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Queen Elizabeth 2 - 2006
Southern Delights - The Ports 2

Willemstad, Curacao

We then had a day at sea as we travelled across to the edge of the Caribbean and Willemstad in Curacao which is at the crossroads between South America and the Caribbean. Curacao has a rich ancestry but is now very Dutch in character. The centre of Curacao is a UNESCO World Heritage site with brightly coloured buildings lining the waterfront and the narrow streets behind. We were moored at the new quay and the P&O Oceana, as ugly a ship as one can conceive, was moored at the old cruise terminal on the narrow entry channel which we had to cross to reach the old city. There is a fascinating floating pontoon bridge which is over a hundred metres long and is swung aside up to twenty times a day by two overgrown outboards at one end. The pedestrians continue to stroll from end to end as this takes place. There is a free ferry for the periods when the bridge is swung.

The town is an interesting mix of sophisticated shops and narrow brightly coloured houses, open squares and street markets with even a floating market where produce and fish are sold from boats moored at a quay, some so decrepit one felt one would not want to board them leave alone set to sea. Overall it is a photographer and painters dream town - we have far too many pictures as usual and hopefully some will lead to a watercolour.

Curacao is perhaps best known to many people for the liqueur from bitter local oranges - the sweet oranges from Valencia turned out quite different when grown on the island and were accidentally fermented to give the liqueur. We bought a bottle and one of the local rums. Clothing, towels, bags etc were very cheap and Pauline has a novel skirt and top and we have lots of potential presents. We were sufficiently hot and loaded down that we walked back to dump the proceeds and have a cool snack before continuing.

In the afternoon we tried to visit the Maritime Museum which we had seen in the distance on the other side of a very Dutch lift bridge. Unfortunately it turned out to close on Mondays but it and the surrounding area had some elegant buildings so we took more stunning photographs - the light was perfect that day. We walked round the waterfront and finally ended up sitting with an Amstel Beer watching the bridge swing and the local boats pass on the waterfront, with bright buildings and the box like Oceana on the other side of of the Annabaai channel and the sleek QE2 in the distance.

St George's, Grenada

We have visited Grenada several times in the old days on the Cunard Countess and we were looking forwards to going back. The Countess always used to get a very good reception and a place on the rather small wharf on the end of the Carenage because she was one of the few ships that continued to come during their earlier troubles in the 1980s. Postcards still show the Countess tied up at the wharf.  The QE2 is too long and deep drafted to get in and a new cruise terminal has been created round the corner for cruise ship tenders to use. The tender operation went very well with calm waters and a short distance so we got off within half an hour of the last tour - we waited until the queues had reduced as we knew the town area was small and time was not of the essence especially as there was intermittent rain - liquid sunshine as they say in these parts.

We knew the island had been badly hit by hurricanes but we had no idea how badly until we got ashore and walked up the steep streets to the cathedral which was devastated and looking around we realised how many other buildings were empty and roofless. Ivan was a Category 4 hurricane with winds of over 120 mph which hit on 7th September 2004 and Emily passed nearby on 14th July 2005. Ivan damaged 90% and destroyed 30% of the houses. 95% of the nutmeg trees were uprooted, 90% of crops were destroyed and over 90% of even the forest areas were razed to the ground. The cathedral we went into was roofless with only the tower and part of the apse stable - it was not alone and 33 of 58 catholic churches were demolished or seriously damaged. The area round the Carenage has a semblance of normality but most larger buildings are de-roofed and empty. The large number of small stalls etc. which gave the character to the area have disappeared into the old market area and the shiny new cruise terminal. One wonders at the priorities but without crops or tourists they were doomed and crops take time to replant so people and churches take second place - even government buildings seem to be waiting lower down the list.

Once we had got over the impact of the suffering which an island we had loved had suffered we enjoyed our time looking round although we could see that the large numbers of traders in the market were all selling the same things to a small number of tourists. We bought more than we needed of their spices and left a contribution in the cathedral but it will take time to recover.

