Saturday, 23 April 2011

The Everglades

For some reason our alarm call doesn't arrive this morning but it's OK as Simon and I are already awake; the Equinox has docked and probably the change of rhythm disturbed us. Since our flight isn't until the afternoon we've taken the opportunity to book onto an excursion to the Everglades, and after breakfast we meet in Equinox Central. There's a bit of waiting around, but the process is very smooth - we walk off the ship, scanning our cruise cards for the last time as we leave, and collect our bags from a numbered holding area. There's a pretty long queue for passport control then we join our coach just outside the terminal and drive south. The scenery is very distinctively American, with large malls and condo complexes arranged neatly and spaciously along the highway.

We turn off earlier than I was expecting, into a holiday park where we are divided into groups for the airboat ride. The flat bottomed boats skim the surface, driven by two huge fans at the stern, and we power slide round corners at speed to get out to the area known as Alligator Alley. Altogether we spot two alligators, both quite close but obscured by the water plants and lying perfectly still. There are numerous birds as well, including several enormous vultures. Our guide explains about species, habits and habitats and speaks with a kind of lilting drawl which makes him hard to understand and seems to focus primarily on plants and animals that cause pain or death to humans.

On our return there's an alligator show, just one guy doing death defying stunts with a large but rather docile looking alligator. The highlight for Alex is the chance afterwards to hold a small alligator, even more so when the guy takes off the band that is holding his jaws together.

Then it's back to the coach for the journey to Fort Lauderdale airport. For the first time we have a truly terrible driver; although we deduced from the way our luggage was loaded that there would be drop offs at different terminals, he makes no attempt to communicate with us and one of our bags is offloaded too soon. Luckily we notice and get it put back on. When we do reach our terminal, the bags are literally thrown out of the bus on to the pavement. No tip for him, which will probably make him more bad-tempered still with the next group.

Despite careful allocation of items between bags one of them is a few pounds over, but the check-in assistant is too interested in the Royal Wedding to notice. We have a few hours to kill before our flight but find a Chilis and settle down to enjoy fajitas and quesadillas. We leave planty of time for security, but just as we reach the conveyor everything shuts down and a metal grille is pulled across the entrance behind us. Apparently, there is a "situation". We're held for 10 minutes but never do find out what the problem is.

The flight home is uneventful - even the tight transfer at Dallas is not a problem - and after a long and uncomfortable night, we're home. On the final leg, Simon asks Alex to list his top 5 moments but he finds it hard to narrow it down to just 5. It has been a remarkable trip, full of "once in a lifetime" experiences, and it seems like much more than two weeks since we were at Universal in Orlando. And now we have the whole Easter weekend to unpack, catch up on our lost night's sleep. Better still, we return to blue skies and sunshine - what a bonus!

Wednesday, 20 April 2011

Grand Cayman

Our last port of call today, Grand Cayman. We anchor just off Georgetown, alongside 3 other cruise liners. We have to assemble on the quay at 9.45, so we have time for a leisurely breakfast before taking the tender across.

There are excursions for all the other ships, too so it's pretty chaotic and it takes us a while to find the meeting point for our turtle and stingray adventure. We have to hang around for a while and it seems more disorganised than we have been used to.

Finally we are led to a small bus and set off along the only road that runs the full length of the island. Our route takes us along seven mile beach and past swanky hotels and luxury condos. The first stop is the turtle farm where we see turtles of all sizes, and are allowed to hold some of the smaller ones, including some very cute six month old youngsters. Alex is thrilled by the tiny ones.

We stop briefly at a rum cake shop and then continue on to Hell. The settlement was established on the site of a dramatic black rock formation and has a post office where you can send postcards postmarked from Hell.

From here we are taken to meet the boat that will take us out to Stingray City, a sandbar where stingrays gather in large numbers and tolerate visits from humans. We have a longish wait while they fill the boat with people from 3 or 4 buses and there isn't enough shade for everybody. Simon is a bit pink so he stays below but Alex and I grab a spot up front which turns out to be a great choice when we finally set off, as we are cooled by the spray. We can see the group of boats at the sandbar from some way off, and the water is clear and shallow, turned brilliant turquise by the sand beneath.

