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|Queen Elizabeth 2 - 2007
Silver Jubilee World Cruise - Hong Kong to UK Part 2
Our first port of call in India was Cochin on the South West coast in the State of Kerala. Cochin was one of the first ports used by the Europeans in India and important as part of the Spice Trade. Its importance started in 1498 with the Portuguese who seized the town in 1500. The English settled the city in 1634 but were driven out by the Dutch in 1663. The British recaptured it in 1795 and from 1814 it was administered by the East India Company. In 1936 it became a major port and was placed under the direct administration of the British government until India gained independence in 1947.
India is huge with a population of one billion and Kerala is one of smaller 28 States - it is between the countries of Holland and Belgium in size with a population of about 32 million. It is a fertile coastal area with broad alluvial plains. The large natural harbour at Cochin (Kochi) and Verhana Lake which stretches tens of kilometers are shallow and prone to silting up and since the 18 century have been continually dredged. Willingdon Island where we were moored is artificial and made from dredgings. It is linked by a bridge and ferries to the long (12 miles) and often narrow (one mile) natural peninsula with Fort Cochin and the Mattancherry at the end. It is separated from the mainland by inlets, islands and the estuaries of many rivers draining from the Western Ghats. During the rainy season these backwaters are navigable but in the dry season some are less than 3 foot deep and only the deeper parts of the dredged harbour are operational. Coconut oil and coconut products are a major export item alongside shipbuild, fishing and sawmills. The name Kerala may come from Kera Ala - Coconut Place. Spice merchants still abound in Cochin and the spice trade dominated the history of the Kerala coastline and the port of Cochin, some were produced locally but a huge traffic passed through on route from China and Asia to Europe.
The original schedule had one day in Cochin, but because we bypassed Sri Lanka we now had a day and a half and enjoyed it much more than we expected. Our only previous experience of India was Mumbai (Bombay) and the locals in Cochin, who were very friendly, described the inhabitants of Bombay as rogues and thieves. Cochin could not compete with Hong Kong or Singapore for cleanliness but was much better then we had expected and although the locals would push their services or wares they knew when to take a no. We would have missed a lot if they had not been forward in their offers!
The first morning we had a tour to Fort Cochin and the adjacent Mattancherry district. We boarded our bus, which was nicely fitted out with a wooden interior, similar in style to our boat at home. It was air conditioned. QE2 was moored on Willingdon Island, so the bus had to make the trip to cross the toll bridge to the mainland town of Ernakulam, some 6 miles away, and then go around the coast to Fort Cochin. It took almost 30 minutes. Our first stop was at the Church of Saint Francis. Founded in 1503, it is the oldest Christian church established by Europeans in India. Unfortunately we arrived on Sunday, at the time of morning service. We were able to look through the windows, and stand at the back of the church, but not walk around inside. The great Portuguese explorer Vasco da Gama died at Cochin on Christmas Eve 1524, and was originally buried here. The burial spot was well marked, but his body was returned to Portugal in 1538. Nearby we saw a man sitting on the ground, and then saw he was a snake charmer. We had arrived in India!
From the church we all walked down to Vasco de Gama Square and the coast to admire the Chinese Dipping Nets. These are a special line of permanent cantilevered fishing nets and are operated with a system of pulleys and weights. There are lots of craft stalls nearby, as well as a number of stalls selling todays fish; the idea was to take the fresh fish across to one of the many local outdoor restaurants where it would be cooked for you and served. Unfortunately it was too early in the morning, and the restaurants were not yet open.
We then had the compulsary journey to visit a Department Store. This was a multi-storey shop, specially set up for tourist shopping. It gave a chance to view top quality expensive kashmir carpets, and other very expensive souvenirs. As a benchmark, Pauline looked at saris, but the prices were much more expensive than in Singapore. She liked one, priced at $450, whereas the one bought already only cost $17. Both silk, they were of different qualities, but there were not going to be bargains here. There were lines of neat white taxis outside, each having deposited their tourist at the door to go shopping. We found it interesting to browse but did not need another carpet.
