Tag Archives: Christmas

Caribbean Cruise: Part 2

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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.

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Part of the natural bridge that is now also condemned.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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The watermelon stand near the chapel.

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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.

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Curacao, Otrobanda side.

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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.

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Christmas on Curacao in the square.

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The Christmas Train on the square on Curacao.

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

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

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

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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.

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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.

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The Mangrove Tunnel.

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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.

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Those fish poop white dunes of Aruba.

Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

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Caribbean Cruise: Part 1

I think I’m the only Canadian (I am one when I need to be) of a certain age who up until the end of November hadn’t been to any part of the Caribbean. A pilgrimage had to be made sooner or later I guess. Add to that going on a cruise to visit the islands and you have the recipe for something I never thought would happen to me in my lifetime.

The occasion for this adventure was to celebrate the 60th wedding anniversary of my best friend’s parents. Her sister and brother-in-law came along too. Lots of fun. And other than my best friend, all the rest are seasoned cruisers. They have travelled all the best lines and are able to compare one cruising company to another. One thing’s for sure….they’re all very big ships.

We had booked the trip back in March. Seemed to be ages away at the time, but here I am, back to my own little boat, writing about a trip that has been. 2 weeks of sun, sand,  swelling seas and shopping. I could have added eating and drinking, but they don’t start with an ‘s’. Pity. And it was hot. We left Gatwick airport at 2 degrees celsius and arrived on Barbados at 32 degrees celsius. Hot, hot, hot.

Once the wings of our plane were de-iced, we were on our way. I hardly sleep when flying, so I watched some of the onboard movies. And suddenly, there it was below us….Barbados, a jewel in the ocean. We landed safely. So far, so good. And, it was one of those go-down-the-stairs de-planing. The heat hit me like a punch from Mike Tyson, except that it felt good rather than painful. The only problem was that I was dressed for English winter and not Barbados heat….32C upon landing.

The blast of hot air that hit me as I left the plane convinced me that we were truly here. An expat Canadian doing his pilgrimage to the Caribbean. It begins with queuing  for the mini buses that would take us all to the ship, the Marella Discovery, run by a company we knew as Thomson but has changed to TUI overnight. The road to the ship was full of palm trees, bread fruit trees, flowering bushes and roadside stands selling everything from beads to bananas. Colour everywhere and the occasional lizard scurrying along the roadside.

We made our way through  Bridgetown to the ship, got off the bus at the quay and queued again in a large barn to be registered before going on board. It was a very long queue on a hot day, pulling our carry-on luggage. I had my hoodie and coat draped over my arm by now. And I was sweating like 10 twats (doesn’t mean the same in England as it does in Canada). As we head to the ship, a photographer grabbed us for a portrait of our group. We all looked like we’d sagged under the weight of winter clothing and the heat of the day. Not a pretty sight.

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My Barbados persona.

Fortunately, the ship is air-conditioned. We find our way to the cabins and wait for our main suitcases to be delivered. For the entire 2 weeks, we had Milosh and Ganna looking after the cabins. Ganna didn’t understand a word I said and I had no clue what she was trying to tell me. But every day the cabin was clean and the beds were turned down at night with 2 stale chocolates on each bed. One night the towels formed a heart-shaped swan and another a monkey hanging in front of the cabin’s mirror.

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Towels made into a scary monkey.

It didn’t matter what instructions we gave to Ganna. They were always interpreted in a fashion unrelated to the request. But her beautiful smile spoke a thousand languages, brightening my days at sea. Milosh was another story. He told us he was Serbian and had worked on the ships for 8 years. He laughed at everything I said. I must be really funny or ridiculous. I’ll believe the former. The ship’s staff were generally great people, but it always felt as though we passengers were a necessary inconvenience. Cruisers tend to be very demanding. The crew lives for breaks and shore leave.

The ship is a refurb, an old Royal Caribbean cruise ship bought by Thomson. The cabin furniture is comfortable but a bit tired and worn. The refurb money must have been spent on the restaurants and entertainment areas. The spa area looks good, as does my favourite bar in the Atrium….very impressive.

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The ship’s Atrium decked out for Christmas.

The rest of the ship offered the usual pools, one out on the 9th deck and the other inside a big glass house. It is usually a very humid area. There are the usual shuffleboard and a mini-putt, table tennis, a climbing wall, shops that sell expensive stuff, bars everywhere with a variety of beverages (as many as you like with the all-inclusive package), piano bar, a running track around the top deck and the inevitable smokers corner. Guess where I spent most of my time. Rhymes with star.

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The sea from my cabin.

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The upper deck with ubiquitous sunbeds and outdoor pool below.

