White Hell

That what the slaves called Bonaire when they were brought here to break their backs working in the salt crystallization pools.

Bonaire was called “the useless island” by the Spanish who soon abandoned it. But the Dutch had a lot of fish to salt down at home and they soon found that Bonaire’s arid climate, hot sun and windy ecology was perfect for making sea salt. More on that later.

Bonaire is the smallest of the ABC islands in terms of population and Kralendijk is the smallest town. Our scheduled tour was in the afternoon so we had time to get out and do some sightseeing before we left.

The town was clean and colorful. Most of the shops were along one main street.

We were the only ship in port so it wasn’t too busy ashore.

Looking forward to seeing those famous Bonaire flamingoes.

After we got on the bus and left Kralendijk we soon arrived at the salt pools.

After the salt crystallizes they dig it out with front-end loaders and pile it up.

Then they convey it out to a ship anchored offshore. A big agro-conglomerate (Cargill) controls the business today.

Of course, in the 19th century, this was all a manual harvesting operation by slaves – who after a day of hard labor were crammed into these luxurious stone huts to try to sleep. The tourists have it a lot easier today.

The salt pools are the feeding grounds for Bonaire’s pink flamingoes – who get their color from the shrimp they eat here. A flamingo wades through the pool, does a Moonwalk dance to stir it up and eats the shrimp it finds. I wonder if those treehuggers buying Bonaire sea salt know that flamingoes have stomped through it (and worse.)

A big flock of them out there. They don’t get too close to tourist buses.

Later we stopped at a Windsurfing beach. Bonaire is famous for it and this particular beach is a perfect place to learn. It has shallow water and persistent winds – plus world-class instructors.

Driving back through the center of the island you might have concluded you were in Arizona rather than the Caribbean – lots of prickly pear and organ pipe cacti.

With this much cactus around you might as well make a fence out of it.

Time to head back aboard and sail away to Curacao tomorrow. Tot ziens, Bonaire!

 

A Lovely Surprise

Back in 2008, when we were on a cruise around the British Isles, we had the most wonderful tablemates for dinner. They were three lovely “southern ladies” from Birmingham AL – Rebecca, her mother Jean and their friend Vangie. We had many laughs and ended up closing the dining room every night

We kept in touch with Rebecca over the years but had no idea she’d be on the Eclipse cruise with us.

About halfway through we were sitting in the Captain’s Club breakfast lounge and Maria said. “I think I saw Rebecca sitting over there when we came in.”

“We can go see,” I said. “But let’s make sure it really is her. I’d feel pretty dumb if we were wrong.”

As it turned out I needn’t have worried because Rebecca recognized us right away. She was on the cruise with Jean and her sister-in-law Cindy. Vangie was actually on another cruise so she missed this one.

We got together for some drinks and socializing later.

Here’s Maria with the 3 Southern ladies – Jean, Rebecca, and Cindy. We had a blast getting caught up on the news and remembering old times.

Later in the cruise, we went to the Captain’s Club tea and the ladies meant Dave and Sarah. Finally, they got to meet the grandchildren as well. A good time and a wonderful surprise.

Rebecca and her mother are off on some more cruises later this year. Bon voyage ladies!

Hangin’ Out with the Bajans

When I learned about math back in the stone age, I found out that a Bayesian was a particular type of statistician. More recently I found out that a Bajan is an inhabitant of Barbados. The two names are pronounced in the same way. We hung out with some Bajans during our tour of the lovely island of Barbados.

Since we hadn’t been here before we took a bus tour of the island.

Our first stop was Gun Hill. This was a signal and weather station built in 1818. Back then they used gunfire and flags to get your attention about the weather or approaching enemies.

The station has a small museum inside the restored building.

There is quite a commanding view of the island from Gun Hill.

Nice flowers too.

Speaking of flowers, our next stop on the tour was a lovely botanical garden.

We were careful not to stray off the beaten path.

There was an orchid garden that was simply sublime.

You really could not take a bad photo in there.

Maria told me this plant is called Bird of Paradise. Seems logical enough.

Off to the east side of the island now and a visit to St John’s parish church.

A lovely Gothic building with some Norman and even Moorish influences.

Quiet and spiritual on the inside too.

From St. John’s cemetery you get quite a nice view of the Atlantic coast. I don’t think I would want to go swimming here though.

The cemetery is right behind the church.

The final resting place of former Prime Minister David Thompson. This concludes our tour.

Back aboard we noted other ships in port like Seabourn Odyssey.

