For 30 years I had dreamed about sailing on a Windjammer Barefoot Cruise. An offer of a very heavily discounted rate combined with a free Continental Airlines certificate was all I needed to sign on the dotted line for a 6 night cruise on the S/V Legacy leaving from Aruba and visiting Bonaire and Curacao. Jet Blue, Delta, US Airways, American & United also fly non-stop in around four hours. Of major importance was the fact that all three islands are outside the “hurricane belt.” The promise was for a relaxed, informal cruise with lots of food, drink, and fun in the sun. Just how informal I was about to find out when I was the only person, besides the captain, wearing long pants to dinner. I could have brought shorts, bathing suits, a beach towel, hats, clogs, sneakers, t-shirts, suntan lotion, my camera, toiletries and my sunglasses and left everything else at home. I had last been to Aruba and Curacao thirty plus years ago (on a cruise), but Bonaire was new for me (and my 146th country visited).
Mike Burke, Sr.,was born in 1924 in Newark, New Jersey and first sailed to the Caribbean after serving in World War II on a submarine. He bought his first boat, the 25 foot sloop Hangover, in Miami in 1956. Now with the world’s largest (and family run) fleet of refurbished tall-masted ships Mike believes his cruises should be informal and not expensive. This former bait boy negotiated with the Vanderbilts and Onasssis to assemble his fleet. Presently his daughter runs the company (He still comes into the Miami headquarters daily) which consists of four tall ships plying the Caribbean year round with 65 to 125 passengers. There is no connection with the Windjammer Company that concentrates on cruises along the eastern US coast. His fleet of S/V (sailing vessels) ships include: Legacy at 294 feet built in 1962 as a weather ship and bought in 1981; The Yankee Clipper is the smallest ship at 197 feet and was built in 1927 for the Vanderbilt’s and bought in 1963; The Mandalay is 203 feet, built in 1923, and purchased in 1980; Polynesia is 248 feet, built in 1939 and bought in 1975.
Talking to the other passengers on the Legacy I found mostly couples and over half had sailed on a Barefoot Cruise before: the 8th trip for one; the 6th for another. They liked the fact that the ship sailed in late afternoon and at night. We spent one night docked at each island, which allowed a beach BBQ with a band a few hundred feet from the ship, as well as shopping and shore excursions. I arranged in advance to be met by guides provided by the local tourism authority. There was a group of divers and snorklers, several of whom brought their own equipment. Without TV or computers everyone seemed to have brought lots of books to read. In addition, there was a scavenger hunt, costume night, the battle of the sexes, crab races, rum swizzles, hor d’oeuvres and game time before dinner. Every morning was Captain’s Story time dealing with the day’s schedule. Captain John may have been selected as much for his relaxed sense of humor as his sailing skills. “What’s the difference between God and a Captain? God doesn’t think he’s a Captain.” That seemed to be the intention of the company. The 40 person crew interacted with the passengers and seemed to really enjoy their work. There is plenty of room on the decks for sunning, reading or just looking at the water. Do you know why they call it the “Poop” Deck? The top rear deck was where they used to throw the garbage overboard. We had at least a half-hour watching a school of dolphins swim along side our ship. Sunset was a special occasion every evening.
Please don’t expect luxury in the cabins. My double bed took up most of the room. There was adequate closet space and drawers. The bathroom had the toilet next to the shower and sink. After the first day I made sure the shower curtain was all the way out so as not to wet the toilet. Cozy but it worked. Since my mid-September cruise was shoulder season there were 60 passengers out of a capacity of 120. Several “regulars” booked because the company sent out e-mails offering heavily discounted rates.
I arrived a day early in Aruba, staying at the Mill Resort Hotel in the Palm Beach area, where most of the high-rise hotels are located. Even though the fitness center and tennis courts were under construction the AC worked and many rooms faced the large pool. The room and bathroom were large and there was a full kitchen. It was early to bed after dinner in the inexpensive open-air restaurant. Your tour of the island should include: Arikok National Park, Donkey Sanctuary, Butterfly and Ostrich Farm, California Lighthouse, Natural Bridge, Alta Vista Chapel, Fontein Bat Caves, Casibari Rock Formation & Indian Drawings, and International Raceway Park. Eagle Beach was called one of the 10 best in the world by Travel & Leisure Magazine. The so called “Baby Beach” has such shallow water that children can walk out a hundred yards and still not be submerged.
Aruba is the heart of the southern Caribbean only 15 miles off the coast of Venezuela. Under twenty miles long and just 6 miles wide it has around 100,000 inhabitants. Seventy percent of the over 700,000 tourists that stay at least one night (plus 550,000 cruise ship passengers, an increase of 88 percent over the last ten years) come from the United States. With an average temperature of 81 degrees, these islands are in the same time zone as NYC, and with the US Dollar accepted everywhere, I can see why Americans feel at home. They use the same electric current as does the US, and with the world’s second largest desalinization plant, the water is pure. The Valero Oil Refinery replaced the closed Standard Oil facility and is the island’s second largest employer, after tourism. Aruba and Curacao were refuges for Jewish settlers fleeing the Spanish and Portuguese Inquisition and later the Holocaust. In 1754 Jewish settlers came to Aruba from Curacao and built what is now Beth Israel Synagogue.
