Edinburgh in February? It might be the best time to visit

The Scottish capital is a wonderful, walkable city that everyone should visit at least once, and if you abhor lineups or need a little space to yourself, you just might find that visiting in the off-season makes most sense. February was good.

About 2,000 visitors were expected on the gorgeous February day when I visited Edinburgh Castle. The thought of 10,000+ in peak season seems a tad scary.

About 2,000 visitors were expected on the gorgeous February day when I visited Edinburgh Castle. The thought of 10,000+ in peak season seems a tad scary.

By STEPHEN WICKENS, EDINBURGH

Zo Sasaki planned his return visit to Scotland’s capital for three decades, and in all that time he was certain of one thing: he would make the trip in the off-season.

Back in the mid-1980s, he and his wife, Mari, did a European tour in June for their honeymoon. “Almost perfect,” Mr. Sasaki told me, while we ate ice creams on a gorgeous February day in Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.

There was a lineup for ice cream, in February in Edinburgh's Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur's Seat.

There was a lineup for ice cream, in February in Holyrood Park at the foot of Arthur’s Seat.

Yes, ice creams. For while, there was even a lineup for the ice cream truck – in Edinburgh – in February.

“Such a beautiful city, lots to see,” the Tokyo resident said, “but last time Edinburgh Castle (was) way too crowded. Holyrood Palace? Closed. Queen Elizabeth (was) living there. Summer visit? I say wrong month.”

This time, the Sasakis visited both the landmarks, which anchor the ends of the Royal Mile, which is central to the old town. Much to Sasaki’s surprise, even his climb to Arthur’s Seat (a small but special mountain overlooking Holyrood) was more pleasant in winter, thanks to calm and sunny weather.

“Last time, rainy, windy, cold – in June!”

Mr. Sasaki, a civil engineer, then told me something I’d never considered when planning my trip from Canada: Depending on location, February is the driest or second-least rainy month in Britain (something a little light Googling seems to confirm).

Add in the fact that flights and hotel rooms are cheaper in February – especially this year with the Brexit-battered pound – and you might have a good alternative to the usual sun and sand vacation.

At Edinburgh Castle, our guide told us only about 2,000 people were expected on a sunny Sunday. It was 8 C (about average for late February) and the daffodils and crocuses were in bloom. That 2,000 turnout was still healthy – enough to make the thought of 10,000+ on days in peak season a tad scary. “And there are big queues in summer for the honours (crown jewels) and some of the more popular areas of the castle,” our guide said.

Arthur's Seat lies in the distance, seen from the abbey ruins behind  Holyrood Castle.

Arthur’s Seat lies in the distance, seen from the abbey ruins behind Holyrood Castle.

Seasonal popularity is a similar story at Holyrood Palace and, indeed, there is still a week each June each when it’s shut for the Queen’s annual visit – as the Sasakis discovered. This time Mr. Sasaki loved Holyrood and the surrounding abbey ruins. And the lure of a return hike up Arthur’s Seat was too strong to resist (though not for Mari, who returned to their hotel for a nap).

“It’s so beautiful from the top,” Mr. Sasaki said. “Perfect.”

It must be pointed out that Mr. Sasaki would again give his overall trip only an “almost perfect,”  pointing out that some galleries are closed on Sundays in winter (and explaining that the nasty black eye he was sporting came from the elbow of a woman who was taking off her jacket while passengers took their seats on the plane at Narita).

My trip is almost perfect, too, having picked a good hotel, the Carlton (which was being refurbished at the time). It’s both on the Royal Mile and next to Waverley, the main train station (handy since I’d arrived by train from London, after a few lovely days in York).

I also saw a couple of very good bands just down the street at a gritty club called Whistle Binkie’s (live music seven nights a week).

What might have made my visit perfect?

Edinburgh’s not a big city, but it certainly deserves much, much more than 48 hours (in fact, when I do the return trip I plan to give Scotland as a whole some real time). I also wish I’d known earlier on, the evening before I had to leave, that – even in off-season – reservations are a must at Mother India, a restaurant that several people recommended.

FIVE EDINBURGH TIPS FROM MY LIMITED EXPERIENCE

Fish and chips with a fine local ale at the Word's End on the Royal Mile is combines quality and quantity.

Fish and chips and an ale at the Word’s End on the Royal Mile is combines quality and quantity.

Food and drink: I’m more of a halibut man in Canada, but the haddock and chips at The World’s End on the Royal Mile was great both in quality and quantity; perfect with a local ale. Lots of places offer haggis, neeps and tatties: the traditional ground-lamb dish with turnips and potatoes, both mashed. Try it. And, even if you think you don’t like scotch, try one or two. There are many styles; one might be just right for you.

Footwear: Among the craziest things I saw – two nights in a row, even – were women (locals I believe) who choose high heels for an alcohol-fuelled night out on the cobblestones. Don’t try it, even sober. This is a town for comfortable shoes and hiking. It’s hilly, but getting around on foot is the way to go here. It took me about 30 minutes to climb to Arthur’s Seat, much of the time thinking about my long-gone dad’s recollections of doing the same hike with his dad while on school holidays back in the late 1920s. (They arrived on The Flying Scotsman, granddad doing double duty, driving for the London and North Eastern Railway and minding a 10-year-old on the footplate of the iconic locomotive in an era long before the advent of workplace-safety bureaucracies).

Advance reading: Though it contains sloppy mistakes, Arthur Herman’s How The Scots Invented The Modern World is an excellent and entertaining primer that will allow you to appreciate the many monuments to Scotland’s Enlightenment luminaries (I may reread it before I go back). Ian Rankin detective stories and a little Walter Scott may help you set the mood. Films such as Trainspotting and The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie might help to attune your ears.

Architecture tours: I regret that time ran out before I could fit one in, but I’m very glad I got over to New Town, a very walkable pioneer in the field of urban planning, and a crucible for the Georgian style that spread around the globe.

Sleeper attraction: Camera Obscura is apparently the oldest purpose-built tourist attraction in Scotland, dating back to 1835 and in its current spot since 1853. It would have been high-tech originally, but its use of mirrors optical illusions and its incredible collection of mind-altering phenomena is clearly impressive and fun for people of all ages. No wonder I saw a group of youngsters smoking a joint before paying their admission fees.

Cuba’s changing fast; don’t miss the boat

This story was first published in The Globe and Mail on Dec. 29, 2014

By STEPHEN WICKENS

At Plaza de la Revolucion the tourist waits, peers up the road, lowers the camera and waits some more. He wants a classic American car for his shot of the monument to Jose Marti, a 19th-century poet, freedom fighter and all-round Cuban hero. But for what seems like ages, we see only Hyundais, Geelys and sputtering Ladas.

