Thursday, 25 May 2017

Cruising – Days 243 to 254

A daily diary of our cruise across the Atlantic, continued from last entry. Days 6 to 16
Day 6 – 15th May
Antigua harbour from the ship
It’s not very far from Saint Maarten to Antigua, 164km, so after waking at around 07:00am and peeking through the curtains we could already see the hills of Antigua as we entered the narrow harbour. It would be another hour before the ship had docked and we could get off onto the island and we had until 17:30 before we needed to be back so no need to rush and we took our time over breakfast.

A photo of a photo. English harbour & Nelsons Dockyard, Antigua
Antigua was a British colony, still with the Queen as head of state, her head appearing on the bank notes, cars driving on the left, English as the official language (British English as opposed to American English) and even a couple of red telephone boxes and post boxes surviving, how refreshing!

We liked it, but it was hot, though there was a sea breeze making it just about bearable and the laid back Afro-Caribbean people were a delight, always friendly and we felt absolutely safe, with never a thought that we were going to be ripped off or have our pockets picked.

Nelsons Dockyard from our vantage point. The narrow entrance is in the distance to the right
We took the public bus from the station by the market to Nelsons Dockyard and English Harbour on the other side of the island. Number 17 they had told us in the tourist information office on the dock and the driver told us $2 each and we could pay in US dollars. The $2 was Antiguan dollars and there are just over two to the US dollar so I got a 5 Antiguan dollar note with a lovely picture of the Queen on and two silver coins making half a dollar as change from the US$5 note I gave him, worth about US$2 or £1.60. Most people who got on the bus would say a general ‘good morning everyone’ and the bus driver would wave and acknowledge people on the way, just like in the ‘Postman Pat’ children’s TV show.

The old capstan yard where ships were tipped over for maintenance
The houses in the towns on the way were mainly built in wood in various colours and in states of repair, but there were also larger houses of wealthier people scattered about along with churches (even a bright pink one) and community buildings.

English harbour is an almost landlocked body of water with a single narrow entrance surrounded by high hills and is a natural hurricane shelter, recognised as such in 1671 when three vessels in the harbour survived a storm while ships in every other harbour sank. It was developed as dockyard and refit area in 1745 to allow the British Navy to keep a squadron of ships permanently in the Caribbean to protect the sugar trade and Admiral Nelson himself was stationed here from 1784 to 1787.

Clarence House is on the hill. Apparently Prince Harry was there last year
On the old fortifications at English Harbour looking out to sea
It officially closed as a naval dockyard in 1889 after the decline of the sugar trade and fell into disrepair, but it has since been restored with some of the buildings now hotels, restaurants, tourist shops and museums and is still used today as a safe harbour, boat repair centre, yacht centre, yacht show and trans-Atlantic yacht racing, so it has an upmarket feel about it. It’s US$8 each to get in and that includes a guided tour, as much time afterwards as you want with a couple of walks over the hills to do, plus entrance to the Shirley Heights viewpoint and to another museum, both of which we couldn’t do as they were on the other side of the harbour and would have involved a long and expensive taxi ride to get there. We spent a good three hours there and really enjoyed it.

Odd seeing these in the Caribbean
Old building typical of St Johns, Antigua
Waited ten minutes or so for a bus back, this one being air conditioned and then went for a walk around the main town of St Johns, which was only vaguely interesting. The cathedral was closed for renovation, we decided not to visit the museum, walked through the heritage dockyard and back on the ship for lunch and an afternoon lazing by the pool drinking cocktails. More cocktails early evening as we watched the tight manoeuvrings of the ship getting out of the harbour from the 360° bar on 14th floor (very tight and very impressive to watch), followed by wine with dinner and a Frank Sinatra tribute show afterwards and we couldn’t quite decide if it was the ships movement or the alcohol that prevented us walking in a straight line back to our cabin at midnight!
Leaving Antigua at dusk, the last time we will see land for seven days!

Day 7 – 16th May 
(position @ 09:50: 18° 27.199’ N 058° 29.630’W –2621 Nautical miles to Madeira. Speed: 31km/hr. Clocks forward 1 hour today – third time, first hour for Panama, second hour between Cartagena and St Maarten)

Jackie with Carol
First of seven days at sea today. Slightly apprehensive on how it’s going to go not seeing land for so long and although it’s a large ship there is only so much space floating in the middle of nowhere. Will I get bored, will we get further than the Titanic? A few white horses on the ocean, enough for the boat to creak a little and noticeably pitch about, not enough for things to fall over, but enough for me to question whether I have a hangover or seasickness. Maybe a bit of both, got very hot, feeling a bit sick, headache, had to lie down. It passes, we go out for a coffee, decide to go to the Spanish language class, but it’s cancelled today as all the crew are on emergency evacuation training. They announced that passengers were not involved and to ignore the warning sirens, but it’s a bit off-putting to see all crew donning life jackets and heading out to the lifeboats (are they going to abandon us?).

