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A Day in Port: St. Eustatius

It’s one of those insider’s favorites —
the intimate Dutch island of St. Eustatius,
widely known by its nickname, Statia. You may have
blinked and missed it — it’s just two miles wide and five miles
long and located about 38 miles south of St. Maarten. With only 2,700
residents, Statia has a dignified “old
Caribbean” charm long gone at other islands awash
in chain restaurants, cruise ships and casinos.

If you
love diving and history, this is a place to revel in both. In fact,
Fodor’s Choice recently named Statia’s
diving as one of the top ten unforgettable travel experiences. It’s
likely to remain that way, thanks to STENAPA, the St. Eustatius
National Park Foundation, which manages a protected
Marine Park
around the island.

While
cruising near Saba, Nevis, or St. Kitts
you’re in the neighborhood. Pull into Oranjestad Bay
on the island’s east side and look for yellow mooring balls installed and
maintained by the Marine
Park (VHF 17.) The
mooring fee for an overnight stay is $10 and you can search on the dock inside
a breakwater for the harbormaster (VHF 16) to clear customs. You now need a
passport to visit Statia.

How to
arrive without a boat? Winair serves the island from
St. Maarten daily, and Caribbean Sun Airlines began offering 8 flights a week
from Puerto Rico, some with St. Kitts
stopovers, in November 2006 aboard 37-seat aircraft.

Tourist
facilities are affordable and English is spoken everywhere.
There are a handful of small hotels like the 18th
century Old Gin House with 20 rooms and a bar/restaurant facing the sea. (www.oldginhouse.com). Or inquire about
availability of Two Kerkweg, a two-bedroom
gingerbread-trimmed 18th century merchant’s home in the center
of Upper Town. Its back yard has a sea view and
borders Fort Oranje, a key historic site.
(www.vrbo.com/46747) or kerkweg@hotmail.com.

There are
several pleasant restaurants along the waterfront, with lunches priced around
$5 to $12 per person and dinners higher, and others including Chinese
restaurants around the island. A good value is the Ocean View Terrace across
from the fort, open for lunch and dinner with entrees around $7.

Credit
cards are widely accepted (but ask first) along with
U.S. dollars, and small bills are
handiest. There are grocery stores for provisioning up at the top of the cliff
(Upper Town) but be forewarned that many, owned by Seventh Day Adventists, are
closed on Saturdays. Rent a car or scooter to get around—gas is about $5
a gallon—or use taxis and fix the rate before setting off. Internet
access is available at the public library in Oranjestad.
There is a hospital and even a medical school here.

Also at
the top of the cliff is Fort
Oranje,
built by the French in 1629. Statia changed hands
repeatedly from the time Columbus
spotted it in 1493 and became a Dutch possession by 1636. Though hard to
imagine it now, in the 17th and 18th centuries, this tiny
place was a major free port trading center with 20,000 inhabitants and a harbor
full of ships—it became known as “The Golden Rock.”

For a
while Statia was the only link between Europe and the
young American colonies, and Lower
Town’s warehouses
were full of food, arms, and ammunition for George Washington’s army. On
November 16, 1776, an American Brig-of-War called the Andrew Doria sailed into the harbor and
fired a 13-gun salute announcing independence. The governor replied with an 11-gun
salute from the canons at Fort Oranje—the first
official recognition by a foreign nation of the new U.S.A.
—and the date is now a
major Statia holiday.

The
British were not amused by Statia’s
tide-turning help to the Americans and Admiral Lord George Rodney swooped in to
capture, pillage, and raze the island. The Dutch regained possession within a
few years but the glory days of commerce had ended.

A quaint Historical Foundation Museum
near the fort is well worth its $2 admission fee. Old maps, artifacts, and
furnished 18th century period rooms are on
display—there’s even a pre-Columbian Indian skeleton in the
basement. One room displays photos of American President Franklin D. Roosevelt
who is a local hero — the airport is even named after him. It seems he
was so touched by Statia’s role as “America’s
childhood friend” that he ordered up a plaque of appreciation.

Be sure
to notice the five-sided blue beads in a display case near the museum entrance.
People collect these rare tokens while diving or strolling the beach and some
have donated their finds for others to inspect. The beads have been traced by
scholars to one glass factory in 17th century Amsterdam
and are believed to have been worn by slaves transported from Africa
to Statia.

Meanwhile, back down at Lower
Town, you can swim from
the small, black and tan sand beach and snorkel a few feet from shore around
remains of the old warehouses and town wall that tumbled into the sea. Dive
Statia, a PADI operator, is close by and can arrange dives
to see shipwrecks—their shop displays wine bottles, clay pipes, and other
underwater treasures of the past. (www.divestatia.com)

Statia’s not a spot for nightlife. But you’ll
turn in early anyway if you snorkel, dive, hike any of the dozen nature trails
on the island, or climb The Quill, a 2,000 foot extinct volcano—guided
tours are available.

You’ll pay a departure tax of $12 (about half that if you are
proceeding to a local destination in the Dutch Caribbean.) But you may not want
to leave this low-key charmer when it’s time to go—so come back and
stay longer next time.(www.statiatourism.com)

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