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Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2011
Caribbean Odyssey Cruise - Part 3

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7 December - St John's, Antigua

We had been looking forward to visiting Antigua. It is a small island, just 12 miles in diameter, shaped like a heart, and with the finest beaches in the Caribbean. There are over 350 beaches so almost one for each day of the year. We arrived at the capital, St John's, to another beautiful hot sunny morning. St John's is home to about one third of the population of Antigua, and has good cruise ship facilities. We were berthed next to Carnival Freedom, so the town was full of tourists.

During previous visits we had always gone to the beach and never had time to visit St John’s so after a leisurely breakfast we set off along the High Street, crossing Thames Street. Twelve miles from St John's is the famous Nelson's Dockyard in English Harbour, with Falmouth marina only a short distance from there. Memories of home for British colonials are everwhere in the names of towns and street, and the style of buildings. St John's is a small town and we soon reached Government House and St John’s Cathedral. The Cathedral Church of St John the Divine with its twin towers is an iconic historic monument as well as a famous church. It was rebuilt in 1845 following the destruction of the previous building in the earthquake of 1843. It is in a sad condition now, having survived recent earthquakes and hurricanes, but suffering from the ravages of Time. Initial restoration work focussed on removing, repairing and replacing the leaking roof, but then in December 2009 it was found that the entire floor was dangerous due to rot and termites and the building was closed. An extensive and expensive programme of demolition, repair and restoration is being carried out. Unfortunately it is all very slow and the local community has an appeal for funds and help. There is a blog and website giving uptodate progress. As I write this in July 2012 it is reported that the roof, aisles and pews have been removed, starting Phase One of a four stage programme of work.

When we visit a town we like to spend time in the Museums and visit cathedrals and important churches. So our next stop was at the Museum of Antigua and Barbuda, housed in the historic British colonial Court House. This is the oldest building in St John's and dates from 1750. The Museum was opened in 1985 and describes the story of Antigua and Barbuda from the beginning until political independence in 1981. There is a lot of interesting material including many old B/W photographs and a reference library. We would have liked to spend longer there.

Back outside we melted in the heat and decide to go back to our nice airconditioned ship. It seemed a pity to hide indoors and we had seen a bar looking out onto the moorings where a local ice-cold beer or two improved our temperature and we could chill out on a bar stool just like the locals.

8 December - St Kitts

St Kitts has been the Caribbean Island that has impressed us most so far during this voyage. We first came to St Kitts on the Cunard Countess twenty years ago in 1991. It has changed since then but still seems less impacted by mass tourism than the other islands and is the only island we have visited this time that we would seriously consider for a holiday.

Christopher Columbus first spotted St. Kitts in 1493 and named it St Christopher after the patron Saint of travellers. It and the nearby island of Nevis are located in the Leeward Islands. Unlike many other islands, the local Kalinago people allowed Europeans to colonise and it was the first island to be colonised by the British (in 1623) and from that time on it has played a pivotal role in the development of the area and has been known as the Mother Colony. Saint Kitts. For a short period the French and British had settlements and in 1626, the Anglo-French settlers combined forces to massacre the local inhabitants. That was the followed by the best part of a century of intermittent warfare between the French and British which saw many changes in ownership before it eventually became British and remained so up to the formation of the West Indies Federation in 1958. During this period its strategic location and valuable sugar trade led to an advanced and luxurious development that was among the best in the Colonial Caribbean. It is now part of the Federation of Saint Kitts and Nevis a federal two-island nation and is the smallest sovereign state in the Americas, in both area and population. Since 19 September 1983 it is an independent country within the Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth II as its head of state, represented in St. Kitts and Nevis by a Governor-General, who acts on the advice of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet. It has a National Assembly composed of fourteen members: eleven elected Representatives (three from the island of Nevis) and three Senators who are appointed by the Governor-General. Two of the senators are appointed on the advice of the Prime Minister, and one on the advice of the leader of the opposition. All members serve five-year terms.

