I couldn't shift the words 'Flew in from Miami Beach BOAC...' by The Beatles out of my head as we flew into Miami and then took a taxi across to Miami Beach in biblical rain. BOAC doesn't exist anymore and neither does the USSR despite some residual expansionary plans by Russia. We were here for a day before heading up to Fort Lauderdale to meet our Royal Caribbean cruise liner.
Miami Beach is a strange combination of big hotels, old Art Deco buildings, enormous wealth, Jewish communities, multi million $ yachts, sandy beaches, people who are young, old and quite a few gay men. It also has a brilliant selection of super cars cruising up and down Ocean Drive. Ferraris, Lamborghinis & Bentleys proliferate but we were told these were rental cars, which nicely fits into that false facade that the area presents.
The very American way of life soon hits you - TV adverts aimed at older people for blood thinning drugs or solving constipation. Fox News with impossibly attractive and coiffured women discussing dull proposed educational initiatives by certain States. CNN preoccupied, as if like a rabbit caught in the headlights, trying to pull apart or denigrate Trump in every newscast. The sudden vocabulary that assaults you with words like ‘intentionalities’. Back on the streets a high presence of police cars and prices that meant that we paid $50 every time we sat down to eat basic fayre (and we ain't no fancy eaters y’hear). Lastly there was Anna leaping into a four lane highway to retrieve dollar bills, fluttering downwards, thrown from some high rise balcony only to be told that she should keep them. The $5 sorted out her holiday spending money nicely, I told her.
After two nights of reasonable sleep as we tried to cope with the jet lag then we were ferried up to Fort Lauderdale to 'The Serenade Of The Seas' for 11 nights cruising around the Caribbean.
The ship, built in Germany and launched in 2003 is still quite serviceable and our Deck 4 cabin included a porthole but with not a lot to see as we sped at 20 knots toward Antigua. There appeared to be more lists of prohibited behaviour on the ship than in the Old Testament and mainly about not consuming your own alcohol. Buying Royal Caribbean booze is eye wateringly expensive ($16 for a glass of Rose?) and so our smuggled on board wine and Scotch needed to satisfed most of our cravings in the cabin until we alighted at former parts of the British Empire and found a bar. Our fellow 2,179 travellers were 72% Americans, many north of 65 years old (oh so, you'll were amongst your own then Tony, I hear you muse...) and with appetites that make perambulation a significant challenge due to their girth and our worrying suspicion that they were attempting to die in transit by an excessive consumption of omelettes, bacon, ice cream, mash potato and waffles. The food is clearly why many are on the ship and so 'fill your boots' is the mantra three times a day (and in between). This unbelievably is prepared by 140 cooks out of a total staff of 850. One officer commented that these 36 different nations spoke one common language - broken English!
There are other ages and nationalities amongst the passengers on board but one Brit did turn up for dinner one night in a Tottenham Hotspur home shirt - I just hoped it was hiding the flail weals on his back after a damn good whipping for letting our nation down sartorially.
We were 0.35 miles (return) from the main dining room to our cabin, including seven flights of stairs; we expected to lose weight although temptation for cake, ice cream, pancakes, eggs over easy, hash browns, hot dogs, creme brûlées etc. is a terrible thing isn't it!
We opted to share a table at dinner the first night and out of the eight of us then we included Texas, Georgia and Sweden amongst the diners. The couple from Sweden own two small islands, he sold Volvos and they were both proud of Abba (not typical Swedes then...) The Texans are really a retired peripatetic Californians on their 23rd cruise who are on the first of back to back cruises on the same ship. We got to chat and sit with Norma and Bob quite a bit and they were delightful and not without a little humour. The folk from Georgia had a captivating charm and turn of phrase: whilst discussing cruise food and 'desserts we have known and loved' then Don declared - "If you had a piece of Melting Chocolate Cake on your forehead then you'd beat you brains out with your tongue trying to reach it". I knew what he meant and how delicious it must be.
