Author: Dr. E. P.
Date of Trip: January 2001
The other reason (after the food) that we enjoy cruising are the ports of call. Our cruise left from San Juan and was scheduled to call at Virgin Gorda, then Antigua, then Tortola, then return to San Juan.
Because of the ocean surge at Virgin Gorda, the tenders were considered unsafe and our first port of call was cancelled. After some communication with the Silversea head office, our master decided to spend the first day motoring to St. Bart’s instead, where the anchorage is more protected. Essentially we had an unscheduled day at sea, anchoring at St. Bart’s in the late afternoon, with shore tenders available from 4-11pm.
Having never previously called at St. Bart’s, which is reputed to be one of the most wealthy and stylish islands in the Caribbean, we were interested in seeing as much as we could in the two hours of daylight we had left. Fortunately we reported to the tender gangway early, because our late arrival in port meant that everyone was eager to disembark and the wait was a bit longer than usual.
Meeting the tenders onshore in Gustavia were taxi (mini-van) drivers willing to provide a one hour island tour for US$12 per person (for a minimum of six people or $72). There were about 60 passengers on our tender, and not a single one was interested in seeing the island. They all headed directly to the main shopping street, which is lined with enough designer boutiques to satisfy any affluent Parisian. It was like watching a zombie movie, but the zombies were lusting after designer fashions instead of human flesh. It seemed an apt commentary on our consumer society, where even those who have everything seem to spend their vacations searching for more.
In any case, since daylight was limited we did not wait for the next tender to provide more possible tour participants. Instead we walked along the waterfront clockwise past the small Anglican church and then over a small rise to nearby Shell Beach (Plage de Grands Galets). The route is marked or one can ask a local person. It is a pleasant ten minute walk from the tender port.
What added to the pleasure of the walk was a line of the largest and most elegant sailboats we have ever encountered. Apparently a regatta was scheduled to start in a few days, and luxury sailboats ranging from about 40 to 60 meters in length were lined up at the dock. One could smell the affluence, even though the crew members we spoke with (perhaps an occasional owner hidden among them) were quite personable. Each boat had a minimum crew of ten, and what we saw of the rigging and the interiors was breathtaking.
Shell Beach is quite pleasant, with rough rather than fine sand (as the name implies). The near end has a beach bar and restaurant that is convenient for those spending several hours at the beach, but we preferred to wade around the rocks to the far end of the beach for more privacy. We had a wonderful sunset swim and saw no one else from the SILVER WHISPER on the beach. There were a few yacht owners swimming laps parallel to the shore, with their crew following them back and forth in zodiacs for safety.
As we were passing the Anglican church on our way back to the tender port we heard singing and stepped inside. The church choir was practicing the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah for their upcoming Easter service. We sat for a while and enjoyed their amateur but joyous rendition. It was dark by the time we made it back to the tender port, feeling refreshed and happy that we had a chance to enjoy our brief stay on St. Bart’s.
The SILVER WHISPER docked at the cruise pier in St. John’s and was dwarfed by an adjacent RCL cruise ship. Exiting the cruise pier leads one through a gauntlet of tourist shops, tour operators, and taxi drivers.
The natural tendency of cruise passengers is to walk briskly through this gauntlet, ignoring the various people offering goods and services. Instead of ignoring them, at least acknowledge our shared humanity by looking at them directly and thanking them politely when declining their offers. Remember that these people own the island and we are their guests.
In our 17 cruises we have never opted for a tour organized by the ship. We prefer to explore on our own, using xeroxed sections of guidebooks we purchased or obtained from our local library.
On Antigua we enjoy the inexpensive public transportation. Official minibuses leave frequently from the west side and east side bus stations, covering almost any destination (or beach) on the west or east side of the island respectively. From the cruise pier, the west side bus station is three blocks inland to Market St., then several blocks south to the market (which is located behind the large white statue and is worth a quick visit in itself). The east side bus station should be (we have not used it for a few years) one block north to High St., then several blocks inland to the park. Any local can direct you.
From the west side bus station we usually take the bus south to Jolly Beach (US $1.50 pp). It is the end of the line (about 15-20 minutes by bus) and has frequent service because many locals work in the shops and resorts there. A dispatcher at the bus station will guide you to the correct bus. When using the local minibus, it is customary to greet other passengers as one boards, and to move as needed for passengers to enter or leave. We have found our fellow passengers to be very helpful in answering questions or pointing out destinations.