The capital city and headquarters of government is Basseterre on the larger island of Saint Kitts and that is where we docked. The smaller state of Nevis lies about 2 miles (3 km) southeast of Saint Kitts, across a shallow channel called "The Narrows". The islands are of volcanic origin, with large central peaks covered in tropical rainforest; the steeper slopes leading to these peaks are mostly uninhabited. The highest peak, at 1,156 metres, is Mount Liamuiga. The majority of the population on both islands live close to the sea where the terrain flattens out. There are numerous rivers descending from the mountains of both islands, which provide fresh water to the local population. St. Kitts also has one small lake.

On our three previous visits on the Cunard Countess we took catamaran trips on the Spirit of St Kitts which showed us the coastline, beaches and had snorkeling opportunities along with copious amounts of rum punch. It was. and still is, a beautiful sailing catamaran, some 78 feet long and able to achieve a speed of about 30 knots - almost as fast as the QE2 ! It was also one of the few sailing catamarans in the Caribbean where the crew actually know how to sail, enjoy sailing, and can sail well. It was so much fun we never actually saw the island, only the ocean and the beaches. This time we thought we should explore more of the island starting with Basseterre and possibly taking a taxi trip to one of the beaches. When we came off the ship we were right at the heart of the town and there were numerous offers of trips round the island taking 3 or so hours ending back at the beaches at and near Frigate bay (about 8 miles away) before returning. These were much more reasonably priced ($20 each) than on the other islands and the drivers much less intrusive/aggressive in their sales tactics and another time we would certainly take one of the round trips or trip to a beach (~$12 each way).

We however wanted to first explore the town which has a population of 16,000 (out of a total population of 40,000 for St Kitts and Nevis) and is generally considered to be one of the best remaining examples of a traditional West Indies town although it has had to survive its fair share of fires, hurricanes and earthquakes. Passing through the archway at Port Zante it was a short walk to the Circus, modelled on Piccadilly Circus in London, where the four main streets all meet. The junction was created after the 'Great Fire' of Basseterre of 1867. In the centre is the Berkeley Memorial clock, erected in honour of Thomas Berkeley Hardtman Berkeley. We were now in the heart of the main commercial area of Historic Basseterre.

We walked round many of the streets and our first major stop was at the Anglican Church of St. George's which has along history. The Jesuits first built a Church in 1670 which was burned to the ground by English soldiers billeted there in 1706. It was re-built in 1710 and was taken over for Anglican worship in the 1720’s. It was damaged again in the fire of 1763, but once again restored. The earthquake of 1842, followed by the hurricane of 1843, reduced it to so ruinous a condition that a new Church was consecrated in 1858. Seven years afterwards, it was gutted in the Great Fire of 1867; and was promptly restored. It is a sturdy stone church made of andesite rock with a slate roof and would not be out of place in Britain. It is now in arguably the best condition of any church we have seen in the Caribbean - we spent some time inside and were given a lot of information by some of the locals, especially about the organ. It was being prepared for a major funeral later in the day and all the grounds were being mowed and the inside decorated and all the pews labeled in preparation.

Next door to the church is the oldest public building in town . The Wesley chapel was built in 1822, a building of dark stone measuring 75 feet by 55 feet that could seat a congregation of 1500. It replaced an earlier wooden structure. The Chapel uniquely survived the numerous disasters that caused so much damage in Basseterre over the years.

Our next landmark was Independence Square, formerly called Pall Mall Square. Originally the site of the slave market in the 18th century, it is an attractive park with fountains and a pleasant spot to sit in the shade. The square is enclosed by Georgian houses where the ground floor are made from volcanic stone and the upper storey made of wood with galleries. The Catholic co-Cathedral is on the far (eastern) side with the Court House nearby.  

We continued our meanderings through the shopping and commercial area and were confronted by the International House Museum. We did not go inside, but subsequent research indicates it is full of an enormous amount of local information, piles and piles of information, not organised sanitised or catalogued. As you can see from the photo, the building in Central Street is unmistakeable. there is nothing like it in Basseterre, or in the Caribbean or even in the entire world. Next time we may spend a day visiting it. Our next major stop was at the Museum which is in the Old Treasury Building which has served many generations of public servants and almost every department of Government has at one time been located in it. The building was completed in 1894, replacing a wooden structure which also had an archway through which people arriving and leaving the island would pass - the building was often referred to as ‘The Gateway to Basseterre’. Lack of maintenance and a series of hurricanes between 1989 and 1999 left the building in disrepair before the Government and the St. Christopher Heritage Society started restoration and it remains one of the largest public buildings in the town of Basseterre. The locals believe that the establishment of a National Museum has great significance in the development of a Nation, especially in a newly independent country that is trying to forge an identity and foster national awareness and it was obvious they took great pride in it. They are also proud of their links with Royalty and there are special exhibits to commemorate their previous visits as well as the special exhibition commemorating the 25th Anniversary of Independence and progress they have made since then.

