Following our hearts to St. Kitts

Following our hearts to St. Kitts

Two years ago, I had never even heard of St. Kitts. Then, in August 2015, two incredible young men from this small island in the Caribbean stepped into our lives and into our hearts.

We met Michael and Josiah their first week in Crete when they came to our church one Sunday morning. Steve and I help lead the college ministry at Crete Berean and were delighted to welcome them to small-town U.S.A. It didn’t take long before they were coming over to our place for a home-cooked meal, a game of cards, or just to hang out.

Doane University students Michael Tross and Josiah Oyebefun.

Over the past year and a half, we’ve grown to love these young men and have empathized with them on cold, snowy days when we knew how much they were missing the sunshine, beaches, and their families back home in St. Kitts.

When we booked our family Christmas vacation in the Caribbean, we were so excited that the Celebrity cruise we selected would be making a stop in St. Kitts and we prayed that Michael or Josiah would be there at the same time. God’s provision prevailed, and Michael was able to go home for Christmas, and Josiah would be traveling there a few weeks later.

My mom Carol, who has also grown to love these guys who call her “grandma,” did not know that Michael would be there the same time we were going to be there. We decided not to tell her and let it be a surprise. And was it ever!!

We told my mom that we’d arranged for a private tour of the island that day. When we got off the Celebrity Summit, we walked down the pier told mom to keep and eye out for two people with signs that said “Rose and Jim’s Taxi.” As we all walked toward the meeting place, we saw Rose and Jim, and a third person, hidden behind a tourism sign. When we got closer, Michael moved the sign away from his face and my mom was absolutely shocked!

My mom, Carol, was absolutely shocked to see Michael at Port Zante in St. Kitts.

The look of surprise and joy on her face, was the best Christmas present we could have ever given or received. She wrapped her arms around Michael, took another look to make sure it was him, and said, “Michael, what are you doing here?” In Michael’s ever-so-calm and deep voice, he simply said, “I live here.”  It was a moment in time I’ll never forget.

Another thing I’ll never forget about our stop in St. Kitts was arrival in port that morning. Steve and I woke up early as the sun was just rising over the mountains. When we pulled back the curtains to our veranda on deck 9 of the Celebrity Summit, we saw the most amazing colors and scenery. We quickly threw on some clothes and shoes and went up to deck 11 to get an even better view.

The pictures really don’t do justice to the awe inspiring view as we sailed into port at St. Kitts.

Of course, we had made arrangements ahead of time for Michael to join us on a tour of the island by Rose and Jim’s Taxi Service. Rose was our tour guide and gave us a customized tour of St. Kitts, making stops not only at popular island attractions, but also at places important to Michael.

Rose gave us some of the history of St. Kitts as we drove along the shoreline and into the verdant rainforest which encompasses a quarter of the land the St. Kitts. We were amazed by the tropical plants and flowers and all of the different types of trees and wildlife.

We were told this tree was more than 400 years old.

The wide variety of tropical plants was just amazing.

Our first stop was at the Caribelle Batik Factory at Romney Manor. Visited by thousands each year (and occasionally the rich and famous), Caribelle uses ancient Indonesian methods of resisting dye with wax to create beautiful designs and fabrics. You can watch the video below to see how it is done.

The grounds there were absolutely stunning. Plush gardens, colorful flowers, and even a tree that has stood there for more than 400 years made the most incredible backdrops for pictures.

Mom and Mikey at Caribelle Batik in St. Kitts.

Our beautiful daughter, Meghan, at Caribelle Batik in St. Kitts.

We spent some time learning about plants like the traveler’s palm. Rose showed us how the plant can be stretched to provide clean water for weary travelers.

We learned all about the fabrics and batik designs before stopping in the store for a little shopping. We each found a traditional batik shirt and selected a few gifts for others. We entertain a lot and I found a gorgeous table runner and matching napkins that I thought would be great additions to our tableware and a nice reminder of time there.

We purchased a batik shirt for each of us and also bought a table runner and napkins to remember our time in St. Kitts.

We left Caribelle Batik and headed off on our next stop at Brimstone Hill Fortress National Park. Rose told us there were quite a few steps up to the top, but that the view was worth the climb. She was right.

Michael actually trains for track by running up these steps at Fort Brimstone. It took me awhile to get up all the steps, but the view from the top was worth it.

From the top, we had the most amazing view of the Caribbean Sea and the beaches below, along with the village called Sandy Point, where Michael lives.

