument erected.
The harbor goes on for miles and is one of the most hauntingly picturesque and pristine areas I’ve ever seen. Except for flotsam and some litter, I doubt it looks one iota different from when he visited. No homes, no boats, no people, no power lines, and only one narrow, dangerously rutted, track of a road. We were captivated by this area on our last visit and were delighted to return, even if the drive was 1.5 hours to the north, or “down island”.
Subsequent forays took us to a couple of the island’s blue holes, including our favorite, Dean’s Blue Hole, located on Turtle Cove, which we had visited on our first trip to the island. Unbeknownst to us on our first visit to Long Island, the property surrounding Dean’s Blue Hole is owned by yet another Cartwright family member, so of course this visit we had permission to access this place that the world-famous Jacques Cousteau had made famous by featuring in one of his TV specials.
These blue holes are found throughout the Caribbean, but this one is the deepest in the Bahamas, well over 600 feet. Fresh water wells up from below and mixes with salt water flowing from the adjacent protected lagoon, which I thought looked exactly like a pirate stronghold!
One day we adults slipped away from the kids and spent the morning at this wondrous place. Our friend and her brother were brave enough to climb up the razor sharp rocks that tower some 50 or more feet above the blue hole. After much egging-on by those of us on the sandy beach at the edge of the blue hole, they each jumped into the crystal clear, cold water below, scattering tropical fish and startling the large Nassau grouper that hung about in the depths below the cliff wall.
Another day and another incredible beach, named Lowes Beach.
This one was tucked into a small cove which was protected by a 30-foot high wall of the typical sharp iron shore rock. Here, a section of the wall had been worn down over the centuries, so the ocean waves poured through an opening approximately 40 feet wide. The tumble of rocks found on the lee side of the rock fall had formed a small reef that featured a swim-through at about 15 feet of depth and was festooned by colorful corals, urchins and small tropical fish.
This horseshoe shaped, protected lagoon with its gently sloping sandy bottom and crystal clear water was a perfect place for the kids to swim, snorkel and jump off the rocks. We all spent an entire afternoon there. Some folks walked over the dunes to the next cove, and the next, each uniquely beautiful. I sat in a small patch of shade and drank cold beer, avoiding the sun and enjoying the wind and the crashing of the ocean just over the wall.
Another day trip took us up-island to a very large, deep blue hole. This one was tucked into a large cove. The cove was protected from the open ocean by an outer ring of reef that was about a mile away. Again, the sand was white and fine, the sun hot, the water crystal clear. But here, the edges of the blue hole dropped away to 50 feet and more, mere inches from the edge of the water. One could sit in waist-deep water, with their feet on the steep slope and see clearly through the pellucid water. A mere 20 feet from the water’s edge, the bottom was 60 feet down, and it just kept going. Fear of sharks and other unknowns seemed to keep people away from the depths here. It was a spooky place. Only one home was built on the cove. Otherwise, the entire area was deserted.
July 4 was the full moon, and plans were underway for 18 clan members to camp on the beach! Uncle and Auntie took the day off (remember, Independence Day is not a holiday in the Bahamas!). Fresh Bahama bread and mac n’ cheese (a staple) were baked, a huge coleslaw salad whipped up, chicken prepared and hotdogs purchased, in case the men were unlucky in spearing fish at the camping beach.
Late afternoon found the caravan at the windy, rocky beach. The men grabbed snorkel gear and spears and buckets balanced in tire inner tubes and swam out to the nearby reef. The kids played in the shallows in the lagoon. Women prowled the rocks, prying large “whelks” and “curbs” (we’d call them barnacles) from the rocks for steamed appetizers.
In a little over an hour the guys had speared a variety of fish and had grabbed a large slipper lobster and a larger crawfish. The lobster and crawfish were out of season, so they were referred to as “hush-your-mouth crabs”! A search party went out to find some land crabs (ghost crabs in other parts of the Caribbean) but none were found. That’s because they had migrated to the other side of the island, a fact we determined the next day when we ran over scores of these large-as-your-hand crustaceans as they crossed the Queen’s Road, heading back to their spawning grounds.
The fire was quickly made in a hole among the rocks on shore. As dusk fell, the kids were brought in from the water: (“Don’ let the shaaks get ya’! Com-in now!”). Foodstuffs in cardboard boxes and small coolers were placed among the rocks. The fish and veggies and spices were prepared and wrapped in foil and thrown on the big grate that served as a grill. Whelks, curbs and the lobsters were placed on the grill and soon we were all stuffing ourselves as the full moon drifted in and out of the clouds hanging low on the horizon. The evening ended as clan members settled into sheets and ground cloths above the high-tide mark. We soon left for the comfort of our air-conditioned motel room.