At the end of the Jolly Beach bus line, follow the signs to the gravel road public access west and south around the gate-guarded resorts to the south end of the beach. Walk north along the beach past the various resorts (they get a little more upscale as one walks north) until you find the perfect patch of sunshine (or shade) for your beach towel. Jolly Beach is travel poster perfect, and typical water activity rentals are available.
On this visit, for the first time during any of our many visits to the Caribbean, we came across a little “attitude”. We had put our beach towels on the sand in a patch of shade under a thatch roof on the beach (all of which is public land). An hour later a hotel security guard chased us off– apparently a guest felt that the shady spot was his because he had placed a beach chair there several hours earlier. Cruise ship “pool pigs” leave a book or T-shirt on the chaises longues early to reserve them for use later in the day, a practice we dislike and think should be eliminated. This little beach incident was similar but took us by surprise. Generally the public access to, and public use of, beaches is respected.
If you prefer, minibuses to Dickenson Beach head north from the west side bus station, but we have not gone there.
From the east side bus station buses head southeast across the island to English Harbour (Nelson’s Dockyard historic district). Shirley Heights is not far away from there, and one might consider exploring that too. If I recall correctly, there is a nice, very private beach over a small hill just a short walk away from Nelson’s Dockyard. Any local can direct you (ask at the nearby store). Last time we were there, an enormous yacht was anchored nearby, and a Duchess of Windsor type surrounded by several of her stalwart sailing crew motored ashore and shared the beach with us.
Riding local minibuses can be as exciting as watching an Imax movie. On this trip our driver made change for passengers, smoked a cigarette, spoke on his cell phone, shifted gears, and turned the steering wheel, all while driving on the left and dodging pedestrians (which is the reason we do not rent cars in the Caribbean). As in an Imax film, if you get frightened during the drive, just close your eyes.
In the afternoon, as the day cools, consider a walk though the town of St. John’s. It is a somewhat gritty town, but the people are polite and very friendly. There is a large old Anglican church on the hill several blocks east and north of the cruise pier. When we were there this time, the funeral of a prominent citizen was taking place. The parishioners were beautifully dressed, and the sound of their 500 voices singing traditional hymns in harmony echoed off the beamed ceiling and penetrated to the heart. It was a most moving experience.
The SILVER WHISPER was scheduled to tender into Road Town, but since we were the only ship in port, we docked instead. Tortola is very much like St. Thomas but more affluent and less crowded. One of the nicest local beaches is Cane Garden Bay, which resembles Magen’s Bay on St. Thomas but has no fee and is less private. Just east of Cane Garden Bay is Brewers Bay, which is said to provide good snorkeling. Taxis wait at the pier and will take you north over the spine of the island to the beaches, with fantastic views in all directions along the way, for about US $6 pp each way.
Alternately, an open taxi (jitney style with sun protection) waits at the pier and offers a 3 hour round island tour, again with fantastic views of neighboring islands and photo stops along the way, plus an hour swim at Cane Garden Bay, all for US $20 pp. The driver’s name on this visit was Larry, and I think he meets each cruise ship. If not, the local tourist board representative or taxi dispatcher who are at the pier should be able to arrange it for you.
As Caribbean islands become more crowded, especially when more than one ship is in port, my wife and I prefer to escape to some of the nearby islands for a beach day in solitude. In this case, one can take the private ferry to nearby Peter Island (still owned by the Amway Corp. I believe) for US $15 round trip. This is a very quiet, very upscale island resort that allows day visitors but requests that they use the far east end of Deadman’s Beach. The near end is reserved for resort guests. The far east end of the beach is shared with the yachters whose boats are anchored offshore. A restaurant is available in the middle of the beach, and we were told it takes credit cards.
A taxi will take you from the cruise pier to the Peter Island ferry pier (caution, there are several ferry piers) for US $4 pp each way. Notify the ferry captain on your return that you need a taxi, and he should be able to radio ahead. As I write this, outbound ferries leave Road Town at 0830, 1000, 1200, 1400, 1530. Return ferries leave Peter Island at 0900, 1130, 1330, 1430, 1630, 1800 and 1930. Verify the schedules with the tourist office representative (or on the net) to make certain you do not miss your boat! Other ferry services run to neighboring islands, but these are farther away and less practical for a day escape.