The Cayman Islands are a British Overseas Territory, three islands in the western Caribbean Sea: Grand Cayman, Little Cayman and Cayman Brac. They are believed to have been uninhabited before the first Welsh settlers came, in the seventeenth century. The smaller islands had been sighted by Columbus, who called them Las Tortugas (turtles) and Sir Francis Drake landed on Grand Cayman. Early maps refer to them as Los Lagartos, meaning alligators or large lizards, But by 1530 this had become the Caymanes after the Carib word caimán for the marine crocodile. There must have been a lot of them. The turtles were quickly depleted, as they became the mainstay of the economy, for export and eating.
Alison and I have flown in to Georgetown, the capital of Grand Cayman (and the Cayman Islands), from Jamaica. As with Jamaica this is a revisit, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship snorkelling counts. Three hundred miles and it’s yet another world. Very flat. Pristine. A series of interlinked lagoons, especially in the west. Very American. Plaza after plaza. Lines of car rental shops. Huge neat car parks. Four lane highways. And signposts. Low rise apartment blocks pretending to be traditional Caribbean architecture. Incongruously, chickens run around squawking. They feature right across the island and are useful for hoovering up any scraps of food we drop, whilst we’re picnicking. I’m assuming no foxes here. The only predators are the many vehicles.
Cars stop at pedestrian crossings, if we show the slightest inclination to cross the road. They even stop to let you out at junctions. Best of all, a huge supermarket offering everything we couldn’t find in Jamaica. And just about anything you could want to buy to eat. Beautifully stocked meat and fish sections. Again, at a price. I fill two shopping bags with goodies - for 200 USD.
Georgetown is the largest town in the British Overseas Territories (BOTs) and a significant financial hub. There are almost 600 banks and financial institutions here. Twice as many companies as people. Plate glass office blocks are dotted around the edges of town (which spreads out a surprisingly long way across the island), spilling towards more traditional buildings in the downtown area. Some timber buildings could be correctly described as historical. More adopt the mock wooden Caribbean style, especially those around the cruise port (where every block is a mall). A few are actually made of concrete. This is where you find your Versace, Tiffany, and Gucci nestling alongside native vendors and craftsmen.
Restaurants line the wharf alongside the harbour. In between the boutiques, bars and cafes on the shore side are dainty churches, the parliament building, the site of an old fort (marked by a few cannons) and the island museum.
We pick up a rental car and navigate smoothly to our Cocoplum apartment at the bottom of Seven Mile Beach, just north of downtown Georgetown. We have a little heart shaped swimming pool in front of us, sunbeds (screwed down, so sadly, we can’t move them into the shade), and a view out to sea, across a wrecked boat. Glass patio doors lead onto this area. It’s hard to tell when they are closed, so I repeat my trick from Tunisia and walk headlong into the door. This time my glasses come off worse than I do. We also have a resident teeny tiny curly tailed lizard who is not remotely afraid of us. Even so, I have to check he’s not a scorpion, his tail is held so high.
The wreck, the Gamma, offers interesting snorkelling. It’s not the prettiest section of what doesn’t really qualify as a seven mile beach (in my humble opinion). To start with, it comes in at just under six miles in length. And the land fringing the long crescent disappears entirely at several points along this, the quieter end. We have to make use of the various alleys leading to and from the parallel West Bay Road, when trying to explore north. There’s a thin strip of sand and seawater channels, accessed by stairs cut into the exposed coral. I’ve read that storms have caused some erosion and there’s plenty of construction work along the shore here too.
Reefs more or less encircle Grand Cayman, which is why the islands are renewed for its snorkelling and diving. There are snorkelling spots all along seven mile beach right down to Georgetown, in the harbour and beyond. The one close to the Burger King is known as Cheeseburger Reef
Seven Mile Beach is yet another of those beaches that’s touted as best in the Caribbean, maybe twelfth in the world. It’s lovely, but not that amazing. As I’ve said several times before, these best beach in the world lists are way off . I don’t think the Bahamas counts as the Caribbean, but Anguilla and the BVI certainly do.
Another couple of miles further up Seven Mile Beach widens. Here, it is called Governor’s Beach, imaginatively named, as it’s right in front of the Governor’s House. There are signs in front of a low chain fence, requesting privacy. The Cayman Islands are more British than Great Britain. The governor presides over garden parties wearing one of those big cockaded hats. Even the Christmas decorations feature the flag of St George. It’s been created in wide banded satin ribbon along the wall of one tall block.
Here, the beach could rightfully be called beautiful. The sand is soft and inviting. The sea is a translucent swirl of contrasting blues, warm and shallow. There’s what seems to be the best snorkelling on Seven Mile, a few hundred yards off shore. It’s not fantastic, I hurry to add. More, mostly dead, coral, and there are a few shoals of vibrantly coloured fish. Some of them intrepid specimens, keen to eyeball us snorkellers.
Grand Cayman is an odd shape. The Georgetown area and Seven Mile Beach looks as if it sits on its tail. On the opposite side of the tail to the long stretch of beach are marinas with glitzy malls and restaurants. The most well known is Camana Bay.
At the top of the tail is the North End and West Bay. At West Bay. Cemetery Beach is, you guessed it, adjacent to an old cemetery (they’re all bedecked with artificial flowers here) with a narrowish strip of sand and a peaceful vibe. Shade is provided by casuarina trees . They’re gracefully atmospheric, but the needles make a patchwork on the sand and invade all your clothes and stick to your towels. Here, I meet up with Ron and Anne, who have just come from Negril in Jamaica, where I’m heading next. They live in Lindfield in West Sussex, where I used to have a house. It really is a small world.
Cemetery Beach has another reef, even further off shore. Ron is going to come in with me, but first his equipment all floats away on the swell, and then he discovers that his mask is too small. These are the sort of rolling waves that fill your swimsuit with sand, but you don’t realise until you go to the toilet and it all falls out. There’s a little purple fan coral and even fewer fish. Cayman might be one of the best snorkelling spots in the Caribbean but it’s not a patch on other parts of the world. If I remember correctly it’s better when you take a boat. Nevertheless, I mustn’t complain. It’s nice to able to snorkel off shore at all.
The North End is more quirky. Bestrewn with less pretentious homes, gentler, more rural and further away from the financial mecca. Though it hasn’t escaped hotels and apartments all together. There are quiet lagoons and a medley of limestone formations. One area named Hell is especially full of dark pinnacles. This is a very polarised population. and Hell is where the less well off tend to live, Unsurprisingly, the locals have capitalised on this with a gift shop and a post office, where you can get Hell postmarks - if you’re so inclined.
The formations meet the coast at Turtle Reef for scenic views, more snorkelling and some cafes. There are gorgeous wind swept beaches all along the North End coast to here and round the edge of Barker National Park, where horses wait patiently for clients to ride them along the sand. There’s a whole line of dune buggies next door. I'm unsure whcih is the safer option.
The key must-do in Grand Cayman is Stingray City and I went there on my last visit. Time to explore the island then. I’ve read that we should allow two hours to circumnavigate Grand Cayman. It takes us about three hours to work our way right round the coast to Rum Point and then Starfish Point, with frequent photo stops. The traffic in Georgetown, both ways, is incredibly heavy, despite the four lane highways and huge roundabouts. Nobody bothers to use the indicators on their expensive shiny land rovers And there are gargantuan American style trucks thundering by. Living with the rich and powerful isn’t always paradise, it seems.
Just south of Georgetown is Smith’s Cove, more exotically known as Smith’s Barcadere. Formed from the coral reef, it’s incredibly photogenic. And has really easy (straight off the sand ) fairly decent snorkelling alongside all the reef cliffs. There's even an exciting altercation with an octopus. I had no idea they could camouflage themselves so well against the coral. I would swear this one turned white and then brown depending on the light. I’ve read that they can change texture too, to match their surroundings.
Spotts Beach, on the south road, isn’t actually that easy to spot. We zoom past. Its accessed like all the beaches down public rights of way and its another gorgeous piece of palm backed sand. Though there’s a stiff breeze blowing off the reef in front.
Further along the south road, Pedro St James, is home to the oldest stone building on Grand Cayman. It’s actually called a castle, though it doesn’t look like one to me. William Eden, an Englishman, used slave labour to build it in 1780. You can buy tickets to go inside and visit and there’s a swanky gift shop and restaurant attached. We just peer at it from the road.
Bodden Town, the first island settlement, is the old capital of the Cayman Islands. (The first settlers were Welsh - the islands are thought to have been previously uninhabited.) The place is named after William Bodden, a government leader. It’s now the fasted growing district on Grand Cayman. Perhaps they’ve run out of space in Georgetown. Traditional buildings line the main road. The most notable is the Mission House, intended to depict life as it used to be in the islands, though its origins are murky.
The East End is where the real Caribbean begins. Mangrove forest, lakes, low subtropical forest and wild and windy beaches draped with sea weed and facing a vividly turquoise lagoon. There are blowholes in the raised coral. Gun Bay, as it’s name suggests, has cannons lining the road and Colliers Beach is gorgeously picturesque.
Turning the corner to the North Side of Grand Cayman, still more beaches running alongside the road. The sand almost disappears at Barefoot Beach, where the once lofty trees have succumbed to the winds, bending over at almost 90 degrees.
Rum Point, at the end of a straggling peninsula on a bay opposite Georgetown has still not reopened after Covid. There are major renovations underway and JCBs blocking the path. The area between here, a series of pools and lagoons lined with houses and apartment blocks is known as Cayman Kai.
Right at the tip is Starfish Point. It’s tranquil and exceptionally pretty – shallow waters, white sand and casuarina trees to bask under.
At least, it’s tranquil until all the tour boats turn up to admire the poor cushion starfish dotted, mainly solitary, under the dappled water. Loud music blares and the visitors munch lobster tails (it’s obviously an up market tour), as they splash around, asking if they can pick up the beleaguered echinoderms. Apparently, they want to make bikini tops out of them. The answer is no, they will suffocate out of the ocean. It doesn’t stop the intruders examining the creatures underwater. Some of the starfish beat a hasty retreat. The information boards say that their numbers have decreased rapidly over recent years. I wonder why.
The Queen Elizabeth II Botanic Park is advertised as having seven main attractions – the Visitor’s Centre, the Floral (Colour) Garden, an Orchid Boardwalk (the banana orchid is the national flower), a Xerophytic Garden (plants which need little water), a Heritage Garden (sand and a traditional house and yard), a Woodland Trail, and the Children’s Garden. We enjoy a leisurely wander along the mile long woodland trail - rainforest, jagged limestone pools.