The pool area and hot tubs - very busy when the sun was out
Outside it’s blue skies, very blue sea with little white wavelets and the odd flying fish and quite a strong warm wind, the two swimming pools and sun lounging areas are packed with people, loud music, pool bars, party games and dances (think we want to avoid that most of the time), The bars and public areas are quite full of people drinking, sitting chatting or just reading, no English books in the library, shops open and doing business and any amount of food and drink always available. It’s a strange life, quite unlike anything I’ve seen before, all contained in a little bubble in the middle of a big blue ocean – and it’s still pitching and rolling about, I’m not feeling 100%, hope I get used to it!

The central area of the ship
Afternoon sleep on the bed to try to overcome hangover/seasickness, Jackie upstairs in the bar reading and looking for whales (she didn’t see any). Evening meal, feeling much better followed by a film (eye in the sky)

Day 8 – 17th May 
(position @ 09:50: 20° 43.671’N 052° 07.271’W – 1872 Nautical miles to Madeira. Speed: 31km/hr)

Feeling much better today, was it sea sickness or a hangover? But sea much calmer today so I’m going for seasickness! Chats with a few people, Patrick, Victor, the young German, Phil on the cruise with his dad, gave him our ‘card’ with the blog and trusted housesitters code on for 20% discount as he was interested in our experiences and the Canadian couple who’ve just become grandparents for the fourth time whilst on the cruise. He suffers seasickness too and he offered me one of his pills after we exchanged stories last night whilst waiting to go in for dinner. I refused, but it was very nice of him to offer.

Jackie and Jimmy saving seats in the theatre for the evening show
Spent the morning studying Module 2 of the TEFL (teaching English as a Foreign Language) course we have enrolled for. I downloaded the whole module before we lost internet connection so we can study offline. It’s really interesting and taking a break to gaze at the bright blue ocean out to the horizon and the blue sky above is quite relaxing.

The long journey across the Atlantic with nothing in sight
Lunch in the buffet restaurant on level 4 with proper table cloths and napkins and waiters that serve wine and like to have a chat, just seems a bit more pleasant than the self-service café we normally go to for lunch on the 11th and 12th floor. However they didn’t have a roast meat carvery section which wasn’t good enough for Jackie so we went straight up to the 11th floor afterwards so she could have a freshly carved roast lamb slice which she put in a bread roll – I had nothing extra, but took a cup full of olives to have this evening with a pre-dinner cocktail in the 360° bar. Gym in the afternoon at 16:30 (saw Eric and Carol in there), did think about a swim, but movement of the ship was producing a large circular wave round both pools so gave it a miss. Pre-dinner G&T’s (ridiculously strong!) and olives in the 360° bar, joined by American lady and good chat as sun set. Dinner with wine and more wine, evening show with Jimmy and Jean. Think it’s going OK!

Day 9 – 18th May 
(position @ 10:20: 22° 55.941N 045° 51.011W – 1497 Nautical Miles to Madeira. Clocks forward 1 hour today)

Our fellow evening diners. Jimmy & Jean (L), Carol and Eric (R)
Cloudy grey day today with grey ocean but at least calm. Woke late (08:45) and needed coffee and half hour to feel human (must be the alcohol and hour change).

Highlight of the day was the muster drill at 11:00 involving all crew and passengers but, as it was raining we didn’t have to go outside to the proper muster station by the lifeboats but instead to the restaurants (ships obviously don’t sink in bad weather). Came out of our cabin to find someone had already put a notice outside our door saying that we had already evacuated (a bit worrying that no-one had even knocked the door or looked inside, what would have happened in a real emergency?). Got our names ticked off in the restaurant and sat while chaos prevailed, many people arriving late and sitting down without getting their names ticked off, others forming a big queue behind flustered staff. Not sure what would happen in a real emergency with people in a panic, but let’s hope it doesn’t occur!

Jean & Jimmy
Pool and swimming pools virtually deserted due to wet and windy weather, where have they all gone? No point in trying to get a drink after the muster drill as everyone else had the same idea so went upstairs to the 360° bar and read. Reading a very good book at the moment, which is fortunate as there is little else to do!

