The Friendly Island Tour

Have you enjoyed cruising with me? I hope it has been entertaining. Better than a three-hour tour that gets you shipwrecked on a deserted island, anyway.

Our final port of call was Philipsburg, the capital of Dutch St. Maarten. Other than shopping for the last of our gifts and picking up our “free” charm, we had scheduled an island tour.

Cruise ships dock on the Dutch side of the island because the harbor there is larger, more accessible to the ships. Since our newest daughter loves France and all things French, I wanted an opportunity to shop in “France” for her.

In this case, that meant the larger side of the Friendly Island, and the best way to get there was on a tour bus.

Why the Friendly Island?

According to our tour guide, the island changed ownership several times over after being discovered by Christopher Columbus and claimed for Spain in 1493.

Even the natives of the island were transplants. They came from South America in about 800BC. The biggest claim of the island is its salt lake. In fact, salt mining was the major industry on the island until tourism took over.

The harbor as we're coming to port early in the morning
The harbor as we’re coming to port early in the morning

French settlers grew tobacco and the Dutch mined salt. Aside from the Spanish, the island was also occupied by the English at one time. Since the island was divided in 1648, there have been uprisings cause mostly from wars of the parent nations.

For example the French or British occupied the island during the different revolutionary wars to use it as a resupply station for troops making the trans-Atlantic trip to fight in the Americas.

Since the French monarchy returned the island to its nearly equal zones in 1816, the two nations have lived in relative peace.

The border between the two separate countries is unguarded and requires no stops to view identification. This freedom is one of the reasons why the islanders refer to themselves as the Friendly Island.

The open, unguarded border between Dutch and France on the island
The open, unguarded border between Dutch and France on the island

Tale Told by our Guide

But how did they divide the island?

Why would two countries even bother with this 34-square-mile hump of hilly volcanic rock?

The tale is told that when the early government decided both nations would peacefully occupy the island, they were unsure how to divide it. So they decided to have a race.

A Frenchman and Dutchman stood back to back and were told to walk the coastline. Where ever their feet touched, that would belong to their country.

Off they went.

If you saw the jagged coastline and the way the hills rise up along it in areas, you can imagine this wasn’t a peaceful stroll along the beach.

When the Dutchman came to the steepest part of the mountains (a hilltop measuring 1391 feet), his legs gave out. He sat down to rest and fell asleep.

It was there the Frenchman found him. And because the Frenchman walked further, the French side of the island is about 60 percent of the total area.

Shopping in France

St. Martin (the French spelling) is the only duty-free shopping destination in the French West Indies. Maybe that’s one of the things that makes is so friendly.

There was an impressive mall where our tour bus dropped us off. West Indies Mall is on the Marigot waterfront and contained recognizable brands from major retailers.

That’s not the type of shopping I wanted. So I turned left and headed to the colorful street market.

I practiced my bartering skills in this Marigot street market
I practiced my bartering skills in this Marigot street market

I could have dropped a wad of cash here. Everyone wanted to sell me something. Some people were even willing to barter with me.

I wasn’t in the mood to get fleeced. Nor was I looking for custom, hand-designed jewelry. That ship had sailed. (If you read this post, you know what I’m talking about).

I found a sun dress and jewelry to wear for the last night aboard ship. I could have purchased some interesting masks for my newest daughter, but I’d already found her an adorable turtle figurine.

What stands out

The thing that sticks out in my mind:

1. The gigantic colorful iguanas reclining in every tree. (I wasn’t about to walk beneath another tree without checking the branches first after seeing that.)

The picture does not do justice to the sight, I assure you.
The picture does not do justice to the sight, I assure you.

2. The tour guide singing her National Anthem to us during the last few minutes of the tour.

It really was a friendly island. Taking the tour was the best way to experience both sides of the friendliness claim-to-fame.

When having dinner with strangers isn’t strange

Don’t talk to strangers. We’ve heard it all our lives. So having dinner with strangers would be even an even bigger faux pas.

Wouldn’t it?

Not if you’re on a cruise ship. In fact, the fancy dining room setup using cozy tables for six or eight added the perfect touch to our cruising experience.

By the end of the trip, these dinners marked in the top three of things I enjoyed most about the cruise overall.

Top three? She must be crazy!

The Company

I talked about the dining room seatings in an earlier post. For a refresher, click here.

Sunday night (the first night of the cruise), my husband and I were both feeling a little nauseous, and I had a headache. I didn’t feel up to making polite conversation. In fact, I only went to dinner because I hoped putting some food into my stomach might convince it to behave.

(Side note: we both took Dramamine after setting sail. After taking it, I felt WORSE than I did before. We didn’t take it the rest of the trip and felt no ill effects from the motion of the sea.)