“Yanqui tanks” still abound, many serving as gleaming cabs in tourist areas. But locals say half the fleet has been scrapped or cannibalized for parts since the Soviet empire collapsed; newer imports are easier to maintain. It’s just one indicator of how rapidly things have changed since Raul Castro replaced brother Fidel in 2008. Cubans with means or overseas relatives can buy and sell real estate as well as cars. Half a million people run their own businesses, triple the 2011 total.

Now, with the United States preparing to normalize relations and end a decades-long embargo, the trickle of visiting Americans could become a torrent some time in the not-too-distant future. So if you want to see one of socialism’s last outposts, act now – and consider doing so on a cruise.

Yes, even the cruise industry, which Fidel despised, has a beachhead. Though big U.S.-owned ships remain banned, Calgary-based Cuba Cruise launched weekly circumnavigations of the island last winter with the 162-metre, 1,200-passenger Louis Cristal. It targets Canadians with, among other things, its Alberta Prime Steakhouse and familiar beers. The crew is multicultural and the on-board variety troupe combines Montreal-based Cirque Fantastique with Cuban entertainers assembled by the National Theatre director.

Greece-based Variety Cruises took last winter off to arrange new food and land-tour suppliers, and renovate the Pan Orama – a 54-metre, 50-passenger yacht. Much more intimate than Cuba Cruise, it resumed its week-long trips between Havana and Cienfuegos on Nov. 29.

All-inclusive resorts have their place, but can’t deliver the complete Cuba, which is the Caribbean’s largest and most diverse country (nearly as big as our three Maritime provinces, more populous than the four Western ones combined). Cuba is more than sun and sand: It has a rich history (150 years of battles for independence from Spain, the United States and Russia) and regional cultures, some stuck in a horse-drawn time warp.

Cruises that tour the island naturally let you experience more of it – and provide entry to places where tourists are still a novelty. Take one of the stops I experienced on Cuba Cruise last winter: After mooring at a long-abandoned pier in Antilla last January, we were greeted by waving, cheering locals. Turns out the arrival of the ship was such a novelty the mayor had declared a civic holiday for the Louis Cristal’s first visit the previous month.

It was just one memorable moment from a couple of week-long cruises I enjoyed during the past two winters. Other highlights include:

Cienfuegos, a south-coast town where Soviet-era factories blend with ornate French and Spanish architecture. It is lively and fun to explore on foot; don’t miss Teatro Tomas Terry, a lovely concert hall built in the 1880s on the town square. A side trip from Cienfuegos (offered by both cruises) to Trinidad de Cuba, a town founded on sugar processing which is celebrating its 500th anniversary this winter. It’s a hot spot for musicians and dancers.

Santiago, Cuba’s No. 2 city, which feels like a cross of southern Europe and New Orleans. It’s the birthplace of Afro-Cuban culture, Castro’s revolution and Bacardi rum, and also home to San Juan Hill, where Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders helped finish off a war against the Spanish in 1898, starting what’s considered a 60-year U.S. occupation.

Castillo San Pedro de la Roca del Morro, the Caribbean’s most impressive fort. UNESCO calls this fortress, which has guarded Santiago’s harbour for more than 300 years, the best Spanish military architecture in the Americas.

Punta Frances, which is on my top-five beaches list. It’s beautiful, remote and unspoiled, and if I had to bet, I’d say it’s the beach most likely to get wrecked next.

Cuba obviously needs change. Few things highlight socialist dysfunction better than engineers and professors cleaning resort rooms because that’s where the money is made. The country proudly trains doctors for the world – many of its physicians played major roles in the Ebola fight – but having clean washrooms back home seems not to be a priority.

“Cuba will retain its independent streak no matter how much it reopens to Americans,” former U.S. presidential adviser and Time correspondent Nathaniel Lande, told me over drinks on the Pan Orama’s aft deck. Lande, whose dad was Hemingway’s doctor, first visited Cuba as a boy in the 1940s. But he thinks Canadians should explore while they still have special status as the biggest source of Cuban tourism.

“Tell people to get to Cuba fast, before us Americans wreck it,” he says – only partly in jest.

IF YOU GO

Booking Cuba Cruise’s cruise-only package starts at $652 per person. Air-land-cruise packages start at $852 per person. Both prices do not include fees and taxes. Check for specials through yourcubacruise.com or a travel agent.

IF YOU GO

Money: Cuba Cruise uses Canadian dollars; Variety’s main currency is the euro. On land, you need convertible unit pesos (CUCs). Exchange booths are easy to find, and for now you’re still smarter buying in loonies than with U.S. dollars. Few Cubans even accept greenbacks.

Health: You need proof of travel health insurance for Cuba. Even if your credit card provides it, get a confirmation letter. When exploring on shore, take hand sanitizer and paper to washrooms. If you’re prone to seasickness, consider packing nausea pills or patches.

The writer was a guest of Cuba Cruise and Variety Cruises. They did not review or approve this article.

Accidental tourist attractions spice up an underrated Caribbean gem

The oft-overlooked island of Grenada has everything that winter-weary Canadians might want from a sun vacation, but with a few spectacular bonuses

Vicissitudes by sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor is part of an underwater art installation that made National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places.”

Vicissitudes by sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor is part of an underwater art installation that made National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places.”

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on October 20, 2012

By Stephen Wickens

Aside from the cows and egrets, Pearls Airport sits deserted.

It’s not in Grenada’s guidebooks and not listed on today’s itinerary. But it’s a highlight nonetheless and everyone on the bus wants off to see the Cuban planes, abandoned to scavengers and the elements since the 1983 U.S.-led invasion.

“It should be a national monument,” says Mandoo Seales, a passionate guide who prefers “rescue” to “invasion” when speaking of Operation Urgent Fury, a Reagan Doctrine strike that snuffed a 4½-year experiment with revolutionary Marxism.

“It’s an archeological site. We shouldn’t let it deteriorate further.”

Ex-U.S. soldiers prompted Seales’ first tours to this 1940s-vintage airport, shut since 1984. “I bring lots of people here now,” he says. “All kinds are fascinated.”

Cuban planes have been left to rot at old Pearls Airport since a 1983 U.S.-led invasion of Grenada snuffed an experiment with revolutionary Marxism.

It’s funny how the accidental tourist attractions are often the best. And Grenada has others, including the Underwater Sculpture Park and Levera Beach leatherback turtle sanctuary.

