Category Archives: Tourism

Game On!

Standard
20180428_174517

Thom (left) and yours truly.

I am, from time to time, a sports buff. Depends who is playing, what sport and if it’s on in one pub or the other. In most cases, I can take it or leave it. If it’s a team I have followed since I was knee-high-to-a-grasshopper, I don’t watch because I get drawn in and become a nervous wreck and a complete twat (French for idiot).

I am loyal to my teams, following them on the internet. Most of those teams come from Toronto, Canada. Hockey (ice), Football (not soccer) and baseball are my sports of choice. I watch football (soccer) over here in England, but usually when we visit my best friend’s parents. Her dad is an Arsenal fan, but we watch other teams play as well.

I can handle watching some golf. I played a lot in the 1990s but I think I had about a million handicap when I stopped. I’ve given up watching most of the Olympics. Too much going on and I’m never sure which country I ought to be loyal to. Tennis is OK. I love watching Roger Federer play. I’m not a great basketball fan even though I want the Toronto team to win.

A jack-of-all-sports and master of none. That’s me. Rugby, you ask? I’ve watched it. I can’t say I follow it or get excited about it. It ranks up there with the most violent sport on the planet. Next to Lacrosse I think. Just my opinion. I used to avoid those sports growing up. Not one for breaking bones and losing teeth.

But, here I was on a very cool and damp April Saturday on my way to see a rugby match. Rugby League to be precise. Not Rugby Union. For those of you who don’t know the difference, never fear. Neither do I. Well, I didn’t until Thom, a good mate of mine and with whom I attended the match, explained it all to me. I still don’t get it, except the part where there are fewer scrums in League and they aren’t as volatile. Thom once played for Haringey, where this match was taking place.

Thom had once lived and played in Haringey….years ago….and this was his first visit back to the old stomping grounds. Much had changed. Where once was a bastion of white Anglo-Saxon multitudes, now every cultural group under the sun walked the streets. Street signs were in Greek and Turkish, Arabic and Farsi, Hindi, Tamil, Urdu and Chinese. Colourful, the smells of a thousand ethnic dishes and an array of garments from various countries and religions were being worn.

Thom and I felt positively out-of-place at first until we noticed everyone just going about the daily business as if we weren’t there or were just another part of the scenery. Even a street fight broke out between two, maybe three, rival gangs of females. Pushing, shoving, punching, hair pulling and lots of colourful terminology. The boys from each group stood around either encouraging one cluster of females or the other or laughing at their antics. No one else seemed to pay any attention to the fracas. Just another Saturday afternoon in Haringey.

We headed toward the stadium where the game was to be played. The environment around us changed considerably. The streets here, just past Wood Green, seemed quieter. Eventually, we reached the New River Stadium. Not wanting to hang around Haringey too long, we were very early for the match.

The New River Stadium is part of a sports complex that includes everything from track and field to boxing and all kinds of other sport related programs in a rambling concoction of buildings and outdoor pitches. One part of the sprawl is a sheltered stand on one side of a field and an open, tiered seat section opposite. No seating at both ends, except when they set up for special sports events like the one I attended with Thom.

Special. Define special. Well, I would think it was somehow different from the normal event. Lots of pyrotechnics and free stuff and pizzaz. You know what I mean. After all, this was a foreign team visiting British shores trying to impress Brits. This team was from Canada, my old stomping grounds. Even better, it was from Toronto, my old hometown. The Toronto Wolfpack.

20180428_191016

The Toronto Wolfpack (white jerseys) in action.

It was the only reason I went out of my way to watch a sport I don’t even like in a part of London I would not choose to visit. Plus the promise of all this pizzaz. Talk of Canadian music and food and who knows what else Canadian. My mind boggled. They were playing a team from Halifax….not the one in Nova Scotia, Canada, but at least it was a familiar name. Not like Over Wallop or Middle Wallop in Hampshire, England.

20180428_192648

Those very hard seats.

Nope. It all went south from the moment we arrived. The seats were hard. It drizzled rain and the air-cooled as the hours went by. The spectator/supporters clubhouse was small and crowded with people from Halifax who spoke a barely discernible english. The Canadiana was a Canadian airline advertising low price fares to Canada. There was a VIP tent at one of the ends, but I guess we didn’t rate. Some large, unsmiling English woman turned us away.

20180428_192700

The VIP tent. Big Whoop!

No Tim Horton’s coffee and donuts, no beaver tails, no poutine, not even Canadian beer. We had to sit through the end of a football (soccer) match between 2 teams with no talent and players that could barely run. One chap was so rotund, he just stood in the middle of the pitch until the ball came to him. At least he knew which goal to kick it toward.

20180428_163215

The football (soccer) game before the ruby match.

20180428_172538

Airline advertising and very expensive team gear.

When the rugby match was ready to go, the Halifax supporters (who outnumbered the Toronto contingent by a margin of 100-1 it seemed) who took their rugby very seriously, were chanting away….HallyHallyHallyFax….drowning out the poor singer of the National Anthems who tried her best to be heard through a pathetically small speaker where the VIP tent stood. To make matters worse, she sang in an operatic voice that every so often came through as the sound of a high-speed train going by.

When it came time for ‘God save The Queen’, some drunk right behind me decided to start without her and we were long finished by the time the opera singer ended. Everyone laughed and then….disaster. The flags were marched from the VIP tent to the grandstand by members of the Canadian and British Armed Forces, except that they must march differently over here, because nothing was in time and it ended in a state of chaos before us. More raucous laughter. Oh those wild rugby fans. Take no prisoners.

20180428_172439

A confused Colour Guard.