Amongst other distractions then the internet was not to be one. I'm went cold turkey and seemed to cope. Like a teenager then much of my life has become controlled by my iPhone and waking moments are spent ensuring that I haven't missed that vital promotional email from Tesco (that I always delete without reading) or seeing which person I loathe on Twitter has posted their latest recidivist bile. The gym came back to compensate for incarceration whilst at sea but that was further away than the dining room!
Antigua was our first sortie off the ship and our first step onto the Leeward Islands. I felt that we'd see some sandy beaches, very verdant countryside and maybe some signs of a less prosperous and laid back life... and we did. It's a small place with a population of just over 80,000 and the economy is based on tourism although several pineapple trees were pointed out to us, along with bananas and other local produce. It was hilly - short and sharp inclines and drops. The road surface was rutted as we wove and bounced along the byways in our little Nissan mini bus.
The first stop was at the highest church on the island. They do appear to be a God fearing people and so there were quite a few churches. Here we got off the bus to look at the small building. Anna became engaged in conversation with a gentleman who was requesting $1 as a donation for his failing roof. I joined his immediate congregation and brought the conversation around to a former religion popular on the island, namely cricket, and not least the other omnipresent Being who was born and bred here, Viv Richards. The gentleman claimed to be a cousin of the said man, I was so impressed that I thought about a selfie but then thought maybe not.
I found in general that cricket is still popular in the West Indies but there are other sports that frankly offer the best an opportunity to move to the United States, particularly, basketball and American Football. The other sport is football in Europe. Both continents offer lucrative professional careers for the talented and so the national cricket team doesn’t get the most able West Indian sportsmen. Cricket is a very poor relation and the best West Indian cricketer (Chris Gayle) doesn’t even play for the national team whilst he can play One Day cricket in India and Australia and earn a fortune.
Of course the British brought some colonial misery to add to the islands history but we have left their best tourist attraction, which is Nelson's Naval Dockyard. Here the fleet was repaired and restored in the middle 18th and early 19th Century amidst terrible British mortality due to yellow fever, heat stroke and a general inability of Europeans to cope with the climate. Our inglorious history predictably involved using slaves we'd probably kindly shipped across from west Africa. Anyway this restored complex now helps make the island money and appears to be their No. 1 attraction. I enjoyed the actual museum as well, within the Dockyard, with its artefacts and graphics, not least about Horatio who did a three year tour of duty out here mainly keeping the cheeky Yanks away from the islands with mixed success. It wasn't war (we'd lost that) with the Americans but mainly we didn't want them trading with the islands as before, that apparently was a privilege reserved for nations that paid taxes as our colony (and quite right!)
It is worth talking about the Caribbean population that includes many ethnicities but the vast majority are descendants from Africa (90%?). This means that they were originally shipped by Europeans, in inhumane conditions, across an ocean to spend the rest of their lives in servitude. As regards the British colonies then it wasn't until 1834 when an Act or Parliament abolished slavery. However that still left a lot of
people of African descent a long way from their (or their forbears') homes and still working in jobs with minimal reward as the only option for survival. I think that some Jamaican politicians still talk of reparations but we, white tourists, faced no aggravation (obviously as we brought hard currency) but it is humbling to think on their past.
There are odd plaques that refer to the past and the eventual independence of the islands, mainly in the 1960’s and 70’s, which refers to the journey these folk have made.
Sorry to include a photo of some squalor. I know these are poor places and I am lucky to be wealthy compared to these folk but on other later islands we saw more pride and care over their immediate surroundings. This is why if you were compiling a tour of islands to visit in the Caribbean then you might not pick this one. Although it seems fair to end by mentioning that Antigua promotes its beaches rather than its sights.
Well after being frankly being very underwhelmed by Antigua then apprehension was the word for St Lucia. A nice man in the ship's theatre with an out of focus PowerPoint had advised that St Lucia (current population of 185,000) had changed hands 14 times between the French and British before coming to rest as a British Colony in 1814. However whilst the French didn't leave their language they did leave the place names. In addition (for you pub quiz devotees) then it is the only country with a female name in it. His other information was to do with his repeated enthusiasm for the banana plantations. Funnily enough we were not.
