Tuesday, 14 March 2017

FAR EAST – PART 2

I find big cities intimidating.  Our ship sails into an unfamiliar harbour like Hong Kong’s and I wonder how the hell I’m going to find my way around.  Many cruise passengers opt for the easy way out: a guided Holland America excursion.  But Elva and I have gotten braver in our dotage and prefer to set out on our own.  This means gathering as much information as you can in advance and, when the time comes, taking the plunge into the unknown.

Hong Kong is like Halifax on steroids, a fine natural harbour straddled on two sides by the city proper: Hong Kong Island to the south and mainland Kowloon to the north.  We came off the ship early in the morning, did the wifi thing, and made our way to the money exchange.  Hong Kong dollars in hand and hoping for a friendly face, we approached the tourist information desk.  Thankfully, the guide’s English was excellent, and she explained how to get to all the places we wanted to see using public transit.  She couldn’t have been more helpful.  Such a contrast from what we’d experienced in Thailand and Vietnam.

We took a shuttle to the nearest subway station, bought tickets and made our way across the harbour to Hong Kong Island.  A bus took us to the top of Victoria Peak where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city below.  We even FaceTimed with our son and daughter-in-law, Clément and Julia, while enjoying the view from the Skydeck.  The century-old tram took us back down the mountain, and we walked to the Star Ferry terminal to cross the harbour to the Tsim Sha Tsui Promenade.  After taking in the sights along the seawall, we made our way to popular Nathan Rd.  We walked past the high-end stores in the rich part of town and made a stop at Starbucks.  From there, we took the subway and shuttle back to the ship, satisfied with our day.  For $45 US - including lunch, attractions and transportaion - we had ourselves a really good overview of Hong Kong.  Best of all, we didn’t get lost.  And we did it ourselves!

Shanghai is a city of superlatives.  Home to some 23 million, it is the world’s third-largest city by population.  We’d seen images of the city skyline, but it’s hard to imagine the scale of things until you’re up close. 

Hong Kong, a British colony until 1999, was sheltered for 50 years from the strong Communist influence that marked life in the rest of China.  Vehicles there drive on the left; many people speak English; the currency is the Hong Kong Dollar, etc.  In Shanghai, things are quite different: security is much tighter; traffic runs on the right; very few residents speak English; and social media websites like FaceBook are blocked.  (On the bright side, this means the Chinese are spared from Trump’s twisted tweets!)

Shanghai is one of the cleanest, most orderly cities we’ve ever visited.  There’s a sense of space on sidewalks and public spaces.  The subway system, while somewhat intimidating with its fourteen lines, is clean, cheap, efficient, and easy to use.  In the two days we spent there, we took in as much as we could.  We rode the Maglev (magnetic levitation) Train to the airport and back, hitting a top speed of 301 kph. 

We took the world’s fastest elevator (top speed 75 kph) on a 55-second ride to the 118th floor of the Shanghai Tower, the world’s second-tallest building, where we enjoyed spectacular views of the city from a height of 546 metres.  One of the photos shows the skyscraper known as the “bottle opener” (for obvious reasons) far below.
 

We strolled the Nanjing Rd. pedestrian mall, visited People’s Park, and took in the magnificent Shanghai Museum, home of impressive collections of jade, coinage, porcelain, furniture, and paintings.  We learned that the Chinese civilization is one of the world’s oldest.  Judging by what we saw in Shanghai it’s going to be around for a while yet.

We had to make do with one too-short day in South Korea, barely enough time to make our way on the train from the port city of Incheon to the capital city of Seoul.  Over 90 million South Koreans occupy a country smaller than the combined area of Nova Scotia and New Brunswick.  The area between the port city of Incheon and Seoul is one continuous urban zone.  In fact, half the country’s population lives in greater Seoul.

We got off the train at the Geongbok Palace stop and wandered around the huge complex before strolling along a broad boulevard, taking a detour along a stream that runs through the centre of the city.  It was a bone-chilling -2 degrees C.  We spent most of our three hours exploring the very modern city centre before making our way to Seoul Station and the trip back to the ship.


South Korea is home to some of the world’s largest conglomerates, Hyundai, LG, and Samsung being the best known.  But the country is going through a difficult period.  The day we were there, North Korea fired off four ballistic missiles; the unpredictable and trigger-happy neighbour, Kim Jong-un, flexing his muscles again.  The country’s president is on the verge of being impeached, the CEO of Samsung has been charged with corruption, and relations are not good with China, South Korea’s principle trading partner.  People are understandably anxious and concerned about the future,  such a shame considering how far they’ve come since World War II and the Korean conflict.

We crossed the Yellow Sea again, headed for the gateway port to China’s capital city, Beijing.  There’s no easy way to experience the major attractions found in and around Beijing.  Two one-day Holland America tours would have cost $940 US; an overnight tour to Beijing would have set us back $1,700 US!

