Praia Da Vitoria, Azores
November 28, 2011 - 10:00 pm
After a very comfortable five days easing our way out of the tropics, we made landfall off the southeastern tip of Pico, one of the nine islands of the Azores. Clouds covered the top of Sao Jorge, which we passed an hour later, but were not low enough to hide two magnificent waterfalls visible tumbling right into the sea from the top of the cliff hundreds of feet above.
By this time we had a reasonable following southwesterly wind, but I anticipated some degree of shelter once inside the port of Praia Da Vitoria, on the eastern coast of Terceira. Not so, in fact despite the pilot’s protestations, the wind increased, which made docking in the late morning just a little more interesting than normal. Even the metal barriers placed on the quayside were blowing over.
Fortunately it remained dry, at least for the first few hours, which allowed the tours to depart and the first of the shuttle bus passengers to venture into the small town just a mile or so away. My wife and I took the ride and she, at least, was delighted in the various shops that were open, particularly those that carried ladies apparel at very reasonable prices. Apparently I have saved money.
Regrettably the wind increased, the cloud lowered and showers set in, so there was a dignified rush to return. By five in the evening the wind was gusting up to 40 knots from the west and I envisaged an extended stay. By the time the pilot returned just before six, it was still not very encouraging, neither was his expression. In fact, with the aid of a tug, some rather ‘direct’ Portuguese over the radio (which I could only guess the meaning of) we managed to back off the quayside and into the turning area. He departed as we passed the breakwater, no doubt somewhat relived, as he waved enthusiastically as he reached the safety of his pilot boat.
We now have three probable turbulent days of the Atlantic to navigate before we once again return to Southampton. After four years, my final return on this grand old lady. All things being equal I am destined for the ‘Saga Pearl 2’ in January, at least for the beginning of next year.
Philipsburg, St. Maarten
November 22, 2011 - 10:00 pm
By the time we had arrived, two monsters were already parked and as we were only having a half-day call, our berth was behind the ‘Disney Magic’. The port of St.Maarten has grown considerably since the days I was cruising there with Cunard when there was only one small pier. That pier was destroyed in a hurricane and now they have two very long piers that can take up to six of the so called mega liners, which means that there could be in excess of 20,000 cruise passengers making their way ashore in one day.
Two more arrived after us, blocking our view of the waterfront completely and as my wife and I walked ashore the human traffic was getting heavy, surely not everyone’s idea of an idyllic Caribbean retreat. Even so, the main street was not all that busy, and Philipsburg is one of the favourite destination of the crew. It is probably one of the cheapest places to buy cameras, computer equipment, jewellery, etc, but it is important to do a little bartering with the shopkeepers to ensure the best deal.
The beachfront is now lined with cafes and bars on one side of the street and an impressive amount of sand on the other, no doubt brought ashore after the dredging that must have taken place for the harbour expansion. Loungers and parasols lined the beach and bar waiters were crossing the road with buckets of beer, while a few local ladies who had been selling hats and other tourist trivia, rapidly darted into the back streets when a police car came patrolling.
Our folks, who mainly went on tour, seemed to enjoy their final Caribbean call, despite the crowd, and stood on deck as we prepared to sail, shaking their heads and saying such things as, ‘Not for me’, ‘Far to big’ and ‘Are they safe?’ as they looked over at the other maritime real-estate.
We backed out just about on time, having had to wait for one last passenger who couldn’t quite make the 400-yard walk past ‘Goofy’ and was eventually collected in a golf cart. Within an hour the Caribbean islands were becoming just a thin line on the horizon astern. 2,271 nautical miles to go before our next landfall. For sure it will be just a tad cooler.
November 21, 2011 - 10:00 pm
Having sailed into nine ports already on this Caribbean itinerary, all English speaking, our tenth was very different. Guadeloupe is unashamedly French and our pilot had that delightful ‘Ello Ello’ accent along with a somewhat relaxed manner, which didn’t really change even as we gave five short blasts to a small cargo ship whose skipper seemed intent in reliving the sugar wars of the late 18th century. I eventually took back the control when I decided the pilot had had enough of attempting a destroyer type entrance into the port where Saga Ruby had not called before.
