Caribbean Cruise, 27 December 2014 to 10 January 2015
26-27 December 2014
- Vancouver to Fort Lauderdale via Phoenix
. I left Vancouver at 2:15ish and arrived in Phoenix, Arizona just short of 6 p.m., slightly early (one hour time difference) and waited around in the airport until 11 p.m. grabbing a meal to while away some of the time. Then I caught the red eye to Fort Lauderdale arriving around 5 a.m. (another 2 hours time difference) dead tired and then, as they wouldn't let us onto the ship until about 10:30 a.m., I once again waited, grabbing some coffee and working on e-mails. At one point, the alarms in the airport terminal sounded and the lights flashed and we were all told to evacuate the building. About 35 minutes later, after various departments of police, sheriffs and security personnel had arrived and checked the premises, we were let back in, without any explanation whatsoever.
Finally, the personnel organizing transportation to the ship arrived in the luggage claim area and I enquired about a transfer ticket but was told I wouldn't be able to fit my bag on their shuttle, and that it would have to travel separately. I didn't want that, so instead I took a taxi to Port Everglades, which took all three of my bags and only charged a dollar more (inclusive of a generous tip). Then I managed to fudge my way in using my Elite card and the excuse that my bag did not have a tag for my cabin, and took all my bags onto the ship with me - usually one has to leave the biggest bag with the porters and the crew and they bring it on board much, much later, which delays one's unpacking.
I grabbed some lunch, unpacked, reacquainted myself with the ship, the Ruby Princess
, on which I had last cruised in August of this year, and took a nap until it was time for the emergency drill at around 3:30. I then fixed up my tours. The shore excursions desk would not allow me to do the scuba diving trips I had originally booked as they told me I needed a level 2 certificate and I only had level 1. I found some snorkelling tours as substitutes, though. I then skipped the spa raffle but collected the stamps for the other, main, raffle, then got some dinner, looked at what the ship's shops had to offer then, not too keen on the evening's entertainment, went to bed early as I needed to catch up on my missed sleep from last night.
28 December 2014
- Sea Day
. Normally I will not be reporting about my activities on Sea Days as they are not very interesting. As an example of what I mean, here is what I did today: I was up in time for breakfast and the raffle, at which I won a bouquet of tropical flowers (see photo), I then attended a shopping show in order to try my luck at their raffle of jewellery but was not a winner this time. After lunch at the buffet, I watched the afternoon movie, Begin Again
with Keira Knightley and Mark Ruffalo. I then joined in the afternoon trivia game. In the evening, I went to the production show called Colors of the World
, attended the champagne waterfall, receiving two glasses of free champagne, and then joined the formal dinner in the dining room.
29 December 2014 - Georgetown, Grand Cayman. A British Overseas Territory, former haven of pirates, once called Las Tortugas by Christopher Columbus, due to the one-time population of 40 million turtles, and The Islands Time Forgot, Grand Cayman is one of three islands in the territory, the other two being Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. With a total area of 102 square miles, and a population of 55,000 human inhabitants, the Caymans are the fifth largest centre for banking in the world. Grand Cayman is home to the town of Hell, Stingray City and Sandbar, a turtle farm, the Tortuga Rum company and Seven-mile beach (actually today only 5.5 miles due to erosion). My tour was not until the afternoon, so I spent the morning working on business e-mails and, as the ship was anchored, caught a tender to the pier and walked to the meeting place near the pier shops by 12:15. However, we then had to wait for a while for all to gather. There were three cruise ships in port - a Carnival ship, a Holland America ship and ours. This meant a lot of congestion and numerous tour line-ups. Finally, we were shepherded on foot to a small beach near the other cruise ship terminal, closer to the centre of town, and climbed onto a diving boat, operated by Jo Foster's, which took us out to two spots, Hamburger Reef (so named as it is located just off-shore opposite the site where Burger King has an outlet), and over top of the wreck of Cali - an old several-masted ship from long ago, which had been caught in a hurricane and eventually had to be dynamited, as it was a blight to the local scenery. It was the more interesting of the two snorkelling spots, as there were more species of fish to view. It was also interesting to see where coral had grown on parts of the wreck, including on metallic bits of engine, etc. The photos of the wreck were more interesting too. Fish-wise we saw tarpin, angel fish, several types of parrot fish and many more species whose names I do not know. However, as we were snorkelling up at the surface and they were down near the reef, moved continuously and I had only a small waterproof camera and no colour filters, everything looks blue, or green and not necessarily clear.
