Aurora Cruise Part 2
Aurora cruise 2005: Part 2
14 Nov 05 Antigua (St Johns)
Nelson’s Dockyard. First of many “complimentary beverages” (rum punch, unexpectedly alcoholic). Lobster lunch on sandy beach in tent out of the sun. The other couple at our table has never had lobster before and is not impressed: ‘Very bland’. Woman: ‘coming Antigua for years, worse every time.’ Deteriorating. Probably true of all WI. Eric Clapton’s houses everywhere. (Viewed from above – while marvelling at Clapton residences’ opulence, experience sudden downpour; soaked. First of many such rainstorms in next few days.) Clapton’s charity for drug-addicted celebs – rehab centre in Antigua. King sugar being replaced by tourism (questionable basis for national economy?) and offshore banking (tax evasion and money-laundering?) plus holiday and retirement homes for rich expatriates – The British are Back. Seem to be turning selves back into colony – not a good idea?
Our Antiguan guide: “We not really totally independent – we’re in the Commonwealth.”
Am embarrassed to admit, even to J., that I’m far from sure who Eric Clapton is.
15 Nov 05 Tortola, British Virgin Islands (Road Town)
Drive on left in right-hand drive vehicles (because of American Virgin Islands close links? BVIers need no visa for US, seem to be treated much the same as American Virgins). Ridge Road over mountains: hairy hair-pin bends, precipitous drops. Open-sided bus. She-elephant woman cruise passenger has to be pushed and manhandled up steps into bus, crammed into seat. Can’t move for rest of day even for numerous excursion stops, e.g. at Cane Garden Bay – glam Caribbean beach as in travel agents’ brochures, Hollywood, etc.
Previously sugar economy: no more. Now tourism and ‘off-shore banking’ (polite name for something shadier?). What economic future? Bleak.
16 Nov 05 St Lucia (Castries)
Huge excursion – winding corniche roads again. Bananas on trees in blue plastic bags to protect against birds, rats, St Lucians. Sulphurous volcano springs at Soufrière [‘soofriay’]. V. old colonial square with busts of Derek Walcott and Arthur Lewis, St Lucia’s two Nobel prize-winners; square also site of guillotine during French Revolution — probably for the likes of Walcott and Lewis. Botanical gardens (bellowing guide: ‘This is national flower of Ethiopia — we call this flower A, British call it B, Americans call it C, Canadians… we have a saying…’). Rain. “Delicious Caribbean lunch” = boiled plantain, rice, pieces of lamb bone, minuscule chicken legs. Complimentary beverage – very weak orange squash.
Later: trip in catamaran: unlimited rum punch. Ancient passengers become v. frisky. Pretty St Lucian tour guide, Sharmaine, dances to West Indian tapes in front of catamaran’s bar: old men go and jive jerkily with her. Everything becomes v. raucous. Change into swimming trunks in tiny flooded men’s loo in bows. Swim from ladder at stern of catamaran between its floats. Local traders in dinghies sell conch shells, Papageno hats (bird catcher? Avian flu?). Rum punches get progressively stronger.
17 Nov 05 Grenada (St George’s)
Island devastated by hurricane in Sept 04, US invasion ’83 (Prime Minister Maurice Bishop and wife killed in mysterious circs.). Guide says Bishop v. popular, US intervention welcomed when he was overthrown, vivid description of executions of the Bishops, but guidebook days circs of their deaths unknown. Seems more likely overthrow of left-wing Bishop régime engineered by CIA and ensuing violence used as pretext for US military invasion (reportedly to fury of Mrs T, and displeasure of the Queen as Grenada’s head of state). Now 15 per cent unemployment.
Visit Fort Frederick, beach for swim, more rum punch. 30 minutes’ swimming in sun, blue skies, then torrential tropical downpour, continued most of day. Mercifully still lovely and warm.
18 Nov 05 Barbados (Bridgetown)
Glorious day, low to mid 80s, blue skies, fleecy clouds. Tie up alongside sister P&O ship Arcadia (whose passengers are turning around here, last batch flying back to UK, new batch arriving, dragging huge suitcases along the quay). 5 hrs on spick & span white catamaran, mostly under sail, unlimited rum punch, local lager on draft, soft drinks etc., excellent fish and chicken salad lunch. Swim/snorkel with v. large turtles (tiny heads poking out from hard rough shells one end, tiny paddling feet the other). Turtles whiz in among and under the snorkellers from the catamaran, one turtle seizing the arm of a plump young male swimmer in tiny jaws and hanging onto him until he prises it off – others think it funny, victim less so. Cruise along coast towards Sandy Lane (M. Winner, patron), then back past Aurora and Arcadia and along coast towards Hastings and Accra Beach (well named): drop anchor next to another snorkelling paradise: sunken wreck of ship in fairly shallow water, crystal clear, shoals of brilliantly coloured tropical fish, black and yellow striped like wasps, translucent blue, fat and silver. Relieved to find that despite advancing years, waistline, etc., can still snorkel and enjoy it. Memories of Great Barrier Reef off Queensland.
