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At Sea Among The Islands
Cruising Through The Panama Canal; Round Hill Resort in Jamaica; St. Barts
by Fred Ferretti

It was dense gray and raining heavily the morning of the day we were to pass, Atlantic to Pacific, through the Panama Canal. And inside the Cristobal breakwater of Panama our cruise ship, the Seabourn Spirit, its bow pointed north into a steadying wind, rode a recurring pattern of crests as it awaited its turn to begin what was to be a day-long journey through the locks.

We had moved through the protective breakwater at eight that morning, through thunderstorms and a sea-level fog that obliterated the horizon. Now it was an hour later, and, though the fog had risen, we were left with that persistent grayness and with intermittent showers. The Canal passage, fifty miles across the Isthmus of Panama, would consume about eight hours, fewer if traffic was light, we had been told, and so as we bent over the Spirit's teak rail, under a single umbrella, we hoped there would not be too many ships ahead of us, and we wished for an end to the rain.

It happened. Within a half hour, off to the west, a giant arc of a rainbow appeared, its colors misty against clouds now whitened and the blue of the sky beginning to show through them. The sun appeared just as the Parrot, a small harbor patrol boat, sailed to our side carrying the Panamanian pilot who was to navigate the Seabourn Spirit through its passage.

Soon it was our turn. The Spirit gradually pointed its nose south, and we sailed into Limon Bay, the gateway to the Canal, slowly passing freighters with names like Torm Margrethe, a container ship out of Copenhagen; and the Congo River and Orion Diamond. We had secured, we were told by our deck loudspeaker, "preferential transit" over these freight carriers and we would be inside the Canal within minutes.

"I've been through the Canal eleven times," said an elderly man standing next to us at the rail. He wore a drooped yachtsman's cap, and field glasses hung from his nick. "First time was in 1932. I'm trying to remember just where the French canal was going to be dug. The Gailliard Cut, I think. It was abandoned, you know." I hadn't known that.

We sailed through a lane marked by white buoys into the Gatun Cut. On our left the shore was sheer, topped by fields of thick, long grasses; on our right, the edge of one of the Canal Zone's rain forests. The water was untouched by wind and without ripple except for the gentle wake left as our shop moved on. Soon we came to the first set of locks, the Gatun Locks, which would raise us three levels, from the surface of the Atlantic to that of Lake Gatun (a body of water that is not only the reservoir for the Gatun Locks but, until the creation of Lake Mead with the construction of the Hoover Dam in 1936, was the largest man-made lake in the world). As we approached the locks, rowboats came to meet us. One of the two men in each boat rowed, and steadied the craft, while the other unreeled steel cables and passed them to the Spirit, cables already attached to small locomotives on rails along the edges of the locks, which are the powerful "mules" that pull ships into and through the locks. The Gatun Locks, built, a sign reads, in 1913, elevate our ship eighty-five feet in three stages, in three chambers, each one filling at the rate of 3.4 million gallons a minute.

Our ship sits in a concrete-wall chamber, the force of gravity sends waterfalls in, and we gradually rise to the level of the next chamber. The mules pull us into it, and the process is repeated. Thrice we are lifted by the water, about twenty-eight feet each time, until the last gate opens and we sail into Lake Gatun.

As we move into this lake, sailboats and powerboats crisscross both in front of us and behind our stern, and Sunday sailors wave. Pelicans fly above us searching for lunch. Coming from the opposite direction is the Rotterdam, out of Willemstad, Curaçao, one of the world's oldest cruise ships, and it and the Spirit greet each other with an exchange of blasts from their foghorns. All around us are stands of half-submerged trees and small islands thick with palms and stunted firs and mangroves growing at water's edge. We decide to lunch under the awnings of the ship's high Spa Deck so that we can watch the pelicans and the gulls and the lake swimmers as we dine, and we have a fine buffet indeed: cold roasted chicken and rare roast beef, fat green olives and a cucumber salad tart with red-wine vinegar, good Roquefort and English water biscuits, and glasses of iced tea.

As we eat, our speaker system intones Panama Canal statistics: the first transit of the Canal was on August 15, 1914, and to make that possible $380 million was spent and thousands of workers lost their lives; 12,052 ships passed through the Canal last year carrying the flags of Panama and the United States, as well as those of Liberia, Norway, Greece, Cyprus, Japan, the Soviet Union, and the Bahamas, most of them loaded with grain, petroleum, and phosphates. Some, like the Spirit, carried people, like us, who were amazed at the thought that, as we moved through the Canal, we were surrounded by (even if we could not see them) 365 species of birds, 85 different mammals, 65 reptiles including alligators and crocodiles, and 36 kinds of freshwater fish.

Over the speaker we are told that we have reached the southeastern rim of the vastness of Lake Gatun, and we enter into a weaving path, inching around small islands, past tiny peninsulas, that will take us into the Gailliard Cut, the Canal's historical core.