The next stop was a visit to Jew Town and the Paradesi Synagogue. Bus parking was by the gate of the "Dutch" Mattancherry Palace, some distance from the synague, and enabled us to inspect a range of interesting shops. The Cochin Synagogue was built in 1568. The Great Scrolls of the Old Testament, were hidden behind a curtain. The floor is of hand painted blue and white Cantonese tiles, laid in 1762. There are antique Belgian chandeliers. We were allowed a few minutes for shopping in Jew Town and bought some postcards and spices at the market stalls, and rushed back to our meeting point and the bus. The Dutch Palace was built in 1555 by the Portuguese, but it was renovated later by the Dutch, hence the name. The Museum was established in 1985 and the glory of the palace lies in its murals painted on the walls. The royal bedroom, empty of furniture, has wall paintings illustrating the Ramayana. There are also displays of umbrellas, royal palanquins, beautiful ceremonial costumes and weapons.
In the afternoon we ventured out by ourselves. We took a Tuk Tuk to the nearby fancy Taj Malabar Hotel which Cunard has an arrangement with, to get close to the ferries to Fort Cochin where we hoped to get a harbour tour. There was Taxi and Tuk Tuk prepayment stand outside the ship which brought some order but at a price. We joined up with two girls who also wanted to go there and for $5 had an interesting ride - Tuk Tuks are happier with two passengers. They only seem to have a 100 cc motor bike engine driving the front wheel but are driven enthusiastically at what seems a high speed with more use of horn than brakes - great fun. Away from the ship they become very cheap and we heard of one 3 hour guided tour costing $5 and were offer a half hour trip back from Fort Cochin for $1.
The Taj Malabar Hotel had advertised its rooms for people who wanted to stay on land overnight, but it was clear that there was a special event in the grounds. There were dozens of tables already set for dinner, and we noticed a welcome banner for an International Congress on Small Firms Development. We looked briefly at the hotel before heading to the ferry terminal marked on our map, which was close to the other large cruise ship, Silver Seas Regent, which was in for the day. We had been following Regent; she had been in Hong Kong the day before QE2 arrived there, and is the typical modern style of floating hotel with most rooms with balconies. The official ferries and tours seemed to have finished but a delightful guy offered us a transfer for $5 and when we realised it was a rowing boat and very hard work we took him up. We arranged for him to pick us up an hour or so later and he took no money till we returned - very trusting. At the main road he told us to turn left for Mattancherry, and right for Fort Cochin. We turned right and went back along to the Chinese nets and the fish market.
All the cruise ship tours had now departed and the whole area was much more alive with local families, although all the shops were closed as it was a Sunday. We saw just five Europeans, and said hello. Goats and people filled the roads and everyone was very friendly - we were invited to join a game of cricket in the middle of the road by some of the local kids and there was none of the hassle of the morning. We had arranged to be collected at 1700, and arrived at the wharf 10 minutes early, after avoiding several Tuk Tuk drivers who insisted there was no ferry and that their transport was very good value. The time passed quickly while chatting to local people who were keen to try out their English on us. We discovered that our ferryman was named Nasha (or similar), and lived in Fort Cochin.
We were safely rowed back and ran the gamut of Tuk Tuk bargains as far as the Taj Malabar Hotel where we settle down with a few of the big bottles of Kingfisher local beer at a high price for India of $6 for a 660cc bottle but we were buying a seat in a fancy hotel and conference centre to watch sunset. We could watch all the QE2 people on tour watching the local folkloric performance by Kathakali dancers. The dancers embody the nine basic emotions - serenity, wonder, kindness, love, valour, fear, contempt, loathing and anger - solely through elaborate body and eye movements. When the show was finished they all (150+) plodded straight past us without seeming to notice us at all, only our tour guide of the morning spotted us and came over to chat for 5 minutes - I am sure there is some significance there.
We noticed a nice Government car arrive and a distinguished man emerge, together with another carrying his briefcase. It was the the time for the conference delegates to take over and Pete is waiting to see if he features on the conference picture just above the local dignitaries as he timed jumping up from his seat just as the flash went off for one of the two pictures, the sight-line to the flash looked perfect. Pauline looked at the European faces in case she recognised anyone from the old days, but no luck. After we had watched the sun go down it was time to return, we had had enough, or slightly too much beer - it turned out to be 5% strength and was lovely and cold so went down very easily. We settled for $2 to get us back by Tuk Tuk although I am sure we could have done better if we had walked a few more yards.
