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Review: Island Sky - Noble Caledonia

Cruise - Ocean Cruise

Cruising the Caribbean

  • By SilverTraveller Holland

    35 reviews

    Ribbon Ribbon

  • Mar 2012
  • Solo
  • Getting to another destination
  • Outside

149 people found this review helpful

After a brief flirtation with Saga's Spirit of Adventure (not much adventure there…) for Christmas and New Year in Australia and New Zealand, I returned in March to my first love, Noble Caledonia's Island Sky.

"Hidden Islands and Lost Worlds" seemed a good title though it was clear neither the islands were hidden nor the world was lost. We found them very easily in the capable hands of our Finnish but Swedish captain. No, I didn't understand which nationality he was either. My journey was in fact two cruises back to back "Sailing to the Lesser Antilles and Beyond" followed by "Lost Islands-Lost Worlds".

We flew to Barbados arriving to find a rain soaked airport and coach park. But it was pleasantly warm. Our journey to the port of Bridgetown took 30 minutes and as we came into the port we passed a couple of very large illuminated cruise ships. Mercifully not for us. On turning a corner we saw the little Island Sky and an aaaaahh rippled through the coach as loyal passengers returned to their favourite small cruise ship. I was welcomed by members of the Expedition Team I had known on two previous Island Sky cruises and two Clipper Odyssey cruises also operated by Noble Caledonia. It was good to be back amongst friends.

On Day Two our itinerary had to be changed. The previous cruise had run the gauntlet of the Venezuelan authorities who had refused permission for the ship to call at Los Testigo and Los Aves, threatening to arrest the Captain. To visit the third Venezuelan island Los Roques was apparently no problem. As the Captain did not want to be threatened a second time we stayed overnight in Grenada and a very talented steel band came on board to entertain us. This was our first taste of Caribbean music and was most enjoyable.

Los Roques, when we did get there, was very pleasant; an afternoon on a beach where the sea was very shallow but we watched some entertaining brown pelicans diving for fish. We overnighted at anchor and went ashore next morning for a walk around the charming little town with single storey houses painted different colours. There was no traffic and the airport was right by the beach and the town centre and small aircraft were flying in and out. All very casual and it looked as if anyone could just wander on to the runway. This island appears to be a holiday resort for peoople from Caracas, capital of Venezuela. An afternoon on another beach was enlivened by the hotel department from the ship coming ashore with ice creams. They do these little excursions very well.

On to the Dutch Antilles. We visited Bonaire and Aruba, two islands now on my list of Don't Bother to Re-Visit. Aruba in particular had a long coast road with beautiful beaches but backed by hideous high rise hotels and apartment blocks. More Benidorm than the Caribbean. Two huge cruise ships were in port towering over our little Island Sky and disgorging hordes of obese passengers who went on to mill around the town visiting the many jewellery shops. I am not sure why there were so many of those.

A sunny, but very windy day at sea gave a couple of the lecturers on board a chance to educate us. Presentation skills were sadly lacking and, although they were extremely well informed I find the American accent somewhat grating and the pronunciation of the word water as wodder very irritating.

Next stop was Cartegena in Colombia, a chance to go ashore on the mainland rather than an island. We were due to dock at the cruise terminal at 8 a.m. but were left in the outer harbour while Cunard's Queen Victoria sailed in first. Ah well…. one must make way for royalty. But we still managed to get on our three little buses for our city tour at 9 a.m. Over 35 buses were lined up to take the passengers off the Queen Victoria!! Cartegena, for a long time on my Must See Places Before I Die, is a fascinating walled colonial city founded by the Spanish in 1533 and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. We enjoyed a walk through the old town and admired the cathedral and beautiful old balconied houses. Had I known that the afternoon excursion to paddle in canoes round a mangrove area was to be a disappointing non-event I would have returned to the city to wander round on my own now that most of the crowds had left.

