I get up late and spend my morning spotting Caribbean islands and sea birds (Frigates and Boobys) as the Royal Clipper slowly approaches St. Barts. First is Sint Maartin/St. Martin, then striking Mount Scenery on the island of Saba, and finally the northern islands of St. Barts itself. We anchor near Grande Vigie in Gustavia harbour by 11AM. The 3-masted clipper Stad Amsterdam is anchored in the outer harbour near us. There are the usual complement of super-yachts docked at the marinas in the harbour (see banner image above).
My afternoon excursion today is aboard a charter sailboat, and includes sailing to the leeward side of the island, with a stop at a beach and cove for swimming not too far from Gustavia. I go for a swim in the lovely warm water, and walk the beautiful uncrowded beach. There are snacks and beer served after our swim, as we sail around the windy point back into Gustavia harbour. All-in-all, a sublime and relaxing day!
Saint-Barthélemy is a department of France, and like all of the other French Caribbean islands, it is an expensive place to visit or to live on. That said, all these French islands are also noticeably better off than the other Caribbean islands colonized by other European nations.
I sleep in yet again this morning to 8:45AM, but it doesn’t matter since today is a sea day. After getting cleaned up a bit, I wander down to the dining room for breakfast: ordering a cappuccino to start, have some fruit, yogurt, pastries and a pancake.
The captain gives an interesting presentation this morning titled “Everything”, which covers the questions posed to him from passengers over the last few days: sailing ship configurations, navigation and GPS, and the physics of how to sail ships with sails. Amazingly, he has written a PhD on using Super-cavitation for fast underwater propulsion – a subject I knew nothing about!
Our course is 090 due east with a stiff wind on our nose, so no sails are set today. We pass by Puerto Rico this afternoon, so I turn off my cellular data roaming, since I don’t have a roaming plan for the US, only for the other Caribbean islands.
Lunch is served on deck from the Tropical Bar. It was quite a spread…it took the staff an hour to haul everything up from the kitchen to serve to us. They work hard, and for long hours! My cabin steward tells me he gets some time off in the afternoon.
I attend a presentation given by a passenger this afternoon which profiles his working life aboard the Union Castle Line on the Royal Mail route between London and South Africa. It was somewhat interesting to see glimpses of life at sea in the 1950s and 60s for the passengers.
The wind is strong and it’s also hot outside this afternoon, so I stay in the Piano Bar working on my journal and photos while sipping a cappuccino. Later in the afternoon the clouds come in, making it more pleasant outside as the sun sets.
I join a table for eight for dinner this evening: five from the UK and two from Canada (Sidney, BC, but former Brits). I have a bunch of Internet time to use, so this evening I work on my photos and manage to post a new album to Facebook.
I sleep in again this morning, but leave my cabin by 8:45AM to have a cappuccino and some breakfast. The ship is sailing along the coastline of the Dominican Republic for quite a while until she pulls into the port of Santo Domingo at noon. I’m on deck while the ship is being cleared by customs and immigration, and ask Camilla, the Tour Director if there are any spaces left on today’s city/walking tour. She indicates there are two spots left, so I take one, even though I’ve arranged to walk the town with my friends as well.
My friends and I are some of the first to disembark the ship, finding our way across the busy street in front of the cruise terminal, and climbing the stairs up into the historic colonial zone. The local kids have been let out of school to have their lunch outside, so I get some cute photos of them. We walk around the nearby old cathedral (Catedral Primada de America), but I soon peel off from my friends and return to the ship. Walking around in the heat of the day is not my idea of fun!
I have some lunch in the dining room and then grab my camera bag before debarking again to board the small tour bus for this afternoon’s walking excursion. Our first stop is across the river from where the ship is docked to see and photograph the Christopher Columbus monument and lighthouse. His remains are in this massive concrete monument, but we don’t go in. He landed at this location in the New World, representing the King of Spain. By most accounts, he was the first European to reach the Caribbean.
We then drive back into the colonial zone and are dropped off at the cathedral. Our guide gives us a narrated tour of the many interesting and historic buildings in the colonial zone: Catedral Primada de America, the Alcazar de Colon, the National Pantheon, and the National Monument commemorating national heroes.
We continue walking down the Calle las Damas a favourite haunt of the Vicerene Maria de Toledo, niece of the King of Spain and wife to Diego, son of Christopher Columbus. Apparently she used to walk there on her way to Mass with the other ladies of the court, hence the name Calle las Damas (Ladies Street).