Michael and Steve at the top of Fort Brimstone in St. Kitts.

We were even able to see the grass track where he’d practiced his sprints while in school there. Not long after we got to the top, rain began to fall, so we headed into the fort to look around as we waited for clouds to pass by. When they did, we returned to the lookout spot to find an incredible rainbow just below. It was a beautiful sight and I knew at the moment exactly why Michael and Josiah loved this land so much.

The incredible view from the top of Brimstone Hill in St. Kitts.

After that, we drove down the hills to Sandy Point where Michael lived. We were greeted at his home by his mom and sister who treated us to Caribbean cold drinks and a homemade rum cake that was absolutely divine. It was so great to meet them and see all of Michael’s track and field medals and trophies and where he grew up.

It was so great to visit Mikey at his family’s home where we could see all of the medals he has won in track and field.

Often when we visit a new place, we spend all our time at touristy attractions and rarely get an inside look at someone’s home to see and understand how people really live there. The Tross family had a beautifully decorated home and their hospitality was just amazing.

Michael’s family welcomed us into their home with open arms and the most delicious rum cake we’ve ever had.

After a short visit, we all went to a local restaurant to meet some others for a traditional Kittitian meal. We arrived at El Fredo’s Bar & Grill where we were greeted by the rest of Michael’s family, Josiah’s parents, and another young man named Davron who was planning to attend college in Nebraska and his family. It was so wonderful to finally meet everyone!

Most of the lunch group outside El Fredo’s Bar & Grill in St. Kitts.

The men all sat together at one table and the ladies at another and most of the young people gathered together, as well.

The dads.

Our daughter Meghan enjoyed lunch with Michael and his girlfriend, Rochelle, and Davron and his sister.

I ordered the meal I had heard the most about over the past year from Michael and Josiah — salt fish. The dried fish dish was served with salad and “provisions,” including a coconut dumpling, sweet potato, white potato, dasheen and yam. It was all delicious.

The salt fish I ordered was served with “provisions,” including breadfruit, green banana, sweet potato, white potato, dasheen and yam.

After lunch, Michael’s sister and girlfriend joined us and we went for a drive around the island and made a quick stop a one of the most picturesque places in St. Kitts where I was able to get a photograph of the mountains below with both the Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea in the same shot.

That’s the Atlantic Ocean on the left and the Caribbean Sea on the right.

Rose did a wonderful job showing us points of interest, spotting the popular free-roaming vervet monkeys, and stopping whenever we wanted to get out and snap and few pictures, like at this beach.

Mikey and his girlfriend, Rochelle, at the beach.

We’re hoping Mikey’s little sister, Calvinesha, will also be able to come to Doane University someday.

We enjoyed a leisurely drive around the island and then back to the cruise port where we said a fond farewell to Rose.

Rose was a fantastic tour guide!

On a side note, we would highly recommend using Rose and Jim’s Taxi Service if you are ever in St. Kitts. Rose has a wealth of knowledge and is just an absolutely delightful person to get to know. Their prices were reasonable and she was able to accommodate all of our requests which made for an incredible day in St. Kitts.

Back at Port Zante, which opened in 2005 to accommodate large ships, we had time to do a little shopping and look for a postcard.

We said our goodbyes, knowing we’d see Michael back in Nebraska in just a few short days.

Walking back from Port Zante to the Celebrity Summit.

As we walked back to the ship, after a full day in St. Kitts, I knew this would not be the last time we’d visit the island. Not only was St. Kitts one of the most stunning places we’d ever been, it was also home to some of the most caring and generous people we’ve ever met. Everyone from the taxi driver to the restaurant servers treated us like old friends and the relatives of the Kittitian college students we knew made us feel like family. In the end, we all agreed — it was the generous hearts of the people of St. Kitts that make this Caribbean island one of the most beautiful places on earth.

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Cruising the Caribbean: St. Maarten

Cruising the Caribbean: St. Maarten

I’ve always loved airplanes and flying, so I was really looking forward to our stop in St. Maarten. Situated at the end of the runway of St. Maarten’s Airport sits Maho Beach, a wonderful spot to take in some rays and bob in the waters of the Caribbean Sea. It is also a prime spot to watch airplanes as they come in to land on the runway which is located right across a narrow street from the beach.

Because of this unique location, you can get an amazingly close view jets landing and taking off. And while many of the planes that land in St. Maarten are small planes that hop around the islands of the Caribbean, there are also some really big planes that arrive from as far away as Paris and Amsterdam.