Then, through all of the other areas, except the Children’s Garden. The floral garden is indeed bright and attractive, with huge versions of all those plants, marantas, crotons, philodendrons, that we try and grow in pots at home. The two-acre lake, on the edge of a buttonwood swamp is tranquil and a brilliant mirror for the palm trees jutting over it. It’s also home to small Central American turtles called hickatees who paddle over, in the hope of food, give us the once over and then drift off.
But all this is incidental. We’ve come to see the endangered Grand Cayman Blue Iguana. It only lives on this island and the Botanic Gardens run a conservation project. They tell us that 40 of the creatures wander the park and I’m determined to see one. After a quiet start, my wish is granted and several iguanas of various shapes and sizes make themselves known. as does a rare and shy agouti, for five quivering seconds.
It's been a great and contrasting week. Now we’re headed back to Jamaica.
Jamaica is synonymous with the Caribbean, the most African of these alluring island nations. It has a typical Caribbean tropical climate and topography of mountains, rainforests and reef-lined beaches. And it’s smack bang in the middle of the Caribbean Sea and so, was the centre of the slave trade. Runaways (called maroons) safeguarded the African traditions. Marcus Garvey founded the back to Africa movement here and Rastafarianism followed by reggae music (and Bob Marley), were born in Jamaica. (I’ve been to see the Bob Marley musical Get Up Stand Up to prepare. This is the home of jerk chicken, the world’s best coffee (apparently) and manatees, as well as the usual Caribbean white sand beaches and diving.
Jamaica’s main income is tourism, but it gets a mixed press. There is much poverty. And consequently, a more than average amount of hassle. Crafts, massage, jewellery and drugs. There’s ganja (and other unmentionable stuff) being hustled on every corner. (Despite the fact that possession is strictly illegal.) There are also warnings not to take photos of the marijuana fields.
More worryingly, Jamaica has the highest murder rate in the world for any country not at war. Most of the violence occurs in the ghettoes - I’m told. And a week before we leave, the news tells us that five parishes have been designated as state of emergency zones, due to escalating gang violence. I’m going to have to research where I venture very carefully.
Originally inhabited by the indigenous Taíno peoples, Jamaica came under Spanish rule following the arrival of Christopher Columbus in 1494. Many of the indigenous people were killed or died of imported diseases, after which the Spanish brought large numbers of African slaves to Jamaica as labourers. The island remained a possession of Spain until 1655, when it was conquered by the English. The country had been named Xaymaca "Land of Wood and Water" by the Taino, but this was anglicized to Jamaica. Jamaicans, however, refer to their home island as "The Rock".
Under British colonial rule Jamaica became a leading sugar exporter, with a plantation economy dependent on the African slaves and later their descendants. The island achieved independence from the United Kingdom on 6 August 1962, but the monarch of the UK remains head of state - for the moment.
This is a revisit, to Jamaica, as I’m not sure that half a day off a cruise ship in Ocho Rios counts. I’m travelling with Alison and I’m using my Air Miles. I keep reminding myself that the flight is free, as I’m squashed into a tiny seat, alongside a very large lady, who can’t help but overspill into my space. The flight is crammed with Jamaicans, returning home for a long Christmas break, before seat prices rise to extortionate levels. No-one has checked the amount of cabin baggage they’re bringing on.
It takes an additional hour to get everyone on the plane and all the overhead bins are overflowing. A stewardess has insisted I try to squash my backpack under the seat in front. Thankfully, it was agreed to be impossible to get it in there, as otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to flex any of my limbs. And the flight is almost 10 hours. ‘’It’s free, it’s free’. I repeat to myself.
Driving is also reported to be more than a little daunting. The roads are full of potholes and there are very few signposts. People buy licences, rather than taking a test. And speed limits are there to be ignored. It’s encouraging that the Jamaicans drive on the left, like we do in the UK. ‘De left side is the right side; de right side is suicide’.
As our flight lands after dark, we’ve booked a taxi to take us to Ocho Rios (where my first landing was made, though I’m not sure it equates to that of Christopher Columbus in 1494). The driver’s WhatsApp greeting sets the mood. ‘Blessed Love,’ he declaims. Sadly, the warnings about dangerous driving turn out to be true. This observation, coupled with the traffic jams through Kingston (rush hour seems to last from 3 till 9 – and why is it called rush hour ?), is bad enough for me to abandon my original plan to drive a hire car for a couple of days. We strike a deal with (Blessed Love) Kenroy instead. Yeah Man. Aw man.
But first, a very welcome couple of days on the beach at Ocho Rios. Our apartment has sea views and is just five minutes walk from Mahogany Bay. This little sandy cove is worn round the edges - collapsing wooden sunbeds round the old swim up bar in a little creek. But it’s shabbily charming, with its channels and canary yellow humped bridge. A few shops. Bright clothing draped over bushes, in the hope of attracting custom from tourists on their way to the small jetty, for boat trips. Most of the souvenirs and beachwear are in Jamaican colours. If they're not draped with the Jamaican flag. The colours of the Jamaican flag represent the following: black stands for hardship, green stands for hope and agriculture and the yellow represents the wealth and beauty of the sun
There's a gigantic Royal Caribbean liner looming over the horizon and big excitement amongst the vendors at Mahogany Bay anticipating, a large number of clients. They even wheel in a limbo dancer, to entertain the crowds waiting for their catamaran cruises.
Other than the cruisers, it’s thankfully quiet at this time of year, so we can bag an umbrella and two sunbeds in a prime spot by the water. There’s a somnolent dog under almost every lounger. Waders stalk by and the sea here is crystal clear, shallow and balmy. The beach vendors are friendly and it’s a very soft sell, not too persistent. We can also get high, free. The air reeks of ganja.
When I say quiet, I mean not very busy. There’s reggae music blaring from the beach restaurant, which boast huge speakers and a resident DJ. Every so often, the moored catamarans enter into competition turning on their own sound systems. And the bay features on the local boat trip repertoire. We’re intermittently subjected to a loud commentary, as a group of tourists are encouraged to admire us and our environment from the water. It’s like being an exhibit at the zoo.
We’re having a splendid time until we set off down the coast road into downtown Ocho Rios. Ochi (as the locals call it) continues the Caribbean ramshackle vibe and is best described as having character, rather than being pretty. The bays either side of downtown are more upmarket. Mick Jagger has a house here, which he lets out at exorbitant prices. But then he has a house in many places, including Mustique.
Lines of yards, concealing paint and tyre shops. Tourist markets. Everything branded in Jamaican colours. Miles of overhead cables. It’s thronging. We’re marked out and accosted with varying degrees of civility as we bump up and down the ledges on the sidewalk. Everyone wants to know our business and issue offer an opinion. Whatever we say, it is safe to expect that we will be judged to be doing it wrong. 'Turtle Beach is not the same thing as Ocho Beach, even if the internet says it is.'
I finally make it through the centre of town, to the bay that is the main beach (and apparently not Turtle Beach), as I want to retrace the steps of my earlier visit. But we’re not allowed through the gate. ‘The beach closed at four’, snarls the hefty female attendant. (We’ve been told it closes at five). I beg Stern Faced Lady, for just 2 minutes. She eventually relents. 'But you can’t use a camera in there. Just a phone. Just one phone.' Alison is not permitted entry. I admire the powdery white sand and recall my trip down the cruise ship pier in solitary splendour. Surely, the guard has to be making all these rules up. Perhaps it’s the Jamaican version of the doctor’s secretary.
To the supermarket to buy something easy for dinner. But it’s the same story as in Anguilla. Deli doesn’t seem to exist. No coleslaw or salads, no cooked meats. So it’s frozen meat and fish or cans and packets. I’ve got crisps and a can of corned beef for dinner – again. And even that makes a huge dent in the wallet. Food is far more expensive than in England. On our return to our apartment I look up delis in Ocho Rios on the internet and am deluged with pictures of bakeries.
Our 'condo', in a quiet part of town 'with ocean view', seems perfect, despite the dozen assorted pots of artificial flowers displayed artfully on chests, tables and in every alcove. It seems to have every convenience, once I’ve reset all the controls on the three TVs. We retreat from an early night, still jet lagged, but I emerge from my bedroom to find we’ve now got an indoor swimming pool. A huge flood in the middle of the living room floor. Needless to say, no-one is available to deal with it and its origin is a mystery. Though the recently used washing machine seems to be the prime suspect.
Alison mops and I helpfully hum a hornpipe. There’s half a bucket of dirty water collected. A plumber calls next day and can’t find anything wrong, but I’m not sure how hard he looked. I refused to spend my holiday time waiting around for him to come. And he didn’t take up the sodden rug, which is now best described as stinky.
Kenroy turns up, as agreed, almost punctually to take us to Montego Bay, as agreed. Respect. 'One Love'. Fist bumps in fingerless gloves. There’s a huge whiff of hydrogen sulphide in the air. I had attributed it to a local drains problem, but at least part of the noxious smell seems to be coming from the engine of his car. The bonnet is propped open and the battery is steaming. It's definitely not the same vehicle he picked us up in, on Monday. ‘Licence expired’. he raps. ‘Dis my brother's’. I’m not convinced Kenroy’s brother’s car is going to make it to Dunn’s River Falls, a few kilometres up the road, let alone all the way to Montego Bay, at the western end of the island.
Kenroy is confident however and we set off. I’m even more alarmed when I notice that the fuel gauge arrow points to empty. Kenroy agrees that he will sort out the problems with the car, whilst we 'Enjoy da falls, man'.
Dunn’s River Falls are Jamaica’s number one tourist attraction. This is at least partly due to the fact that they are within easy driving distance of all the main cruise ship ports – Montego Bay, Falmouth and Ocho Rios.
I should have heeded the advice I got last time I was here. The falls are not especially exciting. There are a couple of pretty cascades, which we are fortunate enough to see before the cruisers arrive. The main attraction here is to terrify yourself by clambering up the smooth water covered rock. The climb has to be done with falls guides (distinguished by their tee shirts), who insist that everyone link hands and shout 'Ra-ra-ra', before they start each part of the ascent. The falls are soon bestrewn with lines of would be mountaineers. We’re not convinced that some are fit enough to make it. We’re not even going to try.
The area has been cleverly turned into a park, to justify the 25 USD entrance fee. There’s a zip line, a pretty golden beach and several viewing platforms. But these are all closed due to pre Covid damage, not yet repaired. It seems that Jamaica has only just begun to emerge properly from the pandemic, though it opened up last year.
