Monday, 20 August 2018

Arctic waters

Last week I returned from a  wonderful cruise on the lovely Oriana to Iceland, Greenland and Scotland. P&O haven't cruised these waters for some years so I jumped at the chance to return.
Nuuk, Greenland, 2007
My first cruise to these countries was back in 2007 on P&O's Artemis. It was not a great success since we lost Glengariff in Ireland due to it being too rough to tender, Qaqortoq and Akureyri due to ice in the fjords and half a day in Reykjavik due to high winds! There was also thick fog slowing us down. Although this was the same time of year I was hoping for better luck this time.
Our first iceberg

I can understand why P&O do not sail these waters often as  huge amount of additional organisation is required. Once at Reykjavik we picked up two specialist ice pilots, one of whom was always on the bridge. We also sailed with an additional deputy captain, had searchlights mounted and manned at night and had to report home every half an hour whilst in potentially dangerous waters. 


In the event the weather could not have been better with mainly clear bright skies, comfortable temperatures and little fog. There were many highlights but two for me were the rare opportunity for a ship of Oriana's size to sail through Prins Christian Sund, the captain performing a 360 degree spin in front of one of the many glaciers, and the spectacular wildlife on display - whales, dolphins, porpoises, puffins, fulmars, seals and arctic terns. 







Prins Christian Sund connects the Labrador Sea with the Irminger Sea. Around 60 miles long, it is as narrow as 1,600 ft in places. The fjord is surrounded by desolate mountains over 7,200 ft high and glaciers drop straight into its waters where they calve icebergs. It easily and favourably compares with Alaska or the Chilean Fjords and I spent the transit on he aft Terrace Deck, where I could dodge from side to side as waterfalls and glaciers appeared.






As I had spent an afternoon in Reykjavik before, I opted for tours into the countryside. Southern Iceland was so beautiful with vast lava fields covered with bright lush mosses and wild lupins. Occasionally steam rose from active volcanic fumeroles and boiling mud pools. The country is sparsely populated with most settlements along the coastline. 

Northern Iceland was different - more like Norway with deep fjords and high plateau. In some deep crevices the snow never melts. We had three ports of call - Reykjavik in the south west and Isafjordur and Akureyri in the north. 





Our first sight of Greenland was of high, jagged mountains with plenty of icebergs littering the coast. We  were calling at the capital Nuuk (otherwise called Gothab) and Qaqortoq (Julianhab). I had been to Nuuk on my previous cruise here, which was just as well since instead of tendering into the heart of the old port, we were berthed at the container port. Since this was one of the few places we had high winds and rain, I declined the very long walk into town, since there were no shuttle buses or taxis available. I wasn't happy about it though. 









Fortunately at Qaqortoq we had a lovely day and, once off the tender, we were able to wander round this small but very different port. There were two lovely churches and typical Scandinavian buildings dotted at random angles beside the roads. The only problem here were the swarms of ferocious mosquitoes and midges and I soon understood why the locals wore netted hats! It is also very hilly with a great deal of heavy vehicle traffic.

Callanish standing stones, Isle of Lewis

Loch Lomond

Our other ports on this cruise were the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides, Greenock and Torshavn in the Faroes. Greenock was a repeat port but Stornaway and Torshavn were both new to me. I was lucky to get ashore at Stornaway and it was quite choppy and soon after tendering was stopped. I think the captain did well to get anyone ashore and certainly the journey back was bumpy enough to make the P&O tender assistant seasick! I loved this remote island with it's peat moorlands and craggy outcrops with grazing sheep. 
Torshavn, Faroes
Faroes

The Faroes were surprisingly different with deep fjords and huge towering mountains criss-crossed with sheep tracks.

All in all, this was a great cruise in a stunning part of the world well worth exploring.  

Saturday, 30 June 2018

Goodbye, Farewell, Amen

In the last month there have been announcements, albeit expected ones, of the loss of two of the UK's favourite ships - Saga Sapphire and Oriana. I suppose it is my age, but over my cruising career I have slowly lost all my personal favourites - Cunard's Caronia and QE2 and P&O Cruises' Artemis and now Oriana


Artemis at Santorini
The big difference however is that, whereas Sapphire is being replaced by the brand new 58,000grt Spirit of Discovery carrying 999 passengers, Oriana's replacement is Iona at 180,000grt and over 5000 passengers.

Of course ships have a sell-by date but I do so wish more of the new-builds were not leviathans carrying over 4000 passengers, or should I say guests, since these huge vessels are more akin to floating hotels than cruise ships. Which brings me to my second point - their size limits the ports which they can visit, so very often they end up sailing the equivalent of bus routes like giant ferries, or they have to tender passengers ashore - not much fun when 4000-5000 people are involved. Although I love cruising and sea days I also want to explore the world and these sorts of numbers flood smaller, more interesting places. 

I also accept lines need to attract a new younger clientele but it feels as if it is at the expense of us older and loyal customers and let's face it; we are the generation with the time and money to cruise far more than younger people. 


