Sometimes the travel gods are with you. Today they were in party mood.
Taxi from home: 5 minutes early.
KLM from CWL to AMS: Departs on time, arrives 10 minutes early, so our tight connection became comfortable.
KLM from AMS to ATL: Boarding commences just as we reach the gate. Departs right on time. Food & in-flight service outstanding (even by KLM’s usual good standards). Arrives 30 minutes early. Bags almost first on the carousel.
Customs and immigration: Unlike our last time through Atlanta, short queues, friendly & cheerful Border Agent, straight through customs (no questions asked), bags collected by a smiling handler just past Customs for the onward flight.
Airport lounge (The Club @ ATL) on arrivals concourse at the top of the first escalator. Plenty of space with a view of a runway. Decent (if not exciting) food and an extensive tended bar. 4 hours well spent on R&R.
Then on to Delta Airlines. Still good, but why do American carriers make such a fuss about everything? Annoucement after announcement at the gate (most of them creating confusion, using 50 words where 5 would do). Complicated boarding procedure (of which no one took the slightest bit of notice - stampede best describes). However, we were away, and arrived, on time. On board service on a 3hr 30m flight? Non-existant! Once around with soft drinks. Three times around with stuff to buy!
Viking did a meet and greet at the airport and collected our bags, which were returned in our room.
So finally at the Hilton Caribe, just before midnight. The only item on the agenda… Bed!
Woke up at around 7am. What a place to wake up!
Decided on a quiet day, so we had breakfast and took a stroll around the Hotel complex. This place is not really an “hotel”, more of a resort. Private beaches, multiple pools, pool bars and eateries. Beach loungers, hammocks, outside tables, multiple restaurants, shopping (many and expensive). Their plan is to keep you on-site, and if you don’t mind the premium pricing, there’s no reason to venture outside.
The local iguanas… They’re totally relaxed with people - they just ignore you!
Tonight we’re going to have dinner in one of the Hotel’s restaurants and go for an early night. Ship embarkation tomorrow.
Another day in Old San Juan. Strolling around, taking in the atmosphere and generally chilling.
It’s a pretty place with a very Spanish Colonial feel to the Old Town. Simply pleasant to walk and watch the World go by. Some interesting sights: old forts and a cemetery.
Cruising began at around 5:45pm and we had our first experience of Manfredi’s for dinner. Apparently, the Chef’s from Bangladesh, but, in my opinion, he’s secretly an Italian! We visit Italy almost every year and both our meals were as authentically Italian as they could have been.
Thankfully, Viking don’t surcharge their Speciality Dining, so we’ve booked tables for several future dinners and, TBH, if we only ate there, it would be ideal! Prompt, friendly yet professional service, perfectly prepared dishes, Italian wine and grappas and a quiet intimate atmosphere. Bueno.
At the moment we’re sailing towards the British Virgin Islands: calm(ish) sea and cool breezes. So good.
Docked around 7am at Road Town in the British Virgin Islands.
The BVI is made up of 60 islands with a total population of around 30,000. Tortola is the largest. It's a British Overseas Territory; it has a Governor, the Queen is the Queen and its flag has a quartered Union Jack. The residents have British Passports and are considered to be EU citizens. They drive on the proper (left) side of the road, but most of their cars are left-hand drive! Local currency? US Dollars! The World’s a funny old place!
Our excursion today was an Island tour taking us up into the mountains and around the coast - in a “Safari Taxi”. The driver was also our guide and had a wealth of stories and extensive knowledge about the BVI. He spoke repeatedly, and at length, about the Queen’s visit in 1966 - still an important date in Island history.
He also introduced us to the story of the Island’s local rum, still made in a 400 year old distillery. He also found a bar for a stop which sold it; first time I’ve ever had a shot of rum at 9am! So what; it’s holiday time!
The views from high up were spectacular.
Two interesting (weird) places as we drove back along the coast.
The first was a “Shell Museum” - a roadside shop in truth. Our driver pulled up outside, not to shop, just to see, and an old guy and his friends became an impromptu band!
Next we passed the most rundown bar I’ve ever seen. It only opens every 28 days to celebrate the New Moon. “Wild” mushrooms are brought down from the mountains, local rum flows freely and the Police stay away. The following day, large quantities of underwear cover the floor.
Alongside the pier are some very up-scale shops and 5 minutes away the total opposite. Fun to stroll around, in the former there’s nothing normal mortals can afford and in the latter, nothing the normally sane person would want to buy!
Tortola is a really laid-back, charming place to spend a day (but probably no more than 2).
Docked at 8am in St Lucia. A bit more cloudy than previous days, but, as seems to be the case in these parts, the clouds rolled away, then came back, then went away again.
We took a tour around the island, which was interesting enough. The main stop was at a private home high in the hills above a beautiful bay.
Now why didn’t I think of this? The owner, from Manchester (UK), has a beautiful home, with manicured gardens, a waterfall and views to die for. He “invites” tour buses to call (15 today) and (I’m guessing) charges around US$10-15 per passenger. You’re given a tiny snack of local food and a fruit drink and have 30 minutes to explore the “public” parts of the property. He also hosts parties (500 people on New Year’s Eve last) and his home is available for weddings etc.