There’s also a tranquillity garden. Sadly this is not so quiet as I had hoped. The gardeners want to take you on tours to explain the purpose of the various plants - for tips of course. There are also lines of souvenir shops and stalls, with exit signs carefully placed to lead you past (it’s a bit like being in an outdoor Ikea), instead of directly to the car park. Small carved turtles are pressed on us ‘as presents’, as we search for the escape route.
Kenroy isn’t waiting when we emerge from the falls, so I call him – no answer. He eventually meanders across the car park, munching from a polystyrene take out box and announcing that he now needs to go back into Ocho Rios to buy a new battery and fill up with gas. What’s more we’re paying. We swiftly disabuse him of this notion and remove our gear from the vehicle. ‘What about money for my gas?’ he wails. ‘Respect’. I point out that turning up with a car that isn’t roadworthy isn’t exactly respectful and we walk away. Though more panic struck then we are admitting. What now? Our plans for the next two days are all in shreds.
We’re standing forlornly in the car park. I’m waving my fins around. Some waiting taxi drivers eventually act as the Fifth Cavalry. They summon friend Oliver, who arrives complete with minibus to take us to Montego Bay. Smiley Desmond then volunteers to do duty the following day.
So now we have enough space for 12, and can try out all the different seats. Oliver is a reassuringly careful driver and an informative guide, as we take the westerly highway. Running to the south, limestone escarpments and low peaks. before long the road is actually hugging the coast. It’s not the most attractive Caribbean shoreline I’ve seen. There are some lovely beaches and cerulean bays, with waving palm trees, juxtaposed with enormous container ships, moored on crane lined piers. They’re being loaded with bauxite from the trains (only cargo tracks still operate here) and conveyors that carry the red ore down to the harbours. It’s one of Jamaica’s most lucrative exports.
There’s Runaway Bay (from which all the slaves disappeared) and Discovery Bay, where Christopher Columbus first landed. There’s even supposedly, the ship that he sailed in, though it’s being renovated and we can only see a tip of mast. Rio Bueno (Good River), so named as it was the closest decent drinking water they could find. Oliver stops to show us the memorial plaque on the Queen Elizabeth Highway. The late queen opened the road in 1953. Falmouth Bay is prettier, lined with silvery sands. But there are huge cruise ships moored up there.
As is common with colonial destinations, there are a plethora of UK place names. Jamaica is divided into three counties (Middlesex, Surrey and Cornwall), which run in sections north to south dividing Jamaica like a vertically striped flag. Each of these are subdivided into parishes. We’ve just crossed from Middlesex into Cornwall.
Nearing Montego Bay, dilapidated gives way to designer. Very recent hotels have appropriated the prime coastal spots and there is new construction ongoing in any gaps. There are larger fancier supermarkets and plate glass fronted shops on pink plazas that wouldn’t look out of place in Florida. Signs even promise delis.
Up on the hill to our left, as we approach the city, Rose Hall, the most well known of the great Jamaican plantation houses, dating from the 1700s. It was owned by the Palmer family. One of their number, Annie (the wife of owner John) was famed as a witch. According to legend Annie came from Haiti, where she learned voodoo and magic. She murdered not only John, but two subsequent husbands, becoming rich in the process. Then she engaged in liaisons with her slaves and murdered them too, when she tired of what they had to offer. She came to a bad end, when she encountered a more powerful magician, a slave called Takoo. who disposed of her, in her turn. Rose Hall (named after the first Palmer wife) fell into disrepair in the 1960s, but has now been renovated and opened as a historic house museum.
Montego Bay is the second city in Jamaica, founded on sugar cane. It’s very much a place of two halves. There are ghettoes, poverty and gang violence. One area is included in the latest state of emergency declaration. And then there’s the ever expanding Hip Strip. A line of the most upmarket, boutiques, hotels and manicured beaches. Doctor's Cave Beach is a gorgeous stretch of sand - paid entry of course - with scarlet Baywatch emulating lifeguards, every 30 metres or so. It’s named after a doctor (who was followed by an osteopath, sometimes the two are conflated), who used to direct his patients to bathe in the springs that bubbled into the bay. In those days you had to enter through a small cave, which has now collapsed and disappeared.
There are reefs (mostly dead, but there are some live pockets) and a few fish wandering around in the warm turquoise water. The best snorkelling in the world, or even the Caribbean, it is not, but it’s an entertaining and relaxing way to pass the time. Unless you want to bounce up and down on the circular striped trampolines that dot the bay.
Sangster Airport, at the end of the Hip Strip is also being extended (more JCBs in action) to facilitate the transport of tourists to all those new hotels. It’s already the busiest airport on Jamaica.
If Oliver was good, then Desmond turns out to be an absolute treasure, totally atoning for all Kenroy’s misdemeanours (at a price). Even if he does include Yeah Man in (literally) every sentence. He has been tasked with taking us into the famous Blue Mountains, home of the world’s best coffee ( they boast) and then to the Bob Marley Museum in Kingston, before delivering us back to the airport at Kingston for our flight to Grand Cayman. He starts by avoiding the toll highway to Kingston (built by the Chinese) and taking to the delightful mountain roads. First, through rainforest proper in Fern Gulley. Magnificent dappled vegetation, tall, tall trees, lianas dangling and giant figs. The roots of one such are so huge there’s a murky cave underneath.
Colgate and other mountain communities give a real flavour of life in the Jamaican countryside, as we criss-cross the new main road. Roadside stalls, jerk centres, salted cod cooking on coals. Jamaica's main exports are coffee, bananas and sugar. Folk waiting at bus stops and taxis ferrying children to school. Education is not free in Jamaica and no transport is provided either. The route is much more interesting than the highway and good for Desmond, who doesn’t have to fork out for the 32 dollar toll. We are surrounded by manic drivers, determined to overtake, come what may. Unlicensed cars, freshly delivered are a particular hazard, they’re uninsured and totally uninhibited. Desmond says these drivers are known as CJs - Crazy Jamaicans.
Eventually, the road drops into Spanish Town, the Spanish (hence the name - it was originally Villa de la Vega) and British capital of Jamaica from 1534 until 1872. The town is home to sepia brick government buildings and white porticoes, falling into disrepair. The old governor's residence is just a façade. There are numerous memorials, the national archives, and one of the oldest Anglican churches outside England. Some what misleadingly it still bears a Spanish name, Cathedral of St. Jago de la Vega. Jamaica has more churches per square mile than any other country in the world.
Through the edges of Kingston and then a very winding climb up to the ridges of the Blue Mountains. This is St Andrew, (now we're in Surrey), where the rich and famous, like Shaggy and Usain Bolt (though he went to school near Montego Bay) have their villas. There’s a gorgeous, if hazy, view back across Kingston. The valley walls plummet and the whole is covered in the lushest of emerald vegetation. Vines lace the mountainsides.
Right up top, Craighton Plantation (perhaps surprisingly founded by a Japanese) offers coffee tours and more stupendous outlooks. And there’s food and still more panoramas to be had at the Strawberry Hill Hotel or the Crystal Edge Café. We partake of jerk chicken and rice and ‘peas’ at the latter.
The Bob Marley Museum is the other tourist must see in Jamaica. There are two of them, in fact. Bob Marley’s mausoleum is at Nine Mile, at the house where he was born (to an English father and Jamaican mother). I’ve read that it’s mainly a place to hang out and smoke grass. My sources say that the museum is more interesting. This house, on Hope Road, in bustling Kingston, was gifted as part of his Island Records deal. It was previously owned by producer Chris Blackwell.
The museum is small. Downstairs is stuffed with memorabilia, record album covers and the recording studio. Upstairs, his bed (he had twelve children by nine different women, including his wife) and the kitchen where he mixed cocktails which were supposed to assist in his many sexual endeavours. Out back, the main kitchen area with the framed bullet holes that mark the assassination attempt that failed. The garden walls are covered in bright murals. It’s a worthwhile visit. Though I learned more about this complex icon from the stage musical, and from the Booker Prize winning novel - The Seven Killings of Bob Marley.
The traffic in Kingston is still moving very slowly. ‘Friday is market day’, says Desmond, winding up the windows and instructing us to hide our valuables. Past more colourful plazas. Millionaires’ Corner, where three very wealthy Jamaicans built mansions, in the late 1800s. The most notable is Devon House, constructed by George Stiebel, Jamaica’s first black millionaire. It was declared a national monument in 1900 and is now a park with shops and a bakery. Next, the presidents’ residence (we’re not allowed anywhere near that).
It was dark when we arrived, so we didn’t get to see that the towering cement factories on the airport road are sitting on the water’s edge. Kingston lies on a huge bay, Much of the capital is very industrial. Warehouses, manufacturing plants, depots. The country has a thriving aviation industry, which both manufactures and repairs aircraft. Not to mention the areas where no one enters, unless they have a pre-arranged appointment with the men in charge. And we definitely don’t.
Next stop, Grand Cayman.
Our plane lands over an hour late, when we return from Grand Cayman. That’s given the traffic in Kingston plenty of time to build up, on another Friday afternoon. So, the last two hours of our journey on the south coast are dark and terrifying, as the CJs speed past us on the narrow country roads. But we do get a chance to admire the ridge of the central mountain chain that hovers above us, as we venture west. And we catch a glimpse of St Elizabeth Parish. The garden of Jamaica is found in the long valley here. The south provides the island with all of its vegetables and much of its fish.
Today, we have driver Maurice. He is not a CJ, but he informs us, somewhat worryingly, that he can be when he doesn’t have any passengers. We stop for spicy beef patties and fried chicken. The Jamaicans boast that the KFC is much better here. Spicier. I’m sure it is, but I’m opting for the local version. Juici. It’s delicious.
We’ve saved the best till last. Negril is stunning. We’re on another Seven Mile Beach and this one really is seven miles long and really could be a contender for best beach in the Caribbean. I still think Anguilla and BVI are better, but this stretch is truly lovely. A crescent of beautiful powdery white sand backed by sea grapes, palms (none of them bent though) and casuarina trees. True, it’s also backed by resorts, restaurants and bars. But these are all low rise, set back from the sand and generally add to the gentle beach vibe. The sapphire and azure bay is sprinkled with small boats touting for business, glass bottoms, para sailing, snorkelling, banana boats.