My very favourite spot is at the very back of the ship (the stern for all you nautical types), called the Veranda. Very peaceful, no kids allowed and lovely wicker pods with thick cushions to relax me. The only problem is that with 1800 people on board, many of them had the same idea as I did. By the time I get to the Veranda, the pods are full. I scowl at the folk occupying them, willing them to move on. No luck there. I’ll have to remember my one time in a pod. Most relaxing moment of the whole cruise.

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Yours truly in a pod.

Time to move on to the cruise itself and the 10 islands visited. Some fascinating stuff ahead. But in the meantime, have yourselves a merry little Christmas. I leave you with some of the ship’s crew wishing us all just that….

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Boat Stuff

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Boat Stuff

It has been nearly a year and a half since we entered the new life of canal narrowboating, unlike any other boating on earth. And we love it. Most of the time. No sour grapes here. Just doses of reality during moments of sobriety and general clear headedness. Living in a fixed home, on land, with plenty of room to spare never looked so good when things go wrong on a boat.

Not that we’d ever give up the boating life. Only old age and waning energy will determine how long we continue at this gig. Dying of old age on the boat is the best case scenario….but not for a long time to come hopefully. We simply ride through any problems that might occur on the boat and move on or not, depending on where we are at any moment. Most of our narowboating life so far has been static, living in a marina. In fact, we have only been on the move for about 3 weeks out of our time on board.

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Our arrival at Apsley Marina in August of 2016.

As I write this, it’s Christmas Eve 2016 and my best friend and I are spending Christmas at our old house in Welling, Kent. My best friend’s son owns the house now and their clan is gathering for the festive feast day tomorrow. A bit unusual Blogging on Christmas Eve, but I’m battling man flu and need a distraction. We’ve actually been here for a couple of days already and things are as familiar as ever and constantly warm. It doesn’t help that we are in the winter season and have to work hard to keep the boat warm.

And as I write this, I’m back on the boat and it’s the New Year. The steel tube, all 60 feet of it was freezing when we returned after our 5 days in a house. You could see your breath. So, we put on the old (or rather new) Wabasto central heating system while we lit a new fire. Took a while to heat up, but we got there in the end.

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The addition of a new pram cover for the stern.

All that aside, it has been a learning curve that continues to teach the longer we live on a narrowboat. And I’m always worried I may have missed some crucial information on this or that technical matter. Keeps me awake some nights wondering if there might be water in the bilge or did I shut this or that appliance or gizmo off or had I forgotten to close a hatch (which I did one time….messy).

The key to surviving this lifestyle is in making friends, especially ones with practical skills. I have none, other than writing and playing one of my musical instruments. Technical stuff either baffles or annoys me. I try to learn, but, really, the inner workings of a diesel engine, while fascinating, do not, by choice mind you, become part of my integrated working knowledge of all things fussy. I am an habitual asker for help. Let someone who knows what they’re doing do it. Besides, I’m a rather tall, large guy and my engine room is small and tight.

But it’s like anything else you do that’s new to you. You make mistakes and learn from them. Most often. I have the nasty habit of repeating mistakes and paying for them….in every way. Just, on a boat, a mistake can be costly….in every way. Haven’t made one of those errors yet. Hope I never do. Remaining diligent for a guy with the attention span of a gnat, takes a lot of energy. Energy I need for other things….like writing these Blogs and learning a new riff on my guitar.

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So, would I do it all again if I knew then what I now know? Probably. Because now,at least, I have an idea what this narrowboating is all about and still love most of it. At the moment, we are expecting a cold snap. That will be a test. And I’m running out of coal. But come March, all will be well again and from then until October, we look forward to happy cruising. Going north this time. Going south into the great city of London last summer was a once in a lifetime experience.

The chores of the day are done. Two shitters emptied, cleaned out and put back into place. Filled the water tank in anticipation of the cold snap. Filled the coal scuttle for the fire. Washed and dried the supper dishes. Threw out the rubbish over in the big bins in the bin shed. Skyped with my youngest who lives in Toronto at the moment. Made sure the boat was secure for the night and finally am finishing this Blog that began on Christmas Eve. The consummate procrastinator.

Keep warm and dry everyone. At least most of you live on dry land. But even you still have chores to do. What else is new? Oh, and I’m still battling man flu….just keeps coming back. Couldn’t be because I live on a narrowboat, a long, steel tube in the dead of winter….do you think? Nah.

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Can you spot our boat?

Christmas on the Cut 2

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Christmas on the Cut 2

And so it is Christmas….nearly. Another Christmas on the boat. Our second. When I lived in a house in Canada, I was known as Clark Griswold on my street at Christmas. If you have never watched National Lampoon’s ‘Christmas Vacation’, you won’t get that reference. But if you have (and if you haven’t you’re missing a truly great Christmas flic), then you’ll recognise that I do it big and I do it right.