British sculptor/diver Jason de Caires Taylor originally pitched the underwater park to Grenadians as art that might help restore coral reefs. It succeeded on both counts, with new growth gradually completing the statuary. Now Taylor’s creation is on National Geographic’s list of “Earth’s 25 Most Awesome Places” and Mexican officials have commissioned him to produce a larger version in Cancun.

I’ll be back at this underwater park, though next time, instead of snorkeling, I’ll have scuba certification and a serious underwater camera.

The leatherback project, meanwhile, was hatched to help save a remarkable species from extinction, even if it meant disruption for locals who had relied on meat and eggs from Earth’s largest sea turtles.

“We now earn revenue from people coming to see this (April to August),” says Kimron Redhead, a supervisor on the project, launched in 1999. “There are definitely more turtles again,” he says. “You can only sell a turtle or her eggs once, but tourists come back again and again.”

And it turns out that the resurgent turtle population has helped the local tuna fishery because leatherbacks feed on jellyfish who had been decimating schools of baby tuna.

Trying to snap photos of the egg-laying can be problematic as leatherbacks work at night and flash photography has to be banned because it would interrupt the mood for mama turtles. But usable photos or not, the awe seemed unanimous the night I visited.

It's tough to shoot pictures of turtles laying eggs, but if you're lucky, a mona monkey might just pose for you in Grenada.

“I must have shot 100 pictures and they’ll all be rubbish,” Ben Carroll of London, England, says, echoing others among us.

“But it hardly matters. The hair on my neck was standing. Seeing how hard she worked to dig a hole, lay the eggs and cover them. That last turtle must have been six feet. Getting to stroke the shell, that’s powerful.”

If you want casinos and nightlife, Grenada’s not for you. But it offers most of what winter-weary Canadians want from sun vacations – with several bonuses. It’s also easily reached from Toronto since Caribbean Airlines launched year-round non-stop service.

Despite being a volcanic island, it has white-sand beaches, including Grand Anse, a regular on Caribbean best-of lists. Because Grenada has just 1,200 hotel rooms, beaches aren’t crowded, even in high season.

It’s a generally affordable island, though, like the expensive ones, crime rates are low and litter is scarce. Once you’ve seen the bountiful gardens, you’ll know why Grenada’s worst finish in 13 years at England’s famed Chelsea Flower Show has been silver.

“It’s like a lusher, much-less-developed Barbados,” says Carroll, who also raved about rainforest hiking in the island’s interior.

Grenadian cuisine is interesting, too, no surprise for “the spice island.” Nutmeg is the big export (though still down 50 per cent since tree damage from 2004’s Hurricane Ivan), but there are constant mealtime reminders of the endless list of spices and fruits that grow here.

Like most Caribbean islands, there are colonial forts for history buffs, but Grenada’s have seen recent combat – battles people still calmly debate, even as the Cuban planes rot.

Graffiti remains on Grenada, thanking the U.S. for leading Operation Urgent Fury in 1983.

Locals seem to see both sides of their place in Cold War history. There’s no clamour to revive socialism, but under the current prime minister – who spent two years as a political prisoner when Communists ruled – the airport was renamed for Maurice Bishop, who led the 1979 revolution.

You’ll hear tales of corruption and brutal autocracy under Bishop, sometimes from the same people who credit him for steep rises in literacy rates and the creation of real healthcare. There’s still graffiti thanking the Americans, though some locals seem convinced the chaos and bloodshed used to justify sending in troops was initiated by a Central Intelligence Agency-driven destabilization campaign, ostensibly led by Bishop’s deputy.

And no matter how real the fears were in the Reagan White House, we’ll never know for sure if the Soviet Empire ever planned to attack the Americas from that Cuban-built runway beside the Maurice Bishop terminal building. But with the Cold War mostly just historical curiosity, we do know the landing strip is plenty long enough for jet-loads of tourists.

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING: Caribbean Airlines flies non-stop from Toronto on Thursdays and Saturdays year-round. Air Canada Vacations has seasonal non-stops and Sunwing operates charters.

SLEEPING: The Blue Horizons is excellent if you don’t mind a 300-metre walk to the beach. Mount Cinnamon and Spice Island  are great spots right on Grand Anse beach. LaSource will soon reopen as a Sandals Resort.

DINING: Even if you don’t stay at Blue Horizons, visit the resort’s La Belle Creole restaurant. The menu changes daily, but it’s outstanding. Other recommendations are BB’s Crabback (bbscrabback.co.uk), The Aquarium (aquarium-grenada.com) and Dodgy Dock (truebluebay.com/resort-facilities/details/dodgy-dock-restaurant).

DOING: The rainforest hike to the interior waterfalls is big fun, but expect to get muddy (grenadatours.com/hikes.htm). Also  worthwhile are tours of the organic chocolate operation (grenadachocolate.com) and the old water-wheel-driven River Antoine rum distillery, though be careful with the high-test fire-water (grenadaexplorer.com/tip/rumfactory).

Big carriers’ executives should fly back in time with Caribbean Airlines

Surprisingly good service in economy class comes as a blast from the past

Don't let the armrest ashtrays spook you. There's no smoking on Caribbean Airlines flights, just surprisingly good economy class service reminiscent of an era when you could light up.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Ashtrays in the armrests? That’s a tad unsettling in 2012.

Sure, Boeing still manufactures the venerable 737-800, but this was clearly a high-mileage model. So, as a travel writer mostly used to big North American carriers, I figured I better take notes on my first  Caribbean Airlines adventure.

What a surprise I got.

Before leaving for the airport, I double-checked that my Toronto-Trinidad and Trinidad-Guyana flights hadn’t been delayed. Maybe I was thinking of the old “island time” cliché, even though I’ve been to Caribbean countries often enough to know that’s increasingly an unfair stereotype.

So I didn’t consider it unusual that Caribbean took off right on time, even as would-be Air Canada travelers were suffering the effects of a pilots’ “sickout.”

However, once we were airborne, strange things started to happen.

Clearly we weren’t merely flying to Port of Spain in a jet whose interior evoked the feel of a pre-Internet world or the last days of the Cold War. We’d actually gone back in time to a civilized era in air travel.

There was leg room in economy and a flight attendant (dare I call her a stewardess) offered free ear-buds for the movie. The in-flight magazine, Caribbean Beat, had several stories worth reading from start to finish.

Then they fed us dinner, honest. No charge.

Haute cuisine? No, not by a long stretch. But it was a reasonably pleasant chicken and rice dish that hit the spot. It even came with dessert, a bag of plantain chips and a small Kit Kat bar.

Blankets and plllows? No charge. Beer? Four bucks a can.

