Since our departure from Southampton on the 29th we have been extremely fortunate with the weather, some overcast and rainy conditions for a while, but only to be expected on our journey deep into the Atlantic. The low pressure systems and big swells stayed well to the north, the sky cleared on our final sea day and as we approached the island there must have been a million stars visible in the sky. The sun rose for our arrival alongside in Vitoria, the charming sheltered port on the east side of Terceira, and it was positively warm as I stood on the quayside greeting those passengers eagerly off on their tours.
That part of the island visible across the bay had, in the main, a very rural appearance, rich green fields rising into high ground to the north west where the ubiquitous wind turbines could be seen dominating the skyline. The town with its historic church lay nestled in the low hills further to the north while closer to the port a certain amount of light industry was evident by the odd trail of smoke or minor activity. This is not, I believe, a place where the inhabitants feel the need to rush around too much, and it was a Sunday.
Tours around the island and to the island's capital, Angra do Heroismo, were blessed with good weather. Angra in particular is one of my favourite little towns, characteristically Portuguese and with wonderful views to the south. In times gone by it was the safe anchorage where sailing vessels would come to supply and victual, so it has some splendid architecture which reflects its importance on the Atlantic trading route. The ‘Duke’s Garden’ looks down over tiled roof tops towards the centre of town and the 16th century church of Se, which is also known as the Mother Church of the Azores.
We departed in the afternoon, by which time the north westerly wind was becoming just a little gusty. As we departed the harbour there was an exchange of whistles, a departing gesture of friendship. We turned to the south west on our voyage across the ocean, the next landfall will not be for five days. The Windward Islands beckon.
Our journey towards the Caribbean is almost over, we have been blessed with good weather and comfortable seas. Our first day after the Azores had blue sky and plenty of sunshine, the north westerly wind died away and the barograph rose. High pressure dominated for a while and the sea became almost oily, not a breath of air except that created by the ship’s forward movement. A long low swell coming from the south east resulted in a gentle rolling motion and then, by the second day, the south east trades began to dominate.
Small puffy white cumulus clouds above and some higher clouds in the far distance were just enough to hide the perfect sunsets. The sea temperature rose to 27 degrees, the air was even hotter, but the breeze was enough to cool those who wanted to maximise their tans before the islands. Inside the ship there was plenty of entertainment of one sort or another, the jazz theme meant there were regular concerts, and beside the ‘sit and be fit’ (a very popular and noisy pastime quite audible above my office desk), my wife told me that she believed the ‘jewellery making class’ was always in demand. (I am slightly less cash rich, but I have apparently ‘saved’ a great deal)
On our final day before landfall we held a remembrance service as there will be little time to do so once we start the ‘real business’. It was a dignified and somewhat moving occasion. In the evening the major scheduled entertainment was a Grand Caribbean Welcome Ball, a busy affair held in the Britannia Lounge where the officers and staff started the event by a presentation dance, of sorts. Hardly ‘Strictly’, but probably as equally entertaining.
There is great anticipation for the next eleven days of island hopping.
The morning of our landfall in Antigua arrived in a manner somewhat unexpected, at least to our eager passengers. Strong winds and torrential rain came over as we passed around the north of the island. Fortunately the wind abated as we approached the pilot boarding position, but the heavy showers kept on falling out of a leaden sky. Hardly appropriate, and it is not always easy to concentrate on docking the ship with water running off the end of one’s nose. We did, however, manage to berth 90 minutes earlier than scheduled.
The rain eased during the morning, but it remained rather drizzly for most of the day. The only folks I found who were totally unperturbed were the ones who went off on the ‘Swimming with stingrays’ tour, hardly surprising. Everyone else made the best of things, going ashore in an odd variety of rain protection, some of which looked pretty close to being just an oversize plastic bag. Darkness had fallen by the time we came to depart and the town of St. John, literally a hundred yards in front of us, started to look a little more Caribbean as we backed off the berth, swung around and headed west one again.