The game began and it was clear that Halifax was heavily outmatched. Brits swear a lot when frustrated. No exception here. A nice family next to Thom and I were, I learned, from Ottawa in Canada. The two young daughters were treated to the best of the English language. Most of the vitriol was toward the referee who, apparently, wouldn’t know an offside from a particularly vulnerable male appendage.

20180428_191006

Family from Ottawa….the dad anyway….and one lone Canadian flag.

There was a female body part used as well, but that shall never be repeated on these pages. Those poor Ottawatonians. At the half, the score was 32-4 for Toronto and became 36-4 right after the half. By the way, at the half we were treated to kids playing flag rugby. One zealous kid thought he was playing against Halifax and hogged the ball.

Some wiseacre from the crowd ran out on the track leading to the field and rearranged the scoreboard to read Toronto 36, Halifax 85. No security anywhere that day to be seen….except at the VIP tent. Our bags were never checked, but everyone again had a good laugh. The game ended, Toronto 42, Halifax 10. We left before Halifax scored its last try (score) and long after the family from Ottawa had gone.

20180428_195730

Cheeky scoreboard change and a young lad ready to fix it.

The game was televised on Sky Sports. I can only imagine what viewers must have thought. My best friend’s dad watched from home. I asked him later what he thought. “Of what?” he asked. “Of the game” I answered. “What game?” was the comeback. Indeed.

 

Lock Lore

Standard
DSCN0475

A lock near us.

One thing I know for sure about living on a narrowboat in England. A lot of work is involved in maintaining it and cruising on it. If we could simply cruise along the canals, unimpeded by obstacles that get in the way, things would be jolly. Some of those obstacles are natural, while others come in the form of locks and swing bridges.

If all this sounds like boat-speak, you’re right. When I first got into this lifestyle, I knew nothing. And I’m still learning. What is a windlass, you ask? What are gate paddles? What is a pound (not money)? What is a cill? All questions I know you’ve been asking yourself. Expat Larry is here to answer all your queries about narrowboating. If only he had all the answers.

Be that as it may, he knows about locks. Last summer, a few of us spent our days moving other people’s boats from here to there to get work done. Every so many years, the bottoms of our boats need to be blacked. This is a process that uses some form of bitumen that is applied with brushes and rollers to the hull that first has to be blasted clean of the old black. The blacking protects the bottom of the narrowboat’s hull. Most people pay to have it done. Our boat is due this year and we’ve decided to do it ourselves.

DSCN2535

One of the boats we moved in a lock.

You can’t just do it any old place. Some marinas have facilities for maintenance. Ours doesn’t, so it’s off to places north or south to do the work. In our case, last summer, a few people needed work done and some of us provided the crew to get them there and back. We became the lock crew. And we were good. 2 of us got the lock ready for the boat to go in, then walked to the next lock to get it ready. The other 2 crew waited until the boat left the lock and closed it up for the next boat that would eventually come along. We had our system.

But, if you can share the lock with another boat, all the better. Locks on the Grand Union Canal (where we live) are double locks….2 narrowboats or 1 widebeam. If you can travel in 2s, you save water, a vanishing commodity in the canals these days. You’d never think that living in a country known for its abundance of rainy days. Apparently, it’s the wrong type of ground in this country to retain all that rain water. Don’t worry about it or try to figure it out. I never do.

Approaching the low side of a lock. Two of the intrepeid crew wait to open the gates to let us in.

Approaching the low end of a lock. Two of the intrepid crew ready to open the gates to let the boat in.

So, here we are, a couple of locks down the way on one of the trips, when we meet up with a couple on one of those what we call plastic boats, the kind you find on lakes. Anyway, the folks navigating this craft were, well, not quite entirely with us if you know what I mean. They were away with the fairies, on some kind of mind expanding substance, not a care in the world. “Where you heading to my friend?” I asked after about the 3rd lock. “Huh? Heading to? Uh….not sure. What direction is this?” “South” I said. “South? What direction to Birmingham?” he asked. “North” I said. “Oh yeah? I guess we’re going the wrong way. ” “I guess. What’re you going to do?”

He just shrugged his shoulders. He insisted on pulling his boat into the lock rather than cruising in. It took a lot longer. He said he was afraid the boat we were moving would crush his if he drove in. No logic there, especially since he had fenders the size of a pilates ball. But he kept up this odd behaviour, heading in the wrong direction with no plan. He decided to moor up after the next lock anyway. Thank da Lawd.

By the end of the summer, we became the best lock crew anyone could hope to acquire. We decided not to get back on the boat between locks as we can walk faster than the boats are allowed to go on the canals. In total, we walked about 50 miles that summer, rain or shine. Many locks and many good laughs. And quite a feat considering every one of the lock crew have bad knees and bad backs. Brave bunch….but no medals.

DSCN2540

Lock gates open, ready for the boat to enter.

We got to know each lock very well along this stretch of the canal. Some of the paddles are buggers to open and the gates are heavier than hell to open and close. Some leak badly while others are just plain old and falling apart. This is why we have the CRC, the Canal and River Trust. They are the organisation that looks after the canals, most of them anyway. And the locks.

The locks are getting older too. Some of the gates are from the later part of the 19th century and early 20th. They have been serviced here and there, but there are a lot of them and budgets don’t allow for a complete overhaul of the system. Well, budgets and money wasted on ridiculous salaries for the top dogs and some frivolous projects. It seems the only time locks get serviced is when they completely fail, through age, overuse and vandalism….mostly age.