St Georges still has all the pretty coloured houses fronts and winding streets climbing up from the inner harbour, the Carenage where sailing ships used to be hauled over and cleaned. Whilst we were walking along the Carenage, we wondered about a coffee or some excuse to get out of the drizzle when someone from the ship gave an unsolicited recommendation to a little bar/restaurant called The Nutmeg hidden up a set of steps but looking out over the waterfront. It was an excellent recommendation and the coffee turned to a pint of local lager and a local lime juice for Pete. We looked across at the next table at an interesting dish which, on enquiring we found was called a Roti. It was like Cornish pasty with attitude. Big pieces of potato and meat were in a spicy sauce and wrapped in a thin white 'pastry' very similar to that used for a Mexican burrito but doubled up with dry spices between the layers. They came with many different fillings and we had a beef and chicken one costing about 8 of the local dollars or £1.50 for a filling meal - less than the price of a pint of beer or a couple of the equally memorable spiced lime juices.

We walked up round the fort and back through the town again - the weather was not spectacular but we enjoyed Grenada and it is a place we hope to return to.

Bridgetown, Barbados

It was a short journey then to Barbados which we also used to visit on the Cunard Countess. The island has a much more affluent feel than Grenada with expensive hotels and white sandy beaches - like Grenada it was part of the British Empire until the second half of the 20th Century. We were moored about a mile from the Careenage where, as in Grenada sailing ships were keeled over, or careened so the barnacles could be cleaned off and the timbers treated and the seams caulked.

The seas around Barbados team with life and we took a catamaran trip along the coast to snorkel over reefs and wrecks and hopefully have a chance to see and swim with turtles. We did a similar trip many years ago on the Wind Warrior and Pete still has the fluorescent orange T shirt which he always uses when swimming as it shows up for safety and avoiding being run down by motorboats and scooters. When he put it on he was called by the skipper Chad who it turned out had captained it for 18 months and it is not only still in use but was a little ahead of us down the coast.

We had plenty of time in the water and saw bigger schools of fish round us than I have ever seen before whilst swimming. This may have been helped by a large bag of bread rolls. One was tossed to Pete and it was almost dragged from his hand by a solid mass of fish, it gave a new meaning to getting a bite and their teeth could be felt. Fortunately they were so close packed that none could get a good bite! We just hope some of the pictures from the underwater camera come out.

We were then led over some shallow reefs and several shipwrecks of rather small vessels. We saw one small turtle on the bottom. We were in the water for what seemed like hours and we could understand why everyone had to wear a brightly coloured life vest even it was not inflated - as other vessels came it was the only easy way to identify people in the water. It however was difficult to get the air out making diving down nearly impossible for Pete who normally has to put stones in his pockets.

The next stop was the highlight and almost as soon as we were in the water we were joined by five or six large turtles close enough to touch the shells and for most of the time at least one was in sight - a magic experience - they are so much more graceful in the water than one would ever imagine.

The trip had started with a champagne cocktail and snacks for breakfast and by now the rum punch was flowing well - we did not want to indulge before serious finning but they produced non alcoholic versions if one insisted. We tried the proper version as we headed towards a beach with white sands and hardly a person in sight - it was much better with the strong tasting coconut rum added! We watched carefully as some of our friends had an interesting experience having forgotten rum is cheaper than soft drinks so gets used to 'dilute' punch, Pina Colada and such cocktails. The lunch was good with local fish and chicken, accompanied by lots of salad, pasta and rice and there were second helpings. After it had all settled most people floated around in the warm waters or gently swim to the beach. The waters were so clear one felt one could touch the bottom, and the beach pure white in contrast to the unbelievable blue of the warm water. One gentleman who must have been into his seventies and had never swum in his life was so entranced that he insisted on going in and ended up being carefully escorted the 75 yards to the beach and back wearing a lifevest - one rarely sees anyone so delighted.

We returned under sail and Pete had a long chat with Chad Ingrahm of Tall ship Cruises who has been sailing since the age of five and a professional skipper for 11 years. He was very careful and conservative and obviously knew the local conditions well. The Enterprise was fairly empty with only the 28 of us on board as she could take up to 70 which helped make it so enjoyable as there was plenty of space on-board and in the water when we were with the turtles and over the reefs and sunken ships - a trip we would probably repeat if we have the chance in the future. An absolutely excellent 5 hours.

We did some final shopping in the cruise terminal but did not walk the mile into town as it was getting towards closing time. We were tempted to go in during the evening as we did not depart till 2330 but apathy got the better of us after a long and quite energetic day in the sun.

