Resident tours Eastern Caribbean

Published 12:00 am Saturday, March 16, 2002

Editor's Note: This the second story in a three-part series on Greenville native Tom Braxton's recent tour of the Eastern Caribbean.

The Norwegian Sun docked late Monday afternoon in historic San Juan,an American commonwealth with a distinctly foreign accent. Colonized and ruled by the Spanish for over 400 years, la isla bonita' is today a modern Americanized city liberally flavored with quaint, Old World' charm.

Braxton enjoyed discovering the island's ancient fortresses and climbing the steep, winding cobblestone streets of Old San Juan where wrought-iron balconies spilled over with bougainvillea. Horses and buggies lined up at the docks to take tourists for scenic rides through some of the city's oldest streets.

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The Latin theme continued on board the ship that evening with the Jean-Ann Ryan Company's production of Que Noche'. The show featured both the sultry sounds of contemporary pop stars like Marc Anthony, Ricky Martin, Shakira and Celia Cruz and saluted Latin legends such as Tito Puente and Santana.

"It was a very professional production…fabulous costumes, choreography…just great," enthuses Braxton.

St Croix was the second stop for the Sun. The largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, St. Croix is not one of the typical cruise ship ports of call and isn't considered as tourist-y' as its sister island, that duty free bargain-hunter's paradise, St. Thomas.

Braxton elected to take a tour of the St. Croix's historic rum factory and botanical gardens, followed by a spot of duty-free shopping in the twin cities of Frederiksted and Christiansted.

Rainy weather had left the narrow, winding island roads slick and muddy-and gave Braxton a very memorable ride through the island's tropical rain forest.

"The vehicles are left-hand drive but they also drive on the left

definitely the wrong side to you and me. It's pretty unnerving navigating those twisting, hilly roads. You've got blind spots and one-lane tunnels, horns honking…believe me, you frequently just close your eyes…and pray," Braxton laughs.

He was more pleasantly amazed by the multitude of tropical plants flourishing outdoors

in the middle of winter. "There was mother-in-law's tongue, pineapple, lemon, banana trees…everything, just growing along the road."

At the botanical gardens Braxton strolled the grounds and discovered many more beautiful varieties of tropical plants and flowers, including lots of orchids ("Next to the camellia, probably my absolutely favorite flower"). Charming old red-roofed stone buildings, once part of a 19th century sugar plantation, added to the appeal of the garden landscape.

A short drive took Braxton from the gardens to the world-famous Cruzan Rum Factory where the history buff was given a "fascinating" look at the history and process of rum making, which dates back some four and a half centuries in the islands.

Today the Nelthropp family combines centuries-old traditions with the latest state-of-the-art technology amidst the windmills and ruins at St. Croix's picturesque Cruzan Rum Distillery.

Braxton discovered why Cruzan justifiably lays claim to creating a truly native product. The process begins with sugar cane molasses direct from nearby Caribbean sugar plantations. That local sweetener is then diluted with tropical rain water from the island's own aquifers.

After the fermentation and distillation processes are completed in Cruzan's very large and modern still, the rum distillate ends up in a place with uniquely American ties. "The distillery uses recycled oak barrels straight from the Jack Daniels Distillery in Tennessee to store their product for aging," notes Braxton.

Once it has aged for anywhere from two to twelve years, the rum is charcoal filtered and bottled on up-to-date bottling lines. Braxton and his tour mates had the chance to sample some of the large line of rums, including pineapple, banana, citrus stash, and others offered by the distillery.

"I loved all the history behind the process…and yes, I did quite enjoy sampling their delicious coconut rum," he admits with a mischievous grin.

Braxton also enjoyed a walking tour of the city of Christiansted, a National Historic Site dating back to 1734. The historic city is filled with quaint shops offering French perfumes, crystal, jewelry and other luxury items and the island's own genuine, colorful batik clothing.

That evening Braxton experienced another Broadway-worthy event on board with the Cirque de Soleil's own Cirque-Pan'. Peter Pan's world of fun and fantasy was brought to life on stage, complete with performers literally soaring through the air. Once again a Sun production received top marks from Braxton for the "superb costumes and staging…tremendous!"

Tuesday evening wrapped up with an oh-so-appropriate Caribbean night party under the stars with fun and games at poolside. Lilting calypso tunes by a live band were followed up with high-energy dance music spun by a deejay. It was yet another chance for Braxton to dance the tropical night away as the Sun headed toward Tortola, B.V.I., the Sun's next exotic port of call.