Sunday, April 13, 2014

To the Caribbean 2014

     Yes, we did get out of this area for a short while this winter. We took our second cruise to the Caribbean in as many years. This time we boarded the Oceania Riviera in Miami and headed out into the northeastern Caribbean. Oceania cruises are known as "foodie" tours. Indeed, the food is definitely a couple steps above the typical. Oceania's two larger ships, the Riviera and the Marina, each also have a wonderful library, board game or bridge room, large lovely lounge on top up front where every afternoon wonderful 4 PM teas are served to the music of their live string quartet. The ship has a wonderful spa, private spa deck for "Veranda" guests and above. There is a coffee bar where baristas stir up excellent brew. I particularly like the Artist Loft, with art classes directed by a resident artist. In the past my main media for art was water colors and water color pencils. But on this cruise our art teacher was a proponent of acrylic and favored the use of only a palette knife. Sure makes clean up easier. For me this was very good practice with this media and method. But one of my favorite pastimes was sitting on our veranda while we were at sea, staring down into the deep indigo waters. We have visited the Atlantic, the Pacific, the Southern Ocean, the Mediterranean, and the Black Sea and Baltic Sea, but none of those waters compare to the indigos and close to shore the various shades of turquoises that characterize the Caribbean. I can sit for an hour just watching the surf as it rolls off the hull of the ship, creating wonderful swirlings and gorgeous turquoises. Once in a while a group of small flying fish will break out of that roiling swirl, at right angles to the ship's path, I am sure, convinced that we are a very large predator.

Our ship,, the Oceania Riviera at Grand Turk cruise ship port.
    Our first port of call was Grand Turk of the Turks and Caicos Islands. This island is quite small and only has one pier. We were the only ship in port. And the port is currently incapable of taking some of the very large cruise ships which I think is a plus. Unfortunately they are gong to add a new pier system which will enable several ships to visit at one time. I think that may destroy some of the charm of the island. The island currently does have a nice developed reception area with nice beaches on each side of that one pier. And there are some very nice boutique shops in this cruise center as well. One of the shops surprised me; it was an Israeli art shop with some Israeli paintings, as well as menorahs, and metal hamsa and chai jewelry and mezuzahs. My husband arranged for us to have a guided tour of the island on of all things -- ATVs. This is the first time we have driven these unique vehicles. Our guide could tell that we were rather inept and kept us mostly on the regular surface roads of the island. Fortunately most of the ship's people just shopped in the boutique stores and used the lovely beach. The island roads were pretty empty. But there was a nice lighthouse to see, some Caribbean flamingos, and there are replicas of the John Glenn Gemini caqpsule around the island because he landed in the waters off the Grand Turk.

Grand Turk Cruise Center beach right next to the pier next to our ship. Many passengers spent the day right here. 
         It was a view of the lovely beach on Grand Turk that I used as the subject for my main acrylic painting of this trip. I wanted to show the blues and turquoises of these Caribbean waters. Here it is:
My version of the Grand Turk beach sitting in a beach chair on the shore side.
Old San Juan
Latte at Cafe Prieto in Guavate.
       Our next port of call was San Juan, Puerto Rico. I visited this island years ago on a pharmaceutical junket and we had rented a car and drove all over the island then. There really is quite a bit to see here. This time we just hired a guide to show us the two forts and give us some history that we had forgotten from the last visit, and to show us a little bit of San Juan. Then he drove us up into the hills behind San Juan to a place called Guavate, famous for Le Choneras. Lechon is pig roasted on a spit. And a restarant that roasts and serves this pig is called LeChonera. The whole name of our destination  restaurant is LeChonera Los Amigos but there are many of these places in Guavate. These are generally rustic restaurants where people dine on picnic tables covered by oil cloth. The meals include the pig (or roast chicken), yams or potatoes, beans, fried plantain, and breads. The food was delicious. It was a Tuesday and it was not very busy at all, so the owner spent some time sitting at our table. He sounded like he was a displaced American by his lack of any accent. But the best part was the cup of coffee afterwards in a neighboring little coffee shop, operated by the owner's wife. This coffee was made from a locally grown premium coffee bean. And of course I had it as a latte. It was absolutely delicious, and fancily prepared by a talented barista. We sat on the deck in back overlooking a deep and lush ravine. It was a great ending to our tour of San Juan.

Leaving the port of Grand Turk.

This is a Royal Caribbean ship called Oasis of the Sea. It carries over 6000 guests 

 Our next port of call, St Marten, is an interesting island. Half is French and half is Dutch. The French side used to be the destination of most tourists, but the local French government decided to go along with the French stand during the US First Gulf War. They voted to boycott all US products and to discourage US tourists. Their efforts succeeded and basically their tourism, with the exception of restaurants, has failed. Their hotels have been turned into rooming houses and condos. Many beautiful big hotels had become totally empty relics. Some still stand empty and deteriorating. All cruise ships now land on the Dutch side which has expanded its tourist facilities accordingly, especially attracting small boating operators who travel from island to island, in addition to the cruise ships. People still take a day trip to the French side, so restaurateurs still do OK there. The island has one famous road along the beach where the large jets landing strip starts just at the edge of the road. People love to sit on the beach at the pilots level as these planes come in. Definitely hard on the hearing.
Peaceful afternoon at the beach; plane after plane coming in just like this.

      The next port of call was St. Barts. We had been their during last year's cruise when we toured the island. We knew that the boutiques just ashore were quite expensive and limited and we were not in the mood for beaching it, though the beach right off the pier is very nice. We decided to just stay aboard. In the afternoon I had an art class to attend anyway, and we were painting for a couple hours.
Tortola town, on Tortola of the British Virgin Islands.

