Caribbean Cruise – Charlotte Amalie, St Thomas

We woke on Christmas morning in the bay of Charlotte Amalie on the island of St Thomas.  We had had a faux Christmas prior to departing on vacation but Santa, of course, had still magicked himself down the ship’s funnel to fill the stockings.  The boys opened those and some gifts from their grandparents, then we grabbed a quick breakfast, and headed onto dry land.  Unfortunately our oldest son was stricken with the same truly rotten cold that had felled a few of us in December and did not feel up to exploring so he stayed aboard the ship in order to rest and recuperate.

While my in-laws poked around in the the many shops of Charlotte Amalie, we Picts decided to take in some of the other sights of the town.  Charlotte Amalie is the largest city and the capital of the US Virgin Islands.  As a colonial town, it was founded by the Danish in the 17th Century.  Our first stop, therefore, was Fort Christian, the oldest extant building in the Virgin Islands.  In addition to that, the Fort also houses a museum and is a National Historic Landmark.  Unfortunately, thanks to it being Christmas Day and the midst of a government shutdown, we were unable to visit other than to see the exterior.

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St Thomas has deep harbours and that meant it was an ideal location for pirates and their ships.  We saw lots of nods to this history of pillaging and skullduggery as we milled about the streets.  Everyone loves (old timey) pirates after all.  Some of us grew up with Long John Silver and some grew up with Captain Jack Sparrow but we all enjoy a good pirate tale, whether fiction or history.  Apparently Charlotte Amalie is particularly associated with Bluebeard and Blackbeard (beards compulsory?) and one of the island’s attractions is Blackbeard’s Castle.  We knew it was closed – thanks not only to Christmas and the shutdown but sadly also storm damage from the recent hurricanes – but we thought we would go and have a look see regardless.  It is always useful for us to have a goal in mind when wandering with children.

The climb was steep and the steps took us past Government House.  We stopped to admire its architecture and to have a quick breather before ascending the final flights of steps to reach the peak and Blackbeard’s Castle.  Although its name associates it with the infamous pirate, the structure was actually built as a defensive watchtower by the Danish since Fort Christian was at sea level.  It now houses a pirate museum which the boys would have loved.  Sigh.  Still, we cannot complain about the poor timing of our tourist wanderings given the damage and distress Hurricane Irma caused for the Virgin Islanders.  I wandered the perimeter fence but could not get a decent look at the tower.  I did manage to get a photo of a statue of Edward Teach by poking my camera lens against a rust hole.  We could see something of the tower from the street.  The best view was from the statue of the Three Queens, honouring the enslaved leaders of the Fireburn rebellion.

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We then took the famous 99 steps back down to the main streets.  Apparently the same warehouses that now house jewellery and fashion stores were once where smugglers and pirates stored their booty but I am sure they were used for legit purposes too.  We walked a long stretch of Dronningen’s Gade, ignoring all the banter from shopkeepers, because I was on a mission.  One house on the street was the birthplace of the Impressionist artist Camille Pissarro.  I had researched the number of the house but the numbering system was confusing.  Furthermore, the rain had started when we were up at Blackbeard’s Castle admiring the views – and watching the precipitation advancing – and it was absolutely hammering down as we pounded the pavements.  When we found ourselves in a decidedly dodgy area, we decided to retreat and I had to give up on my mission.  However, on reviewing my photos later that evening, I realised I had taken a photo of my youngest son beneath a sign that declared the building to be the birthplace of Pissarro.  So I somehow managed to both accomplish and fail my mission.

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While I had always intended to return to the ship after wandering the town in order to check on our oldest son, Mr Pict and the other kids had planned on going to the beach.  However, the boys had a change of heart having become drenched in the rain so we all hopped on a taxi (cars drive on the left incidentally) and they used the ship’s pool instead, taking advantage of the fact most people were away for the day.

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Caribbean Cruise – Dominican Republic

Our first destination on the cruise was the Dominican Republic.  It was the only day on which we went on an organised excursion.  This was a good move for two reasons.  First of all, the ship docked in a cove that was designed purely for cruise ships which meant it was completely artificial and overtly touristy and the nearest actual town was too far to walk to.  Secondly, the excursion turned out to be excellent and allowed us far greater insights into the Dominican Republic than our own explorations would have done.

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We met with our tour guide and driver and hopped on the minibus.  There were the eight of us and a dozen other people so it was a small group.  The nearest city to the dock was Puerto Plata and, as we drove through, our guide was able to point out several things unique to the country and explain a bit about the culture.  We saw lots of whole roasted pigs on sticks being cooked and sold at stalls on the busy streets.  We learned that this was because this type of roasted pork was the traditional meat for Christmas dinner and lots of people would be buying it that day, Christmas Eve.  We were also informed that the city took its name not from the metal silver but because of a particular tree that grew on the hillsides, the grey leaves of which seemed to look silvery in the mountain fog.  Our drive also took us past various views of the mountain named Isabella.  We learned that this was a name bestowed upon it by Christopher Columbus and that the first European village in the New World was located nearby.  It was such a beautiful place to be the launch pad of a history of disease, conflict, slavery, and genocide.