Oriana at Trieste

To me, Oriana is the perfect cruise ship. She has lots of public rooms so many activities can run concurrently; loads of beautiful teak-floored open deck space (heaven under bare feet, while the modern composites can burn feet in hot climates), a separate cinema, open forward observation decks to watch the scenery when entering port or cruising the Suez or Panama Canals and those beautiful tiered stern decks. Not so big that you can't nip back to your cabin easily if you forget something but big enough to find quiet corners if that is your wish. 



Well done to lines such as Viking, Regent and Saga for still building new ships of this size, but if you don't like or want to fly, the choices are becoming sadly limited. Cruise & Maritime Voyages are busy expanding their fleet and if they can only get their act together re. organisation and better food, I can see them gaining many of P&O's older, most loyal passengers. Meanwhile P&O seem intent on becoming more and more like Royal Caribbean. In my view, a risky strategy, since, although not to my cruising taste, RCI do what they do extremely well, particularly in entertainment and family activities. 

I count myself lucky to have starting cruising when I did so have experienced many of the older cruise ships - Discovery, Vistafjord, Funchal etc. and perhaps that is the problem. Those starting their cruising now won't know any different and so won't compare the new megaships to those I knew and loved. After all, Canberra fans hated Oriana when she first launched too!

Monday, 9 April 2018

My solo cruise with Saga River Cruises.

I wanted a short break around the end of March and so chose a week on the Rhine. The boat was the Filia Rheni II, a Dutch river boat on charter, together with her sister, Regina Rheni, to Saga Holidays. Part of the attraction was the option of flights from my local airport, rather than having to take the train to Folkestone and then coach, or the Eurostar.

Filia Rheni takes just around 150 passengers in all twin outside cabins. There were 107 on my cruise, many solos like me. Aside from a couple of moaners, the other passengers were friendly, chatty and helpful (I am currently walking with one crutch). Being Saga of course, the majority were elderly but active, ex-professional types. The cabins are all the same internally, the only differences being those on the lowest deck have a small window, the middle deck where I was have a large picture window and the upper deck have Juliet balconies. The main public rooms consist of a large forward lounge with bar and tea and coffee self-service station; the restaurant is on the lowest public deck and at the stern is a small library/games room, fitness room and Jacuzzi. The latter has to be booked as it is not permanently filled. The top sun deck is huge, with some canopies, sun loungers, directors’ chairs and a small unheated pool. There is also a roofed lounging area there with planters and rattan seats. The lounge deck, middle deck and restaurant are served by a lift but you need to be able to manage stairs to access the lowest deck of cabins and the library. The sun deck has a stairlift on one of the two external flights of stairs.
 
 
 

The captain was Italian and all the other crew, from second captain to laundress were eastern European, mainly Romanian and Hungarian. They were, without exception, friendly and very helpful. We also carried a Dutch river pilot. This was the first cruise of the season and the boat had just undergone a refit. It was immaculate inside and out.
The cabin was a good size with twin beds pushed together to make a double, bedside shelves with lamps on, a double wardrobe and two cupboards. A small drawer held a hairdryer and there was a shoe-cleaning mitt, shoehorn and flat-screen TV. The safe was in the wardrobe. I was very pleased that the shower had a glass sliding door and not a curtain! There was a Milka chocolate on my pillow every night but I wasn't so keen on the fact that the duvet was folded in half lengthways and laid on the bed meaning you had to effectively make your own bed each night. There were also two quiet-voxs in charger units. These are used on tours and hang round the neck, transmitting the guide’s commentary wirelessly. Having your own unit permanently cut down on time at the start of tours.

 
 

We had a safety briefing on the first evening but muster drill was on day 2, when we had to wear our life jackets and muster on the sun deck. I did struggle with those outdoor stairs when I couldn't see my feet! Stewardesses checked cabins.
Breakfast is an open-seating buffet; a light lunch buffet was available in the lounge or a served open-seat meal in the restaurant. Dinner was at 7pm and was fixed seating. I was on a table of 6. I found the food delicious and it exceeded my expectations, although choices were limited. There was always a fish dish and a vegetarian one. The other varied between poultry, venison, lamb etc. There was one dessert or cheese and biscuits. A choice of white, red or rose wine or beer was included with lunch and dinner. The first night there was a birthday and the lights were turned off leaving just real candles on all the tables, while a proper cake with candles was brought in and we all sang Happy Birthday. Some nice touches were the hot chocolate (with brandy) served on deck as we transited the Rhine Gorge (the weather was sunny but freezing cold) and the large amount of carefully-arranged Easter chocolates we all received. 




Unlike an ocean cruise, there was no security. If we went ashore, we handed in our cabin key (literally, a key) in exchange for a boarding pass. Frequently, river boats moor to other river boats, meaning you have to cross from one to another to get ashore. In Koblenz, this meant crossing over to another larger boat, climbing up to their sundeck and then down a very steep narrow gangway. Gangways have ropes, not rails, making this quite impossible for me at the present time. Other times it was just a few short steps ashore.





