Ponta Delgada, Sao Miguel, the Azores: and then (finally) home!

It was a relatively short ‘hop’ from Faial to Sao Miguel, the largest of the islands in the Azores Archipelago, which was accomplished overnight, so we arrived early in the morning of Saturday 9th February. This is prime dolphin and whale-watching territory, but unfortunately we didn’t see any. A few people who happened to be stood on the fore deck as we approached the island did manage to sight a school of dolphins as they passed in front of the bow – but I wasn’t one of them. Drat!

Sao Miguel is the largest and most populated of the nine islands that make up the Azores. Also known as the “Green Island”, Sao Miguel is home to the Presidency of the Autonomous Region of the Azores. We docked at the cosmopolitan town of Ponta Delgada, a delightful town with grand monuments, ancient architecture, cobble-stone streets, mingled with a modern marina, lively bars and ocean-front cafe’s that together create a wonderful atmosphere.

We were booked on an organised tour to see the Sete Cidades Crater Lake, with some cheese and wine tasting thrown in (not literally!). The Crater Lake was magnificent to behold, and in terms of visual impact, possibly the highlight of the holiday. We passed meadows bordered by hydrangeas (though not yet in bloom) before ascending the main crater, some 1,900 ft above sea level. The crater has a circumference of 8 miles, and holds two lakes, one blue and one green, connected by a narrow road bridge. On the shores of the Blue Lake is the village of Sete Cidades (Seven Cities), and the village and lakes are surrounded by the dark forest-covered walls of the Caldeira.

Words cannot convey the beauty of this whole region, which has many walking trails for the determined rambler. I was quite reminded of our own Lake District, where we make an annual pilgrimage every June, but in some respects the scenery here was even more stunning. Add to this the fact that the annual temperature range is a very temperate 15C to 28C, i.e. no ice snow or frost, and you have an almost perfect environment for wildlife to flourish.

We also visited the Santiago Lake, inaccessibly situated at the bottom of an extinct crater before heading back to Ponta Delgarda to sample some of the local cheeses and wines.

The afternoon was taken up with exploring the ancient city of Ponta Delgarda, but unfortunately – and despite it being a Saturday – most of the shops and churches were closed. However, we made the most of wandering the cobbled streets and sampling the beer and custard creams on offer at the sidewalk cafes, and did the archetypical tourist thing and had a tour of the town in a horse-drawn carriage. We did manage to get to see the inside of one of the churches – St Peter’s, (Sao Pedro) which features many statues from 16th through 18th centuries and is home to the famous Carvalho painting of the Pentecost.

A truly wonderful day was rounded off by a sea-food dinner at one of the Marina restaurants ( O Marineiro, www.omarineiro.com) with some fellow passengers (and now friends) who we’ve spent the past six weeks with sharing bread and gossip on table 26 in the Marco Polo’s Waldorf Restaurant. The dinner party consisted of Brian, Bridgit, Dermot, Margaret, Dale and Jo (and wife – Lynda), and if any of you ever get around to reading this blog post – thanks to all of you for your company these past few weeks. And don’t worry – whatever happened on the Marco Polo stays on the Marco Polo!

So, this is our last port of call on this epic journey to the Amazon, the West Indies and the Azores. We now have another four days at sea before getting back to our starting point in Tilbury. By that time we will have spent 42 days having the holiday of a lifetime, and with many very happy memories and some truly incredible sights to reflect on. A final word of thanks to all of the staff and crew of the Marco Polo, who made this journey possible, and looked after us every step of the way. And now – to good ol’ Blighty!