30 December 2014 - Roatan, Bay Islands, Honduras - Roatan, the largest of the Bay Islands, lying about 30 miles off the northern coast of Honduras, is 37 miles long and 5 miles wide with a population of 50,000, compared to about 8 million on the mainland. Although Spanish is the language of the mainland, English takes prevalence on Roatan, due to the huge tourism business. At Roatan, you can cuddle with over 2,700 iguanas at a specialised farm, watch dance and musical presentations of the Garifuna Indian culture, visit various theme parks and beaches, canoodle with dolphins (at Anthony's Key Resort), or snorkel and scuba at over 130 dive sites. Mahogany Bay Island, a 10-acre private isle surrounded by mangroves, by which we were docked, was created, I learned, by Carnival Group to serve the passengers of all its lines. Rather kitsch and crowded with beach chairs and clam shells (not the sea life but the sun-protected pair of beach chairs), you can get there via a chair lift or a zip-line over the water, or you can simply walk the short distance along a path and over a bridge. Once there, you can kayak, swim - in a pool or in the sea - shop, or appease your hunger or thirst at various restaurants. There are also playgrounds for children and a beach volleyball area. Today at this same dock, besides our ship, there was a Carnival ship and a Costa ship. At Roatan's other dock, there was an NCL cruise ship.
Mahogany Bay Island is just one of several specialised tourist areas. Others we were told about include Maya Key Island, an 11.5-acre private island with similar amenities but also an animal refuge, the 40-acre Carambola Botanical Gardens, a tropical Butterfly Garden and 50-acre Gumbalimba Preservation Park, which has a bird sanctuary and a monkey refuge.
The tour I chose to do at Roatan was a new experience for me. In lieu of scuba diving or diving with the dolphins, tours on which I was booked earlier, but had to cancel due to my lack of a level 2 PADI certificate, as mentioned earlier, I took what I felt was the third best option, which was to go on a “BOSS (Breathing Observation Submersible Scooter) Underwater Adventure” - basically an underwater scooter where your head is covered by a plastic see-through bubble attached to the scooter and fed by air coming from a scuba tank tied to the front of the vehicle. The controls are simple, basically steering left and right and pushing on a button with your left index finger for power, thus operating a propeller at the back of the vehicle. I was even encouraged to wear my glasses whilst inside. To my disappointment and misapprehension, I believed that I would get closer to the marine life this way and thus be able to take better, close-up photos of coral and fish than one can when snorkelling. Unfortunately, this was not the case. True enough, we were between 8 and 10 feet under water but the bubble actually made the objects - coral and fish - appear much smaller than they were - or at least that is how it seemed to me. But perhaps it was merely the case that with about 15 of these scooters all traveling in a pack with two to three dive masters in scuba equipment accompanying us, the bigger fish knew we were coming and had decided in advance to get out of our way! The crew in scuba gear kindly offered to take photos of us with our own cameras, though there was an underwater photographer taking photos for money - photo packages that one had to sign up for prior to their being taken, and to be received via e-mail some 2 weeks later. Therefore, apart from a few tiny but colourful fish, which I was unable to photograph from inside the bubble, it was not the experience I had hoped it would be. Nevertheless, I am glad I did it, as I now know what it is, but the helmet dive I did in Bora Bora (twice) was much, much better, and as we were in fact feeding the fish on French baguettes, they came to us willingly and the resulting photography was amazing!
As we were a large group of about 45 or so, we were divided into three groups and my group was the second to travel on these devices. So whilst the first group was underwater, the rest of us went snorkelling. The marine life was similar to what we had seen yesterday, but there were so many small jelly fish in the water where we were located, and stinging ones at that, that the experience was not pleasant and back on board, I and several other snorkellers had to be sprayed with a vinegar solution to get rid of the sting. The snack included on the B.O.S.S. tour consisted of cold water and packages of locally manufactured Oreo-type sandwich cookies.
