Exploring the Caribbean on a sailing boat is the dream of many, however, if you don’t own a yacht, cruise ships offer the perfect solution.
When the Spanish cruise line Pullmantur expanded from Europe to the Caribbean, they set their sights on the south with an itinerary that included the ABC Islands, Cartagena in Colombia, and Colon in Panama.
One of Pullmantur’s largest vessels, Monarch, once part of the Royal Caribbean fleet, underwent a refit and now boasts a basketball field and other sport facilities. The ship has excellent public areas and well-appointed cabins, and an enthusiastic crew who makes everyone feel at home. Ten hour stopovers in the five ports of call allow the traveler time to explore.
Having taken one cruise and visited the tourist sites, on this, my second cruise, I focused on the commercial and economic impact cruise ships bring to the ports.
‘A’ stands for Aruba, an independent country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands since 1986.
Aruba become a vacationer’s paradise due to her white sandy beaches, high-rise hotels and outstanding restaurants. To see the island, cruise passengers who like to explore must take a bus tour, hire a taxi or take public transport as the ship docks in the middle of Oranjestad, the busy capital.
Aruba’s cruise port saw rapid development and expanded into berths where once containerships were offloaded, the container port having been moved southeast of Oranjestad, to Barcadera. Fortunately, the expansion left the Renaissance marina untouched in its protected spot in the inner harbor, where it offers a nice view from the Monarch’s top deck ten stories up.
The ship’s arrival and departure finds most of the 2700 passengers on the decks, enjoying the pink-colored building of the Royal Plaza Mall that marks the entrance to both the historic and modern shopping areas with its free San Francisco-style streetcar – an attraction in itself.
When Bonaire appears after a 106 nautical miles crossing, the ship passes Klein Bonaire, a flat, six square kilometers (1480 acres) uninhabited islet off the west coast, not more than half a mile distance from the mainland. This protected nature reserve, surrounded by a pristine coral reef is a superb destination for snorkelers and scuba divers.
After 10 October 2010 and the dissolution of the Netherlands Antilles, Bonaire, including Klein Bonaire, became a Dutch special municipality of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. This brought many changes to the island, not all of them popular. Many claim that efforts by the tourism corporation and the ports authority to promote Bonaire and attract the latest and largest cruise ships have had a negative impact especially on the vulnerable eco system. Others say the economic benefits of cruise ship arrivals haven’t lived up to expectations. However, the influx of large cruise ships triggered the building of new hotels, hyper modern shopping areas and some creative means of transportation.
Innovations aside, Bonaire retains much of its old charm. Buildings like the fish market (1935), the Pasangrahan (1890), the Protestant Church (1847), the Customs Office (1925), and Fort Oranje (1639) with its remarkable lighthouse, remain and form a pleasant backdrop visible from the decks of visiting ships.
In the Wilhelminapark in the center of Kralendijk, a market has been created especially for cruise tourists. An obelisk here commemorates the landing in July 1634 of Johannes van Walbeeck, the first European to set foot on the island. Van Walbeeck was a member of the West India Company (WIC) and Bonaire’s salt pans were a valuable prize. Salt is still an important part of Bonaire’s economy and a visit to the remarkable ‘salt mountains’ in the south is a must.
The letter ‘C’ stands for Curaçao, the largest of the ABC Islands (and my home). It’s a joy to board a cruise ship here, and whether the ship docks inside Anna Bay or on one of the two piers just outside the inlet, the view is spectacular. It’s no accident that many passengers list the port of Curaçao as their top destination. Like Bonaire, Curacao’s cruise tourism is on the increase thanks to the new mega Pier ‘Tula’, named after the leader of the Slave Revolt of 1795, and opened at the end of 2017. The pier can accommodate the largest vessels including Royal Caribbean’s 1188ft Harmony of the Seas, which carries more than 6000 passengers and 2100 crew. With the new pier in operation the Curaçao Ports Authority have ambitious plans for the historic Rif area and areas adjacent to the piers, and the Rif baseball stadium and public swimming pool facilities which are used by tourists, locals and sport professionals.
The Renaissance hotel, with its colorful facades and the infinity pool with man-made beach is an impressive eye catcher. The renovated boulevard and lively Riffort shopping and entertainment center lead passengers to the main tourist attractions of the port area. These include the floating Emma Bridge (1888) spanning Anna Bay, turning point of the famous End-of-the-Year yacht race; Fort Amsterdam (1634) with its Fort Church and Governor’s Palace, and the photogenic Handelskade and historic area of Willemstad, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Temporarily suspended due to the situation in neighboring Venezuela, the famous and colorful floating fruit and vegetable market has now been restored to its former glory.
Beyond the port, the Sea Aquarium with its Dolphin Academy continues to attract visitors, while jeep and quad tours to the rural west and north side of the island are proving increasingly popular.
Whether you arrive by cruise ship or sail boat, the friendly people of the ABC Islands will make you welcome.
Award winning freelance photojournalist Els Kroon is a Dutch former teacher who now lives and works in Curaçao and Kissimmee, Florida.