We have a timber ‘cottage’ at Nirvana Resort, just behind one of the widest stretches of sand on Seven Mile Beach. It’s charming (at a stretch), with shutters and ceiling fans. It’s marketed as private and secluded, which is relatively true during the day. This is carefully worded advertising. At night, we can hear the drinking bouts and games in the other cottages continuing until late. On Saturday evening there’s ‘a boogie night’ on the Wavz Beach lot, right next door. It starts at 7.30 and goes on until almost 3.30 a.m. The sound stage is right next to our cottage. The bass is so strong that the whole building vibrates. The windows rattle, the bed shifts and my chest pounds. Ear plugs are not going to cut it. Nirvana it is not.
Next morning, I complain to Errol, the security guard. He says he could hear the noise up on the top of the cliffs, right at the end of the bay. Errol has a mess of gold teeth that seems to move around in his mouth. He could audition to play Jaws in James Bond movies.
Hawkers march up and down the strand, but the beach is broad enough to maintain a distance and the selling is not overly oppressive, though I’ve had one too many an arm hoisted around me. A massage might relieve the stress of no sleep. I arrange with a beach vendor waving a price card that she will collect me in the afternoon. She arrives whilst I’m dozing under the sea grapes (beset by mosquitoes). Five minutes down the beach and she tells me we’re taking a taxi. I’m only wearing my bikini. No shoes. I inform her that we are not. She says she will use a friend’s facility instead - there are plenty of little massage tents under the trees - and shoots off into the distance. Friend’s place is, predictably, shut. Tomorrow? I don't think so.
I find another masseuse asleep on her couch. She’s happy to oblige, when she's woken up.
I’ve had little more luck with booking a boat ride. The first guy doesn’t return to follow up on the deal. The second agrees a 2 pm departure and doesn’t show up. Finally, the third, Captain Mike's Glass Bottomed Boat, takes us both in a glass bottomed vessel with space for 25 and we have a great trip, across the bay to the limestone cliffs. The hotels and apartments here have ramps and stairs down to rocky pools. There’s interesting, if not great, snorkelling in the many caves and a spotted ray accompanies me, to liven up proceedings.
Rick’s Café is the must-visit venue here, where all the boats pile in. The foolish fling themselves off the cliffs into the pool below - if the lifeguards judge them to be fit enough. They also buy drinks in the soulless, crowded bar and burger restaurant. The original owner has cashed in and moved on.
We’re still searching for really good food. Negril is not as expensive as Ochi, (though definitely not cheap), but the menus look identical. Jerk chicken, jerk pork, rice and ‘peas’, fish, shrimp curry, conch (pronounced conk) curry or fritters and fried plantain. So far, the patties are winning in the taste stakes. Jerk corn rolled in spices and coconut is also pretty good.
We wander up the beach trying the different restaurants. Then it’s a toss up, as to which route to take home in the dark. We’ve been warned not to walk on the beach at night. But does that mean later on or now? The coast road - Norman Manley Boulevard (Kingston's airport is also named after this prime minister) - is deemed to be safer. And there are pretty Christmas lights to admire on the way. But there are also some deserted patches where we need a torch. And there’s the constant horn honking of taxis determined to remind us of their presence.
Last night in Jamaica - barbecued lobster on the beach. It’s a shame it rains.
Anguilla boasts that it has the best beaches on the Caribbean. And that’s a mighty boast. It has 33 of them. So my task is to check out this claim. I'm coming from Puerto Rico, which makes this territory number 234 and the last country in the Caribbean, that I haven't visited.
Anguilla was first called Malliouhana, meaning rainbow, which was what the Carib Indians called the isle before the Spaniards visited. It's thought that Anguilla was first colonised by English settlers from St Kitts in 1650, who grew tobacco. There were the usual skirmishes with the French, who took control a couple of times. Tobacco was supplanted by sugar and then by cotton and slaves were imported from Africa to work the crop.
During the early colonial period, Anguilla was administered by the British through Antigua;. But in 1825, it was placed under the administrative control of St Kitts and eventually, Anguilla was federated with St Kitts and Nevis in 1882. The Anguillans were very unhappy about this and remonstrated forcibly over succeeding decades. There were marches- apparently, with women and children at the front, to deter retaliation. At one point a republic was even declared. The rebellion was quelled by British troops in 1969, concerned that the other alternative was government by the USA. Anguilla was finally allowed to secede and became first a colony and then a British Overseas Territory.
I’m beginning to think that Anguilla doesn’t want me. Talk about going down to the wire. Visit Anguilla explains that you need a permission certificate to enter. You should email in plenty of time before your visit to obtain initial approval and then get a Covid test and upload it to their portal. After you have got initial approval. They will check this, confirm you have final approval and you pay 50 dollars for yet another test on arrival. You can take a PCR up to five days beforehand or a rapid antigen test 48 hours before the plane lands.
But you’re not allowed to get a PCR on Puerto Rico, where I am, without a doctor’s referral. Receptionists hint that this can be bought. But I'm not up for bribery. I get my antigen test 47 hours and 55 minutes before my scheduled arrival time. And upload it to the visit Anguilla portal. But I haven’t even had my initial approval yet. You certainly can’t wait to book flights until you’ve got that. My flight is on Sunday. Moreover, it’s closing time on Friday and the tourist office online says it doesn't operate on Saturday and Sunday. This is going to be interesting - and stressful.
My initial approval arrives at noon the next day, Saturday. Followed by a final approval at 3 pm that afternoon. I suppose it could have been worse.
The traditional route used to be to fly to Sint Maarten (which from the UK usually involves Antigua first) and then get the ferry over from outside the airport. I was going to make a day trip to Anguilla from Marigot Bay, when I was in St Martin. But the ferry was cancelled, due to bad weather. So here I am trying again. But now they’ve extended the runaway on the tiny airport (Clayton J. Lloyd International Airport - AXA) and jets, carrying up to 80 or so passengers, can fly in. But most of the traffic is smaller passenger flights from neighbouring islands. Or private planes. This is, for the most part, a clientele with money. My flight from Puerto Rico is with Tradewind Aviation. We have our own lounge, with food and drink, and our own departure channel. They’ve even given me a beach bag to use on board. It’s an eight passenger Pilatus 12- everyone gets a window seat. The other seven seats on my plane are taken up by a New York family. And we zip over the US Virgin Islands and then the British Ones. Very nice.
The territory's capital is The Valley. Right in the centre of the island, it’s home to about a thousand of Anguilla’s’ 15.000 people. There’s not much to see, because Anguilla was administered by St Kitts for much of the colonial period. There are the ruins of the Old Court House on Crocus Hill, the island's highest point (there’s very little left.) and The Wallblake House, a plantation home built around 1787, that is now owned by the Catholic Church (the parish priest lives there). However, next door’s St. Gerard's Catholic Church and chapel, with its unusual façade: pebbles, stones, cement, wood and tile is extremely photogenic.
My hotel has a great location, above Sandy Ground Bay. It’s a fairly flat island and this is one of the higher points. I can see south across the sea to St Martin and north to Road Bay, more hills separated from us by the sandspit that is Sandy Ground Beach, backed by a large salt pond.
The rooms are lovely and the staff ultra friendly. The restaurant meals are exceptionally tasty – grouper, snapper, shrimp with creamy mashed potato. But there is no menu, no pudding and only a few guests dining. All very strange. I think everyone is coming to terms with Covid. The island has only been re-opened for a month or so.
The first beach, Sandy Ground, is just below my hotel. It involves a scramble down a sand and gravel path, to a gorgeous stretch of sand, azure water and no-one else at all .....just two wrecked boats clinging to the bottom of the cliffs. The isolated part of the beach is divided from what seems to be a much busier section of bay by two piers.
Access beyond a new, large concrete jetty, is barred by barricades and signs telling me that this area is under development and I may not enter. So I sneak through a gap, on the bulldozed hard hat area, and wonder what’s going on. I do hope it’s not a cruise boat terminal. Onto the road the other side and saunter the long way to the rest of the beach. The bay here is covered in bobbing boats and there are several shacks and bars alongside the water. Some of them are even open.
Many of the locals’ houses are in the same condition as the roads. Most of them look unfinished, with cables protruding from the roof. Maybe that’s to avoid tax on completed buildings. They’re in contrast to the secluded modern plate glass apartments and carefully blended in resort style hotels. Anguilla is expensive, despite the fact it’s so low key. All the food has to be imported and it attracts a high end clientele. St Barths is where you go up you want to be seen and Anguilla is where you go if you want to hide away. Apparently.
The remaining 32 beaches necessitate a car. ‘Hurrah’, I think I’m back to driving on the left. Except they’ve given me a car with an American configuration. The roads are narrow, quiet and in bad condition. There are nevertheless traffic lights and roundabouts. I’m navigating with my phone on my lap, again. Google isn’t up to Anguilla at all. The lady who tells you what to do thinks I’m driving on the right hand side of the road and the roundabout instructions are consequently all back to front. But not always, just to be totally confusing. She can’t tell the difference between unmade roads, which disappear into scrub and tarmacked routes and she’s certainly not up to date with the one way streets. And there are no signposts at all. Catastrophe.
Crocus Bay Beach, below Crocus Hill, is the nearest beach to the Valley. It’s picturesque, with more of the gorgeous soft white sand and ultra clear water, but this time the cliffs form more of an arc. There’s an upscale hotel restaurant, Da Vida, that lets you use the beach beds free if you eat there. The staff are attentive too. But I’m not going to recommend it, as I got very nasty food poisoning, after partaking of ribs and a pina colada. It wiped out the rest of my time in Anguilla. And cost me 825 US Dollars.
Shoal Beach, on the north east coast, pushes the accolades even further. It’s billed as one of the best beaches in the world. Perhaps it deserves a place on my top 20. It is stunning. The softest of white sand and swirling turquoise and sapphire seas . But the ocean hasn’t quite the same magical quality as the Bahamas. Not too crowded, a few beach bars. Some high end hotels. A five dollar car park. If I knew the roads better I would have found the little free park the locals use.
What better way to spend a day? I’ve found a shady nook and thrown my towel and sarong onto the grass to stop them getting too sandy. Sadly, this is no ordinary grass. It’s armed with wicked little burrs that attach themselves to my garments and are utterly tenacious. They impale my feet if I step on them and cling to my hands as I attempt to remove them. It takes an hour. And now my fingers are sore and full of splinters.
Next up on the East End is Island Harbour. This is a fishing village and the bay is dotted with colourful small boats. Palm trees line the shores and provide atmospheric shade. It’s compact and neat and in the background the Scilly Cay – a small resort island.
