Paramaribo, Suriname – April 6, 2014
Leslie and I left home, bound for Ogle Airport in Cummings Lodge, Guyana. The airport is only about a 10-minute drive from our home. We arrived right at 06:00 even though check-in for our flight was not due to begin until 07:00. We just sat and watched the sunrise and the intermittent rain.
Even though Ogle is an international airport, it is not very busy. That is because virtually the only planes flying in and out are 12-passenger Cessna Caravans (plus two for the pilot and co-pilot). So even if three full flights are leaving at the same time, there is a maximum of 36 people at the terminal. Most of the Cessna Caravans from Ogle have been fitted with a small cargo-hold under the plane. Regardless, one is restricted to a mere 33-pounds of luggage. At the check-in counter, they weigh both the luggage and the traveler, separately!
We checked in on time, went through passport control, security, and then finally sat down in the air-conditioned waiting area. The waiting area before checking-in is open-air. Through the window, we could see one of Trans Guyana Airline’s Cessna Caravans parked on the apron. Both sides of the engine cowling were propped open. We saw several small planes take off over the hour or so we were there. Ultimately we boarded the lone plane we had seen on the apron.
Our trusty steed…
We sat in the rearmost bench seat and were joined by ten other passengers and the pilot. On this particular flight, the co-pilot seat was vacant; however, I have seen a passenger sit in that seat on several occasions in the past. Our boarding had begun at 08:25. By 08:30 the pilot was taxiing on the single runway. The airport is so small there is not a separate taxiway. So, takeoff, landing, and taxiing all take place on the same piece of concrete.
The taxiway dead-ends into the runway at about the mid-point of the runway. Once the pilot was sure there were no planes coming or going on the runway, he pulled onto the runway and turned left. We taxied to the south end of the runway on the runway itself. At the end, there is an additional portion of the paved area that provides enough room for the plane to do a u-turn. As soon as we had turned back to the north, the pilot pushed the throttle forward. In no time we were airborne, leaving the 4,200 foot (1,280 meters) runway below. After gaining about 500 or 600 feet of altitude, the pilot turned right and aimed us at Paramaribo for our 1:15 duration flight.
Except for some very minor corrections on our heading, it is virtually a straight-line flight to the one runway at Zorg en Hoop International airport in Paramaribo. That airport is very similar to Ogle, although it is a bit smaller. The runway there is only 2,559 feet (780 meters). The flight itself was relatively smooth. The approach, as usual, was a little bumpy.
When the pilot touched down, he pulled the yoke so far back the stall warning buzzer went off. That continued for several seconds until the wings finally lost enough lift to allow the nose-wheel to settle onto the runway. That was not Leslie’s favorite part of the flight!
We zipped through immigration, met our driver, and were quickly on our way to the Royal Torarica hotel. I had never stayed there on any of my previous trips. That hotel is much closer to the center of town, which makes it easier to get around to the various tourist sites. En-route, the driver was kind enough to drive by the embassy so Leslie could see it.
Due to the one-hour time change, it was about 11:30 when we checked-in at the hotel. The lobby was a little chaotic because they were preparing to film a commercial for the hotel. We were too early to get our room key, but they were kind enough to store our bags. Once the transaction was complete, I asked them to call a taxi.
The taxi arrived within two minutes. I told the driver we wanted to go to the Saints Peter and Paul Cathedral. He said the trip would be $15SRD, about $5US.
On our initial drive in from the airport, we drove by the cathedral and could see mass was in progress. When we arrived by taxi, the mass was over, and people were exiting. Many of the people stopped to talk with and take photos with the Bishop. There seemed to be a real air of excitement.
After exiting the cab, we approached the Bishop and introduced ourselves. He did not speak much English, but he seemed genuinely interested in meeting two travelers from Colorado.
As we prepared to walk inside the cathedral, I noticed some signs or plaques above each of the three entry doors. I could not see what they were as they were each covered by a cloth.
Walking inside, Leslie was awestruck by the beauty of this all-wood, 129-year old building. I, too, am amazed every time I visit. The wood used inside is not stained or finished. Instead, it has a 129-year-old patina that is strikingly beautiful. The stations of the cross and the crucifix are made of wood too. They are painted, which contrasts nicely with the natural wood.
Two of my favorite objects in the cathedral are the pieta and the enamel and gold-colored depiction of the Madonna and Child. The colors are so vibrant. It is a cathedral I shall never forget.
A few other tourists joined us as we walked around the cathedral. It is quite challenging to take in all of the details.
