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!

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