Thursday, April 30, 2015

April 30th – The End of The World Cruise

So, after 115 days, 30,000 nautical miles, 50 ports, and 32 countries, it's all finally coming to an end – we reach Fort Lauderdale tomorrow and we say goodbye to a lot of old friends and a lot of new friends. I must say that this was one of the friendliest and most easy-going of all our World Cruises. A really nice bunch of people who got on very well with each other.

The World Cruise is partly about the onboard experience (which was great), and partly about the destinations, which were as good as ever. My personal highlights (in no particular order) include:
1. The night at the Opera in Sydney
2. Swimming with those enormous tuna in Port Lincoln
3. The Elephants of Pinnawela
4. Going on safari at Ngornogoro
5. Going to see the Cricket in Grenada

It's been a fantastic last 4 months, and we can't wait till the 2016 World Cruise to do it all over again.

In the mean time, we'll have a few days in Florida; then some time in London; a trip to Italy; some more time in London; a campervan trip somewhere (could be France, Spain or Slovenia), then a month on the Silver Spirit in October; then a month somewhere (could be Rome or Seville, or somewhere else – suggestions please); then the UK for Christmas; then back to Fort Lauderdale for the 2016 World Cruise.

Let me know your travel plans for the rest of the year.

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

April 28th – Puerto Rico Without The Crowds

Puerto Rico sometimes gets a bad press – people who have been in San Juan when 4 monster cruise ships are in can find the crowds unbearable, while many people who haven't been here before don't realise that the Old Town is such a charming place of beautifully preserved Spanish colonial architecture.

Fortunately, we were the only ship in today, so we could get to savour the historic atmosphere in peace. The thing that strikes you first about the Old Town is how European it looks – architecturally, it bears many similarities with Cadiz in the Mother Country, while its layout of sturdy defensive walls and fortresses facing out to sea reminds me of Dubrovnik.

It was another steamy tropical day, but in amongst the grid of historic buildings, there was just enough shade for us to take shelter in, while there were plenty of bars and cafes to stop off for a cooling drink. Before it got too unbearably hot, we headed over to San Juan's number one historic site – the forbidding El Morro Fortress. This huge medieval fortress was begun in the 16th century, when possession of Puerto Rico was a cornerstone of a Spanish Empire that was growing incredibly rich on trade being shipped (via Puerto Rico) across the Atlantic from Mexico.

The approach to the fortress was by an attractive expanse of grass, which gave great views across to this huge medieval construction. Rather than being there to make it more photogenic, this open area was to give the Spanish a clear line of fire at their Dutch and English enemies (who attacked many times before the Americans finally took over the fortress in 1898). It was fascinating to explore the six different levels of the fortress, enjoying the views over land and sea, and getting to bump into the disconcertingly large pre-historic-looking iguanas that stood guard over the bastions as they nonchalantly sunned themselves.

By now, it was getting blisteringly hot, so we headed back into town to do some more exploring along its evocative blue cobblestone streets, before our final assault on another (even bigger) Spanish fortress – Fort San Cristobal – at the other end of town. This one was newer (it was only about 300 years old), so it didn't have as much history, however the sheer size of it was another reminder of the importance of San Juan to the Spanish.

After stopping for my first ever mofongo (a stodgy, plantain-based creole dish that's the national dish of Puerto Rico) in an air-conditioned restaurant (a pre-requisite by now), we braved the heat again, to head to a few of the town's factory outlet stores to check out the bargains – there were a few to be had.

Puerto Rico offers a nice combination of attractions – we didn't even go to the beach or the rainforest this time, but we still saw plenty of historical and cultural attractions on San Juan's atmospheric streets, plus we got to indulge ourselves with decent food and shopping options too. On a day without the crowds, San Juan was looking very good indeed. What a pleasant final port before the World Cruise ends.

April 27th – Absolute Luxury in St Barts

St Barts is chiefly known for two things:

1. Its Exclusive Luxury – attracting the world's rich and famous to be pampered to the max.
2. Its Gorgeous Beaches – unbelievably attractive powdery white sand washed by warm milky turquoise waters.

Today, even though we are neither rich nor famous, we had a little glimpse into those lifestyles when two of our favourite guests kindly invited us to join them at the exclusive Nikki Beach restaurant, at St Jean Beach. It doesn't take long to understand why people are prepared to pay the high prices here – it was about as picture-perfect as possible.

