Viking Caribbean Cruise

Yesterday can really only be described as a gruelling one!

We got up at 4.30am for a 5.30am taxi that came at 5.15am. The journal to Heathrow took only an hour, and check-in with Virgin Atlantic was a breeze. The eleven hour flight to Atlanta went surprisingly quickly, made much more comfortable by the 2-4-2 seating configuration that meant that we could get up and walk around without disturbing others.

I'd been dreading arriving at Border Control in Trump's America with mid-term elections raging, but we were very pleasantly surprised with the short queues and friendly reception from Immigration officials. The only fly in the ointment was the four hour gap between arrival and departure that almost seemed longer than the flight we'd just had!

The journey with Delta down to Puerto Rico started to tax our dwindling energies, and we spent the three hour flight trying to sleep a little. Amazingly, just as at Atlanta, we arrived at Baggage Reclaim to see our cases already circling on the belt, and we met up with the local Viking welcoming staff quite quickly. By now it was approaching 4am UK time.

We were greeted as we boarded the ship with Champagne - nice touch - and found a plate of lovely sandwiches waiting for us in our stateroom. We ordered tea from Room Service, and when we finally turned out the lights it was1.30am local time, or 5.30am back at home. We'd been on the move for 25 hours!

Thursday 8th November 2018
San Juan, Puerto Rico

We were awake at 6am after less than six hours sleep because one of us couldn't sleep - spoiler alert, it wasn't me! ;o)

Our stateroom is wonderful; tastefully decorated, spacious and with a large bathroom that puts Azamara to shame. The bed is gloriously comfortable and has lovely pillows and bedding. The balcony is only large enough for two chairs and a table, but that'll do.

Being up so early meant we could have an early breakfast, and the buffet restaurant wasn't at all busy. I went for my normal Full English, and was really impressed that the quantities available weren't great, i.e. food is constantly being cooked fresh and doesn't sit around getting cold. The hash browns were in a dish sitting on baking parchment and with another piece of parchment over the top, presumably to keep them crisp. And there was a choice between traditional English bacon or the frazzled, crisp bacon that the Americans seem to love - or both ;o)

The restaurant itself is light and airy, in the same sort of light wood that's used everywhere else on board. Behind the buffet counter you can see directly into the wonderfully clean, uncluttered kitchen. It means that kitchen staff can see natural daylight, which must be a pleasant change!

When we arrived last night it had been raining and there must have been more while we slept. After breakfast it was overcast but warm, so we found the empty Sun Deck and two beds for a couple of hours reading. By 11am the sun was fiercely warm, so, knowing that we were on a walking tour at 12.30pm, we left, got changed and had an early lunch in the buffet. Again, it was wonderfully uncrowded, and there was an excellent choice between hot and cold dishes.

Our walking tour covered the old Spanish fort that dominates the town, the cathedral half a mile away and the streets in between. The town still has a very Spanish feel because it was only in the 1890s that Spain handed it to the USA. Even now it's not a state of the USA but a 'territory'. From the locals' point of view that's not too bad because it means they don't pay US taxes.

The fort was built in the 16th century and became important for the defence of Spanish interests in the area as they exploited the natural resources of South and Central America. Its walls are said to be 20 feet thick, important for withstanding bombardment from sea. There is also considerable fresh water storage capacity in vast underground tanks.

As the tour progressed and the weather became hotter concentration flagged a little. However, San Juan's town centre is really quite attractive and it was worth the effort.

Back on board we thought we'd try the Wintergarden with its afternoon tea and musical entertainment from a flute/violin/cello trio. The cakes and sandwiches were very much of the style and quality that you'd get in central London, i.e. superb, and the musical backdrop was very pleasant!

We're just back in our stateroom following cocktails, dinner and the Captain's Welcome Party. We're quite exhausted and ready for a lie-in in the morning :o)

Friday 9th November 2018
Tortola, British Virgin Islands
 
Tortola might be part of the British Virgin Islands, but its currency is the US Dollar. Also, their vehicles are all left hand drive, even though they drive on the left.

We had breakfast delivered to our stateroom today and ate it sitting on our balcony, looking out on to lush green hills that circled Tortola's capital, Road Town. The sky was clear blue, which meant that the sea was too. It looked an idyllic place, even though a year ago a vast storm had ripped through the area.