Plus a couple of Windstar tall ships. I hadn’t seen them before.

And P&O Azura was docked right in front of us.

This concludes our tour of Barbados. We saw lots of flowers, churches and Bajans but didn’t encounter a single statistician.

 

 

 

35 years of Nikon

Long, long ago – back in the antediluvian era before smartphones and Instagram – I began to take photographs with 35 mm film. In doing so I was following in the footsteps of my Uncle Howard. He was a master photographer who used an old Kodak manual camera as early as the mid-1950s.

My first camera was a Yashica rangefinder. It took passable photos in good light, although flash photography was often frustrating. By the early 1980s, I was anxious to get something better. I wanted to get a single lens reflex camera – but which one?

Buying an SLR back then was a long-term decision, as once you had the camera body you needed flash, lenses and so on. Many Japanese companies were making such camera systems but for me, it came down to a decision between Canon and Nikon.

I was still trying to decide when one of my work colleagues offered to sell me a used Nikon FE. That was the decision maker. Although the FE wasn’t quite the technological marvel that Canon was, it was a solid choice. It had some automatic features and was built like a tank – although a bit more light and compact than Nikon’s pro-level models.

I used the FE for 20 years. It came with a Nikon E series 50 mm lens, but over the years I acquired some decent 3rd party zooms (Vivitar) and a 28 mm prime lens (Kiron.) Nothing fancy – I couldn’t afford Nikon glass back then. Aside from very low light photography, it served me well. Most of our 80s and 90s March break vacations were documented with the FE.

The FE was pretty much a manual camera – manual focus, manual film advance. By 2000 or so my vision was deteriorating and I had trouble getting pictures in focus with it. Not really a good situation. It was time to move on to generation 2 of my Nikon equipment story.

And this was it – circa 2002. A Nikon F80 film camera. The F80 used autofocus lenses and had power film advance. It represents the golden age of Nikon consumer film models.

At the time digital cameras were becoming more and more popular and Nikon did have a digital version of the F80 called D100. However:

  • It didn’t match film in image quality (yet.)
  • Flash photography wasn’t as good as film.
  • It was very expensive.
  • There was the problem of dust getting on the sensor and spoiling your images.

Lots of negatives as far as I was concerned. I figured I could soldier on with film a bit longer. I was wrong though.

I got some real Nikon glass for this camera – zooms at first then a few fixed focal length lenses. I also got a decent flash I could mount on the camera. At last, I had a real Nikon system.

I took this camera on a number of holidays but eventually I found it heavy and bulky – especially since I was hauling the flash and 4 lenses in a camera bag along with the body. Great photos though.

The last serious photography journey I undertook with this camera was our first cruise to the Baltics in 2006. After that I was ready for digital – but not a digital SLR. They were still expensive and I was worried about the dust on the sensor. I couldn’t get wide-angle photos with my existing lenses either. The smaller DX sensor in the Nikon DSLRs meant that my existing Nikon lenses didn’t work as well as they did with the film camera.

So I made do with a series of digital Fuji and Canon rangefinder cameras. For a while I used a Nikon Coolpix 5000 rangefinder – good images but frustrating to use. The film system was stored away. Was my Nikon story at an end?

Well not quite. In 2015 I decided that DSLR technology had gotten to the point where I could get back into the game. But I needed a whole new system.

This was it:

Nikon D5500 – lightweight, great image quality, dust on the sensor much reduced by ultrasonic cleaning. I got a couple of lightweight zooms and was back in the SLR business. I don’t use this camera for air travel though – I have gotten used to vacation photography with a camera the size of a deck of cards. But for family photos, car travel, serious picture taking you can’t beat Nikon. My story continues.

Just one thing bothered me though. I was still not able to take the wide-angle photos I used to enjoy getting with my old F80 film machine. That’s all changed because finally, Nikon came up with a lower cost wide-angle 10-20 mm zoom lens for DX cameras. It only took 20 years but it’s here and I am getting one.

35 years, 3 cameras and a lot of lenses. That’s the Nikon way I guess.

Epilog comment: I can still use some of my venerable Nikon film lenses on my latest DX camera. Autofocus doesn’t work but with my improved optics after the cataract surgery, I think I’ll be able to focus manually again. I certainly will try.

 

 

 

A Short Visit to Castries

Another day, another island we have toured before. St. Lucia is the most luscious Caribbean island we have ever seen, and Dave and Sarah had booked a boat tour to go to the Piton volcanoes. The kids were staying on board, so we agreed to take a short tour of Castries and look after them at lunchtime.