The following morning we spent an hour and a bit doing penance in the gym before exploring the ferry wharfs behind us, in search of a harbour cruise. On the first wharf we noticed there was a small boat which was decorated and we wondered whether it was going to be used for a birthday or a wedding. In fact the decoration was because it was a pilot boat and the boat was new, and there was a ceremony before it could begin work.
We were directed towards the next wharf where again we found that various offers were forthcoming and we negotiated a foreshortened river cruise of an hour for $15 each. We got aboard the boat, which was empty, and expected to wait for more passengers. So we were surprised when the engine started, the ropes were cast off, and we were underway. We had the boat (which normally must take about 70 people) with skipper, crew and guide to ourselves. for a run down past the QE2, the saltpetre plant and loading pier and on past the Naval Base and college then across past the shipyard, dry docks and the oil platforms and drilling rigs under construction. We passed the oil tanker piers from which the crude oil is pumped 40 kms to the refineries, before crossing back past the port and customs buildings and the Taj Malabar Hotel before returning. Our guide, Hashim, spoke adequate English and he was keen to learn and improve and he was very disappointed we did not have time to also go through the backwaters. There is an extensive network of rivers, lakes, canals and lagoons that lace together the coast and interior south of Cochin.
It was still light as QE2 eased her way slowly away from her berth, and turned to head out to sea. To our surprise, all the waterfront areas were full of local people, waiting to see us pass. Our route took us past the Taj Malabar Hotel, and then past Fort Cochin and we took more pictures looking down on the Chinese Fishing Nets.
Goa was a rather different experience to Cochin. Goa is the next state up the Malabar coast sandwiched between Kerala and Maharashtra whose capital Mumbai, known by the locals as Bombay, will be our next visit. We were actually moored at Mormugoa which is a port of a rather mixed nature - we were moored at what appeared to be a coal wharf with huge heaps of coal 50 or more feet high which were rather ineffectually covered with huge tarpaulins and damped with water. The ship gradually became covered with a fine black dust which transferred from ones hands to ones clothes. There were many ships moored off transferring coal in and minerals out via wharfs alongside us.
On the other side was an attractive fishing port and there was a continuous traffic of small fishing boats past us. The port authorities gave up trying to keep them outside our security exclusion zone! Further round were many smaller boats drawn up on the beach and there were obviously markets beyond but they were difficult to reach as walking round the the port was banned for obvious reasons and one had to take a transfer to a pound where local taxis were available. The port entry was a congested chaos even for the coaches which were mixed with the brightly coloured lorries full of coal, ore and many other goods.
Goa is the smallest of the states and has a population of only 1.5 million and an area of 1500 square miles and is trying to reinvent itself as a beach resort - holidays are available from as far away as the UK where few people are aware it is part of India and needs a visa ceremony. We did the visa application in person which introduces one to the inflexibility (without graft that is) and need for queuing to get passes to even join an important queue. We met people who had come 100 miles three times without success and we understand why people pay agents to stand in queues on their behalf. We were late in leaving on our tour because the immigration needed extra landing cards which had not been issued to the ship It is alleged that Carnival being American do not understand how sweeteners are an essential part of Indian life so it all seems to take extra time and depletion of duty free to sort it all out - there are always large numbers of officials on board sometimes they are on for several ports and they always seem to have big carrier bags or in some cases huge heavy cases when they leave - it might all be official paperwork or it might not.
Goa had not been on the original itinerary but replaced Sri Lanka where the Tamil Tigers have become more and more active - they had now captured aircraft and are carrying out airborne attacks so QE2 kept well clear. Goa may well have been a maiden port and if the passengers views we heard were typical it could be the last however they did a good job at short notice and as far as we could tell had even provided Air Conditioning on every coach.
The ancient Hindu capital city of Old Goa lies in ruins and its replacement is largely abandoned having been founded in 1440 and conquered by the Portuguese in 1510 although it still contains a number of old buildings we would visit on the tour. Disease epidemics caused the Portuguese to move to New Goa (Panjim). Goa thrived in the early days because of the Spice Route and Goa was fed with fine European Goods from one direction and spices and silk travelling the other way. The Portuguese merchants made it their central trading post on the Malabar coast after Cochin lost that role. Portuguese influence is still pervasive and a considerable proportion of Goans are Christian and wear traditional Portuguese clothing. From Mormugao it takes almost an hour to drive to Old Goa, some 30 miles away, and we passed through the town of Vasco de Gama, and marvelled at how the large buses could make progress down the narrowing streets. On arrival in Old Goa it was a contrast. The roads became wide.