This cut passes through what was once nine miles of solid rock that included Culebra Mountain. Now that mountain is in two parts. On our left it is called Gold Hill, more than 600 feet high, the highest point in the Canal Zone; on our right is Contractors Hill, almost 400 feet high. Where this mountain was halved the ditch of the canal is now 500 feet wide and 39 feet deep, sufficient to accommodate the largest of ships. We see, amid the shrubbery of Contractors Hill, a bronze plaque embedded in a white marble block in memory of the 30,000 Frenchmen and the 6,900 Americans who died in efforts to build the Panama Canal.

There as well, we are informed, is the Continental Divide, the central line of the Americas.

We are at the one-step Pedro Miguel Locks, and we follow a huge tanker, the Crystal Grace, out of Manila, into the locks. Then down we go into Miraflores Lake and the Miraflores Locks, which in two chambers lower us ever so slowly to the surface of the Pacific. We have had breakfast on the Atlantic Ocean, lunch on the smoothness of Lake Gatun, and our dinner will be consumed as we sail on the Pacific, after we have passed under the suspended arch of the Bridge of the Americas. A serene voyage, for passage through the Panama Canal is quiet and slow. There are no waves. There is no surf. We hear only the waters of the locks, the cawing of the gulls, the chugging of the mules — a day of peace and rest and of awe over what people can do when they set their minds to something.

Usually it is as the weather becomes colder and days grow short, as our winter annuals of snow and ice return, that it becomes pleasurable indeed to turn one's thoughts to the suffusing heat of the southern sun. But, even happier is actually to run off and seek that sun, and the cooking that goes on under it. Anytime. Anywhere?

Me? I'd rather be in Jamaica, in the small and gracious resort of Round Hill, on a knobby peninsula of tropical greenery — of hibiscus, bougainvillea, and jasmine — that juts out into the surfless blue water of the north coast of Montego Bay. And if I had my way I'd be in Villa 18 again because that is where Bernetta Lemonious cooked.

We met Bernetta Lemonious one winter in this thirty-six-year-old resort, where Noel Coward once owned Villa 3, and William Paley Villa 26; here Adele Astaire and Oscar Hammerstein II were also; owners; where the list of guests has included John and Jacqueline Kennedy, Clark Gable, Charles Laughton, Nelson Rockefeller, Greer Garson, Groucho Marx, Paul Newman, Lady Mountbatten, and Paul McCartney.

We walked up the slope to Villa 18 to find Bernetta standing in her bright white kitchen, which, like the villa's open-air salon and dining room, is part of a long, covered veranda. Villa 18 is her domain, she suggested, and has been for most of the thirty-plus years she has worked at Round Hill. She was, she said, a very good cook, and we should be prepared to enjoy her food simply because she was so good at it and enjoyed cooking for people who appreciated her efforts. "People tell me I should go down there," she said, pointing at the building housing Round Hill's kitchens, "and teach them how to cook. Kirk Douglas loved my bacon and eggs."

"Do you like banana bread?" she asked. "I make a wonderful banana bread.

I replied that I adored banana bread, and Bernetta smiled upon me with tentative approval.

We swam that week in the private pool of Villa 18 and ate lobsters and jerk pork and chicken on the beach and freshly cracked crabs and conch dinners by torchlight in the hotel's terrace dining room. But mostly we ate Bernetta's cooking.

Breakfast one morning was akee scrambled with codfish, onions, and green bell peppers, and omelet like preparation that is Jamaica's national dish. Akee is a pear-shaped fruit that, when cut open, displays lobes of pink flesh around bright black seeds. When it is cooked it approximates the taste of eggs. On the table was a bowl filled with grapefruit and oranges and bananas, with slices of watermelon and pineapple. There were pitchers of fresh grapefruit juice, hot muffins, and the bitter marmalade and sweet guava jam that Bernetta makes.

On other mornings we were served Bernetta's own banana pancakes as well as thick slices of bread soaked in milk and then fried. Bernetta's French toast. "You have to soak it in milk so it keeps the heat," she said.

And one afternoon, after a morning in which I had reminded Bernetta about her banana bread boast, we returned from a walk on the beach and met her just as she was leaving Villa 18.

"Surprise for you. In the kitchen," she said, and there on the counter top we found a hot loaf of banana bread. And, so that we'd enjoy it all the more, icy glasses of milk waited in the refrigerator.

Oh, what a sadness it was to leave Bernetta Lemonious.

From behind the counters of a tiny alcove in the Santurce Market in Puerto Rico, Francisco and Gladys Sabala sell a wondrous and fragrant assortment of foods and spices, including sacks of the ground corn known as harina de maiz; the black beans Puerto Ricans call habichuelas negras; pigeon peas, or gandules; lentils, or lentejas; and chicharo, a yellow split pea; as well as tiny bags of malagueta, or allspice; yucca cactus starch; anis de estrella, or star anise; and the tiny red pebble-like achiote, which is used to color and flavor food.

