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.

French flair and Dutch treats

St. Martin and St. Maarten are two distinct nations basking in Caribbean sunshine on either side of the world’s shortest undefended border 

Historic Fort Louis stands guard over Marigot, the French-side capital. The 17th-century courthouse (top) in Philipsburg, the Dutch-side capital, may be the most photographed building on the island. (Stephen Wickens photos)

 

This story first appeared in The Globe and Mail on February, 18, 2006. The new airport and the Westin Hotel have since been completed and some specifics in the story, such as prices, will be out of date. Since 2010, when the Netherlands Antilles was dissolved, St. Maarten has been a constituent country within the Dutch Kingdom. Since 2007, St. Martin has been a separate “collectivite” of France, rather than a part of Guadeloupe. Reconstruction was has finally begun at Mullet Bay Beach Club. 

By STEPHEN WICKENS

BAIE NETTLE, ST. MARTIN — In Dutch St. Maarten, they really want your business.

Here on the French side of the island? Well, not so much.

Generalizations are always dangerous. But visitors who spend much time crossing what may be the world’s shortest undefended border will probably notice much more than differences in currency and language, phone numbers and the shape of electrical plugs.

It’s rare to find a small island with so much variety (at 37 square miles, it’s about one-seventh the size of Toronto). If you don’t want anything other than a North American-style vacation with casinos, nightlife and the option of fast food, load up on U.S. dollars and stay on the Dutch side, which is part of the Netherlands Antilles. It’s where your flight will land, and nearly everyone speaks English.

But if you prefer European insouciance, a good night’s sleep and a particular emphasis on good food, load up on euros and head for the other side, part of France’s department of Guadeloupe. Here, the gas station convenience store offers great pastries, tiny groceterias have huge cheese counters and even a beachside snack bar offers a long list of gourmet salads. Just be forewarned: all of this can come with attitude — and a little Gauloise smoke with your breakfast.

“Oh, the French are always trying to be so different,” William Bell says half-jokingly of the island’s split personality. Bell, a former member of the Netherlands Antilles volleyball team, considers himself Dutch. But his wife is from the French side and their two multilingual sons must eventually choose to become citizens of the Antilles or of France and the European Union.

There are, naturally, things common to both sides apart from reliable weather: It’s the only entirely duty-free island in the Caribbean, and shopaholics make parking difficult in both Marigot and Philipsburg (the French- and Dutch-side capitals, respectively).

The island is also very cosmopolitan, considering there are fewer than 100,000 residents. You’ll hear boasts of 77 to 135 nationalities here. And, while it’s said that quality dining was once the preserve of the French side, things have clearly evened out. Restaurants aren’t cheap — entrées run from $48 to $60, especially in the touristy areas of Marigot — but not one meal disappointed over the course of my one-week stay.

The cultural divide, however, is very clear. When I call St. Maarten’s Toronto office, a representative picks up messages on her Christmas break. In five calls to the French side’s Montreal office, I’m twice forgotten on hold.

Once on the island, a Dutch-side official is again eager to help by providing a tour of the whole island, including the French side. As for his French counterpart, it takes repeated phone calls to make appointments he doesn’t keep.

D’Jackson Suriam laughs upon hearing of my ordeal. “It’s not just you,” says the owner of Madinina, a Creole restaurant at Baie Nettlé. “I am French and I prefer it here on the French side. But the Dutch, they know how to make it easy for you to start a business …  or spend your money.”

Maybe that’s why the Dutch side is booming. Cramped and antiquated Princess Juliana Airport is getting a new terminal and runway extension, slated for completion in July. Condo, time-share and hotel construction appears to be everywhere on the Dutch lowlands in the southwest (with the exception of the Mullet Bay Beach Club, ruined by Hurricane Luis in 1995 and not yet rebuilt because of a legal battle). A new Westin hotel is going up at Dawn Beach, while redevelopment of the waterfront continues at Philipsburg.

Philipsburg has also made a name for itself in international yachting. The Heineken Regatta ensures both sides of the island are hopping in early March. The 12-metre challenge and its fleet of former America’s Cup boats has become a year-round sports fantasy camp for sailors.

Still, the French side isn’t entirely sleepy. Construction around Marigot’s harbour is aimed at luring wealthy mega-yacht owners, and many locals hope development will be spurred by a recent agreement to make St. Martin a separate department of France by 2008, a move that will allow Marigot to deal directly with Paris rather than having to go through Guadeloupe.