Our tour took us first to the Basilica of Bom Jesus which is best known for having shrine of Francis Xavier, the boy saint and missionary whose body is preserved and on display through the side of his silver casket. Every ten years there is a solemn exposition of the sacred relics of St Francis Xavier. The most recent was from 21 November 2004 to 2 January 2005, and we were fortunate that souvenir postcards of the event were still available ouside at $1 for a packet of ten. Prices in Goa for tourist items seemed to be cheaper than in Cochin. Unfortunately the souvenir shop in the basilica only accepted local currency. There were many interesting religious souvenirs, ranging from rosaries to pendants.
We then visited the Cathedral dedicated to St Catherine, just opposite. For many people it was quite a challenge to cross the road. As always, the tour was moving very slowly, at the speed of the slowest walker. Completed in 1619 and consecrated in 1640, the cathedral is dedicated to St Catherine because it was on this saint's day in 1510 that Alfonso Albuquerque defeated a Muslim army for control of Goa. Originally the facade supported two bell towers; the southern tower collapsed in 1776. The guides English was poor so we separated off and not only looked at the cathedral but also rushed down the road to see the Church of St Francis of Assisi which was in many ways more interesting. Even then we got back to our coach so early that we did some shopping for cards and also Pauline got a 1930s style beaded headdress for the next Napier art deco festival. The young salesman was wearing one of the headdresses, which was quite comical. We eventually worked our way back and joined up with the rest of the group, and even then there was time to investigate the facilities - never pass up an opportunity in India!
We then had a fascinating visit to a Hindu Temple which actually coincided with one of their major celebrations, complete with random bursts of local fireworks - Pete came back to find his sandals full of spent explosives and is looking forwards to the next set of American security checks! Recall that most temples require you to remove your shoes, but take care you do not burn your feet. The Sri Mahalsa temple is dedicated to Vishnu and is 7 kms northwest of Ponda, in Mardol village. We parked our coach in an enormous empty parking, but knew we were in the right place because we saw a few Cunard chocolate wrappers on the ground. We wished we had remembered to bring some for the local children. It is said to feature a silver doorway; our first impression was of the graceful carved lantern tower in the central courtyard, and the exceptionally tall brass pillar nearby. Goa has another beautiful temple, the Sri Mangueshi temple, which is an elegant mix of Hindu, Moslem and Western architecture styles, and features a golden kalash atop its largest dome as well as an elegant lantern tower.
We were then diverted into a fancy store, exactly the same format as the "Department store" visited in Cochin and stocking the same range of expensive kashmir carpets etc. Our tour guide used all sorts of excuses for the visit, but as we did not need to pay ten times the rate or use the facilities we just protested about the delay and got straight back on the coach. Others did the same.
We drove on to Panjim, which replaced Old Goa as the capital city. Some of the buildings were pointed out - particularly the Government Office. Panjim is situated on the banks of the river, and we parked next to the local market, but only for 20 minutes. This merited far more time with contrasts between the various areas: vegetables, fruit, fish, live poultry, shoes, hardware, clothing and finally we found the spices. We had no Rupees and did not have time to bargain hard but ended up with a carrier bag full in little polythene bags for a total of 4 dollars - we were saying we would take less for the same one dollar fixed rate at times. The stallholder must have thought we were mad tourists.
It was then the long haul back the 30 miles to the ship after a cabin to cabin trip of 7 hours instead of the scheduled 5, and a late lunch. We were not the only tour which returned late, and fortunately they held the buffet lunch open in the Lido till 1530. If tours come back very late then there is always room service. The staff in the Lido went directly from serving us lunch to preparing for afternoon tea which started at 1600. This is a good time to say how dedicated the staff are. The previous day they were up at 0400 getting breakfast ready as the Lido opened at 0530 for those going on the first trip which departed at 0630 and then did lunch, tea and dinner finishing at perhaps 2230 with a couple of hours off then the following day even those few hours disappeared. We took the trouble to offer our thanks but did not see many others do so. In the same way that many staff do not understand small or one, few passengers seem to know the word please or thank you on this cruise dominated by our colleagues from across the water.