The Blue and Green Lakes

The Blue and Green Lakes

 

Caldeira (crater) with the Blue and Green Lakes
Caldeira (crater) with the Blue and Green Lakes

 

City Gates in Ponta Delgarda
City Gates in Ponta Delgarda

 

The horses that pulled the carriage that took us on a tour of Ponta Delgarda
The horses that pulled the carriage that took us on a tour of Ponta Delgarda

 

Last supper ashore with friends
Last supper ashore with friends

Horta, Faial Island, the Azores

We arrived at Horta, capital of Faial Island in the Azores on the afternoon of Friday, 8th February, after five days at sea, crossing a fairly benign Atlantic from Barbados. Faial is one of the nine islands that make up the Archipelago of the Azores. The marina is a primary stop for yachts crossing the Atlantic, and its walls, and walkways are covered in paintings created by visitors who noted the names of their vessels, crews, and the years they visited. Peter Cafe Sport across from the marina houses the island’s scrimshaw museum; a collection of hundreds of pieces of Scrimshaw work carved on whale tooth and jawbone.

Mark Twain visited Horta in June 1867, near the beginning of a long excursion to Jerusalem. He described his visit, with acerbic commentary on the people and culture of Horta, in “The Innocents Abroad”. Similarly, Joshua Slocum, sailing the Spray, stopped in Horta on the first leg of his solo circumnavigation, which he chronicled in his 1899 book “Sailing Alone Around the World.”

We only had half a day at Faial, so were a bit limited on the extent to which we could explore the island and the city of Horta. We had arranged to go on the “Capelinhos Volcano” guided tour, which took us to the vast volcanic crater known as ‘Caldeira’, over a mile in diameter and 1,200ft deep. Unfortunately there was a mist swirling around the high ground which prevented a clear view inside the crater, but spectacular nevertheless.

We passed the villages of Ribeira Funda, Praia do Norte and Norte Peqeno on the way to getting a view of Capelinhos, about 1km from the coast, an extinct volcano which rose from the sea in 1957. During the eruption the volcano added a whole new part to the island, burying fields and houses with ash and lava. The remains of the half-buried lighthouse can still be seen.

The whole island is filled with hydrangeas, which border both sides of many of the roads. We had to imagine the blaze of colour this would produce because, unfortunately they were not in flower during this part of the season. The island has been called the “Blue Island” due to the burst of colour from the hydrangeas.

A very beautiful island, which we’d like to visit again one day as part of a more extended holiday.

Our next – and final – port of call is Ponta Delgarda on the island of Sao Miguel, where we arrive tomorrow, Saturday 9th February.

Caldeira Volcano Crater
Caldeira Volcano Crater

 

Horta Harbour
Horta Harbour

 

Marco Polo and sea wall in foreground with pictures and messages from previous sea-farers
Marco Polo and sea wall in foreground with pictures and messages from previous sea-farers

 

The old lighthouse, half-buried in lava.
The old lighthouse, half-buried in lava.

Bridgetown, Barbados – and farewell to the West Indies!

We arrived in Bridgetown, Barbados on Saturday 2nd February. This is our last port of call in the West Indies before starting our homeward leg across the vast Atlantic. After Barbados we can look forward to (!) five days at sea before arriving at Horta in the Azores.

Known for its beaches and cricket, Barbados is one of the mots popular islands in the West Indies. British influence is everywhere, from place names to Anglican Parish Churches. The legal and political system is very much based on that of Britain; judges wear robes and wigs, cricket is a national passion, they drive on the correct (left) side of the road, and the epithet “Little England” is often used.

The Portuguese came to Barbados en route to Brazil and named it “Los Barbados” (bearded-ones) after the island’s fig trees, which have a beard-like appearance. The first English settlers arrived in 1627 and within a few years much of the land had been deforested to make way for tobacco and cotton pltantations. Sugar cane was introduced and a market for slaves who came from Afica.

After slavery was abolished in 1834, many of the new citizens of Barbados took advantage of the excellent education system. Barbados remained a British colony until 1961, gaining full independence in 1966.

Bridgetown is the capital, and home of the Kensington Oval, which was the venue for the 2007 Cricket World Cup final. South of the city is the historic Garrison area, where the British once maintained the Caribbean military headquarters. This is now a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Outside the main entrance to the cruise terminal is a village made up of historic chattel houses (colourful movable houses which were standard housing for plantation workers after emancipation). These small, brightly painted houses are now filled with art, handicrafts and souvenirs.

