Eastern Caribbean

The Lesser Antilles are the islands in the Caribbean chain extending from the Virgin Islands to Aruba, divided into the Leeward islands in the north and Windward Islands to the south. The USVI comprise 60+ islands about 64 km (40 miles) east of Puerto Rico; the British Virgin Islands comprise 50+ islands; Sint Maarten / St. Martin lies eastward, north of St Kitts, Antigua is centrally located between St Barths, St Kitts and Guadeloupe to the south. Then comes Dominica, first of the Windward islands, followed by Martinique, south of the Tropic of Cancer. St Lucia lies 35 km further south and Barbados 160 km to the southeast outside the Antillean curve.

Sint Maarten

Old Street in Philipsburg

The Netherlands are in bed with France on the tiny island of Sint Maarten and have been peacefully so for more than 200 years. The border divides the smallest land mass – 96 sq km (37 sq miles) – in the world shared by two countries, and they couldn’t be more different. The smaller Dutch Sint Maarten is brash with large resorts, casinos and fast food joints, whereas the French St Martin is prettier, quieter and more sophisticated, with Parisian – Style shops and cafes.

Philipsburg is the capital of Sint Maarten. Some people may recognize it from the movie Speed 2 Cruise Control, in which a ship (Seabourn Legend in real ) crashes dramatically into the harbor front. The Pointe Blanche cruise terminal is just 2 km (1 mile) away from the town center and is well furnished with shops, facilities and taxis – opt for a multi passenger minibus for a cheaper ride into the center. Its easy to find your way around Philipsburg – there are only two streets running parallel to the waterfront and one is called Voorstraat  (Front Street), the other Achterstraat ( Back Street). These are the main shopping areas and tend to get very crowded when cruise ship passengers descend on the duty-free port, which has designer boutiques and traditional architecture. Old Street is one of many lanes connecting the two, and here you will find pretty alfresco restaurants and the Old Street Shopping Center, a small mall with more than 20 shops as well as  grill and pizza restaurants. Good places for catch of the day specials are Antoine’s on Front Street and The Greenhouse nearby.

Cupecoy Beach

Best Beaches in Sint Maarten – The most convenient beaches are Great Bay – just along from Philipsburg’s Front Street – and Little Bay, slightly further west, but they may both be crowded. For more privacy, take a taxi further afield to Simpson Bay Beach ( good for water sports and for gambling, as the nearby Pelican Resort has a big casino); Dawn Beach (great for snorkeling; or Maho Bay Beach, where you can sunbathe in style or play the tablets at the Maho Bay Hotel and Casino. On the French side, Baie Orientale is gorgeous, with good beach-side cafes and a classic French Riviera atmosphere. Baie Rouge is best for snorkelers, while Baie Longue is uncrowded – but be careful when swimming because in 1995 hurricane which devastated the island altered the below-water topography. Clothing is optional on most beaches on the French side.

Shopping in Sint Maarten – In Wathey Square, which faces the pier, there’s a late 18 th century courthouse and some beautiful old buildings decorated with traditional West Indian gingerbread fretwork. A lively market, a selection of restaurants and plenty more shops make this a place to head for, along with the little lanes, lined with more boutiques, cafes and the occasional courtyard, spilling over with tropical plants. Among the best buys is jewelry, which is reasonably priced (as it is throughout the Caribbean), Posh shops sell Gucci and other designer goods as well as alcohol and leather products at duty-free prices – although not as low as they are in St Thomas. But for a real taste of the West Indies, look in at a local store crammed with spices, cane sugar batik clothing, handwoven hammock, local crafts and guavaberry liqueur, the local rum-based firewater made from wild red berries, which can spike up a cocktail.

St Martin

Nettle Bay

Much less commercialized than Sint Maarten, St Martin really feels like a French seaside resort. Marigot is the capital of the prettier French side of the island. It has colorful markets and a broad, beautiful harbor overlooked by restaurants and cafes featuring the best of Caribbean and French cuisine. Try Petit Club on Front de Mer, which serves Creole and French dishes in a colorful setting, and La Vie en Rose on rue de La Republique, for a good French-Caribbean set menu. Then walk off the meal with a 15 minute stroll up to the ruins and views from Fort St Luis. The stylish shops can be found in rue de la Republique, rue de la Liberte and the Marina Port La Royale, where there are more smart cafes looking out at the yachts.

If you have a full day ashore, you could take a taxi tour of the island or a cab from Philipsburg to Marigot. Negotiate the fare in advance ( US dollars are accepted) and ask the driver to build in waiting time, or come back at a specified hour if you want to stop at a beach or a restaurant.


St. Kitts

Travellers in search of the real West Indies won’t be disappointed with St. Kitts, which crams an astonishing range of terrain – from cane fields to rainforest and mountains – into its 17 sq km (65 sq miles). With a laid-back atmosphere and a varied history, the slow rhythm of this miniature nation has to be infectious.