So in bright sunlight and sweltering heat of 29 degrees we disembarked at the port in Castries and clambered on board a very long wheel base Land Rover and, proverbially, took to the hills. Again an island of steep hills and hairpins but wider roads, more prosperity and a greater pride in its appearance although worryingly the 16th highest murder rate in the world. Crystal, our guide, reserved her longest explanation of events for the 2016 T20 Cricket World Cup Final where you may remember England lost due a desperate last over of bowling from Ben Stokes. We heard her out and all then, I suspect, on the bus enthusiastic about English cricket made a mental note about the size of her tip at the end of excursion.
What a green and plentiful place - lots of bananas, coconuts, pineapples, cashew nuts and other exotic fruit. This all added up to a significant agriculture business with plenty of employment. In Crystal’s running commentary then Hershey took 90% of the cocoa production but apparently the UK were appreciated for our importation of bananas. They also had quite an industry in oil extraction of various plants. Tourism ranked top. She also noted, giving the British some credit, for the 1834 abolition of slavery. Frankly it seems a pitiful achievement but other nations were slower: it took the US another 31 years (and a civil war).
The open top Land Rover was fun with the wind on our faces and sun on our heads as we flew along. However my hat blew off and so, talking about island fruit, I returned to the ship looking like a 'Guernsey Tom' - not a good look but Anna was able to see me in the dark with the lights switched off for a couple of nights.
Yes so thumbs up for St Lucia. The guide was a fun delight including throwing herself off from the top of the waterfall. The driver, Bubbles, was one hell of a driver managing to persuade a very heavily laden Land Rover up and around some very demanding inclines. This island was lush, organised, great folk, beautiful to see and no little fun.
Barbados (population 280,000) was the next port of call and we'd decided that bouncing around in a bus/truck for four hours on each island
should be rationed to preserve the pleasure and so we got a taxi into Bridgetown, the capital, and declined the various excursions available around the island. We found a working town but on a Saturday it was also a shopping/market day and the place was fizzing. First job, however, was finding wi-fi to FaceTime the children and not least Katrina who's 26th birthday it was. We found her sipping champagne at some swanky place in the centre of London with lots of her friends. That’s my girl, well done!
So on into town and we saw lots of fruit and veg stalls with items I couldn't recognise and all the women shoppers also seeking bargains in clothes, hair products, groceries etc as we ambled around the streets. It was vibrant and colourful and interesting to see how they conduct their day to day lives. However after a couple of beers we were back on the ship and thinking where next?
The Captain announced a couple of things over the PA every day and sadly thought he was a comedian as well as the 'Jolly Jack Tar Numero Uno'. (He’s Norwegian for Heaven’s sake and we know humour is not a national attribute!) Disembarkation comes with his advice to take a camera should you arrive back late for embarkation. This is because you will be able to take an excellent shot of the ship as she sails away. Not quite as funny as one female comedian who did a stand up show and picked on the audience. She was quick because when one innocent volunteered that his name was Duncan she shot back "Duncan? As is in donuts?"
In fact there was a programme of entertainment on the ship and you can select from a singer/guitarist in a pub, staged theatre shows or reggae near the pool at various times during the day and night. We liked all the staged productions with dancers and singers. They were well done but I truly loved the band who accompanied the theatre productions. Five in the brass section along with drums, keyboards, guitar and bass. On one evening the chaps bowled up to the centre bar and played a selection of jazz. I think this was the type of music they would ordinarily play for themselves. Quite fabulous.
