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Paradise found: a Caribbean cruise aboard Holland America’s Noordam

Palm trees, tropical breezes, and cerulean seas beckoned. We’d been invited onboard Holland America’s beautiful new state-of-the-art Noordam when it was docked one frosty February weekend in Boston, and by the time we were home, we knew we couldn’t resist sailing away on this elegant vessel. A few staterooms remained, and three weeks later we were off, calypso music on the Lido Deck setting the mood, headed for the Caribbean. Better yet, friends would be accompanying us on this voyage.

Cruising is a great way to travel with others with freedom to do whatever you like, when you want. We each followed our daytime interests, sometimes heading in different directions, sometimes converging, with much to share when we gathered together for cocktails, dinner, and the evening’s show. Later we might try our luck in the casino, join the lively crowd in the popular Piano Bar, or relax with a snack in the Lido Restaurant.

A motorcoach whisked us from Providence’s Bonanza Bus Station to the pier in New York and luggage was delivered to our stateroom. The lunch buffet awaited us in the Lido Restaurant.

Sea days made it easy to expand our horizons –digital photography classes, cooking demonstrations, and political discussions in the Speaker Series. The promenade deck is our perennial favorite, whether walking the three laps that make a mile or reclining on the cushioned teak deck chairs with a good book.

Explorations Café was our information hub—Internet, newspapers, magazines, DVDs, music, and an exceptionally well-stocked and up-to-date library, with reference materials to check on ports or topics that arose over dinner.

Service onboard was precisely to our liking–gracious and unassuming. Dining and bar attendants knew our preferences by the second night and there was none of the aggressive promotion of drinks found on some other lines. Lounges were places passengers to relax. Dinner was beneath a subtly illuminated ceiling of blown glass flowers. Dutch High Tea was replete with music by the Intermezzo Strings.

Royal Dutch High Tea, Holland America’s Oosterdam
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Royal Dutch High Tea, Holland America’s Oosterdam

With so much to entertain us, we still managed to get a great night’s sleep. Aromatic bath gel, cozy bathrobes, upscale bedding, and a chocolate on the pillow awaited in the stateroom.

We were preparing for island time, where the mood is “Slow Down, Mon.”

PORTS OF CALL Tales of pirates, shipwrecks and buried treasure…

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands: Margaritaville and more

Colorful and abundant marine life is found in the extensive, protected coral reef system surrounding the limestone plateau of Grand Turk. With visibility up to 200’, the turquoise waters are ideal for scuba divers or snorklers. It’s a transit point for migrating humpback whales, turtles, dolphin, and rays, and salt ponds attract migratory and indigenous birds, including flamingos, osprey, pelicans, egrets, blue herons, and boobies. The pristine beaches have been named best in the world by Conde Nast Magazine.

This capital island, one of Holland America’s newest ports, gas a dockside private beach area that includes a sea-fed swimming pool, shops, and Jimmy Buffett’s Margaritaville, a restaurant and bar with a party atmosphere. There’s also an undeveloped stretch of shoreline to explore.

The island is becoming a vacation playground, with dune buggies, 4x4s, bikes, mini boats, horseback riding, snorkeling, scuba, sailing, sport fishing, trolley train, and horse drawn carriage tours. On Gibb’s Cay you can swim with stingrays.

Governor’s Beach is ideal for snorkeling, watching the local fishermen as they haul in their day’s catch, or buying brightly colored clothing or jewelry from locals. Nearby is the replica of John Glenn’s capsule from his 1962 splashdown.

Tortola: “Land of turtle doves”

Ships dock at Road Town, commercial center of the British Virgin Island’s largest island. This sailor’s paradise with steady winds and calm seas boasts a harbor lined with palm trees and expensive yachts from around world.

A ride up steep winding roads of Tortola takes you past cactus, mango trees, frangipani, hibiscus, and bougainvillea to Ridge Road for breathtaking views of the surrounding islands.

Sugar cane production is now limited to supplying the rum distillery still in operation. Papaya, mango, bananas, fragrant ginger, coconut trees, passion fruit, and conch flourish.

Excursions are offered to picturesque fishing hamlets, Pusser’s Landing, the rain forest, or to sail, scuba or snorkel.

Fellow passengers enjoyed the ferry excursion to the less developed Virgin Gorda and the Baths. A rocky pathway leads to the sandy beach area with grottos formed by enormous boulders spewn from prehistoric volcanoes. The Top of the Baths is the place to drink a Caribbean Painkiller and savor the view.

On our adventure, we rode an open safari bus to a natural lagoon to play and swim with dolphins.

Caribbean dolphin encounter. photo by Rick Bilkie
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Caribbean dolphin encounter. photo by Rick Bilkie

Waist-deep in water on platforms, we learned hand signals that brought us face-to-face with these gentle creatures, for a “kiss”, to shake hands/fins, and more. The highlight was when we swam out to hold on for the swim of a lifetime.

