Sugar Cane Express

January 2006

We had stopped at St. Kitts in 2001 but the island's attractions hadn't seemed that appealing. Highlights were the Brimstone Hill Fortress, also known as the "Gibraltar of the West Indies" – but we already had viewed it atop a towering cliff during our approach to Basseterre, the port and capital – and a rain forest. Since we had arrived several days early at the embarkation port of San Juan1, we had time to visit Puerto Rico's much more impressive El Yunque rain forest2. So we remained on board, but did enjoy the panoramic island view from the Crow's Nest Lounge. The later account of passengers who had taken an island tour convinced us it was the right choice at the time.

However, now there was the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, riding on the same rails as the cars that once delivered sugar cane from the fields to the sugar mill in Basseterre. The double-decker observation cars had been designed specifically for the 30" narrow-gauge railway which circled the island.

When we later rode the White Pass and Yukon Route Railway in Skagway (subject of a future story), we learned that the St. Kitts railway was the creation of that railway's manager, who also owns the Skagway Streetcar (sightseeing) Company. Internet searches revealed the symbiotic relationship of the scenic railroads and the cruise lines:

So now we realize that we've all been sheep directed to the shearer. However, the haircuts have been attractive!

The upper decks have the better view and are shaded by overhead awnings, and most of us chose that vantage point. However, if the temperature gets too warm, the "parlor" below is air-conditioned and has floor-to-ceiling windows.

The coast is in sight much of the time,

sometimes with breaking surf.

On the northern end of the island, Saba and Sint Eustatius (left to right) are visible in the distance.

The inland side often revealed the impressive mountains of the rain forest, rising to 4,000 feet above sea level.

The track winds through farms and villages

and past old plantations3 and abandoned sugar mills.

Sheep, goats, an occasional mule, and cattle grazed alongside the tracks

and school-children, as well as teachers, took a break from their classes to come out and wave at us.

Steel bridges over yawning "ghuts"

provided an element of excitement.

A narrator periodically educated us on island history and pointed out sights of interest over the audio system. Rum Punch and other tropical drinks quenched the thirst, and occasionally an a cappela trio climbed the stairs and serenaded us with Caribbean melodies.

Although the cars are new, the track has not been renovated and my GPS indicated a top speed of about 8 mph, with 6 mph being more common. Even then, the waviness of the track made for a ride much like aboard the ship.

When I recently consulted Google Earth to see if I could locate the path of the railway, I not only found it, but by an amazing stroke of luck had zoomed in on the one area that included the train itself on one of its tours!

The 18-mile tour took about 3 hours and the changing scenery was continually refreshing. Back on the ship we compared notes with some who had taken a tour on the sister island of Nevis. They said the highlight of their trip was seeing a monkey run across the road4.

1 Our arrival at the Caribe Hilton was a real revelation after leaving the January deep freeze behind. You can tell a climate is pleasant when the lobby check-in counter is open to the elements! At the time, lodgings were available in a low-rise building that was no doubt the original hotel, and a tall tower. When we checked into our room, we found that not only did we not have an ocean view, we overlooked a large flat roof which was already reflecting the sun's heat.

We went back to ask about a better room. The clerk checked his computer and reprogrammed our keycards for a room high in the tower. The view was spectacular, so we left our luggage, put some valuables in the safe and returned to tell him it was fine. His face grew ashen – he'd forgotten to hold the room and another clerk had reassigned it!

So we returned to the tower to retrieve our belongings, and of course found what all of us should have realized – our keycard no longer unlocked the door, and no one answered our knocks. We returned to the lobby and a bellman was dispatched to accompany us and let us in – and no doubt to ensure that we only removed our own property.

By now we were visibly perturbed and the apologetic clerk assigned us a room on an upper floor of the original building which included a balcony overlooking the Atlantic.

In fact, it was on the Concierge floor, but we found that our keycard didn't give us access to the lounge. Betty Lou returned to schmooze the clerk and suggest that after all we'd been through, perhaps he could remedy that lack. Her mission was successful, and for the rest of our stay we could partake of afternoon cocktails and hors d'oeuvres, after-dinner drinks and desserts, and a breakfast buffet.

