As the winter winds blew in the winterlands to the north last week, a small company of venturesome Americans, in search of beaches, bargains and the offbeat, were tucked away in the Netherlands Antilles, a string of six off-trail Caribbean islands, remnants of the Dutch adventure in the New World 300 years ago.
Only now rustling into wakefulness, the tropical Dutchlands have become suddenly aware of their natural charms—their weather and good looks, decorated by such cosmetics as rakish new hotels and free-port shops. Two major inns have risen under the Dutch palms this year, and contracts are afoot for at least two more. Of the 2,200 acres put up for subdivision and sale on one sand-and-sun-swept island two years ago, not one parcel of beach property remains unsold.
The three islands of the Windward group—St. Maarten, Saba and St. Eustatius—have blinked and waked to find themselves lying just an air hour off bubbling Puerto Rico. The other three—Aruba, Bonaire and Cura√ßao, are now linked by direct KLM service not only to Miami but nonstop to New York. They will be four hours from Manhattan when the jets come in.
The nearest island, St. Maarten, suffers not at all from a split personality—it is French on one side and Dutch on the other. According to an ancient wheeze with which it regales the tourist, Sint Maarten (which is spelled Saint Martin on the French side) got that way because the original Dutch and French landing parties occupied different sides of the island without each other's knowledge, fn a stroke of early-day Hammarskjoldian genius, it was decided to divvy up the real estate by placing a Dutch and a French representative back to back and bidding them walk around the island in opposite directions. The border was to be drawn across the island from the starting point to the place they met face to face. Some say the Dutch representative downed a Bols or two (Dutch gin served cold, swallowed neat) and fell asleep, because the Frenchman walked around the valuable salt pans which are today on the French side. However, the Dutch side has all the hotels, the airport and, as well, the longest names. The gezaghebber, or lieutenant governor, does business, for example, in the gezaghebberskantoor. And the gingerbread town of Philipsburg, crossed by straten, is crisscrossed by stegen, creating such streets as Terpentijnsteeg, Tamarindesteeg and Hotelsteeg, on which there is no hotel.
The rolling landscape on the French side looks like New Jersey in summer, even though the fat cattle graze under such un-Jerseyish greenery as mango and almond trees. The fact that there is still no electricity in Marigot rather slows the night life, although from time to time the populace erupts in Saturday night dances known rather aptly as bullfights. By day the Tricolor flutters in the soft-blowing trades, dark-skinned faces sometimes sport berets, a gendarme in kepi occasionally appears, and if you don't mind doing business in the general store which also sells fish and nails you can buy Marie Brizard liqueurs at $2 or an ounce of Chanel at $8. Despite these reminders that the territory is administered by the Préfecture de La Guadeloupe, the language, as on the Dutch side, remains predominantly English.
Doubtless the Dutchiest landmark on the Dutch side is the Little Bay Hotel, built on a curving beach by the government in 1955. Guest cottages ($32 to $40 a day for two, with meals) sit in a half circle looking down on the sea, each furnished and maintained like the apartment of a circumspect Amsterdamer. The bar, surrounded as it is by stained glass, has a way of reminding me as I sit there, Heineken's in hand, that I ought perhaps to be holding a prayerbook instead. Thankfully, the stained glass panels include the unchurchly face of Peter Stuyvesant, who lost his leg in a battle off the beaches of this very island. Regaled by his historical presence, and inspired by the Dutch beer, anyone ought to be up to a modest Dutch dinner, which on a recent night included cream soup, chicken livers on toast, lobster Newburg, ice cream, cake and coffee.
