Monday, 30 January 2012

Montego Bay

Last leg to Montego Bay, Jamaica

Gran started getting stroppy when told 5 bottles Red Stripe was enough at lunchtime!
At sea now to our last port of call. A massive 1200mls across the Gulf of Mexico, between the Yucatan Peninsular and Cuba and back into the Caribbean and Jamaica. Three and a half days later and we arrived at Montego Bay and our last few hours before flying off to Gatwick. Stories of a winter yet to arrive with a vengeance in UK, ready for our return and forecast for Feb.
Some great food on board, highlights being grilled lobster tails, monkfish and mahi mahi, fish every day. But more important than that, the wonderful and caring staff of the Balmoral, mainly from Thailand, the Philippines and Bali, were excellent.
We were able to stay on board right up to the last minute. Bags had been packed and taken away during the night, able to use their towels, swim and sunbathe all morning, use showers and clean up ready for lunch. Last meal on board, sitting calmly together in the cool of the Ballindalloch restaurant, being waited on and served great food-fish again. Farewells to friends and staff, and ready for off.
Montego Bay Jamaica
Looking forward to returning home, to seeing friends and family, sleeping in a double bed, a big bath, cooking again etc.

Thursday, 26 January 2012


Galveston, Texas

25 January. Lily's First Birthday
Also Burns Night!

Nice picture of Ship's bell (nothing to do with Galveston)
Arrived in thick fog, and we're delayed getting into our berth, because the port had been closed to all shipping. Apparently common-place, when there are light winds.
Most important objective today was to find Starbucks and Skype the family. Ended up in Fisherman's Wharf Restaurant, with pints of Blue Moon with orange slices and Shrimp Poboys. Absolutely tipping it down and lightening, but managed to Skype Lily and we all sang Happy Brithday to her. Grandma was delighted to see her little smiling face, and watch her confidently walking towards us, whilst we all clapped excitedly. She can even get back up again quickly, if she falls down, and she's so quick at walking. Andrew said she even runs at times. He told us his visa is going to be extended for three years, and he's still hoping to come over this year, so grandma's really pleased about that.
Then we skyped Laura and chatted with her for a while. So lovely to see them. Could n't get hold of Kate, but she's sent a message to say that she's booked her flights to see Michael in April. As the storm continued outside, we ordered two more Blue Moons and waited for it to pass. The place was filling up with disgruntled cruise passengers, but we couldn't have been happier, now that we'd all seen Lily, and all the family.
There were trips to Houston and the Kennedy Space Centre, but we didn't fancy them. The old Strand in downtown Galveston was worth a visit, with it's historic buildings, but unless you liked shopping, there wasn't much to do there. So back to the ship, just in time for daily Pilates, and later the quiz with grandma!
Burns night tonight, so Scottish Gordon might be wearing his plaid trousers or his kilt, and haggis and nears will no doubt be on the menu!

