The ABC Islands of the Caribbean Sea

IMG_4067Aruba: One Happy Island

As kids in school in Holland we learned about The Netherlands Antilles: Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. We were thrilled that these islands were included in our ship’s itinerary and that we’d finally get to see each one.

IMG_4070Again we did our homework before leaving home. I studied the map of Aruba on Google Maps and read about the island. Aruba sounded like the most ‘party island’ of the three. One comment on TripAdvisor suggested that this is a good place to rent a car. We thought that was a brilliant idea. On Google Maps I found a car rental place right next to the pier and booked a small car for the day. An excursion only to the Lighthouse would have cost us 65.- per person. Now we had a car to ourselves, all day, for about 45.- plus taxes and fees, about 73.- total.

We got a map from the car rental place and headed south along the very busy, touristy boulevard. It was so interesting to see traffic signs and street names all in Dutch. Even the traffic rules are the same as in Holland: traffic coming from the right has the right of way; no right turns on a red light.

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From Oranjestad we drove to Sint Nicolaas and beyond, We stopped at a white sand beach along azure waters. We watched some kite suffers on this very windy day. Then we proceeded to drive every main road, across the island to the far side, all the way north and back again.

We stopped at, what turned out to be, a very popular bakery. They had lots of Dutch things and everyone speaks Dutch. “We learn five languages in school,” someone told us, “Dutch, English, Spanish, Papiamento and Portuguese”.  It was fun to be able to chat with someone in several languages mixed together.

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The currency was even more mixed up. Prices in the tourist area were posted in US dollars. But in more local shops, like the bakery, the cash register showed Antilles guilders. We were told we could also use euros.

The license plates here have the slogan: One Happy Island. We thought it would be fun for our grandkids to have one of these old license plates, if we could find one. We stopped at an old garage and tire place. “Oh, we just threw out a bunch yesterday…” the guy told us, in Dutch. At the next garage, they didn’t have any either but a customer overhead and said “Just follow me home and I’ll give you one.” So we did… and now we have both a souvenir and a story.

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We drove all the way to the northern Lighthouse and then back along the shore to Oranjestad. It seemed to us that most of the older, smaller homes for locals were in the south end. It was a bit dilapidated, with lots of little beer shops and night clubs. The northern end, however, had endless rows of newly constructed, and still being constructed, apartment buildings and condo’s. Signs pointed to “high rise hotels” and “low rise hotels” with casino’s sprinkled in for good measure.

The water front in Oranjestad was choked with tourists, busses and other traffic. It was very touristy and did seem to live up to its reputation as a party island. 

Willemstad, Curacao

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For many years I had seen photos of a picturesque, pastel coloured row of Dutch houses along the water. Willemstad, Curacao. I didn’t think I’d ever see the place in person so I was excited when I saw that this was one stop on our cruise itinerary.

The three Caribbean islands have been a Dutch colony for hundreds of years. In 2010 the islands wanted autonomy and some separation from The Netherlands took place. Now, they are not independent because that would have meant loss of social services, European citizenship and economic support. But the islands are ruled almost like a Dutch municipality, albeit remote.

The ship docks here just outside the town. We walked first through a total tourist trap: the old stone remnants of the city fort have been turned into a corridor of shops and restaurants that steer visitors right through it, no way around. It’s even hard to find the exit into town.IMG_4107

But after that we strolled the quay and crossed into city center over the Queen Emma Bridge, a long wooden swing bridge. To our delight a sail ship had to pass so the bridge swung open to let it through, a fascinating system. People can even stay on the bridge as it swings open and back again.

Stretching across the far side of town is the large blue arch of the newer Queen Juliana Bridge.

We strolled through quiet, Sunday morning streets. Most shops were closed but we found a nice coffee shop with wifi along the water. It was like being in Delft or any other historic Dutch town. The very same architecture, alley ways, even products (Heineken and Amstel…). All signs are in Dutch and everyone speaks it.

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We walked by the floating market, crossed a square, saw the churches. Then we crossed back across the swing bridge (there is also a free ferry but it didn’t seem to have a schedule on Sunday morning) and walked into the other, slightly rougher side of town. This seemed less geared at visitors and more at locals. We found little shops and eateries with signs mostly in Papiamento. We ventured into one little cafeteria and ordered croquettes and beer before strolling back to the ship.