One hundred and seventy miles later and the vessel entered the Sir Francis Drake Channel, the relatively sheltered water that is within the territory of the British Virgin Islands. It is in places quite shallow and the navigation must be precise, but the weather was now good with just a light breeze as we backed down to the anchorage of Road Town. The only cruise ship pier is being enlarged for the new ‘mega’ ships so our passengers had to tender ashore, not a particularly long ride, but the south east Trade wind started to pick up soon after breakfast resulting in the operation taking a little longer than we would have hoped. It was a little choppy by the pontoon and safety necessitated careful boarding.
The passengers were on good form though, glad to see the sunshine, and everyone I met after their return had had a fine time. Not surprising really as the views from some of the higher roads are quite spectacular, taking in all the many islands of the territory. The steep and twisting roads pass through villages with names like Long Trench and Fahie Hill, drop down to Carrot Bay, Pussers Landing and the beautiful Cane Garden Bay, one of the most delightful beaches in the Caribbean.
We left in the evening, which gave a chance for the passengers who were still resting when we arrived to watch our progress back across the channel, past the outer islands as we headed south east into the Trades, catching a Caribbean sunset.
The morning came after a steady night at sea; Guadeloupe was way over to port and ahead, almost out of sight, were the high mountains of Dominica partly shrouded by a covering of fair weather cumulus. As we closed the land, it became obvious as to why it is known as the ‘Nature island of the Caribbean’, it still has an intense unspoilt beauty with dense rain forest covering much of the towering slopes.
We berthed so close to the main street of Roseau it was almost possible to read the number plates of the taxis waiting to take our folks off on tour. My wife and I however, took a relatively short journey of our own, through the busy narrow streets of the capital, full of school children who had just finished their lessons, and up along a twisting road climbing much higher towards the renown Trafalgar Falls. We stopped a little before though, at the Papillote Wilderness Retreat, a rather different little hotel set in its own tropical gardens and, one could say, far enough off the beaten track to make it rather special.
We sat in the small restaurant taking a light bite of Dachine Puffs washed down by a local Kubuli, looking out to the lush forest that seemed to cling precariously to the vertical sides of the surrounding mountain. Localised heavy rain showers passed over from time to time, and as they passed us the patio nearby was soon starting to steam. The sun reflected off the still falling water as it continued on its journey. Just outside could be seen the tops of the tropical garden which fell away amongst natural hot pools into the valley below. An Alsatian dog came up the steps and waited outside, not entering, and soon there followed an older lady holding a small pair of secateurs, who smiled and said ‘Hello’. She was Anne, the owner of the dog and the hotel, who was happy to tell me she had been in Dominica for fifty years, but had been brought up in New York. She had married a local man, fell in love also with the country and started what obviously became her life time’s work, and her legacy. It wasn’t difficult to imagine why she has stayed for so long.
The approach into the sheltered harbour of Castries is a little narrow, but very scenic so a passing rain shower was not a welcome sight as I arrived on the bridge. It soon past of course and the ship was put alongside the down town dock. Within minutes there was feverish activity as crew started to hand carry an enormous amount of equipment and food ashore. Today was going to be a ‘Magic Moment’.
The passengers had been informed just a few days before that Saga had secured a private beach on Pigeon Island for the day, where a barbecue would be set up and anyone who wanted could have a very special day out at no extra cost. Needless to say we had plenty of takers. Three large catamarans were chartered along with numerous mini buses to ferry probably over four hundred folks the six miles along the coastline to Rodney Bay. A huge amount of organisation had gone into preparing this special event and I am happy to report it went off in spectacular fashion. By eleven o’clock everyone had arrived, the barbecue was in full ‘smoke’, marquees had been placed, table and chairs on the lawn, loungers on the beach or in the shade and well over fifty ships staff to cater for the passengers every need.
The ‘clowns and smiles’ department had the leisure activities in hand, meanwhile there was ‘Snuba’ and ‘Sea trek underwater adventure’ available for those of sterner stuff. A steel band added the right degree of Caribbean ‘atmosphere’ and I even had the chance to pass a cheque to Dunnottar School, a local school for handicapped children that Saga’s charitable function has supported since Saga opened the Bel Jou hotel in Castries ten years ago.