We decided to go on the “Discover Barbados” tour, which took in the Highland Adventure Centre, at an elevation of over 1000ft, overlooking the Atlantic. We then descended to the East Coast with its rugged landscape and pounding Atlantic surf to reach Bathsheba – a popular beach resort. We then headed to St John’s Church, situated on a cliff overlooking the Atlantic. The original church was built in 1660, but mostly destroyed by a hurricane in 1831. The present church was rebuilt in 1836. A feature of the church was the pulpit, which was made of six different types of wood: Ebony, Locust, Mahogany, Manchineel, Oak and Pine. A thoroughly enjoyable afternoon.

And so we finally departed the West Indies on the evening of Saturday 2nd February. Strangely enough, our cruise director thought a themed evening of County & Western music was most apt for our last evening in the Caribbean. Surreal or what?!

We now have five days at sea to look forward to before reaching Horta in the Azores. Homeward bound!

East Coast of Barbados showing the Atlantic Ocean
East Coast of Barbados showing the Atlantic Ocean

 

 Bathsheba, Barbados

 Bathsheba, Barbados

 

Chattel House
Chattel House

Castries, St Lucia, West Indies.

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We arrived at St Lucia in the morning of Friday 1st February after an overnight cruise from St Vincent.

 

One of the Windward Islands, it was named after Saint Lucy of Syracuse by the French, the first European colonisers. They signed a treaty with the native Carib people in 1660. England took control of the island from 1663 to 1667; in ensuing years, it was at war with France 14 times and rule of the island changed frequently (it was seven times each ruled by the French and British). In 1814, the British took definitive control of the island. Because it switched so often between British and French control, Saint Lucia was also known as the “Helen of the West Indies”.

 

St Lucia is probably best know for it’s dramatic twin peaks – the Pitons – which rise to 2000ft, sheltering magnificent rain forests and orchards of banana, coconut, mango and papaya trees. With an area of 240 sq miles, St Lucia is the second largest of the Winward Islands.

 

St Lucians drive on the left and have a passion for cricket. Although English is the official language, French Creole patois is widely spoken by the locals.

 

We visited St Lucia last year on the Royal Clipper, that time visiting Soufrière, the islands oldest town and backdrop to the volcanic cone-shaped Pitons. This time we docked at Castries, the islands capital. We were somewhat disappointed to learn that our planned snorkelling trip on a catamaran had been cancelled, supposedly due to a mechanical failure on the catamaran, but suspicions arose that the tour had been hijacked by one of the three large cruise ships that were also docked at Castries. We therefore had to make hasty arrangements for an alternative, and opted for the 4×4 Jeep & Waterfall Safari.

 

Our morning was taken up with shopping at the Castries Art & Craft Market for spices, hot pepper sauce and the compulsory fridge magnets for everyone at home.

 

The jeep safari in the afternoon took us to Morne Fortune for a panoramic view of Castries before descending to Cul de Sac Valley and the community of Belair for a brief stop to sample some locally grown fruits. We continued to Sarrot Hill, passing through quaint villages and communities, and arriving at Dennery for spectacular views of the Atlantic Ocean. Finally, we went to Micloud and the Latille Waterfall, which was situated in a tranquil organic fruit, herbal and flower garden, run by a local Rastafarian who had made the garden’s his life’s work. An interesting character.

 

We sailed from St Lucia the same evening on our way to our final stop in the West Indies – Barbados. A slight touch of nostalgia as we left the harbour, seeing the 4-masted Royal Clipper all lit up. This time last year we were recently embarked on this for a 7-day cruise around the islands – that was most definitely a 5-star experience!

 

Castries Harbour
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Our 4×4 Jeep Safari
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Latille Waterfall
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Local Rastafarian – the man developed the organic gardens,
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Kingstown, St Vincent, the Grenadines

We arrived at Kingstown, St Vincent early in the morning of Thursday, 31st January after an overnight cruise from St George’s, Granada. The island is the largest of the Grenadines, technically part of the Winward Islands, which are themselves part of the Lesser Antilles. 

