Cruising The Caribbean, Sans Sea Legs
“Have you cruised before?” Four words, one question on a constant loop inside the mind, even now we’ve been back in the UK long enough to celebrate Christmas and New Year, and recover from both.
For two first time shipmates the answer was simple enough, ensuring the constant repetition never became too painful. “No”, we would respond, and then wait, either for genuinely useful advice or another verbal love letter about how this is the finest thing to happen to international travel since the birth of international travel.
OK, maybe we did hold a little information back. Still, aside from a week spent marauding around a vessel in the middle of the Mediterranean as a teenager neither myself, nor partner, had hit the sea to explore a string of islands before. Nautical terms may have been vaguely familiar then, but the nature of adult life on the tides, and the reason so many people come back for so many successive trips, remained a mystery.
Several extra rolls of fat later and it’s impossible to deny that food plays a huge factor. During our 14-night Caribbean jaunt on the P&O mega-boat Ventura staying satisfied was simple. Opting for the freedom dining package- wherein tables are allocated on arrival, as oppose to the more traditional fixed seating times- we were given the choice of three eateries, each offering different breakfast, lunch and evening menus on a daily basis. That’s in addition to the crowded but well-stocked buffet, open for salads, snacks, seafood and hot dishes almost all hours of the day as an alternative to restaurant stateliness.
Those formal five courses accentuate the relationship between cruises and cuisine best, though. Gorging on Grassingham duck, slow roast lamb and pan-seared venison rarely feels as indulgent as it does in the wake of swimming gin-clear waters just before Christmas. It’s at dinner that P&O’s 176-year sailing heritage was most evident too, with waiters and sommeliers laying on first rate, old-world service.
A contrast to the more relaxed, resort-style ambience dominating daylight hours, nevertheless thanks to the ship’s almost overwhelming size and onboard options it was always possible to punt for something more in keeping with ocean liner elegance. Even the sail away disco parties hosted at the outdoor bar could easily be sidestepped if you preferred peace, quiet and a sublime Caribbean sunset viewed from the observation deck at Ventura’s bow. Meanwhile, should the live performances taking place inside after dark fail, then martinis mixed at our tableside in the Red Bar, as the resident pianist set the mood, never did.
This is all when we chose not to make the most of our well appointed balcony stateroom- an essential personal retreat from what could be, at full capacity, a vessel carrying over 3,000 guests. A tale of two ships then, wherein classicists and contemporaries could while away the time as they saw fit, although entertainments and accommodations are vitally important realistically the itinerary was always going to be the most crucial aspect of the trip. After all, we opened with an overnight in Barbados, and then called at a further eight islands, many of which- for example Grand Turk- would have been decidedly more difficult to reach via any other mode of transport.
But for logic’s sake let’s start somewhere near the beginning. Waking on the first day at sea for an intimate breakfast in bed to discover you’re floating past St. Lucia’s dramatic Piton mountains is a wonderful experience to say the least. It also accentuates the biggest selling point of cruises in general, with a different vista each and every morning. Waters renowned for their calm temperament reflected back the kind of colours that make Photoshop redundant, whilst on land tiny roads wound through even smaller jungle villages before disappearing over the horizon. And the heat, even at 8AM, was inescapable.
24-hours later and we disembarked on verdant St. Vincent, a million theoretical miles from the opulence dominating Barbados’ west coast. There, a few hours before first setting sail, lunch at the boutique beachfront hotel Cobblers Cove, a Relais & Chateaux member situated just outside Speightstown, was an absolute delight, comprising delectable local delicacies such as tilapia and flying fish prepared by renowned Head Chef Michael Harrison. In juxtaposition, Kingstown was never going to be the most luxurious scheduled stop, yet its charm is immediate, making visitors acutely aware that this is not Kansas (or indeed the UK) anymore.
Uneven streets lined with fruit and vegetable stalls stretching into the centre of town, heavy downpours of bath-temperature rain and a few hours spent avoiding those showers in a delightfully makeshift bar (comprising a few huts, a few local kids and some insufficient tent covers) being just three unforgettable and hugely entertaining memories. Despite docking with a few thousand fellow passengers, it was easy enough to find a sense of adventure, with abundant unfamiliar sights and sensations in every direction.
Dominica’s capital, Roseau, followed suit and then trumped as arguably the most quintessentially Caribbean stop we made. A ramshackle town packed with colour and character, once in the streets we turned down an alleyway in the hope of fleeing the somewhat oppressive, well-above-30-degree-and-humid weather, and emerged into a discreet drinking haunt complete with ragga soundtrack and (presumably) regular patrons similarly keen to keep out of the heat. Cold beer soon in hand, followed by the obligatory rum punch; it couldn’t have felt more tropical.