Given their small size entertainment is limited. We had quizzes, a couple of musical evenings and, in Koblenz, a local folk group came on board, but you could go ashore if you wanted most evenings. I found a week was long enough as it is quite intensive but wouldn't hesitate to go again.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

Aurora World Cruise - San Francisco to Southampton


Tuesday 28 March – San Francisco

Weather: Dry, good visibility, clear skies
Temperature: 21C
Wind: Force 2-4               

Day two in SF and Caryll’s leg was not too painful so we caught the shuttle to Pier 39, crossed over to the Big Bus stop and caught a red route bus again, but this time getting off on the far side of Golden Gate Bridge and catching the trolley Sausalito. Once again the weather was glorious – not a shred of the fogs for which the city is famous, so we had great views of the Bridge while we waited for the trolley. 
 
We reached Sausalito about 11.30. It is a pretty small seaside town with the feel of New England about it (at least I thought so) and with fabulous views back across the Bay to Alcatraz and SF. We spent around 2½ hours here browsing the shops – I found a Xmas shop and bought a colourful glass tree ornament in the form of a cruise ship! We found a small café for a beer and bagel with cream cheese and fruit – yum!


We then boarded the trolley back to Golden Gate and boarded the Big Bus there. Once on the SF side the bus stopped for anyone who wanted to walk across the bridge – that way they can pick up this bus from the other side back – no one got off though, so we carried on into the city. We saw the road-zipper in action on the bridge. This is a clever device which moves the central barriers to create an extra lane on one side or the other depending on which has the heaviest flow of traffic – for example, towards the city in the morning rush hour there are four lanes inbound and two outbound, this reverses in the evening – brilliant idea. By the time we returned to the terminal it was 5.30 so with little time to do much else we used the free wi-fi and then returned to Aurora. I really liked SF. Although a big city it didn’t have the manic traffic and rushing crowds of somewhere like NYC. It felt more intimate and cosy in a weird way – only 49 square miles with lots of parkland. The people seemed more laid back and chilled – perhaps living with the inevitable earthquake helps.
Since all our lovely tablemates have disembarked we went into dinner to find – B an elderly and very deaf man who only spoke when asked a direct question and D, a very boring man indeed. The other four seats were empty. After dinner I went to see saxophonist Craig Richards before going on deck for our late evening sailaway. It was a beautiful clear night but sadly, unlike the Bay Bridge, Golden Gate isn’t illuminated so the only photos I got of it this time were when we were very close and sailing underneath. Then to bed where I had the best sleep for ages.




Wednesday 29 March at sea

Weather: Fine and dry, good visibility, 2/8 cloud
Temperature: 16C
Wind: Force 5
Sea state: Moderate

Another lazy sea day spent mostly on deck. I tried to do some washing but the launderettes were manic so I gave up. I downloaded all my SF photos. It is the first formal night of this final sector tonight and the last welcome aboard party. Went into dinner at 8.35 to find B and D and then shortly afterwards we were joined by two ladies – I use the term loosely! One asked all sorts of odd questions – do we smoke, do we have grandchildren etc. If she was trying to find some common ground she failed miserably. D commented she must work for MI5! The other had the worst table manners imaginable. They said they will not be in every night – the problem is knowing which nights to avoid – we may have to seriously consider moving tables except I don’t want to lose Joseph and Jeb.

Thursday 30 March – San Diego
Weather: Dry, good visibility, 3/8 cloud
Temperature: 18C
Wind: Force 3-6


We had planned to be up on deck for the arrival but since we berthed at 7am there was little hope and it would have been dark anyway.  In the event, we woke up to find us berthed at the cruise terminal with the maritime museum on one side (submarines, a stern-wheeler paddle boat and the Star of India which is the oldest iron-hulled sailing ship still sailing) and the decommissioned aircraft carrier USS Midway.
Our plan was to take the Ho-Ho trolley. The ones outside the terminal were chartered for the ship, so we caught the shuttle bus to the Horton Plaza where we thought we could pick it up. As we were getting off we asked the escort where the trolley bus stop was, only to be told it didn’t stop there! We got back on the shuttle to return to the ship and walk to the seafront stop, but when the driver asked what the problem was he drove us on a short detour to one of the stops! Superb service! We bought our ticket from the kiosk and only had a short wait before a trolley arrived. Instead of a recorded commentary, common on most HoHo buses, the driver gave an individual and entertaining talk as we drove round the city and out to Coronado over the spectacular curving bridge over 200ft above the water.

When we reached the Old Town we got off as this was one place I wanted to explore. I knew this was advertised as the Birthplace of California but it was so much better than I had expected – it was like walking into one of the Westerns I was so fond of in my youth such as the High Chaparral – with adobe or clapboard buildings with verandahs and boardwalks and a Wells Fargo office with stagecoach. There was also the Whaley House, reputedly the most haunted building in the US. We were initially dropped off in the Old Town market so browsed the stalls, selling mostly Mexican-style souvenirs – carved and painted gourds, Day of the Dead decorations and flowers and silverwork.