31 December 2014 - Cozumel Island, Mexico. Cozumel, at 30 miles long and 10 miles wide, is Mexico's largest island, located 6.2 miles off the mainland's Yucatan peninsula. It was inhabited by 40,000 Mayans when the Spanish arrived in 1519, but fifty years later all but 30 were eradicated by smallpox. Today, it has a population of about 80,000 inhabitants and its main industry is tourism. It was here that I was able to use my Spanish for the first time this trip. The area boasts of a number of Mayan ruins, white sandy beaches, clear turquoise waters, a national park called Chankanaab, mariachi music, folkloric shows, and 30 spectacular chartered reefs for excellent diving and snorkelling opportunities, not to mention shopping. First brought to light by Jacques Cousteau in the early 1960s, the island's surrounding reefs now attract 60,000 divers annually, scores of whom we passed on our catamaran cruise, either on their dive boats, or in the water at Palancar Reef, considered one of the top five reefs in the world and where we were snorkelling, in fact.
Our dive master, Manuel, had us sign waivers, as they all do, and then walked us over to our catamaran, Interestingly enough he had things well organised in that respect, whereas another group of tourists, possibly off the Royal Caribbean or the Celebrity ship on the other pier, or the Carnival ship sharing our pier, were standing and sitting around on the same wharf where our catamaran was, sans guide and sans boat. They must have been hot in that sun with no shade to protect them! Once on board the cat, we were given a full presentation of all the snorkelling equipment and handed individual bottles of water. Then the cat motored over (it had all the equipment for sailing, but unfortunately it was never used) a good half hour or so down the coast of Cozumel to an area between the Columbia trench and Palancar Reef. The whole group of us 45 or so snorkelled out together creating much congestion and sometimes feet or hands got in the way of my photographs. There were a variety of colourful fish to see, but again it was difficult to capture great photos from the surface. In the sandy area between the two reefs, we saw a small sting ray, but nothing bigger. When we arrived at Palancar Reef proper, we saw scuba divers - Oh how I longed to be with them, though, clearly, visibility was not ideal as you can see from the last photo below.
When we arrived back on board the cat, we were offered a choice of beer, margarita or rum punch and my impression was that the bartender was pretty heavy-handed with the tequila! It was then a short cat ride to Playa Mia, the providers of the tour and of the catamaran, no doubt, and Manuel led us to our section of the restaurant where we were served sandwiches, salad and fruit and had access to an open bar. I was happy to remain in the shade, reading my book, but others in the tour probably went and rode kayaks or sailboards, swam in the sea or pool (all included in our tour price), tried parasailing or sat in the beach loungers or clam shells (not included in the tour price).
It was lucky that I had cancelled my second tour, sailing an America's Cup yacht, as I was too tired and after a shower to wash off all the salt water, could only sleep for the next 3 hours. When I awoke it was already 4ish and I still had business e-mails to send before the end of the year. After I had completed that task, it was time to get ready for the New Year's Eve festivities on board. After changing into a cocktail dress, I took advantage of all the free portrait sittings so as to collect tickets for the photography department's raffle tomorrow, watched the production show, realising half way through that I had seen it before - probably back in August - even the cast members seemed familiar. I then decided to skip the late night celebrations and get an early night. So that's it for 2014. Here's hoping for an even better 2015.
1 January 2015
- Sea Day
. The most notable event today was that I won first prize at the photography raffle, consisting of four free 8 by 10 portraits, as seen below:
2 January 2015
- Princess Cay, Bahamas
. Finally, I had the chance to take a bit of a break from snorkelling and, for a change, experience some colour, culture and history on land. Our guide was 18-year-old Brian, with a beautiful lilting accent, like nothing I had ever heard before in all my travels. He pronounced all the vowels separately, so that “trees” for instance became “tree-yez.” His colleagues, however, spoke in the West Indian style I was used to from other Caribbean Islands. As an introduction to Eleuthera, the pineapple capital of the Bahamas, a country blessed with about 340 days of sunshine per year, we were taken on a bus driven by Walter, up, down and around the Southern portion of this 110-mile long and 2-mile wide island, one of 700 in the Bahamian archipelago. Although it was called “Cigatoo” when it was inhabited by Lucayan Indians at the time Christopher Columbus visited in 1492, in 1648, Eleutheran Adventurers settled in the Bahamas and named the island “Eleuthera” from the Greek word for “freedom.” A member of the British Commonwealth, the Bahamas achieved independence from the British crown in 1973.
