Right on the northeast corner of the Caribbean a cluster of five remarkable islands, small, all of them, even by the modest standards of the Leewards, plays the unlikely role of matchmaker as Old World meets New in these torrid latitudes. Anguilla, St. Martin, St. Barth, Saba and St. Eustatius all sit proudly, though never too tall, within a radius of 50 miles of one another, yet despite their close vicinity few places can be as drastically different as these five territories. That is precisely what makes them the ideal starting point for a journey of discovery through an archipelago that strings the very boundary between romance and adventure.
At the center of the group lies St. Martin, the hub of activity in what is otherwise a veritable oasis of calmness. Diverse and famously hospitable, the island is peppered with different accents and languages, musical influences and culinary traditions that create a genuinely cosmopolitan atmosphere. ATM machines dispense cash in several currencies and local merchants habitually accept euro, dollar or guilder with a smile and a “thank you”—for both on the French side and the Dutch, English remains the dominant language.
Marigot, the start and endpoint of Crystal Esprit’s cruises, retains some of its colonial splendor with traditional West Indian architecture adorning the streets of the capital of the French half, but the more adventurous would profit from a quick tour further afield. Grand Case, just 20 minutes up the road, is the island’s culinary hotspot, while Philipsburg, the capital of the Dutch side, stands out as the Mecca of seasonal shoppers.
The Deep Blue Sea
If St. Martin is made to indulge in earthly pleasures, Crystal Esprit’s itinerary is designed to find the perfect balance between the mundane and the sublime. That, sublime, is the only word that makes justice to the otherworldly settings and uncanny story of Saba. Rising at a steep angle from the depths of the ocean, Saba is seductive even from afar. Though Mount Scenery, the crater of its dormant volcano, measures only 2,877 feet high it is still the tallest point in the Dutch Kingdom—after all, they don’t call it the Netherlands for nothing.
Saba is distinctive for many reasons: the red, green and white of its traditional houses, the impeccable cleanliness of the island, the single road carved by hand into the mountain by local builders, the intimidating airport on Flat Point, the attractive lace stitched by the local women, the equally charming gingerbread hanging from every building, but where Saba really comes into its own is underwater: tumbling abruptly several hundred feet below sea level, the famous pinnacles make of Saba’s marine natural park not only the island’s most popular attraction but also the premier submarine destination in the region.
Matching exceptional locations with blue-chip guest speakers, Crystal has made available the Jean-Michel Cousteau Theme Cruise onboard Crystal Esprit on December 10, 2017 and December 9, 2018. A renowned oceanographer, Jean-Michel Cousteau, the son of legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau, will enhance passengers’ experience with an engaging and interactive presentation during which he will share his knowledge of and passion for the marine environment—a marvelous occasion that is certain to open new perspectives on the importance of our ecosystem.
While the insight of a true expert has all the potential of being life-changing, the Caribbean Sea also holds riveting moments for those who explore it with less method. For that purpose Crystal Esprit is fitted with an impressive selection of sports equipment intended to fulfill every passenger’s ambition. From a two-person submarine to waterskies, waterboards, paddleboards and kayaks, these resources will come handy in the blissful waters of the British Virgin Islands, especially around Gorda Sound, an ideal location for kitesurfing and other outdoor activities.
For all the fun there is to be had riding waves and basking in the sun, though, the sea keeps the best of itself underwater. In particular, outstanding diving sites in Salt Island and The Indians certainly merit swapping sunglasses for snorkeling mask, as do the hundreds of shipwrecks that crowd the coastline of Anegada—a low formation of coral and limestone surrounded by the vast Horseshoe Reef. Fable has it that in the age of privateers Anegadans would lure merchant ships into the impossibly treacherous waters of the reef and just wait for the inevitable to happen. Hundreds of years later the result is a whole subaquatic trove to be explored and relished.
When it comes to the British Virgin Islands, however, one subject that cannot be avoided is the inspirational story of Foxy Callwood, whose steamy calypso and legendary beach bar singlehandedly made a destination of Jost van Dyke as early as the 1970s. Mind you, the silky sand and crystalline waters of Great Harbour combined with the staggering views of the neighboring islands might have helped too.
