Story and images by Bob Schulman
The Caribbean's off-season – April to mid-December – is a great time to visit the islands, particularly if you want to escape the crowds and take it easy on your pocketbook. True, that's the hurricane season, but your chances of getting stormed out are mighty thin, something like one out of 27,000.
If you're a first-timer to the Caribbean, you'll find there's a lot more down there than powdery white beaches, booty-swinging music and drinks with little umbrellas in them. The islands are also soaked in history, sometimes with the thrills of an Errol Flynn pirate epic. You'll also hear about bloody battles between Spanish, English, French and Dutch invaders over everything from rum to tobacco. And in some places, you'll hear chilling tales from the stewpot.
Take Trinidad, home of calypso, steel drum bands and modern day “soca” (a combination of soul and calypso music). You can stay at an “upside down” Hilton there, so-called because the hotel is built on a mountain with the lobby on top and the rooms running down the hill. Looking down on Port of Spain, one of the richest cities on the old Spanish Main (the whole Caribbean area), it's easy to imagine Sir Francis Drake blasting away at the port's battered fort as he sailed into the bay on his flagship galleon, The Golden Hind.
You'll run across Sir Francis again on “Drake's Bench,” a bench high up on a hill on St. Thomas in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Stories say he sat up there looking for treasure-laden merchant ships and actually spotted quite a few. There was so much action around this part of the Main that two other famous buccaneers, Bluebeard and Blackbeard, built castles there. Both castles are still around, but they've been turned into hotel-restaurants.
At Blackbeard’s, you'll hear stories of how local governors gave him safe harbor in return for a split of his booty. Other tales are about his 14 wives. Why so many? Because they didn’t last too long. His favorite after-dinner entertainment, legends say, was to encourage the ladies to dance by firing his pistol at their feet. And he had a terrible aim.
On St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgins, you can stand on the spot where Christopher Columbus came ashore with a few dozen troops. It's said they planted a cross on the beach, blasted off a few shots at the natives, ducked some arrows and left. As Columbus sailed away, the story goes, he penciled in the island on his map and named it Santa Cruz (Holy Cross). Then, dazzled by the pristine beauty of the entire group of 50 or so islands in the area, he tagged them Las Virgenes after the legendary 11,000 virgin handmaidens of St. Ursula.
Down the Main on St. Lucia be sure to spend some time in the picture-postcard town of Soufriere (population: 6,000) in the shadows of two Bora Bora-like peaks called the Pitons. History books say Columbus came by there, named the island after (you guessed it) St. Lucy, and then sailed on. He was lucky he didn't go ashore, because he might very well have ended up in a stewpot. The island was inhabited by the Caribes, who were cannibals, as occasional French, English, Spanish and Dutch would-be settlers found out -- the hard way.
Many of Soufriere's stores and homes haven't changed much since the French ran this place centuries ago (although the guillotine in the town square is long gone). Crossing the narrow streets can be something of a challenge since they're shared by pedestrians, cars, bicycles, motorcycles and chickens. Local drivers generally ignore the town's handful of stop signs.
On Utila, one of the Bay Islands off the coast of Honduras, most of the island's 10,000 or so residents are said to be descended from slaves, rum-runners and pirates. The famous pirate Henry Morgan must have spent a lot of time there, because if you walk along the storefronts in Utila Town you'll see after place with the scoundrel's name on it, like Morgan's Bakery, Morgan's Bar, Morgan's Gift Shop and so on.
If there was a contest to name the Caribbean island that looks least like a Caribbean island, the hands-down winner would be a speck on the map off the coast of Venezuela called Curacau (pronounced cure-a-sow).
Originally inhabited by the Arawaks – who unlike the Caribes didn't eat their visitors – the island was occupied by the Dutch in 1634 and still looks much like a scene along the River Meuse in Rotterdam.
Besides drawing history buffs, Curacau is a magnet for language fans. The island's official language is Papiamento, a blending of seven tongues based mostly on Dutch, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Residents typically speak Dutch, English and Spanish individually as well.
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