As part of the tour, we were supposed to be taken to an elementary school to visit with the children, and I believe this would have been the highlight of the tour, but unfortunately, being January 2nd, the children were still on holiday. We carried on then to a large swimming hole called Ocean Hole, full of fish and where some tourists were swimming, and on as far north as Tarpum Bay, a fishing village, where we met some of the fishermen, who, due to the holidays, were not working either, so we were unable to see their catch. They were very friendly, however. Brian told us that Tarpum Bay, instead of being a “fishing village with a drinking problem”, is a “drinking village with a fishing problem!” We did not see anyone noticeably “kerpunkled up” (the local vernacular for “drunk”) and tried our best not to “yuck up Brian's vexation” (anger him) as he taught us to say how we were in Bahamian = “Right Here Between Oh Lord and Thank God” by having one side of the bus saying “Oh Lord” and the other side, “Thank God.” This, however, merely caused some of us to be “mixed up like conch salad” (i.e. confused). We also visited a couple of churches and made stops to view the aquamarine-coloured ocean and the pink government administration building. Finally, at about 12:45 p.m., we drove to a restaurant and were served conch fritters, macaroni cheese and BBQ chicken wings with a pineapple muffin for dessert. It was a meal that was heavy on the starch and contained no fresh vegetables or fruit, but was delicious, nonetheless. We were also provided with a glass of iced lemonade. As soon as we finished eating, a fisherman cum cook called Belly (or at least that's what it sounded like) gave us a demonstration of how conch salad was made. Once he finished making the salad, it was then time for us to witness and participate in a junkanoo (named after a former plantation owner, called John Canoe, who was kind to his slaves), usually a street parade celebrated on Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year's Day, Independence Day or any special occasion, with colourful crepe-paper and cardboard costumes accompanied by music played on cowbells, goatskin drums and horns.
At about 2 p.m. We were returned to Princess Cays, a 30-acre private island in the south of Eleuthera belonging to Princess Cruises and containing over a mile and a half of sandy-white shoreline. Although the total island of Eleuthera has a population of some 13,000, the population of Princess Cays, when there is no ship anchored off the island, is only two on-site managers. I was glad I had opted for the land tour, because I believe I would have been bored silly in Princess Cays for hours on end. I walked the length of it and took some photos but more than that, I could not handle. The flower below right is the Yellow Elder, the national flower of the Bahamas.
3 January 2015 - Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA, is supposedly known as the “yachting capital of the world” and is the site of the world's second largest port, after Miami. After waiting in our lounge on board the Ruby Princess for a good while, we were finally called off the ship about 8:30 a.m. then proceeding through immigration and customs, got on to our tour bus, where we waited for the last passengers to join us - apparently they were held up in immigration - and finally left about 10 minutes later than scheduled. Nonetheless, we were well entertained by our tour guide, Marita, as the female driver piloted the bus southward toward the Florida Everglades and Sawgrass Park so that we might experience an airboat ride. As the airboat had loud engines and little control, we were issued with earplugs (but no lifejackets). The river of grass was supposedly not very deep (though somewhat deeper than usual due to the heavy rains Florida had had this winter), but full of crocs and alligators, which, we were told, only appeared when the sun did, otherwise they hid on the bottom controlling their heart rate sometimes to as little as one beat per minute.
The only wildlife we saw on our 30-minute airboat ride was an osprey, right, happily perched on top of a pole and eating his breakfast of fish. I managed to capture its image just as it was voiding - hence the spray being ejected from its back end. Luckily, we were not in its path! Back at the park entrance were a number of birds that I had first noticed in Cozumel. I do not know what they are called in the USA but in Mexico they are called Koa, the male being all black and the female (seen here, left) with a brown head and therefore visually more appealing. Despite their ubiquitousness, they are sweet-singing birds and being the mating season, in Cozumel, I and a restaurant employee watched one male Koa courting two female Koas at the same time (much like many Mexican men, perhaps!)
There was a small collection of native wild cats and reptiles in the area behind the gift shop, a visit to which was included in our airboat ticket, so the photos of (from left to right) the iguana, giant turtle and alligator or croc (I am not sure which) above were taken there, rather quickly, mind you, as we were not given much free time.