And in many respects, the laid-back approach to tourism in Gallic St. Martin is what appeals to both guests and residents. On his tour of the island, William Bell of the Dutch tourism office spends nearly as much time showing off the charms of the French side — scenic undeveloped areas in the northeast, the street-side restaurants of a picturesque former fishing village called Grand Case, and clothing-optional Orient Beach.

“I don’t mind that you prefer staying on the French side,” Mr. Bell tells me. “Lot’s of people like its style, without any fast food. But I know lots of people will prefer the Dutch nightlife. Either way, with the split personality and the hilly scenery on such a small island, there’s really nothing else like it in the Caribbean.”

JUST THE FACTS 

  • Air Canada, Westjet and Sunwing all fly directly from Toronto. Cheaper fares can be had on U.S. carriers, if you’re willing to switch planes at an American hub airport.
  • Take a day trip to Tintamarre, an uninhabited flat island east of St. Martin. It’s now a nature preserve with pristine beaches, great snorkelling and endangered species. It was once a mini-kingdom with its own currency. A battle is brewing over plans for an onsite wind farm.
  • Do the Fort Louis and the “On the Trail of the Arawaks” tour with biologist-geologist-archeologist-historian Christophe Henocq. The museum, which is going into a former prison from the 1700s, is a little hokey, but Henocq is a passionate and entertaining leader.
  • For more activities on both sides of the island check out this link or this link
  • St. Maarten/St. Martin is a hub for the northeastern Caribbean, and a short hop to other destinations such as St. Barthelemy, Saba, St. Eustatius and Anguilla. Day trips to Anguilla by ferry are popular, but remember to bring your passport.

 

A prayer for Bermuda tourism

Nation that pioneered the era of modern vacationing pines for good old days 

This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on April 23, 2011. Johnny Barnes is still going strong, but Princess and Caravan cruise lines have since slashed their visits to Bermuda.

By STEPHEN WICKENS

Johnny Barnes may now be as much of a Bermuda icon as those shorts that make otherwise serious men look like cub masters.

HAMILTON, BERMUDA – Johnny Barnes rises before the sun every weekday and walks three kilometres to Crow Lane roundabout.

There, from 5 to 10 a.m., the 87-year-old waves and blows kisses, often yelling, “Bless you, have a wonderful day.” Commuters enthusiastically honk and wave back, a few yelling things such as, “Johnny! We love you.”

The show of affection has gone on for nearly three decades, rain or shine. So when a doctor’s appointment recently forced him to miss a day, media outlets and the police were flooded with phone calls.

Barnes might now be as much of an icon in Bermuda as those shorts that make otherwise serious men look like Cub masters. Even tourists make the pilgrimage to Johnny’s corner these days.

“I used to think he was nuts,” cab driver Robbie Powell says. “But now the whole country treasures Johnny. There’s already a great statue of him, though it probably won’t be moved to the roundabout till after he’s gone.”

Stop and talk with Barnes and he’ll pray for you. On this early April day, he joins hands with a couple of Canadians and beseeches God to grant us, among other things, a safe trip home. But maybe, with a national debate raging and page one of the Bermuda Sun declaring this the “Last chance to save tourism,” Barnes’s prayers should focus on luring more visitors to this sub-tropical Atlantic Ocean paradise a 1,000 kilometres off the North Carolina coast.

Bermuda is renowned among those who love to fish for marlin, tuna and barracuda. It’s a mecca for divers seeking shipwrecks and coral reefs to explore. If you love historic forts, litter-free streets, golf, luxury accommodations, friendly service and gorgeous beaches, it may be the place for you.

But if you must soak up the sun on those beaches, wait till mid-April, when the return of summer-like weather is heralded by migrating humpback whales and sightings of an iconic bird, the Bermuda longtail. And if you’re less than wealthy, consider housekeeping accommodations and trips to the supermarket so you can cook some of your meals.

Bermuda is many things, but it’s not a Caribbean destination for winter sun seekers and it’s not cheap. Those are probably the key underlying causes of the angst gripping an island that in some ways pioneered the era of modern tourism.

It fell off the radar for most Canadians when the loonie plumbed record depths in the 1980s and ‘90s. Though many have returned and our dollar is worth more than the greenback (to which Bermuda’s dollar is pegged, one to one), prices can sting like the Portuguese man o’ war you’ll be warned of on some of the pink sand beaches.

“We’re counting on Canadians; Canada is our second largest market,” William Griffith, the island’s tourism director said at a conference on sustainable travel put on by the Caribbean Tourism Organization. “Your strong dollar and the fact WestJet started competing with Air Canada has had an impact.”