Indeed, little can be quite as charming as weaving your way in and out of the chain of islands that once reminded Christopher Columbus of Saint Ursula’s eleven thousand virgins. The Virgin Islands might not reach eleven thousand in number but as Crystal Esprit navigates its way, swiftly bypassing mysterious spots of land, deliberately calling at equally evocative ones, the potential for magic is dialed up to red-alert levels.
Swimming under the Volcano
At their core, most Caribbean islands are either volcanic or coral and limestone. Guadeloupe, however, is both. Just barely separated by the narrowest of channels, the two halves of the island (or two islands, if you’re being rigorous) are poles apart: Grande-Terre to the northeast is flat and largely fertile, while Basse-Terre on the opposite side is lush and mountainous, capped by the tall crater of the Soufriere volcano.
The gorgeous town of Deshaies on the northern edge of Basse-Terre is the quintessential fishing village and a good starting point to explore Guadeloupe’s luxuriant rain forest. Despite the startling beauty of the island, however, it would be remiss to ignore the important role Guadeloupe has played in the cultural development of the region. Some of the most recognizable names in Caribbean literature, such as Marise Condé and Simone Schwarz-Bart, stem from an island whose most famous encounter with history came when Victor Hugues was sent in 1794 to enforce the resolutions of the French Revolution, including the abolition of slavery. It is therefore fitting that the most prominent memorial of the slave trade in the Caribbean, the Mémorial ACTe, was inaugurated in Pointe-a-Pitre in 2015.
If Guadeloupe is evenly poised between lava and limestone, Montserrat has had to bear the full brunt of its volcanic origins in recent times. Once known as the Emerald Isle of the Caribbean due to the exuberance of its vegetation, Montserrat underwent a dramatic transformation in 1995, when its own Soufriere volcano awakened to devastating effect. Since, however, the island has reinvented itself, exploiting the potential of its post-apocalyptic landscape, advertising its onetime capital Plymouth as the Pompeii of the Caribbean, and making a darn good lemonade out of the bitter hand fate dealt it.
Yet this craftiness should come as no surprise—after all it’s the one trait shared by all islands, the amalgam that permeates through so much diversity in the region. The experience is no different in the comparatively flat island of Antigua, which keeps but a stump of its primeval volcano. Dotted with suggestive remnants of an era when plantations ruled the world, English Harbour on the southern shores of Antigua, is caught between its colonial splendor and the easy-going lifestyle of locals who generously invite visitors to partake in the beauty and the wonder of their lives.
Far from the Madding Crowd
For all the exposure the Caribbean tends to get, there are still hidden gems out in the open, right where secrets are best kept. One of them is Nevis, once the richest colony in the world, now a sleepy island with a remarkable botanical garden, two golf courses, and an array of outstanding fine-dining options. Better known for being the birthplace of Alexander Hamilton, one of the founding fathers of the US, than for the quality of its beaches (which is a disservice to the beaches), Nevis keeps a deliberately low profile to deliver a genuinely exclusive experience.
Another secluded spot is the tiny island of St. Barth, back in the five-island cluster on the northeast Caribbean, which has been a hotspot for celebrities and jetsetters for decades. Lined with fashion boutiques from the most exclusive brands in the world, Gustavia, the capital of this tropical Saint-Tropez, welcomes luxury yachts and A-list visitors all year round, making a visit as much about being seen as it is about being there.
But when it comes to a little piece of Paradise few places can compete with Anguilla. Over the past three decades the island has built a reputation as one of the most exclusive destinations in the Caribbean, yet beneath the surface of this sandy speck of peace and quiet there is a growing fascination for fine dining. The island’s best hotels and restaurants are a short drive away from Sandy Ground, as is The Dune on Rendezvous Bay, the emblematic beach bar of Anguilla’s most celebrated son, folk reggae musician Bankie Banx. You could do worse, though, than choosing to do nothing but relax on any of the island’s beaches, for seldom is nature better balanced than in Anguilla’s white sand and turquoise water combination.
Which might, ultimately, be the most fitting metaphor for the Caribbean at large, a whole miniature constellation of infinite diversity where simple is often best.
Published in the 2018 edition of Crystal Living magazine.