Brian Major | October 07, 2016 5:00 PM ET
Downtown in the Caribbean
All photos by Brian Major
This summer in the Caribbean I walked from my downtown hotel to meet some friends. We met up near the waterfront and walked across the boulevard. It was the early evening of a hot summer day and people were just beginning to mill again about the restaurants and shops.
We crossed the boulevard and strolled slowly past a landscaped park. After a while, we turned down a street between tall buildings into the heart of the district, dotted with stores and restaurants. We passed a historic church and a section of residential lofts before turning again onto a quieter, darker street with a small light shining mid-block.
Walking slowly, our footsteps clacked along the cobblestones, approaching the light source. Soon we were standing next to an enclosed painted wood sidewalk terrace, directly in front of small, brightly colored restaurant. Jazz music from inside the restaurant flowed into the street.
The restaurant features authentic Creole cuisine and hosts weekly jazz jam sessions with talented local musicians. We had a wonderful evening at Le Vieux Foyal in Fort de France Martinique, but the funny thing is we might have been in Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial or Willemstad, Curacao, or Charlotte Amalie in the US Virgin Islands.
PHOTO: Lunch at Pasa Bieu
The Caribbean is rightfully celebrated for sea, sun, sand and amazing natural beauty that has drawn visitors for generations. Those natural gifts sometimes obscure the Caribbean’s urban centers, increasingly recognized as hotspots for cultural and culinary immersion. In a way, they are akin to the hip urban districts found in cities all across the world.
While the Punta Cana resort district is a well-known vacation magnet, the capital city of Santo Domingo combines a magnificently preserved colonial city with a modern city center. Santo Domingo’s Zona Colonial, a UNESCO World Heritage Site was the first permanent American settlement for 15th-century European explorers and today features historic 16th-century ornate mansions, magnificent churches and imposing government buildings.
Calle de Las Damas, the oldest paved street in the Americas, leads to Plaza de Espana, a broad stone courtyard bordered on one side by the Ozama River. The courtyard features Alcazar Colon, the restored, one-time palace of Don Diego Colón, the Spanish viceroy of Santo Domingo during the palace’s 1512 construction and a son of Christopher Columbus.
Travelers can dine in the courtyard under colored lights in one of several open-air restaurants. After dinner, a short taxi ride drops visitors at the JW Marriott Santo Domingo, located within the Blue Mall complex. Here visitors can after-dinner cocktails at the trendy rooftop bar, which features a glass-floored terrace positioned hundreds of feet above the shopping street below.
PHOTO: Outside Le Vieux Foyal
Last summer I walked with friends from Curacao’s waterside Floating Market, through the downtown and past Wilson “Papa” Godett plaza, named for a revered Curacao politician, to find Plasa Bieu, an open-air dining hall with dozens of wooden picnic tables covered by a metal roof.
Actually a collection of several restaurants, Pasa Bieu’s establishments each use a distinctive tablecloth pattern to mark their territory. Cooks prepare meals within sight of the tables on huge barbecue grills over charcoal-fed fires. The offer reasonably priced, native Curacao fare includes fish, peas and rice, goat, plantains and other dishes.
Charlotte Amalie’s downtown streets offer lots of duty-free shopping interspersed with original warehouse buildings whose stone floors and giant doors frame hundreds of years of fascinating history and culture. During my most recent visit I stopped in at 14 Dronningens Gade, the birthplace and home of Camille Pissarro, the 19th-century artist considered the father of the French Impressionist painting.
Pissaro was born and raised in Charlotte Amalie, son a Creole mother and a Portuguese Jewish merchant who held French nationality. At 12 Pissaro was sent to s French boarding school, where he developed an appreciation for France’s art masters. He received training in drawing and painting in Paris, where his instructor advised him to draw from nature upon his return to St. Thomas.
PHOTO: Santo Domingo’s Calle de las Damas
Pissarro worked for his father as a cargo clerk after returning at 17. Practicing drawing during breaks, he created his earliest paintings, including “Paisaje Tropical con Casas Rurales y Palmeras” and “Two Women Chatting by the Sea” using 19th century St. Thomas settings.
Those are just a few examples of the culture, history and cuisine found in the Caribbean’s urban districts. Certainly they are not common to every Caribbean island. Some destinations in the region have no true downtown district.
But those that do often offer a fascinating way to experience the region. Every year my list of urban Caribbean experiences grows. I’m eager to see what’s next.
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