Santa Cruz, Tenerife
December 30, 2009 - 12:00 am
Unusually Saga Ruby was the only cruise ship in Santa Cruz de Tenerife today. And unusually it felt cool as we docked alongside the harbour wall. A chilly breeze and a cloudy sky were most unwelcome after our recent good weather. Temperatures were forecast to reach 21C/70F later in the day however and I looked forward to lunchtime!
Tenerife is the largest of the Canary Islands, a scenic place dominated by Mount Tiede, Spain’s highest mountain. The mountain range runs through the centre of the island with rich fertile valleys on the northern side. Centrally within the range lies Canadas del Tiede, a giant crater measuring some 14 miles across.
Santa Cruz, the island’s capital, is a very modern city that also harbours 16th-century civic buildings and ornate private mansions. In June 1936 Franco planned the Nationalist rebellion from Tenerife that sparked the Spanish Civil War. Some years earlier Horatio Nelson was unfortunate to lose his right arm in battle here.
Once again there were tour busses ready to whisk my passengers away to the beautiful gardens and villages of this scenic island. Many chose to explore this way, although some took advantage of the free shuttle bus service into the city centre of Santa Cruz. There were plenty of shops to visit, and some fine cafes and restaurants. A tapas lunch was enjoyed by my family, tasting the local grilled cheese, black ham, and tasty tomatoes.
Departure was early at 11pm after fine performances from Tenerife dance group Attenery and virtuoso violinist Iwona Boesche.
Las Palmas, Gran Canaria
December 29, 2009 - 12:00 am
A nice morning welcomed us as Saga Ruby gently docked alongside Santa Catalina wharf close to the centre of Las Palmas. The forecast for our two-day stay was good with temperatures up to 25C/77F. My passengers were keen to visit this pretty island, the local town of Las Palmas, Teror Basilica, and Arucas Gardens. There was an opportunity to ride camels too, across the expansive dunes of Maspalomas.
For my family and I, it was an opportunity to spend a little beach time. The Las Palmas strand is popular with the locals and it was a pleasure to join them beneath a warm winter sun after lunching on fresh fish and salad at one of the promenade pavement cafes.
It was business as usual aboard ship of course. Our regular inspections of crew accommodation and food & beverage outlets occupied my time, as well as catching up on the inevitable paperwork that had been put aside during the Christmas festivities. We worked with divers too, a ship side valve was causing problems and needed some underwater maintenance.
Departure was late on 29th after a performance of Canary Island music and dance from a local group called Abenechara. We were back at sea by 11pm bound for Tenerife. I had chosen to take the long route around the south of Gran Canaria instead of the more direct route to the north in order to ensure smooth seas for the overnight transit, after such busy days my passengers needed their rest.
Santa Cruz, Palma
December 27, 2009 - 12:00 am
Like Madeira, the island of La Palma in the Canaries is known by a few pseudonyms including La Isla Bonita – The Beautiful Island, and also The Green Island because of the lush forests of pine, laurel, and giant fern. No doubt it is a beautiful island with a rugged countryside and superb panoramas from its many peaks.
A short walk from the pier, or a couple of minutes aboard Saga’s shuttle bus, my passengers found themselves in the centre of Santa Cruz on another beautifully sunny day. This small town is typically Spanish with its whitewashed houses overlooking stone lanes. Perched on the edge of the volcanic crater of La Caldereta, Santa Cruz comfortably blends modern architecture with old colonial buildings, and has a fascinating Natural History Museum. Shopping was also on offer, with reasonably priced silver jewellery, leather goods, and beautifully embroidered clothes, tablecloths and napkins, a speciality of the Canary Islands.
For those passengers who wanted a slightly more active tour today there was an organised walk through the Los Tilos, which is a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve. It is home to a profusion of ferns, trees and other indigenous species. My passengers alighted at the Hills of Mirador de la Concepcion before trekking through this wonderful forest. Escorted by an expert botanical guide, they viewed ancient laurels, lime trees, and giant ferns, some of which have been growing there for thousands of years.
I went ashore with my family, a mooch around the shops was followed by a tapas lunch al fresco. Cold drinks were definitely required as the outside temperature soared to 27C / 81F.
Departing at 1800 our evening shows included a classical concert by the Covent Garden Ensemble and the Rolls Royce voice of Anthony Stewart Lloyd.