All the waiters and waitresses were slim and beautiful, the DJ was playing was playing chilled out music, everything was a cool white (the linen, the upholstery, the uniforms, the sand), while the beach looked amazing. It felt like we were in a James Bond movie – you expected a beautiful Bond-Girl to emerge dripping from the sea to sit next to us.

It was stiflingly hot, but when you have a beach as perfect as this to cool off in between courses, then that's no problem. In this heat, everyone else wisely chose salads, but I foolishly ordered a hot and spicy dish that had me sweating buckets – fortunately, the rose wine helped to cool me down.

I really couldn't come up with a more perfect location for a luxury lunch – I could get used to this!

April 26th – Scenic St Lucia

St Lucia is often touted as the most attractive island in the Caribbean, and our trip today did nothing to dispel that impression. We saw some of the most spectacular scenery in the West Indies, from beaches, to rainforests, to volcanoes, plus of course, the magnificent Pitons – twin pyramidal volcanic plugs sticking straight out of the water, like something from a fantasy film.

This feast for the eyes was provided for us on a surprise Silversea World Cruise Experience, which took all the World Cruisers down to Soufriere in the south of the island. As it was a Sunday, there wasn't much going on in sleepy Castries anyway, so this was a perfect opportunity to show us what the island does best – incredible natural beauty.

We took the winding roads (and I mean winding) around the mountainous interior of the island, passing lush forests, banana plantations and little villages scarcely touched by tourism. We stopped off at the ramshackle, but picturesque fishing village of Anse La Raye, which had something of the run-down and chaotic character of an African village. What the people who live in these basic shacks think of a tourist industry where the guests are pampered away in absolute luxury for hundreds (and often thousands) of dollars a night, is hard to imagine. It certainly doesn't seem like much money has filtered down to the ordinary people in those villages.

We then made it to St Lucia's second city, Soufriere, in the shadow of those looming green Pitons, and went up to what bills itself as "The World's Only Drive-in Volcano". If that conjures up images of driving into a massive bubbling crater of molten lava flows, then that's slightly misleading; but, what we did see was a steaming, bubbling morass of volcanic mud pools, similar to what you see in Rotorua in New Zealand, or in Iceland. It was definitely the most stinky volcanic park I've been to – foul-smelling sulphurous odours worse than the dorm room of any rugby team after a big night out.

We then visited a beautiful botanic garden which was a wonderful showpiece for the fertile soils of the island, before it was time for the main event – lunch at an old sugar mill, powered by a still-functioning water wheel. On a steamingly hot day, the cold beers have never tasted better, while the surroundings of the old mill house provided an evocative location for the whole event, as we were serenaded by the basic rhythms of a local chak-chak band. Lunch was lovely, as we were then treated to a more tuneful rendition of Creole music and dancing by an elegant dance troupe swaying gracefully to the gentle melodies.

As the World Cruise winds down, this was a great way to keep the excitement levels going – another great day.

Monday, April 27, 2015

April 25th – Calypso Cricket in Grenada

Tracy has always said that Grenada is her favourite Caribbean island, and after a fantastic day today, she's sticking with that view. By happy co-incidence, the English cricket team were playing the fifth day of the second Test Match against the West Indies today in Grenada's capital, St George's, so we had a chance to watch a fascinating day's cricket, just a 10-minute walk from the port.

First, we did a whistle-stop tour of the town – a really attractive place of pretty stone Georgian buildings, clinging on to the steep hills that back the waterfront. St George's was devastated by a terrible hurricane in 2004, and there are still quite a few buildings without their roofs on. However, this is a tiny country of just 110,000 people, so the rebuilding process is going slowly – although it was interesting to see the plaques of projects funded by China and Venezuela to see which countries have become strong influences here.

We visited the market, where the friendly traders did their best to convince us that we just had to buy some spices (this is the self-styled "Spice Isle" after all); we climbed up to the restored Catholic Cathedral, with its new roof on; walked past the still-devastated Anglican Cathedral; and then climbed up to Fort George on the rocky hill overlooking the harbour. This was the place where some of the most momentous events leading up to the 1983 US Invasion took place – including the assassination of Prime Minister Maurice Bishop. It was hard to imagine that an island as beautiful, idyllic and friendly as this, could have borne witness to such violence.

After exploring the pretty Carenage, I was now itching to get to the cricket stadium, so we followed the crowds and hot-footed it over there. The day's play had started with the West Indies untroubled at 220 for 2, and so it seemed to be heading towards an inevitable draw, which meant that I hadn't minded missing the first hour of play. However, as we queued for tickets, we could hear a series of groans coming from the stadium – it was obvious that something was going on while the queue was moving at a snail's pace.