At other times we ventured further than those points of entry. Reaching a near-deserted Choc beach on St. Lucia from Castries City, where most ships dock, took no time at all. Seeking shade under a palm whilst keeping one eye on a watch for the return to port and our distance from the most urbanised zone in the country was astonishing. Just ten minutes by car and this stunning locale was quiet, not to mention stacked full of Kodak moments showing off the island’s infinite natural beauty, evidencing why this is currently the planet’s honeymoon capital.
A tropical Eden, there’s a common misconception that the entire region’s environment is homogenous. The first islands we called at, and next stop Antigua- where 365 beaches rival the aforementioned- certainly re-emphasised that Lost World stereotype, but the same can’t be said for everywhere en route. St Kitts, for example, in parts resembles Cornwall from a parallel universe, its southern peninsula’s windswept rolling hills boasting an almost moor-like appearance, with the swell topped Atlantic crashing down to the east
Not that visitors can’t then head inland to find lush, vegetation-packed rainforests, overrun with monkeys introduced by the colonial French during the island’s troubled history. Another key attraction nearby is Brimstone Hill Fortress, thought to be one of the finest structures of its kind in the world, originally built by the British on the back of imported slave labour in the 1600s, designed to stave off other nations looking to exploit the area’s resources after indigenous tribes had been wiped out.
You needn’t look past the capital, Basseterre, for evidence of that dark past, though. Old slave chambers are still visible through basement window grills on centuries-old buildings, making for a grisly injection of truth that’s likely to resonate with many consciences. But not everything about the Caribbean’s bad old times will make modern day liberals feel painful prangs of guilt. Pirates played a big part too, and (however inaccurately) always inspire a romanticised image of intrepid exploration.
Grand Turk, our furthest port from the well-beaten cruising path thanks to its relatively recent ability to handle large vessels, probably belongs in the buccaneer days more than anywhere else. Looking out on what barely constitutes an island from onboard Ventura and every coastline was in sight. Spanning less than two miles across and six down, this minuscule member of the Turks & Caicos group is the perfect windswept strip of sand for one-eyed captains to dump disloyal crewmembers on.
Then again, one of the seemingly endless cays offshore would fit the bill even better, as we found after making landfall on a tiny mound of earth roughly two kilometres out to sea. Of course in 2014, you can expect to make it back to civilization alive, after getting up close and personal with stingrays and snorkelling over the coral reef close by, where an underwater ecosystem teems with life, from clown fish to barracuda.
As the most memorable of our experiences it seems appropriate to leave it there, tempting as it is to go on for a good while longer. Especially as there has been no mention of St. Maarten’s hustle and bustle, where a rather optimistic decision to dock eight huge ships in one fell swoop threatened to bring both the French and Dutch sides of the country to a complete standstill, or the air of reserve and sophistication that welcomed us to the British Virgin Islands after docking at Tortola.
A trip of sizeable proportions resplendent with divine destinations, for two outed novices it more than demystified the art of cruising. Far from limiting passengers to a brief insight into various countries, the voyage itself is the real selling point, and that voyage can be whatever you make it. Providing words like ‘relaxed’ and ‘pampered’ come into the overall game plan, and you make it back on board before the boat leaves every evening. Preparing for what proved to be an incredibly comfortable flight back to Britain onboard Boeing and Thomson’s fresh-air-filled Dreamliner and, casting a mind over the previous fortnight, it seemed abundantly clear that this may not be the last occasion the word ‘cruise’ comes into our travel plans, potentially affording us the opportunity to answer that eternal question again, but with a rather different response.
Interested in your own grand voyage?
Caribbean – March 2014
P&O Cruises is offering a 15 night Caribbean fly cruise on Ventura (N405A) from £1,729 per person for a Vantage Fare. Departing March1, 2014, the price includes return flights from the UK, inside cabin, all meals and entertainment. Departing from and returning to Barbados, ports of call are St Vincent, Dominica, St Lucia, St Kitts, Grand Turk, Tortola and St Maarten.
Caribbean – November 2014
P&O Cruises is offering a 15 night Caribbean fly cruise on Ventura (N423) from £1,329 per person. Departing November 7, 2014, the price includes return flights from the UK, inside cabin, all meals and entertainment. Departing from and returning to Barbados, ports of call are Grenada, St Lucia, Dominica, St Kitts, St Maarten, Tortola, Curacao and Bonaire.
To book, visit www.pocruises.co.uk, call 0843 373 0111 or contact your local travel agent.