After around 2 hours wandering the old buildings and shops we decided to have lunch there in a Mexican open-sir restaurant – Corona beer and pulled chicken taco with guacamole and salad for me. It was absolutely delicious – but very repeating! I might add that this was on the menu as an appetiser – but came with four tacos, which, had we realised would easily have done for both of us. After our meal we explored a little more – saw a Northern Mocking Bird on a tree - and then boarded the trolley back.
Our plan was to do the full route once again, getting off at the cruise terminal – so the route plus a bit. The driver/guide this time was Alex and he was very funny – naming everyone for the country or state we came from so I was “English”, someone else “Canada” and so on. He threw out questions – one of which I answered – why in the early days were Mission Stations 30 miles apart. I said it was one days ride on a horse and won myself a sticker! We drove through Balboa Park, Little Italy, The Gaslamp Quarter, Coronado etc, past the airport (the busiest single-runway airport in USA with planes every 60-90 mins) finally getting off at 3.45pm.


Since back on board time was 4.30 I was getting a bit concerned but I needn’t have worried since one couple were 1½ hours late – and the captain waited! They had been caught up in a taxi in traffic due to a major accident and had phoned the port agent but even so the captain thought he might have to break his, so far, 100% record of never leaving anyone behind. By the time we sailed the sun was starting to go down, the sea mist was rolling in again and it was getting cold. One we saw them back on board we went down from Deck 13 to collect warm coats and then to the prom deck for the sail out past the naval and air bases on Coronado Island and some noisy sealions at a marina. Two coastguard boats circled us constantly with manned mounted guns until we were back in the Pacific Ocean. It had been beautiful weather all day – warm and sunny, not too hot. The early sea mist burnt off leaving clear views. We came in, had a shower and changed. I had a pre-dinner cocktail in Andersons and then went into dinner where we found just B and D. However, we can’t last 3 weeks talking to one person at dinner – had words with Maitre d’ and he is going to ask the dance instructors to join us when they can.

Friday 31 March at sea

Weather: Dry, good visibility, 3/8 cloud
Temperature: 19C
Wind: Force 4
Sea state: Slight

Usual sea day activities. Sat on deck most of the morning. I went to a talk on Zultanite but didn’t win the raffle. However, since the prize was an unmounted gem, it would have cost a lot to have it set into jewellery! Managed to do a wash load. It was a casual night and we enquired about moving tables, but we could only change to first sitting which is too early for us, especially on port days.  
Saturday 1 April – Cabo San Lucas

Weather: Dry, good visibility, clear skies
Temperature: 22C
Wind: Force 4

What can I say – wow – what a magnificent day and another tick on my bucket list! Caryll had to get up early and go off on her tour at 8am but my whale-watching excursion wasn’t due to muster in the theatre until 9.30am so I had a more leisurely start. Cabo is a tender port but it was only a 5-10 minute run ashore where we were led along the dockside to a large three-deck catamaran. I managed to get a seat right at the starboard bow on the main deck. As we pulled away we were surrounded by huge Brown Pelicans and a few sealions. We first sailed over to Lands End and the famous Lover’s beach and rock arches.
The captain spun the boat so everyone could see the sealions on a rock.  Then we headed out into the Sea of Cortez in search of whales. Although the captain said there was a 95% chance of finding some, he later said he wasn’t optimistic as it was late in the season as they head north to Alaska by the end of March having given birth in the warmer Mexican waters. My reaction to that was that no one told the whales it was now April! It was not long before he spotted a spout and headed in that direction. I should add at this point that our tour was operated under strict guidelines from the International Fund for Animal Welfare so we would not go so close as to stress the whales or harass them in any way. Suddenly and startlingly – because none of us had yet spotted a whale, a huge humpback breached and spun right in front of the boat landing with a huge splash! No one got a photo but the sight will live in my memory for ever. I nearly burst into tears with happiness at seeing it and at the majesty and power of this beautiful animal. We then spent an hour watching this mother and baby as they breached again, flapped their tails and beat the water with their pectoral fins.


Eventually we left them to their activities to head back towards Cabo where the captain had heard reports of another mother and calf. While we sped back we were served snacks and margaritas or tequila sunrises. As we neared land we spotted the whales, between us and a smart motor yacht. Once again they put on a brilliant show for us, the youngster acting like an overactive toddler showing off, leaping out of the water in big arches and tail-slapping. This video was taken two months earlier but sums up what I was privileged to see.
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It was the best day! I could happily have spent the rest of the day watching them but after another hour it was time to return to the harbour and I was getting cramp in my hand trying to operate my DSLR with one hand while hanging on to the rail with the other. I took 1000 photos that morning, with the camera on continuous shooting! Back ashore I wandered round the markets where I bought two pieces of silver jewellery and a carved wooden whale. After a bit Caryll found me and we went off to buy some presents for our waiters’ babies and to watch the sealion that was being hand-fed fish, surrounded by pelicans.

 
He had such a beatific expression it was very funny but I declined the $2 to feed him myself as it involved wading into the water and I still had strapping round my heel. He was so gentle though when people put the fish in their mouths to feed him, he carefully turned his head to grasp it without touching them. We repaired to a waterfront bar for a cold beer and then while Caryll explored further, I returned to the ship. The weather was perfect – hot and sunny – so I stayed on deck till well after sailaway in the hope of seeing more whales and indeed we did see a few slapping their pectoral fins and blowing but no more breaches. A couple surfaced close to the ship where Caryll was able to photograph them. A magical day.