The flight attendants were attentive and friendly, maybe because they weren’t obligated to sell duty-free stuff to passengers and process credit-card transactions. Crew announcements didn’t seem to come from the usual, cloying PR scripts.

Trinidad-based Caribbean Airlines was officially incorporated in 2006. The company, which also operates Air Jamaica as a sister brand, is a descendant of BWIA, formerly British West Indian Airways. From what I’ve been able to ascertain, the safety record is quite good.

So far, after four flights (two legs each way for a recent Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in Georgetown, Guyana) all departed on time and one even arrived quite early due to a tailwind. Nobody has lost my luggage.

The journalist’s quest for quibbles had to settle for:

– Engine noise drowned out the captain’s announcements on one flight.

– The entertainment system is little more than a few small overhead screens and one channel. Caribbean Essence, the in-house production, has an irritatingly promotional feel and on the Georgetown-Port of Spain flight, everyone in the cabin had to listen. The guy next to me, trying to read a book, was also unhappy about the show.

– The garish green upholstery in some planes reminded me of cushions in the student lounge at university back in the early 1980s.

Anyway, I’ll fly Caribbean again soon for a trip both to Grenada and back in time.

It would be nice if the executives of the big North American carriers came along to see how they once brought a little class to economy class.

 

An award the Accra Beach should share with its Barbadian neighbours

I and at least two others within a bun’s toss were pleased to see the Accra Beach Hotel honoured at the closing banquet of a recent Caribbean Tourism Organization conference in Guyana.

The official wording of the press release said “the Sustainable Accommodation Award went to the Accra Beach Hotel and Spa in Barbados for positively impacting the local supply chain and community whilst minimizing negative environmental impact, and contributing to conservation of local culture.”

I’m trying to learn more about what this all means and I have emails out to CTO staff. But as a travel journalist who also writes about urbanism, it’s great to see the CTO’s 13th annual Sustainable Tourism Conference recognize that walkable, vibrant communities are just as important to vacation spots as they are in our home cities.

On a basic level, my wife and I had a great stay at Accra Beach a few months back. The price was reasonable, our room and the beach were excellent, staff were friendly and, as a bonus for active people who like to swim lengths, the pool was among the best I’ve found in the Caribbean.

But Accra and the Rockley Beach area proved to be special because the resort is so well integrated within a thriving stretch of shops, services and restaurants patronized by both locals and tourists. This is a case where tourists are really strengthening the local economy and where the local businesses are really contributing to the tourism experience.

The virtuous cycle has benefits beyond the bottom lines of business. All day and into the evening there are eyes on the street and feet on the sidewalks, as urbanist Jane Jacobs would have pointed out. This is probably not a place where a mugger would want to ply his trade and the pedestrian instinctively senses that.

This mingling of locals and tourists adds much to a vacation experience on a human level. And when vacationers feel safe out walking beyond their hotels, they don’t need to rent cars or take cabs anywhere near as often.

Contrast that with the experience of an all-inclusive compound or a resort on a lovely but isolated stretch of beach.

When we talk of sustainable travel, we often hear about initiatives to protect rainforests or minimize waste from cruise ships. We talk of finding ways to offset the carbon emissions of jets or make solar and wind power viable for resorts and their small island countries. These are all good and important subjects. But on the south coast of Barbados, something as simple as a comfortable environment for pedestrian interaction illustrates sustainability and environmentalism at its organic best.

Cheers, to the Accra Beach, but please share this honour with your many neighbours.

Six Things To Do in Barbados

The water is warm and the beaches are great, but there's much more to a vacation in Barbados.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on March 16, 2012

By STEPHEN WICKENS

BARBADOS — Most of the Caribbean will suffice if all you want are beaches and sunshine, warm weather and cold drinks. But Barbados — despite the longer flight and the higher-than-average costs for winter sun vacations — is particularly popular with Canadians again, and not just because of our dollar’s strength. This is an island where it’s safe and enjoyable to walk, explore and do things. Here are six suggestions:

If you thrive on crowds, Friday and Saturdays at Oistins are for you. But the fish is just as fresh and tasty Monday to Thursday.

GO FISH: It’s not a question of whether you should hit the Oistins Fish Fry, but when. If you thrive on crowds and bustle, and you’re willing to endure traffic, lineups and some noise, Friday and Saturday nights are for you. If an excellent and inexpensive dinner is your priority, go to this south-shore fishing village Monday to Thursday evenings. Either time, you’ll find locals and tourists of all ages mingling. There’s a marketplace, dancing and exuberant games of dominoes.

Bajans were long aware they had a wondrous world of stalactites, stalagmites and crystal clear underwater streams below the hills in the heart of the country, but it wasn't until the 1970s, led by a Danish speleologist, that Harrison's Cave was seriously explored and mapped.

GO UNDERGROUND: Okay, you will be dripped upon and you might hear cave aficionados argue that better can be found in New Zealand, Vietnam, Iran or Croatia. But Harrison’s Cave makes several world top-10 lists for good reason. If you’ve never seen stalactites and stalagmites up close, this is a great opportunity. The 2.3-kilometre stretch of caverns deep below the heart of Barbados wasn’t fully mapped till the 1970s. These days, the caverns are accessible by a small train. It’s a deal at $30 (U.S.) for a 90-minute tour, and it could be a great way to cool off if you’ve had too much sun.

The blend of nature, art and whimsy at Anthony Hunte's gardens will soothe your soul.

UNEXPECTED EDEN: Even if you’re not the botanical gardens type, your soul deserves a trip to Hunte’s Gardens. Two couples at my hotel enthusiastically thanked me for the recommendation. For $10 you’ll get an engaging conversation with the eccentric Anthony Hunte, who serves up flora, artistic landscaping, classical music, sculpture and Zen-like calm seven days a week. You can also grab a rum punch at Hunte’s whimsical house, formerly a horse stable on part of the old sugar plantation. But before you book your Barbados trip, visit huntesgardensbarbados.com to ensure he’ll be around. He plans to travel this year and will close up when he’s away.

 

Bert's Bar is a gathering place for Canadians, especially hockey fans. The pizza, burgers and daiquiris are excellent. That's Bert in the red shirt, with a group of students from the Ottawa area

HOCKEY NIGHT IN BARBADOS: The Accra/Rockley Beach area is popular in part because you can easily walk to lots of stores and restaurants. A local favourite with Canadians is Bert’s Bar, where every night is hockey night. There are 26 flat-screen TVs, cold Banks beer on tap and excellent pizza, burgers and daiquiris. Even if you’re not a hockey nut, you’re bound to end up in a conversation about some person or place back home in Canada. The Ottawa Senators now own Bert’s, but Bert, the original owner going back to 1976, runs the joint. You’ll find him on the end bar stool, eyes on the game.