On to picture postcard beach for more swimming in emerald clear waters, blue skies, golden sand, gently waving palm trees. This excursion attracts some of the younger and more nubile female passengers, even one or two dancing girls from the ship’s entertainment company, easier on the eye in trim bikinis than the old, the halt, the lame and the gross who are our more usual travelling companions. Spend much of the time while cruising along the coast chatting to former FT advertising department executive and his wife, both v. g. company. Decide that shall have to move upmarket to Swan Hellenic next time and forgo P&O luxuries as well as Butlins features.
Bridgetown, glimpsed from luxurious coach en route between ship and marina, looks more modern and prosperous than any of the other island capitals visited. Decide that if we ever returned for another Caribbean holiday (unlikely), it would be to Barbados. Pity we can’t afford Sandy Lane.
24 Nov 05 Madeira (Funchal)
We take a taxi to Reid’s Hotel, hoping to have morning coffee there (the ship is only in port for the morning, our last port of call before return to Southampton). We are too early for coffee but are invited to look round the hotel. Wonderful period piece – billiard room, card room, many elegant lounges seemingly unchanged from about 1928, beautiful terraces at various levels down to the huge swimming-pool, then more terraces below right down to the sea pool at the foot of the cliff. Framed pictures everywhere of celebrities on holiday at Reid’s: Churchill, Lloyd George, George Bernard Shaw, various minor royals from the European dynasties. Superb views over Reid’s palm-tree fringed gardens and across the bay to Funchal, with the three cruise ships lined up at the long dock in contrasting sizes like a small nuclear family: Black Watch, the baby, similar to Black Prince on which we did our first ever cruise six years ago; behind her, Costa Fortunus, Italian registered, towering over the others; and beyond again, our own Aurora, cut down to size by Fortunus but still a big, big ship.
We walk down the hill into the town, glad to have brought raincoats and umbrella against the periodic warm light showers (each producing spectacular rainbows). A local beer (‘Coral’, me) and a glass of white wine (spouse) go down without pain. Find the shuttle bus back to the docks and reluctantly board Aurora again, knowing the next time we emerge onto dry (or wet) land it will be to the wintry shore of England and the end of escapist hedonism.
+ + + + +
Pleasant Liverpool couple (fellow-passengers) have booked next cruise to include flying to Vancouver, cruising to Russia and China, then Japan and flight home. They have been given impression that the cruise ship will include Beijing among its ports of call. Diffidently query whether a cruise ship can visit inland Peking. “Not Peking: Beijing,” they explain patiently.
Many (most?) of our fellow-passengers do two or three cruises a year and have done so for decades. They look pityingly at us when we’re forced to admit that we are only on our fourth cruise. There seems to be a preponderance of people from Yorkshire and Lancashire plus a few from Wales. One kindred spirit says in a whisper to us: “It’s a terrible thing to say, but money is no longer an arbiter for cruising…” Disgraceful and impermissible question: where do they all get it from? There are some 1,800 passengers on this cruise alone: they can’t all have won the lottery.
There are numerous passengers on board in wheel-chairs, some self-propelled manually or mechanically, most pushed along by weary carers. On the ship’s shuttle-bus on the marina in Madeira, we stop for one such couple who flag us down for the trip back to the docks and the ship. The driver climbs back to help stow the wheelchair, whose occupant, large and female, rises effortlessly from it to allow her carer to fold it up and hand it to the driver while she nimbly climbs the steps up into the bus, waltzes along the aisle and nips into a vacant seat.
The obligatory classical music events on board are provided by an elegant and talented Irish pianist, Veronica McSwiney, veteran of cruise concerts (married to a cruise ship captain). Each of her eight evening concerts is introduced by a plump and vulgarly clad young woman from the Entertainments Staff who totters onto the stage on gold nine-inch heels, clasps the microphone stand and bids us ‘Good evening?’ in an interrogative tone requiring a mass response from the school assembly (“Good evening, Miss!”), before instructing us to ‘put our hands together for the lovely and talented… VERONICA!’ Even worse, at the end of the lovely and talented Veronica’s recital, barely have the last notes of the final piece died away and the applause for Ms McSwiney begun than the young woman bounds on again and begins to shout further electronically amplified instructions to us as to the appreciation we are to show for that ‘lovely music’, interrupting the appreciation we were already trying to show. Later in the cruise we wise up to this crass behaviour and continue to applaud, ignoring the platitudes coming from the microphone and stopping only when Ms McSwiney has returned to the stage for her second bow. (She plays a lot of Chopin and a good selection of other classical composers for the piano, performed with masculine-like robustness and vigour, but – regrettably – includes the piano parts of selected movements from better-known piano concertos, necessarily sans orchestra, and a piano transcription of Finlandia, which doesn’t really work, even though it was Sibelius who did the transcription.)
Four days after our return to Southampton and home, we book ourselves a cabin (with its own balcony – it’s addictive) on a Swan Hellenic cruise to various Scandinavian capitals and St Petersburg in July next year. No dancing girls, but educational lectures by the obligatory bishop, retired ambassador, professor, etc. It will be our first return to what we still think of as Leningrad since we left the Soviet Union in 1973, more than a tumultuous quarter of a century ago.
London, November 2005