It was a relief when news came that a lock near us, that has been leaking badly, was going to be fixed. The notices went up and then the materials needed began appearing. Barges with water pumps and cranes then appeared and finally the steel fencing to keep us out and the workers in went up. The work began. The top gates were replaced and the bottom gates repaired. What fascinated me was the junk on the bottom of the lock once the water had been drained away. Treasures galore, mostly of metal that had fallen off boats over the years and tossed in by locals….like car hub caps and road signs of one type or other.

20180312_095532

Stuff at the bottom of our local lock.

20180312_102512

Preparing the lock for work.

20180315_095819

The new gates at the top of the lock.

20180315_105532

Finishing things off in the repaired lock.

This work went on for a few days. On one of those days, I was walking along the towpath to shop at the local Sainsbury’s (Supermarket) and noticed a narrowboat inching up to the barrier put up to shut off the lock. An older gentleman, who had the demeanor of an original boater, complete with old, unattended boat, stood at the tiller, grumbling to himself.

I stopped and stated the bleeding obvious. “The lock is closed for repair” I said. “I can see that” said he of the Cut. “Did you check the online lock closure reports?” I asked. “Don’t have a computer” he said. “Did you see any of the signs as you were coming along?” I inquired. “There’s always signs for this and that” he said, “But I didn’t see any of them.” I asked the next obvious question, “Did anyone along the way warn you this lock was closed?” “Yeah” he said, “A few people did, but I didn’t believe them.”

He did now.

 

 

Caribbean Cruise: Part 5, The Finale

Standard
Caribbean Cruise: Part 5, The Finale

And about time too. This Blog has been going on for months and needs to conclude. Problem? There are 3 more islands to visit. But as one island is much the same as the next (Aruba notwithstanding), the final 3 shall be handled here with much the sameness. The only difference is St. Vincent, though it is much like St. Lucia except that its claim to fame is providing the Jamaican scenery from Pirates of the Caribbean. So, I guess apart from that, St. Vincent is St. Lucia.

Some might disagree. It’s all a matter of perspective. It’s also a matter of all those hills, or mountains of a sort and bendy, twisty roads and palm trees and banana groves and volcanoes and hot weather. Oh, and very nice, but ubiquitous beaches. The other exception to this is St. Kitts which has mountains but we didn’t drive through them, just around them. St. Kitts also is where the Atlantic meets the Caribbean in this part of the world and you can see the two collide.

And since all of the Caribbean islands were formed from volcanoes spilling land from their tops and sides, it is no wonder that the islands in this part of the world have so many similarities. The third of the last 3 we visited, Antigua, was another beach day. We didn’t see much of the island. The sea was rough and someone said there was a shark sighting. More shell gathering. Not so memorable.

20171208_105021

Fryes beach, Antigua.

St. Kitts was another story. Our tour guide made the day. I called him Fancy Danman. He had a very dry sense of humour and loved to tell us at every turn that the British pretty well wiped out the indigenous people of St. Kitts. Never mind that everyone on the bus was British.  No one took the bait. We all acted like the polite British people we used to be. I say we because my family background goes back to William the Conqueror and Border Scots even though most of my life was lived in Canada. Mostly I am polite. I wanted to tell old Fancy Danman to blame the privileged classes of Britain for past misdemeanours, but my best friend gave me one of those looks and I kept quiet. That too is very British unless one is a Football/Soccer Hooligan.

20171207_094631

Fancy Danman (aka Rastaman) our guide on St. Kitts.

Most of St. Kitts seems to be for Medical and Veterinary students from everywhere. Then there is the old sugar plantation with a Batik shop that is the real reason we were here. Lovely stuff….not cheap. We didn’t feel guilty because St. Kitts had been spared the worst of Hurricane Irma. We stopped where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea complete with a lady in a shack painting pictures for tourists. I went in and bought one of an island couple in traditional dress.

20171207_091501

One of the medical colleges on St. Kitts.

20171207_095826

Woman working on Batik.

20171207_095211

Batik drying at old sugar plantation on St. Kitts.

20171207_110757

Where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Caribbean Sea.

20171207_110625

The artist’s studio on St. Kitts.

20171207_111158

The artist in her ramshackle studio on St. Kitts.

Back on the bus and off to a cliff that overlooked a lava rock beach. Quite a sight. But the best feature of this tourist spot was at the back of our bus. Our driver, not Fancy Danman, had lowered a ledge behind the bus and was supplying us with another very potent rum punch. I kept going back for refills, and though we were supposed to have only one, the driver obliged with a knowing wink. Tourism is thirsty work.

I felt no pain for the rest of the trip. When we got back to Bassetierre, we walked into town to find a bank to replenish our dwindling funds. In the middle of one garden square is the statue of a half-naked island girl. It was commissioned by the British government to stand atop the tall plinth in Trafalgar Square. But it was deemed too risqué for the sensibilities of Victorian England and so Admiral Horatio Nelson won the honoured spot. That’s how Fancy Danman told it anyway. I have been unsuccessful in finding any corroborating evidence to Danman’s story, but he would be the first to say it is a conspiracy of silence.

20171207_132828

The clock tower in Bassetierre’s town centre.

So much for politics. On to St. Vincent. Our day began on a catamaran, the reverse of our day on St. Lucia. The sea was rough this day and we bobbed about like a cork. Some people were sick and the rest of us just hung on. We passed all the places used in the filming of Pirates of the Caribbean, including the bay that substituted for Nassau Town (Jamaica) where actor Johnny Depp was said to have been drunk for the entire 3 months of filming here. Apparently, it became impossible for Depp to stay at the resort nearby because of the damage he did to the place and so he was moved to a boat anchored in the bay with his own onboard chef and rowed to the day’s film shoot.

20171209_093024

Rainbow from the bow of the catamaran.

