Like the rest of her thousands of followers, I watched @thetravelingislandgirl, AKA Riselle Celestina, visit Statia and I thought, ‘That looks cool’. So I WhatsApp’ed her and said, ‘The next time you go to Statia can I come?’.
This blog piece is about that trip – part travelogue and part reflection on the work of a travel influencer. It’s quite long – I hope you enjoy!
Sint Eustatius, most often referred to as Statia and nicknamed the Golden Rock, is an island where I’d touched down – but never exited the plane – on my way to Anguilla from Nevis. All I knew about it was that my friend Liz had volunteered at the Botanical Gardens there many years ago, that it had a dormant volcano, good diving and was home to a large oil refinery (thank you Rough Guide). The oil thing had put me off, it must be said. But it shouldn’t have. It’s unobtrusive and rather mysterious (its mountain-top, not-so-secret location reminded me of a Bond villain’s lair).
Over the years I’ve thought about going to Statia – but in the it’s-so-close-to-Anguilla-I-really-should-try-it type of wanting to go way, rather than a deeply held passion to explore it. Probably because I neither hike nor dive – the two most compelling reasons to visit.
But when Riselle went to Statia last year and fell in love with it, her posts gave me the enthusiasm to tick another Caribbean Island off my list, one which I realised after the most cursory of investigations had a grimly fascinating history. Despite its tiny size, Statia’s location and ‘free port’ status, made it important in the transatlantic and intercolonial slave trade. It’s also notable for making the first international acknowledgement of American independence.
I found it fascinating that tiny Statia (approximately eight square miles) is currently the home of around 3,000 souls – whereas in its heyday its population was closer to 10,000. The remains of the huge commercial and social infrastructure required to support this amount of people are everywhere.
Being in Statia reminded me of my visit to an island in Greece called Delos: a starkly, sculpturally beautiful place like a huge outdoor museum or art gallery filled with ruins and statues. No one lives on Delos now but it was once a thriving port and of huge importance to the Ancient Greeks. In Statia, like Delos, everywhere you go you ‘walk through history’ – particularly in the capital Oranjestad with its plethora of painted wooden houses, religious ruins and cobbled streets.
In this town you can lodge in a building where cotton was processed; swim beside warehouse walls from the 17th century; snorkel over galleons that were sunk just off the shore; and walk the slave path in the sweltering sun. To complete your day, watch the sunset from an immaculately preserved fort where someone has a unique and, unfeasible as it sounds, paid job: to ring a bell three times a day to maintain tradition!
But unlike Delos this island isn’t ready to become a ghost town. There is a brand-new airport, stylish new accommodation options, charming restaurants and clear evidence of a desire to attract more tourism dollars from people looking for a unique, natural and historically rich destination where they can walk, dive and relax. My guess is that with Dutch money pouring in, this is an island that will attract investment and interest over the coming years – despite the lack of beaches.
I want to go back and take friends with me – and I know that it’s going to feature in one of my upcoming novels.
Thanks to my excellent travelling companion Riselle, we spent a lot of our time enjoying history as a gourmet experience at the beautifully restored Barrel House.
The Barrel House is a building whose walls are soaked in history and they ooze salt to prove it. One side is home to an excellent restaurant with a talented Statian-born Chef and impressive wine room, the other a unique and beautifully appointed rental unit. Shared between these two buildings there is a breezy corridor where the sailors used to stand and smoke and where museum-quality artefacts reside.
Restaurant and apartment also share a glorious deck that sits atop the black sand beach. A very appealing spot that offers up crazy-good views of the sunset, and overlooks the iconic, beautifully twisted supports of an abandoned pier and myriad boats in the bay – elements that only add to the gorgeousness of the composition.
We stayed in the countryside, in Quill Gardens, one of the most peaceful, restful and enjoyable boutique properties I’ve ever experienced.
It’s located about halfway up the side of the Quill, with sweeping views over the ocean to St Martin and St Barts. The morning light was, as the owner Sybolt described, ‘crispy’ and cool, the evening light golden and peaceful. I loved the views from deck best, especially at breakfast enjoying a brilliant cup of coffee and tasty continental breakfast.