We found it very informative and although it only covers a few rooms we spent a long time there and came to understand a lot more about St Kitts and Nevis as well as the development of the Caribbean as a whole and the changes that have been forced on them as well as the paths they have chosen to follow. What was unexpected is that the population is so small yet the progress and changes have been so great. Initially St Kitts was totally dependent on sugar cane and, in practice, that also meant slavery – at the peak there were approximately ten times the number of African slaves to white Europeans and the island had many huge sugar estates yielded a fortune in sugar and rum for their wealthy, mostly absentee, landholders. By the time of the American Revolution, 68 sugar plantations existed on St. Kitts, one for every square mile. The plantation owners not only exported their sugar products all round the world but are also credited with production innovations that led St. Kitts to become the world leader in sugar cane cultivation, and a catalyst for the industrial revolution.

But this could not last as there was increasing pressure to end slavery and once more St Kitts was in the forefront and the arguments and writings of prominent English residents of St. Kitts are said to have critically influenced the abolition of the British slave trade in 1807. The total abolishment of slavery throughout all the British colonies in 1834 ended the precedence of sugar cane as European beet sugar now consistently undersold Caribbean cane. Despite many consolidations and improvements in refining and nationalisation which kept the industry alive even if not commercially viable the end was inevitable and finally in. 2005 as profits continued to plummet the Government closed both the cane fields and sugar factory. Tourism and financial services are now the major source of income for St. Kitts. Former sugar plantations still dominate the St. Kitts landscape, however many of the cane fields are being burned to make room for land development, especially on the northern side of the island. The sugar train railway is now a tourist attraction taking visitors through the ruins of the plantations whilst the historic buildings are being turned into luxury hotels and restaurants. The increase in Tourism has been impressive with an increase in visitors of 40% in a 2 year period. As tourism has grown there has been a matching demand for vacation property which St Kitts and Nevis has exploited to acquire direct foreign investment from a ‘citizenship by investment program’ which was mandated in their Citizenship Act of 1984. Interested parties can acquire Citizenship if they pass the government's background checks and make an investment into an approved real estate development. The St. Kitts’ citizenship program was the first regulated and legitimate citizenship program of this kind in the world and an investment in property of as little as $350k seems to be sufficient to gain citizenship and a new passport. Financial services are also a major source of income and the figures in the museum indicated there were nearly 4 Billion dollars under management which seemed quite large for a population of 40,000 with and average income of $10,000.

Overall it seemed much more self confident than the other Caribbean Countries and there was much less of the frantic scrabble to extract every cent from visitors even before they left the port – they were looking much more to the long term. We can certainly see coming back for a holiday as there is plenty do and see.

Finally, having looked everywhere to purchase another St Kitts hand painted T-shirt - Pauline bought several 20 years ago but they are now rather old and need to be replaced - there is a nice local crafts and souvenir shop next to the Museum. Having shown the old T-shirt we were pointed towards a stack of T-shirts, sadly most of which were far too large. They cater for the typical American tourist who is definitely not a UK size 12. However she looked in all the sizes and eventually found one which had been put away in the wrong place. It is also her favourite colour, bright red!

The new Pelican Shopping Mall was full of the usual souvenirs and expensive duty free shops, as well as people having their last drinks before getting back onboard. The Queen Elizabeth sailed away in the sunshine. After dinner we had booked a Theare Box for this evening's performance and settled down with our champagne cocktails. We still miss all the free rum punches and the Cunard Countess, but champagne and the Queen Elizabeth is a good combination too. We were too tired to join the dancing in the Queen's Room which was still going well as we approched midnight.

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