Wednesday, 25 January 2012

New Orleans

Up the Mississippi to New Orleans.
Local ragtime jazz band
From the Gulf of Mexico, you have to travel 100+mls up the Mississippi River to arrive at New Orleans. We docked alongside the Riverwalk at just after 8am, on a dull, misty day, the first poor day since leaving Tenerife all those days ago! We were here all day and evening up to 11pm. A local steamboat jazz band have been invited to come on board and play for us tonight, which we're looking forward. I suspect the people who have paid £140 to go on a trip to see a jazz performance won't be looking forward to it quite as much.
The entertainment on board has been quite mixed, with an unfortunate couple of singers being sent on the next plane out of Tenerife, because there was a mass walk out! We've got a great singer on board called Phil Brown, who has sung in theatres in London and in the Lion King. Unfortunately his repertoire is aimed at the over 70s, and when he does try to do a Gnarls Barkley song, or something from the last 30 years, the backing band are so downbeat it's a real struggle. That coupled with some people sitting stony-faced, or childishly pretending to go to sleep (a Dutch custom) , it's a tough audience to play for! That said, he got a standing ovation for that current song "Old Man River", appropriately sung as we were about to join the Mississippi.
French Quarter
All the way up the Mississippi, there are massive oil rigs, a reminder that this area is rich in oil, and had a recent disastrous spillage which decimated the shellfish industry, which is big in this area- crawfish, prawn gumbo, jambalaya and other creole dishes. I was supposed to go to a cookery class in the Riverwalk shopping precinct, which had to be cancelled. I was quite relieved when I saw the rather uninspiring setting for the class.
We had a tram journey, which seemed to take an interminable length of time, it being actually quicker to walk, along the river bank, in the hope of taking grandma on a steamboat. In classic American positivity, we were told that the steamboat was running but was in dry dock, so in actual fact it wasn't running, but we could go on a trip to the dungeons and museum, which we regretfully denied! So after a stroll back to the boat, now that it had stop raining, we had lunch on board.
Whilst Florence rested in the afternoon, we explored the French Quarter, on foot. The atmosphere in this part of the city is very European and bohemian, not a bit American. You can hear the distinct southern drawl, "yawl", of passers by. They are proud to be different to other parts of America, to have a laid-back approach, which goes well with the hot, humid conditions. It must be unbearable in Summer. New Orleans has had its fair share of disasters, with the BP oil spill, Hurricane Katrina and flooding. There is a French Market area, with bars and cafes. More shops than anyone might need, but beautifully ornate old buildings with wrought iron balconies, hanging baskets, faded and peeling painted shutters, all reminding you that this a very historic city by American standards, dating back to about the 1780s, and sharing a Spanish and then French history, the French selling Louisiana to the Americans, in order to fund Napoleon's wars in Europe, with the Louisiana Purchase.
Typical Paddle Steamer
In the French Quarter, we had our first experience of an impromptu jazz performance by a group of six young street musicians, playing rag-time jazz. It was great foot- stomping stuff to make you smile. New Orleans is famous for its rich musical heritage, with big names like Louis Armstrong coming from here. Jazz is big here, and Mardi Gras is world famous. Mardi Gras, or Shrove Tuesday, was about eating up all the rich food before you went into Lent. The quarter was festooned in green, purple and gold. Masks are sold everywhere, and coloured beads dangle from balconies. Very colourful.
We decided to return to the ship for a rest and go back into town for the evening, because the ship didn't leave until midnight. We wandered down Bourbon St, which is a bit like Soho, with big-busted women hanging out of strip clubs and posters advertising strip shows. A bit in your face for the US which is usually so proper!
We returned to the French Market area for the evening, and opted to be cycled in by a local, who worked particularly hard, especially after the traffic lights had changed. Opposite the Jax Brewery, there is the only micro-brewery in NO, the Crescent City Brewery. Architecturally interesting, an old warehouse, the large copper stills behind the bar, a jazz band in the corner, courtyard at the rear with a fire. It was a warm evening and we opted to be in the thick of it in the saloon. We ordered a sample of the beers- 150mls of five different types of beers- signature Red Stallion, Black Forest, Creole Alt, and a Weiss beer and a pilsner. We shared a wonderfully light crab cake, much nicer than the coated dried ones we get at home. Ian had a Prawn PoBoy, deep-fried, battered prawns in a large bun, and I had a very pink, and delicious tuna salad. We walked back calling in at the massive Harrah gambling hall, the ones place you can guarantee to find a restroom!
Managed to arrive in time for the guest jazz band, a local six piece band who had been invited onboard to perform for us. They were great. I hadn't realised how much I liked jazz. Not the experimental stuff, but the rag-time type with a foot-tapping beat. A really good show, they said they'd played in the Keswick Jazz Festival, and would be returning to that this year.
At 1159 we departed for Galveston, Texas, about 300mls SW in the Gulf of Mexico. Another whole day at sea, before we arrive 8am the following day.