Ryan Adamson pours a Bajan Green Monkey for visitors who've just taken the Mount Gay tour.

YO HO HO  … : Barbados prides itself on being the birthplace of rum, and Mount Gay, the world’s oldest brand, runs interesting tours of its facilities around the island, complete with samples (barbados.org/mountgay.htm). St. Nicholas Abbey also produces outstanding rum and provides an interesting tour. But to really experience Barbados, you have to hit the rum shops. There are 1,500 of these little pubs on the island (more than one for every 200 residents). Though not everyone  will be drinking rum — or even alcoholic bevvies — the rum shops are great places for gabbing with the friendly locals and most places offer good, inexpensive meals.

Many residents consider green monkeys to be pests. Tourists love to snap pictures of them.

HIT THE ROAD: You need to see the rugged east coast to appreciate the island. You can do that and snorkel with greenback turtles, shoot pictures of the green monkeys and have lunch and drinks on a Tiami catamaran in just one day with Island Safari. You might want to check out one of the other tour services if your back can’t handle bouncing around in the back of a Land Rover. Or you could just do the sea part of the trip, with additional reef snorkeling through Tiami Catamaran cruises.

Rock formations near the town of Bathsheba: No trip to Barbados is complete without at least a day trip to the island's rugged and picturesque east coast.

Memories of the revolution live on in Anguilla’s Caribbean paradise

The Dune Preserve, ranked by CNN as the world's best beach bar, sits atop remarkably soft sand.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on March 3, 2012
By STEPHEN WICKENS
RENDEZVOUS BAY, ANGUILLA—Shortly after the best mahi-mahi I’ve had in 25 years of Caribbean visits, I’m strolling in moonlight on white sand softer than I’d ever imagined possible. Quite the first impression.

 

The next morning, over breakfast after playing CuisinArt Resort’s Greg Norman signature golf course — azure waters and St. Martin’s hills in the background — it’s clear why celebrities and executives flock here.

Funny thing, though, despite the opulence and setting, the best part of my trip turned out to be listening to locals, especially when they talk of Anguilla’s pre-tourism days and its revolution.

Germaine Harrigan, the first Anguillian I met, isn’t old enough to recall gunshots. But aboard the ferry to the island, she proudly explains that Ronald Webster, leader of the 1967 uprising, is a great uncle. “Nearly everyone has friends and family who’ll talk about it. The St. Kitts police were kicked off the island and the British invaded two years later,” says Harrigan, a New York resident returning to visit her mom. “Ronald’s still alive.”

Brothers Lyndon and Lyle Connor, the boat’s operators, mention their dad patrolled beaches. “The older heads can tell plenty,” Lyndon says. “It was a proud time.” Cabbie Colin Connor, 61, picks me up at the ferry and continues my education. He was 17 when he rolled oil drums onto the dirt runway to prevent St. Kitts from landing troops.

Outsiders who know the tale tend to be amused by the farce. Many bullets fired, mostly at the police station. Nobody dead.

When British paratroopers landed in 1969, U.K. papers dubbed it “the Bay of Piglets” and opposition members howled as Harold Wilson’s government was congratulated for finding a manageable foe (things weren’t going so well in Rhodesia). But it was all serious for Anguillians. To liberate themselves after nearly 150 years of what they deemed neglect and abuse at the hands of St. Kitts, they risked lives or jail for treason. Locals will tell you they weren’t eligible to be police officers in their own country, and that foreign aid for rebuilding after Hurricane Donna in 1960 went missing on St. Kitts.

The last straw was in 1967, when Britain created the independent state of St. Kitts, Nevis and Anguilla. “Anguillians view it as if an abusive babysitter had been given complete custody,” said Colin Rickards, a late Torontonian who covered the invasion for British newspapers.

Gilligan’s Island was already prime-time history but, like Robinson Crusoe, Anguilla was primitive as can be. “Even in the 1970s, people had to go to St. Martin or St. Kitts to see electricity, telephones, flush toilets, paved roads,” says national museum curator Colville Petty, who was a 16-year-old teacher when revolution erupted. “We saw jets in the sky, but for us, after dark, we needed kerosene or the moon for light.”

The British were greeted as tardy liberators just two years after ostensibly giving the island independence from the empire. Anguillians just wanted to be free of St. Kitts and its leader Robert Bradshaw. Locals still spit out Bradshaw’s name.

Of course, locals will also remind you their ancestors had long been independent out of necessity. Slaves were left behind when 18th-century plantations failed due to thin soils and sparse rain. People grew veggies, built boats, fished and traded with nearby islands. In the 20th century, droughts and famine forced some to work on other islands and send home the pay.

Among charges against Bradshaw is that remittance cheques and medical supplies were held back by St. Kitts, which ran the mail.

"All my songs are about the revolution," Dune Preserve owner and reggae artist Bankie Banx says. Banx's beach bar is a magnet for celebrities, though he says he doesn't know who they are.

At the Dune Preserve, a beach bar recently featured on ABC-TV’s The Bachelor, owner Bankie Banx would rather talk of paratroopers landing in his mom’s backyard 42 years ago than current celebrities who come for a drink.

“I don’t even know who the movie stars are,” says Banx, back from recording his 13th album in Jamaica. “My drummer was one who was rounded up and put in a St. Kitts jail. All my songs are about the revolution.”

Less than 30 years ago, embarrassed Britons were still scrambling to bring Anguilla and its 6,000 people into the 20th century. Now there are 14,000, and not all are happy with Britain – especially during annual budget talks. There’s still that independent streak. There’s talk of breaking with the U.K.

So, enjoy the beaches, rated the Caribbean’s best by Britain’s Daily Telegraph and Travel Channel. Visit the beach bars (Banx’s is No. 1 on CNN’s list of the world’s 50 best). Stay in luxury at CuisinArt, which has 20 chefs, cooking classes and a spa that’s among Conde Nast’s favourites. Or try Paradise Cove, a friendly resort targeting more middle-class travellers.

Whatever you do, just remember to take time to talk with the locals.

Stephen Wickens is a freelance writer based in Toronto.

————————-

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING: Air Canada, WestJet and Sunwing fly direct to St. Maarten. From there you can take Air Anguilla for $105 (U.S.) each way or are variety of fast (20-minute) ferry options. GB Express, which looks after airport-to-dock connections, charges $105 round trip and staff are fun. Visit aircanadavacations.com and authenticcaribbeanholidays.com for deals.

