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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Off Course and Worth It

They’re not on many cruise itineraries. But if you find St. Croix, Bonaire or St. Barts on one—grab it. It’ll be worth it. Here, in brief, is why:
St. Croix
Unlike St. Thomas, its overbearing sibling, St. Croix is reassuringly laidback. The cruise terminal is at Frederiksted, known as “Freedom City,” founded in 1751 and the island’s second-largest town (the capital is Christiansted, a short drive from the port).
Frederiksted’s lovely Strand Street promenade is perfect for enjoying the crystal-clear waters and rocky shore without getting your feet wet. Birds and crabs do their thing among the craggy shoreline, and unbroken conch shells lay untouched amid other natural debris washed up by the sea. Alas, it’s a crime—literally—to take any of these as souvenirs.

There’s a veterans park along the waterfront, honoring the various branches and those who have served, as well as a number of 18th century homes.
Just outside the pier is a plaza, where you’ll find vendors selling mostly craft jewelry and art objects. The plaza is remarkable for its large clock and statue of slave rebellion leader Buddhoe blowing a conch shell in a dramatic gesture of freedom).
There’s also a small beach just a short walk from the pier, but the water is rocky underfoot and more suited for sunbathing than swimming.

Bonny Bonaire is one of the ABC islands where the water is so clear and fish so plentiful that you can enjoy aquarium-worthy gazing right from the pier. As we stood looking down, vivid blue and green fish meandered by. The promenade along the shore offers spectacular views of the water’s palate of blue hues. Pass homes and hotels fronted with palms and cactus, and adornments to remind you of the island’s Dutch past.
If you head toward the vendors, you’ll think the ship took a wrong turn and landed in Scarsdale. Vendors’ wares are more made-at-home than made in China. Think painted soaps and needlework vs. t-shirts and ashtrays. The main shopping street has some tourist shops and a chance to buy the local craft—painted gourds, which make great Christmas ornaments.
And like St. Croix, you’ll enjoy the rare experience of being the only ship in port.  

St. Barts
With no pier large enough to support a cruise ship, tendering is the only way to get to St. Barthélemy, a territory of France (officially an “overseas collectivity”). But when your tender sidles up to the pier in Gustavia, you’ll find yourself in the French Riviera cum Caribbean.
French is the language, Euro’s the currency, locals chat over wine and burgers at outdoor cafes, and there’s even a patisserie hidden away on a back street.
But this place is all about the water. The harbor is compact and crammed with sailboats. But what you notice first is the volume of colossal yachts, each bigger the next. It’s no wonder that the gourmet shop in town’s business card reads “Yacht Provisioning.”
St. Barts—or St. Barths—its nickname is spelled both ways—is clearly an affluent place. Its people are thin, tanned and well groomed. They pull into town on their dinghies from their yacht moorings or navigate the island’s steep and narrow streets on mopeds or golf cart/car hybrids. The streets are so tight that most cars park half on/half off the sidewalk. 

With the bustling traffic, narrow streets, cruise passengers and locals clogging the sidewalks, getting around is a bit of a challenge, but the ambience is unlike anywhere else in the Caribbean. And after dipping into some boutiques you need a pick-me-up, you can choose from many restaurants and cafes, as well as an ice cream shop.
For a foodie like me, the supermarket on the centrally located Quai de la République was a wonderland. Rabbit and choucroute in a can, cleaned-out baguette bins and hundreds of wines lovingly displayed in their own metal encasements reminded me we weren’t in the U.S. anymore.
But be forewarned: the shops in St. Barts are chic and dear. A simple refrigerator magnet to remind you of your visit will cost about $11.
Shell Beach is walkable, which means in this one stop, you can shop, swim, eat and drink—my definition of a really great port stop.                                                         
Musing’s Top Tip: Celebrity offers itineraries that include all three of these islands and Azamara sails to St. Barts. Holland America offers cruises that include Bonaire and St. Croix.