In the adjoining bay, on its own broad beach shaded with castor trees and sea grape, a few yards from the center of somnolent Philipsburg, is the elegant Bohemia of the Pasanggrahan. Named for the East Indian word for inn, which is used traditionally in the Dutch Caribbean, it is run like a Turtle Bay town house in the tropics by an ex-Manhattan decorator, Peter Byram. Its lessee is Erik Lawaetz, an American resident from St. Croix who steered his yacht into St. Maarten to escape a storm a few years back and stayed to buy 2,200 acres of choice beach-fringed and hilltop property which has since been subdivided into plots that run from two to five acres. They cost from $2,000 to $3,000 a plot, and anybody interested must also plunk another $1,000 into company stock (the company will build a hotel designed by Happy Ward, who did the Mill Reef Club in Antigua). Among the takers: W. H. Fawcett Jr. of the publishing family, Broadcaster John Cameron Swayze and Author Donald Douglass. Building costs can run anywhere from $2,000 to $22,000, but a New Jersey dentist who built a house in St. Croix some years back and later sold it rebuilt the same house on St. Maarten last year for just half the St. Croix price.
As yet, there is neither water nor electricity, but there is a rough road lined with banyan trees and red-brown turpentines. Fiddler crabs skitter sideways, scurrying away from the jeep wheels, and doves and pheasants fly sorties over the fields of pigeon peas and guinea corn growing in the sand soil. The seaside sites overlook strands of blinding white sand, a pulverized limestone and coral so soft, so warm, so sea-soaked that for tired bodies from the north it is like reclining in a soup plate of cooked rice.
Once the government's guest house, the Pasanggrahan was taken over by Lawaetz to house prospects for his real estate project. Redecorated by Byram, it opened in January 1957 and has proved a smashing success. Its 12 rooms, each with bath, cost $20 to $24 a day for two at the top of the season. Most are at the edge of the sand, a step from the sea. Cocktails are served on a terrace hard by a clutch of bougainvillaea, with the strange volcanic hulk of Saba rising on the horizon.
In the house party atmosphere that pervades the Pasanggrahan, Byram organizes day trips to one or another of the 39 beaches on the island, sometimes leaves a lobster order with a fisherman in Grand Case and the next day takes the whole party out to a wild beach for lobster and iced wine. Twenty pounds of lobster, enough for the whole house, costs $10. Indeed, there is so much lobster in the shoals around St. Maarten that Robert Choisit, an adventuring Monegasque who sailed a sloop from Dakar to Martinique two years ago, plans to open a lobster pound with American Author Harold Humes as his partner. In season they will also serve up tiny shrimp which are caught in the dark of the moon in a large pond in back of town where the shrimp come in to spawn. These days they are boiled and spiced and served in the streets by the saucerful.
An American named Stetson Risdon who is bringing in the island's first ice cream machine (as well as U-pedal-it bicycles), is organizing boat trips around the island for the first time this winter. Larger craft are occasionally available for charter to the isle of Sombrero, to Anguilla, to French St. Bart's where Laurance Rockefeller has been buying up more beach, and to Barbuda, cloaked in dark tales of its dark days as a slave stud farm. But the prime trip is the crossing to the odd island of Saba, a cone on the skyline 15 miles away. A government motor schooner, the Blue Peter, makes the crossing twice a week, once plying out to Saba and back the same day and once staying overnight in St. Eustatius and coming back the day following.
AN ERROR IN '76
Statia, as St. Eustatius is called among its intimates, is famous only for what it once was, a booming island running goods and arms to the American revolutionaries. In 1776 it committed an error of liberal expression. It fired the first foreign salute ever awarded the new American flag. A few years later an unforgetting, vengeful British admiral sacked the island. It never recovered, today counts a scant 1,000 citizens.
Saba, which lived more or less peaceably, was never sacked, mainly because it has no harbor, no dock nor, for that matter, any sensible approach from the sea. The defenders found that rolling boulders down the outside walls of its volcano shell had a deterring effect on visitors. Visitors are not deterred nowadays, but a four- or five-hour sail each way on the Blue Peter (price: $12.50) is not exactly encouragement, either. The crew, got up like a seagoing Negro company of The Threepenny Opera, whiles away the hours fishing with hand lines for bonito and barracuda. When the schooner finally comes abeam of Saba's one rock-strewn entrance from the sea, a longboat puts out from shore, flying the Dutch ensign and carrying the chief of police in full uniform. Said the chief when coming aboard the other day, in a speech marked for its brevity, its clarity and its warmth, "Welcome over here."