Arriving at the Port Zante Cruise Terminal in the heart of the gracefully revived capital, Basseterre, you can walk right off the ship and into the town. Hurricanes in the late 1990’s took their tool on the terminal, but it is up and running with plenty of duty-free shops, restaurants and casinos. Dependent on sugar and tourism, the astute islanders have restored many of Basseterre’s gingerbread-trimmed public buildings and homes to their former glory, giving the palm filled town an olde worlde charm. Independence Square, a former slave market and now an attractive park surrounded by 18 th century houses , is particularly worth a look; as is the Circus traffic intersection on Fort Street, with a clock-tower of elaborately-worked cast iron in the center. You can watch it all from the balcony of one of Bassetere’s liveliest restaurants, Ballahoo, well-known for its spare ribs.

Booking Hotel in St Kitts

Golden lemon INN

Wander through the back streets off Bay Road and you’ll find goats and chickens wandering free and roadside stalls selling fish, fruit and flowers. The town has a few galleries stocked with good-quality art, crafts and antiques. The best local buys are leather and cotton goods, spices, pottery and sea opal jewelry. Fort Street and Liverpool Row are good places for unusual finds.

Contrasting Beaches – For a day on the beach, head for Frigate Bay, a long stretch of soft white sand a few miles to the southeast of Basseterre, a complete contrast to the black sand beaches further north. Horse riding is available here as an organized shore excursion and there is an 18 hole championship golf course. Beyond it is Friar’s Bay, a narrow strip of land where you can enjoy a unique experience of swimming in the Atlantic Ocean on one side and the Caribbean Sea on the other. Towards the end of the peninsula is Turtle Beach, a paradise for bird-watchers and nature lowers and where visitors can snorkel, go kayaking or windsurfing. Power boats are available to take you further around the coast or to the neighboring island of Nevis.

St Barthelemy

St Barthelemy Map

The essence of France in a paradise on earth is how St Barthelemy has often been described and its reputation as a quintessential hideaway for the rich and famous has meant that its 26 sq km (10 sq miles) of land provides some of the most sought after property in the world. With 22 beaches and coves to choose from, many of them empty , windy cliff side walks, nature reserves and salt marshes, it’s easy to get away from it all in St Barths, as it is affectionately called. Chic, stylish and sophisticated in the way that only the French know how, it remains unpretentious with simple architecture – no big hotels here- reflecting the island’s casual atmosphere.

Gustavia is the island’s capital. Picturesque, red-roofed buildings climb up the steep hill behind, harboring duty-free shops with the latest Paris fashions all available in the exclusive boutiques, and funky bars and pavement cafes full of people chilling and spilling out on to the streets.  From the late 18th to 19th century, the island was occupied by the Swedes, hence the name Gustavia. In 1784 Louis XVI gave the island to Sweden in exchange for trading rights in the port of Gothenburg. This was a stroke of good luck for the islanders as it meant they were spared the terrors of the French Revolution a few years later, which spread to the other islands of the French West Indies. The Swedes left the island the forts: Oscar, Karl and Gustav, and beneath Fort Oscar is the Historical Museum of St Barthelemy, which provides a history of the island.

Gustavia Harbor

There are few things better than having a long relaxed lunch on a beautiful beach, and this is possible at Shell Beach, which as its name suggest, is a shell-covered stretch of sand within walking distance of Gustavia, near the ruins of Fort Karl. You can also lunch on lobster at the old Eden Rock Hotel, which stands on a spit of rock dividing the beach at St Jean in two. The sand at St Jean is rarely crowded despite the town’s popularity and good shopping. Another good beach, and one of the most secluded, is Colombier at the tip of the northwest peninsula, where turtles nest every year. It can only be reached by boat from Gustavia or a half-hour walk from Colombier village.

 

Nevis

Ferries regularly leave Basseterre for the 45 minute,  20 km (12 miles) journey to the tiny island of Nevis, where Horatio Nelson married Fanny Nisbet in 1787. The trip is an experience in itself – you can travel in style or share the cargo boat with livestock and sacks of vegetables.

The ferry docks in Charlestown, which has beautifully restored, pastel-tinted, gingerbread-trimmed houses with  fruit wines  made from gooseberry, sorrel and pawpaw (papaya) – but beware the island’s  specialty hot pepper sauce if you don’t have an asbestos tonque. You can also  buy colorful batik and unusual handicrafts at the Cotton Ginnery on the waterfront. For a lovely beach and a good lunch, take a taxi to Pinney’s Beach, a short hop from Charlestown. Join excursion to Nevis, which may include a rainforest hike to Nevis Peak. If you prefer to go independently, do check the return ferry schedules to allow plenty of time to get back to the ship.

Suggested readings:

ONLINE Hotel Reservations

Virgin Gorda

Eastern Caribbean

Virgin Gorda Island Paths

Road Town Crafts

 

 

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