When we arrive the skipper drops anchor and the guide gives us a quick briefing about how to avoid damage to either the rays or ourselves, then leads us down the steps off the back of the boat. It's very shallow, even Alex can stand comfortably, and it's immediately apparent that the rays are intentionally swimming so closely past us that they brush our legs with their wings. We really have no option but to touch them, or rather be touched by them - in both senses. Although they pack a nasty sting I don't feel threatened at all and feel sure I have a silly grin on my face as I enjoy the sensation of these majestic wild creatures playfully tickling my legs.

We hand feed them pieces of squid and a docile female seems content to be handled by a succession of people and even curls up her lip to be kissed. There's plenty of time to watch the rays, and some other fish, too. During the journey back to shore we have the chance to buy photos of our experience at a very reasonable $30, which includes all the photos of us with the rays plus some great wildlife and scenic shots from the island, all on a CD with no copyright restrictions. Back at the jetty there's no sign of our driver and we're running late. The other bus drivers have to rescue us and we get back to the quay with only about half an hour to spare.

There's little time for shopping but I leave the boys at the bar and walk along the main street which is lined with jewellery shops, just to get the feel of the place. This is a popular stop for Americans who have the opportunity to buy familiar brands duty free, but by this time the shops are deserted as the serious shoppers went ashore first thing and have long since returned to their ships.

Back on board I join in a dance class on the pool deck, which is fun but hot work. Alex has agreed to eat with us tonight which will make a nice change but he goes to kids club until then.. We will lose an hour tonight but it's a sea day tomorrow so we can sleep in.

Monday, 18 April 2011


The approach to Cartagena takes us through a narrow channel between fortifications built on small islands, and we can see its skyscrapers from quite far out. It looks like a larger and more prosperous place than we have been used to recently. The pier is too short for our ship so the stern line gets passed to a guy in a dinghy who passes it to a chap on a concrete platform to secure.

We have decided to explore independently today but it doesn't start well. It's a long way to the port exit and we don't notice the courtesy bus until we've walked it. But finally Alex sets foot on his sixth continent. We set off on foot and are beseiged by taxi drivers and guides touting for business. One of them kindly points us in the direction of the old town.

It's so hot, especially by the port where there are many heavy lorries, but the traffic thins as we enter a residential area. There are some pretty big houses here, in an attractive villa style, many with gardens around them.

Above, builders dangle precariously on suspended platforms painting newly built blocks of flats.

It takes more than an hour to reach the old town, passing the fort on the way, and we approach via a bridge where fishermen appear to be walking on water. There's a bar on top of the city wall but it's closed, so we walk around the corner to another bar. The prices are in pesos which makes them look expensive as there are 1820 to the dollar. The bar, bizarrely, has a German theme, complete with wall-mounted lederhosen but it feels like we are well off the tourist track. I have ever enjoyed a beer so much.

Suitably refreshed, we continue following the walls of the old town, along Arsenal Street and past the junction with Gethsemane. At the conference centre we turn towards the centre. The city has a really good atmosphere; it's modern and prosperous but has kept its character. We found a university centred around a beautiful shady courtyard and then found ourselves in an open space with statues and a park to the right.

Ahead of us was the gate to the inner fortifications that have been declared a World Heritage Site by Unesco. In here the streets become narrower and there are more people. We work our way to the cathedral, where there are street vendors and beggars as well as a colourful lady with a basket of fruit on her head. We head deeper into the citadel in search of lunch.

We find a restaurant tucked away down one of the little streets and order lunch. It takes ages to arrive and we begin to worry about running out of time. At least it has wifi so we catch up on emails and facebook.  We pay up and set off for the citadel, across a different bridge, past a broken pipeline and a slum. It's quite a climb to the top, it costs to go in and we're hot and tired, so we decide to admire it from the outside and then get a taxi back to the port. It has yellow fur on the dashboard.