This was an early instance of what we've come to call "The Third Room is the Best One," although it seems to occur most often in London. For example, see the Radisson Vanderbilt, the Berkeley, the Russell, and Le Meridien Piccadilly. But I just remembered a much earlier experience, in Stockholm, as well as one similar to the Berkeley hotel/restaurant combo experience that I'll include in a later story about our visit to Brussels.

2 Actually, we had almost visited El Yunque during our honeymoon at the Dorado Beach Hotel, some twenty miles west of San Juan. It had been recommended to us by our optometrist, who had helped pay his way through college by working in hotels. He said the best way to tell the quality of one was from behind the scenes, and this was the best one he'd seen. One reason is that Laurance Rockefeller commissioned its design from world-renowned architects. A conservationist, he decreed that no roof would be higher than the nearest palm trees, resulting in two-story structures facing the Atlantic Ocean. For the grand opening in 1958, he invited 150 of his friends, each a millionaire – at a time when a million dollars was considered serious money!

We found an attractive package deal for non-millionaires with Pan American Airways (Remember them? That gives you some idea of the most recent anniversary we celebrated). Our choice was fortunate, because machinists at other airlines serving the Caribbean (Trans World and Eastern, two other ghosts from the past) went on strike just before our departure.

However, we were delayed on the ground at BWI when a navigation device was determined to be defective, particularly of concern on an over-ocean flight. A technician scaled a really long ladder to the tail, and we hoped that a repair had been successfully accomplished. Since you're reading this, you know that it was. During our delay, they plied us with snacks and booze, enough that we had to deplane so they could clean and restock the aircraft.

At the Dorado Beach Hotel we met and dined several times with a couple some years our senior. Of course, we were still "mere youts" at the time! When we mentioned that we might rent a car and visit the rain forest, the husband said it wasn't really very impressive. His wife later told us he was comparing it to what he'd seen in Vietnam and we'd probably find it perfectly satisfactory, but by then we had decided there was enough to do where we were.

In addition to strolling the golden (dorado) beach, sun-, and sea-, bathing, and savoring the gourmet meals (including a scenic breakfast served on our balcony when we wished), one day we hit the links – one of the Robert Trent Jones-designed courses. A friend at Syracuse University had been on the golf team in high school and, after I absorbed Ben Hogan's book, Five Lessons: The Modern Fundamentals of Golf, we played a few times on the course where his family had a membership. However, golf was new to Betty Lou and evidently I was not as good a teacher as Ben – or possibly it was just that I didn't have enough time! After seeing her hack the earth for a while in the practice area, the diminutive pro came out and gave her a few tips, no doubt to protect the course from further abuse. It didn't take long for us to realize – for those of you old enough to know about him – that it was Chi Chi Rodriguez himself!

I don't recall much about the round, but evidently we didn't do too badly, because we still had some of the balls left that we started with. Not that we might not have been able to find those driven into the rough, but the rustling among the dried leaves under the trees whenever an errant shot disturbed whatever was there dissuaded us from further investigation.

3 The Scenic Railway's website called them "sugar estates" instead of "plantations." Admittedly, by the time the line was constructed, slavery had been abolished, but it had flourished for hundreds of years before. Researching its history revealed the surprising impact that slavery and the sugar trade had on the outcome of our Revolutionary War. I've referenced two interesting articles from which I quote after this summary.

Even the roots of our rebellion had subtleties that I don't recall from high school history class. (Your educational experience, or perhaps memory, may differ.) At the conclusion of the Seven Years War, known to us as the French and Indian War, the French had been driven entirely off the North American continent. (I wondered about the later "Louisiana Purchase," but found that although the French had controlled that area since 1699, they gave it to their ally Spain in 1762, until Napoleon reneged in 1800, returning it to French control.)

However, the war had cost the British 82 million, leaving it with a national debt of over 122 million. They came to the logical conclusion that since "the colonies were the prime beneficiaries from the war, it was natural that they should pay their fair share of the tax burden to pay off the debt." They didn't reckon with the colonists' outrage over "taxation without representation" as well as the new enforcement of the Navigation Acts, which required the colonies to trade solely with England or other British dependencies. Or with the fact that the colonists had "gained a new level of cohesion and self confidence during the long war," and had learned to "plan and coordinate large-scale (military) operations."

Also, "the thirteen colonies in North America represented only half the colonies of British America in 1776. The other half, extending from Canada to Bermuda and the island colonies of the Caribbean, seldom receive much notice from historians of the American Revolution, even though the British West Indies, with their lucrative sugar plantations, were the crown jewels of the first British empire."

