Once I decided on a Christmas cruise, I was determined to soak up the "local" experience on the ports I'd be visiting.
Long before leaving, I was deep into researching the right cruise. I hit the jackpot -- Celebrity Cruises' 14-day Southern Caribbean itinerary on the Eclipse, from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., to Oranjestad, Aruba, with stops in Curaçao, Grenada, Barbados, St. Lucia, Antigua, St. Maarten and Haiti. Here are some of the highlights.
Willemstad, both Curaçao's capital and main port, is easy to navigate on foot. The architecture is smaller, pastel-coloured buildings that provide a warmth to the city. Legend has it the buildings were white but that gave the governor migraines, so he ordered the palette of colours... it's unclear if he owned the island's only paint store.
Grenada is the "spice island" and I met a most interesting driver, Ezekiel Jones. Known simply as Eze, he drove me around the island for five hours, missing pedestrians and vehicles by inches while briefing me on Grenada's history -- nutmeg and cocoa are the biggest crops. Grand Anse Beach, about two kilometres of beautiful white sand, was on his list and close to the port. Also on Eze's list was driving by his house and meeting two of his seven children.
From the port at St. George's, the landscape climbs quickly and soon we were at the River Antoine Rum Distillery, a historic old mill powered by a water wheel that made pure organic rum, boiled by giant furnaces like you might find in an old steel mill.
A jigger of the guide's private stash trickled from my throat to my shoes for an hour, as adrenalin and pain flooded my face. Eze just laughed. Don't look for the brand in a liquor store at home -- all they make is sold on the island.
At Grenada's Belmont Estate cocoa plantation, I was walked through the process of turning cocoa pods into a product ready for chocolate. That included a barefoot walk to spread the beans drying in the hot sun.
In St. Maarten, ships dock in Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side of this island. So to avoid the crowds, I made a beeline to Marigot, the capital of the French side of the island, Saint Martin.
In Marigot, my guide -- so to speak -- was author and TV personality Anthony Bourdain. Nine years ago, he wrote about a small outdoor family restaurant called Rosemary's, located close to the outdoor market. He loved the food (and I did too) and you'll find his review inside the menu. The Creole chicken and ribs with plantain and spicy rice were superb.
My Barbados itinerary was organized by Marilyn Soper, former manager of the Hilton Barbados who is now retired in Vancouver. Topping her list was the Bridgetown fish market, where I listened to Bajan chatter and admired the skills required to prepare every conceivable kind of fish.
While many restaurants make "pudding and souse" on Saturdays, Marilyn claimed the best one was an hour away in Lemon Arbour, a suburban restaurant and bar. Pudding is made from seasoned sweet potato and the souse is lime-pickled pig, traditionally from parts such as the feet, tail and ears, but Lemon Arbour offers a lean souse made from lean pieces of pork.
Nothing fancy at this eatery: plastic container with matching fork, and a view of hills and fields. One picnic table was marked "reserved" -- for locals I assume. But the vehicles lined up to take away anywhere from two to a dozen containers told the tail, uh, tale.
Marilyn's final recommendation was Bush Bar -- not far from where the Eclipse docked -- a hangout for local businessmen, politicians and workers who come to drink and debate every conceivable topic, starting with politics.
In all, it was just another "locals" day on the cruise.
-- Postmedia Network Inc. 2014