Sunday 2 - Monday 3 April at sea

Weather: Dry, good visibility, 1/8 cloud
Temperature: 27C – 29C
Wind: Force 2
Sea state: Slight

Two beautiful hot and sunny sea days. I spent them as usual, sunbathing and watching for wildlife – and there was plenty of it – turtles, sharks, sealions, seabirds and flying fish.
Mako Shark

Turtle
I had a manicure to last for the rest of the cruise. On the second of these days we actually won the syndicate quiz so a bottle of wine for the next night.

Tuesday 4 April – Puerto Quetzal

Weather: Dry, good visibility, clear skies
Temperature: 30C
Wind: Force 3

We arrived at 9am at Puerto Queztal in Guatemala. The berth is very short for Aurora so we are tied to concrete pontoons and the ship had to be moved a metre to line up the gangway to the narrow pontoon and bridge to the shore. One we were allowed off we found a quaint terminal with thatched roof, beyond which was a large area of craft stalls selling colourful textiles, beadwork and other souvenirs.

We were on a tour – La Antigua on your own. One we had our stickers we set off to find our bus. It was 1½ hours to La Antigua, on rather poor roads but through fascinating scenery of volcanoes, coffee plantations and fields of sugar cane.


We drove through small villages and woman walked the roads with bundles of sticks on their heads, which they need for cooking. La Antigua is at 5000ft above sea level and as we climbed we first got views over the city before dropping down into it. It really wasn’t how I imagined it. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its colonial architecture, it was described as “Toppled by earthquakes, the preserved ruins include fallen domes adorned with creeping vines, and plazas and chapels that were miraculously spared”. I must have been in another area since I saw narrow streets of one or two storey houses and tiny shops; the road and pavement surfaces were akin to Pompeii and just as difficult to walk on.



It was a fascinating and picturesque place but not ruined. We were all given a gift of a tiny worry doll in a crocheted pouch and maps and, as the whole city is laid out in a grid and very confusing, told to look out for the big volcano to know which direction we faced. It didn’t help much. Avenues were north-south and streets (calle) east-west, but there were also numbers so you got 1 Avenue Sud and 1a Avenue Sud. We had four hours free to explore. There were lots of hawkers selling flutes, haematite jewellery and woven textiles but were pleasant and not too persistent. We slowly made our way along 4 Orient St towards the Cathedral and main square.


This was paved with trees, shrubs and a large fountain. While I took photos of the fountain and a Great-tailed Grackle (bird), Caryll bartered for a necklace.  We went into a large craft shop where Caryll bought a cushion cover and then stopped in a tiny café next door for a cup of local coffee and a galle tico biscuit. We then headed back along a different parallel street until we could see the San Francisco church. By now I was feeling slightly dizzy from the altitude so headed back to the Jade Museum where we had been dropped off while Caryll went to the church. Once there I bought a cold coca cola and sat in the courtyard to drink it. As I was waiting for our coach to be called I spotted a beautiful silk wallhanging being held up by one of the street sellers. It depict Quetzal birds and in deep reds so, having bartered her down to an acceptable price I bought it. We then boarded the coach for the 1½ hour drive back along the same route – bouncing over the many speed humps on the mountain roads, and arriving back at the port at about 5.45pm.  Since back on board time was 7.30 we took our time browsing the craft stalls, some of which had by then closed, but many were still open.


There I bought a hand-carved wooden Quetzal bird. As we were walking back over the “bridge” to the pontoon we saw La Boreal berthed so paused to take photos before realising a show was about to start in Carmens featuring Guatemalan folk dancers so headed straight there. It was a delightful show with seasonal songs and dances – sowing, harvest etc. Afterwards we went to the cabin to shower and change and then go to dinner where again it was just us, D and B.

Wednesday 5 April - Thursday 6 April at sea

Weather: Dry, passing squalls, 6/8 cloud
Temperature: 30C
Wind: Force 4 gusting 6
Sea state: Slight

It is horrible to think we only have two weeks and one day left of this cruise – where has the time gone? We have two sea days before our transit of the Panama Canal taking us back into the Atlantic Ocean and home. The sea was like glass it was so calm and I spent as much time outside as possible while we still had temperatures in the low 30sC.
Brown Booby
 
Flying fish escaping a Booby Bird


Friday 7 April – Panama Canal transit

Weather: Dry, good visibility, haze
Temperature: 32C
Wind: Force 4
Transit time 12 hours 45 mins

We set the alarm for 6am. By 6.30am I was up and ready for the day – long dress, hat, insect repellent and lathered in sunscreen as we had been warned about high temperatures and 95% humidity. I went up to the Deck 10 forward balcony as this would give us a similar angle to the Bridge and as this was my first transit I wanted a good view. The downside was there was no seating so be hard on my ankle! We had a short wait for our slot, then slowly sailed past Panama City, under the Bridge of the Americas and into the Miraflores Lock – the first of many lock chambers we would have to go through before we reached the Atlantic.



These locks would raise Aurora up to 85 feet above sea level so we could cross the Continental Divide.  On the port side a container ship was transiting the new larger locks. The wildlife was already spectacular – Great Egrets, Brown Pelicans, Magnificent Frigate Birds, Black Vultures, Fork-tailed Flycatchers and even a crocodile.

