Islands as easy as ABC

By Lew Toulmin
This item appears on page 56 of the September 2012 issue.

(Second of two parts, go to part one)

Last month I described the Holland America Line (HAL) ship Noordam and experiences my wife, Susan, and I had on board, Feb. 24-March 5, 2012. This month I’m covering the cruise itinerary through the “ABC islands” (Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao) and others.

An unusual attraction of the Noordam’s route was the opportunity to sail through two of the most important passages in the Caribbean. Headed south from Fort Lauderdale, Florida, to the “ABC islands,” we passed through the historic Mona Passage, between Puerto Rico and the Dominican Republic. On the return, heading north, we passed through the equally historic Windward Passage, between Haiti and Cuba.

An accordion player welcomes Noordam passengers to the port of Samaná, Domincan Republic. Photo: Toulmin

It was a terrific thrill to sail through these strategic passages — which were known to Columbus, buccaneers, pirates, Lord Nelson and his original “band of brothers,” Hemingway and many others — and see the rugged coastlines of all the Greater Antilles.

Shore visits

Highlights of our island visits, usually six to ten hours each, included the following, in sequential order.

• On Half Moon Cay, HAL’s private island in the Bahamas, we tendered ashore and explored the exclusive resort. This 2-by-5-mile islet has a small, man-made port that can accommodate tenders from three HAL ships at once; a walking trail six-tenths of a mile long; a wide beach with gloriously white sand; a horse stable; jet ski rental; a pet-the-stingrays attraction; an island chapel; a bar in the form of a wrecked pirate ship; a large barbecue area, and beautiful sea oats, orchids and bougainvillea.

I asked one of the local HAL staffers how many islanders lived on the cay, and she said, with a smile, “Only 38, so we know each other very well!”

• On the island Grand Turk, part of the Turks and Caicos (a British Crown colony), we searched for and found over two pounds of beautiful sea glass. This was on the beach just south of the Osprey Hotel, three miles north of the cruise ship terminal.

This location yielded the common light-green, brown and blue glass and some rare black and blackish-green pieces. The taxi fare from the ship to the Osprey was a modest $5.

Back at the cruise port, at the Dizzy Donkey shop, we ran into Diane Page, a jewelry designer who got us started looking for sea glass years ago. Diane took our finds and in just five minutes, using silver wire, created matching green earrings for Susan. (See and for information on this unusual ocean-related pastime.)

• At Samaná, in the Dominican Republic, we took the ship’s tour ($54 each) of the whale museum and the Taíno Museum.

The former was quite small and had few exhibits, with just some simple placards, but the latter was well worth visiting, with over 30 life-sized dioramas presenting Taíno history before and after contact with Columbus. The Taínos were a branch of the Arawak Indians and had a peaceful, agricultural life on the islands before 1492.

The new museum, which opened in late 2011, had excellent Apple iPod Nano listening devices, with dialog in English, that allowed the viewer to proceed at his own pace through the shaded dioramas.

• Bonaire surprised us and was our favorite island of the trip, mainly because it was so unpopulated, rural and quiet. Our 3-hour “Island Journey” tour ($66 each) was led by an excellent guide, Marielle, who showed us iguanas, flamingos, parakeets, parrots and orioles plus turk’s head cacti and other flora and fauna.

The island was dry and windswept, as are all the Dutch “ABC islands,” and the main “industry” is scuba diving.

At the city market in Kralendijk, at an open-air stand near the ship we bought some delightful Indonesian grilled chicken plus noodles, rice and a soft drink for only $8 for a 2-person portion. (All the islands we visited take US dollars as either the official or an unofficial currency.)

On the main street to the left of the cruise terminal, the gelateria GIO’s offered terrific gelato.

• Curaçao was much more industrial, with port operations and oil refining playing a more important role in the island’s economy than tourism.

We took a ship’s tour ($44 each) to Hato Caves and found the cave to be rather small and humid compared to the large caves we have toured in other countries.

But the walk around downtown Willemstad was worthwhile, with our guide pointing out shops certified by HAL’s shopping-quality-control program. Many of these featured tanzanite, a beautiful lavender stone found in only one mine in the world, in Tanzania. These were tempting, but at an $850-per-carat asking price and a possible $500-per-carat “final price,” we took a pass.

Other highlights of Willemstad were the excellent nautical museum and the amazing “Swinging Old Lady” bridge. This bridge, built in 1888, has its own marine engines and propellers and drives itself back and forth, like a swinging gate, to let ships through the narrow harbor entrance.


On Aruba, we independently rented a 4x4 pickup from Amigo Rent-A-Car (which we do not recommend, due to many errors being made). The 2007 Nissan Frontier was beat up and dusty and cost $82 per day plus $5 per gallon for gas. So a typical ship’s tour at about $45 each would have been easier to organize and about the same price or cheaper for the two of us. But we thought it was worthwhile to get out and tour the island at our own pace.

At a kiteboarding center, we admired the instructors’ zipping along at 25 knots in the very strong breeze, though we pitied the students falling over and over, going nowhere.

At the windswept north end of the island we found the beautiful “California” lighthouse, named after a ship by that name that sunk nearby in 1908.

We were surprised to learn that our 4x4 was allowed in the dunes and on the sandy beach road that traverses the north coast of the island, but we chickened out when we saw the soft sand and potholes ahead. Instead, we looped around to the south, using the paved roads, and discovered the cute little Alto Vista Chapel, built in 1952 on the site of the original 1750 missionary chapel.

Beside the chapel we found a spiral meditation maze and got in some spiritual development by walking the half-mile trail squeezed inside the 100-foot-wide labyrinth.

Next we drove through the well-preserved Arikok National Park at the southeastern end of Aruba. At 7,900 acres, the dramatic park covers almost a fifth of the island and looks like a hilly part of Arizona, with lots of cacti and rocks and even Indian petroglyphs. The divi-divi trees, which always point downwind, show that you’re not in Arizona anymore.

Driving on the paved road through the northwestern part of the park is very slow-going due to the numerous channels that cross the road about every 100 feet for a couple of miles.

Built to drain off excess rainfall, each channel is about three feet wide and one or 1½ feet deep, thus it must be traversed at about two miles per hour. I would not recommend this road be used by someone in a typical, small rental car with only four to five inches of ground clearance.

Oddly, the southern part of the park, with a dramatic coastline and huge wind turbines, features a dirt-and-gravel road that is very flat and much faster to drive.

Even though the park is only six miles long, allow at least two hours to drive through it, stopping at one or two sights. This is your last island, and you don’t want to miss your ship home.

Boarding the Noordam

ABC islands 10-day voyages of the Noordam similar to the one we took range in price from $999 to $2,949 per person, excluding airfare and government taxes. The exact cabin class we had (VA class, “deluxe verandah ocean view”) costs $1,799 per person, double occupancy, plus $100 per person in government fees and taxes.

Discounts may be available for previous HAL voyagers, for bookings shortly before sailing, for residents of certain states, for military personnel or from travel agents.

We found the “ABC islands” interesting, and visiting them from HAL’s Noordam was as easy as, well, ABC! For more information, contact Holland America Line (Seattle, WA; 877/932-4259).

On their Noordam cruise, Lew and Susan Toulmin were guests of Holland America Line.