One of my best friends was born and raised on Curacao so it was a really neat experience to see her place of origin. With cascading bougainvilleas and a laid-back atmosphere, Curacao certainly seemed like a good place to spend time in the winter! And I’m grateful I finally got to see that pastel coloured row of Dutch houses along the water in that remote Dutch settlement.

Bonaire: The Diving Place

Of all the places we visited on this trip, Bonaire is the island I would have liked to spend more time. Judging from our brief visit, it seemed the most natural of the three with huge green areas and nature parks. As the license plate states, Bonaire is ‘The Diving Place’.

From the ship we saw a long skinny island stretching north and south from the town of Kralendijk. We joined the group that had signed up for a glass bottom kayak and snorkelling tour. We walked down to where the kayaks were stacked along the beach, donned our life jackets and paddled across the bay to a strip of white beach further south. It was a very windy day so we battled good waves. Thanks to the glass bottom in our sit-upon kayak we could see the corral and sand on the bottom. image.png

After a tricky landing on the beach, through a narrow path in the corral reef, we beached the kayaks and snorkelled for a while. Loads of little blue fishes, tiny bright yellow ones… I always love snorkelling in warm waters. Our (Dutch) guides were perfect and I highly recommend a trip with them if you ever visit Bonaire: http://www.kayaktoursbonaire.com  

After our kayak adventure, we still had a few hours so we walked briskly all over town to explore some more. We picked up diving information for our diving son, chatted with locals, found the dive shop, and of course found another great coffee place with wifi. 

On the way back to the dock we came across the cutest Dutch pub and couldn’t resist sitting in the typical wicker patio chairs with a Dutch beer. 

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Bonaire seemed less touristy to us, perhaps a bit more planned, less tacky than Aruba which had life size plastic cows and horses all over the place…

This is our last stop and we drag our feet getting back on board because now we will spend 4 nights and 3 full days steaming back north to New York. We dread the upcoming temperature change…. But in two days it will be Valentine and, just before we leave this last, lovely Caribbean island, Kees buys me a little piece of Bonaire: a gorgeous necklace with a aqua coloured piece of glass that will always remind us that we’d like to return to these exotic islands some day.

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Australia – Unplugged

After driving 1,500 kilometers during the first week in Australia I am well used to the left hand traffic. As a matter of fact it really only took 2 days to get used to it, but I do need to stay very alert when we get to intersections and drive through cities. Fortunately the Australian driver is very polite, even more so than the north american driver. I have not encountered any ‘jerks’ on the road, something I rarely can say after driving 1,500 km in north America.

Finding our way around appears to be easy because I let Margriet do it all :-). I do the driving, she has the GPS, the map and her Ipad to find us the best routes and this way we have a perfect division of ‘duties’.

The Australian governments are actively developing a terrific national highway system. Along the section of east coast we have so far traveled there are large sections with a 4 lane divided highway, while at other sections you slow down to a crawl because extensive road construction is being undertaken. They are obviously spending billions of dollars upgrading the main highway up and down the east coast. ‘Good on them’.

The camper we are driving is a Mercedes diesel, known in North America as a Sprinter. It is the long version of that model and I did have to get used to the width more than the length. Years ago we travelled around North America for an entire year with a RV unit that was 55-60’ long, so the 23-24’ long Sprinter is no problem.

Early September is not an especially busy time on the road, although we are seeing numerous ‘snow birds’ heading south, back after having spent the winter up north (don’t forget it is the southern half of the world down here and the seasons are reversed).

Since we are travelling outside the busy holiday season we are not having any problems finding places to camp. We are sticking to ‘caravan parks’, nice, well appointed campgrounds with power hookups, water and sewer at your site. At the end of next week a 2 week school holiday will start and we would have more problems finding a spot on the coast, but that is when we are planning to turn west – inland. We expect that further inland we won’t have problems finding camping sites.
The caravan parks here are providing any and all amenities you would want. Beside well maintained restroom buildings with showers, there are kitchens, with cooking areas, dishwashing facilities, and laundry facilities. Everything is spotless: the kitchen sinks have cloths, the toilets have brushes by them.
The big difference with north american camp sites is that these are close together, providing little or no privacy and there are no places to have a campfire. That might change when we move into the backcountry, but we’ll find out later.