To give you an idea of just how close you are to the runway, as you approach the airport you’ll see this sign: “Danger. Jet blast of departing and arriving aircraft can cause severe physical harm resulting in extreme bodily harm and/or death.” They aren’t kidding.

This sign warned people of the dangers of the aircrafts taking off and landing but people didn’t seem to care.

Check out this video taken by someone named PilotDynan who was willing to stand in the jet blast of a departing Air France A340. We don’t have one of those videos nor do we advise standing where he stood! As soon as we confirmed that we were taking this cruise, I started planning our trip to Maho Beach to see the planes.

It was surreal to watch these planes land literally yard from where we standing on the beach.

Shortly after our ship docked in St. Maarten, Ann, Meghan and I headed off the ship with a plan of finding our way there. It should be noted here that the day we were in St. Maarten, there were six ships in port, (four of them from Celebrity!) meaning that there were something like 16,000 extra people on the island. We headed past the visitor’s center and found our way to the crazy-chaotic taxi stand. Seeing that the price to Maho beach was $9/person each way but $8/person if you had more than six in your group, we promptly found another family headed the same way and made our way into the “Maho Beach” line at the cab stand.

The reality, though, was that the cabs were 15-passenger vans, the lines were more like fiefdoms run by cab stand “managers” who would argue with each other, and they just stuffed people into the cabs from what they perceived to be the front of the line. Apparently, the front of the line was determined by who could weasel themselves closest to the curb. Vans were stuffed until they were overflowing with humanity.

People swimming in the Caribbean Sea would stop every once in a while to watch planes come in the landing just above their heads.

As we drove to the beach, I chatted with the driver (as I was wedged-in up front) while Ann and Meghan, crammed in the back, chatted with some folks from England. I learned a lot about the island–it is divided into two halves, the French side and the side belonging to the Netherlands Antilles. There are two official forms of currency there, the Euro and the Netherlands Antilles Guilder, although the reality is that the U.S. dollar is the only one that anyone uses. Finally, due to a treaty signed between the French and Dutch about 350 years ago, people on the island can pass between the two countries and do business anywhere on the island at any time. This was a good idea then as well as now as the island is only 37 square miles and is the smallest land mass in the world to be shared by two countries.

We got to Maho Beach, paid the cab fare, and made our way out to a prime spot just to the right of the end of the runway. The beach was remarkably narrow but incredibly packed with people; only about 15-20 feet of sand separated a narrow road from the beautiful blue water.

We didn’t get in the ocean at Moho Beach, but we did enjoy soaking in the sun and people watching.

On the other side of the narrow road was a fence, and the airport’s runway went right up to that fence. At each end of the beach there was a bar/restaurant to serve the flocks of tourists who came each day for the plane spotting. One of them even had a board with the projected arrival times of the bigger jets.

We found a spot to sit on the curb by the road and waited for airplanes. We watched a few small planes land and a few small planes take off. The sun was strong, and we knew we probably didn’t want to sit and wait over an hour for the next bigger plane without having some shade, so we headed to one of the restaurants, stepping carefully to avoid stepping on anyone as virtually every square foot of the beach was covered by someone.

We had a great table at the Sunset Bar and Grill where we could enjoy a sandwich and guava berry colada while watching airplanes come in for landing.

We grabbed a bite to eat, watched some folks snorkeling off a boat nearby, and saw several smaller airplanes make their final approaches to the airport. It seems so matter-of-fact as I type it, but it was an amazing, unique place. Where else can you eat a chicken wing while seeing planes close enough on final approach that you can make out the people in the windows? We picked our way out onto the beach in time to watch the arrival of an A320 from the U.S. It was a very cool (and surprisingly loud) experience to be that close to a commercial jet in flight.

After that, the next bigger plane wasn’t due for over an hour, so we headed to a nearby gift shop, bought a postcard and t-shirt and then found a cab (with with 12 complete strangers) back to the cruise port.

Once back at port, we took a moment to wander around and look at the other ships in port. It isn’t common that one cruise line will have so many of their ships in the same port the same day. On this particular day, Celebrity Cruises hosted a concert by Demi Lovato exclusively for the passengers on their ships. We didn’t go to the concert, but we did sit high up on the back deck of our ship, (Celebrity Summit), and listen to what we could while sipping cocktails.

Demi Lovato performed on the stage with the black cover in the center of the this picture.