Our next stop was the Flamingo Gardens and Wildlife Sanctuary, where injured animals are cared for and bred and the resulting offspring are released back into the wild. We were first taken on a little train ride where various plants were pointed out to us, as were some reptiles and large birds that were free to go where they pleased. At the end of the ride we had about half an hour to spend as we pleased, so my first priority was to photograph the flamingos, after which the garden were named, as well as peacocks (I love peacocks!), other water birds and a few more reptiles. There were wild cats too, but they were all caged or behind glass, as were the snakes and non-wading birds, such as toucans, macaws, and parakeets, etc.
After a snack of Klondike ice-cream bars, we were hustled back on the bus so that those passengers who were going to the Fort Lauderdale airport could catch their flights on time and the remainder of us were returned to the ship and got back on board rather more quickly than we were able to get off this morning.
4 January 2015 - Princess Cay, Bahamas. We were back in Princess Cays once again after a day in Florida and as the activities on offer here are meagre, I opted to take the snorkelling tour for experienced snorkellers. We were a small group of 20 and were left mainly to explore on our own, though the captain did provide us with an unnecessary introduction to the equipment. We were taken out to a small reef located on the western side of Eleuthera Island where the fish and coral life was perhaps the best I had seen on this trip: purple fans, many yellow tail, several types of parrot fish and everything was fairly close up. The only negative point was that the waves were a bit choppy. I even saw a moray eel swimming along the bottom, but unfortunately, it swam too quickly for me to photograph it, and then hid among some coral. We had pretty much a full hour on our own and once we were back on board and the two crew members had collected the equipment from us, the captain took out his 12-string guitar and sang about 4 or 5 songs for us - the standards of Day-Oh and Jamaica Farewell (or in his version Bahamas Farewell) and a couple of gospel tunes that he said he had composed. About 60 plus, his voice was rough and broke a few times, but it made a change from the usual musical entertainment you get on these types of tours, which is for the most part recorded reggae or dance music. No beverages or snacks were provided.
After returning to Princess Cays, on the tender boat I took back to the ship, I met a few people who were comparing Princess Cays to the private Caribbean islands owned by Holland America and NCL, and apparently one of these other cruise lines also offers horse riding and parasailing on its private isle. I would have loved to have done either of these activities at Princess Cays, had they been on offer. Something to suggest to Princess, perhaps?
6 January 2015 - St. Martin, Netherlands Antilles. Originally settled by Arawak Indians from South America and then by Carib Indians who called it Soualiga or “Land of Salt”, in 1648, the French and Dutch signed a treaty to divide St. Martin/Sint Maarten, into two parts, making it the smallest mass of land on Earth to be shared by two countries. The French got the larger share (21 square miles as opposed to the Dutch 16 square miles) but the Dutch side has a larger population (about 40,000 of the total of 75,000 inhabitants). The Dutch side offers a Zoo, which I had visited and photographed on a previous occasion, and the French side offers a butterfly farm and a nudist beach (which I had visited on my last trip here.)
As it is an island I have visited many times before, both as an employee of Royal Caribbean back in the day, and as a Princess cruise passenger, I took few photographs here this time. In the morning, after docking at 10 a.m. (we were one of five ships docking at St. Martin's today - an NCL, a Disney, two Royal Caribbean and us), I walked quickly into town to use the free Wifi at Diamonds International so as to catch up on business e-mails. Note that there are no coffee shops (like Starbucks) with free Wifi in Phillipsburg - I asked and was told this was because internet on this island costs USD150 per month! I then walked quickly back to the ship to change into my swimwear and to meet my tour at 12:50 p.m. We headed out to a catamaran and sailed out to Mullet Bay near the airport on the Dutch side, which was crowded, and while some beginners snorkelled or swam with noodles, I decided to stay on board, to read and slowly sip rum punches. Once everyone was back on board the cat, we were served baguette sandwiches and then champagne. We had been told that visibility in the water would not be great and that the waves were a bit choppy, but my main reason for not snorkelling today was because there were so many people in the water - not only our catamaran with its 81 passengers but also another catamaran from the same company with Royal Caribbean passengers and quite a substantial number of sun worshipers on the beach already - so it was all a bit too crowded for my comfort.