This was our second visit to Mumbai and at the end of the last one Pete had vowed never to take another trip ashore - the last time had been a nightmare as there had been insufficient graft and we had been at anchor and the tenders had been forced to operate from a greasy dangerous pontoon causing us to wait over two hours in the heat after riding all day in a primitive coach. This time we were docked atthe Ballard Pier Extension, although not in a great depth we later learned. At one point there was only half a metre under the keel! We assume we were luckier with the tides on this visit.
The Mumbai area was originally home to the Koli fisherfolk whose shanties still occupy parts of the shoreline. The population of modern Mumbai is estimated to be around 15 million. It is India's finance centre, the capital of the Hindi film industry ("Bollywood") and the industrial hub of everything from textiles to petrochemicals.
This time Pauline had secured a very special trip which was limited to 24 people on a small coach by booking before we even left the UK in December. It was probably one of the cheapest trips on the whole world cruise at $35 and promised a visit and greeting in a private house and a lunch of local specialties as well as a repeat visit to all the usual sights. The traffic and state of the roads had not improved but many of the roadside ghettos seemed to have disappeared. One still had to run the gauntlet of aggressive traders and outright beggars and the goods seemed less good. Last time we did get some excellent hand made lace but there was little but gaudy junk this time.
Our trip departed at 0930, but we still found ourselves suffering from the morning commuter rush. We were supposed to visit the Victoria Terminus, which is the main railway terminus. Although the rail service had been operating since the 1850s, the building was built later, and opened to commemorate the golden Jubilee in 1887. It is modelled on St Pancras Station in London, and is a wonderful neo-gothic building with flying butresses, friezes and stained glass. Unfortunately there were too many people around at that time of morning, and all we could do was admire it from the outside. The sun was behind, so sadly no photos. We did manage to take a picture of another building opposite.
The scheduling for our visits depended on the opening times of the various museums and our next visit was to the Gandhi Museum in Mani Bhavan, a large detached residence in an affluent area equivalent to Harley Street in London. This house was once Gandhi's home and is now a museum dedicated to his memory. On the ground floor was a library overflowing with reference material, and upstairs there were a number of pictures and information about his life. His autobiography was for sale, as well as a book of his sayings which was printed on hand-made paper. Together they only cost US$7, which was very good value. Last time we remember the museums only accepted rupees and so we could not buy anything. The QE2 foreign exchange desk does not deal in rupees.
Back in the coach we saw more of the town and drove along the Chowpatty Beach, on our way to Dhobi Ghat. This the famous vast outdoor laundry by the railway line where men wash clothes by hand, lay them to dry on corrugated roofs, and then iron them with old fashioned coal-heated flat irons. There are no labour saving devices, and no electricity at the laundry, although the water used is now fresh water, rather than sea water. On our last visit we saw families pushing carts around the busy streets, overflowing with mounds of clean washing on its way back to their owners. Others, mainly women, carried heavy bundles on their backs. This year we were earlier in the morning, and it was only washing time.
Our final stop before lunch was the Prince of Wales Museum, which was built to commemorate King George V's first visit to India in 1905 while he was still Prince of Wales. The museum was completed in 1923, and houses a fine collection of treasures from ancient archeological finds to precious Mughla miniatures, as well as more ordinary examples of English and European china. The swords and other fighting equipment were familiar from visiting English armories, but some of the ancient finds were more fascinating. In addition there was a large collection of fine paintings. This visit there was a special display called "Bombay Bonanza: The making of Bombay" which was in the Premchand Roychand Gallery. It was well signposted and as we arrived at the entrance the introductory video was just starting. We had an hour to explore, which was just perfect.
To our surprise, our lunch was at the Taj Mahal Hotel, said to be the most expensive hotel in India. We were getting very good value for our $35 day trip - it is one of the Leading Hotels of the World. Our waiters of 2001, Jose and Francis, had both worked there before joining QE2 as have many on the ship. Lloyd, this years excellent lead waiter was trained in another of the Taj chain. Hundreds of chattering QE2 passengers took over the reception area, rushed to take advantage of the clean facilities, and then we all settled down to a pleasant three course lunch. Soup was served at table, then the buffet was self-service. Our guide explained the various dishes to us, and we soon filled our plates with small samples of everything interesting. The local beer was not expensive considering the quality of the hotel, and cost US$6 for two small bottles.