Sint Maarten/ Saint Maarten: Papiamento or Patois?

This 10th century pirate haven is the smallest land mass divided between two countries. The dual nations of Dutch Sint Maarten and French Saint Martin have coexisted peacefully for over 350 years.

Among the many dialects and languages you may hear are Papiamento in Philipsburg and Creole Patois in Marigot. Tourism is the major industry, and English is spoken all over.

Ships dock in Philipsburg, capital of the Dutch St. Maarten. The Visitor Center is at the shop-lined pier area, where water taxis depart for the town center, and taxis await.

Our friends booked the shore excursion voted #1 in the Caribbean– the America’s Cup Regatta– an opportunity to participate as actively as you choose, under the direction of the crew, in racing authentic multi-million dollar 12-meter America’s Cup boats.

We circled the island with taxi driver, Cidreck Ray (Taxi #165) in air-conditioned comfort, passing cashews, mango, almond, and papaya trees, and walls draped with brilliant bougainvillea blossoms. We talked about the Christmas tradition of using guavaberries to make what has become the island’s national liqueur. Stops included the popular clothing-optional Orient Beach, and Marigot, the decidedly French capital city known for its cuisine, open air market, luxury boutiques, and Fort Louis, named for the ill-fated Louis XVI.

St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands

Mountainous St. Thomas is the most developed of the U.S. Virgin Islands and our cruise port, Charlotte Amalie, is one of busiest in the world. Hundreds of duty-free stores line the main streets, but beyond is natural beauty and a history of sugar plantations, pirates, forts…and more.

Street names and architecture of places like Fort Christian, where pirates were hanged in the courtyard, reflect the Danish heritage. Blackbeard’s castle, built by the Danes to spot ships, was used by the infamous pirate to target his victims. Market Square and Emancipation Garden are reminders of the trading triangle with Europe and Africa in rum, sugar and human cargo.

Today, nature-lovers can ride ferries or catamarans to the unspoiled island of St. John. Virgin Islands National Park, with tropical forests, sandy beaches, coconut palms, and coral reefs, covers two-thirds of the island.

arden, Atlantis submarine tour, St. Thomas
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arden, Atlantis submarine tour, St. Thomas

We cruised to Buck Island and boarded an Atlantis submarine. Brilliantly colored fish darted about, some as if to investigate the strange faces peering out into their habitat. We were all entranced by the sponge gardens, sea fans, and brain, pillar, and staghorn corals that grew in the reef, and called out to one another as sea turtles, stingrays and sharks swam by.

Many enjoyed Coral World Observatory’s 15’ deep observation tower 100’ offshore in a live coral reef. Coki Beach is adjacent, for snorkeling. The Sea Trekking Helmet Dive, a walk on the ocean floor to feed colorful sea creatures drew rave reviews from fellow passengers.

San Juan, Puerto Rico: The Walled City

San Juan’s well preserved fortresses and walled city exemplify the power of the 16th and 17th century Spanish Empire. Old San Juan’s streets of blue cobblestone, centuries-old ballast from Spanish ships, are narrow and steep. The ship’s walking tour begins with a bus ride uphill to “El Morro”.

El Morro Fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico
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El Morro Fortress, San Juan, Puerto Rico

For independent explorations, booths at the new cruise terminal and the La Casita tourist information center, by the Artisans’ Market, offer walking tour maps. Start at the tree-lined and continue along Paseo del Morro, the scenic seaside pathway along La Muralla, the massive crenellated city walls, to Puerta de San Juan, the heavy wooden San Juan Gate.

Among the major points of interest are:

La Forteleza, the fort that became a palace, is the oldest governor’s mansion in the Western Hemisphere still in use.

Fuerto San Felipe del Morro, or “El Morro”, with secret tunnels and dungeons, protected the entrance to San Juan Bay.

Centro Nacional de Artes Populares y Artesanias (Institute of Puerto Rican Culture) is a showcase of the island’s artistic heritage, with a shop down the road for authentic souvenirs.

The controversial totem pole in Quincentennial Plaza commemorates the 500th anniversary of Columbus’ discovery of the New World in this museum area.

Spanish Gothic Iglesia de San Jose is among the oldest churches in the western hemisphere. Inside medieval Catedral de San Juan is the marble tomb of the island’s first governor, Juan Ponce de Leon.

Castillo de San Cristobal, a massive defense system with moats, tunnels, and troop headquarters, protected against land-side attacks.

An alternative excursion is to El Yunque Rainforest. Preserved by Teddy Roosevelt, it is a sensory delight with waterfalls, giant ferns, wild orchids, and wildlife, like the tiny melodious tree frogs known as Coqui, and a birds like the Puerto Rican parrot.

For a leisurely day, tour the Bacardi Rum Distillery and sample the sugar cane drink from the source.

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