From tour buses alone, he must make at least US$3500 per DAY which, given a near year round tourist season… you do the maths! That’ll cover gardeners, maids and most everything else, leaving his home free of visitors from 3pm to 9am for him and his wife.
Just another day in Paradise!
The capital town, Castries, where we’re docked, is another clone of our previous docking: interesting enough, but nothing new or exciting.
Tonight we have the pre-dinner cocktail party for returning Vikings and sail at around 6pm for Barbados.
Docked late by an hour and today was our earliest departure (4:30pm) which is a great shame, because, so far and by a long way, Barbados is our favourite island to date. Admittedly, we’ve only seen Bridgetown.
It’s retained a totally Caribbean atmosphere, whilst seeming more up-to-date, cleaner and better organised.
It has been slightly invaded by the international brands, but our guide was pleased (delighted, in fact) to tell us that Barbados is the only nation on Earth where McDonalds has failed. They were open for 9 months and then closed from lack of business!
Our tour of Bridgetown took us to the Mount Gay rum factory, where Barbados rum has been made continuously since 1703 and where the first liquor we’d recognise as rum was made. We were obliged (courtesy is so demanding) to sample several of their range. I didn’t mind as its “Black Barrel” is my 1st (well, perhaps, 2nd) favourite brand of rum.
Our tour then took us past the Kensington Oval, venue for many of England’s defeats during West Indies Test Series where there is a statue of Sir Gary Sobers who scored a perfect 6x6 over some years ago. It was at St Helen’s Ground, Swansea (Wales) and I’d seen it on TV. Our tour guide was impressed. Cricket is a Barbadian’s true love.
We then travelled on to the Garrison Area, now home to a race course and still a home to the Barbadian Army of 2,000 troops.
Our final stop was at the Screw Dock. Here “in the day” ships could be turned on their side for caulking (removing barnacles). Today, it’s a small museum and bar, where local hospitality required us to take a rum-punch to welcome us. Oh-um!
We had no time left to explore Bridgetown in any depth - a bit of a shame, as there seemed to be lots of local markets and historic buildings well worth a look.
Guadeloupe, French Caribbean. Well France actually! I didn’t realise that Guadeloupe is a French Départment, part of La Republic Français. They elect Monsieur Le Président.
That also means its citizens are full EU citizens and the Départment receives money from the various EU funds: Regional Development, Agriculture etc. They speak French (and being French won’t speak English). The currency is the Euro. We drove on some of the very best roads in the Caribbean, built in part by the British taxpayer. Vive la difference! Vive le Brexit!
It’s a beautiful island, and has everything. Beaches, manicured villages, mountains, rain forests, markets. But like all Heavens, there is a Hell. It’s populated by Les Français with all that that brings with it. C’est la vie!
It also has the most macabre cemeteries! Pictures tell the story.
This morning, St Kitts: a small ex-British island partnered with its smaller neighbour, Nevis. A pretty place, with typically beautiful bays, mountains and coastline.
Our tour took us to an old Colonial residence with beautiful gardens and we were given a brief history of the property. Boy-o-boy, did those slave-owning plantation landowners have a good life And yet, they couldn’t comprehend the immorality.
The tourist industry seems to be only just developing here. There is a recent, modern International airport that can handle aircraft as large as the B-777. Hilton have just opened a “resort” at one end of the island and Hyatt, Ramada, Radisson and a couple of others are “coming soon”. I hope that this almost unspoilt little island can survive the globalisation hit this will surely bring.
At the moment, Basseterre (so many Caribbean places share this name!), it’s capital, whilst slightly polluted by the cruise port, still has an authenticity about it.
Last island tomorrow: St Thomas, USVI.
Maybe a combination of an unimpressive tour, and an even more unimpressive tour guide, St Thomas has proved a little disappointing.
It’s a pretty enough island, but the main town at which we docked, Charlotte Amalie, has no Caribbean character. Its main street is lined with the same sellers of “alleged” duty free jewellery, watches, etc., except here they’re interspersed with McDonalds, KFC, Subway, Wendy’s and all the other international fast-food joints found almost anywhere on Earth.
I mentioned that the duty free is “alleged". I priced a watch on Amazon, and then the identical watch in duty-free. Cheaper on Amazon by 35% (and that included 20% UK-VAT.).
Some beautiful scenery, despite the town.
And so, on to the tour. Two hours long. It’s taken on the same Safari Taxis we used on Tortola BVI. Nothing against them; on Tortola, we found it good fun.
We climbed in to the hills, most of the way with rock on one side and thick vegetation on the other; an occasional gap did offer some lovely views. At the top of the climb we reached our main destination. It claimed to have invented the Banana Daiquiri.
It was about the size of (but less appealing than) an aircraft hanger, stuffed to the gunwales with every imaginable variety of tourist “kiss-me-quick” tat stacked high before you. The famous banana daiquiri was on sale for US$18 (but you get to keep the plastic cup). There was a small viewing platform with some lovely scenery. We were blessed with 45 minutes in this shoppers’ paradise!