Having only been to Pointe-a-Pitre once or twice before, I opted to take the tour up to the rain forest and the spectacular Carbet Falls. The journey on an almost air conditioned bus took an hour, and gave us a good insight as to how the European Union have subsidised a great deal of new infrastructure. In fact our guide mentioned that the island now has the fastest roads in the Caribbean, and the most dangerous. He also said that they fortunately have the best hospitals.
The forest walk was relatively easy and led, through really humid tropical vegetation, to a lookout not too far from the base of the 361-foot falls. We stayed an hour and then returned via the Longueteau Distillery where numerous different flavoured rums could be tasted, and of course bought. Apparently over 70,000 tonnes of sugar cane is harvested annually to feed the local rum producing industry.
We sailed in the late afternoon, our departure pilot still very French, but not quite so ‘laddish’. As we departed a group of local officials, who had come on board to exchange pleasantries on our maiden call, waved enthusiastically from the quayside.
Castries, St. Lucia
November 20, 2011 - 10:00 pm
The track into the sheltered harbour of Castries, apart from leading us directly into the blinding sun reflecting from the Caribbean, took us past the runway of the local airport. Apparently the harbour pilot was supposed to liase with the control tower, which if he did, it was particularly fine tuning, as a Dash 8 crossed low above our wake less than a minute after we had passed. Nice chap though, he recognised me from my many previous visits and, with a big warm smile, gave me an, ‘Ah, Captain Rentell, good morning’, when he stepped onto the bridge.
Our very own Saga hotel, the Bel Jou, has a magnificent view over the harbour and there was quite a hive of activity during the day as their guests and many of our passengers ‘swapped’ venues for a few hours. My wife and I spent a few hours up there in the early afternoon, arriving in time to listen to a charming choir of young children from the local Dunnottar School, one of the many recipients of the Saga Charitable Trust. The children beamed with pleasure at the applause they received and later had their photo taken with Terry Waite. This gentle giant of a man, presently lecturing on board, looked down upon them all like a proud father, smiling at their obvious enjoyment. Down in the town some very loud local music started up, apparently as a precursor to some serious political rallying for the elections due very soon. The invasive sounds however, were just about eliminated when baritone Anthony Stuart Lloyd, another of shipboard acts, began to project his marvellous voice over the assembled guests.
It was a very successful day. I believe we have some potential cruisers, and others from on board who may decide to take a longer holiday on this wonderful island.
As twilight came and convoys of enthusiastic members were still driving around the town, promoting their party line over echoing speakers, we moved off the berth and made our way back past the airport. Another LIAT Dash 8 came in to land shortly after.
November 19, 2011 - 10:00 pm
After a beautiful evening alongside in St. Vincent we sailed at relatively slow speed almost due east over to Bridgetown, following in the rather elegant five-masted ‘Royal Clipper’. Several other cruise ships were alongside including a rather large member of the British ‘opposition’ immediately in front of our designated berth. From the bridge windows we could look directly into rows of balconies stacked up on its stern. I’m afraid it looked a little to ‘sheep-pennish’ for my liking.
Although there wasn’t a cloud in the sky at first light, it wasn’t long before the sky was looking decidedly grey up wind, and the day was then actually punctuated with some fairly hefty showers, bringing a welcome coolness, but also a good soaking for those who could not find shelter. It’s known as liquid sunshine in this part of the world of course. The tours were apparently unaffected and when I returned from a few hours in town, most of the folk were back out on deck or enjoying afternoon tea in the cool of the Ballroom.
I was very tempted to give a solid three long blasts as we departed, but as our whistle can be heard from at least two miles, I realised that those relaxing in their stern facing ‘staterooms’ in front of our bow may have levitated several feet and therefore ended up with some degree of ‘bad feeling’ against Saga, not ideal if we are trying to promote our particular style of cruising.
November 18, 2011 - 10:00 pm
The cruise ship pier at Kingstown is situated under a tall cliff that is completely covered in tropical greenery, and just a few hundred yards from the berth where the ageing ferries that run over to Bequia arrive and depart. Most of these have come from Norway many years ago and their Nordic names can, in some cases, still be seen under the shabby paintwork.