Elva and I decided to get to the Great Wall on our own.  From dockside, we set out by taxi bound for Yujiapu Station and the bullet train that would take us into the city.  At Beijing South Station, we entered the maze that is the Beijing Metro.  The plan was to go from Beijing North Station to Badaling Station, within walking distance of the Great Wall.  Guess what?  Beijing North Station was closed!  With no Plan B, we had to ask people who didn’t speak English how to get to the Great Wall.

Long story short, we ended up in a small van with five Chinese people, hoping the driver wasn’t going to rip us off or rob us blind.  Then, our luck took a turn for the better.  Sitting next to us in the van was a couple from Hong Kong, Frank and Sarah, fellow Holland Americans.  Their Mandarin was a hell of a lot better than ours, so we tagged along.  The Great Wall is truly a wonder to behold; everything I’d imagined, and more.  What an incredible experience!  It took us seven hours to get there, but it was worth it.  The weather was perfect and the crowds were light.  We walked for a full two hours, all of it on steep grades.


We’d decided to spend the night in Beijing rather than return to the ship.  Up bright and early the next morning, we arrived at the gate just as the site was opening and managed to beat the worst of the crowds.  Words cannot do justice to the Forbidden City (or to the hordes of people who visit the place).  It’s huge, and is easily the most impressive walled city we’ve seen in all our travels.  Successive Chinese emperors called this fortified place home for more than four centuries, and it’s lovingly cared for and preserved.  We’d hoped to visit Mao’s Mausoleum, just across Tiananmen Square, but security was just too tight.  The People’s Congress was in session while we were in Beijing, there were soldiers everywhere, and everyone was on high alert.


Beijing is an impressive city.  Clear skies and crisp spring air held the smog at bay for the two days we spent there; not even a hint of haze.  At 22 million souls, it’s about as big as Shanghai.  The two-hour train trip from the cruise port to the city and back was an eye-opener.  The pace of development and urbanization is staggering.  China’s approach to planning is the exact opposite of ours.  In our country, infrastructure follows population growth.  In China, it’s the reverse.  Whole cities are built before people occupy them: highways, arrow-straight boulevards, high-speed railway lines, schools, shopping malls, office towers, and forests of 20-30-story apartment complexes.  Completed communities lie empty, just waiting.

Then, it was back across the Yellow Sea again, bound for Japan and the port city of Nagasaki, known in recent history as the target of the second atomic bomb, the one that finally brought an end to World War II.  On August 9, 1945, a B29 bomber named Bockscar dropped a plutonium warhead that exploded just above the port city, killing 75,000 people instantly and injuring 72,000, many of whom died soon after from burns and the horrible effects of radiation sickness.  An area of 6.7 square kilometres was completely levelled.  The International Peace Park features many impressive sculptures and statues commemorating the event, and is a lovely place to visit.  We’d decided to spend time there instead of visiting the Atomic Bomb Museum that contains images and relics of the event.

Nagasaki is a small city by Japanese standards, only 500,000.  It’s clean and orderly, the people are polite, and you get a sense that they enjoy having visitors, quite a contrast from Beijing.  We visited a shrine commemorating the martyrdom of 26 Catholics, all put to death in 1597 because of their religious beliefs, and strolled through beautiful Glover Garden, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Next stop in Japan was Kagoshima.  Never heard of it?  Neither had we.  But, we enjoyed our day there and there was lots to see.  We started by taking the ferry to the island of Sakurajima, one of the largest active volcanoes on earth, and rode the island-view tour bus.  Back in the city, we took the tram to Sengan-en, the former estate of a rich Japanese merchant family, featuring beautiful gardens and views of the Sakurajima volcano across Kinko Bay.
 

Yokohama is the port city closest to Japan’s capital.  In fact, it’s now considered part of greater Tokyo, the world’s most populous city at 32 million or so!  Imagine almost the whole population of Canada stuffed into one metropolitan area.  And speaking of stuffed, we sometimes felt like taking the subway and train into the city centre.  But, unlike the Chinese who have no problem pushing one another to make room, the Japanese are by nature too polite.


With only one day to visit, we focused on the top two attractions in Tokyo: the Imperial Palace Gardens and the Senso-ji Temple.  Both were well worth a visit.  We also went to Shibuya Crossing and climbed the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Office for a nice view of the skyline.  We found the people of Tokyo to be very polite and helpful; they don’t rush and they don’t push.  On the subways, no talking on the phone is allowed!  Except for Shibuya Crossing where five streets meet, we didn’t find the place as crowded as we’d expected.