Although thousands of troops were stationed on the British-ruled Caribbean islands, none could be spared to aid the mainland forces. A major reason for their continued presence was to protect the plantation overseers from uprisings by their far more numerous slaves. Also, as is suggested by the presence of the Brimstone Hill Fortress, there was always the possibility of attack, often by the French, but also the Spanish and Dutch. St. Kitts itself had previously been in Spanish and French hands, and the French were now prepared to take advantage of any distraction the mainland conflict might present to the British.

In fact, after the surrender of General Burgoyne's army at Saratoga in 1777, the French openly sided with the rebels, essentially declaring war on Britain. The next day the British Prime Minister issued orders proclaiming the Caribbean colonies to be of the highest importance. Five thousand troops and eleven men-of-war were to be transferred from Philadelphia to St. Lucia – not just ground troops, but naval vessels that could otherwise be blockading ports and sinking ships providing needed supplies to the colonists. Orders were that other areas were more important, even if it meant abandoning Philadelphia or even New York. Although this was by no means the end of the war, it signaled the beginning of the end.

It is somewhat deflating to learn that we didn't just run the British out, but that our victory was substantially aided by the fact that our colonies were less important to the crown than those in the Caribbean. However, if that wasn't the case we might all be speaking British today!

I've included on my website two fascinating articles with many more details:

For a more in-depth view of the human cost of the sugar trade, see Flash for Freedom!, one of a series of novels by George MacDonald Fraser about the exploits of the bully Flashman from Tom Brown's School Days after he was expelled for drunkenness. The cover summarizes him well: "liar, lecher, bully, coward." He's also a braggart, toady, and a charming rogue whose womanizing often gets him into, and sometimes out of, trouble.

The novels are historically accurate accounts of the time, beginning around 1860 and extending over a period of his 60 years of adventures, in spite of his best efforts to avoid them, meeting many famous people along the way, and in spite of his cowardice, being mistakenly declared a hero each time.

In this episode, he is forced to flee London, supposedly aboard a merchant ship. However, it turns out to be a slaver run by a lunatic, during which we learn details about two parts of the Triangle Trade – European goods and weapons to Africa to trade for slaves to sell in the Americas. Also the horrific conditions involved for the slaves, including on a plantation when he becomes a slave-driver – until he's caught with the owner's wife in a compromising position, and is on the way to a remote plantation to become a slave himself.

Thanks to a female slave also being transported, they manage to escape, but there are many more adventures (as well as many earlier ones, including dinner with a young congressman named Abraham Lincoln) before they flee from Kentucky across the frozen Ohio River to freedom – the flight that inspired Harriet Beecher Stowe's escape of Eliza in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Evidently, Flash was overlooked in the confusion.

This excerpt from Flashman's account of that dinner gives you an idea of Fraser's style, and with the 31st footnote reference, to his level of research.

4 The green vervet monkeys that are said to outnumber the populace on St. Kitts and Nevis – a proper monkey census has yet to be conducted – are not native to the islands. Although no one knows for sure when they first arrived, since early records were lost during the many transfers of power between the French and British, it seems likely they came as pets of slavers and early colonists. Monkeys that escaped or were set free found the climate and local fare to be to their liking and, having no natural predators, rapidly multiplied.

Unfortunately, they don't distinguish between food found in the wild and the cultivated kind. A commentator as early as 1700 noted, "Monkeys were seen in large groups everywhere. When sugar canes, sweet potatoes and other crops were planted, it was necessary to watch over them day and night in order to prevent these animals from taking away everything."

We were told of a farmer who decided to trap those that were raiding his fields. He tested each trap to make sure it worked by triggering it with a stick. Unseen, curious eyes watched from the jungle and when he left, monkeys used the same technique to safely retrieve the tasty bait within.

Farmers aren't the only ones being harassed by the monkeys. Complained one unhappy homeowner, "They don't run. They don't hide. They come in open daylight to your property and eat the hell out of your food. They're a bloody nuisance, and their economic value here is negative. The only good they do is, some tourists who come here like to look at them. But I think we should have dancing girls instead. They're nice to look at, and they don't eat as much fruit!"

Perhaps there'll be even newer attractions when we next visit!

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