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|Queen Elizabeth 2 - 2006
Southern Delights - The Ports
Our first stop was at the Azores at Ponta Delgada. This
was our first visit and we were pleasantly surprised. The Azores were discovered in 1427 by the Portuguese and the first settlers have provided an unusual mix of Portuguese, Moors, Jews and Bretons. The Azores Archipelago has nine islands and are only 900 Nautical Miles West of Portugal - they were a popular stopover for ships making the long and arduous Atlantic crossing with many harbours providing good shelter against the weather but less good against pirates and privateers who frequently attacked the poorly protected harbours. The islands are clearly volcanic with areas which are still active. Our crossing was much less arduous than for the early pioneers and only took us two days and even the dreaded Bay of Biscay had little to disturb the Queen. It was just a matter of settling back into the shipboard routine, meeting up with acquaintances and friends from earlier journeys.
As this was our first visit to the Azores we took a tour which first took us to one of the botanical gardens where we were fascinated to find that they proudly showed us some pohutakawa, the NZ 'Christmas Tree' we know well. The coach then took us high up to the lake formed by the last major volcanic eruptions in the 16th century. Although the weather was not perfect it was pleasantly warm and we still had stunning views. We regretted we did not have time to explore the footpaths which went down and round the lakes but a 7 mile walk was definitely out - most of our group found the 70 meters to and from the viewpoint arduous. The cloud and mist came swirling round us as we continued high on the island but cleared again for views out over the coast. Some areas are still quite active and, like in Rotorua in New Zealand one can find steaming holes into which sealed pots of food are buried and slowly but naturally cooked - an Azores Hangi. Unfortunately we did not get to see or try them on our tour.
The final stop on the tour was at a pineapple grower - the pineapples are grown under glass in the Azores and take nearly 18 months from planting as a divided 'tuber' to when they are ripe. The first stage is provoked by smoking the greenhouses for 8 days which starts the flowering cycle. Different greenhouses have pineapples at different stages of growth.
In the afternoon we walked round Ponta Delgada which was full of quaint streets with lovely balconies and open squares shaded with plane trees - a very interesting mix of architectures and culture. Our conclusion was that it was a good place to stop and a pleasant change from the Canaries and probably had enough of interest to support a break of 3 - 7 days.
We next had the long passage across the Atlantic to Miami, or to be more precise Port Everglades at Fort Lauderdale. The three names caused great confusion with some people. We had visited both Fort Lauderdale and Miami before on our previous trip which took us into the Panama canal. There was nothing to do ashore in the area other than a coach trip to the local shopping malls so we elected for a repeat trip into the Everglades by Air-boat.
The Everglades is a fascinating huge area of swamp land, or to be more precise a wide shallow river covering thousands of square miles. We had a trip out into the Sawgrass on an air boat, a flat bottomed boat driven by two huge V8 engines driving cut down aircraft propellers. These boats can travel at high speed through and often over the sawgrass in even a few inches of water so the wildlife can be seen. Perhaps the most interesting are alligators and several turned up as soon as the boat stopped and floated a few feet away. The ones we saw were between six and eight feet long and lethal with a bite of 3000 lb/sq inch - they normal only attack prey small enough to swallow and we were assured do not like human flesh as it is too salt!
The 45 minute airboat ride was the highlight of our tour and visit to the park although it was nice to see all the captive alligators and crocodiles and see the trainer showing off some of the 'tame' ones. Pauline was even persuaded to have her picture taken with one of the smaller ones - perhaps 60 cm long.
The next stop was at New Orleans, one of the main reasons we had chosen this particular cruise. The booking had however been made before the Hurricane had devastated so much of the town and its surroundings so we did not know quite what to expect. We wanted to explore the town on foot, in particular the French quarter, so we did not wanted to book any of the trips although we had been tempted by the evening with dinner and Jazz on a Mississippi paddle-wheeler.
The first surprise was quite how far inland New Orleans actually is. We travelled 100 miles up the Mississippi before mooring in the heart of New Orleans - unfortunately the trip up was at night and we did not leave until
midnight clearing the river delta at dawn. The shipping channel was narrow. We looked out of our porthole at night and saw flashing lights marking the channel which were so close that we could almost touch them. Nor had we appreciated how many oil platforms there were in the gulf of Mexico that we had to thread between on our way in and out of the river delta.
