First time flying from Heathrow in 30 years. So we decided to splash out and use a chauffeur service to ease the journey. It’s run by the garage that services Margaret’s car, and it was worth it.
Collected in a new-ish Mercedes at our front door. About 3 hours later, dropped at the entrance to LHR Terminal 3. No hassle - in fact, quite relaxing.
Where we’d expected the hassle, it didn’t materialise. Virgin Atlantic check-in was faultless and took less than 5 minutes from entering the terminal to having dropped off our bags (OK, it was the premium check-in desk).
Security (standard cattle class this time) also was so efficient. Less than 10 minutes including the queuing.
The gate was allocated 1 hour before departure, and boarding began immediately we reached the gate. Pretty well everyone on board 20 minutes before schedule.
Very impressive, Virgin Atlantic. Except one check-in no-show meant bags had to be taken off, delaying us by 20 minutes. Can’t win ‘em all!
I’m writing this section in flight!
The aircraft, an A340, is showing it’s age a bit. Non-touchscreen entertainment systems. Low-res screens with poor brightness levels. You need plug adapters for USB chargers. However, the seating’s really comfortable, the cabin’s cleaner than a new pin, the crew's friendly but professional and the service very efficient.
Lunch: The best meal and service I think I’ve had in many years (too many years) of travel (except for Business Class KLM). Very British choices - Chicken Tikka Masala, Cottage Pie or a Pasta. The curry would have graced our local takeaway (my choice), and the Cottage Pie was “excellent” (hers). Good starters and dessert elements. Aperitifs, wine, liqueurs and, the Jewel in the Crown: real tea, served in a mug with fresh milk.
The flight crew are exceptional. There are 2 young-ish (really well-behaved) boys in the seats in front of us getting a little bored. They’ve just been brought iPads from First Class because the elderly entertainment system on here doesn’t have touchscreen games. I’ve been offered “something from the bar” a few times. Service seems front and centre on this flight!
About 90 minutes before landing, we were served “Afternoon Tea” - and it was! Warm scones with Tiptree jam & clotted cream, dainty little cakes, finger sandwiches and another mug of fresh tea.
Our first ever VA flight. We’re actually looking forward to the return journey with them.
Later in Miami…
US immigration, baggage claim and customs was the usual, only to be expected, chaos, enhanced this time by some new automated equipment you queued to use. This took photographs and fingerprints and scanned your passport. It issues a receipt.
You then line up again for an immigration agent. She throws the receipt away, takes your photograph, scans your passport and takes your fingerprints. The added excitement comes when she stamps your passport and “Hopes you have a nice day”!
Baggage reclaim has a new and special plan to confuse. There are agents hiding in a hard to observe corner of the carousel taking bags off at random to make space. They are Secret Agents; no one tells you they’re there. So, you wait patiently for your last bag… and wait… and wait… until someone spots them and several of us finally complete our luggage set.
Then a positive surprise. Viking have provided a private chauffeured transfer. Our names on a board at the arrivals exit. OK, so his English isn’t as good as his Spanish, but he does drive a Cadillac!
A quick, straightforward drive to the Marriot Biscayne Bay and a super room with a balcony. Only overnight - shame really.
The 5 hour time lag is starting to catch up, but we should be in good shape for the morning.
Our first time anywhere in Central America (Tijuana, Mexico doesn’t count!).
It was also our first ever tender transfer. I don’t know if this was unusual, or whether it is because Belize has the World’s second largest coral reef, but it took around 30 minutes by high speed launch.
We thought we’d seen real poverty on some West Indies islands and in Bulgaria - wrong. This place set the bar way, way, way lower. Some occupied dwellings looked as if they’d fall down if you knocked on the door. Didn’t see a single kid wearing shoes.
As always, however, the cruise port was bright and shiny, full of good quality goods (and a fair share of junk), bars, restaurants and musicians.
The Mayan ruins at Altun Ha were interesting enough, but the environment had been sufficiently manicured to take away the sense of age & ruin. Nothing exciting, but well worth seeing.
More exciting was the journey of about 30 miles from port to ruins (and back). It took 90 minutes each way.
Maybe the Mayans built the roads - and they’ve not been maintained since then. The International Highway (seriously) is the trans-national route from Honduras through Belize to Mexico and beyond. This is a little over 2 lanes wide (no lane lines to indicate what’s what); made of compressed stone (like a forest path) with a strip of black tarmac down the centre about the width of 2 @ 4x4 pick-ups. Two buses, two lorries in opposite directions- onto the gravel you go.
There was construction work. Nothing coned off. Weave through the holes, workmen, machinery.
Our bus got a puncture on the return journey. Probably a common occurance as a replacement vehicle turned up within 5 minutes.
Travel is about experiences. This was unquestionably an experience.