At the rear of the cathedral is a small area that has been set aside to sell religious items. Leslie found a ceramic cross. We bought that cross to add to her collection.
The newspapers the next morning shed light on why there had been such an air of excitement at the cathedral that Sunday. It had been an extraordinary mass which elevated the church to a Minor Basilica; no wonder!
Leaving the cathedral, we set our sights on Fort Zeelandia. It was a location I wanted to be sure Leslie saw. Part of the intent of our visit was to eat lunch at the restaurant at the Fort called Baka Foto.
It did not take us long to walk the three or four blocks to the Fort. I am sure it would have taken even less time if I had not stopped so frequently to take photos. The photos do reveal that many buildings within the UNESCO World Heritage Site are in need of repair and restoration. The good news is I did see a lot of properties preparing for rehabilitation, such as the old police station near the cathedral.
When we arrived, we sat at a table on the patio that overlooks the Suriname River. It was very relaxing, in part, because it was so quiet.
We both opted for a glass of Merlot. For lunch, we both had fish and chips. Shortly after we placed the order, I realized I did not have much Surinamese cash with me. I asked the waitress if the restaurant accepted Visa. She informed me they only took MasterCard. In somewhat of a panic, I asked her where the nearest ATM was located. She said it was about five minutes away. I told her I was going to dash out to get some money. She said there was no need to worry. I should relax and enjoy my lunch. So we booth relaxed and enjoyed lunch. We enjoyed it so much we decided to share a creme brulee for dessert. It was wonderful!
I left Leslie at the table, and I began walking to get money. I thought to myself how much simpler it would have been if I had just gotten money at the hotel after we checked-in. The hotel is only about two blocks from the Fort. That is where I decided to go. For security’s sake, I did not want to chance a “public” ATM.
When I arrived, I asked at the front desk of the Royal Torarica, where the ATM was located. They told me they did not have one, but there was a machine at the neighboring Torarica Hotel and Casino. That was another block or so of walking. I went inside, got some money, and then promptly hailed a taxi. For just a few SRD, I was whisked back to the Fort. I paid our bill, and we began to look around the Fort.
Fort Zeelandia dates from about 1613, the oldest building in Paramaribo, began life as a Dutch trading post. The Fort was held for a time by the French and then the British. In 1667, it was taken back by the Dutch and Christened Fort Zeelandia. According to a sign on the property, that was the same year New Amsterdam (present-day New York) was traded for Suriname. It was not a very defensible structure as it changed hands many times. It was even sacked by a French pirate, Jacques Cassard, in 1712. Regardless of its history, it is a site well worth the visit.
We left the Fort, destined for our hotel. Our stroll ended with us obtaining a room key and our bags. After a quick change into bathing suits, we went down to lounge by the pool. That was another area that was so relaxing. There was a water fountain that provided that soothing gurgling sound. One could relax at a table, a lounge chair, or a type of twin bed structure with a loose, fabric sunshade.
Adjacent to the pool is a Koy pond. There were numerous, large Koy. Besides, there was a much smaller, but more striking, neon-blue fish. The pond was a favorite with guests. Many of them stopping by to watch the fish for a while before continuing on their way.
After the pool, we changed and decided to walk to the Torarica Hotel and Casino. It is the parent hotel of the Royal. Both hotels share the same grounds, which are amazing. They are immaculately cared for and full of tropical plants and flowers.
Our ultimate destination was the building/patio area by the river bank. I thought it would be a relaxing place to have a toddy and watch the sunset. When we got there, the bar portion was closed. Undeterred, we took the opportunity to walk out on the pier, which extends into the Suriname River. Before we got on the dock, we could see several people standing on the pier, looking over the sides. Reaching the others, we found they were watching several egrets, and a snake dining on fish.
Most of the egrets were white, but there was one that was a grayish-blue. On one side of the pier, a white egret was letting a snake flush out the fish. The river was low because the tide was out. The muddy river bank was exposed as were numerous holes. The holes ranged in size from a quarter to a half-dollar. Going from hole to hole was a small snake, I estimate it was about 18 inches long. Periodically the snake would completely disappear into a hole. When that happened, the white egret would get reasonably close to that hole, stand, and wait. Now and then a small fish would jump up from the same hole, and the egret would catch the fish.
Something I found interesting was the little fish near the water’s edge. I believe they are mudfish (Gobidae). Many of them were lying on the mud letting the small ripples from the river wash over them. Quite a few were similar in size to the fish we saw the egret eat. Regardless, none of the dozen or so egrets we saw showed any interest in the mudfish.