Tuesday, 28 February 2017


FAR EAST – PART 1

Twenty-four hours is a long time to spend in the air!  That’s how long it took us to get half-way around the world, from Orlando to Singapore.  The longer of two legs, a seventeen-hour marathon from San Francisco, was our longest flight ever.  Jet-lagged, we rode the train from Changi Airport to downtown, crammed sardine-can style into a throng of commuters.  Since our room wasn’t ready, we killed a few hours lounging in a nearby park before having lunch in Chinatown.  Our hotel turned out to be a bit of a disappointment but the bed was most welcome when we finally got horizontal again.
Next morning saw us up bright and early, ready to explore the nearby area on foot.  Raffles Hotel, the Singapore Flyer, the Excelsior Theatre, the Marina Bay Sands Hotel, the Parliament Building: all of them brought back memories of the two short days we’d spent in this incredible city-state in 2015.  After a short metro ride, we were once again in the gentle arms of Holland America aboard the good ship MS Volendam.  A sister ship of the Rotterdam, familiar to us from two previous cruises, the Volendam is rather dated but has a certain charm nonetheless.
After spending a day at sea, we arrived at our first port of call, Nathon on the island of Koh Samui, on February 16.  After running a gauntlet of very aggressive taxi drivers, we negotiated a fare for a three-hour visit to a waterfall and safari park: $45 US, about half what we would have paid in the Caribbean countries we’d visited in the fall.  The hike to the waterfall and the visit to the safari park turned out to be worthwhile.  The elephant show was the best we’ve seen and we’d never seen a monkey trained to pick coconuts!  What will they think of next?

Our next stop was Laem Chabang, the gateway port to Bangkok.  There being no other choice, we took the Holland America shuttle into the city.  It turned out to be a boring two and one-half hour drive on an elevated highway past endless, non-descript commercial and industrial areas.  We could have been in any developed country, anywhere in the world.  Finally off the friggin’ bus, we marched through a busy mall, along a busier walkway, and into a frantic crowd of passengers crowding onto the Skytrain, ever conscious of the short time we had to see the attractions we’d been told not to miss: the Royal Palace and the Buddhist temple complex of Wat Arun.  Our guide on the bus had given only the barest of directions on how to get where we wanted to go.  “And be back at 5:30 or we’ll leave without you”.  No tip for her!
Bangkok is a city of 15 million people.  I’m from a village of about 400.  The Skytrain took us to the edge of the Chao Phraya River where we boarded a boat for the ride to the Royal Palace.  Pushing, shoving, heat, traffic, horns.  Christ!  What am I doing here.  To enter the Palace, I had to put on jeans to cover up my legs!  It’s a beautiful Palace - of that there’s no doubt - but the crush of people took away from what could have been a far more enjoyable experience.
From there we took a short ferry ride across the river to visit Wat Arum, a far quieter place as it turned out.  A fine temple complex, but tiny compared to the massive Shwedagon Pagoda we’d seen in Yangon, Myanmar, two years before.  Back in the centre of the city, we found a Starbucks.  And a welcome refuge it was!  Long story short, we didn’t have enough time to see the city properly.  The highlight for us was the fast, cheap and efficient river boat service.  Would I go back?  Not likely; too many people!
And then it happened again!  Elva came into the room with a look on her face I’d seen before…  “You met someone from the Island, didn’t you?”, I said.  And so she had.  Ian Carter lives in downtown Charlottetown, about a ten-minute walk from us.  A couple of days later, Ian met a woman from Souris.  Incredible!  On our first cruise in 2013, we met Cheryl Stead and John Cox from Charlottetown and, two years ago, Donna and Dave Crocker from Alberton.

Two days later, we anchored in Sihanoukville, Cambodia, gateway port to the capital city of Phnom Penh.  A shuttle took us the short distance into the city and parked across the street from the central market.  I’ve learned that there are two main indicators of the state of development of a country: the amount of garbage strewn around and the quality of the public transportation system.  Things weren’t looking good on either account.  And there were beggars everywhere, mothers with babes in arms, orphans and amputees  - genuinely destitute people - all looking for a handout.
Cambodia is a poor and poorly-governed country; third-world really.  Its recent history includes the terrible genocide of the 1970s when as many as 2 million people were murdered by the Khmer Rouge under brutal dictator Pol Pot.  If you haven’t seen the movie The Killing Fields, it’s a revelation.  And Angelina Jolie recently released First They Killed My Father, also set in the same period.
Elva and I wandered through the market for a half-hour or so, shadowed by a determined tuk-tuk driver we just couldn’t shake.  Then we made our way back to where our guide was and asked him to help us find a driver to take us to the places we wanted to visit.  “How much you want to spend?”, he asked me.  “About $30 for three hours”, I answered.  “And it has to be a driver who speaks English”, said Elva.  Though most in the crowd around us refused, a hand shot up eventually and we were escorted to Saron’s “car-tuk-tuk”, an ancient converted Daewoo.
Saron turned out to be an excellent guide, very fluent in English and very willing to talk about the country’s many struggles.  Through his example and based on what we saw as we drove through the city, we learned that entrepreneurship may be the only way for Cambodians to survive.  The country’s economy is growing rapidly, but crime and corruption are rampant.  One can only hope that Sihanoukville’s beaches will one day bring prosperity to the beautiful people we met there.
 
