Wasting away again in Margaritaville: Grand Turk and Samana

Every American child learns that Columbus discovered the Americas in 1492. Most though have no idea exactly where Columbus first touched down in the New World. I had heard it was somewhere in the Bahamas. Close, but no cigar. Columbus and his sailors first landed on Grand Turk, a small island about seven miles long and three miles wide, south and east of the Bahamas. He actually came ashore on the leeward (westward) side of Grand Turk, which today is one island in a British protectorate of the Turks and Caicos Islands, which is a bit north and east of Cuba.

Columbus actually landed here (Grand Turk)
Columbus actually landed here (Grand Turk)

I happen to know this not because I had studied this obscure fact, but because we paid for a driving tour of Grand Turk on Sunday. During the driving tour you quickly learn that there is not a whole lot to do on Grand Turk, and few things that a tourist will find noteworthy. In fact, its pier where our ship the MS Noordam docked was the center of excitement on this small island.

The shops abutting its pier are apparently typical of what you will see around cruise ports in the Caribbean. There are opportunities to get plastered, opportunities to buy duty free liquor and get plastered later, opportunities to buy jewelry, watches and T-shirts, and many many opportunities to hear loud Jimmy Buffet recordings. Margaritaville is apparently something of a cruise port chain in the Caribbean. Just head toward the sound of Jimmy Buffet’s voice coming from the public address speakers and there is a good chance you are near a Margaritaville store. I figure Mr. Buffet must be obscenely rich, if only from the royalties from having his music played so often in Caribbean cruise ports. The Margaritaville store appealed to us not for Jimmy Buffet, whose music I mostly find annoying, but for its public WiFi. When you see a bunch of young adults with their smartphones in hand on the concrete outside a store in a Caribbean port, that’s a sign it’s got public WiFi. It was there that I was able to check email and put out my last blog post. (It is also possible on board, but the cost is so usury as to dissuade all but the most well moneyed passengers.)

Another Caribbean Margaritaville (Half Moon Cay, Bahamas)
Another Caribbean Margaritaville (Half Moon Cay, Bahamas)

As for our tour of Grand Turk, the highlight was definitely the beach where Columbus first landed in the Americas. The curious thing about it though is that while it should be a major tourist attraction, it isn’t. I quizzed our tour guide specifically. Was this really the first place Columbus landed? Yes, he said, but he did not point out any obvious marker. Instead he took us into St. Mary’s “cathedral” near the spot, actually the second of three churches on this small island of less that five thousand. The cathedral had some nice stained glass, but is otherwise an unimpressive and small Anglican/Episcopal church. Our tour of the island revealed a second world British protectorate, rather typical of islands in the Caribbean. Most of the roads were paved but some were not. Few houses met the construction standards common in the United States. Concrete block houses were typical instead. This should render these homes relatively hurricane-proof, but the last major hurricane that came through with two hundred plus mile an hour winds damaged ninety-eight percent of the buildings on the island. Many of these houses are still not repaired or are only partially repaired. Many others were totally destroyed. Jackasses (burros in this case, not people) wandered freely around the island, along with many mostly mangy dogs and wild horses. They were all communal property. Our tour included an unimpressively small limestone quarry, a beach at low tide, and an abandoned salt farm in an estuary. So aside from being the site where Columbus first encountered the New World, there is not much in Grand Turk to recommend a visit. By the way, it is called Grand Turk not because the Turks established a foothold in the New World. They never did. However, there is a native plant that resembles a Grand Turk’s hat, which is how it got its name.

Overnight we headed east and slipped into the Atlantic timezone. Morning found us approaching the Dominican Republic, part of two countries that make up the island of Hispaniola (the other being Haiti). Haiti’s reputation for poverty is well known, which makes the Dominican Republic the better destination for tourists. Samana (the accent is on the last syllable) is a reasonably attractive tourist destination, although its small pier requires cruise ships to use tenders to ferry passengers. The area around the pier is quite nice. Local authorities made sure there were residents in native costumes dancing by the pier as we disembarked. Yet appearances can be deceiving. You don’t have to wander more than a few blocks from the major roads to find the real Dominican Republic, which is much like Grand Turk, only lusher. Hispaniola is a mountainous tropical rainforest by nature. Paved roads are relatively few. We took a tour that included something really adventurous: zip lining much of the way down a mountain. This required our tour bus to get off the major roads and onto crazily pot-holed back roads instead.

The real Dominican Republic
The real Dominican Republic

Here is the real Dominican Republic: unpainted concrete houses within inches of the road that are small and generally have holes for windows, but no actual windows. Their roofs tend to be corrugated metal. As in Jamaica, many of the houses are long term construction projects designed to be inhabited in a few decades after their owners of modest means and inability to borrow money finish constructing them. Expect chickens in the yards, horses and ponies in backyards, stray dogs, shacks butt up against the roads peddling a variety of wares, and transportation typically via motorcycle or hoofed animal over pot-holed roads. Nonetheless the natives are friendly and usually waved to us as we passed by. The roads though were major kidney punchers, made more so when our vehicles traversed incredibly steep inclines to get us to the top of the mountain for our zip line descent.

We toured with a laid back American man named Terry, who runs a business in Samana under his name. Partnering with Terry, whose tour is not one sponsored by Holland America, turned out to be a smart move. Our tour took us into the country and showed us the real Dominican Republic. It included lunch at a native restaurant next to a beach, which meant a small shack with gaps between slats, a charcoal grill and picnic tables under tropical fronds. The restaurant was definitely not AAA approved but was next to a beautiful beach. The natives take this for granted but they should not. With bread fruit and other fruits available for free just for picking, one could lead a life of leisure for almost no money and yet not feel impoverished. And the people, overwhelmingly black and Spanish speaking, are genuinely hospitable to visiting tourists. They do want to sell you goods and services for a few extra bucks, which they really appreciate.

Samana Zipline (Dominican Republic)
Samana Zipline (Dominican Republic)

The highlight of the day was zip lining down a mountain. This involves getting into a harness and going down gentle inclines of steel cables over tropical valleys and gorges. There are times when being on heart medicines is an advantage. Monday was a such a day. My beta blocker made me largely unafraid to take the plunge. There were about a dozen stations down the Samana Zipline. We tourists got the extra protection plan where we rode two steel cables at once, just in case one were to break, which seemed unlikely as it never happened before. It was a nervy thing to do but once you do one you lose all fear of the rest, except possibly for the abrupt braking maneuver as you reach the next platform. While it lasts the view is fantastic and the air bracing. Our guides like to show off, used only one line and often hung upside down as they moved from station to station. I am someone who is naturally cautious by nature and vertigo challenged, so this activity did not come easily. Still, this was about as much fun as you can have on an excursion. It was made better when at the bottom it was just a short walk to a small pool and waterfall. I happily swam in the pool and enjoyed cool waterfall cascading over my head. Native boys hoped for a couple quick dollars escorting you down the sometimes steep path, but otherwise played over the waterfall, happily falling into the water from the swinging rope overhead.

In short, thanks to our terrific tour guide Terry and his crew, we enjoyed perhaps the best possible shore excursion. We left Samana with terrific memories but hearing rumors that our next destination, Bonaire, would have a natural beauty rivaling Hawaii. So much to look forward to in the days ahead!

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