Aruba means “well placed” and their license plates read “One Happy Island.” It is one of six Dutch possessions in the Caribbean. In 1986 it seceded from the Antillean Federation (Aruba, Bonaire, Curacao, St. Maarten, St. Eustatus and Saba). The Spanish arrived around 1500 and found the Arawak Indians who had come over from South America. In 1636 the Dutch came to power, and Europeans arrived at the end of the Eighteenth Century. With European, Indian and African roots, English is widely spoken as well as Dutch, Spanish, and the native language Papiamento. A fifth of the island is protected from building, and we had to use a four-wheel drive vehicle to get around that part. I dropped my bags at the dock and walked around the capital Oranjestad.
Since it was Sunday most of the shops were closed, but they do open when cruise ships dock. Then it was dinner and overnight aboard the ship. Monday morning gave me a chance to visit the shops before our departure for Curacao.
That first night at sea was the roughest weather of the trip. I am glad I bought the patch and wrist bands. After this unsteady period I was fine the rest of the trip. The Tourist Board of Curacao had the most intensive day and a half schedule for me. We were docked in Caracais Bay, a 15 minute drive from the capital Willemstad, which is a UNESCO World Heritage City Site. Curacao was discovered by the Spanish in 1499. They called it Corazon (heart). The Dutch conquered it in 1634, with the British ruling in 1807. By 1815 it was returned to the Dutch. The island is 38 miles long and 7 ½ miles wide with a population of 140,000. 35 percent of the 510,000 plus tourists are from Holland and 20 percent from the US (less frequent flights). Of that total 276,000 come by cruise ship. The Eastern side of the island is filled with hotels, clubs, and shopping, and the Western side is secluded and rugged with mountains, caves, and beaches. Did you know that baseball is the number one sport and that the Curacao team were the 2004 Little League World Champions? Andruw Jones of the Atlanta Braves and Randall Simon of the Philadelphia Phillies are from the island.
Congregation Mikve Israel was founded in 1651 and dedicated in 1752. In 1964 it united with Temple Emanuel and is the oldest in continuous use in the New World, while the Toro Synagogue in Newport Rhode Island is the oldest in the US (1763). In 1969 the Jewish Cultural Museum was opened next door to the temple. Things to see on the island include the Curacao Liqueur Factory with Rum Raisin, Chocolate, Coffee and Blue Curacao produced. The Spanish brought Valencia oranges with them,but they had a bitter taste. When these oranges grow wild people found that the peels dried by the sun contained aromatic oils that made a liqueur using added spices. The Open Water Dolphin Dive allows you to swim with dolphins in the open ocean. The dolphins are kept in a habitat, but during the open water encounter they are free to return to the aquarium of their own free will. The same goes for the sea lion experience. There is an Ostrich and Game Farm with over 600 birds. Great views of the city can be found from Fort Nassau. The Floating market brings fish, fruits and vegetables from Venezuela and is positioned around the corner from the Floating Bridge. When the bridge is in the open position free ferries take people to the other side.
In 1981 Dinah Veeris started planting medicinal herbs. Her Den Paradera Herb Garden now has over 300 different herbs for sale (I bought four). I spent most of the first day at the Kura Hulanda Hotel & Museum in Willemstad. The hotel was developed from 16 Dutch Colonial houses that were converted into an eight-block historical preservation project. With two pools and a spa it is a member of the Leading Small Hotels of the World. Curacao was one of the largest slave depots in the Caribbean, and the museum was built in 1999 next to the hotel with the best collection of African artifacts in the Caribbean. Many people walk right through the historic area not realizing it is a hotel. There is a sister hotel, Lodge Kura Hulanda on the western end of the island that opened in 2005 with 74 suites and guest rooms. I had dinner at the Avila Hotel which is a 4 Star boutique resort on the water. Privately owned they are adding 68 luxury rooms and a pool and spa (to their present 100) to their new Octagon Wing that will be opened by the time you read this story.
Another night sail and we arrived in Bonaire. In 1499 Amerigo Vespucci discovered Bonaire and found the Arawak Indians already here. From 1527-1633 it was Spanish territory; the Dutch came in 1634; the British in the 1800’s and the Dutch returned in 1816. These dates are similar to those for Aruba & Curacao. My morning tour, courtesy of the local tourist office, covered the high points of this very laid back island of just 13,600 people. It is 24 miles long and 3 to 7 miles wide and located 50 miles north of Venezuela and 38 miles east of Curacao. Their license plates read “A Divers Paradise” and all over the island are signs showing the 86 diving areas. Bonaire is considered one of the finest SCUBA and snorkeling areas in the world. There is also windsurfing, ocean and sea kayaking, deep sea fishing for Marlin and Sailfish, and land sailing (moving over sand using a sail). The world’s largest track is located here.
I had lunch with Laura DeSalvo who, with her husband, left the American corporate world and spent five years sailing. They fell in love with the tranquility of Bonaire and settled here. She publishes the English language weekly newspaper The Bonaire Reporter. Since 1979 all waters off the island’s coast have been declared a marine park. Tourism, salt harvesting and oil storage are the main sources of revenue. The 13,500 acre Washington-Slagbaai National Park occupies the northwest part of the island. There are 200 species of birds, including the signature pink flamingo. At breeding time there can be up to 10,000 present. I learnt that flamingos are born white then turn grey. The carotenes in the shrimp they eat turn them pink. The Cruise Market Place in the capitol of Kralendijk comes alive when the 86 cruise ships that docked at Bonaire in 2005/2006 arrive delivering 56,500 passengers for a few hours of shopping. Forty percent of the 60,000 overnight visitors are from the US; forty percent from Holland.
Each of the three islands is different, yet the same. Great weather, the US dollar is welcome and the people are genuinely warm and friendly. Don’t forget your ABC’s.