Travel

Martinique

fullsizeoutput_d60Martinique is a fascinating island. Even though the island is part of the Caribbean, in some ways it doesn’t have that typical Caribbean vibe. Martinique is very much French. If you didn’t already know, Martinique is actually part of the overseas region of France. The island even uses the Euro as its official currency.

Besides the French feeling, Martinique is famous for the tragic eruption of Mont Pelée in 1902. The eruption sadly wiped out the entire city of Saint-Pierre. Saint-Pierre was covered with superheated steam and volcanic gases in less than five minute. The city was almost completely destroyed with anything flammable igniting under the heat. An estimated 30,000 people died from the first eruption. Legend states only one person survived the eruption, but it is believed some survivors lived outside of the blast zone and on some of the nearby boats.

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Later in May 1902, a second fatal eruption hit Saint-Pierre. This eruption killed an estimated 2,000 individuals helping with the rescue and repair of the city. Martinique was struck again by another and final fatal eruption on August 1902. Since 1902, the island has not seen a fatal eruption and is now under continuous watch by scientists.

This was my second time visiting Martinique. My first visit to the island was in 1999 and since then the island has certainly grown! Our previous time on the island took us to a butterfly garden. From there we went on a taxi tour, which ended up being very memorable! During the tour the driver pulled over to the side of a road by a completely abandoned field. He exited the vehicle and ended up opening the trunk of the car. Next, he pulls out a machete! Now this sounds like a potential horror story, but the complete opposite happened. The driver walks over to a tree and removes some of the bark for us to smell. The tree ended up being cinnamon. This tale could have gone very differently, but is a unique memory from my first time in Martinique.

Alas, this time on Martinique was not a positive experience. I wish I could write a post talking about a wonderful time, but unfortunately our experience was tarnished by an unprofessional tour guide (Elisabeth).

Before arriving in Martinique, I didn’t find many options for private tours that interested us. After much debate, we ended up going with a tour offered by Princess Cruises. The tour we took was St. Pierre and Rum Distillery. This tour itself is interesting since it takes you to the more popular sites on the island.

One of the first stops of the tour took us to the Sacré-Coeur de la Balata. The church was built in 1925 and is modeled after the Sacred Heart Basilica of Montmartre in Paris. The view from the church overlooks the tropical rainforest and is situated on Fort-de-France’s highest point.

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From the church the tour us through the Route de la Trace to Mont Pelée. Mont Pelée is of course the historic volcano on the island that devastated nearby Saint-Pierre in 1902. The drive takes you through the interior rainforest of the island to the mountain. Now I do have to mention a warning with the drive. The drive is incredibly twisty and full of switchbacks. For those who get carsick (like I do), I highly advise staying away from any tour that takes you through this region. The drive is pretty, but I could have easily skipped this entire experience!

After the drive through the rainforest, we were supposed to first stop at the Depaz Distillery. For some reason the tour guide decided to have us visit the distillery last and instead visit the Saint-Pierre museum first. At one point, she even made a comment we would skip the distillery. This of course irritated me since this was my main reason for taking the tour! We did end up saying something to her and she backtracked on her comment about skipping the distillery. At one point, she even asked us if we were British (no, we are from Seattle!). The tour just got stranger as we went along. Her decision to move the distillery to last was not a smart move because we then had to go through traffic to the museum, traffic back to the distillery, and traffic through Saint-Pierre.

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Once we made it to Saint-Pierre we visited the Museum of Volcanology. The museum provides images of Saint- Pierre before and after the eruption. There are actually numerous artifacts on display, including a church bell that was broken during the eruption. After the museum, we had some time to walk around outside. Somehow, we did miss visiting the jail cell of Ludger Sylbaris. For some unknown reason the tour guide only invited a few members of the tour to visit the cell. Ludger Sylbaris was one of only a few people who survived the eruption in 1902 since he was placed in solitary confinement. His cell was half underground and had no windows, which ultimately saved his life.