Visitors are rowed to the edge of the shore, then pushed and pulled the last few yards over the rocks. This operation costs $1 per person each way, plus time and a half if you arrive on Sunday. Jeeps climb the steep cement road of the volcano to the village which nestles in its crater. It goes by the disarming name of The Bottom. Sitting in the lieutenant governor's house in The Bottom not long ago, I asked the gezaghebber the size of his police force. "That, sir," he informed me, "is a military secret." Imprudent villagers later confided that there are two constables in The Bottom, two more in the metropolis known as Windward Side. The other communities, St. John's and Hell's Gate, are on the honor system.
Some 1,200 islanders roost in the lofty ledges of Saba, two-thirds of them women. The men, having married, are likely to sail off to Cura√ßao and Aruba for jobs in the refineries or with the Grace Line or Moore-McCormack. Their checks come in every month and so, occasionally, do they, returning, sometimes years later, to be reunited with their children.
Sabans are predominantly white, speak with a Devonshire accent, grow melons called sweet gourds, live in trim clapboard houses that look off to the grim shapes on the horizon that are St. Eustatius, St. Kitts and Nevis. Clouds hang over Saba as inexorably as a bum rap, and it is said that on a day when it doesn't rain in Saba somebody dies.
KLM's Royal Dutch service wings south from St. Maarten over the 550 miles of blue Caribbean to Cura√ßao, easing the journey with bolts of Bols, biscuits laced with Gouda cheese and a lunch catered in the ample tradition of the Little Bay Hotel. (Air France flies the route across to Puerto Rico, serves a cold plate lunch, chilled French wines and instead of chewing gum and earplugs, dispenses a dash of eau de cologne on take-off.)
OIL AND TOURISTS
In the old days Cura√ßao worked its plantations, raised fruit trees and kept goats. But slavery was abolished in 1863 and it wasn't until the oil companies came early in the 20th century to set up refineries for Venezuela's crude oil that the island became industrialized and important. And after the oil companies (Shell in Cura√ßao, Standard Oil in Aruba) came the cruise ships chockablock with tourists. There will be 146 cruise ship stops this winter, every one of them sailing down the canallike entrance called St. Anna's Bay, with its gabled Dutch houses on either side and the famous pontoon bridge, Queen Emma, swinging aside to make way. On frantic days, three ships may arrive at one time, disgorging 2,000 tourists into the narrow shop-lined streets to mingle with the Cura√ßaoans chattering in Papiamento, the Venezuelans looking for bargains too, and now and then Indian men up from South America in pigtails, cowboy hats and double-breasted suits.
In addition to the ships, KLM last year opened direct nonstop service from New York, and Cura√ßao opened a splendid new hotel called the Cura√ßao Intercontinental, designed by Connecticut Architect Joseph Salerno to fit inside the ramparts of a fort at the very entrance to the harbor. There are shops in the powder magazines, a shimmering pool just under the walls originally built to repel pirates and invaders. Inside is a gambling casino, an air-conditioned bar and a nightclub importing Los Chavales from the clubs of New York and Madrid and Pia Beck from the jazz bo√Ætes of Europe. No fortress was ever better equipped for an interminable siege. Indeed, few hotels can match the novelty of watching the cruise ships slip past one's window, rail-high with the second floor—rather like having the Queen Mary sail past the Waldorf on its way up Park Avenue.
For seaside swimming in Cura√ßao there is the Piscadera Bay Club, which has aluminum umbrellas shading artificial pallets of sand and a wired-in bay to protect swimmers from the nibbling fish. It also has a billiard table and a bar, a pleasant restaurant and a wide assortment of suites, some with sitting room, ice-box, air-conditioning and wicker chairs on the terrace in view of the sailboats heeling back and forth between the Dutch islands and South America. For local fare there is the old Avila Hotel in town, which will serve up coconut soup with fish, eaten with a cornmeal loaf which the fishermen cook in sea water to season it naturally with salt. The old Americano Hotel has a terrace hanging over the Queen Emma where the frayed shopper can cool the brow and the bunions while watching the ships go by.