I had been on the pier on a previous journey. For some reason, I have always liked boats and ships. The dock allows a good view of another pier just downriver. That is where the pilot boats dock.
We slowly strolled back to the Royal, enjoying the manicured grounds. When we got back to the hotel, we selected two overstuffed chairs on the patio overlooking the pool. We also picked two glasses of wine. It was around 17:30, which meant the late afternoon light was excellent — the commercial crew we had seen when we first checked-in were taking advantage of that light. The team was now filming on the deck of the pool. They had multiple takes of every shot. It was interesting to watch how a commercial is made.
Since we had packed so much into the day already, we decided not to go out for dinner. We walked inside and sat down at a table in the restaurant. We ordered a bottle of Casa Silva Cabernet Sauvignon to go with our meal. As the waiter opened and poured the wine, he mentioned that one of the specials that night was lobster. That piqued Leslie’s interest. She had several queries about the size, how it was cooked, and how it was served. The waiter said he would have the chef come out and explain.
Even though we had said it was not necessary, the executive chef, Floris van Noort, was soon standing at our table. He was a people-person, very friendly. He loved Leslie’s enthusiasm. They both acted as though they were long-lost friends.
The tray he had brought to the table was filled with about a dozen servings of lobster. They each looked like they were ready to eat right then. Chef Floris explained that the meat was from lobster claws. He further told how it had been marinated and how he intended to present the dish. Leslie asked if she could have a surf and turf dinner. The chef said that would be no problem, even though it was not offered on the menu.
The first thing we were served was the cream of vegetable soup in a small demitasse cup. It was just a sample, but good none the less.
Not too long after that, our appetizer showed up. We opted to split Gemarineerde Zalm. That is marinated salmon on toast with a sorbet of cucumber and a jelly of cucumber. It was served on a piece of black slate. Chef Floris came with the waiter and explained the dish to us. We felt like royalty! If someone had told me I would eat sorbet of cucumber and jelly of cucumber, I would have responded they were nuts. Well, they were both fantastic!
Next up was a bowl of soup, but this was a cream of white asparagus. The chef said the white asparagus had just arrived that day from Amsterdam. He told us we were the first people in Paramaribo to try the white asparagus this season. It was very rich and very delicious. I cannot communicate just how good the soup was.
Our main entree, lobster, and ossenhaas (tenderloin) arrived with another explanation from the chef. The lobster was served on a bed of risotto. The vegetables included peas, green asparagus, and some seagrass (it had a slightly salty taste). He had also drizzled a couple of sauces on the plate. Quite frankly I was a little nervous about the steaks because one was about twice as thick as the other, but Leslie and I had ordered ours done the same way. I thought for sure the thicker steak would be under-cooked. I could not have been more wrong. The certified Angus beef was cooked superbly, melting in my mouth.
We finished our meal with a creme brulee — wow, twice in one day!
The restaurant and the chef were both so amazing we ended up eating there three nights out of the five we were in Paramaribo. I highly recommend the restaurant and the hotel.
One of the days during our stay, we discovered another fish pond. That pond had some massive catfish. Some of their heads looked to be at least one foot across. There was also an arapaima in the pond. They are native to many of the rivers in South America. We recognized it right away because we had seen an episode of River Monsters in which the host, Jeremy Wade, caught an arapaima. This particular fish was around four feet long. They can grow to between six and eight feet in length, weighing up to a couple of hundred pounds.
Wednesday, while I was at work, Leslie had a massage. She raved about it so much I decided to schedule a massage for the next afternoon. That was my first ever massage. It was very relaxing. I was shocked at the price, $48US for a 60-minute massage. That seemed very reasonable compared to what I have seen at other hotels.
Thursday evening, after my massage, we decided to try our luck in the casino. There is a brand new Ramada across the street from the Royal. It has a casino. We walked in, looked around, and settled on some of the old-style quarter slot machines. We cashed in $50SRD each for a cup of quarter-size tokens. That is roughly $17US. We made a pact to only use the tokens in our container to feed the machine, saving our winnings. I broke even exactly. Leslie lost $20SRD.
We took what was left and cashed in for paper money. We took that and went to an automated roulette wheel. We played until we both had zero left. It was entertaining, we did get a couple of drinks, and it did not cost an arm and a leg.
Even though I worked each day, this was one of the best excursions we have taken in quite some time.