From there we were herded on foot to the private residence, which was in nearby Colaba. We must have spent too long over lunch because our guide was hurrying us, asking whether we could walk faster, and then forcing her way across traffic junctions. It was very untypical. When we met another guide in the courtyard of a building which also contained a large shop we were worried that it was going to be another expensive tourist shopping setup. We were quite wrong. The building was divided into nice appartments, and we climbed up to the third floor where we were welcomed at the door by the hostess and her friends. She spoke excellent Englsh, and admitted to being a tour guide in Mombai. We all sat down and were offered tea or coffee and another feast of savoury snacks and home made cakes, followed by Sari tying lessons for the ladies. The building was said to have been built by the British, and was very similar in style inside to our own house. The family had clearly travelled widely, and there were many souvenirs of the their travels.
Reluctantly we were told by our guide that it was time to go, so we gave our thanks and continued down the street for the statutory visit to yet another "Department store" which we discovered are State run. There were three next door to each other, and our bus had parked outside one. More interesting were the local stores and small shops on the other side of the road and we were able to fight our way through the traffic and avoid the "Department stores" and buy some local wine and a few Kingfisher beers. The local shops did not take dollars but there was an Official Currency Change nearby and we changed $25 in air conditioned comfort at a sensible rate before stocking up. You are not allowed to take local money out of India so we just spent all the spare on beer. The neighbouring states of Maharashtra, Karnataka and Abndhra Pradesh are the most important viticultural regions. We paid 510 rupees for the Sula Brut Methode Champenoise, manufactured in Dec 2006 by Samant Soma Wines Pvt. Ltd, in Nashik, Maharashtra. The wine shop had several different fizzy wines, and we chose Sula because we saw that they also made white and rose wine, so seemed a good choice. The grapes used were different to what we are used to for a classic Methode Champenoise, and the wine reminded us of the wines of the Canary Islands in colour. Buying the Bahula 2005 Shiraz Cabernet at 395 rupees was less logical, and based solely on price. There were lots of cheaper wines but we didn't want a cheap wine. The label reports that Hambhir Phadtare, a Sociology Professor in the US nursed a deep desire to make wine in India, and he returned to the hamlet of Aambe Bahula, Nasik, where his grandfather first planted grapes, setting up the company of Mountain View Winery Pvt. Ltd. Sanjay Menon of Sansula described the wine as a superb first effort; we will need to check whether the 2005 was indeed his first vintage. Steven Spurrier of Decanter Magazine is quoted as saying it is an impressive dark red colour, with concentrated berry fruit on the nose, ripe, plummy flavourful wine on the palate with good acidity, and a very good example of the two varietals. We plan to take it home. Both wines were for sale in Maharashtra State only.
We boarded our coach for the last stop, which was the famous Gateway of India archway, built in 1911 to commemorate the visit of King George V and Queen Mary. The Gateway of India is on the waterfront, opposite the Taj Mahal Hotel, so we were retracing our path. We met people from QE2 who had walked there from the ship, so on another visit we would do the same, and then catch one of the many trip boats to visit Elephanta Island.
The lunchtime buffet had encouraged far too much grazing of the various local spicy dishes which had then been quickly followed by the unexpected delicacies at tea - this had all been a bit over the top so Pete disappeared down to the gym for a quick 600 calorie burn and a quick 'circuit' round the machine which unfortunately gave Pauline time to go ashore again and investigate the single stall outside the port. Pete was dragged back ashore as soon as he was out of the shower. By procrastinating and leaving purchasing until departure was imminent Pete got a very fine local miniature 'love' painting on silk for $5, cheaper than an anniversary card and much more memorable. Pauline had already bought one example of the paintings at a marginally less favourable price and a bed covering, but she had been presented with a free book of postcards of the paintings with which to attract Pete.
A local show was being put on in the Grand Lounge, and after our huge meals we had a relatively small and quick supper (curry better than at the Taj and a fascinating local style sweet of grated, sweetened and spiced carrot which we understand is not as simple to make as it seems). After the show, which was one of best local shows we have seen on board, we went out to watch the Indian officials finally struggle off the ship with their full bags and stayed out for the sail-away until we had finally cleared the port at midnight. Overall Mumbai had been a much better experience than we had expected and we are much more inclined now to consider trips which pass through India.