Carol and Eric
Starting to feel that it seems like we’re just marking time whilst crossing the vast expanse of the Atlantic, some people are throwing themselves into it, finding partners to play various card and board games, visiting the casino, but many others sitting around reading or chatting. For us, using it as a means of getting home is still infinitely better than flying, but I’m wondering why people would choose this as their main holiday as there’s not that much to do. There is nothing to see other than the same old ocean disappearing off to the horizon and the day is punctuated by meal times and drinks, dinner in the evening becomes a highlight and then a show in the theatre which range from average to poor (maybe reasonably good to below average) with the high spirited MC only talking and cracking jokes in Spanish.

Our Spanish diners, Andre and Natalie
Jackie is enjoying it and the relaxation is quite nice, but it’s starting to become a bit mind-numbing, getting back into real life might be difficult! We’re on a news blackout as the BBC World News and CNN TV channels don’t operate this far from land and, as we haven’t paid vast money for what we are told is an extremely slow satellite internet connection we have no idea what’s happening outside of our bubble. They say seven days is a long time in politics, well, it’s a long time on a boat without land visible too!

Day 10 – 19th May 
(position @ 10:25: 25° 02.669’ N 039° 44.646’W – 1123 Nautical miles to Madeira)

Jackie’s birthday!

We did see some nice sunsets (usually watched with a cocktail!)
He’s right, I’m loving it, perhaps not if it was the long awaited holiday of the year, but as a mode of transport, it’s great. We have a good little routine, whereby Oscar does our cabin while we are at breakfast, so once it’s done we can come and go as we please without feeling guilty about getting in his way as they do all work very hard, then they have hour long lifeboat drills just for crew, and then the all passenger drill that must have taken an hour and a half from his day, but still with the same amount of cabins to do. Then awkward people want the daily diary sheet, in English, and then they actually want one with the information for the day printed on the inside! Some people!

The climbing wall on board
I had been offered a birthday spa treatment, on closer inspection though it was $15 off a $50 spend, so not really a good deal. I did ask a guy on reception if I could change it for a free go on the wall, but sadly that was above his pay grade, plus he obviously thought I was mad! So standard morning, up to the 360 lounge, this does mean we are not having our three layer coffee of foam, coffee and condensed milk, but perhaps that’s a good thing. With scrabble, puzzles and books. B spent a long time talking to the ‘Canadian’ , Chuck, an ex army man from Alaska, but he seems to have decided everyone is from Canada, with me on one side doing puzzles and Mary, Chuck’s wife, on the other, doing puzzles, both chipping in when our husbands went blank!

Jackie getting ready to climb
We finally got our game of scrabble after lunch, but it wasn’t a high scoring game. A doze may have been better, as apparently we had to party for my birthday. Arrived at dinner to a very sweet postcard, bought in St Maarten from Jean and Jimmy. It’s Jimmy’s birthday on the 23rd, so we will have to find something in Madeira, followed by normal dinner and huge, chocolate birthday cake, organised by Brian. It was lovely, it was brought by a huge group of waiters who sang and then vanished, with no photographic evidence, so chocolate overdose completed, we were last out of the restaurant, again!

Off she goes - with ease!
Full works tonight, Beatles tribute (much better than the Frank Sinatra tribute) with dancers, found that the Spanish couple from our table had saved a balcony box for all of us, not the best view, but how sweet, as we have barely spoken, then 70’s/80’s disco where we couldn’t get near the dance floor but found our own patch of carpet behind the singers, so used it to full advantage, and through then next band too, before finally going to the disco. J&J called it a night before that, but had been strutting their stuff at full strength, not bad for a 78 year old who is in the gym every morning before breakfast. I lasted 10 minutes in the disco, but it was hideous, I had to go, shortly followed by Brian and Carol, leaving only the Spaniards….

Day 11 – 20th May 
(position@ 11:00: 27° 06.424’ N 033° 40.677’ W – 748 Nautical miles to Madeira, clocks forward one hour)

Woke up feeling remarkably good, but very tired. Only just made breakfast, so very quiet, though I am tempted by the climbing wall, it may be gym today and wall tomorrow.

So it was, gym followed by 15 minutes each side in the sun, sometime after 17.00 so I felt I could get away without sunblock. On leaving dinner, last as usual, I had to stop Brian running to the assistance of a guy who had fallen down the stairs, something about it just didn’t look right, it was a joy when it turned into a flash mob, a lovely little treat. Early night with a movie, but by the time we’ve had dinner, and moved the clocks on an hour it’s midnight.