After the museum, we next headed to Depaz Distillery. I know the basics of distilling (I’ve even distilled a few times) and was really looking forward to this part of the tour. I can say I’m thankful I know how distilling works because I ended up explaining the process to a few people! The guide had absolutely no clue about the history of the distillery or how distillation works! At one point, she complained about the distillery not providing a guide. At the end of the tour, we did have a chance to try the products.

fullsizeoutput_d65.jpegOnce the distillery tour was completed, the tour then drove through Saint-Pierre again on the way back to Fort-de-France. The ride back took around 45 minutes and went along the coastline. This ride was also full of switchbacks, but luckily not as bad as the drive through the rainforest.

Now I decided to wait until the end to address some of the further issues with the tour guide. Throughout the tour, she made disparaging comments about certain groups of individuals. For some reason, she felt the need to attack millennials constantly. As someone who is technically a millennial, this was frustrating! She described millennials as uneducated and basically a waste of space. At one point, she went on and on about youth using social media (slightly ironic when she started talking about her own Facebook account).

Not only were millennials the target of her negative comments, she next started in on the local Muslim population. At one point, she even stated how she believes the local Muslim population should not be allowed to have a building to worship at. We certainly could feel the Islamophobia during her speech! Throughout the tour, she made numerous negative comments towards various groups of people. This isn’t a great way to promote your island by bad mouthing your own residents and potential tourists. Her comments were unfortunate and will always stick with me about Martinique.

I have to admit this time in Martinique was a true disappointment. A tour guide can ultimately make or break an experience, and unfortunately this tour was a poor experience. The purpose of this post is to not bad mouth Martinique, but to share my experience. The island really is fascinating and I hope to visit again one day. Hopefully if you have a chance to visit the island, you will have a much different experience than I did this time.

 

Note: We did end up talking to the Tour Desk onboard Princess Cruises about the comments the tour guide made. From previous experiences, I feel it is best to provide feedback to the cruise line about great and poor tours. Ultimately the tour companies are contractors for the cruise line and represent the cruise industry.

Tobago

fullsizeoutput_d4aThe country of Trinidad and Tobago is a dual island nation located off the coast of South America. Each island has its own personality and unique identity. Tobago is considered the laid-back part of the country with a slow pace lifestyle. Tobago is best known for the island’s nature reserve (Tobago Main Ridge Forest Reserve) and bird watching. Trinidad on the other hand is considered an entertainment capital. Trinidad is home to the world-famous Carnival held on the island each year (most likely you’ve seen numerous photos of this event online). Fun fact, Trinidad and Tobago is also the birthplace of calypso music, limbo, and the steelpan drum.

Our itinerary only took us to the island of Tobago. Interestingly the country is not a typical destination visited by many US based cruise lines. This actually made it hard to figure out our plans. Before our arrival in Tobago, we had nothing planned for our day. I searched online and most of the private tours did not interest us since the focus was on bird watching (not my thing!). The few shore excursions offered by Princess Cruises were overpriced and didn’t offer much either.

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We had finally decided to just walk around the town area but luckily found a taxi while walking through the terminal. This turned out to be a good thing since many of the shops were closed because the island was celebrating Boxing Day a day late! There was a stand in the terminal for the official taxi company on Tobago offering set prices for specific tours of the island. The taxi took us around Tobago and the tour lasted around 3 hours.

Interestingly the driver, Chris, was also starting his own tour company on Tobago. I actually just came across his website finally and will include the link for anyone interested in a private tour of Tobago. The tour company is called CP’s Tours and Taxi Service.  If you are looking for a private tour, I would highly recommend Chris. We found Chris to be extremely professional and knowledgeable about Tobago.

Our time on the island took us to three historic forts. The first stop of the day took us to Fort King George. Fort King George was built in the 1770s by the British. The fort is actually one of the best preserved colonial era buildings on Tobago. The fort and remaining cannons overlook the impressive coastline. The view is really a must see here! There is a museum on the property which we did not view.

