Cruising the Caribbean

Sailing on a luxurious liner offers a chance to practice the art of taking it easy.

A cruise ship enters the locks of the Panama Canal. (photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
A cruise ship enters the locks of the Panama Canal.
(photo credit: BEN G. FRANK)
The polar vortex and the severe winter of 2013-2014 in North America are over and yet cruises still are leaving Florida coasts to cruise the Caribbean Sea. Some of the ships carry 6,000 passengers, others 3,000 and still others 1,000 or less. These liners sail from the palm tree-lined Florida ports of Ft. Lauderdale, Tampa, Miami and Cape Canaveral, and head out to the beckoning, blue Caribbean.
To be sure, you can select any island in this vast sea and you will experience resorts that welcome tourists seeking to escape harsh winters. Islands such as Puerto Rico and St. Thomas in the eastern Caribbean, Jamaica in the west, Curacao and Aruba in the south are very popular.
And we would be remiss if we did not mention a round-trip Panama Canal voyage.
Panama and all the islands mentioned here contain small Jewish communities and at least one synagogue.
My recent cruise on the Crown Princess took me to Curacao, Aruba and Princess Cays, the latter an exclusive port of call and private beach on the southern portion of Eleuthera in the Bahamas. Most cruise lines have their own private island or beach section.
It’s a chance, especially for northerners, to jump into their bathing suit and swim in the turquoise waters of the Caribbean and to soak up sun and sand.
This particular Princess Cay island is 100 miles long and two miles wide. Replete with over 30 acres of beach and over a halfmile of white sand shoreline, it invites cruise passengers to savor its pleasures.
Going ashore on one of these cays is to celebrate the very nature of beaches. The cruise line offered us a ton of activities, so that we didn’t have to get baked on the sand. We could luxuriate in our own air-conditioned shore-side bungalow geared for a romantic hideaway or family fun. We could snorkel in the unspoiled waters of the Bahamas. We could paddle board or wind surf. Oh, and Banana Boat rides, deep sea fishing or observing the sea gardens, coral reefs and colorful fish from a glass-bottomed boat.
Many forgo the above pleasures and are content just to sit in the shade observing the Caribbean at its best, partake in a repast of burgers, hot dogs, chicken, salads, cookies and condiments. Because we’re on the cruise ship, all meals were complimentary.
By the way, if indeed you are a beach lover, many opportunities await you on most of the islands. In fact, beaches are so crucial to tourists that many island guides can tell you which hold the distinction of best beach at sunrise or sunset; which beach hops at midday and which one guarantees peace and quiet; which remains the best for after-hours fun; or which serves up the best food. There’s a beach for each moment of the day.
Popular among Europeans and South Americans, as well as Israelis, is to fly to Orlando, thrill the family at Disney World, and then board a cruise ship at Cape Canaveral for a week of rest and relaxation. Many of the cruise ships are kid-friendly.
Of course it’s the food that gets the most attention. No one goes hungry on a cruise.
You have a dozen or more choices and can even order several entrées at one sitting; no one will look askance at you.
To top it off, most cruise ships have what they call specialty restaurants. For a charge, you can dine in an elegant steak and seafood restaurant or a fine ethnic one, such as Italian, in an authentic setting.
Activities galore abound on cruise ships: From variety shows to Broadway shows to a piano player in a lounge; ice skating and acrobatics; classical music concerts – whatever you’re into, you can find your special cruise entertainment. In fact, many seek out Passover cruises with strictly kosher-for- Passover food and seders, as well as cantorial presentations.
Musical cruises are very popular, according to Joni Cohen ECCS of Party Cruiser’s Etc, Northbrook, Illinois. She cites jazz and rock and roll as examples. Travelers enjoy these voyages so much there is a whole category called “repeat cruising” where one can undergo a different cultural experience on each island and all in one week, added Cohen.
Of course, there are people who – after several cruises in the Caribbean – don’t get off the ship to visit repeat islands. To each his/her own. But Cohen states that each island has enough variation so that you “don’t have to see the same thing twice.”
Isaac Wachsberger of Boynton Beach, Florida, a former cruise consultant, said he often noticed groups of Israelis on Caribbean cruises which sail under “usually mild weather, calm seas,” except of course June to November which is hurricane season.
Many of the Caribbean Islands have Jewish communities, including St. Thomas, Curacao, Jamaica, Aruba and Puerto Rico. A popular destination for cruise ships is Curacao, which boasts a very historic Jewish community. Here one meets descendants of those who in 1651 established the oldest synagogue in the Western Hemisphere, Mikve Israel-Emanuel, which is one of the half-dozen synagogues in the Caribbean with a sandy floor.
Sand also covers the floor of the historic synagogue in another famous Caribbean destination, St. Thomas, whose members proudly proclaim that they belong to the oldest synagogue in continuous use under the American flag.
Most Jewish visitors to the US Virgin Islands never forget the historical Hebrew Congregation located at 16 A/B Crystal Gade on Synagogue Hill in downtown Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas. Whether you are on the island via cruise ship or a land tourist, note that to reach the synagogue, it’s a steep walk up hilly Raadet’s Gade from Main Street.
The St. Thomas synagogue sand floor, like the other sandy floors in the Caribbean, is most likely derived from a practice among crypto-Jews during the Spanish Inquisition; they used a sand floor to muffle the sound of their prayers and songs. Two other reasons for the sandy floors: “The synagogue is patterned after the Tabernacle which our forefathers used in the desert,” and “God commanded Abraham, Go forth and multiply like the grains in the sand and the stars in the sky.”
While in St. Thomas, you can hop over to the island of St. John which offers solitude and tranquility. Roughly two-thirds of that island is a protected national park. Wander also, as I did, through sugar mills and plantations on the island of St. Croix.
Jamaica is another popular destination for tourists, who mostly frequent the resorts, such as Montego Bay. Cruise ships also stop at Falmouth where an old Jewish cemetery exists on the town’s main street.
If you take the tour of the town, guides will point out the cemetery. The Jewish community, however, is located in Kingston.
Here one finds the last remaining synagogue on the island, United Congregation of Israelites – Shaare Shalom Synagogue, on Duke and Charles Street. You will marvel at this beautifully designed building, with much rich, shiny mahogany and a sandy floor.
Much of the history of Caribbean and South American Jews is the history of the Jews who fled Spain and Portugal after the expulsion of the Jews and settled in the New World, including islands in the Caribbean.
There were many Marranos or anusim, that is, “secret Jews” who, hounded by the Spanish Inquisition, populated what would become Jewish centers in the West Indies and South America. Throughout the islands you may hear stories of individuals coming forward and claiming a Marrano heritage.
There is an island resort, or a cruise, for everyone in the Caribbean, a diverse area ruled by feuding European powers for centuries and infused with African culture of those brought to the islands as slaves.
About 7,000 individual islands in 22 island territories make up the Caribbean and they all welcome tourists. In the final analysis, there is no better way to experience the Caribbean, certainly for first-time visitor, than via a cruise. As Princess Lines puts it: “You also will have the chance to participate in ‘the art of taking it easy on a Caribbean Cruise.’”
The writer is a journalist, travel writer, is the author of the just-published Klara’s Journey, A Novel, Marion Street Press and The Scattered Tribe: Traveling the Diaspora from Cuba to India to Tahiti & Beyond, (Globe Pequot Press).
Twitter: @bengfrank