20171209_093921

Scene used in first Pirates of the Caribbean film.

20171209_104942

Lava Beach where I snorkeled.

We anchored at a beach consisting of black lava sand. One of the film’s scenes was filmed here (the one with the big wheel for all those who know the movies) and we were told we could swim or snorkel. Problem is, the trip planners had not said we had a swimming break. I went in any way with mask and snorkel….and not much else (island fever had taken over). Lots of colourful fishies. But the current was strong and at one point I had to crawl up on to the lava beach to catch my breath. Ended up cleaning lava sand from every part of me for the rest of the day.

When I got back on the catamaran, the crew was handing out ….you guessed it….more of that potent rum punch. But before that, those of us who had braved the waves were asked if we would like to sample a special rum. I am a gamer. What I didn’t know was that this rum was 90% proof and I swallowed it all at once. Like lighted gasoline in the throat and belly. Forgot my pain. And washed it out of my system with a few rum punches.

We headed shoreside to the place where lunch was arranged, along with one free drink. But to get there, we ploughed through some of the roughest water yet. By this time, I was feeling no fear or pain and ended up on the bow of the catamaran, holding on to a guy wire, woohooing all the way to shore. No wonder sailors drank rum. Gets you through anything.

Once safely ashore, we had lunch at a restaurant by the water. I ate my chicken something or other and drank my locally brewed Hairoun beer as I watched little sand crabs moving about, disappearing down holes at the slightest sign of danger. They move very quickly. After a stop at another Botanical garden and waterfall, we drove the long, twisting, up and down road to our ship in Kingstown. Then it was off to Barbados and the flight back to cold, wet England.

20171209_123744

Enjoying a Hairoun brewski on St. Vincent.

20171209_130705

Waterfall at the Botanical Garden on St.Vincent.

20171209_132257

Crossing the rickety bridge in the Botanical Garden on St. Vincent.

Ciao Caribbean Cruise. Like a distant memory as I write this. Will I ever go back? Most of me says ‘Been there, done that’ but you never know. If I ever do, it won’t be to Grenada. I’ll probably stick to Majorca….closer and cheaper….so far.

20171210_082920

And it’s goodbye from the Caribbean.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 4, Hurricane

Standard
Caribbean Cruise: Part 4, Hurricane

The islands of the Caribbean may appear to be paradise, but even paradise on earth has its downside. Weather. The best and worst of weather is the story of many of the Caribbean islands. Mostly good, but there is one time of the year when fingers are crossed and prayers said. That would be during hurricane season. The one in September of 2017 was particularly nasty in the Caribbean.

And so when we had returned to Barbados from St Lucia to let off half the passengers and pick up some more for week 2, we headed for St. Maarten (Dutch side of St. Martin – the French side) and then Tortola in the British Virgin Islands. We couldn’t believe what awaited us. Everything looked pristine from the sea, but up close? Another story.

We docked at Philipsburg and took a shuttle boat to the long beach that fronts the city. We were only the second boat to visit the island since Hurricane Irma hit at the beginning of September 2017. As we approached the shore, we could see the damage done by this Force 5 Hurricane. Store fronts were gone. Roofs had been ripped off and palm trees broken. All was calm when we arrived except for the sound of hammers and drills along the beach front.

20171205_094014

The beach at St. Philipsburg.

We walked along looking for a place on the beach, feeling a little guilty that we had come to enjoy ourselves while so many on the island had very little since the storm hit. Then, out of the door of one of the restaurants came smiling, effusive Ahmed. He guided us to his booth on the beach, pointing to the water’s edge, assuring us that he would look after our every need for the day, including the supply of his ‘world famous’ beach umbrellas and chaise lounges.

Problem is, he pointed toward some beautiful umbrellas and chairs already set up that weren’t his to rent. Wait here, he said, and he’d be right back with our beach needs. He returned not long after with umbrellas that looked as if they had barely survived a hurricane, torn, twisted and rusty from years of abuse. The chaise lounges fared no better. We ended up replacing the umbrellas a few times due to collapses.

We stuck with Ahmed and his tattered gear, paying full price because we felt bad for all his troubles. And the endless stream of hawkers continued all day. Hats, bags, jewellery and island clothing, every kind of tat known to man was flogged at ridiculously high prices. We ended up buying the lot. They played on our sympathies and it worked.

20171205_094604

More destruction on St. Maarten

We all took a walk into the town. I have never seen so many jewellery and gold shops on one street. We talked to a guy who was fired from the police after the hurricane. Apparently, he was guarding one of the jewellery shops and at the height of the storm rushed home because his family were in danger. When he left, a gang of Jamaican looters robbed the shop and because this guy left his post, he was fired. We were told by more than a few islanders that this happens during hurricanes. Looting gangs from Jamaica come over and wait until the storm is at its worst before looting. Some of them die trying. Madness.

20171206_155746

Road Town, Tortola, from the bow of our cruise ship.

After a pleasant day at the beach, we headed back to the ship and left for Tortola. A depressing sight awaited us. We moored at Road Town and went ashore to the mini bus awaiting us. We were the first ship to visit Tortola since Hurricane Irma hit. Everyone was grateful to see our money. This was to be another beach day, but we had to drive across the island to Brewers Bay to get to it.

20171206_155712

Some roofs fixed but ships wrecked at Road Town, Tortola.

The drive there was not jolly. None of us in the bus could believe the scale of destruction wreaked all over the island. Some of it had been cleared away by the time we got there 2 months after the storm, but the level of ruination was still palpable. Everywhere we saw people sitting beside the road, dejected and lost. Homes were blown apart. Many had roofs missing. Roads were washed away. Vehicles were slammed against houses, up in trees, blown down valleys and abandoned altogether. Boats and ships were washed up on land and torn apart. Bits and pieces of buildings, ships, cars and all kinds of detritus were everywhere. This was 2 months after Irma hit.