There's a smart souvenir shop at the port with a parrot exhibit next door, so the boys take a look while I shop. Then we go back to the Equinox for a well-earned swim before dinner.

Sunday, 17 April 2011


This morning we arrive in Panama where we are booked on the Gatun Lake Eco cruise at a fairly leisurely 9.30. We're on deck to watch the ship arrive at a very short berth where the lines have to be passed to the dock by dinghy. The colourful buildings at the port look welcoming. After breakfast we assemble in the theatre ready for the tour. It's a 20 minute drive to the hotel where we will meet our boat, the Sol Panama Canal. The Gatun Lakes provide the water for the canal's locks and were manmade for the purpose. Former mountains now form islands which we will pass by on our boat trip.

We're on the water for just over an hour but see very little wildlife. There are loads of vultures and a possible sighting of a sloth but little else. It's still a pleasant trip, though. The real highlight is the visit to the Gatun Locks where we watch huge container ships transit through. It's quite surreal to see them towering above us and then dropping so we can see right over them. Small engines on tracks pull them throuh, there's very little clearance either side. A large container ship pays up to half a million dollars for the privilege. We drive past the site where new locks are being constructed which will both use less fresh water and recycle it. Then back to the ship for lunch.

After lunch Alex goes to kids club while Simon and I explore on foot. We very quickly realise that the billions of dollars raised by the canal don't benefit the residents of Colon. It's extremely run down, although it's possible to see the colonial elegance of former times in the dilapidated buildings. We don't venture far before returning to the port shopping complex, the contrast is quite startling. Colon is the second largest duty free port after Hong Kong and the former canal zone is occupied by rich Arab merchants but next to their huge warehouses people live in squalor.

The barrio has the feel of a place where people have given up. The supermarket on the quay, part of a chain owned by the president, displays a sign asking customers to leave their guns outside. I buy some spices there.

We spend the rest of the afternoon by the pool, where Alex joins us after kids club. He will go back when it re-opens at 7 but we're getting used to that. We have a pre-dinner drink at the lawn club. It's much windier tonight and the sea is quite rough.

Saturday, 16 April 2011

Costa Rica

Costa Rica today, and I'm up in time to watch us berth at a dock only a few metres longer than the ship. It's a commercial port with containers and cranes but lush green countryside beyond. This morning's excursion is the sloth sanctuary and rain forest and we meet in the theatre to be assigned numbered stickers before being led out to our coach. Our guide is Kitty and she introduces us to the culture and history of Costa Rica as we drive. We pull over briefly to buy a bunch of bananas that are passed around for us to sample. and again to see a troop of Monkeys beside the road.

Arriving at the Sloth Sanctuary we first watch a video accompanied by a Flanders and Swann song I vaguely remember. Then the grandson of the founders introduces us to some of the rescued sloths, including one called Johnny Depp. They are incredibly endearing,with a rather vacant smile and gentle demeanour, mostly snuggling under blankies. Most sadly have injuries, some acquired crossing roads that have bisected their territory and others from climbing electricity pylons that they mistake for trees.

After the adults we are introduced to the babies, which are even cuter still if such a thing is possible. One is paraplegic and another was abandoned by his mother because he kept falling out of trees. Apparently he kept hanging on to his own limbs instead of branches! Next Kitty takes us for a nature walk and I'm astonished to see many land crabs. We also see a sloth, lizards and a massive spider.

We are taken in canoes onto the Tortuga Canals that run parallel to the coast. More crabs here, also birds and monkeys and most impressive of all a Jesus Lizard running on the surface of the water. Back at the sanctuary we enjoy fresh fruit and Costa Rican coffee and watch the colourful birds in the nearby trees. Back at the boat we grab a quick lunch then I go and check out the tourist market on the port side. It's very hot and crowdedand the prices seem very high, in fact everything seems to be $14. Some of the vendors are quite pushy and one tries to convince me that I remind him of a long lost love who broke his heart.I decide I want to see the real Costa Rico, not the tourist trap so I go back for Simon and Alex and we set off.