As we cross the Plaza España, there is a giant Coca Cola Christmas tree display setup on the plaza in front of the impressively reconstructed house of Diego Colon (Columbus), who was a viceroy for the Spanish colony. It is fascinating to learn how the viceroy and his family lived, and to see the beautiful artifacts placed in the various rooms where they were originally.
It starts to pour rain just as we re-board the tour bus, and are taken along the first part of the city’s Malacon near the port, to the Presidential Palace (a photo stop I didn’t take advantage of), and drive through Chinatown on our return to the cruise terminal. We arrive about 15 minutes before the gangway is pulled up, so I’m glad I took the organized tour since the ship is guaranteed to wait for you! Thanks to our very good tour guide, I certainly have lots of interesting information about the city’s history, and better understand the country’s context in the Caribbean.
I watch a beautiful sunset as our ship leaves port, bound for St. Barts. We have a sea day tomorrow, which I am glad of. I have dinner with three men in their 70s who are best friends, and who travel together once or twice each year without their wives. They are wine connoisseurs who are working their way through the ship’s wine list, to the great pleasure of the wine steward!
I sleep in until 8:30AM this morning since this is a sea day, and go to the Piano Bar for pastries and a cappuccino. It’s much quieter in this area than the main dining room, where the feeding frenzy is well underway.
I decide to climb the rigging to the crows nest this morning, so I get my GoPro action cam ready with a head strap, leave all my other stuff in the cabin except my room card, and head forward. The sports crew are there to put on a harness, clip you onto the safety line, and give instructions. Getting to the passengers’ crows nest involves climbing a rope ladder to the mid-point of the second forward mast, where there is another sports crew person up there to help unclip and for safety. Two or three passengers at a time are in the crows nest, since it is quite a big platform.
After climbing down, I’m thirsty, so I go to the nearby bar on deck for a couple of good-tasting German Flensburger draught beers. I have a chat with the German guy who was ahead of me in the climb, and a couple of Brits. I also go forward and spend some time on the bow net watching the bow wave dancing in the sun glint (see banner image above).
At lunch I sit with a couple from Thunder Bay (Ontario, Canada). We talk about our travels in southern Africa, and South Africa in particular. The food aboard the ship is very good, and they offer lots of variety, including vegetarian. Drinks are reasonably priced – 3.50€ for a glass of Flensburger draught beer, which is about CAD$4.25 Smoking is allowed in designated spots outside only, which is fine with me. Close to half the passengers are German, but the English-speaking Americans, Canadians, and Brits are the biggest combined group, with French-speakers being a small third group.
I go to the top deck forward near the bridge to observe the sunset, and see the Green Flash. What I observed might be better described as a green glow, since there was some cloud on the horizon partially obscuring the Sun. I captured it on video with my iPhone.
I sleep in until 8AM, get dressed and go to the dining room for breakfast. I have a cappuccino with some pastries, fruit, and a spoonful of scrambled eggs. The ship arrives in Port Antonio on schedule at 10AM. There’s a pretty serious crunch as the ship makes contact with the concrete pier in the stern. The crew make some repairs while we’re docked.
I find this sailing ship is a photographer’s dream if you look up at the fantastic rigging and sails, and it is also a nightmare, because there are lines and masts everywhere obstructing clear views overboard!
I am on the shore excursion Highlights of Port Antonio. First stop in our minibus is to view Trident Castle, a German-built modern castle located on a beautiful cove, which mainly caters to weddings. We don’t go into the castle, but instead carry on to the Jamaica Palace Hotel, which is our first stop. It is a very striking hotel, and has surprisingly reasonable room rates starting at US$120/night. We are given a Rum Punch welcome drink, and a tour of the extensive grounds including their art gallery.
Along the way, we learn about the resident crocodiles in Springs area, and how the national fruit Aki opens naturally and is eaten with salt fish (the national dish). We make a stop at the Blue Lagoon, which I find underwhelming. Trident Castle, Jamaica Palace Hotel, and Blue Lagoon are all touted as being used as locations for movies.
Our last stop is Frenchman’s Cove, where there is a private beach for us to lounge on and swim from. There is a freshwater stream beside the beach flowing into a saltwater cove – both of which are very pretty. Unfortunately, the water in both is quite cold, so I don’t bother trying to swim or snorkel, instead preferring to sit on the beach in the shade of a palm tree. The beach is not crowded, and we have a couple of hours here to enjoy ourselves before returning to the ship.
All 44 sails are set as we leave Port Antonio and then they are taken down again once the Sun sets and the ship is underway. Being a square-rigged sailing ship, the Royal Clipper needs a following wind to actually proceed under sail. The southeast winds we are encountering are virtually on the nose of the ship, hence the reason for the sails being taken down when the ship is underway, although the stay sails are often left up to improve the ship’s stability.