The island was originally named Hairouna (“The Land of the Blessed”) by the native Caribs. The Caribs aggressively prevented European settlement on St Vincent until 1719. Prior to this, formerly enslaved Africans, who had either been shipwrecked or who had escaped from Barbados, Saint Lucia and Grenada and sought refuge in mainland Saint Vincent, intermarried with the Caribs and became known as Garifuna or Black Caribs. Following the Seven Years War, marked in 1763 by the Treaty of Paris, Britain was granted control of St Vincent. St Vincent gained independence in 1979. 

The northern third of the island consists of an enormous and active volcano, La Soufrière, which erupted in 1902 killing 2,000 people. Much farmland was damaged, and the economy deteriorated. In April 1979, La Soufrière erupted again. Although no one was killed, thousands were evacuated, and again there was extensive agricultural damage. The main export is bananas and the main industry is tourism.

 

Kingstown is the capital and is a bustling hub of activity, with many craft shops, and vibrant fruit & veg and fish markets. Located on the northern outskirts are the Botanical Gardens, founded in 1763 and the oldest of their kind in the Western Hemisphere. We walked the one mile or so to the gardens, but there are plenty of taxis around all offering lifts to the gardens. Apart from the many varieties of trees, flowers and shrubs, the gardens have a sanctuary for the rare St Vincent Parrot (Amazona Guildingi), which is the island’s national bird. We had some fun answering the parrots’ calls of “hello” and “good morning”. I couldn’t coax any other words from them, but I’m sure they knew more. We also spotted – albeit very briefly – a mongoose as it scurried across our path. These were introduced to the island to control the snakes, but are now considered pests because of the damage they do to the agriculture.

 

From the gardens we took a taxi ride to Fort Charlotte, six hundred feet up on the hill outside Kingstown. This was a 19th century British battlement that once housed 600 troops and a battery of 30 cannons, mostly pointed inland for defence against the Caribs. The Fort is named after King George III’s wife, Queen Charlotte. A section of the Fort is off-limits as it is still used today as a women’s prison, housing between 6 and 12 residents at any one time. The death penalty is still retained on St Vincent and the gallows are located close to the Fort.

 

The other noteworthy site for tourists is the St George’s Anglcan Cathedral on Grenville Street, with its exquisite stained glass. The Cathedral is famous for its Red Angel window, commissioned by Queen Victoria in memory of her first grandson, the Duke of Clarence. However, she rejected the window because the angel was dressed in red, not white as she had requested, and so years later the window was brought to St Vincent and displayed in this Cathedral.

 

Once again, we only had the one day to do our exploring of St Vincent. Our ship sailed the same evening for our next destination, St Lucia.

 

View of Kingstown, St Vincent from Fort Charlotte.
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Me at the Botanical Gardens
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Lynda at the Botanical Gardens
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Lynda on the Hibiscus walk, Botanical Gardens

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Granada, “Spice of the Caribbean”, and spicy gossip!

Continuing my travelogue of our epic cruise from Tilbury, to the Amazon, the West Indies and the Azores (and ultimately back to Tilbury).

I should be writing about our experience in Granada, where we arrived on the morning of Wednesday 30th January after two days at sea from our previous stop, Ile du Salut. But before I describe our visit to Granada, I thought I should say something about the growing number of incidents that have spiced up our days (excuse pun) on board our cruise ship, the Marco Polo. I guess one should expect a few issues and problems when over 700 passengers are confined together in a fairly limited space for a period of 6 weeks, but even I’ve been surprised by some of the things that I’ve seen or heard. I should perhaps note there is a degree of hearsay and anecdotal “evidence” in what follows, with occasional circumstantial evidence that might give credence to some of the gossip.