I invited the local emergency services to participate in our own drill, which was to simulate a fire in the engine room and evacuation of all crew and passengers on board. They were very enthusiastic and when I called for assistance a shiny red land rover plus a slightly less shiny 1950’s fire engine turned up on the quayside and ran out hoses. The deputy commissioner of police, senior fire officer and senior pilot came up to the bridge for a briefing. What I hadn’t realised was that they had stopped the traffic in the city and anyone, apart from a police team, from coming onto the quayside, which didn’t really impress some of our passengers who were waiting to return. I was told later than a certain degree of minor mayhem was going on in downtown Kingstown.
It was a very hot day, to hot for most of our passengers to sunbathe on deck, but it didn’t stop a group of our crew from taking the snorkelling tour, which also went via a ‘bat cave’ recorded on film in ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’. The evening bought a welcome coolness and we stayed until eleven, listening to the local ‘Rhythmex Steel Orchestra performing near the barbecue on the after deck. As we prepared to sail, the cicadas in the trees on the cliff were filling the air with their own unmistakeable sounds while across the water, where the lights were brightest, some disco music could be faintly heard. A truly typical Caribbean night.
Port of Spain, Trinidad
November 17, 2011 - 10:00 pm
I have not been to Port of Spain for quite a number of years and apparently there's been an injection of Chinese foreign aid into the country during my absence. A number of new buildings are prominent in the capital of Trinidad and they include a new shiny aluminium clad stadium and two tower blocks in the area where dockside sheds used to stand.
Down on the quayside there was a very warm welcome from a steel band, colourful dancers that included two chaps on stilts, plus another on a microphone. The speakers were so powerful that I should think the folks in Tobago knew we had arrived. The passengers went out through a clean and tidy cruise terminal to join their tours, passing a few shops on the way. Handicraft stalls had been set up outside, but apart from a few browsers, I was told by the friendly traders that business was a little slack.
A fuel barge came alongside to replenish our tanks. A large vehicle carrier berthed in front of us and started to unload a variety of new and old cars, as well as a few tracked earthmovers that immediately started to rip up the tarmac. Up above, the sky went very grey indeed, so I was expecting a tropical downpour. It never came, well not at least until the evening after we had departed.
We sailed in the early evening, into the Gulf of Paria and towards the gap that separates the northwestern neck of Trinidad from the mountains of Venezuela. As we turned the corner to re-enter the Caribbean, the rain fell with such intensity its returning radar echo filled our screens and the ship was given a very thorough fresh water wash. Within half an hour it had gone and we were back into another starlit night.
November 16, 2011 - 10:00 pm
I had not seen our docking pilot for many years. In fact I was very surprised to see him at all. Julian Rapier is a charming 84-year-old man, well over six feet tall. He is still apparently clambering up the ladder with the ease of a 20-year-old. It was such a pleasure to see him again.
St. George’s is a colourful busy town, and for me at least, one which epitomises the traditional Caribbean feel that is still relatively unchanged despite the advent of 21st century and the technology that has come with it.
The passengers went off on their tours in mini vans that were lined up outside the relatively modern passenger terminal.
My mission, however, was to take my wife up to a place I had found many years ago - Concord Falls. The drive out along the west coast soon took us out of town and through the rural villages of Grand Mal, Molinere and Happy Hill. After twenty minutes or so, we turned off at Concord and followed the single carriageway up the valley and carried on until we ran out of road.
With relatively few tourists finding this place it is rather special. It’s a dollar to use the rather basic facilities and it steps down to an idyllic rock pool that lies under a forty foot cascade. A great place for a cooling swim and, for the less feint hearted, a twelve-foot plummet off a sheer sided rock face into unknown depths.
After our swim we sat above on plastic chairs and drank a cold Carib in a typical tiny Caribbean diy built café, where the rickety roof was supported by reclaimed garishly painted timber. For the hour or so we were there no-one else came. Our only company was a few laid back locals up by the road ready to try and sell us a few hand made trinkets before we proceeded back down to reality.