We literally had a pit stop in Grenada (110,000 population), the southerly most island in the Windward Islands. We disembarked at 7.45am and were back on for 1pm. This is because of the long next sail to Bonaire. So Pumpkin, our driver and guide squeezed us into the Nissan bus and again we headed toward the centre of the island up a mountain. It was so fertile an island that we saw eucalyptus, papaya, nutmeg, bamboo, bananas, turmeric, ginger, cocoa, cinnamon growing in such a lush setting. I felt had I dropped a piece of paper it would shortly become a tree.
Our first stop was Douglaston Plantation employing 65 people on 200 acres. Here we touched and smelt various spices in a demonstration. Next we went into a rain forest park with a lake. That was pretty enough but on our way there we had to drive through a crowd of about 100 teenagers and youths mostly off their faces on whatever and many covered in mud. They were toward the fag end of an all nighter. They were in the road over a 150 metre stretch and still dancing on this country lane to a sound system that made the bus vibrate. Quite odd to wend up and down these little empty roads in dense tropical undergrowth for a long time to suddenly get to above 1000 feet and come across this party with obviously wrecked kids.
Pumpkin, his name and not my imagination, touched on the US invasion in 1983 and explained that after four years of Marxism after a coup and a build up of Cuban troops (and influence) then the US invaded to kick them and the regime out. It came to a brief war and USA soldiers and Cubans lost their lives. (Frankly Reagan wasn't going to tolerate Cuban mischief and expansionary ambitions in his ‘backyard'). The suspicion was that Grenada would provide an excellent Soviet/Cuban launchpad for Marxist insurgency in Central America, not least as a refuelling stop with a new military capable airstrip under construction at the time.
Pumpkin said Grenadians were grateful to the US and lauded Ronnie but went out of his way, unprovoked, to suggest Obama was terrible as a President! More celebrated by the locals was the fact it was 43 years since they gained their independence from the UK - we saw quite a few pictures painted on the walls commemorating this event in national colours. Grenada for all its fertile lands is very poor and tourism is the major earner not least from American tourists. Apparently unemployment is 28% with little welfare support but apparently very low crime. None of this is helped by the necessity of considerable rebuilding of the island after phenomenal devastation to housing and crops caused in 2004 by Hurricane Ivan, including 39 deaths. It seems to me that processing some of these amazing agricultural products should be the next step and so increase the value of the exports.
So after a visit to an old British/French fort we were deposited back at the ship and the next decision, before the buffet, was a tip. Clearly as a Yorkshireman then this pains me. I recognise service but where it becomes frankly begging or harassment then I'm not happy. Pumpkin was well worth the $10 we handed across. However, on the trip we went to see a waterfall. Very nice but no I didn't want to pay to see someone jump off the top of it, no matter how many times you shake the tin aggressively at me. Also thank you for the compliments as you walk beside me along the path back to the bus strumming a guitar (badly) whilst singing about my great generosity of spirit and high standing in society but no it isn't worth $1 for this 20 second serenade. These are poor places and we chipped in regularly, over and above the excursion costs, for guides, drivers, spices, church roofs, samples of mango etc but I found some of it wearing.
Album of the trip was I Got Your Medicine by The Shinyribs. They were new to me but I was detailed to review this for Americana Music Show podcast and actually thought it was a stormer! A soul rock throw back to the 1970's. I pedalled many a mile in the gym to this.
Next we were headed to places that I may have heard of but they simply hadn't registered with me. The first was Bonaire just off the coast of Venezuela with a population of 19,000 and a beach life existence for the residents. It was actually part of The Netherlands rather than a colony still. Due to this then the infrastructure was in a lot better condition and made getting around easy.
This Dutch island of diddly squat size is completely flat, arid and has wild donkeys wandering around the scrub - as the guide said "India has cows that roam free then we have donkeys". I did wonder if he-aw he-aw he-aw he always said that. This proliferation has something to do with the fact that they once needed and bred for hauling stuff around and when they were replaced then they were released into the wild to fend for themselves... and this they did!