Captain’s Bay Beach is also recommended as a perfect curve of sand. This is where Google really lets me down. I follow the north east coast road until it becomes a dirt track and then a very rocky potholed dirt track. Google exhorts me to turn right, but there is nothing to the right, except a rocky bush covered hill. I’m not risking that, and I’ve come to a dead end. I can see Captain’s Bay in the distance and beyond that the whole of the eastern tip of the island. That will have to do. It’s extremely perilous, trying to turn the car on the sloping track.
A trundle three miles west from Sandy Ground to, appropriately enough, the West End and Meads Bay. It’s an even wider version of Shoal Bay, with no shacks (except for posh restaurants with Shack in their name) a line of expensive villas, restaurants and resorts set well back from the water, so that they don’t intrude. More prominent, right on the headland, is the Four Seasons Resort. The west end is definitely the poshest part of town.
I’m ensconced on a sunbed right by the water that belongs to the Straw Hat restaurant in the Frangipani Resort. They’re free if you eat there. I’ve been given a flag to signal with if I desire anything. Paradise. My servant is, appropriately, named Angel.
The Four Seasons monopolises Barnes Bay, on the other side of its headland. This has slightly more golden squishy sand, but with rocky islet interest. Further west it’s quiet, though there are several more fancy resorts and villas.
South now. The crescent of white sand that constitutes Maunday’s Bay is exquisite. Possibly a contender for best beach in Anguilla. Except that it’s completely overtaken by the very swish Cap Juluca Resort. All beaches in Anguilla are free and they’ve let my car in on the resort road when I say I’m going to the beach. But I don’t suppose the sunbeds are free and it all looks very manicured and exclusive. I feel I’m intruding. It’s not for me.
The other side of the Cap Juluca Resort is Cove Bay. This is a total contrast. Sheltered, but wild and uninhabited. No buildings, just a broken concrete pier.
Beyond Cove Bay is Rendezvous Bay. This one is the longest Anguillan beach. It faces the island of St. Martin, nine miles away, and Grand Case, where I stayed when I was there. White sandy shores surrounded by palm trees, coconut trees and wild sea grape trees. Lovely, but lined with tastefully whitewashed villas and resorts and with slightly less character. There’s a fun bar, Dune, a labyrinth of decks, live music and a boat called Ganja.
The men in Anguilla are sadly still living in a different century. I’m hit on from the moment I get into the taxi from the airport. ‘Hi lovely.’ wafts down the street after me and the chef in the hotel restaurant won’t leave me alone. He pulls up a chair and rattles on while I’m eating, telling me how wonderful he is and what a shame I have an (invented) husband. It’s definitely a shame, as the food is delicious. But I’m going to have to find somewhere else to have my dinner.
I’ve read that the snorkelling in Anguilla is not great, but there are trips on boats on offer and some bays are said to be worth exploring. However, there’s a relatively strong easterly throughout my trip and boats don’t seem to be running. So I’ve give snorkelling a miss.
I’ve managed to cover all the main beaches on the island. Best beach in the world or even the Caribbean? I’m not so sure. But best beaches, as a collection, in the Caribbean, undoubtedly. They’re all utterly gorgeous.
I’m very sad to leave this beautiful and friendly island. Especially, as my beach time has been cut short by my illness. This time it’s an 80 passenger E170 back to Miami and home.
From San Juan, to the opposite - south west - corner of Puerto Rico. I'm searching for the scenery that gives Puerto Rico the nickname of The Enchanted Isle. I'm particularly excited about hunting down some gorgeous beaches.
I’ve booked a hire car through an agent in the UK and I order an Uber to take me to the pick up office, opposite the air port. It’s a seedy dilapidated area. And I’m deposited, after some difficulty in finding the address, outside a shuttered building. The Uber departs and it quickly becomes obvious that thus branch of SIXT is no longer functioning. There’s even a post lady with a little van complaining that she has no forwarding address. Several phone calls later, another Uber is summoned and I’m off to the other side of the airport and the new office. They’ve been there four months they say. You would think they would have told people, including the post office, by now.
The toilets for clients aren’t working and they haven’t picked up the flashing tyre pressure indicator on my Nissan Versa either. There’s no GPS and no GPS connection with my phone. So I’m having to navigate with my mobile balanced on my knee. I’m not in the best of moods.
I’m taking the toll highway. I’ve been warned that Puerto Rican roads through the mountains are narrow and precipitous, with no guard rails. I don’t think they sound like a good idea, as I’m GPS lap driving. Fortunately, Google’s directions are easy to follow. The road surface is mainly good, but even the toll road is subject to the odd pothole.
And the measuring systems here are even more confused than those in the UK. Speed signs and speedometers give miles per hour. The distance makers alongside the roads are all in kilometres.
The mountain scenery down to Ponce (guess who that’s named after) is stunning. Though there is no stopping place en route as far as I can see, so no chance to enjoy it or take photos. And all the signposting is in Spanish. Maybe there are directions to filling stations and rest areas. As far as I can see you just have to go exploring down a slip road if you need something.
My hotel is on the outskirts of La Parguera, a port to the south of Lajas. There’s much more of a colourful Caribbean vibe down here. The town is dotted with brightly painted timber bars and booths. But it’s quiet. Much is still closed. The supermarket has little of interest. No fresh fruit or vegetables. Or fresh deli for that matter. So it’s ice cream for dinner. And breakfast. The hotel restaurant is closed two days a week as well. But the bar is open, so I can still get cocktails to go with the ice cream.
There are a line of boats on the pier at La Parguera, waiting to sail visitors through the mangroves to the reefs and little cays dotted off shore. Snorkelling off one of the cays is on offer, as are trips to the nearby Bioluminescent Bay. So a combination of the two seems like a good idea. The snorkelling isn’t magnificent, but there is some fan coral and a smattering of fish. The other 19 folk on the boat are all Americans with no idea of snorkelling etiquette. I’m battered and bruised.
The Bioluminescent Bay is warm, but still moonlit – and pitch dark is required to see the glow properly. Boats are moored alongside each other to try and create some cover. We swim though, in our masks. Funnelling around 40 folk, with no sense of decorum is fraught. but there are green firework like specks to be seen radiating through the water and filmy swirls around hands and feet.
There’s no beach though - even though the hotel blurb says it’s near one. I’ve read that Playita Rosada is a six minute drive away. But no, this man made pool and decked area is closed off. The nearest decent seashore is a 30 minute drive away.
So, I’m off searching for the elusive sand. I’ve looked up the best beaches in Puerto Rico and headed for Boquerón, on the west coast. As usual, I’ve forgotten that I’m driving on the right this morning, until I spot a car coming towards me on the same side of the road. But, in my defence, the Puerto Ricans don’t seem to drive on any particular side of the road for the most part. In their defence, the country highways are narrow and drivers have to be constantly vigilant for the potholes, taking last minute action to avoid them.
The drive is worth it. Playa Buye, just to the north of Boquerón, is deservedly on the list. White sand, dappled turquoise water, patchwork casuarina trees and iguanas. Utterly gorgeous. And it deserves more than one visit. Except the restaurant here is closed on Tuesday too. What is it with Tuesdays and eating?
It seems that beaches here tend to be accessed via paths through beach resorts. A captive clientele. Except that most of the visitors in this part of the island are locals. They’ve brought picnics in cool boxes. There’s even a guy with a trolley who helps roll the picnics and deckchairs down to the beach from the car park.
It’s 26 degrees Celsius. Perfect for me, though the locals think it’s cold. Blissful sunbathing, except for the mosquitoes. All my hotel rooms here are plagued with the tiny no-see- ums. I’m covered in bites by Day 2 and stuffing antihistamines. The day on my beach begins in relatively tranquil fashion. But others obviously rate the beach highly too. There’s a steady procession of sun worshippers and the sand fills up. The locals kindly share their soundboxes. And behind me there’s the relentless squeaking of a metal detector.
Next on the list, Boquerón town beach. This too is accessed through a resort . Though the gates are barred to cars and guarded. It’s a long strip of golden sand, but it’s browner, a little more concretey, backed by a few buildings. Nowhere near as pretty as Buye.
Further south still, El Combate. Another small town and another long stretch of pretty sand, softened by low bushes. I’ll rate this one number 2.
Down to the tip of Cabo Rojo (Red Cape) area, crossing a wild life refuge. On the way, Las Salinas de Cabo Rojo. Heaps of salt, alongside flat rectangular evaporation lakes. The salt pans beautifully reflect the clouds in rosy hued seawater. The route follows a narrow spit down to the lighthouse, El Faro Los Morrillos. Here the land widens into a small horseshoe at the bottom of the peninsula. This is called, slightly confusingly, Rojo Cabo. It’s a rough ride. Increasingly huge potholes more like craters, along the spit eventually give way to a horribly bumpy stretch, with no surface at all. It’s like being in an earthquake.
The lighthouse is closed, of course, but the scramble, up to the top of the cliffs forming the horseshoe, delivers a great view down the 200 foot cliffs to the jagged stacks and pillars beneath. To the east, an impressive headland and the long curve of white sand that is Playa Sucia. The sea inlets behind have turned it into a tombolo, almost surrounded by water. It’s a good place to go if you want seclusion. Initially, I bump El Combate down to three and make this number two. It’s lovely, but it’s a ten minute hike from the car park. No men with trolleys here. And definitely no restaurants.
But after spending all day on Buye, perhaps it should be promoted to number one.
Trying to track down a covid test is tricky. And I need one to get into Anguilla. It seems that you can’t get a PCR for travelling at all on Puerto Rico. They are only done on a doctors referral. Antigen tests have to be done no more than 48 hours before arrival. It’s all very disconcerting.
Yesterday, I flew in from Norfolk Island via Auckland to visit Niue. Today, I'm up at 6 a.m. for my abortive whale trip. As it's still raining I resolve to track down the rental car man to repair my screeching wipers and then come back to catch up on sleep. Willie works out of his cafe in the main town, Alofi, fifteen minutes north. (I went here by mistake yesterday). Realise the map is ancient and the signposts are all out of date.
Finally, locate the Crazy Uga. (Uga is coconut crab - there’s even a designated road crossing for them, there are large numbers scuttling across at night). Willie is summonsed and fixes my wipers. He’s not sure how long I’m staying for, or what price he quoted, but we agree on 40 dollars a day and he tells me to pay when I feel like it. No paperwork, no license check, no credit card deposit. Discover I’m officially supposed to get a Niue driving licence, but the police station is closed for the weekend and I leave on Monday.
Decide I might as well have a look a little further up the coast while I’m out this way. Spend the next six hours pottering clockwise round the island. The local literature tells me that Niue is known as the Rock of the Pacific, because it sits atop 30 metre cliffs rising straight out of deep ocean. It is a typical Pacific island – a potholed road runs all round the coast. The road is edged with palm trees, dense low tropical vegetation and clusters of graves. Barking dogs chase the car whenever I drive through a village.