We arrived at the beach in silence, having witnessed what we all hope we’ll never see happen where we live, feeling deeply for all those who had suffered such loss. The beach had been cleared of debris before we arrived. It was a depressing scene, all these mini bus folk shuffling onto a beautiful beach on a hot day having just weaved our way around the destruction. But we found a spot and sat in silence for a while. We knew the islanders needed the tourists but it seemed cruel to enjoy ourselves at others’ expense.

20171206_112031

The beach on Tortola just before the rain.

To bring home the message, it rained. We all huddled together until it passed then settled back to wait until the mini busses came back for all of us. Some of us decided to walk along the beach, gathering up shells and conches that had been washed up on the beach during Irma. I walked a little further than the rest, off the beaten track and out of sight of everyone. I found some lovely shells. But just around the bend from the beach, the hurricane debris remained. Pieces of roof, bits of boat, all kinds of rubbish. I stopped short to take in the scene before me.

Coming back from gathering shells was a single woman in her fifties. We both saw an intact conch just in front of us. I told her to go ahead and take it. She said she felt guilty, as if she were looting. I said these were articles of nature, not someone’s goods. She said, ‘Can you believe the level of destruction on the island?’ I just shook my head. ‘I hope it gets back to normal soon.’ A bit trite, but in such cases it’s difficult to know what to say.

I brought my shell haul back to the group. We brought some of them home. They remind us of our day on Tortola and we think of the people there, hoping they are all safe and sound, in homes that have been repaired and living as best they can after the hurricane.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 3B, St. Lucia

Standard
Caribbean Cruise: Part 3B, St. Lucia

No bones about it. I love St. Lucia. Every moment we spent on the island was worth it and I had some of the most fun I’ve ever had. That part involved a catamaran and rum punch. But the whole island is a treasure trove of tropical and geological delights….if you are into those kinds of things.

Botanical gardens, banana plantations, a volcano, a salt town, a cocoa plantation that is now a museum of sorts and….oh, the Pitons. Not to forget the most fun I’ve had on the catamaran party from Saltière back to the tender boat that took us back to our ship. 8 hours of fun, sun, facts, flora and fauna that spun my mind and taxed my body.

We were tendered into port at Castries by one of those boats with uncomfortable seating, packed to the gunnels with passengers from our ship. To make matters even more unpleasant, it is a hot, humid morning. But, who’s complaining? It was freezing back home in England. So, we get to port and have to queue like captured prisoners waiting for our mini buses to take us to our touristy spots.

20171202_083733

Leaving Castries, St. Lucia, on our mini bus.

Let’s go first to the Pitons, those two 2,500 foot cone-shaped volcanic plugs at the southwestern end of St. Lucia near Saltière. They are a World Heritage Site and require a guide if you wish to climb them. I didn’t want either. Bet the view is incredible though. The whole island is a verdant wonder. And the going up and down the steep hills and twisting around bends seemed far more tolerable than they had on Grenada.

20171202_103530

The Pitons from afar. You can see them to the right in the heading photo.

20171202_104135

The Pitons with Saltiere below.

St. Lucia’s Botanical Gardens end at a waterfall that emanates from the volcano. I have never seen so many colourful flowering plants and species in one place. I am not, you see, one to frequent botanical gardens. But this one was both beautiful and entertaining. They even have one beautiful flower that can kill you if you simply touch it….and a caster oil plant that produces ricin, a deadly poison. At least that’s what our guide told us and the sign said.

20171202_105918

A Gecko welcomes us to the Botanical Gardens.

20171202_110857

Touch this and you’ll die.

20171202_112105

More deadly stuff.

20171202_111149

Name that exotic flower.

20171202_112741

Name these too.

Our group walks along the garden path, a narrow stretch with an array of flowering plants on either side. Mind boggling. To the point that the group left me well behind as I tried to get photos of everything. After all, I may never pass this way again. We came to a table laden with island specialties, everything from cocoa beans to coconuts. Did you know that palm trees aren’t indigenous to the Caribbean? I didn’t. They were brought from across the Atlantic (Germany….just kidding) and introduced to the Caribbean back in the early slaving days.

I ended up at the waterfall as the rest of the group was heading back to the gift shop. I had it to myself for a minute or two. I wanted to plunge into the lagoon beneath the waterfall, but the problem with guided tours is there’s never enough time to do it all. I’d need a week. I’ll be back. After Grenada, St. Lucia was paradise.

20171202_112531

The volcanic waterfall and lagoon in the Botanical gardens.

20171202_110351

Another beauty.

20171202_113800

White bell flowers (real title?)

20171202_113730

A Poinsettia Tree/Plant.

On to the volcano. It’s not dormant and it’s not ready to explode. Our guide said it was bubbling and steaming to remind us that there was still life and activity deep in the earth under St. Lucia. We walked right down into the crater and watched the earth bubble and steam in pools. But it’s the smell of sulphur that gets you. And, believe it or not, it’s good for you in small doses. Will cure anything. The latest research says that smelling fart gas (which give the same odour and effect) is good for you. We are supposed to thank those we are with every time he or she farts in our presence. They are lengthening our life expectancy. So far my best friend has refused to say thanks at such times (rare as they are).

20171202_115959

Volcanic Steam.