Roatán is one of the Bay Islands off the Honduran coast.
The day began with rain as we docked at 7am. Serious rain. Biblical proportions!
Our excursion was to have been to some “Tropical Botanical Gardens”. Thoughts came flooding 😂 back to the 60’s hit, “I'm just sitting watching flowers in the rain.” So, discretion being the better part of valour, we skipped our excursion.
We spent the morning in a lounge forward on the ship with ceiling to floor windows, on-tap tea, coffee and cakes, and a view of the flight path into the airport. Plane spotting and reading relaxed away the time.
Typically Caribbean, the rain cleared by lunchtime, so we took a stroll into (the aptly named) Coxen Hole. We should be so very grateful for where we live, wherever else it may be.
The only building that looked like it could withstand a breath of wind was the Church.
Having said that, we had a really good time. We called into a few shops. People were friendly and pleased to greet you. Children smiled and waved or called out, “Hola”. We met an American running a shop selling goods made by local people. He’d come here years ago to help with hurricane relief, liked the people and stayed. All the money made went to fund uniforms (mandatory here) and supplies for local children’s schooling. A really sincere person.
The newly built cruise port was another matter. The usual array of junk and luxuries, tour hawkers and bars. There was strict security at entry to keep the locals out, though I suspect even the junk on sale would have been beyond their means.
It’s said travel broadens the mind. It opens your eyes as well!
A sea-day tomorrow. Time for R & R.
This morning the rain was again of Biblical proportions. The concept of “Rain Forest” became reality.
Our excursion was to the Tortuguero National Park for a journey through its canals. It’s rain forest, and, by the end, we thought the rain may have actually added to the experience.
Wildlife spotting with one of the best guides we’ve had in many a year. Knowledgeable, an expert imitator of bird and monkey calls, amusing (jokes actually funny) and very keen to spot everything he could. He had a green laser pointer which made it really easy for him to indicate the things he’d spotted.
The boat’s driver also greatly assisted, stopping, repositioning, turning the vessel so everyone had a good opportunity to see, irrespective of where you were seated.
Thank goodness for a telephoto zoom lens - and even then I couldn't catch the monkeys - wow; do they move quickly!
Apparently, we were lucky to see a sloth moving down to the water. They only do this once every 2 weeks to (as the guide politely put it) visit the bathroom.
The harbour area, Puerto Limón, was, to our minds anyway, the best we’ve visited.
Instead of rows of upscale shops and yet another Diamonds International store, there’s an indoor flea market of local traders pitching their goods. Of course, there were lots of teeshirts and baseball caps from China & Vietnam, but also there were many locally made, handcrafted goods at very sensible prices. What seemed cheap to us probably was overpriced in the local economy but that’s the economy to which tourism should contribute.
We found a beautiful hand made multi-wooded box for US$10. I didn’t even consider haggling! Maybe 4 or 5 times more at home.
Costa Rica, in the very short time we’ve had, impressed us. It seems ambitious. The people seem genuine and honest traders. The town of Limón, although “poor” is clean and well maintained.
And the coffee’s good!!
We’re actually docked in Colón, Panama, on the Atlantic Ocean. I hadn’t realised how narrow Panamá is. We visited Panamá City, on the Pacific Ocean, just about 1 hour by coach, ocean to ocean.
This country has certainly made the most of the Canal and its tax haven status. The business district rivals Shanghai and Dubai for glass skyscrapers and International Brand luxury shops. This applies to Panamá City. Colón is a little less elegant (being polite).
The canal is a massive money earner. I didn’t realise a ship pays between $400,000 and $1.2 million for a single passage through the canal. Recently the Norwegian Pearl cruise ship paid $500,000, so it’s not just goods that cost a lot.
The canal’s profit is usually around $1billion per annum, which goes straight to the Government.
After touring the business district by coach, we were walked through Ancón, the Old Town colonial district. Strict rules and codes are enforced so that, as properties are renovated, the original style and features have to be recreated as authentically as possible. Poorer local residents are being “persuaded” to relocate to the outskirts; not all are that willing to go.
There are also a good number of monuments and prestigious buildings to see. It’s quite an interesting place to walk around, best accompanied by a guide because not all the locals looked that friendly!
The most famous bridge, the Bridge of the Americas, has not long to go. It has to be replaced because the biggest ships can no longer pass beneath it.
This city/country is totally different to any we’ve visited. Worth a day, maybe 2, but not a week!
It’s New Year’s Eve on the ship (well, everywhere) so we’re not sailing until 3am. Lots of fingers crossed the rain holds off as there are plans to use the sun deck to see in 2018. If not… well there’s no shortage of indoor spaces with bars attached; we’ll get by!
Now here’s a surprise!