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Soon we were leaving the city and were wildly bouncing and careering along unsurfaced, winding, uphill roads that took us into the lush vegetation of the rural areas of Puerto Plata province.  On the way, we learned about eclectic subjects such as vernacular architecture, mahogany, the lottery, and tiny stores that sell individual ingredients such as one egg or a few slices of meat at a time.  Our destination was a village where we could learn more about the rural way of life in the region.  We were invited to enter one home, which was Tardis like in its use of space.  I especially enjoyed seeing the kitchen, which was an adjacent but separate building from the home, and the clay wood fired cooker.

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We were shown around the agricultural area and the produce being grown was identified and its uses explained to us.  I found that to be thoroughly interesting.  I, for one, had never seen coffee plants in real life before.  I also saw my first breadfruit tree.  Our 9 year old had two bucket list items for his time in the Caribbean: to see bananas growing and to see cacao in the wild.  He achieved both goals on the trip as there were seven varieties of banana being grown, including a red variety I had never seen before, and there were trees full of cacao pods.  Our wee chocoholic was elated.  He was even more ecstatic when he learned that he was going to get to sample hot chocolate made from the locally grown cacao.  It was richly delicious.  Other members of the family tried the freshly ground coffee.  We all thoroughly enjoyed chunks of freshly harvested pineapple and guava.

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Our next stop was the village elementary school.  As an educator, I found it really interesting to see the similarities and differences in the education system and the way the school buildings and classrooms were organised.  I was, however, glad that school was not in session (given it was Christmas Eve) as I would have felt uncomfortable seeing the students used props for tourists.

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We then had a break for lunch.  It was a buffet of the types of food Dominicans would eat on a typical day.  I especially enjoyed the rice and beans.  The boys loved the fried chicken.  During our lunch pit stop, there was some dancing entertainment to showcase the fusion of indigenous, African, and European culture in the Dominican Republic.  We also saw a man making cigars and sampled some local alcohol.  Our cat fanatic 9 year old was absolutely thrilled to meet a local cat.

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The final destination for the day was a beach, as this area of the country is famed for its beautiful beaches.  The boys loved the opportunity to just let loose and splash and crash among the waves.  Our guides provided some body boards so they tried that out too.  Even as someone who does not like sand, I had to agree it was a pretty good way to end the trip.

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I liked what I saw of the Dominican Republic, from the brief sampling we had, and would definitely consider returning to explore more of the country, its varied history, and its diverse cultures.

The Nutcracker

Yesterday was a cultural milestone for the Pictlings as they attended their first ever ballet.  Given the festive season, readers will not be surprised to learn that the ballet in question was ‘The Nutcracker’.  There are several productions running in our area but we opted for a performance by Internaitonal Ballet Classique at the campus of Neumann University, to the South West of Philadelphia.  The very much more affordable ticket price sold us on it – given that we were testing the kids in new terriotory – but we also hoped there would be a much more relaxed atmosphere.  It turned out to be a sound reasoning and a good choice.

I have actually only ever attended one previous ballet performance.  That was ‘Coppelia’ at Edinburgh’s Festival Theatre some time in the late-1990s.  I enjoy classical music so I liked it well enough but have to admit that I miss the words.  I am just a verbal person.  I read, I write, I enjoy watching drama on the stage and on the screen.  I love words and so I miss them when they are absent.  I also cannot dance for toffee but we will stick with the love of words as being the reason for my being a ballet philistine.  So the kids were experiencing their first ballet and I was experiencing my second.

The great thing about ‘The Nutcracker’ is that the kids were familiar with most if not all of the music.  They like to listen to music as they go to sleep at night and sometimes that is classical music.  They also know chunks of Tchaikovsky’s ‘Nutcracker’ from watching Disney’s ‘Fantasia’.  We found that they were completely absorbed in the dance and the music in the first act as there was a discernible plot and direction.  Said plot is, to my mind at least, pretty bonkers and perhaps even sinister in parts but the story is easy to follow at least.  In the second act, however, they began to lose focus and were less engaged.  They sat nicely and quietly and still enjoyed the music but we could tell that they were pretty much over it at that point because the plot had pretty much disappeared to be replaced by a showcase for ballet performances.  As a family of non-dancers, we lacked the knowledge and familiarity with the art form to properly understand what we were viewing.  We could definitely tell that we were watching skilled performers and could recognise that some difficult moves were being displayed so we could clap along to show our appreciation but it was impossible for us to engage on the level that some audience members clearly were.  The adult performers were particularly impressive and the really small kids were just completely adorable.

I am not sure that ballet is something that will feature regularly in Pict family life but we were pleased to have been able to introduce the children to another of the arts and a different form of creative expression.  It was a lovely family outing, however, and certainly added to the festivities of our holiday season.