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Articles Blog

Filtering by Category: Caribbean Central Am

Tortola, BVI

Karyn Planett

Christopher Columbus must have been elated when he spotted the white sands of Tortola in the year 1493. He and his Spanish crew were splashing about in the Caribbean, island-hopping and making maps. While Columbus added Tortola to his list of “discovered” spots in the New World, his visit to Tortola was not without problems. The local indigenous people, such as the ferocious Caribs – who had already annihilated the Arawaks who had already tangled with the Ciboney – were less than willing to share their paradise with anyone. In fact, they made Columbus’ visit so unpleasant he drew up anchor and sailed away. 

Unfortunately, the Spanish returned to Tortola and meted out their revenge. They absolutely decimated the entire Indian population within a century of Columbus first spying these islands.

One hundred years after Columbus’ call in Tortola, a British fellow named Sir Francis Drake crested the horizon and he too left his mark on this land. In fact, the channel directly south of Tortola still carries Drake’s name. 

The Tug and Pull for Power 

The Spanish and the Dutch rumbled over these islands for some time. In 1648, a pack of Dutch buccaneers erected a fort and created a small community on the island of Tortola. Ultimately it was the British who entered the fray and prevailed in this scuffle in 1672 by successfully annexing the islands to Britain. 

With peace at hand, the door was opened for a wave of immigrants who flooded in. Among them were Quaker missionaries who were sent here to establish a life in this pleasant outpost. However, their work was cut out for them because this region was to again know turmoil. It literally became open season on cargo ships for the buccaneers, freebooters and pirates who plied these waters. Robert Lewis Stevenson was so captivated by these marauding tales that he eventually captured the essence of this swashbuckling history in his popular book, Treasure Island. 

Fortunately, these turbulent times also passed, and calm and order were restored. In time, plantation owners came here to mark their boundaries, cut down the forests, and develop working plantations instead. 

Tourism has spiraled into a major industry for the island. More and more visitors from around the world arrive daily by planes, cruise ships, yachts, and ferries to explore the white-sand beaches, clear-water bays, and the popular night life. 

Tortola is the most heavily populated of the British Virgin Islands. In fact, close to 10,000 people call Tortola home. In addition, Road Town, the island’s largest city, is also respected as the island’s capital as well as the administrative center. The majority of the residents are descendants of African slaves who were brought here aboard squalid slave ships from West Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries. 

Mountains, Baths, and More 

As a British Crown Colony, the spirit on the 21-square-mile island of Tortola is obviously… well, British. And, as such, the people present themselves as proper hosts who are eager to introduce you to their island’s most important sights. 

With Mount Sage as your landmark, standing 1,780-feet tall, you’re not likely to get lost during your exploration. However, if you do lose your way, you’ll soon be pointed in the right direction as everyone speaks English. And, when you are on the correct path, have a look at Sage Mountain National Park, complete with its rain forest which has been protected in its natural state. In keeping with this “nature” theme, take time for a visit to the Botanical Gardens. 

If you possess an even greater sense of adventure in your soul, you can boat over to Virgin Gorda for a swim in the Baths. The Virgin Gorda Baths are a delightful collection of sea caves and natural pools formed by a jumbled mass of boulders. 

When you dry the salt water from your shoulders, head back to Road Town at the end of the day. A cool fresh-island-fruit punch just might be waiting with your name on it. 

                                                                                Karyn L. Planett

Ponce, Puerto Rico

Karyn Planett

South Side Story 

“Puerrrrrrto Rico! My heart’s devotion…”   

Travelers tend to have three different and distinct impressions of Puerto Rico. One, they’ve seen West Side Story and think that all Puerto Ricans live in New York City. Two, they’ve been to or through San Juan on their way to somewhere else in the Caribbean and assume it represents the rest of Puerto Rico. Or three, they’ve spent some time in Ponce and have a sense of the true culture and history of this very unique island. 

If you’re not in category three, this is your lucky day. 

The Other Puerto Rico 

All too often we allow “gateway” cities to define the countries for which they are merely an entry point. Is the rest of England really like London, as wonderful as it is? Is Italy like Rome, or Japan like Tokyo? Is the U.S. like Los Angeles or New York, or is Chicago the most “American” of our big cities?           

San Juan has the advantage and disadvantage of being the gateway to Puerto Rico. It thrives in that capacity and defines our view of Puerto Rico. But the very presence of so much foreign influence puts San Juan in the company of other international cities. 

Ponce is Puerto Rico unfiltered, unplugged, but far from unadorned. 

The Pearl Of The South 

In Ponce you can be immersed in the often overlooked but very rich culture of Puerto Rico. The island, like much of the rest of the Caribbean, was settled by the Spanish who immediately spread their seed among the indigenous Indian population. But the richness of the culture is derived from the waves of immigration that followed Spanish dominance, most of which came through the southern part of the island where Ponce is located. 

In the 1800s alone there arrived French citizens fleeing the Haitian Revolution; wealthy merchants and businessmen from Cuba, Colombia, Venezuela and other Latin American countries declaring their independence from Spain; and Europeans taking advantage of Spain’s offer to accept citizens of any politically-friendly country as settlers in Puerto Rico. By the end of the century, Ponce had become the largest city on the island and center for the music, art and cuisine that defines so much of the Caribbean experience.

America Intrudes 

The Spanish-American War began as an intervention into the Cuban War of Independence, spread to Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines, and after three months and a charge up San Juan Hill, ended with the U.S. taking possession of all those Spanish assets except Cuba. The war effectively ended the Spanish Empire and inaugurated the “American Empire”. 

The good news for today’s visitors is that the new American owners immediately moved administration of the island to San Juan, which had a better harbor and was closer to “home”. As a result Ponce was frozen in time and was able to avoid much of the cultural modernization that took place in the north. The bad news was a period of economic stagnation that took the better part of the 20th century to reverse. 

Ponce En Marcha 

In the last couple of decades, an ambitious revitalization project has transformed Ponce into a living museum. Billions have been spent restoring over one thousand buildings in the city’s historic center. An organization called Project For Public Places has placed Ponce on its list of 60 of the World’s Great Places, calling it a “graciously preserved showcase of Caribbean culture.” 

Museums dot the restored streets of Distrito Histórico. Architecture, music, art, theater, and history are all celebrated in buildings that have been reclaimed from more difficult times. Best are the Ponce Museum of Art and the Museum of Puerto Rican Music. The Parque de Bombas Museum is the city’s most recognizable landmark, a red and black striped firehouse located in the central square behind the Ponce Cathedral. As expected it features the colorful history of Ponce’s firefighters. 

Outside of the downtown area, you might want to clamber up the hill (actually, you can take a taxi) that features the Cruceta El Vigía (a cross housing an observation tower) and Serrallés Castle, former home of the DonQ Rum family. It was from this vantage point that the invading American fleet was spotted in 1898. Near there is the Tibes Indian Ceremonial Center that, thanks to erosion from a 1975 hurricane, became the most important archeological site in the West Indies. 

Finish your day with a stroll along the La Guancha Boardwalk on the city’s seafront. Certainly you’ll find some uniquely Caribbean form of refreshment to round out your taste of true Puerto Rico. 

                                                                        Karyn L. Planett