While Cura√ßao is not exactly a free port, its import duties are low and many (but not all) of its wares are well under U.S. prices. Its biggest bargain basement is the firm of Spritzer & Fuhrmann, Ltd., which sends its buyers all over the world, spreads its merchandise over six stores in Cura√ßao and Aruba, hires as many as 350 employees to cope with cruise ship days and exudes an atmosphere that is more Tiffany than Woolworth. It carries over 600 models of watches, from a $7 number with a pulsating heart to a $5,500 bauble ablaze with diamonds. For the South American trade, there are loose stones up to $35,000 and 83-karat diamond bracelets (sold only in pairs) at $20,000 the pair. English and Danish figurines, beaded bags from France, petit point from Austria, silver from England and Denmark, cashmeres from Scotland are part of the wares not only of Spritzer & Fuhrmann but also of the Golden Tankard and the Yellow House as well as the Indian shops that line the side streets. Only liquor seems an awkward buy. Stores require purchases in lots of three bottles and must send them to the airport or ship; while it is all a saving, the cumbersome rules make it seem hardly worth the effort.
Forty-four different nationalities live in curious Cura√ßao, an island 40 miles long and three miles wide at its waist. Lam Yuen, a Chinese beanery in Willemstad, the capital, is alongside the Afro, which is next to the Old Dutch Tavern. And no cruise ship railbird will fail to miss that triumvirate, Moises Pieters and Co., Casa Cohen and Mendel's Soda Fountain standing side by side on the Handelskade. (Casa Cohen the other day was having a run on "huela hoepels.") Spanish is the language of the fruit peddlers who sail from Venezuela and park their sloops at the floating market at the edge of one of Willemstad's streets. The books in the shops are in Dutch (Muiterij op der Caine, De dag van Pearl Harbor), but the universal language is Papiamento which (in Papiamento) means way of talking. Evolved from the language of the slaves, it became a tongue through which the first settlers, the Dutch and the Portuguese Jews, could speak to each other. Borrowing words from everywhere, it has such corruptions as keeshi for cheese, kerki for church, and two words borrowed from English: okay and payday.
With a paucity of beaches, Cura√ßao's main attractions are spending and looking. Its folders call it the eye-spot, buy-spot of the Caribbean. For the eye there is the massive bulk of Fort Amsterdam, which was built in 1634 and to this day houses the governor, a representative of the Queen whose working clothes are a flashing white suit with gold epaulets. The governor's home was built into the fort since he was expected to lead the defense in case of attack. Indeed, the fort was attacked as recently as 1929, when a band of Venezuelans who claimed they had been insulted by the governor kidnaped him and made off with a bag of arms and ammunition. The revolutionaries hadn't yet reached Venezuela when they discovered that the gubernatorial post had been changed a few days before and the alleged insulter was already en route to Holland. Nowadays, guests coming to receptions at Fort Amsterdam use the left stairway because the conspirators used the stairs on the right.
Of the same vintage as the ancient fort is the Jewish cemetery of Beth Haim, which was consecrated in 1659 and is the oldest Caucasian burial ground in the New World. The Mikve Israel synagogue dates from 1732, and its cavernous interior is still lighted with four 24-candle brass chandeliers and the floor spread with sand as a constant reminder of the wanderings of the Jews across the Egyptian desert.
While Cura√ßao clings to the quaint, the neighboring isle of Aruba, 30 minutes away by KLM's island-hopping DC-3s, is beginning to think of itself as the new Miami Beach. It has hired the Miami Beach press agent to beat the drums and hired an architect who specializes in Miami Beach extravaganzas to build its big new hotel, opening in March. If its divertissements are as yet a decade or two behind that Florida nest, its gorgeous stretch of sand far outshines the Miami Riviera. Aruba's magnificent Palm Beach stretches for six miles, or a third the length of the whole island, the sand sugar-white, cooled by the surfless turquoise of what the Dutch call the Caraibische Zee.
In the old scrublands of Aruba, the goats wander wild and unwanted, parakeets skitter through the flat, wind-blown divi-divi trees and the natives build fences of cactus planted shoulder to shoulder. No billboards are allowed, but flags are, and Arubans hang them out to designate their political feelings and also when babies are born, children wed, birthdays celebrated, and when an earnest family student passes college entrance exams.