Porta Limon, named for the sole lemon tree that used to be a reference point, is a colonial style town that has seen better days. As we leave the port we follow the sound of druming to find a group of children and yoths apparently having an impromptu samba session in the park. Locals are oaying them no attention. There are many families and it seems to be a popular spot to spend free time at the weekend. From the other side of the park we can see the island where Colombus landed and named this country the rich coast. But there is rubbish all over the breakwaters. With 6% of the world's biodiversity in this country that occupies only 0.03% of its land mass, it's disappointing to see such disregard for the environment.

We stroll around the town and Alex and I share a fresh coconut, drinking the water through a straw. Then it's back to the ship. We decide to have a quick swim folloed by a drink at the sunset bar but sadly it's too cloudy for a scenic sunset. Night falls quickly. Alex and I watch the show, an excellent Cirque du Soleil type affair with astonishingly supple acrobats. By the time it finishes Alex is almost asleep and we have dinner while he goes straight to bed.

Friday, 15 April 2011


We woke in a panic this morning, thinking we had overslept, but the clocks had gone back again. We have plenty of time to have breakfast and I go on deck to watch the ship dock. There's a Garifuna band of singers and drummers to welcome us. We're on the shipwreck and snorkel tour today and are met on the jetty by our guide David who names us the "chillaxin'" group and assures us that if he can't get it for us then we don't really need it.

It's about a 20 minute drive to fantasy island through the sleepy-looking island. The imaginatively-named port, Town Centre, has low, wooden buildings that extend out into the water on stilts. We cross a little wooden bridge to Fantasy Island and David explains the day. It's a charming private resort and our base will be sun loungers under palm thatch umbrellas. The beginners get some snorkel training then we meet a launch that will take us out to the second biggest barrier reef in the World.

I don't really take to snorkelling, although I give it a go. The water is quite rough and I find it too stressful being beyond easy swimming distance from the boat. But Alex absolutely loves it and can't wait to do it again, and Simon enjoys it more than he expected, too. On returning there are cold Life Saver beers and Alex gets buried in the sand while a bright yellow seaplane lands just in front of the beach. David takes on a brief nature walk to see the monkeys, iguanas and agoutis that live here. Then it's back to the ship for lunch.

I go back ashore while Alex and Simon play backgammon and table tennis, but can't find much to buy. Prices seem a little high for the shell and coconut necklaces that won't get worn at home. But it's fascinating to wander round the small town and see how people live.

Wednesday, 13 April 2011


Up bright and early today for Alex's special treat, swimming with dolphins. There are only 5 of us in the group and we're met at the dock by Diego who takes us in a taxi to Chankanaab, a nearby nature reserve. Imediately we arrive Alex is handed a parrot and iguana for a photo, then Diego shows us around. It's a smart complex with woodland walks, a pool and a beach as well as the dolphin pools, which are open to the sea. A big group arrives and we are split into groups of 10 and allocated lifejackets. There's brief instruction using a stuffed dolphin to demonstrate how we should interact with the dolphin and then we are led to the pools.

Our dolphin is called Regina and she has a baby called Eddie. First she swims by so we can stroke her then, one by one, we all get a kiss from her and touch her oustretched pectoral fins. Then we each have to swim out and get into position for a belly swim. Regina swims alongside then stops and turns over so we can grasp her pectoral fins then takes off at speed across the pool - fantastic! Finally, we all have a turn at being pushed along on a body board. It's quite disconcerting when Regina comes up behind you and pushes you hard on the sole of your foot, but great fun. What an amazing experience!

Then a bonus, as we are taken to another pool containing manatees and nurse sharks. The manatee swims slowly past so we can stroke her, and her trainer feeds her lettuces. We didn't expect this, it's a real surprise.