It was now the start of the Atlantic crossing to Madeira and - worse still - the start of the time changes with an hour a night being lost making it even harder to get up in the mornings at 0630 to go to the Pavilion to get a quick Orange Juice and cup of decaffeinated coffee before going down to the Gym. Pete had so far kept up visits every day we have been at sea and even some of the other days when we have been on trips which left late enough. He has worked up to a calorie burn of 600 a day average on a mixture of the cross-trainer and rowing machines whilst Pauline prefers the Treadmills and Rowing Machine. You book in 30 minute slots so we tend to have a cross-trainer and treadmill slot at 0730 and a share a rowing machine at 0800 before heading in for breakfast. Most people do not use all their time so we actually start at 0715. It has not completely kept our weight under control but the 10,000 calories Pete has burnt equates to about 3 lbs of pure fat or 12 lbs weight so it must have helped - many first time cruisers put on a pound a day which is a disaster on a 28 day cruise. There are certain words which do not translate well to staff on the ship which include 'no thank you' and 'only one please' !

Funchal, Madeira

We have been to Madeira many times before so we saw no< point in taking an organised excursion - the town is within walking distance and there are shuttle buses if you are heavily laden. There are also local buses which we have used on previous visits - they provide an interesting ride on the narrow roads and steep hillsides. We swear 'never again' but still use them.

This time Pauline took an early trip into town leaving Pete, who was nursing a cold, onboard. She first went to the market, a favourite place with its bright displays of flowers and vegetables, the smell of herbs and spices and stands of local embrodery and basketwork. Below the main market and galleries is the fish hall which always has the local Scabbard fish on display. These fish are long and thin, almost like an eel, but with huge eyes. They live at a depth of 600 ft and are caught by boats using brights lights at night. They are lowered into the water and the fish are attracted and follow them to the surface which kills them. They taste very good and the ship often has them on the menu in the evening - we had asked Ismail and he had promised to do his best especially as he suspected we would by our own and bring it on board to be cooked!

Pauline took a few pictures, bought some cane work baskets as presents and a huge bunch of flowers for Pete in case he did not get out in the afternoon. Madeira is a gardeners delight and they always have excellent cut flowers - we often buy some of the Strelitzias to take home as they can last for a month. She even took a picture of the flower seller in traditional local dress holding them.

In the afternoon we both went back into town and discovered that Madeira takes Christmas very seriously. The main street was full of little stalls manned by Sister Christmases in incredibly short skirts as well as some of the best nativity scenes we have seen in the park and beside the main road. The illuminations even went out onto the harbour wall with huge displays representing Christopher Columbus's ships.

We meandered in a leisurely way along to take another look in the market and on past the cable car to Monte and the gardens we often visit and ended up at the fort which now holds a contemporary art museum. We did not go into the galleries but walked round the various levels of ramparts before taking a stroll back through town to the shuttle bus.

We left at 1800 as dusk was falling with some lovely views of the town in the evening light. The QE2 has always come at the New Year when there are some spectacular firework displays at Funchal and we understand that there has been an outcry from regulars because it may not take place this year. It was then in for dinner where, to our delight, scabbard fish featured as the main course.

We now settled back for the run to Southampton through the Bay of Biscay and up the Channel. The first morning was already turning cold and there was a restricted turnout on the deck for the ice carving, usually one of the highlights of each trip. The carvings are used in the midnight buffets.

The last but one night at sea almost always has a formal gala dinner with the baked Alaska Ceremony where the lights are dimmed and the Baked Alaskas are carried held high and illuminated by bright sparkling 'flares' by a stream of chefs and waiters. We were late having been to a cabin party so the ceremony took place shortly after our arrival and Pete got one good picture of Wong and Nick. The steak was even better than usual, if that is possible, and Paulines must have been close to 2 inches thick and bleeding all over the plate. Pete regreted having the duck but won a little anyway - back to the gym in the morning!

This is followed by a gala midnight buffet, an excess of gastronomy and we rarely have room to eat at the Midnight Buffet which is always at 1130! We however always go to take some pictures - it opens at 1115 for pictures although it has been known for the Germans to lose control and eat the displays and set pieces before it is opened up!

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