Our next port of call was Phu My, gateway to Ho Chi Min City, the former Saigon.  Once again, we took the Holland America shuttle into the city centre, a ninety-minute drive through verdant countryside, including this scene which illustrates the vivid contrast between old and new.
We’d been told to be careful of the traffic, pickpockets, dishonest taxi drivers, and various other scammers who prey on tourists.  We found nothing of the sort.  The city, home to 11 million and the country’s biggest, is frenetic but friendly, and we had no trouble getting around on foot.  Motorcycles are everywhere and crossing the street can be an adventure, but we saw everything we’d hoped to see: the Reunification Palace, the Post Office, Notre Dame Cathedral, and the vast Ben Thanh Market.  The French influence is evident in the way the city centre is laid out: classic architecture, wide boulevards, and a sense of space that reminded us of Paris.

Yes, there are reminders of the War, but the young people prefer to look ahead rather than dwell in the past.  Yet, as I looked out at the old Huey parked on the roof of the Reunification Palace, I couldn’t help but think of the images of the American pullout in 1975 and of the movies that followed: Robin Williams’ Good Morning Vietnam!, The Deer Hunter, Platoon, and so many others that chronicled that terrible conflict.
Vietnam is a densely-populated country of over 90 million, barely half the size of Alberta.  It’s one of only five one-party socialist countries in the world, the others being North Korea, China, Laos and Cuba.  Given the scale of development in Ho Chi Min City, and especially the seaside resort cities of Nha Trang, Da Nang and Halong Bay, you’d never guess it was a Communist country.  Capitalism is alive and well here and the Vietnamese are doing quite well, thank you; much better than their neighbours in Cambodia and Laos.

Our day in Nha Trang was spent walking along the seaside boulevard, visiting the Po Nagar Cham towers, a complex of temples dating back to the eighth century, and walking the streets where the real people live and work, a few blocks back from the hotel strip.  Money is pouring in from South Korea, Japan, and China to build high end hotels, resorts, and condos.

Next stop was Da Nang, the last stopover for American soldiers heading stateside following a tour of duty during the Vietnam War.  They knew it as ‘China Beach’.  We spent our day there in the nearby city of Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  A small section of the city has been preserved and features a variety of craftspeople and artisans.  We watched marble carvers, silk weavers, lantern-makers, tailors, shoe and boot makers, artists, carvers, and many others.  The market was a treat for the senses.  And how can one not be impressed by a place with public wifi everywhere and women that hawk and spit every bit as good as the men!



Our last stop in Vietnam was Halong Bay, another UNESCO World Heritage Site featuring nearly 2,000 limestone islands jutting out of the emerald waters.  We took a cruise on a converted fishing junk.  Since words cannot describe the beauty of the place, even on a cloudy day, I’ll let the photos speak for themselves.


Along the way, we stopped to visit Thien Cung Cave.  While the stalactite and stalagmite formations were amazing, being pushed and jostled by hundreds of selfie-stick-camera wielding Chinese spoiled the experience.  It brought back unpleasant memories of being herded through the Sistine Chapel.
The first leg of our Far East cruise ended in Hong Kong, a city of over 7 million people jammed into an area of just 1,000 square kilometres, less than one-fifth the size of Prince Edward Island and one of the most densely-populated places on earth.  We’ll stop here again at the end of the cruise and will post photos in a later blog.

Friday, 10 February 2017

LIVIN’ THE DREAM!

Sometimes I have to pinch myself to summon reality.  While some spend their entire working lives dreaming of spending winters in warmer climes, I never did.  I was too focused on family and career and, without role models to guide me, never imagined I’d be one of those ‘rich folks who winter in Florida’.  The reality is beyond what I imagined.

My mother taught me how to save and she taught me how to spend.  She loved to travel and was forever saving for the next trip.  Experiences meant more to her than material things.  She drilled into me that the two biggest financial mistakes people make are wasting money on interest and cars.  I’ve spent as little as possible on both.  I soon learned that a defined-benefit pension plan is the surest way to financial security.  I never enjoyed managing money and didn’t inherit my maternal grandfather’s business acumen or his appetite for risk.  I preferred predictable results.

And here I am, having thoroughly enjoyed six weeks in sunny, warm Fort Myers, FL, ready to begin another adventure in the Far East before returning to my beloved Island in April.  Yes, we do miss family and friends, but technology makes it easier to keep in touch.  And this blog is our way of sharing our experiences.

The Florida we expected to find is everywhere in evidence.  The endless shopping malls, retirement communities, and golf courses.  The traffic, the crowded beaches, the hustle and bustle, all turnoffs for small-town folk like us from north of the border.  So many people carry guns.  The crime…  And what of America under Trump?  Would he ruin it for all of us and poison the minds of the nice people we’d met?

The Florida we’ve discovered in two stints here is far from what we’d imagined.  It’s rather what we’ve made of it - how we’ve adapted to a new reality.  If there’s one thing we’ve learned through travel, it’s that you can be at home wherever you are if you just work at it.  Stepping out of your comfort zone is a great way to learn.  And yes, I’m fortunate to have a life partner who seldom says “No”, who never complains, and who wakes up every morning with a smile on her face.  That makes everything a lot easier.