If you visit St. Maarten and Maho Beach, I’d recommend that you know the arrival schedule of the planes you’d like to see. The big planes take off and land more frequently on YouTube than they do in real life. Waiting in between those planes could be a hot proposition in the Caribbean sun, so wear a hat, bring plenty of sunblock, and maybe a bottle of water. Still, it is impressive to be that close to a working runway even if you see only smaller planes. For me, it was an item checked off my bucket list — although if I ever return to St. Maarten I’d go there again.

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Checked another item off our bucket list when we went to Maho Beach in St. Maarten to watch planes landing just just yards from the beach.

Cruising the Caribbean: St. Lucia

Cruising the Caribbean: St. Lucia

I have been to tropical places. I’ve admired the lush forests and gazed at the blue waters. But nothing could have prepared me for the for sights and sounds above the treetops in St. Lucia. The second port of call on our Caribbean Christmas cruise was this incredible island, bursting with vibrant plant life and more hues of green than I have ever seen.

 

We docked at St. Lucia, the second largest of the Lesser Antilles’ Windward Islands, at about 8 a.m. When we opened the curtain to our veranda, we had a spectacular view of the island, surrounded with blue green waters and sailboats passing by. I knew it was going to be a good day.

The view from our veranda in St. Lucia.

For this stop, we had already booked a Celebrity Cruise excursion for an aerial tram where we’d glide above the rainforest on an open-air gondola. We picked this excursion because it was labeled “mild” for activity and we suspected because of my health, I may need a lighter day by this point in the trip. We took a van from the port to a rainforest reserve where we marveled at the lush flora and fauna.

We boarded the open-air gondola, sitting two to a seat, and began our more than half an hour journey to top of the rainforest.

My mom and our daughter, Meghan, on the aerial tram to the top of the rain forest.

Our tour guide was fantastic. She shared a brief history of the island, explaining St. Lucia was originally occupied by the Carib Indians and then had both French and British settlers. St. Lucia changed hands 14 times before it became a British Crown Colony by the Treaty of Paris in 1814 and remained under British control until 1967 when it became an independent state in association with Great Britain. In 1979, it was granted full sovereignty and became a full-fledged member of the British Commonwealth.

On our way to the top, our guide also pointed out the wide variety of plants and trees in the rainforest, including stunning views of gommier trees and the remarkable strangler fig. Here’s a short video clip so you can see and hear and what we experienced.

We saw giant ferns and the magnificent Heliconia (bird of paradise). While our guide was thorough and answered our questions, she also spent long periods of time in silence so we could hear the sounds of the rain forest. It was incredible.

The giant ferns were absolutely amazing.

Although it was a bit overcast that day, the view from above the tree tops was breathtaking.

The view of the Caribbean sea from above the tree tops.

We enjoyed the tram ride down the mountain, looking for hummingbirds and identifying the various trees and plants. None of us wanted the ride to end. At the bottom, we walked down a slight hill and the guide told us our tour also included a 15-minute hike in the rainforest. Our daughter, Meghan, who like seeing nature but not being in it, had her doubts about the hike and opted to stay behind.  My mom, Steve and I agreed to take the short hike to take a quick peek at floor of the rainforest.

Our excursion labeled “mild” suddenly turned into “moderate” and five minutes later could have easily been considered “strenuous.” We climbed up dozens of tall, uneven steps in the forest, grabbing onto trees (and each other) to get from one level to the next. Our guide continued to talk about the trees around us, but I don’t remember hearing what she said or looking at any of them because my eyes were fixated on my feet and the hazardous ground below.

The floor of the rain forest. Not exactly the type of terrain I’d consider “mild.”

Fifteen minutes in to our so-called 15-minute hike, we were all dying and looking for nearest escape. There was none.

I didn’t have time to take many pictures on our hike, but I did stop briefly to get a shot of this unique tree/root/rock.

You could barely hear the guide speak over the wheezing sounds of the tourists but we hiked on. Finally, we began to descend but then I realized the steps down were going to be even more difficult than the ones we’d just climbed. I told my quads to get get ready — today was apparently going to be leg day.

It wasn’t easy, but I made it. We all did.

We made it!

When we reached the bottom of hill, Meghan rejoined the group. She asked about the difficulty of the hike and of course, I lied and told her it was a breeze and she should have come. I guess the shortness of my breath and the sweat running down my back gave it away and she just smiled and said, “I told you so.”