At dinner this evening, I’m seated with a Texan couple who are both real characters. She submitted a request for one of the desserts appearing on the menu this evening – Floating Island with prune. I ordered it, and found it tastes good, with thin custard on the bottom, merengue, and a dollop of pureed prune on top.
I sleep in until about 8AM, meet my friends downstairs for breakfast, and then it’s time to return to my room to pack. We check out at 12PM, check our bags with the hotel and go across the street to the Starbucks at Doctor’s Cave Beach for coffee, snacks, and to hang out for awhile. We return to the hotel lobby and leave for the ship a bit after 3PM for a 4PM check-in.
We have to clear Jamaican customs and immigration before we embark the ship. They shake us down for a Departure Fee of US$35 each, applicable to anyone who stays in Jamaica for more than 24 hours! Once aboard, the usual cruise ship check-in takes place, where they take passports, preauthorize a credit card to pay the shipboard account, photograph everyone, and issue a passenger ID card to run the accounts on and for leaving/returning the ship at the various ports-of-call (in place of a passport).
After everyone is aboard, there is a lifeboat drill, which is conducted in English, German and French, so it takes quite awhile! I go to dinner with my friends, where we are seated with an American and two Brits. The meal is lovely – I have escargot and a salad to start, sea bass for my main course, and three almond cookies with strawberry sauce for dessert. I finish with a cappuccino, which costs 2.50 Euros (CD$3.75).
The crew set two of the four staysails during the evening departure of the Royal Clipper from Montego Bay. They play Conquest of Paradise every time they raise sails on the trip, which gets a bit tedious after awhile!
Champagne is served on deck as we depart the port. It is a lovely evening with warm tropical breezes in my face. Despite not having stabilizers, the ship rides surprisingly well as we pull offshore for the overnight passage to Port Antonio – a small town further along the coast of Jamaica.
I had a good sleep last night, as I recover from the 20+ hours traveling to get here. The resort’s espresso bar isn’t open when I get up shortly after 7AM, so I go across the street to the Starbucks to get my cappuccino – essential to start my day!
I decide to go for a swim at the adjacent Doctor’s Cave Beach, which as Deja Resort guests, we have privileges at. So I change into my swimsuit, put on some shorts and beach shoes, grab a beach towel and get an entry ticket from the front desk. I have a lovely swim in the warm ocean before the crowds descend on the place an hour or two later. After a shower and a change of clothes, I go downstairs for some breakfast, and have a second cup of coffee.
My friends call to say they are going to the beach and invite me to join them. I sit on the deck in the shade while they have a swim, and then we sit and chat for an hour or so after they get out of the water. A Jamaican man at the top of the stairs checking admission tickets seems to want to talk with us about Bob Marley and the start of reggae on the island and overseas. He’s very nice but rather talkative, so we end up staying there a bit longer than we had otherwise planned!
I have a cappuccino in the resort’s espresso bar, and later some lunch downstairs – more delicious fried fish, rice and veggies. I take it easy this afternoon at the resort, alternating between napping, working on my photos and journal on my laptop, and staying cool sipping Jamaican Red Stripe draught lager. Beer and wine, mixed drinks, espresso, and food is all served as part of the all-inclusive service at the resort. This is a pretty sweet deal considering we paid less here for a room than available elsewhere in the area.
After we have dinner at the resort, I finish my journaling and photo work on my laptop before going to bed. We board the ship tomorrow afternoon, so I want to be well-rested and ready to go.
After landing in Toronto at 6:24am, I have about three hours to wait for my next flight on WestJet to Jamaica. My departure gate is only a few gates away from the one I arrive at, so that makes it easy. Since there was no breakfast service on the incoming flight, once I find my next gate, my first task is to find some cappuccino. Of course Starbucks is always very handy, so I have a tall cappuccino and some banana nut bread.
My friends show up at the gate about an hour later and want some breakfast, so we go to nearby Caplansky’s Deli. They have some eggs and coffee. I have cheese blintzes, which are stuffed with ricotta cream cheese, and come with blueberry compote – very good and only $6!
Our Boeing 737-800 WestJet flight is soon boarding, so we join the usual organized confusion at the gate, but board with no problems. Our female captain says our flight time will be 3:56 to Montego Bay, flying at 35,000’. It takes the crew well over an hour to serve snacks and beverages to the Economy section. I buy my usual hummus and crackers, knowing that will be all I get for lunch.