On Tuesday night, we were invited to join the adults at Doc Mel’s “club”, to drink beer and play pool. So off we went, caravanning in the two vehicles. Turns out that Doc Mel’s place was less than 2 miles from the clan compound, and years away from anything Americans might call a “club”. A simple, concrete building painted a bright lime green, Doc Mel’s neighborhood bar features open doorways sporting unfinished 3/4′ plywood “doors”, windowless openings without screens, a bare and unfinished concrete floor and two small toilets, each with its attendant sign crudely written on the unfinished plywood door: “Ladys” or “Mens”. The proprietor himself is a gentle, ageless black man who seemed old to our friend when she was 10!
Count on the atmosphere at Doc Mel’s to be warm and friendly. In fact, count on it to be hotter than Hades, with barely a draft of breeze moving across the shrunken and beat-up pool table. But what did we care, we could barely see the balls anyway because the one bare bulb over the table was blown. So we opened the doors to the toilets and used the light spilling out to guide our pool game. A rusty fan tried to move the heavy air around but lost the struggle. Mosquitoes nipped. We passed around the one available roll of paper towels and gamely mopped brows, arms and necks as we slugged cold beer (Heineken or Kalik, awful island brew, or Bud, before we drank it out of stock.) We laughed and played dominos and visited with the one or two locals who stopped by to see what all the commotion was about.
The next day, word came to us that special preparations had been made at Doc Mel’s for our entertainment and comfort and we were asked to return. This time, the bulb over the pool table was lit and another fan added to the anemic airflow. A few more locals showed up to laugh at our behaviors, and someone had brought a boom box. Next thing you know it was Electric Slide time and we tore the house down! I’m sure our antics provided fuel for many a story passed through the community.
So, yes we had a great time, being embraced as part of a large and extended family. Everyone we met was friendly and helpful. Having traveled the Caribbean, we were not put off by running on island time, the inevitable delays, or silly questions. We learned a lot about how to live on a sparsely populated island with limited resources and were reminded that we are very fortunate to enjoy our standard of living.
All too soon it was time for us to head home. Aboard the Bahamas Airways flight, I watched Long Island grow smaller and drop below the horizon and I thought that, of my many trips throughout the Caribbean, this one would linger long and fondly in my memory. PHOTOS HERE
Click, whirrrrr. The camera shutter closes on yet another brilliant moment. To the west, the setting moon dangles on a deep blue background while eastward the rising sun guilds the facades of the scattered buildings below, highlighting the edges of palm fronds. Magenta, bronze and azure streak the sky overhead. Caribbean colors. Maya colors. The colors of our dreams.
It’s our first morning on the playa (beach) in Akumal, Mexico. From our balcony, we enjoy the breathtaking view of Half Moon Bay, the smell of the ocean, the sounds of birds, the tropical fauna. Akumal, “the place of the turtles” is located on the Yucatan peninsula, one hour and ten minutes drive south of Cancun.
At the time of this post, Akumal was still very much a secret getaway, discovered only by those who ventured south of Cancun along Mexico’s Caribbean coast. Here, the “Mundo Maya” steeps the intrepid traveler in a small, primarily Mayan seaside community with sandy white beaches, swaying palms, sun, surf, and serenity. Check out pix Here!
The “Mexican Riviera” of Cancun and Playa Del Carmen (“PDC”) are left far behind in Akumal. Instead of casinos, hotels and high rises, Akumal offers a friendly, village atmosphere complete with a local vegetable market, eateries and a delightful muffin shop. Resorts are non-existent (until the developers arrive!). Instead, visitors stay in local “casitas” and small condos that rent by the week.
On our arrival day, we rented a car at the Cancun airport and drove south along highway 307, a seemingly endless, dry, limestone-dusted concrete umbilicus that ties Cancun to the Belize border and beyond.
We had monitored Akumal message boards on the Web for months and knew to stop at the San Francisco market in PDC for cheap groceries and cervesa (beer!). We found an open Banco, exchanged dollars for pesos and left the hurly-burly. Soon we passed through the lovely arches at the entrance to Akumal Centro (village central) and were unpacking in our room at Hacienda De La Tortuga.
Our third floor view encompassed Half Moon Bay and a world class beach at Akumal Bay. A reef line just offshore tantalized these snorkelers–we planned to join the fishies after lunch!
On Sunday, we pack a few drinks in our collapsible cooler, we head 23 Km south to the ruins of Tulum. We roar along at 110 kilometers/hr, the jungle a blur on either side of the road. We pass infrequent landmarks like Aventuras Akumal (rental condos) and Aktun-Chen dry cave (tours!). We whiz past the community of Chemuyil and, further south, Xel-Ha (Shell-Ha), a Disney-esque water and eco park. Before you know it we’re at the entrance to the ruins at Tulum.