Our ship was docked at Pointe Seraphine, across the harbor from Castries.

It was getting hot, and since it was a long walk around the harbor we took the water taxi.

Once on the opposite shore, we got a nice view of the ship. The smaller cruise ship Silver Wind is sailing into Castries harbor.

We walked up to Derek Walcott Square and the Catholic cathedral.

The church itself dates from the 1890s.

It was a quiet spot for prayer and rest.

Some colorful decoration on the walls, too.

The bell tower was off to the side of the main structure.

On our way back we passed the big tree which is a local landmark. We did some souvenir shopping and then it was time to head back.

Can’t miss the pilot boat, can we?

By now the Silver Wind had docked at the other (smaller) terminal closer to town.

It was a pleasant visit to Castries, we were back on board and looking forward to sailing on to Barbados.

 

 

 

 

Tempests and Termites

Antigua – our next port of call – was also affected by Irma. The island was not seriously damaged, although its low-lying sister Barbuda was nearly obliterated.

Since we had been here before and seen most of the historical sites and sights, we decided to just schlep around the capital city of St. John’s. Sarah, Dave and the kids headed off for a beach break.

We were joined in St John’s by the Costa Pacifica – a sister ship to the better known Costa Concordia. Nuff said.

Later the small but venerable Berlin sailed in.

We were docked right downtown so it wasn’t far to walk up to St John’s Anglican Cathedral. This is actually the 3rd church building on the site. A simple wooden structure was built in 1681 and destroyed in 1745 by an earthquake. It was replaced by a brick building that crumbled under another earthquake in 1843. By now the residents got the message and they built the current edifice in 1845. That one had a wooden box inside a stone box and has survived both earthquakes and a couple of Cat 4 hurricanes, so they did it right the 3rd time.

There are many tombs in the churchyard – some readable, but mostly unreadable. A lady inside the church told us that quite a few predated the second building, but they were not sure about how old the first ones put there were.

A couple of internments are more recent.

The church is open for visits but closed for worship. There is a lot of construction activity going on. Our informative lady said the community hopes to be back in by Easter 2019. We asked if Irma had anything to do with the work. She said no, they had started before the hurricane due to a leaky roof and termites in the wooden interior.

There’s lots more to do but it should be pretty fine when they are done.

From the Cathedral, we headed down to the former Court House which now serves as the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda. The history is quite typical of a Caribbean island:

  • Kill the natives or enslave them.
  • Eject the French and Spanish colonizers.
  • Plant sugar and bring in the slaves.
  • Hang any pirates in the vicinity.
  • Put down the odd slave revolt.
  • Eventually slaves get liberated and acquire land of their own.
  • The island achieves its colonial independence.
  • Bring in the tourists.

Quite an interesting spot all in all. And it was cool inside (bonus!)

Outside the museum, they had some interesting diesel locomotives that used to haul the sugar cane trains to the mill.

A bit more sightseeing, some souvenir shopping and we were on our way back to the ship.

Back aboard I took a few photos of St John’s lovely harbor, and then we were ready to sail away to St. Lucia.

After Irma Called

Hurricane Irma struck Sint Maarten in early September 2017. Six months later both the Dutch and French sides are struggling to recover. 80% of the hotel rooms are unusable. The airport’s new 100 million Euro terminal sustained 76 million Euros worth of damage. They are meeting incoming flights in a big tent and it’ll take 2 years to rebuild. Things were even worse over on the French side. Since we had been here before we didn’t want to take a tour to Marigot. No point in feeling bad about the destruction of such a lovely spot.

Cruise ships are an important part of Sint Maarten’s economy. Sometimes they had 6-7 of them in Philipsburg at a time – at least they did before Irma dropped in. Today we had 2 – Freedom of the Seas and Eclipse. Carnival was supposed to come as well but they canceled their port call.

We took the water taxi over to Philipsburg. We didn’t go there the last time but Sarah and Dave remembered it as a pleasant, bustling town in 2011.

The place was a ghost town. Stores were shuttered or in the process of closing. Those that were open had someone outside almost begging you to come in.

It was like taking pictures of a car wreck – rather insensitive and I tried to be discreet.

The beach looked OK but the surrounding hills – which looked so lush and green before – were pretty ugly now.

Folks were doing the best they can. But it wasn’t easy.

We did some serious souvenir shopping in Sint Maarten and I hope our meager efforts helped out the community. They really need a lot of help. The Netherlands wanted to provide aid but at first, the local government refused – some jurisdictional dispute I guess. Things are supposed to get better with a new island government, according to the locals.