For the second day we had an excursion after lunch, leaving the morning free for reading on deck. Lunch in the buffet was superb - we both had a wonderful lasagne, which reminded us that the executive chef is Italian. Last night at dinner I'd had pasta with wild boar sausage crumbled up into it, and that was truly delicious too.

This afternoon's excursion was another one that was included in the price of the cruise. There are also options to take trips for additional cost, and we've booked four of those.

The tour was described as, 'Tortola Scenic Tour and Beach, and took place on an 'open air safari bus' with open sides. Each bus seemed to carry about 20 passengers in reasonable comfort. The Virgin Island are remnants of now-extinct volcanoes that seem to have little flat ground at all. This meant that our safari bus had to struggle up steep inclines in low gear, and every now and then there was a simply wonderful vista to drink in, with views over wooded slopes down to white sand beaches and turquoise sea. Truly breathtaking.
 
Half way around there was a long mural painted on a five foot high wall, depicting scenes of life following the end of slavery in 1834. Halfway through the tour we reached Cane Garden Bay, where the island's last rum distillery still runs commercially. We had a hour sitting on the sandy beach, enjoying the very Caribbean scene, and Gill had a swim. She said that the water was very warm and also quite salty - I'd noticed a couple of people floating on their backs with no apparent effort. After only an hour it was back on the bus and back to Road Town.
 
Tomorrow we're in St. Kitts, and in the theatre at 6pm there was a lecture on the history of the island. In the 18th century the British and French got together to wipe out the Carib natives and then spent a century fighting each other for ascendancy, with possession of the island switching back and forth until the early 19th century.

The island's wealth was based on sugar cane, and fortunes were made supplying Europe with refined sugar. Things fell apart after WW1 with Europe now making sugar for itself from sugar beet, leading to dwindling demand for St. Kitts' product. There had been increasing problems even before this, following the ending of slavery throughout the empire and the resultant loss of cheap labour. Nowadays, no sugar cane at all is grown on St. Kitts, and the main economic activity is tourism.

Saturday 10th November 2018
Basseterre, St. Kitts
 
It was an early start today for our 'Scenic Sail and Railway excursion.
 
A short coach journey brought us to the station where we were to board the train. On the way we passed St. Kitts' International Airport, which apparently receives direct flights from Gatwick! Hmmm!

The narrow gauge railway was originally used to transport sugar cane from the plantations to the factories where it was processed. Nowadays it offers tourists an excellent means of travelling from one end of the island to the other, sightseeing on the way.

The train is a double decker with five carriages, each with a roof but open sides on the top deck, which was where we took our seats. We were offered a choice of a large number of rum-based drinks; Gill chose rum pina colada and I, perhaps unwisely, went for straight rum. These drinks were served in plastic cups that were pretty much filled to the brim. Thereafter it was a very jolly journey!

There were three local girls singing 'a capella' who'd sing a couple of songs and then move to the next carriage. There was also a guide with a microphone in the first carriage who'd explain the sights we were seeing.
 
We passed lots of abandoned sugar cane plantations, which you could pick out by ruined windmills and chimneys. It used to be said that, at the peak of the sugar trade, there was a plantation for every square mile of St. Kitts, which spreads over 68 square miles. That's an awful lot of business to lose in only a couple of generations, and it's clear that the locals have worked really hard to build up tourism to replace it.

The train ride took two hours and was thoroughly enjoyable - the rum helped ;o) We disembarked on the coast and were taken by coach to the catamaran that would return us to Basseterre. And this is where things got tricky, at least for Gill. By the time that we got back to Viking Sea she was suffering from motion sickness due to the extreme choppiness of the waves and the speed at which the captain was driving the catamaran, so I went on the afternoon excursion alone.

The tour was a short one - only two hours - and consisted of a drive around the streets of Basseterre that ended up at Fairview Great House. This magnificent building and gardens date back to the 18th century, and it's been very well preserved. The view from the front veranda is across sloping, beautifully-manicured lawns down to the Caribbean is wonderful. The gardens have many very interesting mature plants and trees, including breadfruit and mango.