Fortunately, we were greeted at the visitor’s center with a glass of cold and refreshing rum punch and then headed back to the ship. Next stop — St. Maarten.

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Cruising the Caribbean: Barbados

Cruising the Caribbean: Barbados

The first stop on our Caribbean cruise on the Celebrity Summit was the island nation of Barbados. Twenty one miles long by 14 miles wide, Barbados is home to nearly 300,000 people if there are not ships in town. Our ship was one of about five docked there that day, meaning the population on the island grew by more than 10,000 for a short time. Talking to the locals, that’s pretty normal for this time of year.

Meghan was happy to show off this Welcome to Barbados sign at the port.

Meghan was happy to show off this Welcome to Barbados sign at the port.

Having never been to Barbados, we booked an excursion called “Best of Barbados” through Celebrity Cruises that would take us around the island to see some of the highlights of the tropical wonderland. Our ship was parked right up front meaning that we didn’t have to walk as far as folks on other ships (a good thing when the ships park front to back and are over 1,000 feet long) so we were able to walk right up through the terminal to where the buses are parked for the excursions. We found our bus, got on, and sat down. Sort of. I’m not sure I’ve ever been in a seat with such a small amount of legroom.

As you can see from this picture, leg room was quite limited on the tour bus we took around Barbados. Steve is 6'4" and could barely fit his legs into the seat.

As you can see from this picture, leg room was quite limited on the tour bus we took around Barbados. Steve is 6’4″ and could barely fit his legs into the seat.

The tiny amount of legroom was a small price to pay, however, in order to see the wonderful sights on Barbados. We drove for about 30 minutes while our guide explained some of the history of the island and its sugar industry as we headed toward our first stop: St. John’s Parish Church.

St. John's Parish Church in Barbados

St. John’s Parish Church in Barbados

The first church was built on this site in the 1600’s, with the present-day church completed in the early 1800’s. The church is high on a hill with some amazing views around it.

The views from the back of the church were absolutely stunning - even on a cloudy day.

The views from the back of the church were absolutely stunning – even on a cloudy day.

Behind the church is a graveyard that dates back to the first church building.

The cemetery at St. John's Parish.

The cemetery at St. John’s Parish.

There was a wall around the cemetery, presumably because people are just dying to get in, which, if you saw the incredible view, you’d understand why. From St. Johns, we folded ourselves back onto the bus and headed toward our favorite stop of the day, Orchid World.

We had a great tour through Orchid World where we learned about all of the plants and birds there.

We had a great tour through Orchid World where we learned about all of the plants and birds there.

Once there, our guide led us down a beautiful path and shared with us examples of local plant life. We learned about plants like the Traveler’s Palm and how early travelers knew they could find drinkable water in it.

This Ravenala plant is often called the Traveller's Palm because it can be bent to produce water for weary travelers.

This Ravenala plant is often called the Traveller’s Palm because it can be bent to produce water for weary travelers.

Notice the bottom left stem of the green plant where it is broken off. This is likely where gardeners cut the plant to get a drink.

Notice the bottom left stem of the green plant where it is broken off. This is likely where gardeners cut the plant to get a drink.

We also walked through structures that held hundreds of beautiful orchids. This took a while because people kept taking pictures–and if you look at some of the photos Ann took, you can see why.

The flowers at Orchid World were just beautiful.

The flowers at Orchid World were just beautiful.

The exposed root systems from the orchid plants were so interesting. Personally, I have never been able to keep them alive.

The exposed root systems from the orchid plants were so interesting. Personally, I have never been able to keep them alive.

Our Barbados journey had a third stop, (I lived for any opportunity to get off the bus and stretch my legs) a signal station that was largely unremarkable save for the amazing vista over the countryside and ocean from the tower where the soldiers stood to pass messages around the island using a series of flags. Beautiful view, but when it started to sprinkle, we were happy to get back on the bus (until it was time to sit down, anyway) and head back to the port.

Back in port, we stuck our noses in a few of the shops, found a postcard, a stamp, and dropped it in the mail.

mailing postcard

We wandered back out toward the ship, reminiscing about all the wonderful things we’d seen that day. We were glad to be on vacation, in a new place, and seeing new things. The trip was still young–this was the first of five ports of call–and we were looking forward to exploring more sites in the days to come. Next stop — St. Lucia.

Have you been to any islands in the Caribbean? What was your favorite? Let us know, we’d love to hear from you.