Since we returned, passengers have not stopped coming up to me and saying that it was a magical day, great organisation and a dedicated crew who worked as a team to look after them. Praise indeed.
‘Max No Tax’ was our taxi driver when we took a few hours off later in the morning after arrival in St. George’s. Max was the complete character his ‘business’ card’ implied. A Caribbean character that certainly made us smile, and was right on time for our pick up at a quieter beach a little further around the coast.
Grenada has certainly become more popular since the international airport was built in the early 80’s. Large cruise ships could only anchor before the new pier was built and smaller vessels used to have to enter the very pretty Carenage. Here there was much Caribbean ‘colour’, local ladies selling spices who set up their stalls outside the dock gate, and a stroll around the water front would take you past local ferries and fishing boats. A ‘mall’ like structure at the head of the new pier now greets passengers, but I always tell folks to press on past this not so pretty introduction, turn right outside and walk through the slightly claustrophobic Victorian Sendal tunnel (an experience in itself, one way traffic but no footpath). The vista of the old harbour that awaits is well worth the effort, and there is always the added bonus of trying a Rum Punch at the Nutmeg bar upon arrival.
Passengers were able to get a great view of the sunset up on deck, and shortly after we left and headed into the deeper darkness, south towards the coast of Venezuela.
When we arrived at Bridgetown there was just one ‘slot’ left, so I was glad of light winds and a handy tug to nudge the stern onto ‘Sugar Berth’, so called because of the three sugar loaders at one end. They are still used on occasion during the season, but the growing of sugar cane is much diminished, in fact molasses is actually imported to feed the rum manufacturing industry and there was a small discharging tanker berthed just astern.
We joined a small group that was going to cross over the island and visit Hunte’s Gardens in the parish of St. Joseph. Upon arrival we met with the owner, Anthony Hunte, who is described as being a ‘legendary horticulturist with an unusual flair’. He is indeed quite a character, and one who made us feel most welcome as we descended into what was once a sink hole which apparently was being used as a dump when he acquired the site some years ago. Fortunately there were a number of magnificent tall palms already reaching up towards the sky, but what he has done is quite remarkable. Native plants plus tropical plants from around the world grown from seed have been set into the limestone ledges, small banks or large pots seemingly casually placed. The rich green leaves are accompanied by numerous and varied flowering species that give glimpses of colour almost wherever one cares to look. A large bull frog peered at us over the edge of a large iron urn that had been turned into a small lily filled pond.
After ascending we were invited into his equally characterful house where he continued to chat while serving homemade rum punch or lemonade. He came down with us back to the bus, shook everyone by the hand and waved as we drove off down the road to Bathsheba.
Back on board preparations were being made for a local steel band and a deck party, the rain God, however, had other plans and there was a short but tremendous down pour just after sunset. Everything was switched to inside, but then it just about stayed dry all the way through to departure time. We sailed late, heading west into a starry darkness, and by midnight the lights of Barbados were just a glimmer astern.
The next day turned out to be rather different, in more ways than one. We had been advised a few weeks before that another larger vessel would be on our berth in Kingstown, but we could take the inside of the pier or anchor, whichever we liked. The former was not an option as the depth alongside shoaled dramatically and if I had berthed further aft our gangway would have been floating in mid-air.
Both ships had an ETA of the same time, and the advice we received was the pilot would take the other vessel first. ‘No problem’ I said (a very acceptable Caribbean phrase) and carried on to the anchorage with the pilot ladder rigged, but by the time we had anchored he had still not arrived. He did come out with the officials though, but just so that I could sign his chit. Very civil I thought. The Harbour Master, on the other hand, seemed somewhat nonplussed by my questions regarding the loss of a berth booked over a year ago, the answers as anticipated were not forthcoming.