It is right to say “blessed”. Our driver/guide styled himself “The Godfather”. The inside of the bus was decorated with an assortment of Old Testament tracts and every time traffic cleared or we avoided a near miss he proclaimed, “Praise The Lord!”.
His belief in the goodness of The Lord was most evident on the trip back down the mountainside. He treated us to a white-knuckle experience that would grace Alton Towers. Our cynical opinion was that as soon as he returns to dockside, his vehicle will be allocated another tour group, yielding more income.
A bad plan. It’s the only tour where we haven’t tipped $5 or $10, and, as far as I could see, no one tipped him.
Last day today. 😢 We sail for San Juan this evening and then disembark at around 9am.
However, one unexpected bonus 😃.
I don’t know if other Cruise Lines do this, but for all of us who have afternoon flights, Viking have booked a Conference Suite in a 5-star Old San Juan hotel for complimentary use by its guests. Coffee station and plenty of lounge seating to make use of, before a 12:30pm transfer for our 3:20pm flight. A bit of time for some local sightseeing; much better than being stuck at the airport.
Around 32 hours from waking up tomorrow to landing in Cardiff. You have to love long-haul travel!!
After breakfast and a quiet morning, we transferred to the ship. It’s docked within throwing distance of historic “Old San Juan”; just step off and you’re there!
We’ve nothing with which to compare (our 1st Ocean Cruise), but, to us, it seems light, airy and peaceful. Everything low-key Scandanavian: pale woods, pastel colours and a general lack of fussiness.
The stateroom (cabin to us plebs) is spacious, tasteful and well equipped. More storage space than we can fill (and we pack a lot of stuff!).
Our steward (a delightful Philippina girl) dropped by to say “hello” and much to my surprise and delight let me change the standard contents of the complimentary minibar: now it will be refilled with just whiskey and vodka instead of all the other spirits I don’t really go for and only zero-sugar sodas. Off to a great start!
We’ve not had much time to explore the ship, but everything we’ve seen so far has impressed.
After settling in, we took a stroll around Old San Juan. Very much what we’d hoped for and expected: Stereotypical Spanish Caribbean.
We’re going to try one of the casual dining venues tonight: The World Café - an upscale food court with a range of street foods from around the World. You can take the food out of doors. With the temperature and cloud-free skies it looks like a winner!
We’re in Port until tomorrow evening, so there’s plenty more time to explore.
A warm (hot, actually) sunny morning for a tour around the Island. An even more British island than Tortola, because here, cricket is almost a religion and it’s God is Sir Vivian Richards.
We travelled up to Shirley Heights for the views and on to Nelson’s Dockyard in Falmouth. Here Admiral Nelson was based when defending British interests from the Spanish. It’s still a boat-yard, servicing luxury yachts that probably cost more than the GDP of Antigua! It claims to be a museum, which arguably it is, but in reality it’s an outdoor shopping experience priced for people who can afford those yachts! However, our tour included a rum punch, made with the local brew. At 10:30am (given it was only 9am yesterday) it seemed quite in order to drink it!
At 11am it rained. Noah would have felt quite at home. It really, really rained. Then at 11:10am it stopped and the sun came out. I’ll be more careful next time the forecast says “… with an occasional shower”.
The ship docked in St John’s, the capital of Antigua; practically in the High Street! So, after lunch, a few more rum punches and a nap, we strolled around the harbourside area of the town. The value of the goods on sale and the standard of building maintenance is in direct proportion to the distance from the ship, falling by about 10% per 100 metres. The mathematicians amongst you will have worked out that at about 750 metres from the ship, it seemed prudent to turn around and head back.
It seems this itinerary has a plan. Each Island is more beautiful than the one before!
St Maarten/St Martin is both Dutch and French; there are unmanned border crossings as you drive around! Both sides, however, have a distinct flavour of their international allegiance. Different currencies, vehicle registrations, police, fire, health systems, education systems, even language (although where Dutch is the official language, English is the dominant language; the French speak French!). There are even different laws: nudity on beaches, gambling, drinking. One is the Netherlands, the other is France. You can guess!
We first visited Marigot, capital of St Martin. Beautiful waterfront, French cafés and patisseries. A sense of all the South of France aspires to be, but falls short.
We travelled back to Philipsburg, the Dutch capital, via some of the most spectacular scenery.
Our tour guide today deserves a mention; a youngish, totaaaaly Car-i-beee-aaan guy with the most amazing patter and sense of humour. Went by the name of “T”.
We stopped at the port’s gate on departure and received a parody airline takeoff announcement. “In the event of cabin depressurisation, oxygen masks will not fall down. You will have to break the windows.”
"There are two emergency doors, one at the front and one in the centre. If an emergency occurs, the open one will be the front door, which is near to me, and I’ll be long gone.”
“To your right are the island’s permanent retirement homes.” We were passing a cemetery.
He was also an excellent guide and very knowledgeable.
Tonight we sail for St. Kitts.