Boiled peanuts and boiled cucumbers are tasty vegetables to an Aruban, but the island's most exotic food is served on the Restaurant Bali, which is a houseboat that specializes in the Indonesian r√Øjstaffel, a spicy marathon of sajur, sambelan, krupuk and lalabs, which is to say, respectively, soupy stew; vegetables, meat and fish cooked in vegetable oil; fried puffed shrimp mash; and half-cooked vegetables. While the old boat creaks, the tongue burns, and the beer flows to extinguish the fire.
Spread out along Palm Beach is a bungalow resort called the Basi Ruti. Most of its cottages are air-conditioned and some have kitchenettes. Coming in a few months just next door will be the Aruba Caribbean, a 125-room hotel in the Miami motif, complete with pool, terraces and a casino. Then the tourist program will begin in earnest. Until now the economy has been based on the Standard Oil refinery with 2,500 employees, most of them Americans, who live in their own private enclave at the southeast corner of the island. For sightseers who wander out in the cunucu, or countryside, and travel down to an improbable gulch called Rooi Fluit, there is the relic of a gold mine that functioned for almost 100 years, until it went out of business in 1913. But to this day, after a rainstorm, the kids run out and search under the watapana and the wabi trees for stray nuggets. The new Miami press agent insists that they sometimes find one.
CALABASH TREES AND FLAMINGOS
Across the water, goldless, hapless, feckless Bonaire is in many ways the most fascinating of all the Dutch Caribbees. On Bonaire you ride out from Kralendijk over the rough road, past the divi-divi, past the frightened calabash trees that look like John Brown's hair in the John Steuart Curry painting of Harper's Ferry, past the wild donkeys that bray disconsolately in the night, past the scurrying green iguanas that look like shrunken dinosaurs. Finally, on the shores of Pekelmeer Lake, standing on the mushy gray ground that is organic mud sprinkled with antler and brain coral, you can look out to the hordes of pink flamingos, four or five thousand of them, standing and sleeping and occasionally winging overhead like blush-red Constellations as silent as the sun (SI, March 7, 1955).
Near by are the salt pans, still yielding salt, each pan marked by colored pylons which once guided ship captains to the loading areas. Still standing, although they haven't been used for nearly 100 years, hardly bigger than doghouses, are the huts that were used as shelters for the slaves who worked the pans.
Down at Lac, where the Caribbean comes pounding in, blue and green and furious here, there are mounds of conch shells 10 feet high and an arbor of trees where the Bonaireans come on Sundays bringing guitars and a scratchy weeri, a notched gourd on which to keep the beat. The waves break hard against the reef, and just inside is the favorite ground for spear-fishing—bonito, ray, wahoo, barracuda and shark. On the way back to Kralendijk, ruddy turnstones with their black and white backs flit through the cactus; doves circle the water hole which is otherwise used by fishermen and donkeys. There are stepladders on the trees so goats can feed on the upper branches, and wild parrots screech in the blue.
There is only one hotel on Bonaire, and it was once an internment center at the outbreak of World War II. Now known as the Flamingo Beach Club and American-run by Rick Sanderson and his wife, it has a few air-conditioned rooms, and 14 cottages where the accommodations are downright Spartan. But the price, $9.50 with meals, is right, the beach is outside the front door and the fishing is marvelous—trolling for bonito, tuna, wahoo, dolphin, barracuda, sail and king, bottom-fishing for red snapper. On hand for hire is a 40-foot ketch, an 18-foot Chris-Craft and a glass-bottom boat. Water skiers can skim the top of the Caraibische Zee, and skin-divers can probe beneath it. Inert in a sling chair on the awning-covered terrace there are those who will merely watch it, distracted only now and then by the sight of an occasional sail-fitted tub of a fisherman gliding home with a load of garfish, or by the cackle of a wild parrot, the bray of an orphaned mule, all of it far, far from the hubbub, the hurly-burly and The Hague.