Caribbean Cruise – Antigua

The third stop on our Caribbean cruise was Antigua. We docked at the capital, St John’s, in the north-west of the island, which has a deep harbour suitable for large cruise ships. Antigua was named by Columbus when he first visited the island in 1493, and means ‘ancient’ in Spanish, but is also known locally as Wadadli, which has a meaning similar to ‘our own’, and gives a delicious meaning to the name of the local beer! By 1674 its main crop was sugar, and by the 1770’s it had a slave population of over 37,000, and a non-slave population of 3,000! The slaves lived terrible lives, malnourished, cruelly mistreated, and even killed by their owners. The slave trade was abolished in 1807, and slaves freed by 1834. In 1981 Antigua and its sister island Barbuda, became an independent state within the Commonwealth of Nations. Antigua’s economy now relies on tourism, with luxury hotels along the coastline, and throughout the summer months cruise ships visit almost daily.

Antigua is surrounded by coral reefs, with a coast-line of about 54 miles, and (we were told) 365 sandy beaches, enough for one a day for a year! We had decided it was time to spend a morning on the beach, so we took a taxi ride to Fort James, a quiet and pleasant bay not far from St John’s. After paying an ‘umbrella rent’ we strewed our belongings under our huge, hexagonal wooden umbrella, and went for a dip. I expected the aqua-blue water to be warm, or at least warmish – it wasn’t! Instead it was a refreshing cold, not the gasping cold, we’re used to in the UK. There were large, long roller waves that almost swept us off our feet, we were later told this was quite unusual. We dried off quickly in the sun, and did a bit of beach-combing across the hot sand, finding shells and pieces of coral that had washed up on the beach. It was hot but not overwhelmingly so, and a bottle of Wadadli from the beach bar, went down very well!

Palm trees grew along the beach, and there were scrubby trees with bright orange flowers, rather like azalea. A bird, with black plumage and bright yellow eyes hopped around in the sparse undergrowth at the edge of the beach, and then perched in the bushes; we later discovered it was a carib grackle. Fat pink doves cooed at us from the trees, and humming birds hovered around the flowers, iridescent blue and yellow, but they moved too fast to photograph. There were also huge, black frigate birds soaring high in the sky, and then swooping low over the sea.

The beach at Fort James, Antigua was completely what I expected from a Caribbean island beach – pale dazzling sand, clear blue sky, aquamarine sea, and wall to wall sunshine!

Advertisements

Caribbean Cruise – St Kitts – Romney Manor

The next stop on our Caribbean cruise was Basseterre, the capital city of the tiny island of St Kitts, where we were booked on a tour. The coach took us out of Basseterre, along the coast, and on the beach we spotted a pair of brown pelicans, the national bird of St Kitts, and later on saw energetic young egrets nesting in bushy, low-growing trees. We then turned inland, and before long arrived at Romney Manor, once the great house for a sugar plantation. St Kitts and Nevis are both volcanic in origin, with very rich fertile soil, ideal for the production of sugar. The islands were settled by the British in the 16oos, because of the huge financial gains to be had in the international sugar trade. Romney Manor was once owned by Sam Jefferson an ancestor of Thomas Jefferson 3rd president of USA, but was sold to the Earl of Romney in the 17th Century, and was then called Romney Manor. In 1834, the estate became the first plantation to free all of its slaves. Part of the estate has now been made into beautiful botanic gardens. Narrow paths twist through borders of bright, tropical plants and flowers, and a carefully kept lawn surrounds a 400 year old saman tree. The valley below is covered in thick green vegetation.

Within the gardens is a collection of buildings where Caribelle Batik create beautiful and unique fabric designs. They utilise traditional Indonesian methods using wax and brightly coloured dyes on high quality cotton fabric, that have unsurprisingly become the most sought after batik textiles in the Caribbean. We watched a fascinating demonstration, and saw swathes of newly finished batik designs drying in the warm air. Then we browsed around the extensive shop, where choosing what to buy was very difficult!

Does anyone know what the white flower is? It looks a bit like giant honeysuckle to me.

Caribbean Cruise – St Lucia

The first stop on our Caribbean cruise was Castries, the capital city of St Lucia, on the northern part of the island. Once off the ship, it was easy to get a minibus ride to see some of the sights. St Lucia is of volcanic origin, so is very mountainous. It is 27 miles long by 14 miles wide (for those familiar with England, it is a little larger than the Isle of Wight), and the highest point is Mount Gimie at about 3145 feetSt Lucia is thought to have been named after St Lucy of Syracuse, when French sailors  were ship-wrecked there on her feast day, so it is the only country in the world to be named after a woman! Historically it was fought over by the French and British, changing hands many times, until 1814 when it was finally taken by the British, and it remains a member of the Commonwealth. It is mainly an agricultural island, and although it used to produce sugar-cane, the plantations now mostly produce bananas. Tourism, especially visits by cruise ships, are now an important part of the economy of St Lucia.