Day 12 – 21st May 
(position @ 09:50: 29° 02.637’ N 027° 52.686’ W – 498 Nautical miles to Madeira, clocks forward one hour)

Attaching an extra hold
Although there is not much to write, time is going remarkably quickly, eating, sleeping, reading, chatting. No emails or Facebook, am I missing it? Not as much as I thought, though it would have been nice to have a look on my birthday, but it will all still be there. What if someone is trying to get hold of us is always in the back of the mind, but what could we do if they were?

Up at a much more sensible time today, to find breakfast virtually empty. I passed by at 10.15 to see it rammed, half the ship trying to eat in the last 15 minutes. I’m almost not bothering, lunch food being much more interesting than breakfast food, so I’m always ready for lunch way before Brian, but we don’t have to go together….

OK, is today the day for the climbing wall? After watching a rubbish movie on the TV, I thought it was, but instead of getting quieter as time has gone on as the staff predicted, it’s got busier, oh well B was enjoying the OK Sandra Bullock movie set in Bolivia so he can watch the end of that.

The table group, less the Spaniards sat together to watch the show which is nice, and the show wasn’t bad.

Day 13 – 22nd May 
(position@ 09:50: 30° 58.386’N 021° 59.461’W – 249 Nautical miles to Madeira, clocks forward one hour)

The day of the incredibly calm ocean, only ripples from our ship
Again up at a sensible time for the last of our seven sea days, today I had a definite date at the climbing wall, only to find I hadn’t got it to myself, but with a couple of Spaniards who have climbed at least once, possibly twice over the last few days, and their small son, in charge of dishing out the climbing chalk. The instructor didn’t know what to make of me, ‘yes I’ve climbed before, but not for at least eight months’ he asked what level, and grades obviously meant nothing to him, ‘I will see you climb!’ OK, so I nipped up his normal first wall, actually doing a route, rather than the rainbow of colours everyone else has done. With that stake in the ground at least he had some idea what he was dealing with. So a quick traverse, and another couple of routes before we were at his most challenging route. For some reason, there was now an audience, so I had to look cool despite the ‘interesting’ bit in the middle. I’ve never been a climbing superstar before, but then I’ve never been the only one who has ever climbed before either! All in all I enjoyed my 10 mins for $6 that taking it in turns with the other couple lasted a good hour and a half. I just really wanted to be able to say I’ve been climbing in the middle of the Atlantic!

Land for the first time in a week. This is Funchal on Madeira. That's our ship in the distance on the left
The water is like a mill pond today, it’s so calm it’s amazing. At lunch we saw our first dolphins, a small group of three, is this because we are getting closer, to a small amount of land, or because it’s so calm? Along with a couple of flying fish, it’s been a good day so far.

Gardens in Funchal centre
Evening show was an Abba tribute which was actually fairly good. Mostly the cast sang in English, with some interesting pronunciation and odd missing words, some were sung in Spanish where, in their native language they got much more into it and some in French, so an interesting mix. Costumes were good and, for the final number all the cast, including the male members who are at least 90% gay appeared in white costumes with silver bits, big head gear and all waving around silver capes. I’m sure they all loved it, but it seemed a bit weird! Jimmy and Jean saved good seats, Carol joined us (but not Eric), which was as well as the place was packed. 

Day 14 – 23rd May 
(position: Port of Funchal, Madeira)

Not sure what happened to that tree
The boat docked at 08:00, so we were up at 06:30 for early breakfast and waiting for Carol and Eric on deck 7 stairs as we’d arranged to walk the town together. At 08:45 they hadn’t turned up so we headed out on our own for a walk round the historic city.

First stop was the Fortaleza de Nossa Senhora da Conceicao at the head of the pier on which we had docked. It’s a 17th century fort that served as a checkpoint for all ships entering. We didn’t go in but went through the tunnel underneath which is the main access to the island.

