Sure, it’s the glorious seaside that initially attracts travelers to the Caribbean, but myriad historic and cultural attractions shine a light on what life was like centuries ago. Military forts, sugar plantation ruins and other sites are remnants of a time when European powers fought for dominance of resource-rich colonies.
Aruba: Fort Zoutman Historical Museum
Fort Zoutman, constructed in 1796 to protect the coastline, is the oldest building in Oranjestad, the capital of Aruba. It houses a small museum that examines the island-nation’s Dutch colonial history and other aspects of this polyglot, multicultural society.
Prominently featured is Aruba’s once prolific hat-weaving industry. Prior to the turn of the 20th century, women wove hats simply as a source of extra income while men were working abroad on sugar plantations, but when straw hats became all the rage in the U.S. and Europe, production exploded. On exhibit are hats ranging from plain and practical to colorful and whimsical.
For a striking view of the ocean and the colorful Dutch architecture that stretches throughout bustling Oranjestad, climb to the top of the regal Willem III Tower. Added in 1868, the old clock tower was originally built as a lighthouse.
Every Tuesday night, the fort hosts the Bon Bini Festival, a party that welcomes visitors with local food, music, and dance performances.
LG Smith Boulevard, Oranjestad, Aruba. 297-588-5199, aruba.com/us/explore/fort-zoutman-historical-museum.
Havana, Cuba: Cementerio de Colón (Christopher Columbus Cemetery)
This vast Havana cemetery founded in 1868 houses a pantheon of graceful statues, making it feel more like a charming sculpture garden than an ancient necropolis. Visitors enter through a Byzantine-Romanesque gateway, then stroll among elaborate crypts, mausoleums, vaults and family chapels built in architectural styles ranging from classical to art deco.
It’s the final resting place for politicians, soldiers, poets, musicians and ordinary Cubans.
A massive monument commemorates the fallen soldiers of the Revolutionary Armed Forces, and a stainless steel sculpture tops a memorial to the martyrs of the 1957 attack on Batista’s Presidential Palace.
The most visited grave is that of La Milagrosa, Spanish for “The Miraculous One.” Amelia Goyri de la Hoz died in childbirth in 1901, and her infant son soon followed. Mother and child were buried in the same coffin, the baby at the mother’s feet.
According to legend, when the body was exhumed years later, the baby was cradled in his mother’s arms. La Milagrosa is an unofficial saint, revered as the protector of children. Pregnant women and their families flock here to pray at the statue that towers over the grave, leaving behind tokens of their respect and gratitude.
Calle 12, Havana, Cuba. 53 7/832-1050.
St. Croix: Fort Christiansvaern
Christiansted National Historic Site, located on St. Croix, the largest of the U.S. Virgin Islands, is a 7-acre urban park on the waterfront that interprets the Danish way of life in the New World between 1733 and 1917.
Six historic structures are open for tours, but the main attraction is Fort Christiansvaern, one of the best preserved forts of its kind in the West Indies.
The fort jail once held Rachel Faucett Lavien, mother of U.S. founding father Alexander Hamilton. Her husband, Johan Michael Lavien, had her jailed when she attempted to leave him. After several months, he released her, expecting that she would “change her unholy way of life,” and return to him. Instead, she escaped to St. Kitts, where she fell in love with James Hamilton, Alexander Hamilton’s father.
Today, the waterfront near the fort is a peaceful spot for leisurely activities, but during the colonial era, it was undoubtedly a raucous place, jammed with workers loading ships with sugar and rum for export to Europe and unloading vessels packed with African slaves that survived the barbarous conditions of the Middle Passage crossing.
No shots were ever fired from this stronghold, but several cannons are perched on the roof, which offers a breathtaking view of the sea — virtually the same view enjoyed by colonists 200 years ago.
2100 Church St., #100, Christiansted, St. Croix, VI. 340-773-1460, nps.gov/chri/index.htm.
St. John: Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins
The Annaberg Historic Trail passes through the Annaberg Sugar Plantation Ruins, operated by Virgin Islands National Park, and provides insight into St. John’s history as a major sugar producer during the colonial era (1718-1917) when the island was part of the Danish West Indies.
The ruins sit on a serene, picturesque spot that overlooks Leinster Bay, but when Annaberg was a working sugar mill, it would have been anything but tranquil. One can imagine the cacophony of laborers toiling to produce as much sugar and molasses as possible.
Especially noteworthy is what remains of a monolithic windmill that reaches toward the sky like a lighthouse. Built between 1797 and 1805, it was once equipped with revolving sails that turned a shaft that crushed sugar cane stalks, producing juice that flowed downhill to the factory.
Plentiful signs along the trail explain the intricacies of the sugar-making process and raise awareness of the appalling predicament of the African slaves burdened with planting and harvesting the lucrative sugar cane crop.
Virgin Islands National Park, St. John. 340-776-6201, nps.gov/viis/index.htm.
St. Lucia: Pigeon Island National Landmark & Museum
At this national landmark on St. Lucia’s northwest coast, visitors roam through 18th-century ruins of military barracks and garrisons, a reminder of the colonial period when the British and the French continually fought over the sugar cane-producing region that promised wealth to the victorious. British Adm. George Rodney fortified the island because it was a strategic vantage point for monitoring the French fleet across the bay in Martinique.
In the Museum and Interpretive Centre, housed in a restored British officer’s mess, a multimedia exhibit provides details about the site’s historical significance, but you don’t have to be a history buff to enjoy an excursion to this verdant island surrounded by a calm, cerulean sea.
There are dozens of breathtaking views, and Signal Peak, a 330-foot lookout, is among the most popular because the panorama stretches all the way to Martinique.
Today, it’s simply a peaceful place to take in the beauty of the area, but during WWII, it was an American naval communications signal station.
The highlight is Fort Rodney, established when Rodney famously defeated the French in the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. A steep hike along a well-marked path is worth the reward — a view of a beach rimmed with lush mountains.
Technically, Pigeon Island is an island no more. It was connected to the mainland by a causeway in the 1970s.
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