Some cynics said he was a fake croc – but I have the photos and he was real! As we entered the first chamber Aurora was attached to the mules – the donkey engines that pull ships into the centre of the chamber and hold them as they are raised. There is a viewing platform here and it was packed with visitors watching and waving at us. There are two chambers to the Miraflores locks, the last of which took us into the Miraflores Lake and up to the Pedro Miguel Lock. The latter had just one chamber and delivered Aurora under Centennial Bridge and into the Gaillard Cut.



Cleverly the Panama Canal links several large lakes so the narrow Gaillard Cut was really the only stretch that felt like a man-made canal. To the right was a railway line with huge freight trains carrying containers.


As we moved along the Chagres River into the Gatun Lake we passed Celebrity Infinity. After some time, in which I had lunch at the deck barbeque and moved around the ship taking photos from other angles, we arrived at the Gatun Locks. Here we were joined by a Windstar cruise ship, Star Breeze, who transited alongside us in the parallel locks.



We completed our transit around 4pm, sailing past Colon and into the Caribbean Sea. It had been a fascinating day, not as hot as I feared, but as I had been on my feet all day I was pretty tired so went to bed after dinner.

Saturday 8 April – Cartagena      

Weather: Dry, good visibility, overcast
Temperature: 12C
Wind: Force 2

Today was going to be a mystery tour! We had originally booked the Cartegena Fun Bus tour from home, but on seeing the port presentation, and given our injuries, we decided we would have trouble getting on and off so cancelled. The problem was that all other tours were full, and I had been warned against wandering around Colombia on my own! We were in port with three other large cruise ships which didn’t help matters – Norwegian Pearl, Thomson Dream and Celebrity Equinox.


We had a leisurely breakfast and then set off at 9.30 to see what was ashore – only to find the most wonderful cruise terminal ever! We immediately saw egrets on the waterfront and flamingos standing beside a waterfall; then black swans and a huge iguana wandering up the path.

 

As we walked further we saw the most beautiful birds – macaws and parrots – all ringed but flying free. In the trees were Howler monkeys and wild birds were feeding from fruit etc set out to encourage them. In a big walk-through aviary were the most beautiful birds ever – toucans, in a variety of coloured beaks but all mainly smart black with powder-blue feet. They were entrancing!




All the birds and mammals are native to Colombia. When we returned later that day there was a tiny baby monkey hiding behind a litter bin. When I bent down and spoke to him he walked over and tried to climb up my walking stick! As it was metal he slid down and then ran off to hide. One of the US passengers from another ship exclaimed, ‘Aww, that’s so cute!’ and he was of course.

Walking further we emerged into a car park where tour drivers were touting for business. Just as we got to the entrance I stopped with a yelp as I saw a huge stripy tarantula on the path in front of me!! A local brushed it aside with his foot. We nearly went with one bus but when we saw the available seats, declined. We eventually went with a larger bus on a 3-hour tour round the main sights in this UNESCO World Heritage City. We were the last ones on but I still got a window seat next to a lady from Norwegian Pearl, in fact the bus was a mixture of people from all the ships. The first stop was at San Felipe fort where we got out to take photos – I immediately got accosted by women in traditional dress who wanted money for photos – I declined!




Next we stopped off for a one hour walking tour of the old town. I hadn’t planned on walking as the heat and humidity were horrendous but it looked so beautiful it was worth making the effort. After a delightful walk, trip to an emerald museum and the obligatory souvenir shop stop, we re-boarded the minibus for a panoramic tour.


However, the NCL passengers had a back on board time of 1.30 and wanted to go straight back! We complained that our tour had been cut short and were given $5 back each from the $20 we had originally paid. We made our way back into the mini forest and I bought a cold beer and sat bird-watching. We spent some time in the large souvenir shop – filled with beautiful Columbian emeralds of course. I declined those but did buy some reproduction gold-plated Pre-Colombian style earrings and a filigree hand-made silver pendant. I could have spent hours more among the birds but we had to get back on board. We stayed on deck as the sun set over modern Cartagena before coming in to change and shower. At dinner that we were joined by the dance instructors – Yay – a normal conversation for a change.
 

Sunday 9 April – Monday 10 April at sea
Weather: Dry, good visibility, overcast
Temperature: 28C
Wind: Force 6
Sea state: Moderate

Sunday was Palm Sunday. I went to solos and then had a late breakfast. Caryll joined me after she had been to the church service and said it had been conducted by the Entertainment Manager as the captain and his deputy were busy due to a probable helicopter medical evacuation. In the event the patient was stabilised and offloaded in St Lucia safely. In between bouts of sunbathing I downloaded my photos of the Panama Canal and Cartegena. Carol went to have her leg dressed. It is not healing well. Tonight is formal so we decided we would go to early sitting and rejoin the table we were on the other night. We finished dinner at 8.15pm and went to the Bacharach show but I couldn’t find a suitable seat so went to the cabin leaving Caryll watching it.

