Some parts of a Caribbean voyage aboard the Sea Cloud are a given, even if you’re a first-time visitor: Endless vistas of watercolor-perfect skies, sandy beaches, and placid seas. Unfurling on the deck to take in the rays and the tropical breezes. The magical feeling of watching the sails fill as they catch the trade winds.
“Everybody knows about the Caribbean—that’s where you have sun, sand, palm trees, coconuts and beaches,” says historian Tom Heffernan, who travels aboard many of Lindblad-National Geographic's Caribbean expeditions. “What we have to do is introduce people to a different world, one that has all those things, but much, much more.”
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With Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic, a journey through the Caribbean isn’t merely a vacation—it’s a chance to unlock the rich and complex history and culture of these islands that have stood as gateways to the New World and as waypoints for world exploration since they first made it onto the map.
As we sail this turquoise expanse, we will delve into the origins of settlement by the indigenous Carib, Taino, and Arawak people, the succession of European colonizing forces that made their mark on these lands, as well as the lasting scars and legacy left here by the emergence of the sugarcane industry and the slave trade. You’ll witness firsthand the ways in which geography and ecology have played a role in each island’s story, and how political history leaves its mark on modern day life and culture.
Most crucially, you’ll emerge from the journey with a more nuanced understanding of this dynamic region—one that goes far deeper than what can be gleaned from postcard vignettes and travel brochures. Here, Heffernan weighs in on the history and culture travelers can look forward to exploring at each stop along this incredible journey.
Your port of departure is situated on one of the Caribbean’s most action-packed islands. Barbados is home to almost 300,000 people, and though it has strong ties to Britain as a former colony and present member of the Commonwealth of Nations, it’s a leader in its own right, with a female prime minister at the helm and a strong, stable government.
“Barbados has the third oldest parliament in the Americas, and its history reflects the rich political mosaic of representative government,” Heffernan explains. The island’s location, well outside the typical hurricane corridor, means it hasn’t had to contend with the destruction and rebuilding many Caribbean nations have faced. And it’s rife with ties to the U.S., in part because of the shadow of the slave trade: Charleston, South Carolina was settled by Barbadians, and the architecture of Bridgetown looks like a mini-Charleston.
Your first stop aboard the Sea Cloud is Dominica, an island of contrasts. “When I talk about Dominica, I talk about it as two islands,” says Heffernan. “The coast, which is flat, could support sugar cane—and therefore slavery. But in the interior, that was impossible. It’s high mountains, it’s rocky. That’s where you had a population of runaways, who had escaped slavery.”
Here you’ll explore Fort Shirley, the site of an 1802 revolt that spurred the eventual freeing of all enslaved soldiers in the British Empire. You’ll also learn about Dominica’s key role in the early settlement of the United States. “Dominica is wonderful,” says Heffernan. “The people are lovely—they’re very nice, very welcoming.”
Îles des Saintes
The shift from Dominica to Îles des Saintes is a dramatic one, in part because of the relative prosperity of the latter, explains Heffernan. “It’s part of France, and that means the people that live there get French pensions, medicine, and social security,” he says. “The exact same things as they would if they were living in the South of France.”
Just as in Aix-en-Provence or Cannes, you can find charming shops selling jewelry, accessories, hand-dyed linen, and more. “There’s ice cream parlors and restaurants, and you can have a café au lait. It has a real feeling of France,” Heffernan says. For history buffs, a trip to Fort Napoléon is in order: the 19th-century fort was built by Napoléon III and today houses a museum about Îles des Saintes, along with a cactus garden designed to reflect the island’s arid climate.
“Bequia, in St. Vincent and the Grenadines, is a very different place from our other ports of call,” says Heffernan. The population is a mix of people of Afro-Caribbean descent and those descended from Scots’ indentured servants. “They used to live separately, but now there is more mixing,” he explains.
In Bequia, Rastafarianism is a thriving, actively practiced religion, and Heffernan shares a primer on its tenets and practices aboard the Sea Cloud. “Rastafaris abstain from meat and alcohol and some are celibate. I try to show that it’s not some primitive religion, but a thoughtful belief.”
Bequia also has a rich history of boatbuilding, one you’ll get a glimpse of when you visit Mr. Joseph, a renowned model boat builder whose work has been revered by the likes of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. “Also keep an eye out in the harbor for glamorous ships owned by the rich and famous: that boatbuilding reputation made Bequia a popular stop on the yachting circuit,” Heffernan says.
The island of Carriacou falls far off the typical tourist map, says Heffernan. “It’s very small, very beautiful, very simple.” It was once dominated by lime and sugar cane plantations, he explains, but today the only trace of that past is Carriacou’s residents, most of whom are descended from the enslaved indigenous and Afro-Caribbean people who formed the backbone of those industries.
On our voyage, we’ll explore the Carriacou Museum, a pint-sized local museum that houses assorted artifacts from the island's history. It’s run by the daughter of the noted late folk painter Canute Caliste whose work is on display.
"There’s a wonderful shop where local painters created the Rastafarian Last Supper,” says Heffernan. “Haile Selassie is God, and Jesus and all the apostles have dreadlocks. It’s very well done, and it gives you a sense that this is a serious faith.”
“Historically, St. Lucia traded hands between the English and the French 15 times before it had independence,” explains Heffernan. Accordingly, you’ll hear plenty of English spoken on this lush volcanic isle, along with a French patois. French history looms large, particularly at the town square in Soufrière, where Jacobins installed a guillotine to dispatch with aristocratic plantation owners during the French Revolution. “The town square now contains a plaque and a dramatic statue of a slave breaking his chains,” says Heffernan.
There’s also a visit to the Diamond Botanical Gardens, home to mineral springs once frequented by Napoleon’s wife, Empress Josephine. “She came from St. Lucia, and that shows you how important these islands were. These planters were not unsophisticated, poor people. The Europeans in these islands had more money than their contemporaries in England and France.”
After taking in the gardens, it’s off to Hummingbird Beach for cocktails on the sand, snorkeling, and swimming—a quintessentially beachy last hurrah before it’s back to Barbados and homeward bound with a richer, deeper understanding of this magical region.