The island produces salt and aloe vera but like the other islands makes its money out of tourism. The tourists either scuba dive, snorkel or sunbathe. Even Dutch Royals visit the island every year to show their faces and greet the natives. Given the entertainment options then we chose to cycle round part of the island in the midday sun (dodging donkeys) on electric bicycles. We ended up cycling over 20 miles albeit with considerable help from the bikes into a persistent gale. (Some of us were jolly pleased to work on their suntans).
The slaves up until the 19th Century helped harvest the salt that accumulated in vast ponds. Salt in these times was a precious commodity sought after for food preservation. Given this mineral and its value then the Spanish and Dutch fought over the island many times. In the burning sun against a white glare then it must have been a hellish job for the wretchedly unlucky Africans. There wasn’t a lot to see but our Belgian guide showed us his parent's property rental ($3,000/week), the brick huts the Dutch kindly built for their slaves when there was talk of rebellion and bought us a beer. As you can see the sea was crystal clear and oh so blue.
Less unfortunate as regards the salt ponds were the migratory flamingos who used the pools to find salt water shrimp. At 7.30 pm we set sail again.
Next morning we woke up in Aruba. This is part of the Netherlands remaining empire and is a small island but with over 100,000 people on it just 15 miles off the Venezuelan coast. Again like Bonaire tourism is a major dollar earner contributing 75% of its earnings with some agriculture and petrol refining tagging along. It is quite a prosperous place and you feel that as you visit the capital, Oranjestad. The Spanish and Dutch fought over it for a couple of centuries and the place, which has few natural resources, was used for livestock breeding, including horses. They were quite useful for conquering South America.
We strolled around and found a Starbucks and caught up with our email (nothing from Tescos regrettably) and then looked around the town noting that all the brands were here but at a high price. In every cruise port we visited there are high end jewellery shops - watches, diamonds, rings etc. In addition there are salespeople on the ship promoting these shops. They do this by invitations to seminars on the ship, handing out ‘shopping maps’ when you disembark, discounts for shopping, invitations to shops 'which will be fun and involve complimentary champagne’ and then a whole TV channel in your room that babbles on about opportunities and bargains for 24 hours a day. I would be worried about parting with serious cash in some of these countries to later find a problem back in the UK. I think maybe for some, with money to burn, then this is part of the holiday.
Oranjestad is an attractive town and well organised with a lot of Spanish and Dutch influence in evidence. The present Mrs Ives left me on one corner as I used the free wi-fi to, in effect, disappear. I looked up concluding that I had been abandoned and so returned to the ship, but found no wife. So I went back through the security checks and all that hassle back into town to the very corner where I last saw her. However no wife! At this point I was imaging a scene from Pirates of the Caribbean involving her abduction and my sailing to Florida alone. So eventually after a look around I returned to the ship. I asked Security if she had embarked? She had, in fact she was so worried about our parting that she’d gone to lunch on the top deck by herself. As you were.
So there were two days left to sail back to Florida. The present Mrs Ives worked on her tan before some serious retail therapy at a Miami mall
and Terminal 5 at Heathrow, by which hangs a story... We were meant to fly from Miami to Philadelphia and then onto Manchester. Our Miami flight was delayed to a time that meant we missed the Manchester connection. Apparently there was wild weather between both places.
The drama meant standing at the check-In desk whilst the staff sought out Plan B for us, the last thing we wanted was to wait another day in Miami. This they did and we flew from Miami to London and then onto Manchester adding 4½ hours to the return time. Having not slept since Lord knows when then keeping awake on the drive back across the M62 was tricky but we managed to get home.
(Must add that I saw some interesting films on the flights of which ‘Manchester by the Sea’ was brilliant - surely the rightful Oscar winner (?) but ‘Whiplash’ was good).
So a splendid time was had by all. I now know a lot more about the region and its people and could actually tell you where these islands are in relation to North America, South America, Puerto Rica and Cuba. Tourism is the way forward for these islands but you deep down hope that they can develop other ways to make a living that are sustainable and self fulfilling for the residents. Travel broadens the mind and I returned broader in more ways than one!