We fly over Chesapeake Bay less than an hour after our departure. A couple of hours later after flying offshore from the US Seaboard, there are lots of beautiful tropical islands to take photos of (see banner image above) as we overfly The Bahamas. We next overfly Cuba. There is a northern tropical island offshore, but Cuba isn’t spectacular, since it is a huge landmass and it is covered in clouds.
After we land in Montego Bay, we are asked to remain in our seats for quite a long time, despite being at the gate. It becomes apparent why when the police come aboard and escort a family off the aircraft before anyone else. There was a heated discussion while we were in the air between a flight attendant and a woman assisting her grandmother to the forward washroom. Obviously the flight attendant decided to bring the matter to the attention of the captain, who must have called the authorities in Jamaica.
After that drama plays out, everyone debarks and then we hit the extremely crowded Immigration Hall, where everyone waits a good half hour to enter the country. We retrieve our checked bags and clear Customs in short order, however finding our hotel shuttle in the confusion outside the terminal proves to be a challenge. I call the resort, and they promise to send their shuttle. Almost immediately after I hang up, my friends spot a sign in a vehicle window reading “Deja Resort”, so we hop in and are driven the short distance. Our rooms aren’t ready, so we wait about a half hour in the lobby.
After travelling for over 20 hours since I left home, it feels good to be free of airlines, airports, and throngs of people, and to be standing on solid ground under the tropical Sun! After having some fried fish, rice and veggies for dinner, I’m ready for bed.
I have a very nice breakfast this morning in La Fontaine, the main dining room. I am seated at a table for four, and meet a couple from Chemainus who used to do the mapping for BC Parks interpretive signs, and a young woman from California who is debarking in Callao/Lima to realize her dream to see Machu Picchu. The couple relate how they traveled to Ft. Lauderdale by train using Amtrack from Seattle to Chicago, then to Washington, DC, and finally to Ft. Lauderdale. Apparently their arrangements cost about the same as flying, and it takes 3-4 days. This strikes me as a great way to avoid the hassle of the airlines and airports if you have the time to spare.
I attend a presentation by Martin, the Shore Excursions manager this morning, where he reviews all the excursions for the first half of the voyage. He mentions that all Holland America excursions to Machu Picchu depart the day after our scheduled arrival in Callao/Lima because the ship is often late arriving if the seas are rough off the South American coast. This is a concern of mine, since we leave on a flight from Lima airport around 2PM on the first day of arrival, so I hope the seas cooperate and the ship arrives on time. I’m resolved to not worry about it, since there is absolutely nothing I can do about weather in the Pacific or when our ship arrives in port some two weeks from now.
At noon today I spot the eastern end of Cuba from the right side of the ship. The captain announces we are passing within 6 nautical miles from the tip of Cuba at 2PM. The island of Hispanola is visible from the other side of the ship, but it is really just a smudge on the western horizon as we sail between these two large islands. I take some photos of both, but because it is midday the results are washed out despite using a polarizing filter.
It is formal night this evening and my friends and I go to Canaletto, the Italian-themed restaurant. The food is wonderful, and the serving staff is very friendly. After dinner on the Lido deck, I see the Green flash of the setting Sun from the poolside table in the Lido as the ship sails up the coast. My friend takes some good photos of the green flash from the deck above, however I’m pleased to visually observe this apparition. This is a personal first for me after many years of trying! Afterwards, we we go to the deck above the bridge to observe the night sky. It is nice and dark up there – Jupiter is directly overhead, Orion is laying on his side in the East, the Pleiades (M45), Andromeda Galaxy (M31), the M35 open cluster, and the red star in Taurus are all easily observed with both my image-stabilized Canon binoculars and unaided eyes since it is so dark.
I go to the late show at 10PM, which highlights Broadway song-and-dance. This is the first time I have seen the ship’s singers and dancers. The numbers they perform are really well done and it is fun to watch.
Thursday, November 24, 2011 – Day 4 – At sea
I decide to go to La Fontaine, the main dining room again this morning for breakfast. I am seated at a table for six with a couple from Calgary and a couple from Houston, Texas. The woman from Houston is originally from South Africa and spots my JoeTourist Africa t-shirt I’m wearing, so she and I talk for quite awhile about South Africa. She was pleased to hear I drove from Johannesburg all the way down the Wild and Garden coasts to Cape Town. She related some interesting stories about the gold mines when she was living in South Africa many years ago. As many South Africans did, she decided to emigrate when she was a young adult because of the personal security issues that plague the country.