After walking around Fort King George, Chris took us further up the Atlantic coastline to Fort Granby. Not much remains of the former Fort Granby, though the headstone of a former British solider still remains on the grounds. Today the area is covered with benches, gazebos, and a maze of trees. The fort provides a great opportunity to view both Barbados Bay and Pinfold Bay.

From Fort Granby, we next headed towards Fort James. Before stopping at Fort James, we first visited the Mystery Tombstone. The Mystery Tombstone is located in Plymouth and is from 1783. The tomb of Betty Stiven has created much debate over the years due to the odd choice of language inscribed:

“Beneath these walls are deposited the body of Mrs. Betty Stiven and her child. She was the beloved wife of Alex B Stiven. To the end of his days will deplore her death, which happened upon the 25th November 1783 in the 23rd year of her age. What was remarkable of her, she was a mother without knowing it, and a wife without letting her husband know it except by her kind indulgence to him.”

There are many hypothesizes about the tombstone and what may have transpired. The tombstone is an interesting piece of history that will probably always remain a mystery.

Betty Stiven Tombstone

From the Mystery Tombstone, it was a short drive to Fort James. Fort James overlooks Great Courland Bay. The fort was established in the 1760s by the British. During the fort’s history, the fort came under attack a few times. The first time was by slaves on the island, another time was by the French who captured and occupied the fort until the British later recaptured the island. Today not much remains at the fort besides four cannons and a small building.

After visiting three of the historical forts on the island, we then were driven around the Tobago more and stopped for a brief time near a popular fishing spot. From here we had a view of a nearby sandbar and a popular beach. Once we took a few photos we then headed back to the ship.

The tour was a great way to become acquainted with the island of Tobago.

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St. Kitts & Nevis

The last time we were in St. Kitts was in 2009 on a cruise where we ended up taking an entertaining island tour. The tour took us to Caribelle Batik and Brimstone Hill Fortress, which are must see stops in St. Kitts. After leaving the fortress the tour guide/driver drove over some sharp rocks, which of course caused a flat tire! This is one experience that has always stuck with me since part of the group got stuck changing the tire! This time we decided against another island tour of St. Kitts and we weren’t interested in going to any of the beaches on St. Kitts either. I then started exploring the idea of going to a nearby island for the day.

Technically St. Kitts is a dual island nation referred to as Saint Kitts and Nevis. You may already be familiar with Nevis from US history, thanks to Alexander Hamilton. St. Kitts is the larger island and home to the capital of Basseterre; Nevis on the other hand is both smaller in size and population. Now both St. Kitts and Nevis are covered in a tropical rainforest and interestingly both islands have volcanic origin. St. Kitts technically has a mountain reaching over 3,700ft (Mount Liamuiga).

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Sailing from St. Kitts to Nevis

For our day in St. Kitts we ended up taking a tour to Nevis. This is one time I would recommend a cruise line tour since the ferry schedule does not always work for the port schedule. If you are interested in the tour, the tour we took through Princess Cruises was Nevis Island Tour, Beach & Lunch. The title of the tour basically sums up the tour experience in a few words, but I will of course go into more detail!

For those wanting to go into St. Kitts, the docking location was not really convenient this cruise since there were other cruise ships visiting the island. The Pacific Princess drew the short end of the straw and ended up docking in an industrial area. Since we were on a tour the location had no impact luckily. The boat to Nevis met us right near the docking location for the Pacific Princess.