It’s not as neat as neighbouring Samoa; some of the houses are distinctly shabby, but the interest is definitely all by the sea. It seems that the whole coast is a mass of teeny waterfalls and cobalt pools, below the steep cliffs, the tide churning in and out of the coppery reef. And there are chasms (at least one a king’s bathing place), numerous caves and arches to explore. Not to mention the facsianting creations at the Hikulagi Sculpture Park-
Most of the sights are accessed down purpose built steps - some showing signs of wear, the way hewn out of the coral. I have to slide down algae covered rocks in unlit grottoes and wade out to sea, for the view of Aikaivai Cave. The tide is coming in, but it is just stunning. It is scooped out of the duskiest pink coral, complementing the deep turquoise of the pools superbly.
Right in the north of Niue, down a winding track is Matapa Chasm, a gorge, with crystal clear water, where kings, apparently, used to bathe. Adjacent, the path to the Niue signature tourist poster picture (see above), Talava Arches. This is an even more treacherous slippery assault course, over sharp and spiky coral; the final descent involves rope and very slimy rocks. Fortunately, I’m chaperoned by three young Kiwi ladies, Jo, Emma and Holly, who turn out to be outdoor instructors. Ideal for me, though I’m feeling they might have gone a little faster on their own. The reward is several interconnecting caverns, complete with stalactites and some very impressive arches forming windows of different shapes onto the reef. It’s a bit like Playschool. What can we see through the triangular window today children?
The rain hasn’t relented all day.
Tomorrow is Sunday. Monday is my last chance to swim with whales.
The flight from Bonaire to Curaçao only takes 15 minutes – 46 miles. We’re up and we’re bumping down again. All of these islands have the same prevailing winds. First impressions of airport organisation aren’t encouraging. They’ve just introduced a fancy self-scanning booth system for chipped passports, but the signs say that you have to complete an online embarkation form before you arrive if you want to use them. Nobody told us about that, so no-one is entering the shiny new booths, despite the fact that two large planes have just arrived from Amsterdam.
As the immigration queues build up the officials decide to waive this rule. They call us up one by one and scan our passports for us. In the baggage hall the handlers have totally ignored the screens telling us the carousel at which our luggage will arrive. They’ve decided to make life interesting by mixing up bags from the four arriving flights on all the belts.
Despite the inauspicious beginnings it’s already obvious that Curaçao is very different again, from Bonaire and Aruba, with much more infra-structure and sophistication. It’s also much more Dutch. My boutique hotel is a picturesque converted town house by the sea in the Pietermaai district of the capital Willemstad. I’m delighted to find it has an excellent restaurant, which serves possibly the best caipirinhas I have ever tasted.
Willemstad, the capital of Curaçao, is a UNESCO heritage city, so I have high expectations. There are the clusters of the bright pastel painted Dutch colonial houses I have come to expect. It’s most colourfully picturesque along the banks of the canal like opening which leads to the sea-water-lake-cum-harbour around which Willemstad is built. There’s a wobbling pedestrian pontoon bridge across this, which swings open with very little warning, to let boats through. A buzzer sounds, but it moves almost immediately, no flashing lights, resulting in hordes of running people, leaping across the steadily decreasing overlap, as the pontoon slides away. I'm one of them.
There are a couple of forts and a ‘floating market’, that is not really floating, as all the goods have been taken off the boats and displayed on stalls along the roadside. It’s also a busy cruise ship port. The west bank, especially, is crowded with escapees from the liner on the dock. ‘Where did ya get your map love?’ It goes without saying that the route from the quay to the fort is lined with so called high end shops - Tiffany, Gucci, Prada, gaily decorated, in an attempt to blend in with the local architecture.
Pietermaai feels more authentic to me. The gabled buildings have not been over-restored and are generally more shabby chic. Some are so crumbly they have been rescued with hoardings and vibrant street art. There are plenty of murals. I spend the afternoon on a tiny man made ‘City Beach’ here. And I’ve sampled another good restaurant this evening. Really tasty Asian/Caribbean food. Really expensive too.
I’ve opted for car hire today. This is something I usually avoid: driving on the wrong side of the road, unfamiliar cites and stick shifts (as the Americans call them). But it’s cheap here and they have automatics and it’s the most convenient way to tour the beaches. My car is a dinky little Nissan Micra and, as it turns out, driving on the right is a doddle, even in all the traffic. Maybe it’s like riding a bike-once you’ve done it before adequately you’re okay.
The road signs and the GPS are a different matter altogether. I’ve downloaded an app called maps.me, as it works offline and the phone signal is erratic. I’m directed to ‘slide left’ and also to ‘exit, then turn left’, which apparently means, just turn left. ‘Turn right and then left’ means goes straight on, according to the road markings. I’m forever in the wrong lane and thankfully the locals are reasonably patient. They overtake me as soon as they can, but no-one toots at me.
It’s definitely an island of two halves. Willemstad seems to be surrounded by a huge industrial estate and I’ve explored most of it by the time I’ve misunderstood all the ambiguous commands I’ve been given. The island is orientated more or less east-west and I’m heading west, where all the best beaches are. The traffic peters out eventually and I can potter along. As in Bonaire, (though that’s north-south) this end is pretty limestone hills, but this time covered in shrubs, as well as the ubiquitous finger cacti.
I visit five beaches, Playas Lagun, Jeremi, Grote Knip, Kleine Knip and Fortis. I snorkel at Lagun, where the publicity says the fishermen’s gutting of their catch brings in turtles. It’s a small sandy cove that’s pretty enough, though spoilt by ugly concrete constructions on the beach. No fishermen, (but some boats upturned on the beach) and no turtles, but plenty of unusual fish along the rocky headlands.
Playa Jeremi is a larger cove, but not as pretty. I talk to two South Africans relaxing on a bench on the cliff above. The guy used to live in Brighton near me, it so is a small world. Three Dutch divers tell me that the only decent snorkelling here is right out on the reef and there’s no-on else that distance away in the water. I decide to move on.
Grote Knip is another beach that features on the best beaches in the world lists. (See my own list of best beaches.) It’s longer than the others on the island and the sea really is an amazing blue. I’ve read that Curaçao liqueur is that colour because it’s supposed to represent the sea around Curaçao. Possibly, but I’ve never seen anything in nature that’s quite that lurid.
Grote Knip is also famous for rock bombing. Visitors queue up on top of a crag to jump into the crystal-clear waters (this bit sadly is true). However, the stretch of sand, though wide, is horribly crowded. There are tour buses parked up for heaven’s sake. So, I depart for Kleine Knip, which I’ve read also has good snorkelling. It does. And there are turtles.
I spend some happy hours in the small bay at Kleine Knip, swimming, snorkelling (there is a turtle here) and eating delicious, (at a price), fried snapper and banana, bought from the local entrepreneur. She has the monopoly on this beach.
Fortis, at the top of the island, brags that it has the best view in the west, all down the cobalt coast, but it’s shingly and definitely not the nicest place to snooze. There’s a bar there advertising iguana curry. I don’t think I’ll risk it.
Next decision: a circumnavigation of the island, visiting viewpoints on the way back. This is definitely a mistake. The GPS can’t cope and keeps diverting me down unmade roads, where I end up in people’s backyards. Their dogs aren’t too happy about it. I also need fuel - from what the locals call a pomp station. It would also have been good if someone had told me that you have to pay for petrol before you fill up here, in cash. Fortunately, it’s cheap - a dollar a litre - and I emerge from the whole day happy and unscathed. So does the car.
A last stroll east along the coastal road. More man-made beaches, more restored colonial gables, lots of bars, cafes and dive shops. A sign boasting 'Cold beer, Hot instructors' probably wouldn't pass muster elsewhere. A final fresh lime drink sitting on the rocks by the sea.
Then I’m braving Curaçao Airport again. It’s even worse than on the way in. The check-in queue curls half the length of the departures area and then turns to double its size. It’s a challenge trying to work out where to join it, as it’s unintentionally merging into the queue for security and immigration, which runs the whole length of the hall, before twisting back on itself. One thing about travelling – it’s taught me patience, to a certain extent. An hour and a half later, when I finally get to passport control and another line, there are three of those spanking new little e-passport booths illuminated, but roped off. ‘Can I use those?’ I ask, waving my little wine-coloured book. They nod and I’m through. Danki Dios, as they say in Papiamento.
Goodbye Caribbean, I’m heading home.
(Read more about the ABC Islands here.)
The flight from Aruba is only half an hour, crossing Curaçao on the way. The ABCs are not arranged in alphabetical order, in the ocean. A late arrival in Bonaire, but a happy one. ‘Have a good stay,’ beams the efficient lady on immigration. The reception at my new hotel, a dive resort is less effusive. They’re making me pay to rent the safe in my room. I’ve never come across that one before, when the safe is already in the room. 'Otherwise we will lock it up…'
I’ve been having another quiet day in the sun, while I suss out the locality. I’ve been to the local Chinese supermarket (expensive). Like Aruba, the island is flat and arid, but without the wide sand beaches. The area around the hotel is hardly scenic. There is a water processing plant, cactus fencing and a view across to an even flatter, smaller island, Klein Bonaire, half a mile away. Instead, Bonaire has a reputation for the best diving in the Caribbean. It's known as "Diver's Paradise",(or falling that "The Velcro Island", and "Dushi Bonaire".
I’ve tested the snorkelling off the hotel jetty. There’s a drop off to a reef five metres out, but the wind and boats have kicked up sand and visibility isn’t great. There are pair of tarpons - enormous - under the pier though. They lurk around, as the hotel kitchen tips the scraps of fish into the sea for them.
I wind up the afternoon with a massage. In between, I’ve been watching the lizards and iguanas scurry round the pool and teeny humming birds sneaking nectar from scarlet tube-shaped blossoms. Those birds move fast. They might need to, as there’s also a black and ginger cat, who has taken possession of my patio.
Snorkelling at Klein Bonaire. I spend an hour and a half happily drifting along drop-offs that start opposite my hotel. Like all coral in the Caribbean this is not particularly colourful, but at least it’s alive and there’s plenty of interesting animal life: eagle rays, angelfish, barracuda, turtles, eels, varieties of parrotfish and the usual assortment of striped sergeant majors and shoals of minuscule blue flashes. The stoplight parrotfish is common here. It’s one of those fish that changes sex, in this case from female to male. It must be a weird life.