7 January 2015 - St. Thomas, U.S. Virgin Islands. Though inhabited as early as 1500 B.C. by prehistoric Ciboney from South America, St. Thomas was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493 and became a trading post for the Dutch West Indies Company in the mid to late 1600s. In the 17th century, the islands were divided into two territorial units - British and Danish, the Danish part becoming over time a thriving sugar cane producer, for which slaves were imported as labour. After the Danish abolished slavery in 1848, however, planters abandoned their estates and both the economy and the population suffered. Threatened by German expansion during World War I, the U.S. purchased the Danish portion for 25 million dollars in 1917 and residents were granted U.S. citizenship in 1927. Located in the Eastern Caribbean, and measuring 13 miles long by 4 miles wide, St. Thomas, birthplace of impressionist painter Camille Pissarro, is part of the U.S. Virgin Islands and is full of American fast food chains such as Subway, Pizza Hut and MacDonald's. With a population of over 50,000, its attractions include Magens Bay, one of the world's best beaches according to National Geographic magazine, Blackbeard's Castle (Bluebeard also visited frequently), Coral World, a skyride (aerial cable car) to Paradise Point, and zip lining. Visits to other U.S. (St. John's for relaxation at Trunk Bay or Honeymoon Beach) or British Virgin Islands (Virgin Gorda and Tortola) can be made fairly easily and quickly using the ferry system. You would need to take your passport if you visited the British Virgin Islands, however. A noticeable quirk of these islands is that the cars, no doubt imported from mainland USA, all have their steering wheels located American style on the left yet they drive on the left side of the road, British style.
We docked at the WICO pier by the Havensight shopping centre, with its nearby Butterfly Farm, located about 1 1/2 miles from downtown Charlotte Amalie, the capital. There are 103 steps (although they are known as the 99 steps) that connect the upper and lower parts of the town. Docked with us were the brand new Regal Princess, an NCL ship and at anchor was a second NCL ship. Our tour took us to Coki Beach, noted for its tranquil, turquoise waters. It was, finally, a scuba trip - what I had hoped I would be doing throughout these two weeks, instead of only today. Again, as the Shore Excursions staff had told me I could not do the certified dives, I had initially signed up for the introductory dive at this port. However, once I joined up with the group at the pier, the Dive Centre owner took one look at my PADI certificate and said, “Yes, you are certified. We won't be going below about 40 feet anyway.” This made me very happy. There was another girl in the group from Montreal, who had the same certification as me, and she had signed up for all the certified dives as well. She had not noticed that an Open Water Dive certificate was necessary, so had not informed the shore excursions staff. Consequently, as far as I know, she had been able to do all the certified dives. Consequently, it is only my own stupidity of being so honest that prevented me from enjoying the other eight dives in which I had originally intended to participate during the past two weeks! In any case, after signing a waiver and getting into a van containing a total of 14 certified divers, we were driven to Coki Beach, a good 45 minutes' drive away on the other side of the island, where we were handed out fins, masks and snorkels - my own mask had come apart, so I used their mask and for once I had no problem with the lens fogging up nor did I ever need to clear my mask underwater due to leakage - time to buy myself a new mask, I think! Then to my further delight and surprise, I was in fact able to fit into my short wetsuit that I had bought prior to my cruise - despite one and a half weeks of cruise ship meals! It was a dive from shore, so we proceeded to the beach and were helped into our BCDs and tanks and I carried 12 pounds of weight - 6 each side. With the water being calm and there being no surf or waves, it was an easy entrance and descent into the sea. We were seven to each dive master and at first our dive master, Brian, who looked a bit like a Tennessee Mountain man with his long scraggly beard, despite being in his late twenties, had brought food to feed the first fish, which I believe were Yellow Tail. As we descended deeper and deeper, keeping an eye on our air gauges, we saw other fish and masses of coral, the most curious to me being ones that were like balls of purple flowers, like aliums I suppose bit much rounder, thicker and bigger - something I had never seen before. We saw one turtle poking its head out from under a rock, and a slippery back lobster, which the dive master removed from under its rock, had some of us touch or hold and then put it back under the same rock where he had found it. The water was very clear, the current minimal, the temperature warm and the sea life plentiful. I thought to myself en route, 'Yes, this is why I took all those classes in November and braved the frigid BC waters. I can finally say it was all worth it!