SLEEPING: Air Canada Vacations offers flight-ferry-hotel packages from about $1,600 for Anacaona Boutique Hotel. Rooms at Paradise Cove start at $250 a night. The five-star Cap Juluca starts above $600 a night and there are villas that will run about $10,000 a week. Extensive accommodation listings are at anguillahta.com

DINING: The island specializes in high-end cuisine and extensive wine cellars. Many menus don’t bother with prices. Ask locals for a list of the best places for the dining experience and you’ll hear Veya, Jacala and Hibernia. You can also find good ribs, chicken and seafood meals for under $15 at roadside caters and beach barbecue huts. Hungry’s Food Van is  recommended.

DOING: Anguilla brags about its lack of casinos and its ban on jetskis. Hotels provide snorkeling gear, but they’ll arrange day trips to reefs teeming with fish of many colours. Moonsplash is a four-day reggae festival around the full moon each March at Bankie Banx’s Dune Preserve. Celebrity spotting is big and Sandy Ground is a nightlife hub, with Johnno’s and Pumphouse good for live music. Ask your hotel about Anguilla After Dark, a designated-driver service for $15 a night. Many hotels have tennis courts and there’s an academy at Blowing Point. There’s only one golf course, at CuisinArt, but it’s outstanding.

WEB SURFING: Most of what you need to know is at ivisitanguilla.com, anguillaguide.com or anguilla-beaches.com. Go to anguillarising.com for fun history links and to learn about filmmaker Gary Rodrigues’ feature project.

Increasingly self-confident Barbados takes time to mourn

While preparing to bury a much-loved prime minister, Caribbean island also gives thanks to Thompson’s mentor for emphasizing a quality education system
This story first appeared in the Toronto Star foreign news section on October 29, 2010
By STEPHEN WICKENS

Olive Estwick was one of the pilgrims who came for a piece of the rock that came from the grave where David Thompson would be buried.

ST. JOHN’S PARISH, BARBADOS—Olive Estwick isn’t asked for an explanation but offers one anyway.

“It’s for my great-grandson,” the tearful 73-year-old says, holding up a softball-sized piece of coral rock from the pile beside a grave where the late prime minister David Thompson will be buried Wednesday. “This will always be in our family.”

Estwick is one of several pilgrims to the St. John’s parish church cemetery on a sweltering afternoon. In what would otherwise be a sleepy, idyllic setting near the edge of a cliff facing the Atlantic, gravediggers kick up a jackhammer racket and rocks they chuck to the pile become souvenirs.

A period of national mourning was declared in Barbados after Thompson died from pancreatic cancer Oct. 23, seven months after being diagnosed. Flags are half-staff, some people wear black ribbons and it seems nearly every Barbadian you speak with gets moist around the eyes when talking of him. But pursue the conversation a bit longer and you’ll often hear expressions of a rising national self-confidence.

One moment it’s a tragic tale of three young girls who don’t have a dad anymore, or a lament for a country that has lost a great leader just as he was getting started. Thompson, who became PM in 2008, was only 48.

But the locals also seem eager to tell Canadians this Caribbean island is on the verge of becoming a first-world nation. Even before your flight lands at Grantley Adams airport, you might have heard Barbados has public health care like Canada and a public education system that has placed literacy rates among the world’s best — 99.7 per cent. Stable governments and relatively low crime rates are also a source of pride.

Frank Anderson, returning to Barbados after doing temporary work in Canada, says his country’s rising living standards are “in many ways the legacy of Errol Barrow, our first prime minister after independence in 1966.”

Anderson explains that part of the sadness about Thompson’s death is his link with Barrow (who was a close and longtime friend of Pierre Trudeau). “Not only are (Barrow and Thompson) the only two people to have represented St. John’s parish in Parliament since independence in 1966, Thompson was Barrow’s protegé in the Democratic Labour Party (DLP).”

Barrow, who also died in office, in 1987, had a dream — that quality public education, free to all, would make the former British colony a first-world nation providing opportunity for all, no matter how poor. The seemingly widespread belief is Thompson lived nearly long enough to see it happen; that a real middle class has quietly emerged.

“It’s not just high schools; university is free for Bajans,” Anderson says. “These kids aren’t just students at university, they were raised in educated homes.”

Rosa Alleyne, who works for an ad agency in the United States but returned to Barbados last week to visit relatives, speaks of “a new optimism despite the mourning and the recession” in the lineup at a south coast convenience store. “I live in San Francisco, but kids I went to school with are getting good jobs without leaving the country,” she said. “Go take a look at the new suburbs north of Bridgetown. It’s not foreigners buying those houses and they’re as nice as newer subdivisions in the States.”

Though tributes to Thompson dominate media coverage, the release this week of Transparency International’s 2010 report is also big news. Barbados is now ranked second to Canada for the lowest levels of corruption in the western hemisphere.

“It’s a small country that always punches above its weight,” says Ezra Catwell, of Invest Barbados, a government agency that promotes both direct foreign investment and Barbadian companies to the world.

A longstanding emphasis on transparency and rule of law, the educated workforce and the country’s tax treaties with many countries are popular with businesses. Royal Bank of Canada, Scotiabank and CIBC have long had big presences here. A tour of a plant owned by Florida-based Lenstec is impressive. The company began in Barbados in 1995 as a straight manufacturer of precision synthetic lenses used in cataract surgery. It has expanded several times and is now developing product lines that are being shipped around the world.

Cardiology and in vitro fertilization clinics are seen as evidence of a nascent medical tourism industry. There’s also a software cluster in Bridgetown.

The crime rate is almost certainly low by Caribbean standards, though independent, verifiable comparisons are hard to find. The 2009 United Nations Human Development Index ranks Barbados third in the Western Hemisphere behind Canada and the U.S., but evidence of poverty is still not difficult to find.

Governments in recent years have pushed diversification. Sugar was king for most of the island’s history, but exports are down 70 per cent since the 1960s. Tourism will continue to be relied upon heavily, but it’s seasonal and vulnerable to economic cycles.

“We’re past the point where we can compete as a low-cost jurisdiction,” says Darcy Boyce, minister of immigration, energy and communications under new Prime Minister Freundel Stuart. “Our wages are not low by Caribbean standards. We have to go for high value,” he says in an interview, promising the government will spend heavily on new health care and biotech labs in the near future and that green energy technology will be a priority.

“I hope the world will view us as a first-world country by 2020; in some ways we’re already there,” said Boyce.

In the meantime, confident as they may be, Barbadians clearly are in mourning as they gear up for the state funeral. Thompson touched citizens with a radio address shortly before his death; he didn’t want to be on TV because he didn’t want his appearance to detract from his parting message.