20171202_121925

Boiling mud pots

And, back on the trail again, to a cocoa plantation of yesteryear where we had a typical St. Lucian lunch and a tour of the huts where plantation slaves lived and worked, the huge manor house and an old taxi/bus that shuffled slaves and cocao about the island. Behind the manor house was an old guy hacking coconuts apart with his machete (those things make me nervous), discarding the husks on a large pile and preparing coconut juice for us to sample and the raw coconut flesh (the white stuff) to eat. Coco means head and it really isn’t a nut. It’s a drupe, or stone fruit. But it’s too late to change the moniker now.

20171202_130656

Plantation Huts.

20171202_131140

The Plantation Manor House.

20171202_132307

Ye Olde island transport taxi/bus on the Cocoa Plantation, St. Lucia.

20171202_132729

Coconut Husk/shell Pile behind the Plantation Manor House.

20171202_133109

View from the Plantation to the bay below.

Back to Saltière and on to the catamaran. We say goodbye to the Pitons and travel north along the coast back to Castries. On the way, we duck into Marigot Bay where the rich and famous holiday and play. From there, a beach near a 5 star resort being rebuilt. We climb down the steps at the front of the catamaran and swim in the warm waters of St. Lucia. Lovely.

20171202_091115

Marigot Bay from above.

Back to the catamaran and into the rum punch….very, very strong rum punch. I had enough to get me up dancing island style, which I never do. The crew inspire us with their moves. More rum punch as Bob Marley is blasted out of 2 enormous speakers. We are deafened by the sound but we are feeling no pain. We drink and dance all the way back to Castries, ready to board the tender back to our ship. What a day. Takes me ages to come back down to deck.

20171202_142854

Adieu Soufriere from the catamaran

20171202_143259

Adieu Pitons from the catamaran.

DSC00210

Yours truly partying on the catamaran after a swim.

If ever you decide to go to the Caribbean, you have lots of choice. We still had another 5 islands to visit. But St. Lucia stands out to me like a beacon in the night, a siren on the shore (but in a good way), a tropical paradise. The people are friendly, the food good and next time, I’m going under the waterfall and bathing in the sulphur springs and snorkeling and sailing on a party boat and……..

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

Standard
Caribbean Cruise: Part 3A, Grenada

I’ve talked to a lot of people about the Caribbean Islands. Everyone has a favourite. And it follows there are islands they don’t particularly care for. We had a great time on St. Lucia, one of the next 2 islands we visited. Someone I met said they hated the place. Someone else loved Grenada. Not me. Here are my reasons for loving one and not so much the other. A tale of two islands. Grenada first.

Grenada, the Spice Island. Well, it’s supposed to be. But Hurricane Irma of  last September decimated the crop and because the storm hit the United States, everyone forgot about Grenada. Not a good year for the island. And not a great tour of the island for we tourists. Not because of the problems of the poor islanders, but because of our tour guide. The worst in history. My history at least. He was, without doubt, out of his depth and quite useless. I’ll tell you why, shall I?

The day was a very hot and humid one to begin with. This must be understood or nothing I am about to tell you is going to sound as harrowing as the day ended up being. And before I get too Dickensian about it all, let me say I could write a book about our day on Grenada. I still remember in 1983 when America, plus some others, invaded the island to rid it of a perceived communist threat. Anyway, without researching, that’s how I remember it. Weird politics and machete wielding islanders makes you wonder. Still, fascinating all the same.

So, our driver picks us up in the worst minibus of those waiting at the port at St. George’s to take others from our ship hither and yon over the island. We were supposed to be on a 3 hour trip. Turned out we were the last to get back to the ship. First, let me tell you about driving through St. George’s. The streets are narrow and clogged with traffic, both vehicular and human. People stare at us as we go by….slowly by….as if we have no business being there, but please leave us your money. I guess you can’t blame them in one sense. Most of us only barely tolerate tourists in our back yards.

Finally we leave the confines of the city and begin the endless ascent into the very high hills, along winding roads, hairpin bends, houses on stilts and amazing views of the bays below. Our driver hadn’t said a word to us yet, after 30 minutes on the tour. We had to wonder what we were looking at. And the young driver delighted in shifting gears so that the minibus lurched forward with each change of gear. Then we stalled, started up again, stalled again. This happened a few times before we finally came to a halt for good, on a hill between two sharp bends. It was hot, humid and we were nowhere.

20171201_144251

houses in the hills on stilts.

20171201_144157

Going nowhere in the heat.

The driver mumbled something and got off the minibus, looking the thing over as if it might tell him what was wrong. He managed to communicate with one of our passengers that he would call for help and we should stay on the bus. Forget that in this heat. All 18 of us filed off the bus, taking our chances in the hot, humid morning air. The driver protested our leaving….health and safety and all that….but we were having none of it, being stuck in a hot tin can.

Some of us questioned the driver as to the possible reasons for the breakdown. He just shrugged his shoulders and got on his mobile (cell) phone to call for help. The rest of us tried to find shade where we could find it. Fortunately, we had parked right in front of a house with a large veranda that seemed to be empty. The front of the house was on pretty solid ground. The back was on stilts. Most of the passengers sat on the steps of the veranda, battling the ants that kept trying to greet them. Some of us wandered about exploring the area. We became a great source of amusement to all who drove by, especially the locals.

20171201_143903

Keeping cool on the veranda in Grenada.