Finally we got to the head of the queue and bought our tickets – I couldn't believe it when they said the price - $5.50 each! Whenever I've been to a Test Match in London, you don't get change from £50. What followed was the best value I've ever had at a day's cricket, and probably the best day's cricket I've seen too. Not bad for Tracy's first ever Test Match!

By the time we got to our seats, somehow (on a very flat wicket) England had taken four wickets in the first hour. We then saw 2 more wickets fall before lunch. Even though the atmosphere was understandably a little subdued at first (given that the West Indies were falling apart), it was so different to a Test back in England. While Lords and the Oval have a gentle hum of conversation and polite applause, a hum which slowly gets a bit more raucous as the crowd tuck into the booze; here, it already started off way louder than the most drunken English crowd. In between overs, the huge sound system on the other side of the ground was cranked to its booming max, as the base kicked in and the crowd danced frenetically. Everywhere around the ground, people were playing drums and blowing on conch shells.

Aside from the noise, the other difference with an English Test Match crowd was that there were so many women and children there, all taking a passionate interest in the cricket (at least while the result was in doubt) – this was a knowledgeable crowd. After lunch, it didn't take long for the final two West Indian wickets to fall, and then it was England's chance to bat, chasing a modest total of 143. When Trott fell in the second over, the crowd went mad – I almost wanted a couple more wickets to fall, to get the atmosphere really rocking.

Instead, England went about knocking off the runs in a calm and methodical manner, leaving the crowd to turn to the beer and the rum. If it looked on TV like the ground was only half full, that was because the bars in the stands were overflowing with people – every time I walked through the bar behind our stand, the smell of rum was almost overwhelming.

If it had been England slowly being strangled to death, the crowd would have thinned out appreciably, but this was only the third time that Grenada have staged a Test Match, so the crowd stayed to the bitter end, the drinking, drumming and dancing getting steadily more frenetic. At times, it scarcely even seemed like there was a match going on in front of us, as the action in the stands took over from the spectacle in front of us. A small group of England supporters, plus Tracy and I, were the only ones who were applauding the 50s, the 100 partnership etc, as England progressed towards their target, and the crowd continued partying like they'd just won the world cup. It seemed like not many people noticed when we finally won – the event was almost more important than the match.

To be here when the test was on, to get such cheap tickets, to watch an England victory, to sample such an amazing atmosphere, all combined to make this one of my favourite days of the cruise. Absolutely fantastic!

April 24th – Heading South in Barbados

Having given my very last (of 49) lectures yesterday, I was now beginning to feel like I was on holiday. And where better to be on holiday than the beautiful island of Barbados?

My sister is coming to Barbados in a month's time, so our mission today was to check out her hotel, which is near Oistins on the South coast, and to see what the locality was like. So, we walked into Bridgetown to get the bus south, but on the way, we popped into the island's impressive Parliament building to do a tour of that. This is the third oldest Parliament in the former British Empire (having been founded back in 1639), and the current building was built out of pale limestone in a very grand Gothic Revival style in the 1870s.

We first did a quick tour round the interesting National Heroes Museum, which occupies some of the Parliament complex. It details the lives of 12 official "National Heroes", who were important figures on the island's journey from British Colony to Nation, transitioning from a slave-based society to proud self-determination. The heroes ranged from Bussa the leader of a tragic slave rebellion, to Earl Barrow the first Prime Minister, to Sir Garfield Sobers the legendary cricketer.

Then we joined the tour of the Parliament itself – the fact that we were doing it with a class of excited 6-year olds made it a bit more fun. They were all very well behaved and well marshalled by their disciplinarian schoolmistress, but every now and again the noise would build into a crescendo, before vanishing into finger-on-lipped silence when shouted at by their teacher.

It was a fascinating building to explore - with its stained glass windows and dark wooden panelling an obvious attempt to mirror the Houses of Parliament in Westminster – all a little bit out of place in this sun-drenched tropical environment. All the institutions of Westminster had been transported out here, from the Speaker to the Mace – although, when the guide pointed at the Speaker's Chair in the Middle and asked the children who sat there, the answer yelled back was "The Queen of England!"

It was interesting to hear the guide's take on the recent announcement by the Barbadian Prime Minister that he wanted the country to become a Republic, and to remove the Queen from being the Head of State. She felt that he was merely trying to divert the public's attention from the dire state of the economy, and that the people had too much attachment to the trappings of their royal association to want to move to Republic status any time soon. Time will tell on this story.