We chose southwest Florida for three reasons: location, climate, and a cycling club.  We’ve been fortunate to be able to rent a beautiful condo near downtown Fort Myers for the past two seasons.  It has everything we need and more.
As for Fort Myers, the city, it’s one of the very few we’ve visited in Florida that has a real downtown.  Its well-kept buildings and busy, pedestrian-friendly streets remind us of warm summer days in our beloved Charlottetown.  Every weekend features an interesting event, whether it be an antique car gathering or an art show, and Starbucks is a great place to just sit and people watch.

The weather in southwest Florida is definitely a draw.  The influence of the Gulf of Mexico means January-February temperatures are warmer on this side than the Atlantic Coast.  It’s been mid-20s for 90% of the time we’ve been here; and only one day of steady rain.

But the cycling has been the biggest surprise.  By far.  In researching Fort Myers, I came across the Caloosa Riders Bicycle Club website.  On our first full day here in 2016, I hooked up with an energetic group of seventy-somethings, and I haven’t looked back.  Elva eventually joined the paceline too.  She rides three mornings a week with a slower group, and I go five, weather permitting.  Riding fills our days and keeps us active.
Being around riders twenty years older is inspiring.  Roger celebrated his 83rd birthday by riding 83 miles - in one day!  Pete, shown next to me in the photo below, was born in Italy and moved to Canada as a young bicycle racer in the 1950s, around the time I was born.  He’s 81.  Mike is 79 and still rides strong.  They have the best of equipment and show no signs of quitting.  All speak admiringly of Ray Putnam, a member of the club who just turned 90, and who challenged the world record for fastest 20 km in his his age group, 90+.
On her 65th birthday, Elva felt inspired to write of her Florida experience in these words:

Et me voici!

Here I am
With my team, the Caloosa Riders
Maintaining their 18-mile speed
It’s stimulating and rewarding

I’m in a paceline
I’m focusing
It’s challenging
On the road
The group signals are helping

“Slowing; Stopping
Clear; Rolling
Walker up; Bikers up
Car back; Passing
Car right; Stopping
Car left; Slowing
Take the lane; Going”

Now I’m second in line
Right behind Keith’s back wheel
Keeping the pace, I’m watching
For the signal will be coming

Here I am
To the front I go
It’s my turn to take a pull
My turn to yell out the signals
Will I be turning?

I gave my very best
To my right, five riders pass
“Good work!  Great job!  Good pull!
Thank you!  Look at you go!”
At the end of the paceline now, I smile
Satisfied

2017 is off to a great start
On the designated bike lanes
Near Fort Myers
I’m more confident and I’m stronger

Here I am
Enjoying every ride

Et me voici
De nouveau sur mon vélo
Ce matin, Jean-Paul reste en avant
Moi à l’abris du vent

J’ai beaucoup appris ici
Et c’est plaisant
En ce 4 février étant avantagée
Je réussis 73 km à la vitesse désirée
Mais quelle belle façon de souligner
Qu’aujourd’hui je suis officiellement une aînée
Que je suis choyée!
I was ready for retirement.  I didn’t know it in 2013 but I know it now.  Like anything else in life that’s important, a successful retirement doesn’t just happen.  You have to prepare for it: financially, physically, and spiritually.  You have to learn to let go of things that gave you status - that made you feel important when you were career-focused.  I’ve discovered that I can now tell people what I really think instead of what I know they want to hear.  I no longer have a career to protect.  Honesty is liberating.
Florida is not a place you go to get old, it’s a place you go to stay young.  We’re making plans already to return to Fort Myers in 2018 and for many years thereafter.  We’ve made friends here and will make more.  Our cycling buddies have encouraged us to come back and resume our place in the paceline.  What could be better than that?
As for American politics, in the six weeks we’ve spent here, I can honestly say that the topic has not come up.  Americans are very different from us when it comes to their world view.  That’s certainly true, and now more evident than ever.  But, fundamentally, we’re guests in their country.  We’re not here to pass judgment or to argue that ours or any other system is better.  The society they’ve built here is the sum total of the choices they’ve made.  It’s up to us to decide whether we can adapt.  And adapt we have!
We hope to reconnect next year with good friends, Fleurette and Gilles, and Lana and Bob.  I was great to see them again!

Saturday, 10 December 2016

CARIBBEAN ADVENTURE – PART 4

St. Kitts and Nevis is the smallest and least populated country in the Americas, only 261 square kilometres and 55,000 people.  Yet our first impression on landing at the airport was that here was a country on the move.  The taxi driver pointed out several significant real estate developments on the drive to our hotel on the southeast peninsula of the main island of St. Kitts.  Like Canada, St. Kitts and Nevis is a parliamentary democracy and member of the Commonwealth; it achieved independence in 1983.