Fortunately conditions were fine for tendering, a calm sea and a short distance for the boats to run to the passenger terminal. Heavy showers came and went, but there were enough shops to keep most folk dry while they waited. Like many of the other islands, the real beauty lies in its countryside and those who just took the shuttle bus into town were not, so I heard, particularly impressed. By far the most successful trip was the catamaran cruise over to Bequia, a much smaller island a little way to the south, where time seems to have not quite caught up with the 21st century. Great comments from those who participated.
We sailed, without a pilot, just as the sun was passing beneath the horizon, another beautiful Caribbean evening.
To all intents and purposes we were back in Europe, the currency was even the Euro, but of course physically we were not. Martinique is a Department of France, and the locals speak French, but that is really the only similarity. The temperature was still 28 degrees at seven in the morning when the pilot sprang on board, a lady of diminutive stature and looking about the same age as my junior watch keeper, with a radio casually slipped onto her belt. I handed over the con to her and she confidently took the ship through the channels towards the berth where I took over again to put the ship alongside. During the process she told me that she had been a pilot for four months, and that her name was Veronique, a native of the other French island, Guadeloupe.
It was a fine day to start with, but some beefy showers kept coming down through the mountains to give anyone outside a good soaking. Our intention was to take a walk the fifteen minutes or so to the small yacht harbour and walk along the esplanade. We managed the duty free shop on the quayside which we stepped into for shelter, but didn’t make it any further. Those who went on the snorkelling tour were of course unaffected, and those on other tours enjoyed the scenic countryside.
Veronique returned for our departure, no doubt causing a slight stir with the passengers looking down from the deck.
Guadeloupe, our penultimate Caribbean call, is another Department of France and so English is not widely spoken, however our guide to the Floral Park and Severin rum distillery was a charming young chap whose slow delivery made him relatively easy to understand. We had docked in Pointe-a-Pitre, just ahead of an unusual looking super yacht apparently owned by some Russian oligarch. Other tours also went off towards the mountainous Basse Terre region, including the ‘La Soufriere Summit Walk’, a serious hike to the top of the volcano.
We had considered this one, but the alternative tour to the park in the rain forest was great, not just for the plants and flowers on display in the well tended park, but for the drive through the beautiful rural scenery on the way. The old fashioned sugar mill, still maintained in working order, was very traditional, complete with a great water wheel. Our fellow guests were suitably impressed with the variety of drinks that were on sale in the shop and, by my observations at least, the rum tasting that preceded their purchases.
On our departure a crew member of the super yacht stepped out, presumably to observe in case we were getting too close. I presume there was not much he could have done about it even if we did, but you never know what other ‘toys’ they might have inside those secret hulls.
After ten Caribbean ports, we came to our last call before returning across the Atlantic, Basseterre, capital of St. Kitts. The docking was the most challenging of them all, a strong trade wind blowing across the jetty, an unfavourable current and no tugs to assist. It was a competition against the elements, but teamwork prevailed and we were secure alongside in good time. Rather fortunate really because the new Chief Executive of Saga was due to disembark later in the day.
It developed into a hot and sunny day for the folks, but I did suggest they hang on to their hats upon leaving the ship. Those who went on the ‘sugar railway’ really had a great time. It is an old narrow gauge line which circumnavigated the island and was used to carry the harvested cane to the various mills near Basseterre. Just when it was about to be made redundant an entrepreneur had the idea to re-equip it with new passenger carriages and diesel engines so that it could be used as a new tourist experience for the ever increasing number of cruise vessels visiting the newly constructed pier. It is a great little train journey and passes around the coast, through the remaining cane fields, small villages and farms, much to the delight of watching school children and tourists on board. Needless to say rum punch is served and the Scenic Railway Choir gives renditions of local Caribbean songs.
When it came time for us to depart it was as though Saga Sapphire was eager to return across the Atlantic. The strong wind pushing against the side of the ship stretched the last lines until, once they were finally let go, drifted us quickly off the berth. The last Caribbean sunset came and went, and within an hour the lights were slowly fading off our starboard quarter.