Tuesday 11 April – St Lucia
Weather: Dry, good visibility, 4/8 cloud
Temperature: 29C
Wind: Force 2


I have been to St Lucia twice before so booked a tour to see the northern part of the island. We went to the theatre to wait until we were called and then were mustered ashore to be led to our minibuses. The port agents Foster & Ince do all the tours in Barbados and now seem to now be doing the same in St Lucia so their staff organise everything instead of P&O. Although I enjoyed this tour as regards sights, we seemed to be on and off the bus every 10 minutes and I began to struggle to get out of the cramped seat! The first stop was at Bagshaw’s Art Studio where we were shown silk-screening. The tropical designs were stunning and I bought two linen bird placemats and a parrot wall-hanging. I also took photos of the glorious views over a small beach.
 
 
Next stop was an art gallery where we were shown fabric painting and then to Rodney Bay beach and Marina for photos.
 
 
 
Gros Islet is a small fishing village where the first priests on the island settled in 1749 so we were shown the Catholic Church. Next stop was at Pigeon Point, another white-sand beach with colourful parasols, before climbing up winding roads to what will be the exclusive Sea Breeze Heights with sweeping views over the coastline.
Our final stop was at the Golf & Country Club for a welcome rum punch before being dropped off at the cruise terminal in Castries. Caryll and I then walked the short distance to the handicraft market where I bargained for a very pretty pleated, blue ombre top. Caryll bought some hummingbird planters made from coconut shells. A cold drink was calling so we went to the bar upstairs in the terminal and sat on the balcony with an ice-cold Carib beer and some sweet potato chips. After a brief browse round the cruise terminal shops I left Caryll to do more shopping and returned to Aurora. We sailed late as we had to wait for a feeder container ship to berth before we had a clear exit. That evening at dinner we were joined by the RC priest on our table. He was on board for Easter services, in particular for the many Catholic crew.
Wednesday 12 April - Barbados
Weather: Dry, good visibility, 5/8 cloud
Temperature: 30C
Wind: Force 3-4


Once again, I have been to Barbados twice before so I had booked a new tour here – Barbados in Focus, led by local professional photographer Ronnie Carrington. http://www.ronniecarrington.com/aboutus.cfm
The plan was to take us off the tourist track to photogenic and unique locations. As we drove to our first stop, Ronnie explained a little about the history of the island, life there and also gave some photo tips. The first stop was at the most striking entrance to an old sugar plantation with a stunning avenue of mature palm trees.



Next was a small village with a traditional chattel house. These were built to take apart and move on a small cart. As families grew so extra wings could be added and this was clear in the example we were shown. Of more interest to many of us was the derelict chattel house on the other side of the road, with vines growing up the steps and windows! Then we drove to the Scotland district. This is an area prone to landslides. Many homes seemed to right on the edges of steep cliffs but at the end of the road were stunning views in three directions, including over the ocean.




Bathsheba Beach is well known for its beauty and huge boulders. After clicking away happily we all crossed the road to a small local rum shack for a $2 rum punch. Here a Rastafarian came in with his small monkey!

We then had an hour’s drive back to Bridgetown. Back at the terminal Caryll went off to the shops while I sat in the sun with a local beer and wi-fi. We then wandered round the duty-free shops before climbing the gangway back on board. We left late afternoon. Carnival Fascination was in port together with Freewinds – a Church of Scientology cruise ship, both new to me.



So – now we start the long sail home!  

Thursday 13 April at sea

Weather: Dry, good visibility, 5/8 cloud
Temperature: 26C
Wind: Force 4
Sea state: Slight

The first of five sea days across the Atlantic to the Azores. The weather is still Caribbean – hot sun, blue skies and lots of flying fish, so I saw out most of the day. I decided to enter the photo competition so spent some time sorting my entries but other than that – didn’t do much. We lose an hour every day now until the Azores. That night was the final champagne waterfall so – free champagne. Unfortunately at the previous one a glass broke so it all had to be thrown away.

Friday 14 April at sea
Weather: Dry, occasional showers, 6/8 cloud
Temperature: 24C
Wind: Force 4
Sea state: Slight


A little cooler today but still a lovely day – the weather is acclimatising us for home slowly. It is Good Friday so had two hot cross buns mid-morning instead of breakfast.

Saturday 15 April at sea
Weather: Dry, good visibility, 3/8 cloud
Temperature: 22C
Wind: Force 3
Sea state: Slight


Still glorious weather and in fact I got a little burned – my first slip up the whole cruise. I have been so careful with sunscreen. We had our second World Cruise Lunch so that took up a good couple of hours and left us not fit for much in the afternoon given the free-flowing wine! The table was hosted by Peter Toms (F&B manager) and his wife. I dropped my photos in for the competition and then basked in the sun all afternoon. In the evening we had pre-dinner drinks with the couple who had helped Caryll when she had her accident and at dinner the dance teachers joined us.  
 
Sunday 16 April at sea
Weather: Dry, good visibility, overcast
Temperature: 20C
Wind: Force 5-6
Sea state: Moderate to slight


As it was Easter Sunday I went to the church service, after a brief appearance at the solos meet for coffee and chat. Then, as the weather wasn’t so nice I spent time in the cabin downloading and numbering photos and re-organising stuff ready to pack. Still finding it hard that the cruise is nearing its end.


