Sunday, April 4, 2010

The Cruising Life, 2010: Chapter 3

Today: St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands.

I'm trying to grasp the difference in status between Puerto Rico, which seems like it has been on the verge of gaining statehood within the US, and St. Thomas. We were here a year or so ago on our last cruise, and I remember having a conversation with a downtown merchant about St. Thomas's political status; he said (as I recall) that they pay taxes to the US and the island has representation in the Capitol, but that the residents cannot vote. I'm thinking now that I haven't remembered that correctly, since taxation without representation is something over which we ourselves raised a ruckus a while back. I guess Wikipedia can sort it all out for me.

We did today what we did last time, walking the two miles or so from our cruise ship dock to the central downtown area, followed by a few hours' wandering among the shops. The walk downtown follows a road system that clearly owes nothing to surveying, and the condition of the sidewalks indicates that St. Thomas residents are not big walkers. But walking enables us to see something of the town that hasn't been manicured particularly for tourists (though we'd have done better, again, to take a taxi tour of the island). We passed mostly businesses for the local population until we got to the downtown tourist shopping area. There is a middle school along the way, with a large dirt yard surrounded by fencing punctuated every hundred feet or so with little inexplicable red stop signs printed with the words "Stop and Think." The school itself is actually a collection of separate classroom buildings, since there is no need to shield kids from the elements as we must in the Midwest. As we walked we were passed by a hundred medium-duty trucks carrying little covered open-sided boxes with benches--the city's bus service which double as hired shuttles between the cruise docks and the downtown. (After the shopping is done, the drivers pass slowly along the shopping street calling out the name of our cruise ship, competing with a hundred private taxis looking to capitalize on the same business.)

In addition to our own ship, there were three others docked at the new-ish cruise ship facility on the opposite side of the downtown from our pier. That facility has extensive high-end "cruise ship" shopping, and is a good deal nearer the downtown than the docking facility which Holland America uses. They've added quite a number of shops at our pier as well, and once again we see the focus of the whole endeavor is to separate the travelers from their money (I guess that's what a tourism-based economy is). The way in and out of the ship is designed literally as a commercial gauntlet which must be run, like the slot machines which dog you from the Vegas strip all through the airport to your very boarding gate.

But that's OK. Like many cruise ship folks (and there were somewhere around 8,000 of us turned loose on the small downtown on this day), Susan and I are happy enough to wander among the shops. The shopping comes in a few main genres: first is the jewelry shop, a number of which advertise free gifts for just walking in the door (each ship advertises and promotes their own favored vendors, which practice led last year to a kind of vendors' revolt--there were signs at several places in town saying the cruise ships wanted a lot of money to elevate vendors to favored status, and the vendors simply didn't want to pay. We saw no such signs today, which means, well, something). Most of St. Thomas's tourist shopping runs along a single street of maybe 3/4 mile in length which runs parallel to, and a block or two back from, the waterfront. And along that main shopping street there must have been 100 jewelry vendors. For the guys there are the high-end watch shops, which may or may not be part of a jewelry store. Figure 30-40 of those. Then comes clothing shops, which were about as numerous as the watch stores. Lastly, there are restaurants and general souvenir shops, again about the same in number. The restaurants and bars are spread all along the road and feature a variety of food genres, plus the typical American fast-food chains. We had lunch at a place called "Bumpa's," which was the upstairs portion of a little beach shack with a couple shops below. Bumpa's was run by an older couple and featured very good (and rather pricey) sandwiches served on a tiny open patio with long tables and plastic chairs. When our food came up I grabbed my paper plate and promptly deposited a huge glob of their lovely chicken salad on the floor. They quickly remedied the situation, and we ate next to an elderly couple from a different ship who made for delightful lunch companions. They were retired, he from the military and a second career as a high school science teacher and she as a music teacher, and next year they will celebrate their 60th wedding anniversary. She still snow skis at 82! They were great.

The coolest store we saw (in my estimation) was a store devoted to clothing made of… bamboo! (The miracle material, which they call "the greenest stuff on earth.") Apparently there is a way to get strands from the wood which can be processed and woven into cloth. We bought a couple things from that store, including a shirt for me which is advertised to be "twice as soft as cotton" and three degrees cooler than the same shirt in cotton. We were so impressed with the clothes that we bought some new bed sheets as well, which they are shipping free of charge back home for us. We'll see if that whole arrangement comes off properly.

(No holiday for the Eurodam's maintenance staff. It's always a nice day for painting!)

(A local sunbather.)

(I have about the same photo from a year ago.)

(Great smells emanating from this rolling lunch counter.)

(A marine repair facility just off our bow. I noticed it last year as well. They appear to have expanded since then.)

(The fabulous beaches of Half Moon Cay, and the MS Noordam joining us at anchor. This was our ship last year.)

(A nighttime walk around the promenade deck--deck 3. Three times around to the mile.)

We spent the following day at Half Moon Cay, the Bahamian island which Holland America leases for private use. This is our third visit to the island, and it's one of our favorite destinations. Alas, no camera. Then, steaming overnight back to Fort Lauderdale, and when we rise we're back at Port Everglades. Another fabulous week (capped off with a miserable 16-hour day commuting back home; an ugly reminder of my life to come).

Here's to dreaming about next year.


virginia bed and breakfast said...

The Cruise journey provides numerous opportunities to explore the world. The Cruise journey to St Thomas US Virgin Island is a great experience.
The St Thomas is a beautiful and romantic island to explore. It has so much attraction for travelers all around the world.

BrianAlt said...

Have I told you how much I love cruising?

To me it's no longer about the destination, but about the journey.

Meaning, fuck the ports, I want to enjoy the ship!

wunelle said...

Susan is more interested in the ports than I, though I enjoy whatever I see beyond the shopping (and, in truth, some of the shopping as well). She's less happy staying on the ship, but she's learned there are good things to that as well. So it's a great balance for us. I've heard cruising compared to, say, an all-inclusive in Cozumel; but to me if you take away the ship you've taken the primary reason for me to go.