St. Kitts and St. Thomas: after the storms

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The last two ports on my cruise of the eastern Caribbean were St. Kitts and St. Thomas, two islands with similar small populations but very different circumstances. St. Kitts was lucky enough to escape major damage from Hurricanes Irma and Maria. St. Thomas, meanwhile, felt the hurricanes’ full wrath, and was just getting back on its feet. That meant we had only a half-day stop, to look around and see what we could see.

St. Kitts

We arose to the sight of beautiful, green hills on the horizon as we ate breakfast on the back deck (called the Great Outdoors on the Norwegian Gem). Our ship was moored, so it was a quick tender transfer to shore, and I was off to see this lush-looking island.
We were in Basseterre, the capital of St. Kitts and Nevis, the smallest country in the Americas and another British island with a French-sounding capital. And it didn’t take me long to find a tour van headed for the interior. As expected, the drive took us through small towns and some beautiful scenery.

St. Kitts landscape

The centrepiece of St. Kitts is Mount Liamuiga, a volcanic mountain that sits in the island’s interior, surrounded by green fields that used to grow sugar cane. The sugar business has died due to low prices, so today it’s mostly grassland, food for cattle and short-haired Caribbean sheep.
The volcano is dormant now, but it wasn’t always that way. So one of our first stops was a place called Black Rocks, where the lava from the last eruption flowed down to the sea hundreds of years ago. It’s a dramatic sight, with the sea splashing against the twisted black rock pile. It’s also a good place to shop for souvenirs and snacks, from the cluster of kiosks near the lookout point.
St. Kitts black rocks
St. Kitts black rocks stop
The next stop was another rare sight — the place where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea. The meeting point is about where the waves are breaking over the reef in this photo. But if you were expecting the water to change colour abruptly at the meeting point, you’d be disappointed. I think they should put a sign post on the water, or maybe a floating fence — just a suggestion.
St Kitts Caribbean and Atlantic
There were some other points of interest, as well, like St. Thomas Church. This is the oldest Anglican church in the Caribbean, dating back to 1643. And aside from being a pretty impressive old structure, the church is the site of a cemetery with the graves of two luminaries: Thomas Warner, the first English governor of the West Indies, and Samuel Jefferson, ancestor of U.S. President Thomas Jefferson.
St. Kitts St. Thomas Church
Other attractions on the island include Brimstone Hill Fortress, a UNESCO World Heritage site, and some renowned beaches, like Frigate Bay and South Friars Bay. But I wasn’t in the mood to spend the day lying in the sun — I got plenty of solar energy just walking around. So once the tour was over, I spent a little time exploring Basseterre.
St. Kitts’ capital is no metropolis, but it has its own charms. Those include an intersection called The Circus, after London’s Piccadilly Circus, with a Victorian-looking  town clock (note the Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce at left). And at the entrance to the nearby Independence Square, an English-style red phone booth. A snack and a few minutes of free internet, and my day on St. Kitts was done.
 St. Kitts Bassetere Circus

St. Thomas

St. Thomas is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands, and a place that’s widely known as a Caribbean shopping mecca. But as mentioned. it was also one of the islands that lay in the path of Hurricanes Irma and Maria. So I was curious to see what kind of scene would greet us when we disembarked in Charlotte Amalie, its capital. Since tourism brings in much-needed money, the local government had rushed to get the tourist business back up and running. But how would the island look?

Driving through Charlotte Amalie, it didn’t look too bad. There were a few buildings with damaged roofs, and a fence or two propped up by wooden supports. But on the whole, the city centre looked fairly well intact.

St. Thomas Charlotte Amalie

As we got into the outskirts of town, however, the damage began to appear. Here and there were industrial buildings stripped of their walls and roofs, or collapsed on themselves. In the harbour, the rear deck of a sunken fishing boat poked out of the water. Farther inland, there were other signs of destruction to homes and public buildings. The most dramatic scene was a church that stood gutted and almost blown apart after the wind found its way inside.

According to our driver, 30 percent of the island was still without electricity, and many people were living in houses with tarps instead of roofs. But the children were back in school, and one way or another, the islanders were getting on with life.

St. Thomas hurricane damage

And despite the piles of refuse along the roads, the island still managed to look idyllic. We stopped at a lookout point with an amazing view of Magens Bay, considered one of the world’s best beaches.

St. Thomas Megans Bay

Just as amazing as the view was this sign identifying the bits of land that appeared on the horizon. In fact, these are all named islands, some of them well-known, like Tortola, and some obscure, like Grass Key. More surprisingly, their nationality is a mixed bag. Some are part of the U.S. Virgin islands, while the others belong to the British Virgin Islands. How they sorted that out I’ll never know, but it’s a fascinating thing to see.

Megans Bay sign St Thomas

The lookout point also boasted a large souvenir shop, but here as well, there were signs of the damage wreaked by Irma and Maria,

St Thomas hurricane damage sign

Finally, we stopped at a point that gave a marvellous view of Charlotte Amalie and its harbour, with three ships lined up at the dock (the photo below is a panorama; click on it, enlarge and scroll around to see it in detail). And once again, a reminder of the hurricanes: the blue roofs you see are tarps, replacing roofs that were blown away by the storms.

Charlotte Amalie panorama

St Thomas blue roofs

Back to town, and a few minutes spent shopping at the tourist bazaar next to the pier. Many of the islands have these marketplaces, but this one is right inside the pier compound. As I said, St. Thomas is a major shopping centre for those who like to buy duty-free watches, electronics, cosmetics and most other things you can think of. And even with the short stop-over, the outdoor mall was well patronized.

St Thomas souvenir mall

By 1 p.m. we were back on the ship and ready for the long trip back to New York. I had come to see a glimpse of the eastern Caribbean, and it seemed like the mission was accomplished: five islands in five days. Now, two days to sleep in, frequent the bars and restaurants, explore the ship, or just find a quiet spot and read.

What did I think of the eastern Caribbean? Like much of this region, it all seems cut from the same cloth. Most of the islands look much alike, with beaches, palm trees, technicolour buildings and forts left over from the colonial days. But if you look deeper, each has its own story to tell, its own customs and its own accent. And each island is a stark reminder of who has money and who doesn’t, with multi-million-dollar homes and rickety two-room houses a kilometre from each other.

I enjoyed cruising this part of the world, but I don’t know if I’d do it again. Still, if the opportunity presented itself, I might just find myself on a beach under a palm tree, looking out at that deep blue water …

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About Author

Paul Marshman is a retired journalist who spent 30 years as a writer and editor on Canadian newspapers, while travelling to the ends of the earth. Now he continues to travel while passing on his travel experiences to you.

2 Comments

  1. Jo-Anne Desilets on

    Hi Paul 😉
    I enjoy reading about your travels! Thanks for sharing. Plan on retiring soon. Will consult you before travelling. Merry Christmas! Many great travels and good health in the New Year!
    Jo-Anne Desilets

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