We drove along narrow roads snaking upwards round hairpin bends. Dense undergrowth covered the mountainsides. Houses perched precariously on steep slopes, one side often propped up on stilts to form a level dwelling. We stopped at a banana plantation, and saw bananas in various stages of growth, from tiny newly forming bananas, to fully grown bananas swathed in blue covers for protection. Before returning to Castries, we stopped to look down on Marigot Bay, a sheltered bay on the western coast, where steep green forested slopes met golden sand and the blue waters of the Caribbean Sea.

 

 

 

Istanbul

Istanbul was the next stop on our Eastern Mediterranean cruise. The ancient capital of three great empires, it is still the point where east meets west, ancient meets modern, and the only city in the world that is built on two continents. The highlight for me of our visit to Istanbul was the Topkapi Palace, which is one of the most popular tourist sites in Istanbul, and contains Muslim holy relics, including Muhammed’s cloak and sword. Construction of the palace began in 1459 after Byzantine Constantinople was conquered by Sultan Mehmed. The Topkapi Palace, (meaning Cannon Gate), was built on a hilltop on a small peninsula, between the Golden Horn, the Sea of Marmara and the Bosphorus Strait. For nearly 400 years it was the main residence of the Ottoman Sultans, the seat of government, and used for the state occasions and royal entertainment. During this time the palace was greatly extended, and became the largest in the world, a city within a city, with walls 5 km long. Originally home to 700 – 800 people, at its height it would have housed 4,000 – 5,000 residents, and over 10,000 during festivals. After the 17th century the Topkapi Palace gradually lost importance, and in 1856 the court was moved to a new European-style palace, although the treasury, library and mint remained. As one of the best examples of an Ottoman palace, it is now a part of the ‘Historic Areas of Istanbul World Heritage Site’.

The palace complex is large and varied. It contains four main courtyards, large gateways, a maze of passages, hundreds of rooms, gardens, and many other buildings including mosques, a hospital, bakeries, and a mint. It is beautifully decorated, with high gilded ceilings, intricately patterned gateways, swathes of flowing golden writing, wonderful tiled walls and panels, wide paved courtyards, and striking patterned black and white pebble paths.
All in all, a most enjoyable day out, and a palace well worth visiting.

Brindisi

The first port of call on our Eastern Mediterranean cruise was the Southern Italian coastal town of Brindisi, 384 nautical miles from Venice, and situated in a panoramic bay of the Adriatic. Brindisi became a strategic port after falling to the Romans in 267BC, later used by Venetian merchants, it has since ancient times been known as the ‘Gateway to the Orient’. It is still a major trading port with Greece and the Middle East.
We took the transfer bus from the port into the city, passing through a flat and seemingly derelict industrial landscape. After about twenty minutes we arrived in Brindisi. We were dropped off just next to the information centre, where we picked up a tourist map (available in different languages). Following the map we walked a circular route, along wide tree-lined avenues, through narrow winding streets with no pavement, round old buildings and churches, pausing awhile in shady squares with statues and fountains. The Fountain of Anchors stands in the Piazza Cairoli, and in the centre of the Piazza Vittorio Emanuele is the Dolphin’s Fountain. And if you look closely on the wall of the Coast Guard’s building, you can see a sundial, saluting incoming and outgoing visitors. Some of the streets are paved with large black blocks of basalt lava. They are laid in geometric shapes, and have a dull gleam under the bright Mediterranean sun.

 

 

Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway

Whilst staying in Hythe last weekend, we wanted to take a trip on the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway. I’d travelled on the railway many years ago as a child, when I lived in Folkestone. The Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch Railway is a narrow gauge railway that runs for 13.5 miles along the Kent coast from Hythe to Dungeness. There is a fleet of one-third full size steam and diesel locomotives, that run on 15″ wide track, and is built to run safely at 25 mph. The railway was designed and planned in the 1920’s, by Captain J E P Howey, a racing driver and millionaire landowner, and Count Louis Zborowski, also a millionaire racing driver. They wanted to create the best miniature railway in the world, which would be run like any normal mainline railway. When it opened in July 1927, the double track only ran from Hythe to New Romney, but within a year it went as far as the shingle ridges of Dungeness. During the Second World War the railway line was requisitioned by the War Department, who built a miniature armoured train, which was used during the building of PLUTO (Pipe Line Under The Ocean) which fueled the Allied invasion force. The railway was re-opened in 1947 by Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy. Now, almost 70 years later, it is one of the biggest tourist attractions in Kent, having in excess of 100,000 visitors every year.