WR6jC0tgRUivb+8WYE4AGw_thumb_3ebbThe boat ride from St. Kitts to Nevis took around 45-minutes to an hour. Nevis is actually about 2-miles to the Southeast of St. Kitts. Now the boat used to cross the channel was fascinating since it felt like a large party boat. Truthfully, I’m not sure if the boat was really meant to cross a channel but we made it both ways at least! The boat dropped us off in the town area of Nevis and it later picked us up at the beach. Disembarking the boat was easy since it was on a pier. Now for those with mobility problems or someone who doesn’t want to embark a boat in sandy water, this tour may not be for you. (Note: I do recall people were surprised we got back on the boat at the beach. Some of the participants had on tennis shoes and were not prepared for a water entry)

Once we were in Nevis there was a line of vans waiting to pick up all the tour participants. The van portion of the tour took us around Nevis for about 2 hours. Right after boarding the van in Charlestown we drove past the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton. Now I do have to admit I was disappointed we did not stop at the house where Alexander Hamilton was born. Instead we had a quick photo opportunity from the van, which caused most of my photos to be pretty blurry. The house is considered to have great historical value to the island and I think this was a huge missed opportunity for the tour. I personally would have loved to stop at the house and walk around!

After the quick drive-by of the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, the tour guide took us to the Bath Hotel and Spring House. Not to be Debbie Downer again, but I do think this part of the tour could have been skipped for something else. We mainly looked at the springs and had the opportunity to walk around a little. To be truthful there was not much to look at during this stop, which was too bad because Nevis was a neat island. The hotel is no longer in service and needs significant repairs. If the site was restored, I think this could be really interesting historical site. Unfortunately, it felt like much of the Bath Hotel and Spring House has been left in disrepair.

Next, we were driven around the island for a while and then stopped off at the Golden Rock Inn. This property stretches up the slopes of Nevis Peak and is one of many historical plantation inns on Nevis. The Golden Rock Inn is a small hotel (11 rooms) on 100 acres of land. The property is rather fascinating since it is steeped in history and dates back to the 1800’s. The former sugar mill has now been turned into a suite. Besides the history of the buildings, the property has an extensive tropical garden with beautiful fauna and flowers. The property is also home to Green Monkeys and a wide array of birds. From my understanding the property also features hiking trails for guests, which we did not have the chance to explore before leaving. If I was staying on Nevis for vacation, this property looked like a great relaxing hideaway.

Once we were done touring the Golden Rock Inn we then headed to lunch at the beach. The tour included lunch at a local restaurant, LIME Beach Bar. Typically, most cruise ship tours with lunch have been a bust over the years but this turned out to be a fantastic meal. We had a choice of barbecued chicken or fresh fish with salad and rice.

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This was a no-brainer and we all selected the fresh fish. The fish was moist and not overcooked, plus was a huge portion! We had around an hour for lunch and once we were done we could head to Pinney’s Beach right by the restaurant. We ended up waiting for a bit since it started to rain (more like pour). In the rain Pinney’s Beach looked a bit dingy, but cleared up once the sun came out!

We had about an hour to spend at the beach before heading back to St. Kitts. We actually could use the lounge chairs and umbrellas for free since we had dined at LIME Beach Bar. The tour description noted we would have to pay to use any beach chairs and luckily this turned out to not be true. The beach was popular with locals and there were quite a few people around since the holidays had started. There were also some other beach bars around besides the restaurant we ate at. We ended up just using the lounge chairs for the day. I would recommend wearing water shoes since there was a lot of glass on the beach, which was a problem encountered at most beaches in the Caribbean this vacation.

As noted earlier the boat actually picked us up directly at the beach. To me this was convenient because we didn’t need to clean-up before entering a van. Some tour participants were not prepared to step into the water and climb onto a boat. If you decide on a tour to Nevis from St. Kitts, just plan ahead for a beach entry. This is something the tour description did not mention, which could be a problem for some individuals. As we were leaving Nevis the sun came out and we had a gorgeous view of the clear water. With the sun finally out, Pinney’s Beach looked rather nice! The trip back to St. Kitts took around 45-minutes to an hour.

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This tour was a great alternative to St. Kitts for the day and I highly recommend visiting Nevis since the island does not have the commercialized feel of other Caribbean islands! Personally I really enjoyed Nevis and hope the island will be able to keep her charm.