We buy a couple of the professional photos on CD, then spend some time in a little sandy cove watching the fish. They range from tiny to perhaps half a metre long, but the only ones we recognise are pipefish. Then we stroll down the beach and find some hammocks to lounge in. Finally Alex an I swim in the pool. All too soon it's time to leave. We go back to the ship for lunch, then Alex and I go back to the shops on the quay to buy him a wrestling mask. He goes back to the ship while I shop some more. Then we meet on the pool deck for sail away.

After we get changed for dinner Alex reads in the cabin and Simon and I go up to the lawn bar to watch the sun set. It's quite surreal standing barefoot on grass while we watch the sun slip into the sea. Dinner tonight included a fantastic seafood risotto. All in all, a day of highlights.

Tuesday, 12 April 2011


Our first day is spent  at sea. Alex can't wait to go to kid's club so Simon and I have breakfast a deux. The couple at the next table are brits but they live in Florida. They are holidaying with their two daughters who, like Al, are more interested in kids club than meals. Then we find a spot in the adults only solarium to choose excursions.

At 12 we retrieve Alex for a cookery demonstration before lunch, then he's off again while Simon and I go to a wine tasting. We spend most of the afternoon in and around the pool before getting ready for formal night. Frogs legs to start, and tangerine and apple soup. The food is excellent. Alex goes to the cabin early as he's tired, but he's still reading when we get back. I'm not ready for sleep and the clocks are going back tonight so I check out the show, but don't stay long. It's very professional, but the choreography jars in a way I can't quite put my finger on.

Monday, 11 April 2011

Going South

Have I mentioned that I love my Kindle? Turns out that with the 3G I get free internet access anywhere in the world! So I can blog on board for free, although not with photos.

Today we left Orlando and drove south to Fort Lauderdale in what has come to be known as The Bad Boy. The satnav turned out to have a faulty cable as well as the dodgy switch and we weren't sure it was going to work at all. Luckily we managed to get it working, as finding our way out of Orlando was quite a challenge. We decided we had just enough time to call in on Jacquie and Roger at the marina where they keep their yacht. we have an easy run down the Florida interstate and I manage to get the Bad Boy's fuel consumption up to 16.5mpg. As we approached the turn off for the marina I did a quick calculation and realised the time didn't add up.  Turns out the satnav's clock is an hour slow and we can only spare 5 minutes with Jacquie.

We find the marina and Roger meets us at the entrance and takes us to meet Jacquie on board Audacious. They both look very tanned and relaxed after 6 months at sea. We have time for only a quick tour and the briefest of chats before getting on the road again. We'e behind schedule and not sure we will find the interstate before the satnav dies. Luck is with us and it conks out just after we rejoin the highway.

There's more traffic as we approach Miami but luckily no hold-ups and we pull in to the hire car return bay dead on our 1pm deadline. Check in for our cruise is at 2pm and we arrive in good time by taxi. Check-in is very slick and by 2pm we're in our stateroom, which is very glam. We drop our hand luggage and head up to the buffet for lunch. The afternoon is spent finding our way around the ship. It's enormous, but we can find only 3 pools, one of which is not for children.

Alex wastes no time getting in to the pool, and I unpack. Then we get Al enrolled in the kids club. Before long it's time for dinner, which is conveniently served on our level, deck 3. We're on fixed time dining, at 8.30, on a table with 5 other brits. And then an early night - we're shattered.

Sunday, 10 April 2011

A journey through the bizarre

Breakfast at our hotel is not that great, so this morning we decide to eat out. We're visiting Ripley's Believe it or Not so we walk in that general direction to find breakfast. Eggs Benedict for me - delicious. And we arrive at Ripley's just as it opens.
Alex is a big fan of Ripley's TV show so he's pretty excited. The exhibits range from relics collected on Ripley's extensive travels to freaks of nature and, well, just freaks. Alex finds it all very fascinating.