San Sebastian, La Gomera
December 26, 2009 - 12:00 am
We spend Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at sea en-route to the Canary Islands. As I have my family with me then Christmas Day started early as my children unwrapped their gifts. Thankfully I had remembered to radio the North Pole in advance to let Santa Claus know of our whereabouts. Canon Michael Weaver lead the morning worship featuring a lively performance from our Filipino choir. Cocktails were then followed by Christmas dinner. As is customary the Queen’s speech was broadcast in the afternoon and then things were quiet as many snoozed away the excesses of luncheon.
Boxing day started early for me as I arose early to dock Saga Ruby in La Gomera, Canary Islands. Our hasty departure from the Azores had meant that I was able to squeeze in an extra day in the Canary Islands, and a chance to visit one of my favourites La Gomera. It is known as the ‘Round Island’ and is one of the smallest of the Canary Islands. Steep valleys and ravines are terraced like oriental paddy fields, and from the top of the island there are breathtaking views of the Garajonay National Park. Sunshine accompanied our stay making for a pleasing day indeed.
Departure at 1800 was a simple affair of letting go the lines and moving ahead a short distance clear of the breakwater. Dinner was followed by a Boxing Day race meeting, and then flautist Bettine Clemen played some Christmas favourites.
Ponta Delgarda, Azores
December 23, 2009 - 12:00 am
Our visit to the archipelago of the Azores coincided with a series of Atlantic low pressure systems that brought rough seas and heavy rain. The added problem of three passengers requiring hospital treatment meant that I had to make our first port of call Ponta Delgarda, the only island of the group with a hospital open during the Christmas holidays. With a poor forecast for the coming days I decided to stay here for two days and hope for some improvement in conditions to make another island on day three.
The former fishing village of Ponta Delgarda is now the capital of the most beautiful island of the group, San Miguel, the largest of the nine islands that make up the Azores. These Portuguese islands offer a haven of peace from today’s busy world. Whales and dolphins are sighted around its shores, and on land vast craters of extinct volcanoes are filled with beautiful lakes and lush vegetation. ‘Due to the archipelago’s location in the mid-Atlantic thousands of birds migrating between America and Europe stop en-route and up to 200 species can be seen on San Miguel throughout the year’ – so it says in the guidebook!
My passengers were keen to get their feet back on terra firma, soon heading away on tours to enjoy the tranquil countryside and colourful gardens of this perfect growing climate. Hydrangeas grow wild, and the cultivated crops include tobacco, tea and pineapples. The cattle herds also grow well too. Due to the lush grass the milk has a high butter fat content, and the beef is also of a very high quality. Combined with a tasty harvest from the sea these islands are a delight for the lovers of fresh food.
Excursions to the mineral water springs of Furnas Valley and the volcano of Sete Cidades were popular. Views from the 1,900 feet crater are magnificent, as it overlooks two lakes below, one blue, the other green, although low cloud cover and rain made viewing somewhat difficult. According to legend the different colours of the water are the result of tears shed by a princess and a shepherd when the lovers had to part. The tours also included visits to the Antonio Borges Botanical Gardens and to a pineapple plantation. A taste of the sweet fruit, as well as the local pineapple liqueur were enjoyed.
By the end of day 2 in the Azores it was apparent that the weather had no intention of letting up. The high winds and swells were causing great problems as the mooring ropes of Saga Ruby were broken one by one. During the second afternoon I had called for a tug to hold the ship alongside the berth and reduce the load on the ropes. It was with a sense of relief that we departed Ponta Delgarda and headed south to the more pleasant climes of the Canaries.
Amsterdam, the Netherlands
December 14, 2009 - 11:07 am
Saga Ruby arrived off the locks at Ijmuiden at 0800. We were fortunate to have a clear lock, and were soon being lowered into the Noordzeekanaal. As we cleared the chamber I opened the bridge door to my passengers giving them an opportunity to witness the operation of navigating the canal and to meet myself and the harbour pilot.
By 1200 we were cruising past Amsterdam’s Central station, making fast a tug to the stern of Saga Ruby, and running our lines to the passenger terminal. The dockside was all rather new, the old wooden pilings and uneven dock area recently replaced. Smart airline style ‘jetways’ linking the ship to the glass terminal building.