Sundays, entrance to Mexican national parks is free for Mexican nationals. We’re here early, at 8:00 am. It’s already hot. We head into the remains of the only major ancient Maya religious center on this coast. Tulum looks just like the books and documentaries–mysterious and magnificent. This walled ceremonial site was ancient when the Spaniards first spotted it in 1518. Numerous buildings are scattered throughout the site. The most prominent structure is The Castillo (Castle), which sits atop a 90-foot cliff overlooking the ocean below.
Gazing out over the layered blues of the Caribbean from the heights of Tulum is a peaceful reverie and a terrific photo op! We walk around, taking pictures and reviewing the history of this ancient citadel. We notice local Mayan families coming in and, behind them, the tourist buses. We take the tram in and out–it’s only 10 pesos, and worth avoiding a mile-long walk to the archaeological site in the heat. Hire a guide if you’re so inclined–we did our homework and didn’t really need or want one.
We head a few miles north from Tulum to Casa Cenote to swim and chill and join the famous Sunday BBQ. The turn-off to Casa Cenote is easy to spot, so we bangity-bang in second gear down the rutted and potholed track toward the beach, follow the curve to the left and we’re there. The cool, fresh water cenote is on the left, restaurant on the right. We dunk in the cenote then duck under the thatched roof of the restaurant to get a seat, enjoying the very welcome breeze and the exquisite view of the Caribbean. Whoa! There’s Kootie, the resident coatimundi (South American raccoon) jumping from her hammock to a nearby table as her human “mother” chases and admonishes her charge. Everyone in the place is cooing and laughing at this wonderful, friendly and mischievous creature. We shoot pictures like fools…
Early evening, and we’re back on the beach in Akumal, sitting at the La Buena Vida, swinging in the swings at the bar, drinking a cold one and trailing our toes in the sand. We witness an awesome rise of the full moon–orange, then yellow then white, hanging over the horizon like a spotlight. Click, whirrr. I take a mental photo of the moon with a silhouette of a coconut palm frond waving to and fro, a streak of white moonlight dusting the darkened ocean in front of the restaurant.
Bushed, we retire to H. de la T. to discover the sleeping accommodation–a raised cement slab with a four-inch mattress. Oh well, we’re tired and crash without further discussion.
Noisy birds in the nearby jungle wake us at dawn. We pack for a trip around the corner to Yal-Ku (“Chal-Ku'”) lagoon.
Snorkeling in the most gorgeous and pristine setting imaginable, we are amazed as we watch fresh and salt water being mixed by our movement, turning the formerly crystalline view into Jell-o, and blurring the view of brilliant juvenile tropical fish. After a day in this fantastic setting, we find ourselves back in the swings at the bar, laughing and reliving the day. We have another drink then head back to our unit, where we sip beer and eat chocolate cookies for dinner. Too wound up to sleep, too tired to go out to dinner, but hungry. Oh well–it’s vacation! We kill off the entire package of cookies and head for bed.
The next day, we’re off to world-famous Chichen Itza, a couple hours through the jungle by car. Up before the sunrise, we find the Coba road and head west through the awakening jungle. I jump out of the car to take a picture of the ribbon of concrete piercing the endless green. I hear roosters crowing at a nearby ranchero, the only sign of life for some miles. The mist is rising off the jungle, insects are droning in the background. I hear no engines, no airplanes, no voices, no human sounds. Just the jungle and my own breathing. The camera shutter sounds unusually loud.
An hour or so west, we come to the quaint town of Vallodilid. We eat breakfast at the buffet advertised on a big sign on a hotel on the southwest side of the town square (zocola). Decent food for a few pesos and a clean el banyo (restroom). Onward to Chichen Itza!
We catch the toll road out of Vallodolid and twenty minutes brings us to the Chichen Itza parking lot. We arrive early, as the place is opening. We get our tickets, stop in el banyo, hire a guide (350 pesos but be prepared to tip a lot more!). Juan is knowledgeable, in a rote way. Clearly he knows little beyond the script. This place is everything we expected, everything we’ve seen on TV and read in magazines. We’re riveted. We learn about the “acoustics”, apparently deliberately designed sound effects created by clapping in certain spots on the plaza between the Pyramid of the Sun and the Temple of the Warriors. A single clap causes an echo of 7-11 claps, clearly heard. The same clap, if one tunes one’s ear toward the pyramid, brings forth a wonderful, mystical birdcall or whistle. We wonder why the ancients designed these effects and to what purpose.
We carefully climb the scary, steep stone steps up 90 meters to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun in time to observe two large rainstorms sweeping across the jungle toward us. I stay and shoot film while people scurry to get down those steps before they get wet and slippery (not to mention the steps!) We enjoy the energy of the approaching storms, breathing in the smell of the rain mixed with the dank damp of the temple interior. Luckily, the storms hold off long enough for us to make our way gingerly down the steep decline to a timely rendezvous with our car, just as the sky and another tourist bus unloads.