So, on Sunday morning we parked by the Royal Military Canal in Hythe, and bought RomneyRover Tickets, which enabled us to get on and off the train at any station.  Like the locomotives, the carriages are obviously small, with just enough space for two normal sized adults to sit side by side, and a tall man (or woman) might find their heads touching the ceiling! There are open carriages, with no doors or windows, but we chose a closed carriage, with a sliding door. The guard waved his green flag, (children waved theirs), the steam whistle blew and we were off out of the station passing between the gardens of Hythe, until we reached the open fields. Sheep munched lazily, well used to the clickety-clack of the train passing, and the air was filled with the smell of steam and smoke. Dymchurch was the first station we stopped at, followed by St Mary’s Bay. Then at New Romney we got off and had lunch. We also had a look at the extensive Model Railway Exhibition which was included in our Rover ticket. Also at New Romney is a locomotive turntable, which I remembered seeing as a child. Then we were off again heading for Dungeness. Bells rang and red lights flashed each time we crossed country roads, and everyone waved good-naturedly as they waited for us to go by. The scenery changed dramatically as we moved onto the bleak open shingle ridges of the Dungeness National Nature Reserve, classified as desert by the meteorological office. The train looped round to Dungeness Station, where we got off and had a wander around, before catching the train back to Hythe.

It was a fabulous train trip on the world’s smallest public railway, and for me, a wonderful revival of childhood memories. If we had had the time, I would have loved to do it all again!
For more information see:  http://www.rhdr.org.uk

Old Dungeness Lighthouse

I spent a lovely few days last weekend in Kent, and stayed on a caravan site just outside Hythe. As a very small child, my Dad worked in Hythe, and we lived five miles along the coast in Folkestone. So visiting this area of Kent always feels a little bit like coming home.
On Saturday afternoon with no fixed plan, we decided to venture off in a westerly direction, and found ourselves driving through New Romney, then across the vast expanse of shingle ridges, towards Dungeness, ending up of course at the famous Old Dungeness Lighthouse.

There has been a lighthouse at Dungeness since 1615, when a 35 ft high wooden tower with an open coal fire on top warned early mariners of the dangerous peninsular that reached out into the English Channel. In about 1635 a 110 ft high brick lighthouse was built, which stood for over a hundred years. The shingle banks continued to grow, and in 1790 it became necessary to build a third lighthouse. It was 116 ft high, fueled first by oil, and later petroleum, and the light was magnified by concave reflectors, which were later replaced by glass prisms. Over the years the longshore drift caused the shingle banks to increase so much that by 1901 a new and taller Lighthouse had to be commissioned. This fourth lighthouse, now known as the Old Dungeness Lighthouse, is nearly 150 ft high, and was opened by the Prince of Wales – later George V – in 1904. The light flashed every 10 seconds, and could be seen for approximately 18 miles, providing a clear signal to ships in the English Channel for 56 years. Despite having survived two world wars, during the construction of the Dungeness Nuclear Power station in the 1950’s, it became clear that the light would become obscured, and so the Lighthouse was decommissioned in 1960, and in 1961, yet another Lighthouse was opened. This 43 metre high, black and white striped lighthouse is still in operation, and has a flash of white light every 10 seconds, that is visible for 27 miles.

The black and white tower of the Old Dungeness Lighthouse, now a museum and major tourist attraction, is an imposing, solid-looking structure, of industrial Victorian architecture. Inside are a series of mezzanine floors made of slate and supported by massive steel beams, linked by spiral staircases with wrought iron banisters. It’s quite a climb, with a total of 169 steps, but there are windows on every level, and with the panoramic views from the top over the bleak shingle headland, is well worth the effort. On the second floor of the lighthouse is the Lens Room, with an impressive, almost artistic display of lenses.

On the fifth floor is the Great Lens, which weighs between two and three tons. It was balanced on a bed of mercury, and was kept revolving by a clock underneath, which had to be hand-wound every hour by the keeper on watch. The one million candle-power light could be seen for up to 20 miles. In good weather you can climb out onto the balcony that runs around the top of the lighthouse, and gaze out over the Dungeness National Nature Reserve, Romney March, and out across the English Channel.