On our first full day in the country, we looked out our window at a full-day rain, the first in six weeks.  Although it’s rained nearly every day since we arrived in the Caribbean, it usually only lasts for twenty minutes or so.  This day was different.  We figured out how to get into the capital, Basseterre, by local bus and wandered through Port Zante, watching thousands of passengers pour out of two cruise ships in port for the day.  There are at least 100 stores at the cruise port, certainly half of them selling jewelry.

We got our bearings at the local tourism office and headed out on foot to visit attractions in Basseterre, stopping at Independence Square, the Catholic Co-cathedral, and St. George Anglican Church.
As we walked through the streets, we noticed the contrast between this tiny capital city (population 13,000) and the others we’d visited.  It’s clean, orderly and inviting by comparison.  Then it started to pour!  By mid-afternoon, merchants were closing up shop and the few remaining cruise ship passengers were running from shelter to shelter, many of them without rain gear.  While we were slightly better equipped, we got wet good and wet too.  But, as we cyclists say: “When you’re wet, you can’t get any wetter!”
The map showed two tourist attractions on the south side of St. Kitts, so we boarded the local bus and headed along the coast from Basseterre.  The driver let us off in the tiny village of Old Town and we hiked up a side road to Romney Manor, arriving there just as the gates opened.  While the place has quite a history as a sugar plantation, the real reason for going there was for Elva to buy some batik!  I sat dutifully while she and the saleslady worked their magic and, eventually, we left with a few very nice items.  The Manor grounds are the nicest we’ve seen on our Caribbean trip.

Back down on the main road, we hailed a local bus for the short drive to another side road, this one to Brimstone Hill, nicknamed ‘The Gibraltar of the Caribbean’.  Brimstone Hill and the imposing fortress that commands its summit was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.  The hike to the 243 metre high citadel was a bit of a test.  Cruise ship passengers drove by us in buses and taxis and must have thought we were crazy, but we didn’t care.  We’ll drive when we’re older.

The view from the citadel was amazing.  On a crystal-clear day, we could see the islands of St. Eustatius and Saba to the west, and Nevis to the east.  And the breeze was a welcome relief.
Back in town, we walked to El Fredo’s, reputed to be the best place to sample the national dish: saltfish with dumplings and provision.  While Elva went the safer route with barbecued ribs, I was in foodie heaven.  By this time, I’d eaten a lot of salt fish in the Caribbean, but none this good.  The dumplings had a healthy dose of coconut in them and the provision included plantain, banana, breadfruit and another root vegetable I couldn’t identify.  All delicious!

You can’t go to St. Kitts and miss out on its sister island, Nevis.  The one-hour ferry ride from Basseterre to Charlestown took us along the southwest coast of the main island and across the four-kilometre wide strait to Nevis.  Charlestown is a prosperous-looking place, a step up from the other small islands we’ve visited on this trip.  We started our visit with a local bus ride around most of the island.  Our driver, a former accountant at the luxurious Four Seasons Resort, pointed out a number of interesting places and entertained us with talk of everything from politics to sports.

Back in Charlestown, we did the walking tour, stopping at the historic Anglican Church where we saw gravestones dating back as far as 1733.  Like all the other islands we’ve visited, Nevis was all about the sugar cane in the earliest days of European settlement.  And it was more than just a sleepy backwater.

Alexander Hamilton, one of the Founding Fathers of the United States, was born in Charlestown.  His image appears on the ten-dollar bill and his life is the subject of the most popular play on Broadway.  One tag line for the play reads: “How does a bastard, orphan, son of a whore and a Scotsman, dropped in the middle of a forgotten spot in the Caribbean by providence, impoverished, in squalor, grow up to be a hero and a scholar?”  Admiral Horatio Nelson, British hero of the Napoleonic Wars, while stationed at nearby Antigua, married Nevisian widow Frances Nisbet on Nevis in 1787.  So much history for such a small place.

We’d been told to not miss the hot springs in Charlestown.  We finally found them after getting directions and were met by a woman attendant who wouldn’t take “No” for an answer.  We explained that we didn’t have out swimsuits.  “Not to worry,” she replied.  “I’ve seen it all!”  So we stripped to our underwear (no pictures!) and stepped gingerly into the 42-degree C water.  Then she splashed a bucketful on our backs and ordered us to get in.  As I squatted in the simmering bath, I thought of the boiling frog anecdote.  You know, the one about a frog slowly being boiled alive. The premise is that if a frog is put suddenly into boiling water, it will jump out.  But if it’s put in cold water which is then brought to a boil slowly, it will not perceive the danger and will be cooked to death.  An appropriate metaphor, I thought, especially given our ethnicity.

We explored the quieter northwest coast of the main island by local bus.  The driver took us to the end o f his route in Sandlers, then doubled back to the small town of Cayon, where we got off and walked up to Ottley Plantation Inn, a high-end hostelry and former sugar estate.  We walked the grounds and the trails, had a beverage in the open-sided restaurant, and enjoyed a beautiful view of the ocean, with St. Bart’s and St. Maarten off in the distance.  Ça prend pas grand chose pour nous amuser.  What a place to get away from it all!