Kenmore Lynch, wearing a black ribbon while working on the front desk at the Hilton becomes choked up while trying to speak of Thompson’s commitment to “transparency and accountability. He prepared the government and he left us a road map.”

And back at the gravesite, Olive Estwick talks of Thompson as “a great young man.

“He loved people. He came to my retirement; he came to my great-grandson’s christening.”

“Please take a piece of rock back to Canada. Save it for your great-grandson.”

Brewtopia Portland serves up excellent beer, terrible puns

West Coast U.S. city claims to have more breweries than Munich

Don Younger, who died in early 2011, was owner of Horse Brass, an iconic pub within the world of Portland's craft beer revolution. On Nov. 1, 2009, when this photo was taken, Younger received a steady stream of well-wishers on what was the pub's 33rd anniversary.

 

 

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on May 28, 2010.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

PORTLAND, ORE.—Designated driver Candace Ling rolls her eyes and gives in.

“Okay Ned, one more, but that’s it,” she says, teeth clenched, her right hand making a chopping motion.

It’s not that Ling’s friend, Ned Witherspoon, is anywhere close to tipsy. He’s a big man and it’s only mid-afternoon. But he’s supposed to fly home to Australia the next day and Ling figures the San Francisco airport is a 10-hour drive.

Witherspoon says he had an “uncontrollable urge” to double back up the coast to Portland for the weekend for “a few last American pints” after seven months in the U.S., tasting beer in 37 states.

“Everyone here calls Portland ‘brewtopia’,” Witherspoon says after ordering a Rise Up Red at the Bike Bar in the Hopworks Urban Brewery. “It’s no exaggeration. There’s lots of first-rate brewing going on in lots of places — I’ve spent time in Europe and I’m sure you have some great craft beer in Canada — but I’ve never been in a city that has so many different great beers. They say Portland has more breweries than Munich. I had to come back.”

Jim Long's Brew Bus tours are not only entertaining and good value, they keep beer lovers safely off the streets.

The Munich comparison and other bad beer-related puns also came up a day earlier on Jim Long’s Portland Brew Bus tour.

“This is beervana, ground zero for the great craft beer revolution,” Long tells the 15 people on the bus — which in this case is largely a bachelor party group that took a train down from Seattle.

“There are 38 breweries in the city proper (for just 600,000 people), another eight brewers out in the suburbs and several more in the state,” says Long, a local historian and author who has been running the bus since 1996.

He says he’s had tourists from dozens of countries on six continents and all 50 states. “I think we’ve had people from all your provinces, too. Up and down the West Coast, Portland is well known as the place for a ‘hoppenin’ time.”

Long tells his tours it’s logical that Portland is a beer centre. It has long been a grain export hub, has soft water and, because of a climate that helped it earn a reputation as “the City of Roses,” local farmers can grow a great variety of hops.

Christian Geismann, the groom-to-be and today’s Brew Bus guest of honour, says the trip from Seattle to sample beers isn’t his first and won't be the last.

Christian Geismann, the groom-to-be and today’s Brew Bus guest of honour, says the trip from Seattle to sample beers isn’t his first. “It won’t be the last, either. There’s going to be quantity, of course, this is a bachelor party,” he says. “But these boys like quality, too.”

That comment prompts a round of glass-clinking at the MacTarnahan’s Taproom, stop one on the tour.

Long varies his itinerary and does some tours on foot in summer. “You should see this place during the beer festivals in July,” he says. “It’s not just beer aficionados; the place attracts lots of great bands and musicians. It’s a fun party.”

On this day, for $45 (U.S.), Long’s tour takes in six breweries, 19 beers and keeps everyone safely off the streets — not that there’s much need to drive in a city with a good transit system. It’s a bargain.

One stop with a particularly friendly atmosphere is the Lucky Labrador, a brew pub that encourages patrons to bring their dogs. Here we run into Angie Ong, a transplant from Mississauga, and her sheepdog Kato.

At Hopworks Urban Brewery, a converted former fuel oil depot, Amelia Pillow takes us for a tour of the brewing process before the tasting starts. She notes that brewing has created spinoff industries in the area besides tourism. Kettles and the precision instruments needed to measure and monitor the process are now locally made.

Witherspoon, an Aussie building contractor from the Melbourne area, says “it must be more than coincidence that all this micro-brewing took off right around the time that Portland started building its light rail system. Good public transport allows you to relax and enjoy your beer,” he says. “Pubs are central to communities,” he says, adding that his favourite in Portland is the Horse Brass.

Later that day, the Horse Brass is packed. It’s the pub’s 33rd birthday and there are 54 beers on tap, including five cask ales.

Don Younger, part owner of the place, is a bit of a Portland celebrity — a hero for championing diverse beers before a 1985 law change that kick-started the local scene by making it legal to brew and sell directly to the public through brew pubs.

“It wasn’t long ago, but it seems like ancient history,” says Younger. “All across the country you had those standard beers. Blitz was the local swill out here and you might have found a place with bottles of Heineken or something.

“Now there’s choice and it turns out there’s huge demand for it,” Younger says between people stopping by to offer him congratulations on Horse Brass’ anniversary.

“I’d love to tell you we were brilliant and we knew that we were giving birth to an industry and a tourism attraction, but the truth is that we were young, we were drunk and we were stupid.

“But we were lucky, too.”

Is Duff beer really just Blitz in disguise?

PORTLAND, ORE.—There’s a rumour around town that a once-ubiquitous local beer, Blitz, was the inspiration for Homer Simpson’s favourite brew, Duff.

I heard the tale twice in different pubs, within 48 hours.

It’s a plausible urban legend for a city with streets named Flanders, Lovejoy and Quimby. Portland is, after all, where The Simpsons creator Matt Groening was raised — and that’s clearly a point of pride among locals. And by all accounts, Blitz, was the quintessential Duff-like generic swill.

We got Antonia Coffman, executive consultant for the long-running Fox TV show, to ask Groening if Blitz inspired Duff. She tells us the answer was a terse, “no.”

But rather than feel animosity toward those who would mislead tourists, we offer thanks to one of them for steering us to a couple of old, ripe-for-parody Blitz ads on YouTube. They might be funnier if Duffman were on the water skis, but not much.

Portland Beer Festivals

 The Portland International Beerfest focuses on great, largely unknown international beers. It’s held in the city’s lively, walkable Pearl District. The 2010 edition featured 150 beers from 15 countries.