Overall visitor totals have rebounded slightly since the worst of the recession that began in 2008, and the Canadian total rose 22 per cent in 2010. But politicians, industry people and media are conducting a surprisingly frank and open debate for a tourist destination—and with good reason.

Since the 1980s, trips to the island are off more than 50 per cent while 83 hotels have closed. Tourism remains the No. 2 industry behind financial services, but now accounts for less than 5 per cent of overall economic activity.

Mark Twain helped popularize Bermuda as a pioneering tourism destination, but in recent decades visitor totals have plunged.

An exhibit at the National Museum, part of the renovated Royal Navy Dockyard, views the heyday of tourism as something very much in the past.

“When the music changes, so must the dance,” Bermuda’s Canadian-born, McGill-educated Premier Paula Cox says. “Our tourism infrastructure became, in many cases, outdated.”

Things are costly on the island partly because it’s so remote and small. It’s the sixth-densest nation on earth (No. 8 if you include Vatican City and Monaco) and unlike Hong Kong and Singapore, it has no high-rises to speak of. Except for fish and a few vegetables, food is imported. Along with the land shortage, real estate values have soared in recent decades on a flood of insurance company money and wealth from people seeking favourable tax treatment.

Whether it’s worthwhile for the island to spice up its nightlife, add casinos or reach a little bit down-market is part of the current debate.

But one thing is certain, the extremely wealthy have first dibs on where to vacation, and you don’t have to be on this island long to know why so many still choose Bermuda.

JUST THE FACTS

ARRIVING: Served by WestJet and Air Canada, it’s only a 2½-hour flight from Toronto.

SLEEPING: Fairmont’s Princess and the Rosedon are jewels in Hamilton, the capital city. For a wide range of more modestly priced guest houses, B&Bs and housekeeping units, try this link. More than a dozen hotels are offering every third night free in April, every fourth night in May and every fifth in June.

DINING: Supermarket prices are higher than Toronto, but a good option if you feel pinched in restaurants. If you ask locals picks for reasonably priced restaurants, you will undoubtedly hear Mad Hatters and the Lemon Tree Café, both in Hamilton. At the west end of the island, the Frog and Onion’s home brew beers and pub style food are a hit. If you’re at the nearby Bonefish, ask for Bermudian-style fish, even if it’s not on the menu. It comes in a white sauce that is surprisingly light (too bad about the overdone veggies it came with). Most places charge a gratuity up front. It’s usually 15-17 per cent, meaning you’re not expected to tip. The splurge: The Waterlot Inn has been serving great filet mignon since 1670. If you’re in the Waterlot, check out the wine list: it’s a tome with offerings worth up to $1,500 a bottle.

DRINKING: The Dark and Stormy, considered the national cocktail, is one part Gosling’s Black Seal rum and two parts Barritt’s ginger beer. The “Rum Swizzle” combines dark and light rums with orange and pineapple juice, fresh lime, grenadine and Angostura bitters.

GETTING AROUND: Most roads lack sidewalks, so pedestrians should remember to walk facing into traffic, which in Bermuda is on the right side. Cars were not legal until 1946, and they’re still restricted – one per household. Tourists may not rent them. Mopeds and scooters are an option. Service provided by hard-to-miss pink buses is good. Tokens are $2.50 each. Taxis and ferries are also big parts of the transportation system.

DOING: If you have time, clear skies and the energy to climb the 185 steps, Gibb’s Hill Lighthouse, built in 1846, is a great place to survey the hook-shaped island. But no map of the place is complete without the surrounding rings of reefs, some of which were still islands that provided initial refuge for shipwrecked first residents (clearly, the seas are rising). It’s believed there are as many as 300 wrecks in the vicinity.

Scooters are common on Bermuda, but that piece of litter beside it is an extreme rarity.

DON’T MISS: St. George, the original capital, is the oldest English city in the Western Hemisphere and is now a UNESCO world heritage site. In centuries hence, if people look for great landmarks of the British Empire the way modern man looks at relics of Rome, Bermuda and its many forts may be viewed as the best example. The Royal Navy Dockyard has been transformed for tourists in recent years, complete with facilities for mega cruise ships. It’s a history buff’s delight and artist Graham Foster’s four-wall mural in the Commissioner’s building is stunning. Fort St. Catherine, at the island’s east end is the best of the forts. Also, make to time to walk the streets of Hamilton, a place where pieces of public sculpture outnumber pieces of litter. Even the indigents use the trash bins.