The only thing I regretted was not having with me an underwater camera that I could take down to 56 feet - for that is in fact how deep we went. OK, perhaps there are two things I regret, the other being not having asked someone to take a photo of me in my shorty wetsuit and gear at Coki Beach, just to prove I was there! This explains the lack of photos for this blog entry. However, I should note that, as a personal record for me, we stayed underwater for 45 minutes without a worry. The longest I had managed to stay underwater on my open water practices was 27 minutes. Somewhere on the way back though, Brian did add another 3 pounds to one of my BCD's weight pockets, so I was carrying a total of 15 pounds extra weight. Although the tour was scheduled for 3 and a half hours, we were back at our ship with almost an hour to spare. Therefore, after a shower, a change of clothes and buffet lunch on the ship, I disembarked once again with my laptop and after making some enquiries, found an outdoor cafe-restaurant with free Wifi in Havensight Mall, ordered an ice coffee and spent a good two hours working on my e-mails, etc. - time well spent in my opinion. So though I did not have the chance to visit Charlotte Amalie this time, I can now safely leave that experience for a future trip, as I can now claim having successfully completed a certified dive in the Caribbean and my goal, for today at least, is accomplished.
8 January 2015 - Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos. Annually receiving, on average, 350 days of sunshine, and not technically part of the Caribbean as they are surrounded on all sides by the Atlantic Ocean, Turks and Caicos was the only group of islands on this particular cruise that I had not yet visited so I was looking particularly forward to this stop at Grand Turk, the largest island of this chain of 40 with a population of 3700. Taino Indians (from whose language we took the words hammock, maracas, iguana and hurricane) crossed over to Turks and Caicos from Hispaniola between 500 and 800 A.D., followed by the Lucayan Indians between 1300 and 1500. Although the local tour pamphlet says it was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1492, the Princess Cruises information tells me it was discovered by Poncé de Leon in 1512, and that the Spanish settled here in 1766. Later both the French and the British had control of these islands. Located just 30 miles south of the Bahamas, Grand Turk sits at the eastern end of the archipelago. Its icon is the Grand Turk Lighthouse, now a National Trust-protected historic site, brought from the U.K. in 1852 to help prevent shipwrecks. Although the island is small at only 7 miles long and 1 and a half miles wide, the lighthouse is located at the very Northern end, and we did not get that far in our post-snorkel sightseeing drive, described below. Cockburn Town, located on this island, is the administrative capital of Turks and Caicos and boasts of an interesting museum housed in one of the oldest stone buildings of the islands, and containing an exhibit of a shipwreck from 1513 reputed to be Columbus' famous Pinta. There is also more than one exhibit on the island commemorating John Glenn's 1962 Friendship 7 spacecraft splashdown a mile or so off this island. Other places to visit on (or off Grand Turk) are Gibb's Cay for snorkelling and sting rays, Governor's Beach, which fronts the British Governor's Residence, and the Salt House, because in 1678 Bermudians arrived to extract salt here: the salt ponds are still a prevalent part of the landscape and you can sometimes see flamingos visiting them. Semi-wild horses and donkeys also roam freely on the island as they are descendents of the original Spanish conquistadors' horses, which remained uncontaminated by outside bloodlines for more than 400 years.
As Grand Turk is home to the world's third largest barrier reef and is consistently ranked among the world's top diving destinations, I had hoped, once again to scuba dive here, and had booked accordingly, but instead I had to settle for a “Power Snorkel” i.e. snorkelling for the lazy man (or woman), with the company Chukka. I was nevertheless interested enough to find out what it was as I had seen James Bond use one of these devices in a recent film. My own opinion after the fact is that it was cumbersome and I would rather have snorkelled without it. It certainly did not add to my pleasure and being in deeper water we were once again too far away from the sea life to take any worthwhile photos. We were driven out about 5 minutes off shore in a diving boat and after jumping in the water were handed these heavy but buoyant apparatuses which had three speeds. A short swim away and we were over the famous wall or drop-off, which supposedly goes down to 7,000 feet below sea level. We saw many yellow tail, and lots of small jelly fish, but I did not hear of anyone being stung by them. We also saw a swimming turtle and a nurse shark, the latter which I managed to photograph. We were not provided with any drinks or snacks upon arriving back on shore, but as we got closer to shore there were a lot of little tiny fish that seemed to disguise themselves in the sea grass as they were similarly coloured, and even tinier ones that were gold and purple. We were transported between the Cruise Ship Center and the beach from where the snorkelling trip started in open air trucks with benches, and on the way back to the pier we were treated to a short sightseeing tour which included pointing out the 5-star diving resort, Bohio, the 5-year-old 58-million-dollar hospital and one of the three replicas of John Glenn's space shuttle near the airport. Contrarily, we were whizzed past souvenir shops and churches and the historic part of town but did pass one school which had a few teenagers emerging from it at the end of their school day.