New Orleans was built in a most unlikely place with much of the area lower than sea level and protected by levees. The recent flooding was primarily through the levees being breached and the oldest part known as the slightly higher French Quarter suffered relatively little damage in comparison to the surrounding areas which we could not reach on foot.
As soon as we got ashore we caught the trolley bus along to where the steamers moored to see if we could secure a lunch time trip on the Mississippi, either on the Creole Queen or its smaller sister the Cajun Queen, or preferably the proper steam paddlewheeler Natchez. To our disappointment we found that none of them were running and even the evening trips seemed to have been laid on especially for the QE2 visit and that seemed to set the scene for the rest of the day. Perhaps it was partly because it was a Monday, but the Museums were all shut too. Other than visitors who were fairly obviously from our ship the town seemed very quiet. We had been expecting Jazz to be playing at every corner and a bustling and busy town, what Pete had experienced on a visit many years ago and what friends who had been more recently had described. What a contrast - the buildings looked untouched or very well repaired but the life had gone out of the town. We heard one Jazz band (actually a couple of players) at one Downtown open air restaurant near the French Market, and that was it.
We had been advised to sample the local Pralines in the French Market - we had intended to buy some as gifts but were not convinced they would stand the journey home. We looked in at the Café du Monde which used to be famed for its beignets covered in sugar but found it was now a
down-market street cafe with Formica tables and coffee in plastic cups so continued our search for decaffeinated coffee bags (called pods in the USA) at the Community Coffee café which we had been advised at the Praline shop was probably our best chance in New Orleans. We not only found a source of coffee bags but also had some excellent giant sized coffees for a song. The café also had free WiFi Internet access and every other table had a laptop - Pete wished he had put the XDA in his pocket but we had been warned against taking valuables - in the event all the rogues seem to have left with everyone else.
We continued walking around and admiring the buildings and seeking out a suitable place to try the local Cajun cooking as we had not been able to get on the Mississippi steamers for lunch. We fell on our feet at the Gumbo Shop which had been recommended in one of the local souvenir shops as where locals went as well as the tourists. It was promisingly full and we got a huge and excellent quality and value 'set' meal for the big sum of $20 for three courses of Cajun specialities starting with two different Gumbos (Seafood Okra and Chicken Andouille) followed by a Creole Combination Platter (with Jambalaya, Shrimp Creole and Red Beans) and a Crayfish Etouffee finishing with the local speciality a hot bread pudding (made with pineapple and raisins) covered in a sweet whiskey sauce. We thus had the chance to sample most of the creole specialities and were sufficiently impressed by the Gumbo Shop to buy a 'hamper' for Christmas containing all the various spices and sauces with their recipe book - further good value at $25. By this time we were laden down with good food, coffee and other produce so we walked back to the ship through the RiverWalk shopping mall where again we found many of the food outlets were closed.
We went back into town and were determined to get onto the Mississippi River to get a view of New Orleans from the water. We caught the Canal Street ferry, which carries people and vehicles across to Algiers. It was free for foot passengers and we didn't bother to get off We continued to walk the streets until dusk in the expectation that it would liven up but even streets which had been considered to be dubious in the old days were quiet with just a few people in the bars but with not even a promise of live jazz so we eventually returned to the ship for supper. We had a close escape in not going on the River cruises as they were dire - overfilled with people taking hours to load, poor food and again a lack of what was expected - they had done what was possible but there seemed to be no musicians left in New Orleans. We had spoken in the morning to the captain of one of the boats and his wife and they seemed very nice so we are at a loss to know how it can have gone so wrong. The complaints were considerable and vociferous and in an unprecedented gesture Cunard refunded everyone but it was still a wasted opportunity knocking another nail into New Orleans coffin.
It is clearly going to be a long time before New Orleans recovers - there is no incentive for short or long term visitors as the essential character has been lost and will not return until there are visitors. We certainly had a sense of disappointment and sadness that an icon of America may have been lost for ever.
| Copyright © Peter and Pauline Curtis
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