That building (or pile of rocks) is a separate country, Pontinha, the smallest country in the world and also the oldest building in Madeira, visited by Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook (not at the same time!)
Prince Renato II of the country Pontinha!
Second stop, also at the head of the pier was the Forte de Sao Jose or, as it is now known, Pontinha Island, The Principality Atlantis. It’s the oldest building on the island, built in the 15th century as a shelter for the first explorers who arrived on the island. Among the important guests who have visited the fort are Christopher Columbus and Captain Cook so, for me it was a ‘must see’. Unbelievably it is now recognised in the Guinness Book of Records as the world’s smallest country after it was bought in 1998 for £25,000 and declared a separate country by its owner, who now calls himself Prince Renato II, of the country Pontinha. He was the son of a taxi driver and sold everything he had to buy it and spotted that when it was originally sold by the King of Portugal in 1903 a document was signed selling all the “possessions and the dominions”, which apparently meant he could do with it what he liked, including declaring it as a separate country. He was told he wouldn’t be able to connect to the islands electricity but, as long as he didn’t interfere with the port they would leave him alone. He doesn’t live there full time as he sometimes gets grief from the Portugese authorities, but he does allow anyone to visit asking only for a donation (mainly to feed the many cats who live there). Interesting story, interesting history, a great view from the top and lots of cats for Jackie to stroke, what’s not to like!

And the official recognition
We strolled round the city, enjoying the old narrow streets, cathedral, churches, lovely gardens, and beautifully maintained colonial buildings following a route and app I had downloaded off the internet showing us all the sights. After visiting the Tourist Information and finding they had free, very fast internet and catching up on our emails (and the latest sad news of a terrorist attack at Manchester Arena last night killing 23), we headed out to see the fish market and a walk round the old fort Sao Tiago, built in the 1600’s to prevent pirate attacks on the city. Saw Carol and Eric from the top and called to them to join us, but they didn’t want to pay the €3 entrance fee.

Had lunch at a nice restaurant, walked up to the Forte de Sao Joao Baptista at 111m above sea level to find it closed, but we still got the view of the city and our ship dwarfed by the huge cruise ship docked alongside – and I thought our ship was big!

And plenty of cats for Jackie to stroke
Back on board at 15:45, up in the 360 lounge with cocktails at 16:45 ready to watch us sail out of Madeira at 17:00 and off into the setting sun. Dinner was a celebration of Jimmy’s 78th birthday, we had bought a VW campervan fridge magnet with Madeira written on it so he could remember his youth of driving round in one and of us in Madeira. Unfortunately he wasn’t in the best of spirits as he had raging toothache, so we went to the evening Flamenco show with only Jean. The dancers were very accomplished and talented, but it was a bit ‘samey’.     

Day 15 – 24th May 
(position @ 10:15: 35° 24.704’N, 013° 11.220’W – 264 Nautical miles to Lisbon)

The fish market
Last day at sea today, time to pay our bill and collect our passports. Jackie’s sad and I’ll miss the food, alcohol, the good friends we’ve met, but I can’t get away from feeling it’s all a bit weird! The 16 days have flown by, so I suppose that must mean I’ve enjoyed it, but it’s difficult to remember what we did for each of the seven continuous days we had at sea. Only by looking back through this diary can I remember and it really was only punctuated by meal times, watching the ocean, reading and chatting. It’s a very strange way of life and is guilt free relaxation. There is nothing much to do and nothing anyone should be doing, so it’s no problem to just sit and strike up a conversation with someone knowing they are not in the middle of something important or urgent, which is quite unlike any other environment I’m used to. It’s weird, but quite nice. Would I want to do it again? Certainly using it as a means to get somewhere in comfort, but as a holiday in its own right? I don’t think so, but Jackie on the other hand…..

More market photos
Tomorrow we dock at 06:00, we have to leave our luggage outside our room at 01:00 in the morning, meet at 07:15 in one of the public rooms and wait to be shown off the ship and to customs to collect our luggage. We then get a taxi to a hotel we’ve booked near the airport, too early to get in a room, but at least we’ll be able to check in for our flight home the next day and hopefully post this on our blog, before we head into the city for an afternoon city tour of Lisbon.

A street in old town Funchal
Final note: We're now in our hotel in Lisbon after disembarking the ship. The show last night on board was fabulous: The History of Rock with some great live music and plenty of alcohol. Head still dizzy this morning, so feeling rather jaded at the moment!

The historic Sao Tiago Fort in Funchal

And we thought our ship was big, but look at ours on the left compared with that monster on the right!

Classic cars in the courtyard of Sao Tiago Fort
Our ship from the battlements of the fort
Through one of the windows in the fort. Art?
More attempted art. Our ship through another window in the fort
Jackie on guard duty!