In fact all the ship tours started at the 13-acre Cruise Ship Centre, where we were the only ship docked, and which contained masses of duty-free shops, a swimming pool with wet bar and a Margaritaville Restaurant, not to mention an 800-foot-long private white sand beach with beach chairs, massage services, and supposedly a Flowrider for surfers, snowboarders and wakeboarders to practice on. I looked around at the shops for a bit but found the prices high so bought nothing. However, on the way back to the ship, I had to marvel at the clarity of the water, through which the below trumpet fish and its friends could be clearly seen with the naked eye (and camera).
10 January 2015 - Fort Lauderdale, Florida, USA. Alas, it was the end of the cruise and time to return home and to reality. However, as my flight was not until 3 p.m., instead of taking a direct transfer to the airport, I opted instead for a tour. At this port, the cruise line offered a choice of only three tours, one of which I experienced last Saturday (see above), and a second option was shopping at a local mall (not for me!), so the only one left was a tour of Fort Lauderdale by bus, featuring a visit to Las Olas Boulevard and a boat trip on the paddle wheeler, the Carrie B along the waterways that give Fort Lauderdale the nickname the “Venice of America” down the New River and into the Intercoastal Waterway. After a more or less smooth passage through immigration, finding our luggage, and getting it onto the bus, I found that I was, in fact, the only passenger on the coach heading to the Fort Lauderdale airport after the tour, as the rest of the passengers (except for one who was going to Miami airport) were all returning to the ship for their second week of cruising.
We first headed along the beach, which I had photographed on a previous visit, and as it was fairly early on a Saturday morning, the beach was mostly deserted with beach chairs all neatly stacked. However, there were numerous runners running along the sidewalk beside the beach and I longed to be trotting aside them in such glorious weather. We were let out of the bus at Las Olas Boulevard for a good hour. I believe it was touted as being a haven for shoppers, but again, so early in the morning, few stores were open. It seemed to cater to a fashionable crowd and sold clothing, real estate, and food and drink in the premises of restaurants and bars, to which most of my bus companions headed while I took a walk along the street with my camera. It was not a very long boulevard and I think I got to both ends of the interesting bit. The three photos below, show inexplicably but gaily painted boxes by street signs, a painted street crossing and one young fellow who insisted I took his photo and post it. I got the impression he was trying out this method to advertise his CD, which he is holding in his left hand, though I could hardly read what was written on it, never of course heard it, nor did he try to sell it to me. I was quite happy to take his photo though and he seemed a happy sort of fellow.
I then continued along the cross street and ended up at the River Walk to watch the passage of small yachts and water taxis under two drawbridges and several dog walkers picking up their pooches' early morning emissions. I even walked by the Carrie B
which was our method of transport for the second half of our tour, as mentioned earlier. Back at the bus, our tour guide, Joan, told us we would go straight to the Carrie B
by bus so as to get the best seats, as there would be two more tour groups to join us. She did not inform us, though, as we waited on the top deck in the direct sun, that we would in fact have to wait a good half hour for these two other groups to appear! The captain, of the Carrie B
who, somewhat extraordinarily, also seemed to double as the ship's photographer, was a lively entertainer as he presented various homes and yachts that we passed on our way through the watery route. Not only was the cost to buy these mega houses and mega yachts huge - clearly a grotesque display of outrageous ostentation - and for the most part their owners lived in them only a few months of the year - but they also required payments of taxes or mooring fees, amounting in some cases to the flabbergasting sum of USD1,000 per day, and these were not their only homes or means of transportation. One can just imagine how many people in any third world country you could feed on USD1,000 a day and take that and multiply it by several scores of people who all live this way. Makes you think. And these particular home- and yacht-owners were not film stars, but rather business owners or inventors. However, the large yacht below right does belong to Stephen Spielberg, and, we were told, had just returned from vacationing in St. Barth's. The home in the middle is a fine example of over-extravagant opulence and is know as the White House.
The tour over, I was dropped, as promised, at the Air Canada terminal of the airport, and made my way back home through Montreal arriving near midnight local Vancouver time.
All the above photos are copyright Angela Fairbank. Please contact the photographer for usage rights and/or copies