Good news, the driver announced to a couple of us who stood near him, waiting for information. Help was on its way and would be here in 15 minutes, a replacement vehicle he said. An hour and a half later, a taxi with a couple of tourists inside pulled up behind the bus. A man got out carrying a jerry can full of petrol. We hadn’t broken down after all. The twit had run out of gas. He claims his petrol gauge was broken. He also told one of our fellow travellers that the reason he could not give us any information about what we were looking at was his microphone was broken. Strike 2

The chap who had the jerry can forgot to bring a spout to get the petrol into the bus. He hunted around until he found an empty plastic water bottle and proceeded to ask us if any of us had a knife. Oh yes, of course we do. They issue them to us as we leave the ship to fend off marauding communists. No, we don’t. You’d never get them by the ship’s scanner anyway. Another search for something sharp. He finds a coconut shell, smashes it in two and uses a sharp edge to cut the plastic bottle into a makeshift funnel. Enterprising but an annoying waste of time.

20171201_151946

Pouring the petrol everywhere.

As the petrol spilled over on to the side of the road as much as was poured into the bus, we all began gathering back around our vehicle in anticipation of finally getting on our way. As the gas cap was closed, we noticed movement from our bus. The driver was not back inside and we were all standing outside. The bus was moving backwards on its own and about to ram the taxi behind. We all yelled and our driver was quick enough to get to the brake in time. Just. He said the parking brake failed. Actually, he hadn’t put it on. Strike 3 and we still had the whole day ahead.

So we got on our way, in silence, trying to guess what sites we were viewing as we twisted our way up one hill and down the same, then around a sharp bend and up again and down until we found ourselves in one of those villages that time has forgotten. Locals walked around as if in a trance. We were here in a village with no name….our driver didn’t tell us and when asked mumbled something incoherent….to visit a nutmeg factory. It was an open barn with lizardy things crawling around the floor. The place had not had a makeover since being constructed many years before. Nothing was going on and the guide from the factory was incomprehensible. So, we learned nothing.

20171201_155909

The Nutmeg Factory

20171201_154801

A shop in Nutmeg Town.

I left the group and wandered about looking at cobwebs and sacks of what I presumed contained nutmeg at some stage of  usefulness. Put me off the spice once and for all. Nothing worse than knowing where your food comes from. Everyone was herded through the strangest gift shop before getting back on the bus. A few items on rickety shelves and postcards that had been on display since who knows when, dog-eared and wrinkled. No one was in the mood to purchase anything. The shopkeeper, a sour-faced woman, didn’t seem to care. She sat reading a magazine, never looking up. Island malaise.

And back on the road, this time to a volcanic lake. That was it. A small lake surrounded by trees. Nothing to see here really and, of course, no info coming from our driver, with or without a microphone. We drove up to a place that overlooked the lake….ought to have come here in the first place….where souvenirs were sold and gardens could be viewed. But we were behind schedule and had no time for that. Three old toothless men played island tunes badly on instruments they really had no idea how to play. But you have to make money some way I guess.

20171201_170458

The Volcanic lake

20171201_171816

The Volcanic lake from the tourist spot.

20171201_171844

The Touirist Spot

20171201_172537

What we had no time to explore.

By now the sun was sinking but the driver was determined to get us to every scheduled site. The last stop was at a lovely waterfall with beautiful gardens and the chance to swim in the lagoon beneath. Trouble is, by now it was nearly dark. At first the chap looking after the entrance booth didn’t want to let us in because it was too late. But somehow our driver convinced the him to let us enter. By the time we reached the waterfall, it was dark and the pathway wet and slippery. No time for a swim. A quick photo, with flash, and off we went, back to the bus, slipping and sliding all the way, iPhones lighting the way.

20171201_175115

The Volcanic Waterfall in the dark.

Friday night in St. George’s. Traffic worse than when we left that morning. People everywhere. A ballet of chaos and colour. Our bus edged along. We could see our ship now, but couldn’t get to it. When we arrived at the port….finally…. everything was shut. No one was around to let us onto the quay. We yelled. We banged things and finally a man came and let us through. The ship couldn’t leave without us, but all they knew, once we arrived at the gangway, was that we were missing. No one had told them on board where we were. Lost on Grenada.

We went as a group to the desk on the 5th deck that handled trips and we complained through a group rep. They don’t like complainers, but a mob they cannot ignore. We got a refund for the trip. Don’t misunderstand me, please. The island is lush and verdant, teeming with life and lots of mountainous terrain. Invading it would not be easy. Exploring it is not easy. Never going back is a breeze.

 

Caribbean Cruise: Part 2

Standard
Caribbean Cruise: Part 2

And so to the islands. Our cruise ship, the Marella Discovery, sailed all night and the next day from Barbados to Aruba, the first of 3 of the Dutch Antilles Islands we visited. Not what I expected. I had always imagined Aruba – having remembered it from the Beach Boys song ‘Kokomo’ (no Wilsons involved) about an island off the Florida keys – as a tropical island with palm trees and monkeys and all that.

Instead, most of the island was rocks, cacti (or cactuses if you prefer), snakes (including the non indigenous boa) and scrub. You may be surprised, if you’ve never been there, to realise that I refer to Aruba. Our tour from the ship took us across the island to a place where a natural stone bridge used to be. It collapsed in 2005, but we all still troupe out there to see where it was. Don’t get me wrong, there is rugged beauty where the bridge used to be….and a gift shop, naturally.

DSC00178

Part of the natural bridge that is now also condemned.

20171128_133717

The old natural bridge….another angle

The sea on this side of Aruba faces Venezuela which is only 18 miles south of the island. It’s a rugged sea and beats against the lava rock and coral coast mercilessly. No wonder the bridge eventually collapsed. The wind here is so strong, the coast is veritably uninhabitable. No structure can withstand the beating from the  lava and coral sand laden wind. Nothing much but scrub can grow here. Not the Aruba I had imagined.

20171128_133303

People pile up rocks. it’s the thing to do. I didn’t.