The first incident relates to the ship’s doctor. People on cruises fall ill, as a result of either a pre-existing condition or as a reaction to the food, or sea-sickness or whatever. We also have a fairly ‘aged’ demographic on board, so the doctor has been kept fairly busy. It takes a while before you see a trend, but I noticed after a couple of weeks into the cruise that there were a growing number of passengers walking around with bandages on their arms. This was followed by stories of medical bills running into several thousand pounds. A visit to the doctor (it is alleged) would result in a charge of £400 before any treatment. The standard treatment seems to be anti-biotics, invariably delivered intravenously (hence the bandages on the arms), which would then rack-up costs of over £1000 per day. One passenger (it is alleged) had a medical bill of over £7000. There was speculation that a letter had been written to the Daily Telegraph by a passenger describing one such case – though I have not so far been able to locate this letter. A number of passengers have corroborated the high medical bills, which has caused some consternation about the perils of falling ill, and what precisely is covered by travel insurance. Suffice to say, I move around the ship very carefully – can’t afford to have an accident!

We’ve seen one passenger leave the ship semi-concious on a stretcher – without returning. Goodness knows what their medical bill looks like – or maybe they saw it and hence the stretcher!

Then there was the arrest and detention of a passenger during our stay in the Amazon, specifically our stop at Manaus. For anyone familiar with cruising, you will know that all passports are given up to the ship’s administration, who liaise with the appropriate immigration authorities for each of the countries visited. We had Brazilian immigration staff permanently on board throughout our stay in the Amazon, and they found “a person of interest” to them during their audit of the passports. The said person (a lady) was detained as soon as she set foot ashore – allegedly on a fraud charge – and she hasn’t been seen since. 

There was some speculation about the removal of a passenger following our visit to Boca da Valeria on the grounds of suspected pedophilia. However, there’s no real evidence to support this.

There has been more than one fracas in the dining areas, one of which I personally witnessed where two men squared up to each other about who had the rights of ownership of a particular table. It was just handbags at 10 paces, but possibly indicative of the increasingly fractious nature of some people now that we’re 4 weeks into the cruise. Will there be an actual physical assault before the cruise is over? Watch this space!

And then there are the seemingly growing number of passengers who will complain about everything and anything – the music is too loud/not loud enough/don’t want a radio/want a radio, it’s too hot/too cold/too wet etc. One lady complained of poor service in the restaurant because the waiter hadn’t cut her food up for her. It takes all sorts.

Anyway, about Granada. Granada the largest island in the Grenadines; smaller islands are Carriacou, Petit Martinique, Ronde Island, Caille Island, Diamond Island, Large Island, Saline Island, and Frigate Island. Sighted by Columbus in 1498 (though he didn’t actually make land) and named by Spanish sailors after the city of Granada in Andalucia, the island remained uncolonised for over 150 years. The island changed hands between the British and the French until 1783, after which it remained British. 

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The islands are of volcanic origin with extremely rich soil. Grenada’s interior is very mountainous with Mount St. Catherine being the highest at 840 m. It is a leading producer of several different spices. Cinnamon, cloves, ginger, mace, allspice, orange/citrus peels and especially nutmeg, providing 20% of the world supply, are all major exports. The nutmeg on the nation’s flag represents the economic crop of Grenada; the nation is the world’s second largest producer of nutmeg (after Indonesia).

The culture is a fusion of Africa, East Indian, French and British practices. They drive on the left (as all ‘proper’ countries do) and their national sport is cricket.

The capital is St George’s, which has a very picturesque harbour and lots of colonial architecture, such as the Georgian York House (the Houses of Parliament). Only two miles to the south of St George’s is the beautiful Grand Anse Beach, a stunning stretch of immaculate white sand. 

We took advantage of the “Rhum Runner”, a sort of motorised platform complete with steel band and bar serving bottomless rum punch. This did a cruise around St George’s harbour before heading out past Grand Anse Beach on the way to Mourne Rouge beach. We had about 1.5 hours to swim and snorkel at the beach, with the staff of Rhum Runner continuing to serve us with lashings of rum punch. On the return journey the party continued with a limbo dance challenge and dancing to the steel band. Yes, we had a good time, and it’s a pity we couldn’t have stayed longer in Granada, but our ship has a schedule and we sailed at 10pm to our next destination – Kingstown, St Vincent.

St George’s Harbour, Granada
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St George’s Harbour, Granada
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Limbo dancing on the Rhum Runner
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Lynda joins the steel band!
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