We didn’t sail until 11. In the relative cool of the evening, a local steel band played on the after deck as the chefs at the deck barbecue cooked tuna fresh from the sea.
November 15, 2011 - 10:00 pm
After a comfortable night of cruising we docked at the Woodbridge Bay Wharf close by the busy town of Roseau. The local council had taken this day to relay the road surface just outside the dock gate - traffic could be seen building well before eight o’clock.
Fortunately our departure was not affected, as no soon as we were on the main road, our driver took a turning off into the hills.
To celebrate a significant event, my wife and I went (by recommendation) to a charming place called Papillote near the Trafalgar Falls, high up in the Roseau Valley.
A lovely lady called Evelyn met us and made us feel most welcome. Marcel, the knowledgeable gardener, then took us around just part of the 14-acre tropical garden set around a forested valley. The garden had two waterfalls and a number of hot springs. Three bathing pools had been built at different levels, and the waters were apparently supposed to have therapeutic effects. Guest accommodations were built among the trees.
Small platforms here and there meant there were places to sit, relax and just listen to the noises of the tropical forest. There were plenty of plants in flower. One particular tree had numerous fine pink blooms where hundreds of chirping birds were flying in and out of the foliage. The ground below was covered in a carpet of colour.
We stayed a few hours, probably not long enough to gain the full benefit from the hot pools, but long enough to enjoy this charming Caribbean retreat.
On returning back into town we became caught up in the traffic chaos and decided to walk the last hundred yards. A few hours later, things were no better and the afternoon tour made equally slow progress. Eventually they made it and we sailed off into the sunset leaving the lights and traffic behind.
November 14, 2011 - 10:00 pm
Port Zante was built in 90s as an impressive new gateway to Basseterre - the capital of St.Kitts.
Fortunately the traditional atmosphere of the island has not been lost by sweeping modernism. When you walk outside the confines of the port’s shopping complex, you’re right back into the Caribbean experience. There are narrow pot holed roads, a mix of old tired looking wooden houses and younger, but equally tired not quite finished concrete ones, as well as tropical vegetation clambering around everything that stands still too long.
In fact St. Kitts is a busy place and quite a financial centre for the eastern Caribbean countries. There have also been a number of different foreign donors that have invested in St. Kitts.
One such foreign entrepreneur saw a commercial possibility with the old sugar railway that ran around the island, just as the trade itself was dying. We took a journey with the St. Kitts Scenic Railway, on a train comprising of five specially built carriages pulled by an Ex-Romanian diesel locomotive. It was a rock and roll ride, but an absolute joy taking in the great views over the ocean on one side and lush mountain scenery on the other.
With the trade wind blowing through the open upper deck we looked down on life as the train slowly passed by.
We saw a village school with the children playing outside, a smiling waving lady leaning out of her back door and resting quarry workers by the side of the track. On the train a commentary continued in wonderful Carib dialect, while each carriage had a lady serving the usual mix of cool drinks as a trio moved through the train singing harmony Caribbean songs.
It was a two-hour journey. The passengers loved riding along the rickety old track, over bridges spanning deep gulleys and seeing sights the average tourist would never see. What a great way to enjoy an island.
Road Town, Tortola
November 13, 2011 - 10:00 pm
Andy, the harbour pilot for Road Town is Cornish, but has lived on the island as long as I’ve been going there and he gives the impression that he’s probably never going to go back. And not surprising perhaps, as life on the island must be about as relaxed as its going to be anywhere. He came on board, we had a friendly chat as I docked the ship and that was him finished until it was time for us to leave.
The folks went off on their various tours, the off duty crew took a van over to Cane Garden Bay, probably one of the loveliest beaches in the Caribbean, and we tagged onto a 4-wheel drive experience in an ageing Land Rover decorated in faded ‘safari stripes’. In fact we kept meeting other tours coming in the opposite direction in regular vehicles. The views were fantastic; from a thousand feet up we could see many of the 50 or so isles, islets and cays that make up the British Virgin Island group. Eventually we made our way down the other side and ended up at Long Bay, close to the small airport, where we stayed for well over an hour, walking along the sand and watching a few of the locals who had taken their Sunday to go swimming and relaxing with friends by the water side.