I'd have known more about the place had I heard the official lecture. However, the unfriendly guide was snapping at visitors to 'hurry up' and then making everyone hang about while stragglers kept coming up the path before starting her talk, so I gave up and went around on my own ;o) On returning to the ship I found that the tour notes described Fairview as a '300 year old colonial property', with a 'lush tropical botanical garden'.

After dinner this evening we went to the Explorers Lounge where there was a trivia quiz. We came out joint top with two other teams who had six players each!

Sunday 11th November, 2018
Castries, St. Lucia

We've seen quite a lot of the northern part of St. Lucia today.
 
The morning's excursion was billed as the 'Aerial Tram', where we would 'witness life in the canopy of St. Lucia's lush rainforest on board an open air gondola'. We boarded a nine person cable car built of strong metal tubing, with four sets of seats for two, one behind the other, and a single seat at the back for the guide.It felt a lot more safe than it sounds!

As we ascended into the rainforest the gondola came to a standstill every now and again as people boarded the one behind us. This gave the guide the opportunity to point out vegetation and birds, giving us enough time for photos before moving on again.

The forest floor rose steeply but the gondola stayed high above it, and soon we were into the canopy, looking in amazement at the vast height of the trees around us, all of which were competing to get to the sunshine first. Many trees had vines of various types, clambering with them in the rush to the top but ultimately strangling them and bringing them to their doom.

Our guide was very good at spotting birds and pointing them out, but all too often they'd dashed away before cameras could be brought to bear. Humming birds seemed to be the most prolific. Our guide explained that there's one variety of plant, a heliconium, I think, that depends on humming birds for its survival. The plant collects water that the birds can reach with their long beaks, pollinating the plant as they do so.

At the top the gondola reversed direction but climbed still higher, rising clear above the canopy and giving us superb views northwards to Martinique. If the gondola had paused here in mid-air to allow passengers to embark or disembark way below us I think I might have had to freeze and close my eyes. Luckily, that didn't happen, and we gradually descended to the start point. The journey took about an hour, and we'd both recommend it to anyone!

We were taken back to the ship where we had another delightful buffet lunch and took advantage of a 2+ hour break to take a breather before our afternoon excursion. This was a two hour tour that went high into the hills and showed what life was like away from the capital. There was a 30 minute stop at Stony Hill, private estate still lived in by its owners who welcome visitors to the gardens.

It's said that, because of the mineral richness of its volcanic soil, just about anything will grow on St. Lucia, except, for some reason, apples and grapes. The local joke runs that if you bury your feet in the soil you'll soon start to grow. Mind you, we heard the same on St. Kitts, which has a very similar soil, it seems.

We returned to Castries by a circuitous route that showed us still more of the country and were back on board in time for Afternoon Tea in the Wintergarden. The big attraction today was a local steel band, playing energetically and inspiring quite a few guests to get up and dance. I've always loved the sound of steel pans, and this was heightened when Sarah was in the steel band at her secondary school.

This evening we're dining at The Chef's Table. This is one of the special restaurants that has to be booked, although there's no extra charge. There's a set menu of five small courses with paired wines. You don't know until you sit down which of three rotating courses is running that night. Currently, it could be Chinese, Norwegian or Sweet and Salty.

Given that there seems to be quite a lot of wine involved I thought I'd get this update off tonight and give more details tomorrow ;o)

Monday 12th November 2018
Bridgetown, Barbados

An absolutely scorching day here, but, first of all, "What about last night's posh dinner?", I hear you cry! ;o)

We didn't know until we were handed the evening's menu exactly what we'd be eating, but it quickly became clear that it would be a Norwegian evening. The waitress went to great pains to establish whether we had any food exclusions or allergies and we both have none - neither of us are fussy eaters.

So, the menu:

Amuse Bouche
Reindeer Consommé (with homemade ravioli filled with reindeer meat)
Served in a tiny glass and bursting with flavour!

Salmon Declinaison
Herb-crusted poached loin, aquavit-infused gravlax, lingonberry infused tartare, caviar, pickled cucumber

Granita - Lappland Delight

Lamb Far-I-Kal
Translated as 'sheep in cabbage' and voted the national dish of Norway in 1970.
A small medium-rare lamb medallion, shredded lamb, a rich sauce and a chunk of cabbage.

Cloudberry Soup, Vanilla White Chocolate Panna Cotta

Plus paired wines with every course.
 