Key West

USA - Key West

Gran not looking so sure about this!
A day and a half later, arriving 6am, about 400mls from Grand Turk, we arrive in USA. We have to go through an individual face-to-face meeting with US customs before we're allowed ashore. We later discover that we were some of the lucky ones who pass through quite swiftly and we're ashore soon after 9am. Our fellow diners who are unlucky to be on deck 4 are called much later, and in the scrum to get ashore have to wait until about 12noon!
Huge Banyan Tree Key West
We've been to Key West a few times and really like it. You really immersed in the Florida Keys, bright blue sky, turquoise sea, lush, tropical gardens,colonial-style,clapperboard houses, some painted in pastel colours of turquoise, lime green, blue and pink. About 90 miles from Cuba, it's not surprising that there are strict immigration procedures to follow. Grandma came ashore with us and she and Ian enjoyed a short bike ride around the historic old town. Needless to say, they paid someone to do the pedalling! A brief stroll around Duvall St and then grandma returned for lunch on board. I found my favourite shop over here, called Fresh Produce, and bought a pair of white short trousers and a t-shirt. Beautiful cotton. We tracked down a place for lunch where we'd been before. With an hour to wait for a table, we went to the oldest bar in town, called the Green Parrot, established 1886, and enjoyed a couple of Blue Moons, and chatted to some very excited Americans from Daytona, drinking Jaegermeister and Red Bulls. Ian had just finished telling me how sensible they were for drinking just cokes, seeing as they were on push-bikes!
Blue Heaven restaurant
We wandered back towards the "restaurant" called Blue Heaven, past the Banyan Resort, a time share hotel built around a huge Banyan Tree, whose spread must have been at least 50ft or more, a huge shady tree. We were eventually shown to our table where we ordered shrimp sandwich and chicken tortilla with black bean rice, followed by Key Lime meringue pie. The reason we were willing to wait for so long was not just because the food is good, but because the surroundings are atmospheric. You sit at basic tables in a back-yard with a dirt floor, with chickens and rooster scratching around, (I'm sure they've grown in number since we were here about six years ago!).
Local weiss beer
Back to the boat and we went back ashore with grandma for a drink in a warehouse bar at the port, which was overpriced and disappointing. Won't be doing that again! Back on board, and the boat had to leave before the sunset celebrations start in Mallory Square. Quite happy to leave cos it's a bit of a circus! We waited and waited for a couple who hadn't arrived on board. Someone told us that they were later seen being man-handled onto the ship from a tender, as it was moving! Not many captains would have gone to so much trouble, I suspect!
Cool hat
As the sun went down, we joined in the singing and dancing at the stern of the ship. Once again a great atmosphere and good fun, leaving Key West behind us. Lots of passengers joined in to make it a fun end to the day, and the ones who couldn't join in, sat and watched, like grandma.

Sunday, 22 January 2012

Grand Turk

Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands

You can swim right next to boat at Grand Turk
Arrived 6am to see the sun rising over these beautiful, low- lying islands. Everything you imagine about Caribbean islands is true of Grand Turk- white sand, palm trees, turquoise sea and sky, solitude - well, the last bit would be true, if you didn't arrive with 1300 passengers. Situated close to the Bahamas, a small group of islands in very shallow waters. Kate would love it here!
We'd opted for a snorkelling trip to the solitude of Gibbs Cay, which meant we were there with only 30 others, as visits and numbers are restricted. The experience was wonderful, relatively quiet and undisturbed, for a change, but the snorkelling itself was a bit disappointing. White sand and turquoise sea might look idyllic, but it's like a desert for marine life. I managed to sea some large blue tangs, wrasse and others I can't remember the names of, swimming in deeper water near a small reef. Others saw small turtles. We followed stingrays "flying" out towards the reef, having been fed and "played with" in the shallower waters earlier. This was the only grumble. Having signed for the one of two snorkelling trips which was not supposed to include the rays, we found to our surprise that we had a photographer on board, who would take pictures of us kissing rays and have them swimming near you feet. A group of us refused to cooperate with this, and said we were going off snorkelling. A bit annoyed about this, and the fact that we had with us someone who was not a good swimmer, and needed to be towed around by the guide, limiting what some of us could experience. So several of us just swam off and did our own thing! At £40 each, we weren't going to have this experience lessened by health and safety, and someone else's agenda. That's the main problem with some of these trips, and that's why we haven't booked any more.
Conch shell
I can't abide these creature experiences, up close and personal with something that's only there to be fed. It's like a circus, and we shouldn't encourage these stupid experiences. There are supposed to be wild creatures. Next thing I saw was some twit touching coral on the reef, but he was only doing what had previously been encouraged and photographed. Why can't people be happy with less, watching them swimming away later was far more moving. They go in for these sorts of carnivals a lot in parts of Asia, but I expected them to be more enlightened here. I don't know why!
One of the best bits of the trip was watching our guide snorkel and dive down to pick up two conch shells, and then show us how to extricate the conch meat, by hammering a hole into a specific point, and detaching the muscle, and then pulling the slug-like conch out. Only a small white part is edible, which he sliced and we ate like sushi, raw. We've only ever had conch cooked in batter as fritters, but this was very different and tasted almost like a slightly sweet vegetable, not at all fishy, and really nice.
Not many fish...something must have frightened them off!
One of the shortest stays at a port, leaving at 2pm, but other than swimming, there is not much else to do, and that's why we liked it so much.

Saturday, 21 January 2012

Arrival in St Maartens and Tortola

Arrival in St Maartens, the Friendly Island, Carribean.

