This photo-blog and library visit wasn’t at all what I had in mind. But what else is travel, if not an opportunity to experience something you wouldn’t at home? Last month’s trip, not surprising, went sideways with the coronavirus outbreak. But I did see a few libraries, so it still qualifies. And for those of you who opted to stay home in March, you did the right thing!
Last year, my husband and I booked a repeat cruise on the Star Flyer, a clipper sailing ship, for a week in the Caribbean. We’d sailed on this ship three years ago around the Greek isles and loved it.
The 2017 cruise was a congratulatory trip. I had stumbled upon the Star Clipper’s website while finishing my first novel. AQUAVIT is about a woman who wants to go on a bucket-list vacation on a clipper ship cruise. So, once I heard about real clipper ships, we had to book a voyage! I met my goal to get AQUAVIT published right before we left. Even if this Caribbean cruise was only half as good as the first time, it would still be one of my best vacations.
My husband and I debated the go, no-go decision for days. The coronavirus had reared its ugly, often invisible head, but mainly in Asia and Europe. Stay-at-home orders in the USA weren’t even a consideration. Rebooking to another week wasn’t easy with family commitments and other trips plus all the cancellation fees with the hotel, airfare, and cruise. We’d read about the nightmare quarantine onboard the Princess cruise ship in Japan. But the Star Flyer wasn’t at all the same and carries only a maximum of 170 passengers. Much of the time at sea is spent above deck in the open sea air.
The Caribbean hadn’t suffered any outbreaks, and it’s a warm spot not favored by the coronavirus. Our American Airlines flight – a safer rare nonstop from Philadelphia to Philipsburg – gave us more assurance.
On March 12, we arrived in St. Maarten without a hitch. Our beach hotel was upscale and full of tourists. Everything appeared normal with an unexpected Celebrity mega cruise ship docked not far away in the harbor. This cruise ship wasn’t quarantined and left as planned the following day.
The next day we played tourist and visited the local public library. We’d been to this unusual half Dutch, half French island about 30 years ago. Then we’d stayed in a hotel on the French side, explored the island by car, and spent as much time as we could scuba diving underwater.
In Philipsburg, we searched for a restaurant serving the typical Dutch-Indonesian rijsttafel (rice table) feast, but sadly, came up empty. The place from 30 years ago was gone. One restaurant that looked promising was boarded up, likely a victim of Hurricane Irma. This last one, in 2017, hit St. Maarten hard, with 90% of the buildings damaged and a third destroyed.
The Philipsburg Jubilee Library was founded in 1923 when Queen Wilhelmina in the Netherlands celebrated her silver jubilee. The library has moved several times since then.
The friendly librarian explained they were down to two rooms after significant Hurricane Irma damage but hoped to get more books.
If you are decluttering while staying safe at home and have books you want to share, here’s the mailing address: Philipsburg Jubilee Library, W.J.A. Nisbeth Road 3, Philipsburg, St. Maarten, The Caribbean
Back at the hotel, we heard that our cruise scheduled to leave tomorrow had been canceled. Per the local agent, our ship was still sailing as expected. But the Windstar, a larger sailing vessel with the same departure date and one-week cruise plan, was canceled. Some of those passengers, already in St. Maarten, rebooked to join our voyage. We have fond memories of a cruise on a Windstar in the Mediterranean. The problematic future ahead for all these cruise lines is heartbreaking!
About 60 or so passengers boarded the Star Flyer on Saturday, March 14, after a personal interview and a temperature check. At the top of the gangway, we were greeted by the captain, officers, and crew. We mingled on the outdoor deck, sipping on our welcome cocktail and nibbling on happy hour appetizers.
After settling into our cabin and doing the emergency life vest drill, the captain announced what we figured might happen. Because of the corona threat, most of our scheduled ports, including St. Bart’s and the British Virgin Islands, were not allowing cruise ships to dock. But other ports still remained open.
We had anticipated this. Sailing around for a week without any port stops at all would still be great. The ship was scheduled to depart from port at 2200 hours, aka 10 pm, and after dinner. The sail away departure is magical, particularly on the first night. The white sails, numbering up to 16, get raised up in the four masts. But if the wind doesn’t pick up, the captain can rely on engine-power.
