6 JANUARY 2014

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Article from BTNews 6 JANUARY 2014

ON TOUR: Swanning around the Caribbean

Readers may recall that your Editor was in the Caribbean for the last issue of 2013 and used the world wide web for a report regarding Swan Hellenic Minerva. 

Now back with his feet firmly on London terra firma he reflects on what was an outstanding experience.  This is Part Two of an effortless 16-day cruise from Barbados to Montego Bay Jamaica. See also Minerva from the issue 16 December



Barbados is a very popular British holiday destination but has suffered in recent years due to the effect of Air Passenger Duty (APD) and the downturn in the international economy.  The tax is more than if you flew non-stop to Los Angeles, much further.  The island is recovering and is served daily by both British Airways and Virgin Atlantic.  The BA flight was on time and we were met by the driver from Cobblers Cove our recommended hostelry.  

If you want a fine quiet top quality boutique experience in Barbados go no further than this lovely resort.  Be prepared for no TV in your suite.  You can hire (no requests over the last 12 months according to a member of staff) and there is a television room, but you soon get used to really being on holiday and relaxing.  There is free wi-fi of course.  The restaurant is considered one of the best on the island and residents receive complimentary afternoon tea.  No real need for lunch.  The small beach is spotless, the water warm, and there is the alternative of a pool.  The tennis courts and gym did not seem to get much use during our stay.  One would not expect the guests to use the local bus services, but it is free for UK pensioners and quite an experience for the 20-mile drive into the capital Bridgetown.  The 40 suites are distinctly colonial, large and with either balconies or opening out into a central garden area.

We arrived three days before Minerva and used the time to explore Bridgetown, its waterfront and garrison.  Barbados was the only overseas territory visited by George Washington as a young man, the experience probably saving his life.  He contracted smallpox, built up immunity from an often fatal disease that became prevalent in the US for some time.

We joined the ship late afternoon before the Virgin charter arrived and were nicely settled in (and well rested) prior to the influx of the majority of passengers.  We chose Harrison's Cave for our inclusive trip, part of the Swan Hellenic package.  An interesting ride into the middle of the island before descending to join an electric tram for a guided drive along the mile long grotto passing various chambers and waterfalls and viewing amazing stalagmites and stalactites.  The caves were first mentioned in 1795 but it was not until 1976 when they were rediscovered.  They are now one of the island’s major tour attractions.

Leaving Bridgetown at nightfall it was Castries St Lucia the next morning for a short visit.  Many went swimming and snorkelling close by the ship.  There was also a whale and dolphin safari.  The island, like all we visited, except Cuba, has allegiance to the Queen and drives on the left.  Americans get very confused as the elevators are lifts!

Overnight and to Antigua, a key station for the Royal Navy in the wars against the Spanish during the 17th and 18th centuries.  Whilst the ships-of-the-line could get into what is now known as Nelson’s Dockyard (and today the home of massive private leisure craft), not so Minerva. 

With just 350 passengers and standard large tenders which can accommodate 180 in an emergency, getting on and off was very easy with no queues to speak of.  A short walk from the landing area Nelson’s Dockyard is part of the National Park and heritage centre posing as a luxury yachting marina with many of the old buildings renovated and put to good use as bars, restaurants, marine support and an interesting museum.   High above the harbour Shirley Heights affords a fine view with an Interpretation Centre. 

Our short visit did not do justice to Antigua, a very pretty Caribbean island.

A day at sea followed with very well attended lectures (also live in your cabin and various lounges) by true experts including Dr David Cordingly from the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, and Canon Rupert Bursell QC, theologian, historian and classicist.  Two active workshops proved very popular, Art by Nikky Corker, and singing, organised by the ship’s professional group, Canteremo.  This passenger choir performed seasonal songs twice during the trip. 

Grand Turk, is the capital island of the Turks and Caicos Islands but has only 4,500 inhabitants.  Carnival has built a pier to support their massive ships and a large tax free shopping area with adjoining water activities.  Easy berthing for Minerva.  The Americans constructed an international standard airport on the island which served as the centre of recovery operations for John Glenn’s earth orbit in 1962.  Tennis star Venus Williams has a home here.  Think of St Mary’s (Isles of Scilly), but warmer.  We arrived lunchtime and the visit ended in darkness in the early evening.  Grand Turk covers 6.3 sq miles with a large lagoon in the middle.

Two splendid days at sea were next, the temperature near the 90s and the waters calm.  Lovely.  Those who wanted to could phone home on the ship’s satellite for 10p a minute.  Terrific value.  The wi-fi worked quite quickly most of the time. 

We more or less circumnavigated Cuba from Santiago, stopping overnight at Havana, and completing our visit to Castro’s island at Casilda.  More next week.

Montego Bay was our final destination and an overnight stop.  Jamaica still has The Queen as titular head of state, drives on the left, but runs on 110 volts.

As a cruise port Montego Bay is very popular and we arrived at Jamaica’s second city to find two ships already tied up at the quay.  All planned of course and no problem for Minerva.  The tenders did the necessary.  Once the mighty Carnival Breeze and its 4,000 plus souls had departed the first evening Minerva slipped anchor and moored whilst we dined.

On day one we bamboo rafted on the Marthat Brea, a quiet interlude and no excuse to get wet.  Day two was far more ambitious bearing in mind an evening departure back to Gatwick.  The Jamaican roads are poor but the strain was worth the two-hour ride to the YS Falls, truly outstanding and worth more than the 60 minutes or so that the itinerary allowed.  We swam in the cool refreshing waters.  The Appleton Estate nearby is the home of the rum of the same name, sugar cane put to very good use.  As with all the full day land trips lunch was included.

It was back to Minerva for tea and a clean-up before the evening departure home. 

Swan Hellenic really do look after their clients.  No dumping their passengers taking an evening flight in a local hotel.  On the final day holidaymakers could go landside, sit around in the various lounges or partake of the very last sunbathing.  Cabins needed to be vacated by an easy 10:00 to be prepared for the next cruise, but some were allocated for people to get themselves ready for return, even have a shower.

Sadly Montego Bay International Airport let the side down.  No porters and a poorly organised check-in.  Virgin Atlantic supplied the charter flight home, the friendly cabin staff at least the equal of BA, but somehow the elderly Airbus A340 more comfortable than the 777.  Gatwick was easy.

Next week Business Travel News will carry the third part of our “Swanning around the Caribbean” series, friendly Cuba and back to the 1950s. www.cobblerscove.com www.swanhellenic.com

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