I attend another presentation by Martin, the Shore Excursions manager this morning, where he reviews all the excursions for the second half of the voyage from Ecuador up the Pacific Coast to Mexico. I might decide to book a tour in Guayaquil, but otherwise I think the shore excursions I have pre-booked will work fine for me. After lunch, I sit out on the Lower Promenade Deck in a deck chair and read The Black Echo – a book on my iPad. It has taken me awhile to get into this book, but now I’m actively reading it. This is classic cruise ship stuff – reading a book in a deck chair, and I’m not alone. There are dozens of passengers doing exactly the same thing.
It is American Thanksgiving today, so roasted turkey is on the menu in La Fontaine the main dining room this evening, however I have the grilled salmon instead. I also order a bottle of California white wine, since my friends and I feel like some wine with dinner this evening. Most times we don’t bother drinking with our meals since it is pretty expensive. We have some nice desserts and cappuccino to finish.
We manage to find some of the last seats available in the first show in main showroom to see Lance Ringnald, a two-time Olympic gymnast gold medal winner who does a great acrobatic show using silks hanging from the stage ceiling. I saw his act on the Volendam on last year’s cruise, and was eager to see a repeat performance. He didn’t disappoint. This is not typical of the featured entertainment you expect to find on a cruise ship, but Lance has perfected a nice combination of gymnastics, acrobatics, and funny banter with the audience that works well and is entertaining.
I go to bed right after the show finishes, since we are in port tomorrow in Santa Marta, Columbia, and I have a half-day shore excursion to catch at 8:35AM.
Tuesday, November 22, 2011 – Day 2 – Half Moon Cay, Little San Salvador Island, the Bahamas
The Rotterdam anchors in the beautiful tropical bay this morning, and by 9:30AM tenders are ferrying passengers ashore 300 at a time. This is a highly organized day at the beach for the 1,400 passengers, with everyone being accommodated no matter what the disability, unless the person is completely wheelchair-bound.
Since I wake up this morning around 8:30AM, I miss the crowds of early birds who want to catch the first tenders ashore. I pick up a cappuccino at the Explorations Café and have a leisurely breakfast in the Lido before going back to my cabin to get ready to go ashore, packing snorkel gear and changing into a swimsuit and beach wear. The tender I take around 10AM is only half full.
This part of the island is dedicated to giving Holland America’s cruise ship passengers an enjoyable day at the beach. They certainly succeed at this, providing everything any cruise ship passenger might want: a wonderful long curving sandy beach; clear, warm and shallow water to swim in; a place to snorkel and see some fish; shopping; personal services such as massage and spa treatments; sports services such as horseback riding in the surf, parasailing, small boat sailing, walking tours; and of course a BBQ lunch. I expected the beach to be crowded, but everyone spreads out so it turns out to be very relaxing.
I have a clamshell reserved, which is a small half tent to provide some shade from the tropical sun, including two lounge chairs. I take my snorkel gear and wade into the warm water, not expecting to see much since there are lots of people in the water, however I’m pleasantly surprised. There are several varieties of fish swimming around, and I even spot two Barracudas and manage to take a picture and a video of them! The BBQ lunch is good, and afterwards I return to the clamshell for another hour before deciding to return to the ship.
After having a casual dinner in the Lido with my friends, we go to the Explorations Lounge to listen to the “Adagio Strings” – four young women who are a string quartet. They sound very good, which is a pleasant surprise for us, since the “Adagio Strings” quartet who played aboard the Volendam cruise last year were nothing short of dreadful. This quartet obviously practices and actually care about how they sound!
I decide to skip the entertainment in the main show lounge this evening, since it is a Las Vegas headliner who sings and tells jokes – not my type of entertainment. I return to my cabin and work on the photos and video I shot today and yesterday. I like to keep up-to-date with the results from my camera work while traveling. I find putting a caption on each photo and the location makes it much easier to cope with all this media when I return home. I also write a journal while traveling, which I find invaluable for creating travelogues for my main JoeTourist website once I return home. I enjoy the ritual of sitting down and reviewing the day, and then committing it to words.
This evening I sign up with Rogers for their cellular roaming package, which gives me voice coverage for Central and South America. This ensures I get a more reasonable per minute rate for voice calls than standard roaming, so I can use my iPhone to call home when we are ashore. Cellular service is offered aboard ship, but it is outrageously expensive, so I will wait until we are docked or ashore to check in with the family. While aboard ship and offshore, it isn’t too expensive to send and receive email using the Internet access package I signed up for yesterday.
The ship is bucking a 30kt headwind as we head south towards Cuba. Our speed is 14.5kts, which is certainly slower than last night.