This wasn’t our first call to Amsterdam and so I was safe in the knowledge that there would be no Mayor or TV to have to schmooze today. In my cabin I keep a tiny vase of Royal Delft china, it’s neck barely wide enough for a single narrow stem. I was presented it on a previous call to Amsterdam and I was told that it was a ‘Little Tearbottle’. The card accompanying the bottle reads:
‘It is said, that this little bottle owes its name and form to those far away days when the men were very often absent for a very long time and when saying goodbye, the women left behind wept bitterly. Because of the lack of photography or any other means of communication, it is explicable that people still wanted a souvenir from home and thus the little tearbottle was created. The bottleneck was placed in the corner of the eye and in this way the tears could be captured. A precious little token was carried on far away voyages.’
Amsterdam is one of Europe’s great cities where elegant canals and waterways wind their way through its heart. Much of the city’s charm dates from the 17th century with an abundance of attractive houses and narrow cobbled streets. There are canal-side bars and cafes, canal cruises, diamond workshops, and impressive art collections to occupy tourists.
In the evening we were entertained by a performance of traditional music and dance from The Netherlands. We stayed alongside overnight, an opportunity to not only visit Amsterdam but also take a trip to the picturesque villages of Marken and Volendam on day two.
December 13, 2009 - 11:05 am
After the grand departure of our pilot last night we sailed into the Dover Straits and east to Wandelaar at the end of the River Schelde. Passing Zeebrugge and Vlissingen (Flushing) we proceeded upstream for 8 hours before finally reaching the heart of Antwerp.
Antwerp is Europe’s second largest port and has a vibrant cosmopolitan city centre. It is known for diamonds and fashion as well as for the arts. My passengers had the chance to see Antwerp’s beautiful central market place and to enjoy its museums and galleries.
Many passengers took the short journey to Brussels, Belgium’s capital and home to the European Union. The vast Christmas market includes a huge Christmas tree, an ice skating rink, and a Ferris wheel. There’s plenty to eat and drink too from the many stalls and cafes serving mulled wine and waffles.
Aboard ship we were visited by the local Mayor and port and civic dignitaries of Antwerp. We exchanged plaques and once more I was interviewed for the local TV and radio. It seems that there aren’t many cruise ships around in these waters at the moment and the ports are keen to publicise our arrival.
We departed at 5:30pm. Any later and we would have to wait for the next tide. Using a short cut close to the beach at Vlissingen we were clear of the pilotage area and back to sea by 1am. I looked forward to a rare night in bed as we weren’t due to arrive at our next port of call Amsterdam until breakfast time.
December 12, 2009 - 11:04 am
It was a cold and dark start to my day as Saga Ruby transited the lock system and entered the port of Dunkirk in northern France. In the summer it is a popular seaside resort with miles of sandy beaches, fascinating museums, tempting shops, and restaurants. It was also the scene of the Second World War’s greatest evacuation, when 338,000 troops were rescued by a flotilla of vessels in Operation Dynamo. Today, out of season, my passengers came to visit the Christmas markets of Lille and Dunkirk.
When the sun eventually arose it revealed a nice day, albeit a wintry one. My passengers joined tours to Dunkirk’s military museum and memorials, to the market at Lille, and to the UNESCO world heritage site of medieval Bruges.
A long night on the bridge meant that it was my turn to sleep and it wasn’t until the early afternoon that I surfaced. At 4p.m. we were visited by the local dignitaries for a plaque exchange ceremony. The mayor and deputy mayor together with a host of others from the port and tourist bureau, as well as press and TV, all came aboard to welcome us on our first visit to Dunkirk. Shortly afterwards I was taken to the Christmas market in the centre of Dunkirk and, together with the Mayor, switched on the Christmas lights.
Later I was guided around the market before a private trip to the top of the Belfry tower. At 58 metres it afforded a wonderful view of the town centre that was lit by the lights that I’d switched on. I stood next to the bells as they sounded 7p.m. and chimed ‘jingle bells’ (what else?) with my fingers in my ears before heading back home to Saga Ruby.
We sailed at 8pm with another long night ahead of me en route to Antwerp. By the time we had cleared the locks my passengers had finished dinner and baritone Anthony Steward Lloyd was entertaining in the Ballroom. My passengers were too preoccupied to notice that our harbour pilot didn’t leave using a conventional pilot cutter, instead a helicopter hovered overhead and winched him directly from the bridge-wing.