Before heading back to Basseterre, we stopped at a roadside eatery and sampled the local fare, chicken and Johnny cake, washed down with homemade passion fruit juice.  Watching and listening to the locals bantering and playing a serious game of dominoes added to the experience.  And the food was very good to boot!  I pinched myself, thinking: “There’s no place in the world I’d rather be right now.  My best friend at my side, a genuine experience, and a view to die for.”


Our modest hotel on St. Kitts, the Sugar Bay Club, a place that may have seen better days, couldn’t be in a better location.  The narrow, low-lying strip of land between Frigate Bay North and Frigate Bay South is home to a golf course, hotels, beaches, and a string of funky bars and restaurants.  We spent most of our last three days strolling, swimming and sunbathing in the area and liked it so much that we checked on condo rental prices for possible future reference.
A highlight of our time in St. Kitts was meeting Jennifer and Brian Nelson, two forty-somethings who spend six months of the year working in Panama City, FL, and the other six months sailing around the Caribbean on their 37-foot trimaran, Moon.  We boarded the local bus together on our first day in St. Kitts, said hello, and it was like we’d known one another for years.  They arrived on October 24 and have been working hard on their boat ever since.  Very interesting people.


The trip to St. Lucia turned out to be another adventure, courtesy of LIAT.  Four hours late leaving St. Kitts, we missed our connection in Antigua.  The airline offered to put us up in a local hotel, the Halcyon Resort, but it took forever to get the dozen or so stranded passengers through Customs and herded onto a bus.  Up at 3:30 for the ride to the airport, we faced confusion at the counter as LIAT had not transferred us onto the morning flight.  We finally got to our hotel in St. Lucia, exhausted but thankful to be finally rid of the local airline.

The Bay Gardens Inn, an older but well-kept property, is located in the heart of Rodney Bay, ‘tourist central’ in St. Lucia.  The town has everything: malls, restaurants, supermarkets, resorts, a beach, and a huge marina.  After exploring the area on foot, we hopped a local bus and rode to the capital, Castries.  Two cruise ships were in town and the place was abuzz.  It didn’t take us long to discover, however, that St. Lucia’s capital is a bit rough around the edges.  We’d been spoiled by the relative cleanliness and order of St. Kitts’ capital, Basseterre, and the friendliness of the people there.

We visited Pigeon Island National Park on our second day after taking the bus to the village of Gros Islet and walking the rest of the way.  We needed to stretch our legs in preparation for the next day’s hike.  The view of Martinique and Dominica from the top of the old fort made the short climb worthwhile.

Next, it was back on the bus for the long drive south to the town of Soufrière, a town of 8,000 people and the center of St. Lucia’s activity-based tourism offer.  Although the distance from Rodney Bay to Soufrière is only 50 kilometres, it took us two and a half hours to get there because of the narrow, congested roads, and the mountainous terrain.  We stretched our legs and walked  from the town to the former du Boulay Estate, site of the Botanical Gardens and Diamond Waterfall.  We’d seen other botanical gardens on our travels, but this one was by far the best.  We even discovered what came before Viagra, “Bois Bandé”!  What else would you call a tree with aphrodisiac powers?
Through the night, the rain pounded relentlessly on the roof of our hotel.  The worst of the downpour had passed by the time we got up, but we were pretty well resigned to cancelling our planned ascent of Gros Piton.  But, as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds and our 8:00 am pickup approached, we started to feel like it might come off.  Our driver, Richard, assured us that conditions would be better in Soufrière, so off we went.  Two and a half hours later, we arrived at the tiny village of Fond Gens Libre, home to 120 souls, descendants of former slaves who rebelled against their masters founded the settlement in the nineteenth century.
Our guide for the hike introduced herself and explained what lay ahead.  The mountain loomed over us, threatening, reminding us she was not to be conquered by the weak.  We signed the mandatory release forms, picked up walking sticks and started the 2,000-foot ascent.  Getting to the half-way point was relatively easy, although we had to clamber over a couple of difficult rock staircases, boulders the size of beer coolers.