My very organised Dutch boat hosts say that Klein Bonaire used to be owned by Harry Belafonte. It’s where he wrote Island in the Sun.
I find the most rewarding travel often happens when I get a local to take me round. Today, Oy (short for Gregorio) is taking me on a figure of eight tour round Bonaire, in his Kia. He is quietly knowledgeable and goes out of his way to stop for photos. It’s a surprisingly interesting and diverse place.
The reef runs right round the island, which is almost entirely coral and limestone as a result. The entire coastline of Bonaire was designated a marine sanctuary in 1979. with more than 350 species of fish and 60 species of coral. There are more than 400 caves hiding here too.
The drop-off is really close to the shore, all up the western coast, so divers can access without boats. All of the sites are marked with yellow stones. ‘Thousand Steps’ (there’re really only 67 Oyo says), though access looks rather too adventurous, across slippy rocks in some. There’s a stripe of turquoise running along the coast, immediately turning cyan at the reef, so it’s very easy to see where it is.
The land rises to 2000 metres in the north, where there are some small mountains, lakes and a few flamingos. The limestone hills and cliffs are entirely finger cactus covered. It’s the only thing that grows (they make liqueur and slimy ‘healthy’ soup from it). All the food has to be imported. There are tall metal windmills running pumps, numerous small ranches and some goats scattered across the countryside. Road signs also warn of wild donkeys and sure enough we encounter a small, shy group, grazing in the scrub
Rincon, famous for its annual festival, visited by the king and queen, is the only town outside the capital, Kralendijk (Dutch for coral reef). The latter sits at the centre of our figure of eight, so is encountered twice. It’s unsurprisingly, a smaller version of Philipsburg, in Sint Maarten, with brightly painted shops cafes and bars and Dutch gables, geared up to cater to the cruise ship market.
There’s a different sight around every corner. In the south are commercial salt pans, more lakes, some very pink, flamingos and a lighthouse. Apparently Bonaire has one of the largest flocks of flamingos in the world. To the west, more diving sites, sea bird covered rocks, restored slave huts and a bay where the sky is dotted with the bright sails of kite surfers. To the east, sea grass lagoons in a sheltered sandy bay, this one swarming with windsurfers. Colourful and fascinating. (Bonaire has produced several world champion wind surfers and kite surfers.)
This hotel is a little hit or miss. The staff are mostly very friendly and work hard, though not very efficiently. However, one man who works the late shift around the office has had a distinctly off tone of voice whenever I’ve dealt with him. When I inquire about my return transfer to the airport, which I’ve already booked by email, he reprimands me: ‘You’re supposed to give us the information’. So, I ask for his name, thinking I will mention it on Trip Advisor. ‘Rudy’ he replies. I can’t help smirking.
I’ve been hanging out with two friendly Canadian couples, Dave and Barb and Bob and Sharon (sounds like a film) at my hotel. I met them first on my trip to Klein Bonaire and all four, although now retired, are in education too, so we’ve plenty to talk about, as well as the usual topics, Trump and Brexit. They invite me snorkelling on the local reef this morning – we’re all leaving this afternoon. Dave is so keen not to be mistaken as American that he even wears a Canada T shirt while he’s in the water.
I sit with them again at the airport this afternoon, recovering from today’s disasters. I lost my passport and boarding pass after I checked in. It was eventually handed in to the airline. Heaven knows what happened. But in the kerfuffle of searching for the passport I then lost my Maui Jim sunglasses. They don’t turn up. It’s an expensive and stressful day, especially as Insel Air are back to normal. The illuminated sign at the gate says ‘On Time’, but my flight to Curaçao is really running an hour late.
(Read more about the ABC Islands here.)
The ABC Islands are the three western-most islands of the Leeward Antilles in the Caribbean Sea. They are located less than one hundred miles north-west of Falcón State, Venezuela and, as such, are generally considered to be the only Caribbean Islands that are part of South America.
Aruba and Curacao are both constituent parts of the Kingdom of the Netherlands. The other two countries in the kingdom are the Netherlands and Saint Maarten. So, the nationality of the citizens of the ABC islands is Dutch, but the islands are not a part of the European Union.
Bonaire is one of the three Dutch BES islands in the Caribbean, along with Sint Eustatius and Saba. Bonaire was part of the Netherlands Antilles until the country's dissolution in 2010, when the island became a special municipality within the country of the Netherlands. An 80% majority of Bonaire's population are Dutch nationals, and nearly 60% of its residents were born in the former Netherlands Antilles and Aruba.
The ABC Islands earliest known inhabitants were the Caquetio, a branch of the Arawak .They came by canoe from Venezuela in about 1000 AD. In 1499, Alonso de Ojeda arrived at Curaçao and a neighbouring island that was almost certainly Bonaire,. However, the Spanish conquerors decided that the three ABC Islands were useless, having no mineral wealth.
Nevertheless, the Spanish remained until they conceded the islands to the Dutch in the Eighty Years War. During the Napoleonic Wars, the Netherlands lost control of Aruba, Bonaire and Curaçao to the British twice during the early 1800s. The ABC islands were returned to the Netherlands under the Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1814.
Aruba is the most affluent, and has beautiful sandy beaches. That's great if you just like to lay in the sun and swim. It is very American, full of all inclusive resorts. I didn't like it much - I found it lacking in atmosphere. Diving and snorkelling is much better at Bonaire and Curacao.
Bonaire is very small and dry, but is thought to have the best snorkelling and diving.
Curacao is the most diverse of the three islands. more history, beaches and snorkelling.
My flight from Bangladesh via Kolkata takes me over forbidden and hostile North Sentinel Island to Port Blair, the gateway to the Andaman Islands. The Andaman and Nicobar Islands are an Indian archipelago, of nearly 600 islands, in the Bay of Bengal.
Indigenous Andaman Islanders inhabit the more remote islands, many of which are off limits to visitors. Residents of these islands mainly belong to the Jarwa tribe. They are less than 500 in number and do not interact with outsiders. North Sentinel Island is home to one of the most isolated and hostile human populations in the world.
The Indians don’t seem disposed to care much about safety rules. As the plane descends towards Port Blair Airport and several islands come into view the shrill voice of the flight attendants emanates repeatedly from the back. ‘Please sir, sit down, the seat belt sign is on’.
There’s another labyrinth of documentation to navigate before ‘foreigners’ are allowed entry to this ‘restricted area’. I’m staying in Port Blair for one night, in a hotel on the bay, before being transported over the water to Havelock Island. It’s disappointingly windy; although the thermometer says 28 degrees, it doesn’t feel warm enough to sit out. I’ve a shocking cold – presumably it was lurking, waiting for a lowering in my resistance. The bar (alcohol after two weeks deprivation) sells Jameson Whiskey, so I make a hot toddy and sleep the afternoon away.
My itinerary says I have a private ferry to Havelock Island today. I’m picked up at 7.30 am and taken to the dock two minutes down the road, where there is a scrimmage, more document checking, more luggage scanning and a huge public ferry waiting. And it’s delayed. I have two porters who refuse to wheel my bags, humping them on their backs instead, in case it looks as if they’re not doing any work for their hundred rupees. And I’m deposited in a waiting room, trying to work out what’s happening.
There are large signs on three walls that state Keep Silence, for some mysterious reason. Well naturally, no one is taking any notice of that. The opposite wall has photographs of all the local fauna. Saltwater crocodiles and two types of cobra are the highlights.
We finally get underway, an hour and a half late. The ship is delayed due to technical problems. They’ve done a survey. Technical problems? In a boat? The Indians cheer. It’s two hours packed like sardines in premium class and we’re not allowed on deck. I wonder what steerage is like. I’m fed Masala peanuts by, one group of passengers, and am subjected to several more selfies. There’s still no sign of any western tourists. I’ve also realised that it was inadvisable to wear three quarter length trousers on a bug ridden vessel.
It’s advertised as a two hour journey but it actually takes nearer three, so it’s lunch time by the time I arrive in Havelock. The porter I was assured would meet me and unload my bags has gone AWO, but I’m eventually all sorted and underway.
The island is lush, fairly flat, beautiful and very quiet for India. It’s mostly covered with tall bent coconut palms and there’s betel nut drying in heaps by the houses. The roads are increasingly terrible, deteriorating to a very bumpy, causeway like ramp. Nothing to stop you falling off each side, if you don’t concentrate. My hotel is on the opposite side of the island to most of the other resorts, which is probably a good thing.
It’s located just behind Rahdhanagar Beach, yet another of those beaches that is touted as best in Asia, or number three in the world, depending on which list you read. It‘s a really beautiful wide stretch of sand, unspoilt by litter or sunbeds. Or anything, in fact, except some leaves dropping from the trees. In the distance I can see a public section, the water teeming with bathers, (flashback to Waikiki), but my area is almost deserted. It’s a very pleasant place to be, but for me it doesn’t make top billing. The backdrop of tall trees and bushes, is impressive, but there are no coconut palms by the water here and so no bent trunks to soften the view. And the water is warm, but grey, lightly tinged with blue when the sun shines, and opaque.
The backdrop though, is definitely an A-lister; when you step off the beach the jungle is spectacular. Huge badok trees (think mahogany) framed by fragrant flowered creeper, butterflies and birds and the usual accompanying cacophony of sound. My cottage is located in the midst of this, at the furthest point from the restaurant and bar. They’ve given me a torch, though I deploy it with some trepidation, tip toeing down to dinner alone at night. They could use some flares or LEDs; I think this is taking economy to its limits. I’m sure I heard a hissing sound from beside the path. I’m still remembering the cobra poster. There isn’t any Wi-Fi, phone signal or indeed, in-room phone (all excused on the grounds that this is as an eco-resort). I really begrudge the missing in-room phone when I wriggle into bed and find the sheets are damp.
The locals are as disgusted with the state of their roads as I am, so they are holding a four wheel strike today to pressurize the government into implementing their long term plan to improve them. (They only renovated the one route that the minister took on his last visit.) I’m even more disgusted with the information that the strike begins at 7 a.m. and they want me to leave at 6 a.m. for today’s snorkelling trip. This is so I can be driven to the dive resort, where the boats are moored, on the other side of the island.
Which makes it disgusted plus, when I arrive, to be told that the Local Boat Association have decided to support the strike. So, we can’t make our planned sortie to Elephant Beach and the Aquarium. They offer to take me out just off the beach here, for no charge. The visibility isn’t great and the coral is totally destroyed, but there are a reasonable assortment of fish, including a crocodile fish (better than a saltie) and an octopus. My very attentive snorkel guide, Roy, gives me a lift home on the back of his scooter. I can feel every bump – the accident in Bangladesh hasn’t improved the state of my coccyx, which met its first trial on the rocks in Palau.