A big private yacht was moored in the harbor. I hope that helps out the economy some.

As we headed back to the ship I couldn’t help but think I’d like to come back to Sint Maarten in a few years time. They need the tourism and with any luck, they can rebuild and avoid more visits from Irma and her contemporaries.

Rock ‘n Roll

We planned this particular cruise two years ago – actually booked it when we were on another cruise. The main reason for such a long pre-booking was so that Dave, Sarah and the grandkids could get a large suite-like Family Oceanview cabin that accommodates 5 easily. We took a two-person Oceanview next door. It was a great choice except for one thing. We were located about as far forward as you could get – right under the Navigational Bridge.

As seasoned cruisers, we tend to book amidships to minimize ship’s motion, but that wasn’t an option. We didn’t anticipate too many problems though; this was a relatively benign Caribbean jaunt. Although a long cruise with a number of sea days, it was hardly transoceanic.

What we couldn’t plan for was a large storm that formed off the Carolinas on the weekend we sailed. Although South Florida and the Caribbean was a fair way from it, it had its influence in the form of long-range 10-foot seas – rollers that weren’t too choppy but resulted in a fair bit of rock ‘n roll. It wasn’t long before Sarah and Maria were reaching for the Bonamine.

It could have been worse. Our Captain Leo actually took us on a slightly longer southern route to Sint-Maarten that made things smoother. After a day or so things calmed down except for persistent easterly winds.

Another Royal Caribbean Ship – Freedom of the Seas – did the more northerly route and they had a rougher time of it. They had to drain the pools and cancel some activities. Thank you, Captain Leo!

Here’s a look from Sarah and Dave’s balcony under the bridge.

It doesn’t look bad, but the long period waves make you go Hmm…

All the rock ‘n rolling didn’t deter us from dressing up for Evening Chic night though. And so we progressed to our first port of call – Philpsburg, Sint-Maarten.

 

 

Gettin’ on the Boat

This is about as dumb a title as I could think of because these cruise liners are ships, not boats. Boats are what you see running around in the background. Ships have boats but boats don’t have boats. End of technical story. What we really did on Sunday was vacation embarcation I suppose.

We started out with breakfast at the hotel. After Mass at a nearby church, we were ready to go. Miami is a great port to leave from – the terminal is a short cab ride away.

This embarcation turned out to be fast and easy – one of the best I’ve had yet. We were on board shortly before noon and had lots of time to explore. The Eclipse is very similar to the other Solstice class ships so it was pretty easy to find our way around.

Feeling right at home already.

Checked out the lawn with Miami skyline behind it.

The glassblowers have been busy.

Teddy checking out the Team Earth display.

Time for a swim before lifeboat drill.

It was a banner weekend for Celebrity ships. We saw the Equinox on Saturday from our hotel room. On Sunday the Silhouette docked in front of us. Not sure why it did – it usually sails out of Fort Lauderdale.

After unpacking and settling the McLeans into their big Family Oceanview Room right under the bridge, and after the lifeboat drill, it was time to go.

We passed the Silhouette, both ships blowing their whistles.

The police accompanied us down the channel to keep smaller fry out of our way.

And we could never miss the pilot boat, now could we?

Adios, Miami. See ya in a couple of weeks. Sint-Maarten here we come!

Cruising Again

 

After more than a year of landlubbery we finally took our long anticipated two-week exotic Caribbean cruise with Celebrity. This Celebrity embarcation photo obviously has the wrong dates on it, as the voyage was from March 4 to March 18, 2018 – but you get the idea. It was an extended family affair.

We flew to Miami on March 3 and stayed a couple of days after the cruise ended, returning on March 20. I’ll try to blog the details over the next while.

We were up bright and early at 3:45 AM for our drive to the airport. We had a short hop from Ottawa to Toronto and then enough layover time to get through customs. Teddy doesn’t look too happy about the delay, but he soon warmed up to the idea of sun and fun. The connection in Toronto is much improved since your luggage goes straight through to Miami (no reclaiming and clearing) and all the forms are now electronically filled out at a computer terminal.

By late afternoon we were checked into the Holiday Inn and had a nice view of the Art Deco Freedom Tower just up the street.

And what trip would not be complete without a visit to McDonald’s? Happy Meals all around.

I think we all lasted until about 8 PM and then everybody crashed. After 10 hours or so of sleep, we were ready to sail away.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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