On the way back to Akumal in a rainstorm, we get lost and nervous, watching the road practically wash out from under us. We drive past a totaled SUV being pulled out of the jungle by a wrecker in the middle of nowhere. Dodging two large fallen trees across the road, we see a few scattered huts and some pigs out in the rain. We finally get directions from a young boy riding his bike on the road, oblivious to the rain. We tentatively make our way back to Akumal…
The following day, snorkeling at the Gran Cenote is on our schedule, so we drive south along highway 307 and park in the shade of the grounds. We tromp down an ill-defined “path” among limestone boulders and loose rock that threatens to turn an ankle at every step, arriving at a large, uninviting hole in the rocky ground. Large, shy iguanas dart from our path. Soon, we arrive at rickety, narrow wooden steps that lead straight down into the cenote. We carefully haul down cooler, backpacks and snorkel gear, arriving some 40 feet later at the bottom of the opening. Narrow “walkways” have been roughly crafted from short lengths of tree limbs- watch your balance! Butterflies flit in the sun, birds swoop from unseen nooks and caverns, chirping crazily. Grey iguanas race across sun-bleached limestone rocks then freeze, posing just long enough for a quick photo, then off again, chasing moths and other breakfast tidbits. Small trees and stunted greenery accent this wet, strange place. We follow one “walkway” to a platform over crystalline waters.
We manage to get into the water of the cenote without slipping off the hand-hewn rough ladder that leads some five feet to the surface. Small fish swim placidly around us. We paddle around in clear, cool water looking at the rocky bottom some 15 feet below. The sun pours down from the hole in the trees above, spearing ribbons of light through the mirrored water surface.
Snorkeling into the deep shadow under the cavern overhang, we drift through a litter of bat guano and bird droppings on the water’s surface. We think positive thoughts like protein treatment for the hair. However, we will put hydrogen peroxide in our ears later!
We change clothing at the el banyo on the property and head toward Tulum pueblo for some planned shopping. The 90-plus degree heat of May fails to wilt our enthusiasm for bargain hunting at the “Stop and Shop,” located near the bus station. The lady proprietor is really sweet and kind to gringas who speak terrible Spanish!
The next day we tour the dry cave at Aktun Chen.
If you are claustrophobic, as we are, you will probably do okay as there are few tight places. Generally the cave is very open, with lots to see and learn about. Just look out for the “road” into the attraction. Go slow. Speaking of road conditions, the track through the jungle to Dos Ojos (“Two Eyes”) cenote is treacherous, a series of crazed limestone moguls, twisting and potholed and crumbling at the edges. The cenote itself is isolated and spooky and seems to emit attitude, as if it’s waiting patiently for something. We had the place to ourselves and snorkeled in the gloom of the overhanging cavern, watching swarms of swallows swoop around the circular opening to the cenote.
Then it was on to Zamas restaurant on the beach south of Tulum pueblo for lunch. What a magical place! Beautiful scenery, a windswept coastline and rocky crags reminded us of the coast of Maine. We enjoy a very nice meal in a paradisiacal setting, with the onshore breeze whipping through the stunted coconut palms that surround the restaurant. No Kootie here–just acres of peace and the roar of large breakers thundering upon cliffs.
Some afternoons we snorkeled over the shallow reefs at the mouth to Half Moon Bay. One day we spotted a school of giant parrotfish, each as large as a calf. The loud crunching sounds of powerful beaks pulverizing their coral snacks could be heard distinctly underwater.
Our last day we saved for the Mayan ruins at Coba. We arrive early, just as the archaeological site opens. Coba is serene and magical, with mist hovering around the tops of huge trees that sprout from the rubble. Mayan workmen rested from sweeping and raking leaves from temple steps–we could hear their quiet voices drifting through a grove of trees. Something about this place encouraged hushed tones.
We walked softly for several kilometers along an old sacbe-ob or road, wondering how many ancient feet had trod the very path we now walked. After hiking through the jungle for four kilometers, we came to the Great Pyramid, all 138 feet of it. Taking a deep breath and a large swig of water from our packs we clambered up the rough-hewn, awkward steps to the top. The view of the jungle from the temple summit was spectacular! We walked around the edges of the small temple at the top of the pyramid. The only sounds we could hear were bird calls and the background drone of insects. Looking across the sea of green, we could see lumps along the horizon and just below it, near the two lakes that are part of the archaeological area. We pondered if these were un-excavated ruins, like the numerous mounds of rubble we passed on our hike to the Great Pyramid.
All too soon it was time to leave the Mundo Maya. We have so many stories to tell: of leaf-cutter ants creating endless trails through the jungle, of hermit crabs tickling our toes while we ate dinner on the beach, of moonrises over the sea, of sunsets over the jungle and the faint sound of palm fronds clacking in the warm night breeze. Some day, we will return to the mystical, serene Mundo Maya.