That Aruba is on the opposite coast where all the white beaches, 5 Star hotels and resorts can be found. Very impressive. So much so that our guide drove us past the whole lot of them, bragging about it all. Didn’t need to really. It was evident. This is why people come here. An average annual temperature of around 29 degrees celsius and virtually no rain. Guaranteed great weather the year round. A no-brainer. But from atop the Ayo Rock Formation….just another pile of Aruban rocks….all you can see for miles is scrub, more rock and cactuses. Oh, and our ship way over on the horizon.

DSC00187

Our ship, on the far right, from Ayo Rock.

The other highlights were the Alto Vista Chapel, only because we got watermelon there. It was a very hot 32 degrees Celsius. And the equally exciting California Lighthouse, named after the steamship ‘California’, wrecked nearby on 23 September, 1891. The lighthouse was built-in response to the steamship’s sinking. Better late than never I suppose. I walked toward the sea to see the white dunes and watch the lizards darting across the path where I walked. Speedy little buggers they are too.

20171128_144804

The watermelon stand near the chapel.

DSC00201

The California Lighthouse. Closed for renovation.

Aruba is part of a what is known as the ABC islands, 3 islands in a row, all 3 just off the Venezuelan coast. Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao. But not in that order. C, in this case, comes before B. That’s where we sailed to next, Curaçao. Straight into the harbour, docking just before going under the very large Queen Juliana Bridge. From the upper deck of our ship, either side of the inlet looked like toy town, coloured buildings set up like doll houses. Very colourful and very clean.

Two sides of the harbour. We were docked beside the Punda District. The Ortobanda District is on the other side. Our side is more residential and the other side is all business. Very colourful businesses, but business all the same. Because of its uniqueness, the whole town of Willemstad has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site. Apparently, all buildings had to be white a few centuries ago. It was the law. Then one island governor changed the law and said everyone was free to paint his home any colour at all. He also happened to own the town’s paint factory. Enterprising.

20171129_113025

Curacao, Otrobanda side.

20171129_113142

Curacao, Punda District.

The Punda side near the harbour had a huge square dedicated to Christmas, decorated with snowmen, a Christmas tree and even a Christmas train. Market stalls lined part of the square. I bought an island shirt at one. It seemed the thing to do. Inside the old harbour fort is another market, restaurants, bars and souvenir shops. An islander played his lone steel drum on a stage set up in an open area. He was playing, ‘I’m dreaming of a White Christmas’. He could play until he was blue because at 30 degrees celsius, it was indeed a dream.

20171129_151355

Christmas on Curacao in the square.

20171129_151429

The Christmas Train on the square on Curacao.

20171129_151450

Snowmen in a row on the square in the Punda District, Curacao.

20171129_151513

More Snowmen. Did I mention that I love Christmas? Even in 32 degree celsius temperatures.

20171129_152331

The Island shirt. A must in the Islands and the first of my life.

20171129_152554

He’s dreaming of a white Christmas in 32C heat.

A tour guide drove us through Punda to a resort where we boarded a boat that had a compartment underneath allowing us to view the coral reef below us. They called it a mini-sub. Not quite. Anyway, everything was happening on my best friend’s side. I was looking down over a 300 foot drop. Very dark, no fish. I protested to my best friend and was called a baby. I just wanted to see some colourful fish and the Ray on her side she said they all saw. Only when our boat guide got out in his scuba gear to feed the critters did I see anything. All very lovely, but in such a confined space with the ‘mini-sub’ bobbing from side to side, I started to feel queasy. I was glad to go back up on deck.

20171129_130000

On the deck of the mini-sub.

From there, we drove over the Queen Juliana Bridge to Otrobando to the factory where booze is made….specifically, Curaçao Blue liqueur, made from the Laraha bitter orange citrus fruit and various spices. The blue colour comes from E133 Brilliant Blue food colouring. Not so appetizing, but it looks cool and very islandy. Nice taste. Very strong. I kept sampling the various flavours and felt quite fine after a while. I bought the Rum and Raisin flavour. It was too heavy to bring home, so I drank it in my cabin on the ship….no, not all at once.

That evening, we sailed for Bonaire, last of the Dutch Islands in this part of the Caribbean and the smallest. Most of Bonaire is a nature reserve of one type or another. We went on a tour of the Mangroves at Lac Bay. And it was a very rough ride in an open-back Mercedes truck that was about 50+ years old. Dusty road too….off-track. It was our lucky day. Half way up the rough road, the flamingos had gathered. Sometimes they do, others they don’t. Today they did, right here at the Pekelmeer. Bunches of them. They came to the shore near us and began fighting with each other. We moved on. They weren’t there on our way back.

We arrived at a beach on Lac Bay and got into a rubber raft to go through a Mangrove tunnel into a world of colourful fish, eels, Mangrove trees and upside down jellyfish. The latter look like roundish rocks on the bottom of the lake. In went our guide and came back into the rubber boat with one of the jellyfish. We passed it around, among the 8 of us. My best friend and a few others didn’t want to touch it. Yes, it was a sticky, gooey jelly thing. I felt sorry for it. It went back into the water and took its place on the bottom. No harm done. We then went looking for tortoises, saw a couple come to the surface, went back to the beach and swam until it was time to get back to the ship.

20171130_120056

The Mangrove Tunnel.

20171130_121352

A reverse jellyfish reversed.

On to Grenada, then St. Lucia. We hear about the debacle on Grenada in Part 3. And….did you know that those white sand beaches are created from a fish that eats the coral and poops out the grains, which are white. Lying on fresh, white fish poop. Why not.

20171128_152109

Those fish poop white dunes of Aruba.