And it was all lovely!

Anyway, back to today!

We've been to Barbados twice before, but luckily today's included (free) excursion covered new ground.

We took a circular route clockwise from Bridgetown, starting off heading northwards along the west coast, passing some of the island's most expensive properties. Apparently Elton John, Cliff Richard and Tony Blair all have interests here.

The first stop was at St. James' Church, a stone-built structure dating back to the 17th century. It has a particularly splendid organ that, perhaps unbelievably, has 3,000 pipes. It's a pity we couldn't hear it today. We were told that Blair had been here, whereupon the local dignitary showed around a gold-framed photo to prove it, rather as if it was a sacred relic or icon. Strange really, because Blair is a Catholic convert and this is an Anglican church.

The coach then took us into the centre of the island, where the second and final stop was at the Highland Adventure centre. Here we had complimentary drinks (Rum Punch again) while admiring the view of the east coast from the height of 1,000 feet. Then it was back to Bridgetown.

On our first visit here years ago we bought a lovely Christmas tree decoration made from a slice taken through a sea shell. Today we found a stall in the duty free shopping mall selling similar decorations and couldn't resist buying a new one. Over the years we've picked up other pieces elsewhere, such as a little Christmas tree made from Murano glass.

After lunch, this afternoon was set aside for reading on deck. We found sun beds by the infinity pool at the stern, but after an hour or so it became apparent that the sun was incredibly hot, so we retreated to the main pool below the retractable roof. Because the roof was only partially open it was quite stuffy, so at 4pm we gave up and had Afternoon Tea again in air-conditioned comfort!

This evening after dinner we planned to go to Movies Under The Stars, but found that the retractable roof was closed, leaving the air still stuffy. Once we realised that we'd have to watch using headphones, and also that the screen wasn't wonderful, we changed plans again and went to one of the lounges for another trivia quiz.

The ship is now heading back northwards, and tomorrow we'll be in Dominica.

Tuesday November 13th 2018
Roseau, Dominica

Pulling back the curtains this morning revealed steel grey seas and sea mist.

Even after breakfast the skies were still leaden, and as we disembarked for our morning tour it was raining very hard. Staff were handing out flimsy plastic rain capes, but Gill had packed more substantial ones.

These 'included' tours seem to follow a pattern. You board an 18 seater bus, you stop off at two places, one of which offers complimentary refreshments, a guide talks about his/her country, its people, wildlife and botany, and you're returned to the ship about two hours later,

Today we visited a local craft workshop that had been set up by the government to help visually-impaired people and those with learning difficulties to gain skills and crafts that provide them with an income. Four of Viking's coaches turned up in convoy and overwhelmed the place, which made it a bit difficult to browse and find items to buy. It would have made mores sense to send two of the buses in the opposite direction but covering the same ground.

The second stop was on a hilltop with panoramic views of the city and the surrounding countryside. There were also a few stalls here selling local crafts. Then it was back in the bus and down into Roseau, driving slowly through the streets of the capital. They'd been hit by last year's storm and we saw quite a lot of damage, but overall there was shabbiness and neglect. Of course, with today's weather we were never going to get a particularly good view of the island.

We were back in our stateroom by 10.45am, so an hour later we had an early lunch. The plan was to read on deck in the afternoon, but this was thwarted by rain, so we stayed in our stateroom, reading, until mid-afternoon. When the rain cleared we ventured out again. The air was warm even though the skies were overcast, and we had the deck to ourselves.

At 4pm we went for Afternoon Tea again, and at 6.30pm, ahead of tomorrow's port of call, we went to a presentation called, 'Antigua, Home to Nelson's Fleet & Codrington's Sugar Plantation'. Nelson was here when only a Captain but commanding a squadron tasked with enforcing UK maritime laws that forbade other nations trading with British West Indian islands. After American independence these laws were unpopular with our former colony, leading to naval conflicts.

Codrington was a soldier who became Governor of Antigua and who became extremely wealthy through the sugar trade.

After dinner it was back to the theatre for 'The Viking Sea Singers' and their show of West End and Broadway hits. There were seven singers in total and they were probably the best group of singers that we've ever seen on cruises. Also, the supporting musicians (keyboards, lead guitar, bass and drums) were excellent, backing up the singers really well - they all appear to be Chinese, which is a novelty.
 