 

*Note: During our time at Pinney’s Beach there was an incident that occurred with a group of individuals harassing marine life. Even if the incident was insignificant to some, I am still disgusted a group of passengers from the Pacific Princess (who were not kids or young) felt the need to remove a sea creature from its habitat. The poor sea creature was passed from person to person for photo opportunities and was out of the water for an extended period of time. When something was said to the passengers about putting the sea creature back in the water, they begrudgingly responded to the request. Later the sea creature was removed again by the same group for photos. I can only imagine the outcome for the sea creature after being out of the water for extensive periods of time.

Please remember when traveling to respect wildlife and marine animals. It truly does not matter how small, large, or inconsequential an animal may seem, you should not touch or remove wildlife from their habitat. Everyone needs to take responsibility when traveling, even if its just a friendly reminder to tourists about keeping their hands to themselves!

St. John, USVI

UNADJUSTEDNONRAW_thumb_364bThe first stop of the cruise visited the US Virgin Island of St. John. If you aren’t familiar with the US Virgin Islands, the islands are a territorial region of the United States and include the islands of St. Thomas, St. Croix, and St. John. Typically, most cruises lines stop at St. Thomas, which is the most populated island in USVI and a massively popular cruise port. This cruise itinerary was on the unique side because it stopped at St. John instead. Not often do cruises lines include St. John on the itinerary.

An interesting fact about St. John is over half the island is a US National Park. Trunk Bay, one of the most famous beaches in USVI, is located on St. John and is also part of the US National Park Service. Furthermore, the beach at Trunk Bay has been voted as a top ten beach by Conde Nast Traveler. If Trunk Bay doesn’t meet your needs, there are numerous other beaches on the island, including Cinnamon Bay, Maho Bay, and Hawksnest.

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Now some of you may already be familiar with St. John because of a trip over from St. Thomas. The ferry from St. Thomas to St. John is a popular day trip for some cruisers since St. John is just a short ferry ride away. If you plan on taking the ferry back and forth, definitely make sure you have enough time!

Cruise ships anchor just outside Cruz Bay for St. John, which requires a short tender ride. Additionally, Cruz Bay is where the local ferry docks. The area around Cruz Bay features restaurants, bars, and shops. When we were in St. John there were a few other cruise ships visiting, which definitely caused the island to feel packed from the beaches to the town. This is definitely an island that should limit the number of cruise ships.

We ended up walking around Cruz Bay since the island was busy and we weren’t sure how the weather would turn out (ended up being a hot day!). First, we started out by exploring the wharf area and shops. Next, we moved over to Mongoose Junction, which is supposedly the a “world-famous premier shopping and dining destination” (according to the Mongoose Junction website).

After checking out the shops we stopped at St. John Brewers, which had a small tap room at Mongoose Junction. The tap room was being expanded in December and the new section was still under construction at that time. Once the new tap room is complete, I’m sure the new space will be well utilized!

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Now one thing I was not sure on was the beer production scale on St. John. It seems much of the beer produced by St. John Brewers is actually brewed on the mainland of the United States. I’m sure there is a small production facility on St. John, but most of the bottles are all coming from the East Coast. This is becoming rather common in the brewing industry today with contract brewing across the United States.

Overall the tap room was small but had a local feel to it and the service was good. I was really disappointed though the tap room did not offer a beer tasting flight. I really like having a tasting flight when visiting a brewery because this allows you to try the product and experience all a brewery has to offer. Unfortunately, this prevented us from really trying the beer by St. John Brewers. I ended up trying their Winter Ale since the Wheat Beer I wanted was not available due to a keg problem. This is a different style for me to drink since I’m not typically a fan of Winter Ales (unfortunately the name and tasting profile of the beer now escape me). I do recall I enjoyed the beer and the spicy notes to it.

Overall St. John was a fun day, though an extremely hot day. If you have the chance to check-out St. John while on a cruise or a trip to St. Thomas, I highly recommend popping over to St. John for a day.