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Cruising – Days 236 to 242

Cruisers are us!
Day minus 2 – 7th May
Still in Jicaral in the Nicoya Peninsular at our final housesit. Julie and Juan-Carlos arrived home on the earlier ferry at 5:00pm (we had a ‘heads up’ phone call from Kristina to say she had received a ‘Whats App’ message from them). Shared our 1 litre of beer and crisps with them, Jackie chopped up more vegetables, added more rice and made our pork stir fry go between 4. Left them at 7:00pm to go to our cabana in town for the night as they were very tired.

Day minus 1 – 8th May
Our cruise cabin
Arrived back at housesit at 08:00am to find Juan-Carlos had cooked breakfast for us, all sat down together, they looking much more refreshed. Neither dog had eaten their breakfast and Penka dog looked decidedly under the weather with patches of sick visible outside. They will take her to the vets later. Finally ‘Canadian Jim’ arrived at 09:50am to collect us, driving a big four wheel drive, with his partner Momo (or something like that). Jackie had contacted him on the cruise messenger service following a notice he had put on saying he lives on the Nicoya Peninsular, is going on our cruise and will pick people up on the way if required. An ex-Canadian army man retired early at 45 and has lived for 2 years in Costa Rica, he drove quite fast but relatively safely telling stories of his life as a tank commander.

The view of Cartagena through our window as we docked
Picked up Victor at San Jose airport on the way (he was supposed to arrive yesterday but San Jose airport was closed due to a power cut. He’s a 62 year old retired last year and travelling the world on cruise ships while his partner of 37 years is still working (but he does finally retire in September!). Got the low down on cruises from him, included a warning that boarding is chaos, but after that it’s great. He will be in the bar at the back of the ship as it leaves port. He always does that apparently, sitting with a cold beer or, in this case as all alcohol is included, something stronger and with an umbrella in it. Think we might join him!

Long journey to Puerto Limon, arriving at our Airbnb at 18:00 to be greeted by a lovely Jamaican who took us to the local shop to buy beer. Cooked in the Airbnb, bed early

Day zero – 9th May
Up early, neither of us slept all that well, finished off our breakfast food and a final pack. Got taken to the port by our Jamaican host at about 10:30 although boarding was between 11:00am and 1:00pm, but after Victor’s advice about chaos at the port when boarding we decided to be there a bit earlier!

The new, larger Panama canal. The ship is too large for the old locks, it's too wide, but OK in length. In the new locks it looks tiny, which shows how much bigger they are than the old ones. The lock isn't curved its the panorama photo distortion
The new gates slide rather than swing and here it is half open
We should have been there a lot earlier. Nardo drove down the road, and even he was amazed at the queue snaking a block down the street and round the corner, still at least we knew they wouldn’t go without us, but what a shambles. People wandered up and down handing out various forms to fill in, before we finally got to the front, after an hour a half, to find that to cap it all, we weren’t allowed to walk through the gates, we had to get on a bus, for which they were charging $5 per person! Check in, after that, was actually quite painless, we left our bags with the bus so they could be delivered to the cabin, boarded, had our hand luggage and bodies scanned, and were in. dropped the hand luggage off and went to the buffet for lunch. We hadn’t seen beef like that in months, this is going to be good.

Tugs guiding the ship through the lock
Muster drill followed shortly and we met our cabin steward, who pointed out what B had just discovered, the carpet in our cabin was very wet, so off to reception who changed us from deck 2 with a little porthole, to deck 7 with a big window, albeit looking onto the jogging track before the rail, but it’s not like anyone actually wants to look in.

Gatun lake, the highest point on the Panama canal, 26m above sea level
So started our exploration of the ship which ground to a halt as we realised we were about to set sail, so grab a drink and to the rail to wave farewell to Costa Rica. Mmm, Brian measures of gin in the G&T…. Bumped into Victor our fellow passenger from the previous day with Patrick who we were meant to be meeting later to plan our visit to the Agua Clara expansion locks of the Panama Canal, so plans made we settled down to our G&T in the 360 degree observation lounge.

Rainstorm as we got back to the ship
Shower, and change for dinner, where is the dining room again? We had asked for a small table so were surprised to be shown to a table for 10. We were shortly joined by a couple from California, though he is originally from Germany, and that was all. There is a menu that is fixed for the duration of the cruise and a small daily menu that changes, so lots of choice and free flowing wine. The food is beautifully presented, with sensibly sized portions so allowing us to enjoy a three course meal (or four or five, or however many you want) without feeling stuffed. Despite both being very tired we managed to stay up to watch our presentation of the welcome show, starting at 10.00. When were we last up at 10.00? And we had to be up early as we were leaving the port of Colon at 14.30 so our trip out had to be early, and we were losing an hour! Enjoyed the show, till the Spanish ventriloquist came on…..! Bed, and a goodnights sleep.