Decorating a boat is a little different to doing the same on a house. It’s easier in some respects….smaller and no ladders involved. But the principle is the same. Cover as much surface as possible and try to be tasteful doing it. That would be my best friend’s job. I like tacky….because I’m tacky. The more Christmas stuff the better. And everything from coloured lights that flash like mad to lighted snowpeople, reindeers, penguins and Santas….of course Santas.

But I know how to compromise and my plan for those big snowpeople (men….let’s face it) and Santas, that inflate with a fan thing inside, on top of the boat were thwarted by she who has the last word. What else is new, eh chaps? Anyway, I did get some concessions and to tell you the truth, what my best friend ended up with was much better than my ideas. Except for the inflatables, I really wanted them. And they were on sale too. Damn!

Anyway, we got together with our neighbours Eddie the Grinch (but only pretending to be) and Mimz to light up the marina with a Christmas grotto which would be the envy of any mall. And we did it relatively cheaply. The whole marina was supposed to get involved this year. Prizes are up for grabs and bragging rights assured. We did it for charity. Eddie is a nurse at an ‘end of life’ hospice and we chose to raise money for that by going mad with exterior decorating and a box to take in peoples’ donations….and to win.

We started early, at the beginning of December. There was to be a grand light turning on ceremony on the 11th, but rebels that we are, we turned ours on a week early. For a while it looked like we would be the only ones participating. But, lo and behold, on the 11th ,the marina lit up like a beacon, causing even Heathrow airport to divert planes approaching to land to avoid confusion. So I heard.

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Other boats ablaze in colour and light.

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Santa (Eddie) and Phil untangling lights to add to the festivities.

When all lights were turned on, a party from the other side of the marina (the dark side) came over while singing ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ without the figgy pudding verse. I was busy helping a neighbour untangle a ball of lights that, when finally unravelled (the next day) could have reached the moon and back. I had never seen such a long, continuous strand of lights. The only thing we could conclude is that it was a Chinese plot to drive us mad. Nearly succeeded.

Anyway, passersby had been admiring our efforts for days. Kids stopped and took in every detail. One child stood mesmerised for a whole half hour. Even a group of YOBs stopped and put money into the charity jar….which Eddie had fixed to the perimeter fence in front of our boats with very strong ties and a chain just in case. We had snowfolk, reindeer, penguins, a snow hut and little Christmas trees. We linked our boats, Eddie’s and Mimz’s and ours, with a big red bow that the ladies had made. We looked so festive.

My best friend and I had gone with Eddie and Mimz to get what we needed to decorate at more shops than I care to remember. Then we’d pick things up hither and yon when we were out on our own. I ended up dragging a bag the size of the marina back from Watford where we found a shop that sold Christmas decorations at a very good price. We risked going OTT on the whole enterprise. Some might say we did. Clark Griswold would not.

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Our grotto and the big bow between our boats.

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Our grotto with Eddie at the back of our boat probably looking for a mince pie.

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Our boat at dusk.

So, back to the group from the other side of the marina coming to join us. We had prepared well. We were offering mulled wine, mince tarts and little chocolates for the children that came by. Later in the evening we served vegetarian perogies, sausages, cheese crackers and regular wine. One nearby neighbour brought out a jar of mead he had made. All to warm the cockles of our hearts and the rest of us. It was a cold night and hot food and strong drink were just the ticket.

Eddie played DJ as he has done on our side of the marina for all social events. He has these Bose speakers that pump out the sound from anywhere inside and outside his boat. He had just purchased a 2 CD compilation of Christmas tunes from the producers of ‘NOW That’s What I Call Music’ for Christmas 2016. They’re only available from EMI in the UK. There were at least a million tunes on 2 CDs. It played from dusk to well past 10pm and still hadn’t exhausted all the songs. Amazing.

We sang, we danced, we jived and we laughed at more than one of the lame tunes included. But a party atmosphere it was. Great community spirit. What Christmas is all about. One neighbour, who hadn’t time to decorate his boat, wore coloured bells on his beard. As you do. It was a shame to have to end the festivities, but it got colder as the evening wore on. And, quite frankly, I was spent. All that mulled wine and such, plus Eddie had to go to work on a night shift.

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Our boat community party

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Neighbour John’s festive beard.

But before he left, we had a photo taken of the 4 of us, the 4 Christmasteers. We all wish you and yours a safe, happy Christmas from Apsley Marina here in the UK. Cheers.

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From left, Eddie, Mimz, My best friend, Santa.