The Sabalas have only one shop in the Santurce Market, a plaza de mercado that is quite a bit smaller than the sprawling central market in Río Piedras, but Santurce is a local market, not for restaurateurs and caterers but for people who shop for their home stoves. The market is a noisy, redolent, happy place, particularly on a Saturday morning, when you can stop on the way in, buy some fried plantains (tostones), and eat them as you browse.

I point at a large tuber, quite like a flattened football, and shrug my shoulders in question. "Malanga," says the man from behind piles of bananas, mangoes, avocados, and sweet potatoes. I learn quickly that the malanga, cut into slices is eaten with roasted meat, preferably beef; that the apio, another gnarled root, is interchangeable with celeriac and is made into tiny croquettes with pieces of blood sausage. I find a delightful array of freshly made candies — dulce coco piña, a stick of coconut and pineapple pith; marajo, caramel and coconut; naranja, a jelly of sour oranges; dulce de patata, a candy of sweet potato; and ajonjolis, sticks of coconut and sesame seeds.

This is the time of year when the sensible among us seek the warmth of the Caribbean, and there is, I suspect, no place warmer or bluer or sandier or with more palms than Puerto Rico. But the island is more, I found out recently, than sand and water. Old San Juan, for example, restored pristinely to its sixteenth- and seventeenth-century origins, offers spacious plazas, fine cafés, walk-throughs of the Bacardi and Serralles rum distilleries, the ubiquitous and addictive frothy piña colada, and Saturday morning in the Santurce Market.

"That is pepino angula," said Francisco Sabala, pointing at a huge brown sweet squash, next to which was parcha, or passion fruit, and bottles of sirop — made from limón, tamarindo, frambuesa, melao, piña, and anis — to pour sweetly over shaved ice. Have a batida, a papaya milk shake, and enjoy.

~

Islands teem with traditions and celebrations, all of them varying memories of migrations and harvests, of long-remembered religions and myths, of feats of births and unions. Others are more mundane. As might be expected, for example, on the isle of St. Barthélemy, familiarly St. Bart's, because it is a part of France, honor is accorded the palate and its endurance.

Each December for more than a decade, a small, diverse and somewhat disorderly flotilla of transatlantic yachts has raced across the Atlantic, from Provence to St. Bart's, their holds stacked to the portholes with wine. And when they arrive there is drinking and merrymaking, a good measure of both.

It is a simple, uncomplicated observance this La Route du Rosé, as each vessel hopes to outmaneuver the others and be first to dock in the sheltered St. Bart's harbor of Gustavia.

The race's end is a joyous occasion of good feelings, especially when a boat sails in with fewer than the required five full, undrunk cases of wine necessary to be declared a winner. But, as was explained to me on St. Bart's one December by Jean-Jacques Ott, monsieur le president of the route, "Things happen at sea. There are winds, storms. Even tempests. Even sharks. The crews must, understandably sustain themselves."

Understood.

Most of the yachts arrive with all twelve cases of rosé with which each was loaded in Saint-Tropez. One year's winner, Endeavor, the former America's Cup competitor, produced the dozen cases. But two years ago, the final yacht to reach St. Bart's showed up with all of its bottles empty.

"We are not certain that the boat was late because the crew drank the wine or that they drank the wine because they were late. Both are, of course, logical," said president Ott, whose vineyard, Domaines Ott, contributes twelve cases to the race. "We agreed to permit the yacht to finish the race because it was here."

Unimpeachable logic.

When the yachts arrive there is a boisterous welcome at the pier and an evening of music and dancing on the waterfront. The whole island is invited to a rosé dégustation; one simply needs to bring a wineglass. The sailors and anyone who chooses to join them set up a game of boule on a stretch of waterfront promenade, the Espace Gambier. St. Bart's restaurants and cafés are filled.

For a week the winemakers (some of whom have flown to St. Bart's, others who sailed) and the crews are bounced from one reception to another, one dinner to another, and even indulge in an around-the-island one-day regatta. During this extended fete they eat, drink, and tell all who will listen how under-appreciated the rosé wines of Provence are.

That was the case president Ott made to me. I did not hold them in low regard. I replied. Indeed, I said, I had enjoyed each frosted glass of Domaine des Excaravatiers, Château de Rasque, Domaine de Saint-Baillon — all fourteen of the rosés brought over, particularly the specially bottled Vieux Château d'Astros Cuvée du Commandeur and Ott's own Cuvée Marine.

This pleased him, and he suggested that I should, because of the character I had shown, be inducted — with scroll — into the Ordre Illustre de Chevaliers de Méduse. "the oldest society anywhere dedicated to Bacchus." I did not doubt that, and one evening, after swallowing an entire goblet of rosé and guessing incorrectly from which vineyard it had come, I was inducted.

Henceforth, said Ott, I would be in his fourth chapitre, entitled to all the traditional benefits of fraternal membership.

Which are?

"You may drink our wine," said Ott.

"On St. Bart's."

A fine tradition.

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