Day 1 – 10th May

Old Cartagena town walls, built to keep English pirate Sir Francis Drake out
Breakfast in the buffet, before meeting up with Patrick on level 1 to head ashore. Patrick is out, across the gangplank, but me? No, my card that is all you need aboard ship, isn’t working, it’s not showing her my picture, so she won’t let me off, back up to reception, level 4, and onto my third card. This one worked so off we went, purposefully striding past all the taxi drivers close to the entrance. Finally found one to take us for $15 per person, not $25. Still too much? Probably but life’s too short! We were lucky, we arrived as a ship was in the lock, storage tank one of three was emptying into the lock as it raised to the level of the Gatun lake. It was a bigger ship than we saw the last time, but only just, lengthwise it would have fitted the old locks but not widthwise, though it looked tiny in the space. They have just had the biggest container ship through, 13000 containers rather than the average 8000, total cost for transit? $1million! Interesting video and back to the taxi driver, till the boys on their smart phones discovered the free, very slow, wifi in the café.

By the clock tower on our walking tour of Cartagena
We were dropped back at the ship just as the heavens opened. We smugly walked past the new arrivals all checking in, in a nice air-conditioned hanger, just our check in then, though it’s not the ships fault, but the towns. Back to the cabin and Oscar has not done well on the Teddy points. Teddy is just cast aside, not at all comfy in the bed. Time for lunch, big plate of salad with a little bit of fish, sense is kicking in already, except for the one glass of cava I suppose. Muster drill for new arrivals, we feel like old hands already, then we are off, so time for cocktail and waving goodbye to Central America after five months and one day. Gin fizz, much more drinkable than the pina colada we tried the previous day. Met an interesting American lady who had picked up the only English book in the library, Jeremy Clarkson, not sure he’s really going to be her cup of tea….. Strange isn’t it, she sat there telling us all about the tapestries in Stirling Castle while we told her all about the National Parks in Utah!

A show put on for us in Bolivar Square
Down to dinner, would there be more of us? Yes, but no. It’s got worse. Two Taiwanese boys, eating their bread rolls with a knife and fork, no English, no Spanish and no food. They were vegan which despite not being the only vegans on the ship seemed to be causing problems, so a plate of salad with boiled rice and steamed vegetables, was followed by a plate of fried rice with vegetables! No wonder they were skinny! We haven’t seen them since and I can’t say I’m sorry, it was just hard for everyone.

Day 2 – 11th May

Street in Cartagena. Victor is on the right
Cartagena Colombia, an historic walled town, how best to see it? There is s free walking tour but disembarkation started at 09.30 and it started a bus and taxi ride away at 10.00, not really going to happen. Then the hop on hop off buses turned up, the same red livery and writing as in every town in the UK and Europe. How strange, but it made perfect sense, so with Jim and Victor we sat upstairs in the front row for the hour and a half tour, followed by an hour and a half walking tour. Ideal, we saw everything we wanted with minimal effort and back on board in time for lunch. Salad again, but with fresh poached salmon, yum. Back to the cabin and having left Teddy tucked into the unmade bed as we left, Oscar had got the message and Teddy is waving from his comfy position against the pillow. So he should be, we are leaving the cabin beautifully tidy, so apart from bed and towels there is little for Oscar to do.

You are supposed to look 10 years younger looking in this mirror. It didn't work for me! Jim, who gave us a lift is left of me in this photo
In the zoo of the cruise ship terminal at Cartagena, Columbia
We did get off again and walked down to the port building, the last of our fellow passengers checking in, and they don’t know how lucky they are. A leafy area with peacocks, flamingos and maccaws to keep them entertained while queuing! We were there to visit the aviary, well he still has a soft spot for parrots. I encouraged a cockatoo onto my arm where he wandered up and down. How do you get him off? Pass him onto your husband…. First thing it did then? Beak straight through the brim of Brian’s Ozzie hat! Trying to get rid of the first bird, another one flew in, so one on each shoulder and gentle nibbling of ears, face, how do you get rid of a bird without getting pecked to death? The highlight of his day, only 100+ bird photos to go through then!

He's on the door cloer in the zoo enclosure
Mojito to wave goodbye to Latin America, well we do feel we have to try all the free cocktails…

Back to just the four of us for dinner, well we now know it could be worse! Fabulous show, really enjoyed it, though according to Patrick, four times is a bit much! Everyone has cruised before except us, and we are still not cruising, this is a voyage home!