We're back on Antigua tomorrow, having been there once before. Last time the visit was (literally) dampened by heavy rain, so we're hoping for better weather this time :o)

Wednesday 14th November
St. John, Antigua

For the first time we had the morning off!

We had breakfast delivered to our stateroom, and by 9am we were on deck with our books. Between 10am and 11am we were a bit distracted by the ship's crew practising their emergency procedures, with repeated, mysterious announcements every few minutes and warnings that the lifts were out of action. By 12.30pm we'd both had enough sun for the time being and we retreated to our room to cool down before lunch.
 
 
Our excursion started at 2.30pm when we boarded a minibus for a three hour trip. We were driven eastwards into the centre of the island and then southwards to English Harbour. This was where Nelson was based for three years in the 1790s, and the Georgian dockyard was restored in 1951 after many years of neglect.
 
Our guide pointed out Eric Clapton's extensive property on an isolated cliff top position, and then directed our gaze to the middle distance where she said many rich and famous people lived. We then drove a mile or so to Shirley Heights, which has stunning views down to English Harbour's sheltered anchorage. When we were last here nine years or so ago there was heavy rain that rather spoiled the view. This time we had glorious sunshine.
 
The third and final stop was down in English Harbour itself, where we admired the restored dockyard buildings. We also had yet another complimentary Rum Punch :o) Then it was back to the ship at St. John.

Antigua is a lovely little place and it's tidier and more attractive that some other places we've seen. The guide proudly pointed out all of the different types of retail as we drove through St. John to the pier, although we'd have to say that retail-wise it's generally well behind the times.
 
Last night at dinner Gill ordered Lamb Shank and was rather put off by the size of the piece of meat that arrived. She did well, but still had to leave an embarrassingly large amount of it, so tonight we just went to the buffet, where you can choose the quantity you can cope with. The food on offer is of very high quality and the self-service display is constantly refreshed, so it always looks fresh and very appealing. We then headed for the atrium to listen for a while to the classical trio and have a cocktail.
 
On our first full night on board we ordered cocktails that have subsequently never appeared on our account, and the same happened the next time. We've now come to the conclusion that we must have been (wrongly) given some sort of free alcohol package, so we're going to be less restrained about ordering them for the rest of the cruise! ;o)
 
Then it was off to the theatre to watch, yet again, Mamma Mia 2. Great fun!

Thursday 15th November 2018
Philipsburg, St. Maarten
 
St. Maarten/St. Martin is something of an anomaly, with two nations (Holland and France) sharing one small island. Our ship docked in the southern, Dutch half where you wouldn't really know which part you were in just listening to the locals. In contrast, in the French part you could have been in France itself.
 
We were off early on our morning catamaran excursion, billed as 'Tranquil Turquoise Water Snorkeling'. We were promised, 'a colourful array of of tropical fish, vibrantly-hued coral and, perhaps, sea turtles'. We set off under sunny skies but with a strong breeze. On arrival at Pelican Reef it became clear that the water was very choppy and far from 'tranquil'. Nevertheless, Gill was one of the first to get kitted up and jump overboard.
 
There seemed to be a fair number of people who weren't really suited to this type of exercise and who dithered over going down the steps into the water. I'll never enter water that's deeper than I am tall, and the depth here was considerable, as was the current that was sweeping to the shore. I was passing the time on deck, taking photos and keeping an eye on the bobbing heads in the distance when suddenly Gill was back.
 
She'd swum quite a distance towards the shore without seeing any fish at all and had realised that swimming back to the catamaran might be a bit of a struggle, so she turned back. There were several people who'd been over-optimistic about their capabilities, but the crew were nipping around on a zodiac, keeping an eye on things.
 
We then moved on to Mullet Bay, where the catamaran dropped anchor within sight of a splendid sandy beach. You still had to swim 100 yards to the shore, and by now the stiffening breeze was driving fairly large waves towards land. I'd imagine that you could feel seasick just bobbing up and down in the heavy swell.
 
Setting off back to Philipsburg we passed the Princess Juliana International Airport, which is said to have the world's shortest runway capable of handling 747s. When the large airliners rev up their engines as they start to take off the blast knocks unwary beach users off their feet, so small is the distance between runway and beach.
 