Coming back we did bump our way along tracks that were gradually being surfaced with concrete, but apparently progress is slow, and the Cornish work drekly would probably give the impression of haste compared to the island equivalent. If there was some grand plan it had obviously been ‘adjusted’ over the years. There is wealth on the island though, as we could see some fairly expensive properties perched on the hillsides and, on some of the outer islands, the odd exclusive resort along with numerous sailing yachts moored up in a crowded marina.
Our driver brought us back to sea level, a little shaken, but not stirred. The sun disappeared in golden glow over the western hills and Andy popped back for a short while, dropping down into his boat once we had cleared the pier and before the last of the twilight. Within half an hour we had passed though the outer islands. In the near total darkness all that could be seen of them was a ghostly shadow.
St. John’s, Antigua
November 12, 2011 - 10:00 pm
The sea and swell were still running when we left Ponta Delgada, but over the days the conditions gradually became far more favourable and the folk started to develop their own ‘sea day’ routines. The sea temperature gradually rose to 29 degrees, the sun remained a little elusive for a few days, but eventually emerged to ensure those that were determined to collect a Caribbean tan had a ‘base coat’ before our first landfall.
The trade wind was blowing easily as we made our approach on a picture perfect morning. The two pilots boarded and were quite happy to stay in the background as we slowly made our way to the pier that is literally downtown, so much so that the headlines were eventually secured to a bollard that was cemented into the wall next to a casino. Blue skies and puffy white clouds, the odd pelican staggering across overhead until plummeting into the blue waters after some elusive meal and shabby looking local craft that could have actually been waterlogged laying half submerged in the shallows.
We took a ride with Bernard and his van to Turner’s beach, and spent a very pleasant few hours dipping into the Caribbean from time to time and trying to stay within the shadow of a tired looking sun shade. Even with a thorough application of factor 258, it was just about impossible to avoid looking like the brand new visitor from northern Europe at the end of the day. We returned back through a very bustling St. John’s, where the market area was heaving with local folk seemingly competing with traffic that was trying to negotiate around the numerous small stalls that had encroached onto the road. Nothing seems to change too much in this part of the world, which, for a traveller like myself at least, just adds to the charm.
We backed off the berth, turned through 180 degrees and slowly headed west, out through the shallow waters and off towards the enveloping darkness, illuminated only by the myriad of stars and, over on our port bow, Venus, looking like an aircraft landing light heading straight towards us.
Ponta Delgada, Azores (November 5 and 6)
November 5, 2011 - 10:00 pm
After a very busy turnaround in Southampton on November 1, we headed back out into the western approaches on a journey towards the Caribbean on Saga’s Diamond Anniversary Cruise.
We were not to enjoy the best of weather, and the seas were somewhat challenging at times. However we arrived in Ponta Delgada, on the Azorean Island of Sao Miguel, just over an hour behind schedule.
In fact this was of no concern as I opted to stay overnight and allow some important technical work to be carried out in the calm waters of the port.
I had first visited this port in 1973 on the Union Castle Ship ‘Reina Del Mar’. It is very different these days. It’s got a dedicated cruise terminal very close to the town centre which makes an easy walk for the folk who wanted to quickly regain their land legs.
We were most fortunate on the second day to have a three-hour drive around the island with a local taxi driver who had spent many years in the United States. His American-English accent was very pronounced, as was his grammar, which somehow seemed very incongruous on this very green Mid-Atlantic island. Despite his long absence, when the majority of his family had emigrated in search of a better life, he had returned often and eventually made the choice. ‘There is no stress here’, he said - unlike his daily grind back in Massachusetts. Even so, the islanders are very much affected by the European political situation.
Despite the fairly low cloud, the scenery we saw reminded us of some parts of the west country. Although the white painted houses and churches are all built from the local black volcanic stone, they are unmistakably Portuguese. We sailed shortly after the work had been completed, adding another complimentary cocktail party to ensure all were in the right spirit for our five-day journey towards the West Indies.