Back to my woven mat on the beach. Maybe I will bring my pillows tomorrow...
Dinner is good, but pricey, prawns in every which way possible. Yesterday it was coconut curry, today it’s tempura. The staff, however, are definitely verging on the overly attentive. I’m interrupted ten times during my meal, to be asked if the food is good and if I have had a nice day.
The strike didn’t work, so today the two and three wheelers are joining in as well. I hope it’s over before I’m due to leave on Tuesday. It was problematic enough catching the ferry here. Anyway, back to today. The upshot is, I’m not going anywhere. I’ve staked out my patch on the empty beach and decide to explore in both directions. North, to Neil’s Cove, accompanied part way by Steve (Zimbabwean) and Susan from the Wirral. They look to be retirement age, are on their honeymoon and have been here 18 days. They’re toting purple bags, which turn out to be inflatable beach loungers. What an amazingly sensible idea, even if they do look incongruous in their tropical beach setting.
The cove is stunning. Driftwood artistically poised, some pretty rock formations jutting into the sea, horizontal leafy displays, sea eagles, kingfishers and turquoise clear water. Unfortunately, I’ve also been warned by the hotel staff not to go into the water here. A tourist was taken by a saltwater crocodile in this bay two years ago. I scurry along to the next point, savouring the views, but becoming increasingly twitchy every time I pass a log in the water or spot a curling brown tree root. There’s no-one around and several sets of dog footprints on the sand are the final straw. I make a strategic withdrawal. Steve and Susan are swimming quite happily; they’ve been told the story too, but have just dismissed it. I have too active an imagination.
There’s the usual heaps of plastic bottles washed up by the tide and disfiguring the margins between trees and sand. I follow a jungle path back to the main beach, thinking it will be interestingly different, but I’m now beginning to listen out for rustling sounds. Another English couple, Nick and Sally (there are, as you will have noted quite a few British tourists here-they mostly seem to have Raj or army connections) have already shown me photos of the tree snake they took. Apparently, there are several other types of serpent around. There’s a rumour that the cobras live up by the massage hut, but that’s been pooh poohed by the therapists. (Only green non-poisonous snakes here, they reassure me).
Poo is on my mind again though, as I have had to navigate several patches of elephant dung on the path. Depending on who you believe there are either wild elephants in this forest, or working elephants released by the loggers to forage for food. Much as I like elephants, I’m not keen to meet one on my own. It seems I’m not doing very well today, scary animal wise, and am pleased to escape and reach my beach mat. I would really like a swim, but the breakers here are large and I’ve been knocked over once. So, it’s not the most inviting of oceans either.
A trek to the bar, where the waiter contrives ice filled bags to transport my canned beverages to the beach and keep them cool. He tells me that Neil’s Cove has a very steep unexpected drop off and strong currents, and that these are a much bigger threat than the possible appearance of salties. I’m now very happy I didn’t go in. Now, time to relax and watch the crabs.
There are several different varieties, mostly tiny, with different methods of digging their holes, creating a variety of spotted designs around each of their holes, like spatter paintings. There’s a sideways cavalcade retreat, when they hear me coming. The ones near the water sink completely into oblivion, while the others scuttle into the centre of their artistic endeavours. The hermit crabs are also in pattern mode, leaving trails across the drier sand, a central line where they drag their shell, accompanied on each side by dotted lines, the imprints of their legs.
Then a reconnaissance down the beach, where there’s public access. The water still teems with bathers,who have more courage than me, and there’s a small fruit and beach goods market. Further on, an attractive river estuary and two small temples. Looking back I’m wondering if I’ve been a little harsh in my beach grading. It’s an amazingly awesome stretch of sand, both wide and long (maybe a mile in all). However, I’d still rate Neil’s Cove higher, if it wasn’t for the salties.
I’m now soothed and rested, until it transpires that the hotel has checked in a very large party of secondary age school children. Suddenly, my tranquil stretch of sand is teeming, just like the public one in the distance. No-one has made any effort to site the students away from us poor keep-it-peaceful-so-no-Wi-Fi tourists. And they have footballs. I decide to go for a massage.
It wasn’t a great night. The noise from the students travels in the night air. I’m told that they are all on a sponsored break. ‘Don’t worry, they leave on Tuesday.’ So do I. Breakfast here is exceptionally tasty. Most of the options are Indian and fried, so probably not hugely healthy. Today, I’ve had masala dhosa and aloo paranthia. The good news - the strike is over. The bad news - all the dive boats are now banned from operating because of some licensing dispute. (Don’t they want tourists here?) So, I’m not going anywhere today unless I use local transport. Anyway, it’s my last full day, before I finally head for home and relaxation is probably a good idea.
Rob and Gillian, from Wiltshire, tell me that the snorkelling close to Neil’s Cove is really good. They haven’t had any problems (or experienced any currents) and I’m welcome to join them and Nick and Sally there today. I’m thinking about it. I can’t get the Jaws theme tune out of my head (substitute crocodile for shark).
My safe has refused to open for the second time, so I’m getting very fit trekking backwards and forwards to reception, not to mention through the jungle to the beach, and back to the resort. I’m pondering my invitation as I gather up my gear. I’ve had clothes hanging on the veranda rail for two days and they are now damper than when I put them out. It hasn’t rained.
Well I’ve been brave and taken to the water, but it’s not so easy to scan the (dead) coral with one eye and check the surface with the other, so I don’t stay out as long as I would have wished. (Steve hasn’t helped by explaining how silently crocodiles attack in the water, when I meet him in reception, as he checks out.) As I set a course back to the beach, Rob is setting off for the horizon quite happily. Back on the sand, the sky is clear today and I’m finding it uncomfortable to walk without shoes. There’s no shade, unless you withdraw right into the jungle. I’m getting roasted to the point where I’m praying for some clouds. In the end, I rig up a little canopy with my sarong and four branches. Maybe not quite Bear Grylls, but it does the job.
They’ve already started to repair the roads. There are heaps of sand and gravel standing waiting and some of the holes have been plugged. They clearly know how to conduct a meaningful strike here. I’m booked in to deluxe class on my return voyage to Port Blair. (It was premium on the way out, which turns out to equate with economy). I’m upstairs with some leg room and the steward smiles, ’First class’ at me, as he shows me to my front row, window seat. But I’ve noticed there’s a small room at the back with tables and plush swivel chairs; the VIP room - I reckon that’s first class. There’s a great deal more standing in queues (I use the word loosely) and having pieces of paper stamped of course, before I get this far.
As has been the pattern throughout the Andamans the passengers are mostly Indian tourists, many of them clad in western garb. I find this sad, the saris and salwars are so colourful and flattering, the women so graceful in them. Shorts may be cooler (and on some of the youngsters they are very short indeed) but I can’t believe that jeans are more comfortable. Downstairs is almost totally taken over by the students who were at the resort. Deluxe comes with a free vegetable puff and a mango drink. This time I can hear the Andamans video, but someone has quickly changed channel to Indian music.
Port Blair is more frenetically (and normally) Indian and I feel I should take a short stroll before I leave. It's arduous walking (because of the steep roads, it’s very hilly) and stroll isn’t really the correct word. The dhobi (laundry) ghats for the hotel are just round the corner, flapping white towels and pillowcases reflecting in the man-made ponds. There’s just time to reach the Cellular Jail Memorial. The Andamans is where the British kept many of their prisoners and there are a line of bronze statues celebrating the most famous martyrs.
I’ve been told I’ll get picked up at 6.30 a.m. (I checked four times) but my phone is ringing at six to tell me that my car has arrived. I’m in the bathroom - I ate too much curry from the buffet on offer last night. The drive is another rally excursion. I have a sense of déjà vu, as he cuts up a white van and is subsequently (rightly) abused by both the van driver and a motor cyclist.
And time for a rant about unnecessary bureaucracy, ridiculous rules and airport behaviour. I have to queue to show my boarding pass before I can be allowed into the arrivals hall. Then, I have to put just my carry-on bag (not my handbag) through the scanner and sign a book to say I’ve done that. Then I have to go to another scanner to get my main case checked. A piece of sticky paper that I will find it almost impossible to remove is stuck over the lock and my name is entered into yet another volume. Then I am allowed to queue for check in.
An Indian family have covered all their bases by placing someone in each column and feel they can push in when my line moves the fastest (for once). I’m not in the mood and tell them politely it’s not very fair. The rest of the queue agrees with me. ‘You have to take your chance like everyone else’ they say. Even a porter tells them to wait.
So I go ahead and check in and am charged 400 rupees per kilogram for each of the six I’m over the 15 kilo limit. It’s a rule introduced purely for money making when international limits are 23 kilos. And even more ridiculous, when I consider that the difference between my weight and many of the passengers is considerably more. So I have to follow the little porter around the airport and outside again to the ticketing desk to get a receipt and back once more. The check in clerk stamps my receipt and then kindly consents to dispatch my bags, having reissued my boarding pass and luggage tag.
As a foreigner, I have to have my passport stamped again at immigration (this is a domestic flight) and then it’s security. There are a list of 71 items one may not take with you posted on the wall. These include ice axes and meat cleavers. Liquids are not included on this board; there’s a separate sign for them. Despite this, no-one picks up on the little carton of fruit juice in my breakfast bag, or the aerosol in my sunglass case (not one scanner has detected that yet - all round the world.)
As always, in India, there is a separate queue for men and women, and as always the women’s line moves much more slowly, as there is only one female on duty, in the little tented enclosure where the inspecting officer waves a detector around. Meanwhile, my laptop and handbag are sitting in full view of the crowds, out of my reach, as they went through the machine ages ago. The officer stamps my pass when she’s done waving and I move on. There’s another line for the bus to the plane. This involves two more boarding pass checks and two more stamps. Aaaaargh…
Finally, on the plane it’s a five hour journey (via Calcutta) to Delhi. The man next to me is attempting to take half my seat as well as his own. And he’s talking constantly in a shrill loud voice to his companion, right through all the announcements. The flight is so bumpy that the attendants have to sit down for much of the time. I hate this and start to go green. I’ve lost my Rescue Remedy. The woman next door but one tells me I have no need to worry, they are doctors. That’s not quite the reassurance I need.
After days like this I always swear I’m not going to travel again. But I’m pretty sure I will. It’s been another fabulous, if turbulent adventure. And I’ve just been sent an email with a suggested programme for my next trip. Home tomorrow.
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