It doesn't take the whole morning, though, and with 90 minutes until we're due to pick up our hire car, we stop for a game of Pirate-themed adventure golf, at the most impressive course I've ever seen, complete with waterfalls and caribbean soundtrack.

Arriving at the rental office Alex admires the huge pick-ups outside - imagine his surprise when we're asked if we'd mind upgrading to one. It's a beast, and I shudder to think of its fuel consumption, but at least the first tank of gas is free, so it's only the planet that has to pay the price. Driving it the couple of hundred yards to our hotel is a bit nerve-wracking but that will soon wear off. Alex goes straight in the pool - it's very hot - and we laze around until well past lunchtime, still digesting our massive breakfast. Eventually we order a pizza, which is the only thing that seems to be more expensive here than at home.

This afternoon we drove back to a store opposite Ripleys to buy a suitcase, to allow us to spread our luggage more evenly between bags on the way home. Alex also got a T-shirt that is printed in black only when indoors but develops a coloured pattern when exposed to sunlight - amazing!

A real find for dinner tonight - Cafe Tu Tu Tango, set up like a Spanish artist's co-operative with an eclectic menu served in portions a little larger than tapas and designed for sharing. We enjoyed chicken flautas, carne adovado and alligator bites, accompanied by an excellent Argentinian Malbec. The bohemian staff were offhandedly attentive and genuinely proud of the food, which we found suited us better than the normal waiting style here. There were artists in residence and paintings for sale, one of which I was admiring when the artist came over and let us know that he does 10 minute portraits for tips, so we had Alex drawn, which kept him occupied while we enjoyed the last of the wine.

Saturday, 9 April 2011

Magic and Mayhem

It's Universal day today, and we get a taxi bright and early to make sure we can squeeze it all in. We've pre-booked tickets and Express passes, but the headline Harry Potter ride isn't included in the Express pass so our plan is to go there first before the queues build up. Advertised opening time is 9am but when we get there just before 9 the park is already crowded, and the queue for Harry Potter and the Forbidden Journey is already 60 minutes! The ride was excellent, a simulated broomstick ride accessed through a replica Hogwarts complete with talking portraits and holograms of the cast. I love the attention to detail.

We queue almost as long to visit the wand shop, preceded by a dramatisation of the wand-choosing process. Having spent two hours on two activities, we plot a course through the remaining rides using our Express passes. Alex has to do the roller coasters on his own as Simon and I are World-class wusses, but that doesn't seem to bother him. He proclaims the Incredible Hulk roller coaster the best ever. But we did everything else, including two stunt shows and every single water ride in Islands of Adventure, ending up sodden and bedraggled. We had to stand in the sun to dry off before getting a taxi back to our hotel.

Dinner tonight was nothing to write home about. We walked right along International Drive in search of a restaurant but found nothing that appealed. Finally, tired and ravenous, we settled for the Denny's close to the hotel.

The adventure begins

Off on the first stage of our trip today, flying to Orlando via JFK. One small problem - Alex left his iPod at Leighton Park yesterday. Luckily we have time to drive via LP to Heathrow so disaster was averted. Then the next problem - I'd managed to cram so much into our cases that 2 of them are overweight. £37 excess baggage. Oops!

The flight was uneventful, apart from getting shunted into the "families and incompetent travellers" queue for security at JFK, which took a-g-e-s; our flight was already boarding when we got to the gate. We will have a 50 minute transfer on our return flight, so this makes us a little nervous. But all went smoothly this time and we arrived in Orlando to balmy weather just after 6pm.

The ambitiously-named Extended Stay Deluxe Suites aren't quite as sumptuous as the name implies, but we have two double beds, a kitchenette and plenty of space. Alex is chuffed to have a double to himself. We find a Mexican restaurant almost next door and almost fall asleep in our entrees. We're all in bed soon after 9pm, although Simon and I are disturbed by our neighbours having a loud conversation at 2am. Don't they know we're jet-lagged?