It takes all of 5 minutes to set up the camper when we arrive at a site. An app on the Ipad functions as a level and in no time we know how to park to not roll out of bed at night. Plug in the power cord, open the propane bottle and we are ready to go for a walk on the beach or sit and relax.

The camper has all the modern conveniences we are used to having at home.  Not only a fridge but also a 3 burner stove, sink with hot and cold running water, airco, 240 electical outlets to charge cell phone, ipad, ipod, in Reach (a satelite emergency assist unit the boys gave me for my retirement) the computer, and last but not least a shower/toilet, although it is barely big enough to change your mind in it.
The fridge automatically switches over from 240 to 12 volt when you unplug the shore power. I remember the older fridges in our camper that ran on 110v, 12v or propane, it rarely kept the contents cold. Best of all the dinette set converts into a  KING size bed. (as if we never left home:-))

I am sure we can handle this for a few more months!!!!
This is retirement PLUS.

From Great Barrier Reef to Outback!

Fri/Sat Sept 13/14: Surfers Paradise, NSW to Hervey Bay, Qld.

Hervey Bay was wonderful. A smaller town, right on the beach. It seemed like city council here had the foresight to preserve the entire water front as park and green space. A long walk/bike trail led from one end of town to the other, stringing together parks, playgrounds, even a free water park. The three campgrounds, right on the water, were council parks. We had a spot on the beach but it WAS windy! Beautiful warm swimming along with the pelicans. Spent 2 nights here.

Sunday/Monday Sept 15/16
243 years ago. At this very spot. A large sail ship approached the north east coast of Australia. Captain James Cook and his botanist, Mr. Banks, came ashore here as the very first Europeans.
No GPS. No mobile phone. There’s still no internet so that part still feels primitive. But otherwise Cook would probably not recognize this very spot, the Town of 1770. We arrived here by road, not ocean. We navigated north along smaller backroads from Hervey Bay. We were surprised how quickly green and relatively populated areas made way for dry and isolated range land. Sometimes it felt like ‘outback’ already. Town of 1770 has not much besides a crowded campground at the end of the road. Good thing we phoned ahead and booked a site for 2 nights. As soon as we stepped out of the car, a lady said “Hello again! We met at the Horseshoe Bay ferry on our way to Bowen Island!” We racked our brains… until we discovered that she mistook us for other Canadians and that she meant HERE, not in BC! Amazing.
The campground is fairly run down and feels more like a parking lot. Our neighbors are less than 2 mtr away. But we spent all day Monday away on the Great Barrier Reef! Since we came all this way we decided to follow our heart and see for ourselves what we were taught about even in grade school in Holland. The catamaran took us out into the open ocean for over an hour before we spotted what looked like sandbars. But they were corral reefs, exposed at low tide. The high ocean waves came to an abrupt end into a shallow, peaceful and turquoise lagoon. We navigated through a channel into the lagoon, spotting mating turtles and an amazing aray of fish. The boat moored at a floating dock and we were taken, in small groups, onto Lady Musgrave Island, the most southern of the Great Barrier Reef islands.
Wading thr0ugh the water, we reached a bleached corral beach where two huge loggerhead turtles had stranded themselves on too hot a day. The guide was worried about them dying and so Kees, along with six other strong guys found themselves a loggerhead turtle rescue squad. 

They hoisted the 300 some pound turtle toward the cool water. Until she frantically flapped her flippers. But, in the end, they both made it back into the water. Likely after having deposited their eggs on the island, which will hatch in just eight weeks.  The rest of the island was bird paradise. Black Noddy Terns make their nests among the tangle of tropical trees. Their nests are all over and their guana covers everything. The birds themselves are so at ease in this paradise that you can practically pet them. You can be within a foot of them and they still don’t fly away.  I snorkeled in the blue waters, seeing hundreds of different colored tropical fish, ranging from bright blue, to yellow striped to skinny barracuda’s. We also took trips in a glass bottom boat and in a boat with a deep underwater keel and glass windows. We had tea and a lovely luncheon on the boat. All together well worth the cost. It made for one of those fabulous, once-in-a-lifetime days! 

Tuesday Sept 17
Drove 500 km from 1770 to Emerald, Queensland. Landscape changed from lush green to dry green. Cacti along the roads. Towns further apart and temps higher. Nice green corner of a campground though. And from now on.. 500 km per day will get us to Uluru!