Day 3 – 12th May

Not sure what he is, but he's very cute
First sea day, hurray. Lazy breakfast, cereal and fruit, we are trying to be sensible. We’ve found the best spot in our favourite bar, comfy sofas and a power point nearby, so armed with laptop, for photo sorting and blog writing, book, kindle, crossword and free flowing coffee, water and anything else you wanted delivered with a smile that was us till lunchtime. Turkey was the meat of the day of which I had the tiniest bit, just to make a turkey sandwich, but in the time it took us to eat our lunch I watched five turkeys being carved and distributed!

Close up to a toucan
Time for a short siesta before our first trip to the gym, well you’ve got to try. We have also been using the stairs, from deck 7 (cabin) to 1 (disembarkation), 3 (restaurant) 5 (favourite bar) 11 and 12 (buffet) and 14 (360 lounge) 14 is the only one we are using the lift for, if carrying cocktails! It’s not often you can use the cross trainer while satisfying my obsession of looking for whales!

the first cockatoo steps onto Jackies hand...
Quick shower, well it’s gone five, the sun is definitely over the yard arm and we have yet to have our first cocktail of the day. Why did they dip the rim of the margarita glass in lime and salt and then serve it with a straw? Too much sweet alcohol, so while B had a second one I went back to a G&T. I had to send it back twice, first time to be put in a bigger glass so he could add more tonic, second time just to add more tonic!

Everything must be pecked!
First formal night, so, as formal as we can get, but hey, I think we scrubbed up ok, but perhaps I just couldn’t focus in my gin haze. Joined at our table by a Scottish/English couple, they live in Spain, but prefer to be English speaking so they had moved from their Spanish speaking table. No choices tonight, just the seven courses of the gala menu….

A second one really wanted my camera
Queue up to have our photo taken with the captain? I don’t think so. We’d already refused to have our embarkation photo taken, hot, bothered and fed up as we were. Fortunately the photo on the electronic card is only visible when scanned by computer, it’s not printed on as Brian’s is looking very grumpy!

Day 4 – 13th May

How do you get a cockatoo off your shoulder?....
Slightly confused, we’d both thought today was St Maarten, but no, second sea day, fortunately we had managed to confirm this before going to bed, so a repeat of yesterday, only today I might actually finish this, to date, having been far too busy relaxing yesterday. A cha cha cha masterclass by the pool has broken the morning nicely. We did think we might actually go in one of the two pools but with no lounger or chair available even to put a pair of shorts on, we’ll save that for later. So soon to lunch, then the tough choice of which cocktail to try before dinner, suggested attire for tonight is white! I don’t even have a white pair of pants, so I may have to go the other way and go black. Life is very hard.

Quick dip in the pool before cocktail hour, after dinner show, and bed.

Day 5 – 14th May

St Maarten

Pass it on to me, except he wants to eat my hat!
Shopping and beach heaven. Neither of those really float our boat, though Maho Beach is renowned for being at the end of the run way, so that was the only vague temptation, the Cruise excursion at $37 each was way overboard, so we thought we’d walk into a town, when a very nice new collectivo came past. $2 each! Got on to find a family of four from the cruise liner docked next to us, also going to the beach. People hopped on and hopped off, we had a little guided tour, just entering the French side of the island, dropped off at the beach and he said he’d come back on 20 minutes. Perfect, in that time two planes landed and two took off, admittedly not big jets, but enough to get the idea. Back to the boat for lunch and then we’ll go out looking for cheap wifi……
Then there were two with a third thinking of climbing on
Lots of macaws that were completely free and their wings were not clipped either. We could see them flying around the harbour completely free. They must return for the free food they are given
Finally a great photo of toucans!
In fact I got many, many photos, but they are very cute
On board the cruise ship, showing off my sooty t shirt
Gala night in the theatre on board
The person with the microphone is the captain. He's definitely the fat controller!
One of the areas on the ship. Its difficult to remember its a ship sometimes, except for the slight swaying when at sea
Arriving at the Dutch port of Philipsburg on St Maarten today
No need for Spanish here
So, silly activity for the day? Lets go to Maho beach and see if we can get plane tyre marks on our heads!
So here we are on the beach, there's a small road and, the other side of the fence, the runway
We didn't have to wait long for the first one...
Not a huge plane, but still quite exciting
And there it is landing
Time for another one. This photo kindly taken by the family we met on the bus