Monday 17 April at sea
Weather: Dry, good visibility, overcast
Temperature: 19C
Wind: Force 3
Sea state: Slight


Today we have our last Round the World Coffee morning where we chatted to a few people but we are still seeing people we don't remember seeing before!. The sea is flat calm and I saw two pods of dolphins, one very close to the ship and quite spectacular. As it is nicer today I spent as much time as possible outdoors again but it is becoming steadily cooler. In the evening we were joined at dinner by the dance instructors so we had a good time before going to see Ida and the Piano Brothers – and excellent show singing songs from the shows.   

Tuesday 18 April – Ponta Delgada

Weather: Dry, good visibility, 5/8 cloud
Temperature: 19C
Wind: Force 3

Well, this was our final port – but at least the weather was beautiful with warm sun and clear skies. I have been here twice before but always done tours so today I wanted to explore Ponta Delgada itself. The Azores are Portuguese and the architecture is typical of that country – white buildings, black and white cobbled streets and plenty of churches.

I had toyed with the temptation of a whale and dolphin watching boat ride but again it is late in the season for whales. A friend went and said they saw plenty of dolphins and one got so carried away showing off he hit his head on the boat!! We were berthed next to the Noble Caledonia cruise ship Serenissima so I took some photos of her while Caryll went to have her leg re-dressed. We went ashore about 9.30am.

The captain was at the end of the gangway and I spoke to him. He said the weather was looking decidedly lumpy for our final few days home. Made mental note to pack what I can asap! We crossed over from the seafront and wandered the narrow streets running up from the water. Caryll bought a pair of shoes while I bought some hair ornaments. There were many lovely knitting and sewing shops which I didn’t expect as well as the oldest shop in the town which was a real Aladdin’s Cave of goods – from icons to colanders!  



We eventually ended up in a lovely square so sat and had a cold drink and a bruschetta with pesto (yummy) outside a local bar opposite the church. The bell tower played a beautiful carillon at 12 noon. We let the official tours move on before going into the church ourselves to find it decorated with the loveliest flowers for Easter.
 

We wandered slowly back towards the ship stopping off in interesting looking shops – there is a Chinese store on the seafront that sells all manner of kitsch as well as toiletries and souvenirs! I got ahead of Caryll so was looking in the row of shops by the cruise terminal when she joined me and we had an ice-cream. This was delicious but they gave us the stupidest tiny plastic stick to eat it with! I eventually got back on board around 4pm where I had a drink and then went up to the prom deck for sailaway at 5.30pm. The weather was still lovely so we stayed out a while before changing for dinner.


I had a cocktail in Andersons and then went in to dinner. Caryll went to the show, I went to bed.

Wednesday 19 April at sea
Weather: Showers, good visibility, overcast
Temperature: 15C
Wind: Force 6-8
Sea state: Moderate to rough


The first of our three sea days home. As the captain said by midday it was getting bumpy and by the evening it was very rough indeed with 5-6m swells. I commented they must be preparing us for the drive home and have found all the potholes. As we left to go to breakfast we found our cases outside the cabin – a very depressing sight. Caryll started to pack hers but I left mine for the next day – big mistake as it only got rougher! The trouble is once I start on the largest case I have to finish it as I can’t stand it up half packed. It was the MacMillan raffle in the morning but I didn’t win anything. At 3pm I went to the Senior Management Team being interviews on stage. This was very interesting and entertaining. The crew show at 7.30 was similar to the previous one – still good though. At dinner Roger and Ann, the dance instructors, joined us so a normal fun dinner. However, I went to the see the ventriloquist show after dinner and actually walked out as I thought it so bad. He was even doing any ventriloquism for the first 20 mins! Went to bed.

Thursday 20 April at sea

Weather: Dry, good visibility, 7/8 cloud
Temperature: 13.5C
Wind: Force 10
Sea state: Rough to high

Today our cabin is like being inside a washing machine. There are 9-10m swells with huge waves creating rainbows in the bright sunshine. The decks are closed so I spent much of the day either packing (should have done more yesterday!) or in bed since I started to feel decidedly queasy. I did venture out to collect my photo competition photos but decided to skip dinner. The farewell cocktail party was postponed until the final day so I stayed in the cabin and Caryll bought me down a plate of cheese and biscuits sent by Joseph together with some chocolate truffles.  

Friday 21 April at sea
Weather: Dry, good visibility
Temperature: 13C
Wind: Force 4
Sea state: Slight to moderate


What a difference a day makes and we were back to calm glassy seas today. I finished all the packing and put my cases out as each was completed. They started collecting early as there was so much more than usual. I left one till we went to bed as it was the farewell cocktail party that evening, with very free-flowing drinks!


Saturday 22 April – Southampton
Weather: Dry, good visibility, partly cloudy
Temperature: 13C
Wind: Force 3-4


We had a disembarkation time of 10.10 so left our hand luggage in the cabin and went breakfast in the Medina Restaurant. We then collected everything and went to wait in our assigned lounge – The Glass House. Disembarkation was running about half an hour early and we were called at 9.35. Amazingly all our luggage was together so we were soon waiting for our respective taxis outside the Mayflower Terminal. Three hours later I was home wondering what on earth I should do first!

Would I do it again - like a shot!