On disembarking we had 30 minutes to get back on board, change, grab some lunch and set off again on the afternoon's excursion. This was another coach journey with a couple of stops and a complimentary rum punch. We pretty much circled the island, crossing between the Dutch and French sections. It was pretty much the best-maintained port of call we've seen, and in bright sunshine it looked its best. However, Gill and I were so exhausted by our morning's excursion that we found it hard to stay awake!

There were five cruise ships moored in Philipsburg today, two of which (MSC ships Divina and Opera) we've sailed on in the past. The crowding was such that we couldn't depart until two of these had left, which meant an hour's delay, but we should still arrive in our last port of call, St. Thomas, on time tomorrow.
 
We had dinner in the buffet again, where we could control the quantity we ate more easily than in the main restaurant. Then, on our way to the theatre for the Captain's farewell, we stumbled over a special chocolate-themed buffet in the atrium. The white chocolate fountain was unmissable!
 
The final performance of the singers featured Beatles and Abba numbers, with a fair amount of audience participation. With all of today's alcohol and sun we struggled to stay awake!
 
So, two more nights on board and then on Saturday we set off on the LONG journey home and our return to the real world :o)
 
Friday 16th November 2013
Charlotte Amalie, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands
 
The sun was shining brightly when we drew back the curtains at 7.30am, but over breakfast the skies darkened and the heavens opened. Perhaps our beach excursion would be cancelled? By the time we set off at 9.30am the prospects were brighter, and when we got to the superb beach on the north side of the island it seemed set to be a nice day. Apart from a brief, light shower that's just what we got.
 
 The sand was clean and almost white - it seemed to be mainly finely crushed coral - and the sea was turquoise blue. There were already sun beds awaiting us. Three pelicans were feeding in the shallows, taking off from the water, wheeling round and gaining height, and then plunging into the water beak-first to grab a fish, before repeating the manoeuvre. Fascinating!
 
There was also a magnificent iguana that started started ambling towards the sea, presumably to cool off, but who found his/her path blocked by spectators like me, eagerly taking photos.
 
Our guide promised an 'open bar', with as much rum punch or soft drink as we could manage - we had just one each. We were due to spend two and a half hours there and the time rushed by.
 
We re-boarded the vehicle we'd arrived on. It was pretty much a lorry with bench seating, a canvas roof and open sides, a form of transport that you often sea in the Caribbean. The driver took us to a high vantage point overlooking Charlotte Amalie so that we could take photos and patronise a couple of stalls selling trinkets, souvenirs and jewellery. One stallholder played a steel pan while customers were browsing, and when he made a sale he played a tune for the purchaser - in Gill's case it was, 'When will I see you again?' :o)
 
St. Thomas is a strange place, in that it's an American possession that has the dollar as currency, has left-hand drive vehicles and yet drives on the left. And this isn't because it's a former British colony - in 1917 America bought it from ..... Denmark!
 
Some of our fellow passengers asked to be dropped off 'downtown', but we carried on back to the ship for lunch. We went on deck for a couple of hours to relax and read, dodging the afternoon bus tour of the island that we'd planned to take.
 
Today being Gill's birthday Viking were unlikely to let that pass unnoticed. Our steward congratulated her this morning, and when we returned to our stateroom at lunchtime we found a cake, a bottle of sparkling wine and a birthday card waiting for her :o) It's no exaggeration at all to say that Mali makes much nicer cakes!
 
Tonight is our last evening on board, and we're booked into Manfredi's, the highly-rated speciality Italian restaurant. Then it's back to our stateroom to pack our cases ready to disembark in the morning.
 
We get transferred to the airport in San Juan, Puerto Rico, quite early in the morning and then have hours to wait before our afternoon flight to JFK New York, before flying back to Heathrow, arriving there around 8am on Sunday. We're having a family lunch for Gill's birthday at 2pm at a restaurant in West Wickham - let's hope we can stay awake! :o)
 
So, what do we think of Viking ocean cruising? Well, they've upscaled their river cruise excellence very successfully. The Viking Sea (they already have three other, identical ships) is wonderfully stylish and well-run - we had very few negatives to report on the end-of-cruise questionnaire.
 
We've had a wonderful time!