Our guide warned us that the second half of the climb transitioned from moderate to difficult and asked us for the umpteenth time whether we thought we were up to it.  Poor girl, she’d never encountered a Jos à Denis or The Diesel!  Damn right we were tired.  But quit, I guess not!  Then, it started to rain!  And not just a light shower; a steady downpour that made the trail that much more treacherous.  But it also cooled us off!  After almost two hours of climbing, we reached the top of Gros Piton, not much the worse for wear and took in the impressive views of the island, looking south.
When you’re at your physical limit, when your mind tells you to turn around, that you’re too old for this, you search for inspiration.  Elva found hers in memories of Martha Lebel, her good friend who loved to hike and who left us too early, and of her cycling friend, Liz, who calls every hill “A piece of cake!”  For me, the sight of these plants growing wild on the mountain summoned memories of my dear mother who grew them in our house in Wellington all through the years we lived together.
The long descent was quite hairy and I was thankful for the walking stick.  Several times, I braced on all fours for stability on the slippery path.  My legs held up surprisingly well though and I made it down in ninety minutes or so.  Elva followed thirty minutes later and we congratulated one another on a job well done.  We don’t know what getting old feels like yet.  Someday we will, but not on this day…  Gros Piton is a ‘must-do’ for the adventurous sort, a UNESCO World Heritage Site spectacular in beauty and worthy of the designation.  Looking at this aerial shot of the monster in the foreground, I still find it hard to believe we made it!
We spent the last couple of days of our Caribbean adventure in Rodney Bay and Castries, soaking up the last of the sun and the sand before heading back north.  St. Lucia has a lot to offer the vacationer but it also has its drawbacks.  Most of the 150,000 or so people who call the island nation home are packed into a small strip of coastal land in the northwest corner.  Add in tourists and a woefully inadequate road system, and you have the makings of one gnarly traffic jam.  And garbage is strewn everywhere.  In a word, it’s gross.  People here are friendly, but it’s not the genuine friendliness you find in Grenada, Dominica, and St. Kitts.  There’s work to be done on several fronts, including better staff training.  Otherwise, the country will not achieve its goal of becoming a premium tourist destination.

As we end this adventure, I offer a few parting thoughts:
  1. No two couples, having visited the same eight countries, would rank them in the same order, I’m sure.  But for our style of travel, from best to worst, here they are: St. Kitts and Nevis, Grenada, Dominica, St. Lucia, Antigua and Barbuda, Barbados, Trinidad and Tobago, and St. Vincent and the Grenadines.
  2. Independent travel isn’t everyone’s cup of tea but it can be very rewarding.  We learned so much more on this trip than we expected, especially about ourselves and our capacity to adapt.  Three keys to successful independent travel: talk to the locals; eat what and where the locals eat; and travel with the locals where possible.  These are guarantees of a more enriching experience.  And it helps to be in shape!
  3. Never travel without the advice and help of an agent.  Ours happens to be Elva’s sister, Lucille Thompson of Carlson Wagonlit Travel.  She knows our habits, our expectations, and our quirks.  We work in tandem with her to come up with an itinerary and find suitable hotels, all booked in advance.  The savings she finds for us more than cover her fees.  Most importantly, when something goes wrong, as it always does, she’s there to help.
  4. The time and schedule conscious either adapt to the Caribbean pace or they go crazy!  People here march to a different drummer.  Maybe it’s the heat and maybe it’s just their nature.  LIAT (an acronym for “Late If At All”?), the publicly-owned regional airline, is a study in inefficiency and rarely on time.  We learned to go with the flow.  After all, what’s the rush?
  5. The eight Caribbean countries have much the same history: the indigenous Kalinago (Caribs) conquered the Arawak, only to be exterminated by the Europeans; Columbus was the first European to set foot on the islands, claiming them on Spain’s behalf; France and Great Britain fought over them, with the British prevailing in the end; the strong black majority eventually gained control in each country; and all sought and achieved independence within the last sixty years.  But there are important differences in terms of quality and form of government, standard of living, population density, and potential for economic growth.
  6. With the exception of Trinidad and Tobago, the middle class is weak or non-existent in the eight countries we visited, and that is a huge barrier to social and economic progress.  Wages are very low by our standards, even for those in public service jobs.  Were it not for expats - people who moved away and returned to spend their retirement years in their native countries - things would be far worse.
  7. The ‘gift of jurisdiction’ in these eight sovereign countries comes at a high cost.  With the exception of Trinidad and Tobago, none has oil reserves.  They all depend heavily on tourism, agriculture and fishing.  A few supplement these with an offshore banking sector.  There is great potential in tourism, provided each country can successfully brand and differentiate itself.  Foreign investment is hard to come by and many public infrastructure projects would not be possible without grants from richer countries.  Each one has a citizenship-by-investment program.  But bad government can and does stifle growth.  The best example of this is Saint Vincent and the Grenadines.
  8. Children here are very independent.  We saw them walk off the ferry from Bequia at 8:00 am, all dressed in their sharp-looking uniforms, on their way to class at a secondary school in Kingstown, St. Vincent.  Imagine having to catch a ferry at 7:00, enduring a rough one-hour crossing, spending six hours in class, and having to take the ferry home again, five days a week?  We drive our children to the stop and complain about them having to take a bus to school.
  9. The Chinese have arrived; not as tourists but as patrons.  We saw signs of this in Grenada, where they contributed to the cost of the national stadium, and in Dominica, where they’re doing the same.  Watch out President Trump!  The Chinese may yet take you from behind…
  10. And finally, after seven weeks of black immersion, I am now officially colour blind.  And proud of it!  It’s been a life-changing experience.