 The Oregon Brewers Festival, held on the last full weekend in July each year, focuses on American craft brewers at the Tom McCall Waterfront Park, beside the Willamette River and with views of Mount Hood and the Portland skyline.

Statia is a little island that might restore your faith in human nature

The Quill volcano hasn't erupted for 1,700 years, but it looms over Oranjestad.

This story first appeared in the Toronto Star travel section on December 15, 2011. I’d love to learn to scuba dive and head back to St. Eustatius.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

ORANJESTAD, ST. EUSTATIUS—If you’re a dreamer prone to losing a wallet in a crowded bar, this is your Caribbean island.

And if you come to Statia — an affectionate local name for this outpost of the Dutch kingdom — visit Franky’s. It’s fun, meals are excellent and affordable, and staff and patrons may bolster your faith in mankind, as they did mine.

“You see?” a laughing Lennox Roach says as he drives me — complete with wallet, cards and cash — back to my hotel.

If you run into shipping agent Lennox Roach on Statia, say hi for me. He's a cool guy.

After the night’s first exit, a customer spied my wallet under a chair and gave it to the bartender. Upon my frantic return, owner Franky Gibbs held it aloft, grinning broadly.

“That’s what I’m talking about,” Roach says. “That’s Statia, my friend!”

Earlier, I’d gently chided Roach, a Trinidad-born, Venezuela-raised shipping agent who had the apparent naivete to claim his adopted land is crime-free. I still say crimeless Utopias are impossible, human nature being what it is. But I know now that Statia’s special, and not just because locals leave cars unlocked, keys in the ignition.

It seems the world must have long bypassed this island, and the ruins of Oranjestad’s exotic past are further proof. Surf rolls into kilometres of tumbledown warehouses, while up the cliff sunlight bathes the interiors of a Dutch Reformed Church and the Western Hemisphere’s second-oldest synagogue.

Ruins of the Honem Dalim synagogue are impressive. Jewish merchants played a key role in Statia golden age.

Clearly, this obscure place was once important.

“As a boy, I played pirates down there,” historian Walter Hellebrand says, pointing from the heights of Fort Oranje to the beach and stone walls that housed cannons when Europeans continually fought over Statia. (From 1636 to 1815, flags changed 22 times.)

“Conquests of Statia were front-page news in Europe,” says Hellebrand, a former documentary filmmaker who came home to focus on the story of his birthplace. “This was the Caribbean’s busiest port. Now, nobody’s even heard of the place.”

Statia rose under the Dutch as a free port and hub for repackaging, allowing businesses to circumvent the mercantilist era’s restrictions on trade beyond one’s empire.

“Plantation owners and European manufacturers loved that you could buy or sell anything here, quickly, anytime you wanted,” Hellebrand says. “The warehouses were stocked with every imaginable product. It’s been called Pompeii of the Caribbean, because of the ruin. I’d compare it more to Carthage.”

Statia was a gathering place for the emerging West, with a population at least three times the current 3,500. Many languages were spoken, and a significant Jewish community contributed greatly to Statia’s boom.

Strolling the upper town with Hellebrand, the island’s director of monuments, it’s tough not to think of former inhabitants. Pirates and spies, prostitutes and barkeeps, soldiers, sailors and slaves knew these streets. Little imagination is needed to sense the ghosts.

But Statia was also where Americans acquired arms for their revolution, which indirectly scuttled Statia.

“It’s ironic,” Hellebrand says. “Our national holiday (Statia Day) celebrates, in part, the salute given an American ship (Nov. 16, 1776). It’s considered the first foreign recognition of U.S. independence, but within 40 years, the very establishment of the free-trading U.S. made us obsolete. We fell off the map.”

Being bypassed has advantages. Hellebrand, Roach and others say if trade had continued or mass tourism had come, relics of the past would have been destroyed for redevelopment.

“Statia’s not for everyone,” Roach says. “Our hotels are all small, but guests get to know their hosts,” he says, mentioning Scotty Newton of Statia Lodge, who picked me up at the airport, and Laura and Win (Piechutzki) at the Kings Well resort, where macaws visit guests at breakfast.

Macaws were introduced to the island by the owners of the Kings Well resort, but they've naturalized.

Statia attracts 4,000 tourists a year, mostly European divers. But there’s growth. The Old Gin House, a hotel and restaurant in a former sugar mill, and Mazinga on the Bay, a gift shop and gathering place rebuilt from ruins, have triggered waterfront interest. Many hike the Quill volcano’s rainforest crater or take in views from the rim.

Statia is also a rare pedestrian-friendly island, and not just due to a lack of crime. There aren’t many cars and I never saw one go faster than 30 km/h. They can’t and they don’t have to.

Hellebrand, meanwhile, says he has nothing against a company that wants to expand a largely hidden oil terminal into a visible area of Statia, “but the plan isn’t necessary and I think most people want to focus on tourism for economic expansion.

“We’ll never be into mass tourism, but we’re unique,” he says. “We’ll never have big cruise ships and white sand beaches, which is fine. We don’t have the infrastructure for mass tourism, but we have a beautiful, well-kept secret.”

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING WestJet, Air Canada and Sunwing fly direct to St. Maarten. From there, it’s a 20-minute flight on Winair. Flight-hotel packages can be booked through statiaholiday.com, operated by Authentic Caribbean Holidays, for about $1,600 (all prices U.S.).

SLEEPING There are no big resorts. Country Inn near Zeelandia Beach starts at $50 (U.S.) a night. Housekeeping bungalows at Statia Lodge are $140 and include Wi-Fi and a light breakfast. The Old Gin House, a beautifully restored sugar mill, is $147 to $330 a night. Links to hotels and restaurants are at statiatourism.com.

DINING If there’s an expensive restaurant on the island I couldn’t find it. Smoke Alley does steak and lobster, and has lots of specials. Blue Bead specializes in French and Italian. Original Fruit Tree and Super Burger (not just a burger joint) are good and affordable for lunch or dinner.

GETTING AROUND Nearly everything is so close you probably won’t need a car. Hotels tend to look after rides to and from the airport, though locals walk. If you pick Statia Lodge, you might want to rent a scooter for $20 a day.

DOING It’s a quiet island that’s big with scuba divers, who come from around the world to the marine national park. Hike the Quill volcano, but definitely hire a guide at statiapark.org, especially if you want to descend into the rain-forested crater (full day at $90). Historical walking tours of Oranjestad, for a suggested donation of $10, leave from the museum steustatiushistory.org. Cool Corner is fun for conversation and beer, but the Chinese food wasn’t great. There are only a couple of beaches and the dark volcanic sand gets hot. Currents off Atlantic side make swimming dangerous.