I had read about the San Blas Islands, which belong to Panama, in a travel article some time ago but stupidly didn't keep it. It was about the inhabitants who are Kuna Indians and preserve their ancient way of life as hunters and fishermen but which now includes making woven "molas" and other clothing including the ubiquitos T-shirts. Much of this was hanging outside the very modest houses and children were sitting outside holding baby kittens/puppies/piglets/birds/iguanas/lizards and wanting "one dollar" for every photo taken. The women were all in traditional costume with rings through their noses and bad teeth. The young men, in T-shirts and jeans, scuttled out of sight as we arrived. We went to a "museum"; a very dark room where I couldn't see any of the artifacts and a man wearing a life jacket explained what they were in a hard to understand Kuna/American accent.

We were not scheduled to go through the Panama Canal (the ship had done so on her previous cruise) as we were staying on the north side of Central America but we went ashore in Panama and went by coach to the Miraflores locks to see a huge tanker going through. I had imagined we would see lots of cargo/tankers/cruise ships queuing up to go through but that was not to be. We made a tour of Panama City: a vast area of gleaming white skyscrapers and a large very run down old city apparently being renovated with money from UNESCO. A lot of building work was going on including a metro system and repairing water and sewage pipes. All to be finished by 2014, the 100 years anniversary of the opening of the Panama Canal.

Having carried my rain jacket around for the previous three days and not worn it (the weather had been very showery) I left it behind when we went ashore at Puerto Limon, Cotsa Rica. Bad move, Needless to say when we went to the rain forest it bucketed down. Well it is a RAIN forest after all. But before we were absolutely drenched some plastic ponchos appeared ($5 each) which saved the day. I was not the only one who had misread the signs so the group looked like a school outing in our plastic uniform. The visit was very interesting: apart from all the trees and bushes and plants there were some excellent displays of live snakes, frogs and butterflies; the latter, sadly, on the end of pins.

Next day was change over day with 50 or so passengers leaving the ship and about the same number staying on for the next two weeks plus another 50 or so joining. In other words more or less full house again. Those of us staying on joined an excursion to a sloth sanctuary. The sloths, both three toed and two toed were all orphans or injured when they were brought in but apparently cannot be released back into the wild. The babies were very cuddly and brought on lots of aaaaah’s. We also had a pleasant paddle in canoes (more rain) along a narrow canal; very quiet and peaceful with interesting bird life.

Off the coast of Nicaragua the islands of San Andres, Providencia and Santa Catalina actually belong to Colombia. At San Andres we docked at a jetty at 12.15 where some colourful costumed dancers were waiting to perform, unaware that we never move anywhere until we have all had lunch. So they waited in the hot sunshine (at last hot sunshine…) for an hour and a half until we eventually disembarked to sit under an awning with an excellent coconut drink and watched the dancers. They were very entertaining and it must have been a big day for them as cruise ships are a rarity here as the channel to the island is very narrow and shallow and any ship bigger than the Island Sky would not be able to negotiate it. The town was bigger than I thought it would be with thousands of motorbikes and some very reckless driving. A five star hotel is under construction and there are weekly charter flights from Canada so maybe give this island a miss.

But my diary for the next days starts “Best day of the whole cruise, so far. Warm sunny day, nice breeze, and no humidity. Lovely island and charming people” A walk along the seaside and across the bridge linking Providencia with Santa Catalina and up 81 steps to a statue of the Virgin Mary was followed by an island tour on the back of a pick up truck; a whole convoy of them. We went right round the island with a stop half way for a coconut drink and some calypso music by a very talented group. After lunch local speedboats came to pick us up to take us to an island for snorkelling (the best so far) and then to another beach for more music and more coconut drinks!! I could get used to this life…..

Our only stop in Honduras was at the island of Roatan. And here my diary notes “Another day in Paradise” Our bus tour took us to the Botanical Gardens, to a Butterfly Park with birds and butterflies, not on pins this time but free to fly around and to a somewhat commercial area geared to divers for whom this island is very popular. Today was Sunday and the local church was packed with worshipers singing very lustily. In the afternoon we went to a private beach club for a lazy afternoon and a swim and snorkel. I shall find it hard to choose between La Providencia and Roatan for my retirement on a Caribbean island.