During dinner while still docked in port, the captain, looking distraught, made a special announcement. The airport in St. Maarten was closing down and barring all international flights in less than three days – on Tuesday morning, March 17 – for two weeks. Staff would assist us with rescheduling our travel arrangements the following morning. He predicted planes would arrive empty but leave full of passengers.
But my husband was worried that with just two days left, flights would be overbooked, and we’d have to stay in St. Maarten for two weeks. If I had to hang around somewhere in the world, St. Maarten would be close to the top of my list! And after finally boarding my beloved clipper, I wasn’t in a hurry to leave.
One disadvantage when at sea, on any ship, is the quality of the internet. American had emailed that the flight was canceled, but reaching them was impossible. After a long wait on hold, an Expedia customer service rep rebooked us on a Delta flight back to the USA on Sunday afternoon. The airport shutdown extended past two weeks, so leaving ASAP was the right call.
On Sunday morning, March 15, we were cleared by local Customs and Immigration agents in the ship’s library. A long blog like this deserves a second library, and what a unique, inviting, and cozy library it is!
Most cruise lines, even on the mega-sized ships, have tiny, hidden libraries. That is, if they even have one. Disney’s fleet of cruises ships reportedly never added any! But the Star Clipper‘s vessels do. Perhaps this is in homage to the days when clippers ruled the seas, and reading was a key part of any leisure time. Thanks to the owners for making space for libraries a priority.
St. Maarten’s airport, as expected, was mobbed with long lines. Luckily, we got the last two seats on the last row in the back. Not a terrible spot to hide from the virus! Other passengers, who waited until Sunday morning to rebook, had to fly first to Panama. Another group got a flight to the USA from St. Thomas. But first, they had to figure out how to get there. I hope they all made it home! American travelers are still stranded all over the globe.
Our JFK-NYC arrival on Sunday afternoon wasn’t what we expected. The line for TSA travelers was short with no inquiry into our health or wellbeing. We took a cab into NYC, amazed at how easily we’d escaped from what now seemed like a disaster. We opted to spend a few nights in NYC before taking the bus to Philadelphia.
After arriving in Manhattan, we stayed in and ate dinner in the room. The next day, Monday, March 16, we walked into Central Park and brought a takeout lunch back to the hotel. The streets were quiet, and pretty much everything was restricted to takeout.
NY State’s Governor Andrew Cuomo announced the shutdown of nonessential businesses effective that night at 8 p.m. (Philadelphia was also closed as of 5 p.m.) I lived in NYC and experienced 9/11, the blackout, and Hurricane Sandy. But this was so different. As if going through the motions and feeling numb to prepare for an invisible threat. You know it’s there but can’t see it. The news on TV keeps it real by showing the growing number of infections and how it already clogs up hospitals.
On Tuesday, March 17, we took a cab down what is usually a busy Broadway to Port Authority for the bus ride back to Philadelphia. With the parade cancelled and a tradition from 1762, this was probably the quietest St. Patty Day in New York City’s history. The bus station and the Greyhound bus were almost empty, providing plenty of social distance. Traffic was so nonexistent that the trip took just one and a half hours versus the usual two hours.
Two weeks later, we still feel good and virus free. Now, like the rest of the world, it’s a waiting game for the end of the coronavirus. St. Maarten, according to the WorldOMeter’s website, had 32 cases and 4 deaths as of April 5.
To my blog readers, stay safe! I hope you are healthy and doing well. We will eventually climb back down from the apex and get rid of this threat.
Novelist Karen Stensgaard is going to miss riding the waves on the high seas. But while staying safe at home, she can put the finishing touches on her third novel and other long-term projects. Hopefully, you can too!
P.S. Exciting late breaking news! The hubby rebooked us on the Star Flyer with the same itinerary in February 2021. Let’s hope COVID-19 has been annihilated by then! I’m optimistic we will have a fantastic voyage with an updated and thrilling photo-blog to share with you.