Lots of small islands around Tortola.

 I liked Tortola of the British Virgin Islands. We had a nice tour of the island, viewing its beaches and driving to high points in the mountains in the center of the island for overlooks. Tortolas is surrounded by many small islands that welcome visitors. There are a lot of Americans that go to Tortola and spend time. We had lunch in a small outdoor restaurant that was situated among some of these American second homes and the owner of the restaurant was herself an American. It is nice that English is spoken here. I could actually see myself with a second home on this island in particular.

Historic Old Santo Domingo, capitol of the Dominican Republic.

     Next was the Dominican Republic. I think many people have formed an image of the DR which is similar to Haiti. But the DR is definitely different.It is the fourth largest economy in the Caribbean and Central America combined. Many incomes are in the area of lower middle class. There is poverty but it is in the rural areas. There is also crime and the Dominican Republic has been criticized for being too lenient on homicidal crime. Also the South American drug cartels are purported to launder their money through the Dominican Republic, creating corruption. But the infrastructure is good. And tourism has created various protected enclaves on the eastern end of the country and to a lesser extent in the northern central area. Also ecotourism is gaining a foothold and the DR has set aside several large national parks in the central highlands. Our ship docked at La Romana which is located within one of those tourist enclaves. I think most of the ships passengers utilized the beach, the local shopping area, or had signed up for ship excursions that took advantage of the local Caribbean waters. We took a different path and headed for the taxi stand. We were the first ship passengers to arrive there and we saw only two taxi vans. We asked what it would cost to drive to Santo Domingo, the capitol, a distance that would take about an hour and a half. One driver answered us quickly in perfect English. The other driver did not speak English. So the English speaker said "I guess I am your man." It turns out that he had lived in the United States, in Florida for about 8 years. He gave us a safe drive to the capitol, a small amount of information and he put us with a walking guide of the Old Town of Santo Domingo, which has many interesting historical buildings, churches, and shops. There are buildings here from the 15th century because this is the area that Columbus chose to develop, at that time, to become capitol of Hispaniola.
      I wanted to purchase a necklace of larimar beads, which is only mined in the DR. This elderly walking guide got me to a shop where I was able to make my purchase, adding another piece of jewelry to my collection of pieces from around the world. We enjoyed a nice lunch, and then drove back to La Romana and headed to the ship. In all it was a very nice and successful day. We were glad we had taken the opportunity to get out of the tourist enclave and see what the DR was all about.
A boulder of pectolite containing considerable larimar effused through it.
My larimar bead necklace. 

     I want to fill you in a little about this stone -- larimar. In 1916, a local priest asked the government of the Dominican Republic for permission to exploit this stone and even start to mine it but was refused. Then in 1974, a local resident and a Peace Core volunteer found pebbles of the stone that had washed down into the estuary of a stream that originated in the nearby hills and mountains. These two succeeded in getting permission to mine the material and others tracked down the vein of rock where this substance originated. The stone is really taking off in popularity throughout the Caribbean and is even being sent elsewhere around the world to be used in jewelry. The name was created by that local rediscoverer of larimar as a combination of his daughter's name, Larissa, and the Spanish word for sea, mar.  Pectolite is an acid silicate hydrate of calcium and sodium. Pectolite is found in many places around the world, but only in the Dominican Republic does this stone contain the blue color, which has some of the calcium replaced by copper. Geologically, the surrounding stone or pectolite was volcanically created but had holes and cracks in it which were later filled by the blue copper containing silicate creating this stone. Indians in the area had long found pebbles of this blue mineral among beach stones, having been tumbled and polished as they were washed down the hillside and finally onto the beach near the source mountain. Now the original mountain has been found and about 2000 vertical shafts penetrate it where this stone is mined. Apparently there are also a lot of fake larimars, some plastic, some other bluish minerals, especially being sold by vendors on the beaches of the DR .But there is an interesting test one can carefully perform. If you hold the beads or pendant of larimar in a match flame for a few seconds, it will remain cold to the touch afterwards. Plastic of course would melt and your vendor would probably not let you do this. But you must be careful in the case of beads or a strung pendant to not hold the flame near the stringing element for that is often plastic and would then break and release the beads all over the ground. How embaressing! Where I bought this necklace, there was a guarantee of authenticity and there was actually a boulder of larimar there on the countertop as well as boulders for sale. My nice graduated bead necklace cost $300. This is a somewhat soft stone and also in heat and high light, the blues may fade so it should be kept in a cool dark place when not being worn. I especially like how it warms up over time as it lies against the wearer's skin.
The trained marching flamingos at Nassau Zoological Gardens and Aviary.

  After a day at sea, we put in to the last port of call, Nassau, of  the Bahamas. We had arranged for a driver to meet us and take us around the island. The first site you see from the ship is the huge and familiar Atlantis resort, for which we see many advertisements on TV. One of the ship's excursions included a tour of the Atlantis and its many different campuses. We had no interest in this and instead saw the rest of the small island. I was surprised at the many lovely streets, roads and the growing resort communities. The Chinese are building a huge resort hotel which is supposed to rival the Atlantis. The port at Nassau can handle at least 8 ships at a time and it can handle the huge Allure of the Sea, sister ship to Oasis of the Sea by Royal Caribbean, which was by the way in port while we were there. Wow, what a ship. Its passenger count is 6200 while our ship has a lowly 1200 passengers on board. We certainly prefer the latter. In fact we even prefer two other ships in the Oceania line, the Nautica and the Regatta which only have 600 passengers.
Leaving Nassau, we say good bye to those wonderful turquoise waters of the Caribbean and it's back to Miami for us.

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