Next stop Belize. An early start and a local tender took all of us ashore together to join coaches for our visit to the ruins of a Mayan site about an hour’s drive out of Belize City. We boarded boats and the Daily Programme had said “it is easy to encounter hawks, kites and falcons.” No chance. After a slow start to look at some jacanas (also known as lily trotters) the boats went at full speed, which was very fast, no chance of spotting wildlife, for an hour to the ruins of the Maya Lamanai Archaeological Reserve. Our guide, together with our Rastafarian boat driver, was very interesting and held the attention of the group some of whom found the energy to climb up the many steep steps of the pyramids; though they found coming back down not so easy.

After another two days on and in the water around the Belize Barrier Reef we moved on to Mexico and an unpleasant culture shock. HUGE cruise ships (including the biggest one in the world, the Oasis of the Seas) moored near us. Playa del Carmen with rows of souvenir shops and tourists, yes tourists. Pink ones, tattooed ones, drunk ones, skimpily dressed ones and very noisy ones. We hadn’t seen any of those for weeks. It was back to earth with a bump……

The point of our visit here was to visit two Mayan sites, Tulum and Chichen-Itza or, for those who did not fancy a three hour drive each way to Chichen-Itza, a very pleasant smaller site called Saun Ka’an. The drive to Tulum was about an hour and on arrival it looked awful – hundreds (well not quite) of coaches and even more souvenir shops. It took ages for us to queue for the loo, then queue for a little train to go to the entrance to the site. But once inside it was really very pleasant. Such a huge area that people spread out and it did not seem crowded at all. One of the best preserved coastal Mayan sites, Tulum was one of the last cities built and inhabited by the Mayans and was protected on one side by steep sea cliffs. Steps now lead down to a small beach where some visitors were enjoying a swim.

After Mexico a day at sea and then Cuba. Understandably no huge American cruise ships here! I had visited Havana in 2004 and it was a pleasure to return. Havana is a UNESCO World Heritage Site and many buildings have been renovated and rebuilt. We were split up into small groups for a walking tour of the old city and an excellent guide spoke knowledgably and clearly. Our tour ended in the Cathedral Square where we climbed into horse-drawn carriages to trot around the city and back to the ship. After lunch we went in another form of transport: the old American cars from the 1950’s! This was huge fun. 24 of them had been hired to take all of us (that, and the horse drawn carriages could never have happened with a 3000+ passenger cruise ship….) and I made sure I was one of the first down to secure a place in an open car, a 1959 Buick! One of the vehicles was a closed black limousine that had been presented to Fidel Castro by the Russians. Presumably he no longer requires it.

Some of us booked to go to the Tropicana nightclub, renowned for it’s lavish costumes, non-stop music and dancing. Lots of lighting effects, lithe and lissom dancers, a couple of acrobats and two incredible jugglers. Some drinks were included; but was it worth £70? Probably not but I’m glad I went.

Next morning it was goodbye to the Island Sky as we were to spend the next night in a hotel in the centre of the city, Iberia having cancelled our original flight home and Noble-Caledonia arranged for us to have an extra day and night in Havana. Good news. Extra excursions were laid on and after dinner I was able to go out on the town with some other passengers to enjoy Mojitos and Daiquiris, well known Cuban cocktails and to hear some of the brilliant Cuban music.

This voyage will be repeated by the Island Sky’s sister ship, the Caledonia Sky at the end of October 2012 doing the journey in reverse, Cuba to Costa Rica and then through the Panama Canal. Go now before those little islands, Roatan and La Providencia become over run with high-rise hotels and charter flights. Maybe I will already have bought my little shack on the beach. And visit Cuba before the Americans move in…

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