At the end of a fascinating tour, it was time to head to the bus terminal to make our journey south. We were catching the informal buses, where the touts good-naturedly attempt to drag you into their particular bus and cram you in like sardines for the journey. Fortunately, this particular bus didn't have an ear-splitting sound system like most other buses we've been on, so this journey was merely cramped and sweaty, rather than cramped, sweaty and deafening.

It took about 40-minutes to head down to Oistins, passing a whole array of beautiful white beaches along the way. Some of the houses we passed by were slightly ramshackle, but Barbados is obviously much better off than the other West Indian island nations – it seems to me like it's one of the best run countries in the Caribbean.

Oistins seemed like a nice place – not too touristy, so it has a more genuine atmosphere, particularly in its lively fish market. This is the place on the island to go to on a Friday night, when lots of bars and shacks open up in a large alfresco party zone. We were here on a Friday early afternoon, but unfortunately we weren't staying late enough to see what it gets like after dark.

The beaches on the south coast are typically beautiful, if a little windswept, but this did mean that there were lots of watersports going on on those attractive turquoise seas. By now it was time for lunch, so we went to my sister's hotel for lunch – it's certainly in a very pretty spot.

After a very relaxing meal, we got the bus back to Bridgetown, which had by now developed a very lively Friday evening feel – its streets packed with shoppers and locals just promenading around, music blaring out of virtually every shop and bar. It was a very jolly atmosphere, and without fail, everyone we spoke to was friendly and chatty.

Today we saw the best of Barbados – well run democratic institutions; beautiful beaches; great tourist infrastructure; and, above all, friendly people. I think my sister is going to like it!

April 22nd – Devil’s Island – Hell in Paradise

After 8 long days at sea, any dry land was going to look good to us, even if it was in the form of the forbidding Devil's Island, home to one of the most notorious penal colonies in history. Actually, as we arrived there in the morning, our chances of getting in didn't look too good – it was raining heavily, there was a big swell, and we could see the waves crashing against the rocks of the islands. However, the weather improved, and around the sheltered side of the island, the waves weren't too bad.

In fact, the breezy and cloudy conditions made this the most pleasant weather that I've ever had to explore Devil's Island – normally it's like a furnace here, and hotter than hell. Obviously, in a place where the oppressive weather and humidity contributed to two-thirds of the prisoners dying here before they'd even completed their sentence, it wasn't that pleasant, but it was at least bearable.

So, we walked around the rough paths that encircle the island, meeting lots of wildlife along the way – plenty of cheeky monkeys acrobatically leaping around in the trees, and strange looking, rat-like agoutis running around, picking up berries. It was strange to think that this fertile island of swaying palms, tropical seas and exotic wildlife was once one of the most-feared destinations in the world, when the French turned it into a penal colony for a hundred years from the 1850s.

But, it was once you got into the solitary confinement cells that you could begin to imagine the full horrors of incarceration on Devil's Island. With little light or air, the tiny concrete cells were horrifically hot – when the heavy door shut behind me, I could appreciate how many of the prisoners went mad or committed suicide.

The level of decay in the buildings that were being taken over by the jungle – collapsed walls, rotting doors, rusted through iron bars, was another sign of the toll that the extreme weather wreaked on the people and the infrastructure here. As you explored the ruins, it was hard to believe that the penal colony had only been abandoned by the French in the 1950s – they looked like they had been rotting away for hundreds of years, rather than 60.

It was strange to see that some of the buildings had now been turned into a hotel – who comes to Devil's Island for a holiday? It must be a fairly spooky place at night, given the depravities that the island witnessed; while it's also an expensive place to visit – with a small can of beer costing €5 and a T-shirt €25, then it's amazing what people will pay to be incarcerated here these days.

We visited the island's small museum which gave good background information on the regime here. We saw the case of one inmate who was incarcerated here for 20 years, whose original crime was setting fire to a mattress while on military duty – the punishment doesn't always fit the crime. And we read more about the infamous Dreyfus Case which so scandalised French society at the end of the 19th century. The army officer was convicted on trumped-up charges of treason, and sentenced to solitary confinement on Devil's Island. For four years, he was guarded round the clock by a team of 14 officers – apparently, every single time a ship was spotted on the horizon, a gun was held to his head, in case it was a rescue mission. It presented a picture of an unimaginably cruel regime.

Devil's Island is always a fascinating place to visit, but the things that always strikes me about it, is how a place that can appear quite heavenly, can have be turned into such a hell.