But I had built the dining experience up to incredible levels in my mind and since I wasn’t feeling especially pleased with everything else (it’s hard to be happy when you feel sick), I wanted to experience the high class dining environment.

Before dessert on the last night, all of our servers serenaded us
Before dessert on the last night, all of our servers serenaded us

I wasn’t disappointed.

Your table number is on your sea pass (the card that works as room key, passport aboard ship and credit card). We had scoped out the location earlier when we’d been exploring the ship.

sea pass

It was a round table set for six people. We arrived first (every night except for one).

A pair of ladies, petite and older than we are, joined us. We introduced ourselves with handshakes.

Catherine had a lovely British accent. So I was quick to point that out and ask where she was from.

“Houston.”

My eyes widened. For a second I thought maybe she was mispronouncing our last name (had we mentioned it?), but then she laughed and waved her hand.

“I live there now. I’m originally from England.”

Obviously.

She was a dear woman who wasn’t shy about expressing her opinions about everything from the indecorous comments of people at a nearby table to inappropriate sanitation. (It’s dinnertime, so I won’t elaborate on how THAT subject came up.)

She was a seasoned cruiser, but her companion was a newbie (like us). Apparently, Catherine and her mother were scheduled to take the cruise but since her mam’s health wasn’t cooperating, she invited her sister-in-law.

Margaret reminded me of a silver-speckled sparrow. She was tiny and thin with doe eyes. Her home was in Ohio, but she’d been spending the winter with her brother (Catherine’s husband) and sister-in-law to escape the cold.

I could go on and on with tales about these two lovelies. But that’s not the point. The point is at that moment at 8:05 pm on the first night of a week-long cruise, they were strangers.

And we were being forced to have dinner with them.

The Service

I mentioned the amazing service we received in Isaac’s Dining Room in an earlier post. I’m sure I gushed about our servers, Shirlynn and Tyronne.

Our amazing servers: Shirlynn and Tyronne
Our amazing servers: Shirlynn and Tyronne

As soon as they handed us the menu that first night, Catherine began to expound on her earlier cruises. We discussed each of the starter items and entrees listed on the lovely, custom list of offerings.

I chose the chicken, a standard dish that was on the menu every night. I didn’t want to tempt my uneasy stomach to rebel in a violent manner.

Conversation ranged abroad. What were our the plans for the cruise? How we had settled on this ship with these destinations. It was all very surface, stranger-friendly conversation.

By the time dessert and coffee (decaf for me, I wanted to sleep) came, we were laughing, everyone much more relaxed and open.

I’d like to say it was my bubbly persona that won them over, but I think Catherine is the type of person who’s never met a stranger.

In retrospect, I think the fine service -and how we all noticed and complimented it-played the largest part. Our servers treated us like family and friends, so it was easy to step into those roles.

From Stranger to Friend

Margaret, Catherine and us at our table aboard Freedom of the Seas
Margaret, Catherine and us at our table aboard Freedom of the Seas

No, we didn’t exchange personal information. These two lovely ladies who enjoy reading as much as I do took my business card. They claimed a desire to read my books.

We’ll see.

Whether or not they become a fan of my writing, they will be considered friends.

Why not? There are a multitude of people I’ve never even met face-to-face on my Facebook “friends” list. Shouldn’t someone I spent quality time with during a week-long vacation earn the same status?

The word friend is loosely defined these days. I would say a friend is someone you know and enjoy talking with about some subjects. In this case, whether social media or socializing on a cruise, my list of friends has grown longer.

The fact: Catherine and Margaret are no longer strangers. If they aren’t strangers, they must be acquaintances. Having shared a unique experience with them, I promote them to the level above acquaintance-ship.

Having dinner with strangers is only strange if you don’t convert them into friends by the time dessert is served.

Thanks for making me your friend, Catherine and Margaret.

Have you ever shared a unique experience with a person you only met that one time and yet you consider them a friend?

Zipping around St. Thomas

You want to go ziplining in a forest? Wish granted. I wish I could say it was the only zipping I did around St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.

You read about the island of disappointment and my missed para-sailing outing. And who wants to leave people with a downer? Not me.

I had three wishes for expeditions on the trip, and I got one out of three. I’m not complaining because I also came home with some awesome jewelry that wasn’t on my wish list. (More on that later.)

Sometimes my genie gets his own ideas for wish fulfillment.

My personal genie...without his bottle.
My personal genie…without his bottle.

Booking

We booked our shore excursions online, through the cruise line. On St. Thomas, we had a taxi driver inform us we could have paid one-third less on the Tree Liming experience if we had purchased it directly from the company.

