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More in the Lesser Antilles.


A passenger liner operated by Sun Line Cruises, the Stella Solaris is a bit of a mystery ship. Built in 1953 and christened the Camboge, she ended up carrying cargo and passengers unknown between France and Cambodia during the Vietnam War. In 1972, massive reconstruction converted her into a cruise ship, rechristened the Stella Solaris. Her journeys to the war-torn lands of Southeast Asia were history.

Today, the Stella Solaris, as luxurious as any in her passenger class, has changed destinations dramatically. On a ten-day cruise out of New York last summer, she visited some of the loveliest Caribbean islands: Puerto Rico, St. Thomas, Antigua (pronounced An-TI-ga), Saint Bart's, and Saint-Martin. Customers get to stop at some familiar U.S. possessions and, in the bargain, some of the more exotic or undeveloped isles of the eastern Caribbean--not to mention roomy cabins, mounds of hearty food, and personalized service.

As soon as the ship docks in Puerto Rico, passengers tend to head for one of the lavish night-club shows in San Juan or to gamble in one of the hotel casinos. Mistake. They will never experience the colonial charm of Old San Juan. A walking tour reveals cobblestoned, winding streets, fringed by small shops, houses with overhanging balconies, and historic buildings, especially El Morro castle. Looking much like a medieval castle, El Morro guards the entrance to San Juan's harbor.

Tourists feel they must take advantage of the shopping at the Solaris' next port of call, duty-free St. Thomas. Another mistake. What shoppers miss is a lush, tropical island they could explore inexpensively. For $40, they could rent a car at any of the island's rent-a-car companies and head out through the hills on Route 35 to Magens Bay, picked by National Geographic magazine as one of the the ten most beautiful beaches in the world. You won't be disappointed--and along the way, watch out for ferocious-looking, machete-wielding maintenance men cutting the weeds at the side of the road!

Antigua is the next balmy destination. By all appearances, Antigua is one of the more poverty-stricken of the eastern Caribbean island nations. Americans are treated with cautious politeness by the locals, ever mindful of American tourist dollars' power to stimulate their stagnant economy.

Because Antigua is underdeveloped, you won't see the large hotels and casinos that proliferate in the Caribbean. Antigua does have more than 100 square miles of beautiful, rolling green pastures, reminiscent of the New Zealand countryside--except here, the trade winds blow and cool things off.

Take a three-hour tour of the island for all of $18. You'll travel to the charming, cliffside summer residence occupied by England's King William IV in the late 18th century before he ascended the throne. If you look down, right below is a picture-perfect postcard of a bay called Nelson's Dockyard, after the admiral who commanded the British fleet in the Caribbean from his Antiguan stronghold before the Napoleonic conflicts.

The Stella Solaris sails on the last day of her Caribbean cruise to the islands of Saint-Barthelemy and Saint-Martin (or Sint Maarten, as it is called in the Dutch third of the island). Quite simply, Saint-Martin is the loveliest and friendliest island in the Caribbean. It offers better prices than St. Thomas on many goods. The duty-free stores on bustling Front Street in Philipsburg offer great buys on linens and electronics; there are all different types of excellent restaurants, from Indonesian to French; and the people are as friendly as can be. But what I'll always remember about Saint-Martin is baseball.

I stopped into the Sea Island Resort and watched a Mets game, via satellite, with a visitor from Curacao named Andre and a native of Saint-Martin named Jimmy. They both knew more about baseball than I did, and as we sat and chatted about such greats as Gil Hodges and Sandy Koufax, I felt more at home in the Caribbean than I ever had.

As for Saint Bart's, the island is actually part of France, and the French are no friendlier in the Caribbean than they are on home ground.

Music being the universal language, it was left for Irving Fields, the pianist at the Palm Court of New York's Plaza hotel and the Stella Solaris' guest soloist, to provide the appropriate ending note on the Solaris' multilingual manifest and ports of call: "I've written seven songs on this ship. It's certainly provided me with a lot of inspiration.'

Photo: Situated on the eastern periphery of the Caribbean, the Lesser Antilles are still a convenient stop, not much farther from the United States than better-known isles.

Photo: Once a carrier of humbler cargoes, the Stella Solaris is today a purveyor of luxury and exotic travel. Her summers are spent cruising the eastern Caribbean islands.
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Title Annotation:aboard the Stella Solaris
Author:Rosen, Fred
Publication:Saturday Evening Post
Date:Jan 1, 1988
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