Tied up in St Maarten
4000 nautical miles and 11days at sea and we arrived in the port of Phillipsburg at 6am. No more constant trade winds blowing us West, with a following brisk sea, Force 5,
17-20 knots all day and all night, never reducing or changing. Actually we were in the famous Doldrums for one day, when the sea and wind were very calm, but then back into the trades.
Days have been spent in the gym, doing Pilates, and occasionally sunbathing, although the sun has been getting much more intense. Mum has been going to the talks, listening to the occasional classical matinee, and relaxing at most of the evening shows.
Last night Capt Olav cut the deck lights and treated us to a wonderful clear night sky, where he pointed to numerous constellations. He seems to be a particular friendly chap, softly spoken, who really enjoys spending time with his guests.
There's a body in the pool!
The morning visit ashore was brief, but Mum managed a long walk up into town, dodging hoards of souvenir t-shirt vendors, and shiny jewellery shops. Not much to see. Most guests seemed to be going on trips, but not us today. Tomorrow we're off on a coach trip around Tortola, which we can do with mum. Not quite the same as the last time we were in the BVIs, when we chartered a boat and sailed around Tortola and the Cays, but it 'll be fine! The sun is shining , the sky is blue and it's January!
We listened and danced to a local steel band in the evening on the aft pool deck. It was a great atmosphere and everyone danced as we left St Maarten at 11pm for Tortola.
Had a great trip around Tortola in the morning. We were on a safari type bus which wound its way up and down the hills into different bays. It is surprisingly hilly with highest point at 1750 ft which given island is only about 5 miles wide makes for some hair-raising ascents and descents. Said we would come back again and charter sometime.
Holding tummy in and trying to look relaxed!
Looking towards Virgin Gorda in BVI's
Finished the day with a BBQ on aft pool deck in the evening. It was very windy and rained later but again great atmosphere. Left late again for 2 day sail to Turks and Caicos.

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Webster Family Cruise

Webster family Cruise 2012!

Just about to leave Southampton
Well, about time I put "pen to paper"! Left Southampton on Thursday 5th January 2012. A bit of a rush around after Xmas- tree came down promptly, along with the decorations! Farewell to children and partners, arrangements made to visit little family out in Socal, with discounted flights!(Ian booked me to visit on my own in March, so confused about what to be excited about! Future cruise or visit to Lily!
Grandma managed to pack and be ready on time. Taxi to port of Southampton to make it easier and then once settled in our respective cabins, we were ready to set sail. Grandma landed a really spacious cabin directly above all the restaurants, which would prove to make life a lot easier for her. Ours wasn't so good, but at least it had bath.

Our seventh day at sea now, and we're all salty sea dogs. Grandma's finding her way around the ship, The Balmoral, really well. We're finding a routine of visiting the gym every morning for two hours, burning off excess calories, meeting up with Florence for lunch, then doing different things in the afternoon. I go to Pilates class every afternoon, then sometimes we meet up for a quiz, or, now it's warm and sunny, we lounge around on deck.

Arriving at Tenerife 
A brief stopover for a few hours in Santa Cruz de Tenerife, where we went to a local bar, called Nuevo Porron, near to the old church of La Conception, and saw some interesting local food called Almogrote, mature cheese covered on honey and spices and promised to return one day!
Rubbish and waste off-loaded and provisions loaded and then we were off on the seven-day journey across the Atlantic to the Dutch island of St Maarten in the Caribbean. The trade winds have been kind and gentle and the crossing smooth, but it's early days. So smooth that we can hold strenuous positions in Pilates without falling over. The first night was quite uncomfortable coming out of the Channel, but it's been good since then.
Florence has been to most of the talks, whilst we've been at the gym. And she's been to all the shows. We make sure she's well ensconced and then disappear off to bed or bar. We don't do shows, especially these shows- they're far too old for us. The average age is about 73! Much older than on our previous cruise and much more infirm!
Approaching Tenerife
But the people who join us for dinner on our table are excellent. A couple from Bavaria, Herbert is lean and active, goes to gym and Pilates every day and hates wearing anything but a fleece, and another couple, Cynthia and Gordon who are sailors and great travellers, who went back-packing a couple of years ago, in Thailand! Not forgetting our other guest, Gordon, who is Scottish, and lives near Javea in Spain, and is an avid bridge player. Great company and evening meals with them are very entertaining and enjoyable, but I think we've landed lucky!
Tonight for the first time, we sat up on deck in reasonably warm evening, and watched the moon rise up from the horizon in the East. It was magnificent. Cruising at 17knots, with the moon lighting up the stern, whilst everyone was busy eating if they were second-sitting, or watching the show, if they were first sitting, and weren't like us. Just a few of us out on deck. And most of them smokers!! But what a moonlit evening. Ian reliving his transatlantic passage five years ago in much more uncomfortable conditions and on a much smaller boat!!!