Since it was my first cruise, I wasn’t sure if it would be safe to wait until we got somewhere to book our trips. What if they were full? What if we couldn’t get back to the ship on time?

The jury is still out whether the convenience is worth the cash.

Busing

We rode in an air-conditioned 15-passenger van. I squished in the middle of the back seat for the ride up the mountain.

And when I say mountain, I mean a sharply peaked hill. It might have been 1500 feet above sea level.

But when you’re careening around ninety-degree curves on a narrow road and there is nothing below you but a hillside of trees, that’s high enough.

Everyone’s car’s had dents. Jeff noticed this right away. I was too busy digging my fingernails into the seat cushion. Where’s a seat belt when you need one?

I chatted with a lady from Kentucky who had left a snowstorm behind for the cruise. Her husband was lucky enough to get appointed shotgun by the driver.

Of course, when we had to back into the narrow curvy road to navigate the steep turn into the ziplining place, there wasn’t a good seat to be had. And the bus driver asked people to get out and push.

He might not have been joking. The motor really strained to get us up that last hill.

Look at the view from up here!
Look at the view from up here!

Beaming

This isn’t my first experience flying along the cables. It probably won’t be my last.

I enjoyed the trip in Mexico. It was my first time so the recollection is slightly starry-eyed.

Look at me! Sailing through the trees. Woo-hoo!
Look at me! Sailing through the trees. Woo-hoo!

Here’s a quick comparison:

  • Mexico’s lines were longer. These lines had a much better view.
  • Mexico’s guides were entertainers. These guides were all about keeping us safe (and I’m good with that!)
  • Mexico’s drive to the lines was longer, bus plusher. This drive was shorter.
  • Weather was perfect in both places.

I learned more on this trip. For example, do you know how ziplining originated? Where it was first done?

I do.

See there? Vacation doesn’t have to be all about excess and weight gain. It can be enlightening, too.

Can this thing go any faster? Please?
Can this thing go any faster? Please?

I hope you enjoy the pictures. I plan to have a short video, clips that my husband took of me with his GoPro.

As you’ll notice, I’m beaming in every shot.

Ziplining is a blast. You should try it.

The Problem with Anticipation

Image from sweetauthoring.com

Anticipation. The tingle on your tongue as the triple chocolate pie is being sliced. Your brain fires all cylinders. You’re SO ready for that delectable deliciousness.

Anticipation. Time crawls. A teenager asked to clean his room. “Polar ice caps move faster,” you tell yourself.

Anticipation. Pleasure and pain.

If you’ve ever traveled internationally, you know a day can stretch beyond 24 hours. Maybe even double up making 48 tortuous segments of sixty minutes.

That’s how this day feels. The travel day from the left coast to the right, on my way to the first ever, long-awaited Caribbean cruise.

royal_advantage_freedom_ship_banner_944x435

It might be because it started at 2AM.

I wish I was kidding about this. The cat jumped up, dug at the covers and nudged my hand until I petted him. The sheets were stuck to my back (a common occurrence during my peri-menopausal sleep phases).

My brain kicked on. “Is it time to get up? Go to the airport? Head to the cruise?”

Who needs an alarm when they have a cat?

The problem with feline wakefulness, it only happens when you don’t want need it. The day you count on those kitty paws to get you to the airport on time, is the day the cats abandon you for the back of the recliner.

My husband rolls over, turns off his alarm. I crawl out of the damp sheets, hindered by the cat curled into the bend of my knee. She’s not impressed that I’m trying to get out of bed.

No traffic at 3 am means we make it to the airport in record time. We catch up to the airport shuttle near our favorite parking shelter, which means we miss the bus.

Delightful. This early, we shiver in the near 40 degree weather for fifteen minutes until the next one comes.

I try imagining myself on the deck of the cruise liner. With no former point of reference, this attempt at mind-over-matter warming fails.

Eventually we get to the terminal, check-in, leave our bags and head through security. A short line at four in the morning.

Coffee. Yogurt parfait. How am I going to hand them my boarding pass when both hands are busy with breakfast?

The first flight is a little over half full. My eyes are burning. I close them, hope for rest.

Drink service comes, and I’m wide awake. I give in after an hour of coaxing myself back to dream land and eat my breakfast.

I’ve been hot and shed my layers. Now I shiver and shrug back into the bright pink sweatshirt.

Sleep evades me.

The buzz in my head, only slightly louder than the pounding that says four hours of sleep is not enough, announces the mocha grande skinny has shifted into high gear.

Caffeine. I hate you right now.

Did I really need that shot of sweet goodness with all this anticipation fueling me? Probably not. Live and learn.

Check back here for more musings from my first time cruising over the next several weeks.

What were you anticipating the last time this fever struck?