We docked in one of the largest container ports I’ve ever seen. Massive container ships offloading - a really odd, but really interesting sight from our veranda. Across the bay: a vast skyscraper filled skyline, more like Miami than the “Banana Republic” we’d expected.
On our excursion into “Colonial Cartagena” there were some run down streets en route, but most areas looked clean and modern - the first place we’ve visited where it looked like the pavement cafés weren’t petrie dishes! We were looking forward to our favourite pastime, tea/coffee/beer and people watching - no such luck; we weren't let off our leashes by the tour guide.
Colonial Cartagena (the Old Town everywhere else!) is really pretty. There are dozens, hundreds, maybe thousands of people wandering around trying to sell you anything and everything, but they’re good humoured enough and move away after a quick shake of the head.
It was so hot today. RealFeel 36℃ (97℉) and humid with it.
A day at sea tomorrow, so hopefully a bit cooler. Why didn’t the inventor of air-conditioning receive a Nobel Prize for Services to Humanity!
You never get a second chance to make a first impression. Jamaica… You blew it!
We’d spent about 36 hours sailing here from Cartagena, with fairly rough seas and Force 6 winds. However, the stabilisers did their job and we had a great day watching the waves go by.
We’d been really looking forward to visiting Jamaica as we’d so much enjoyed other parts of the “English speaking” Caribbean last spring.
There has to be an exception to every rule.
We were taken by the most idiotic tour guide on earth, who ended every sentence with “Yeah Man” and had, so it seemed, little knowledge of anything except Montego Bay’s all-inclusive resorts.
Our visit to Rose Hall Great House was pointless. An old plantation house, restored by a wealthy family quite recently; it’s only claim to fame being Johnny Cash had written a song about its alleged ghost, Annie Palmer.
It was “nickel & dime” central. You couldn’t photograph people in front of the house. Their “professional” photographer could, however, for $12 a shot (tacky plastic frame included). On its verandah there were trestle tables full of junk at country house prices. Our walk through the grounds included a stroll past their “resident” wood carver who had an over-rated (and therefore, over-priced) opinion of his skills. The bar was more expensive than the ship.
The delights continued as we were taken to a “mall” of traditional arts & crafts. Huts full of teeshirts, tie-dyed wraps and lord know what else.
Never been so glad to leave a destination! Maybe this is why Jamaica has so many all-inclusive resorts… You don’t want to go outside their gates.
Better luck in Grand Cayman!
The “better luck” hoped for didn’t happen.
Sea conditions meant tendering at our reserved docking was not possible, and no anchorages were available in the alternative location, so after a quick sail around whilst the Captain tried to negotiate a spot, we sailed on towards Miami.
Disappointing, especially as this is the first day where cloud cover has been at about 20% - it’s been 75%-100% most days since 28 December.
Still, can’t be helped!
Sailed on to Miami, relaxing, eating, relaxing some more, before an effortless transfer to the Airport and the flight home.
Woke up very early (around 9am body-clock time, 4am local). Postive thinking… Plenty of time for a shower before an early breakfast.
And a very good breakfast it was. A really tasty selection of hot dishes and an OK selection of breads and pastries.
But what has happened to US customer service? Once the best in the world, but now…
Marriot Breakfast: It’s a buffet, right? You serve yourself except for coffee. It’s included in the room rate. So as you're leaving you’re told, “Breakfast is included, but the service charge ($6) and gratuity (15%) aren't”.
Are they real? It’s a buffet. You serve yourself and wave at them for more coffee. Did I pay it? The hell I did!
The transfer to ship wasn’t exactly seamless, but worked well enough. Porters took the cases and said (without even blinking), “We’ll take these to the ship, but this is where you should thank us with a gratuity.” Yes, they actually asked for a tip! They weren’t Viking staff, they were Port Miami employees. “Yeah. Right,” I thought. Is tipping America’s latest obsession. The World’s gone mad. People get paid to do their job properly. I actually forgot to tip the Pilot on the flight out for not crashing the aircraft. Silly me!
On board at last, thank the stars! Super cabin, attentive service, time to settle in.
I didn’t photograph the ship last time, so I took my camera for a stroll.
Dinner was festive. Turkey was available (Margaret had it and really enjoyed it). Available for choice was:
Starters: Caviar; Lobster risotto, Tiger Prawns, Soft-shell crab (me), Bouillabaisse (me), Shitake mushrooms, Salads (her).
Mains: Roast beef rib, Roast Turkey (her), Lobster Thermidor (me), Dover Sole, Steaks, etc.
Desserts: Christmas pudding, Christmas log, Soufflé (me), Crême Brûlée, Ice creams (her), Cheeses.
All good. Some very good.
We were planning to go to the Captain’s welcome party, but time and wine have taken their toll!
Tomorrow… It’s Christmas!!!!!!!!!!!