I went ‘on holiday’ to Statia, as us Brits say, but not in my traditional ‘vaycay’ way. During those joyful, refreshing days I was a willing participant in someone else’s agenda. I went along for the ride. I hung on the coat tails of someone who had a big job to do and clients to please.
It was clear that my travelling island girl companion Riselle, despite only visiting the island for the first time last year, was well known and warmly welcomed wherever we went. She introduced me to many people, including the exuberant, charming and passionately pro-Statia couple Sybolt and Marlyse, who run the Old Gin House and own Barrel House and Quill Gardens – they apparently know everyone.
Thanks to Riselle I had a golden ticket to Golden Rock, playing wingman as she gathered content, took hundreds of pictures (possibly thousands) and videos of everything: arrivals; departures; options on places to stay; a wide range of places to eat, as well as things to do; cool places to drive to; beaches and other natural spots and, of course, the best place to be to watch the sunset – for four nights in a row. We even got to visit Statia’s carnival village – where she could scout local products and I could get my soca fix.
I’ll attempt to explain how great this trip was for me:
First up, travelling to a completely new island destination made me sing in the shower – because I am Travel Trudy.
Secondly, because of Riselle I got to meet residents and experience places and things that I wouldn’t have if I’d travelled independently.
Thirdly, I’ve journeyed so much on my own recently it was super to be experiencing a trip with a fellow traveller who has similar and complimentary passions to mine, and in doing so I cemented my friendship with Riselle.
I loved being her wingman, but watching Riselle work in Statia reminded me just how gruelling it is to be a content creator. And I say this as a content creator. I publish a tourism guide that comes out once a year and I write novels that have a never-ending shelf life. I can have an idea for a story or go out and shoot a scene for TV or interview a person for the magazine and store it all away, knowing that I don’t have to edit or write it up at that moment. I can put things in folders and collate it all later. Or, increasingly as I learn to delegate and focus on the things that only I can do, I ask someone else to edit or write it up, so I can concentrate on my author career.
Whereas Riselle is a social media creator/entrepreneur. After every physically challenging and socially demanding day, she must publish something. Stories evolve in real time, and the appetite for them is endless. They need to satisfy their hungry audiences daily and provide tasty content for consumption.
At the end of each day Riselle scripted, produced and distributed the equivalent of a mini movie about our activities. As she was doing all that, I was taking a refreshing swim, or enjoying a cuppa on my capacious balcony before dinner. After dinner I went to bed to read another chapter or ten of my book, but Riselle was editing, collating and uploading hundreds of photos to the cloud and checking her equipment to make sure her multiple batteries were charged and ready to go the next day.
I realised that a good percentage of the places she features in her posts understand what a boost to their business a mention on her @travelingislandgirl platform gives them (hence the warm welcome from several places she’d reported on before). But only a handful of the places and products she features would ever think to pay her for it. They expect it, like it’s their due. It’s also obvious that some people think Riselle is simply having ‘a lovely time” in exchange for taking a few pictures’ – they have absolutely no idea of the amount of work behind what she does or the worth of what she is gifting them.
You may know all of this already, but I think it bears repeating that unlike their international colleagues, many Caribbean content creators struggle to get paid for their work. Riselle has written honestly and compellingly on this – and you can read about it here. Many creators from this region fail to monetise the excellent work they do, despite exceptional levels of ‘engagement’ from their targeted social media platforms.
I’m so glad that instead of just watching Riselle’s story on my phone and thinking ‘that place looks cool’, I acted on it and asked if I could tag along. I hope that the next time you see a fun-filled, fact-packed, entertaining Instagram or Facebook story, or you read a well-written post, you spare a thought for these influencers and the work that went in to making you want to experience what they do.
And when you do go to a place you’ve seen on their page or feed, to experience it for yourself, please say – I’m here in Statia/Anguilla/Sint Maarten/Antigua drinking rum punch/wine at your bar/restaurant or shopping in your place because @thetravelingislandgirl or @jetsetsarah or @myanguillaexperience told me all about you.
Believe me the hardworking content creators will really appreciate that.