Saturday, October 27, 2012

October 26th – Hurricane Dodging in the Bermuda Triangle

Sailing through the Bermuda Triangle is bad enough, but when you see on the news that a huge great Hurricane (Sandy) is tearing up the Caribbean, that puts me on edge. However, the hurricane is in the Western Caribbean, and we're heading to the Eastern Caribbean, and the Captain assures us that we're going round the edge of it so should only feel a few ripples.

So, after 1 and a half days, he's been true to his word, and it's only been cloudy and mildly choppy. Actually, cloudy weather is good news for a Destination Lecturer, as his sun-worshipping audience have to go inside to seek what passes for "entertainment" in his lectures.

October 25th – Length and Breadth of Bermuda

Today I joined the ship's Bermuda Island Tour that took us the length and breadth of the island in the company of our informative bus driver and guide who appeared to know every single building and blade of grass on the island. Bermuda is made up of an archipelago of around 150 islands, the main seven of which are linked by a series of bridges and causeways.

We headed to the middle island to the capital, Hamilton, before making our way to the western end of the territory to Dockyard, the site of Britain's main western Atlantic Naval Base from the start of the 19th century to the 1950s. The huge array of old naval buildings, storehouses and installations have been turned into a modern mall and leisure facility, and we had the smug feeling of congratulating ourselves that we weren't docked next to the two huge cruise ships tied up there.

On the way back, we stopped off at various beaches and sites along the way, including the Gibbs Hill Lighthouse, Horseshoe Bay, and we had the chance for a paddle on the soft pink sands of the quiet John Smith's Beach.

At the end of any time spent in Bermuda, I always come to the same conclusion that it must be a great place to live – lovely climate, gorgeous scenery, a laid-back environment , and incredibly kind, friendly and helpful people.

October 24th – Bermuda’s Railway Trail

We had a great start to our stay in Bermuda with a beautiful sail-in to St George's tranquil harbour, squeezing between a narrow gap in the headland, with the locals just yards away shouting "Welcome To Bermuda" to us. This was the place where it all started in the early 17th century, when the British first set up their base in the Atlantic, and as a result, Bermuda's former capital is full of historic buildings and houses from the early days of the colony.

We decided to get an alternative perspective on the island by following one of Bermuda's historic Railway Trails – all that remains of one of the world's most expensive railway lines that ran the length of the island from the 1910s to the 1940s. The line was expensive, slow and inefficient, so after the war it was totally dismantled and taken to British Guyana, leaving behind the old trail cut through the limestone rocks and forests.

The signposting was a bit hit-and-miss, but once we got on the trail, it was lovely – we didn't see another soul on our route, as it took us past stunning coastlines and shady woods. On a balmy day, after such chilliness on the previous cruises, it was great to be back in the warmth again.

The trail took us right to the end of the island of St George's, and sadly the old railway bridge over to the next island was long gone, so it was time to cool off with a swim on a deserted sandy beach – the waters were clear and just about warm enough to float around for a while – before we re-traced our steps back to the town of St George.

We made our way all the way to the other end of the island, to St Catherine's Fort, where we found a bar for a refreshing but pricey drink overlooking the sea. What a great way to explore a lovely island.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

October 22nd – Sailing Into New York

It was an early start to be up the bridge to narrate our sail-in to New York's stunning harbour. As the sun came up, we sailed past the Statue of Liberty and towards the cartoon-like skyline of Manhattan, before gliding up the Hudson, to our berth on Pier 90 (50th Street).

We were meeting friends at the South Street Seaport, so we caught the subway down to Lower Manhattan to enjoy the revitalised waterfront. Up until the 1850s, this is where all arrivals by sea would have come into, before the advent of larger steamships meant that all shipping now headed over to the Hudson on the west side of Manhattan.
We had a lovely brunch of catching up and gossiping, before doing a bit more exploring around the Financial District, in the shadow of the Freedom Tower that's slowly reaching completion. From here, we walked our way back up to the ship, passing through all the different atmospheric districts and "villages" of this fantastic kaleidoscope of a city.

October 21st – Newport (At Last)

Because of the ship's propeller problems, we'd missed out on our calls into Newport on the previous two cruises, so we were very happy to finally be arriving into one of our favourite towns in the US.

The chief attraction here are the array of fabulously opulent mansions built in the Gilded Age by the super-rich industrialists and bankers of late 19th and early 20th century America. These mansions (called "cottages" by their oh-so-modest owners) were often ridiculously over-the-top affairs that aped the palaces of Europe, and filled with more gold, marble and artwork than you could imagine.

We went to see one of the best examples – The Elms – home to the Berwind family, who had built an immense fortune from coal mining. While they weren't as famous as their more illustrious neighbours (the Vanderbilts, Astors, Dukes and Morgans), their house was just as grand, and their entertainment budget of $300,000 a year was just as good. Considering that this money was spent in a short summer season that lasted just 8 to 10 weeks of the year, then no expense was spared.

The house was a beautiful and evocative reminder of the age when the phrase "conspicuous consumption" was coined, and when the rich didn't have to worry about things like income tax, or what the masses felt. Just as you feel when walking around the palaces of St Petersburg, that it's not difficult to understand why there was a revolution in Russia; here you also felt that an age of such publicly over-the-top spending also had to end.

By the end of the Second World War, most of Newport's grandest houses were too costly to keep, and had been left behind by tastes and fashions. The Elms was due to be demolished in 1960, but, Thank God it was saved from the wrecking ball by just a few days.

After the visit, we had a lovely time strolling the streets of Newport, soaking up the sun and the historic atmosphere. It was worth the wait!

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

October 20th – A Tea Party in Boston

It had been quite cold as we sailed into Boston, which meant that we'd layered up in jumpers and jackets. However, once we'd got into town, it had somehow turned into a hot summer's day – most bizarre.

We were meeting up with our old friends, Bee and AJ plus their two children, so we had to find activities that would keep both the children and us grown-ups happy. Our first activity was an obvious one that everyone enjoys – eating. So, we headed for a leisurely breakfast by the waterfront, which allowed us to fill our faces and do lots of catching up.

Our next planned activity was to go on a whale watch, but when we got there, the company advised us that the swell in the harbour would almost certainly make all of us feel sick. Having avoided seasickness so far on this trip, I was more than happy to take their advice and miss out.

So, we headed for one of Boston's newest museum, the Boston Tea Party Museum – re-enacting the events of one of the key moments in America's road to Independence from Britain. As actors brought the whole thing for life in a fairly light-hearted way, of course, the British were resolutely cast in the role of the "Baddies"; and although I was willing to join in with the "Huzzahs" for the speeches of the Patriots, I patriotically didn't join in with the "boo's" for King George III (even letting out a surreptitious "Huzzah" for him when no-one was looking).

The kids loved the playacting and exploring the ship, while we had great fun lobbing the pretend crates of tea into Boston harbour, a la 1773. A really good museum for kids of any age.

After this, we headed up to Little Italy in the lively North End, where we got cannoli and gelato, and passed by so many characters on the street that looked like they'd just stepped off the set of the Sopranos. Then we headed back to Quincy Market to enjoy the street theatre of an incredibly busy Saturday afternoon, before saying our goodbyes and doing a little retail therapy.