It was a tender port and the QE2 was anchored well offshore with a twenty or more minute tender ride to the shore. Mahé at 28 kms by 8kms is the largest island and all round we could see small and large islands with white beaches and Mahé is even more spectacular with granite peaks tower 1000m over the lush green forests. Tours were limited and booked out so we planned to go to a beach and then have a look at the botanical gardens and town, which we knew would be quiet on a Sunday.
We planned to wait until the queues were short so we booked for the gym before breakfast as usual when at sea. In the event there was a half hour time change so we woke up early and Pauline rushed off to the laundry at 0600 whilst Pete made coffee and went down to the gym when it opened at 0630. This enabled him to do his 500 calories on the cross trainer and another 100 on the rowing machine and a few other exercises before a light breakfast in the Lido - it is a bit worrying though as his weight is slightly down since joining the ship so he is not putting on muscle and will have to work harder or eat more! We had a long and interesting talk to one of the assistant Maitre D' who is South African about wine - one of his relations was the Professor responsible for the creation of the Pinotage grape, now the signature grape of SA.
We then meandered up to the Queen's Room to collect a tender ticket, and sat and waited for our number to be called. It is a good system and saves long lines waiting at the tender gangways. The numbers are issued in blocks of 25 so we knew we had 250 people, about two tender loads, ahead of us but with 6 tenders in the water the wait was short - it just gave Pete time to check there was no emails in from the OU for Pauline. The tender rides are enjoyable in their own right and everything was set up at the far end - cold drinks and shade etc - by the ship.
It was rather obviously a Sunday and not a taxi was in sight so we set of for town only to find a stream of well founded taxis approaching. We flagged down several and rapidly found uniform prices and no bargains so we gathered up another couple, swallowed twice and paid $20 to get us all quickly to the beach. The alternative was to find a local bus, if they ran on a Sunday and took dollars, but that would only have been $1 per person, or less if we had the local currency. It was about a 10 minute walk to the local Bus Station.
We crossed the island to Beau Vallon Bay which is the most popular on Mahé and has many resort properties which mostly cater for tour groups so must count as being at the bottom end of what Seychelles has to offer - even so it was pretty impressive. We were dropped at the end at the Fisherman's Cove which was a Meridian Resort Hotel and looked excellent, as you would expect, and the service just showing us through and to the public beach showed promise. It is at the quiet end of Beau Vallon and worthy of investigation for a holiday, if affordable. The beach has some of the whitest finest sand I recall and there was shade under overhanging trees reaching down almost to the high tide mark. It was Sunday, and lots of local people were sitting in the shade, setting up informal barbeques.
Pete swam several times and the water was incredibly warm and the beach gently sloping. Pauline does not like cold water or swimming much but here her reaction was - its too hot to swim! In spite of the temperature she did manage to do a little swimming, and said it must be the first time in two years. After soaking up the sun and swimming we walked along to the other end of the beach, which was much more busy. We stopped to sample a local 'nut' which had the end chopped off for us and straw inserted - an interesting taste and although worth trying at one dollar we would probably not repeat it unless thirsty. We continued to the main entry point alongside the Coral Strand Hotel which did not seem to come up to the expectations in it's adverts although it's facilities seemed to be open to visitors - we heard horror stories of the poor food and slow service in their beachside bistro. Thankfully there are no high rise hotel blocks - some buildings like the Coral Strand Hotel do reach four stories but they are so well hidden and surrounded by tropical gardens you do not realise. The beaches were not covered in umbrellas and loungers, where we went only the odd one had escaped from the resort hotels. There were a few power boats and we only had a distant sighting of a single jetski. We walked up from the road and saw no interesting local (or other) restaurants so returned for a last swim before catching a taxi to the botanical gardens.
The isolated islands are even better we understand and there is excellent snorkeling and diving on coral reefs in crystal clear waters. The only downside is it is so far from the UK and is reputed to be very expensive but to reach paradise has always called for sacrifices. The taxis, for example, were expensive compared to previous ports and similar to UK prices, so it was a shock to pay US$20 for a 7 km ride over the hill, when you could get one for half the day for that price in India. Both our taxi drivers spoke good English, were friendly and their vehicles were in excellent condition and almost new. We apologised for having a little sand on our shoes, and he said it was no problem; he cleaned the car betwem trips. The second taxi driver was very helpful and gave us his card as he can organise holidays as well as provide a comprhensive driving service. Garry Sourris (phone 712360) has a vehicle only a few months old, and we hope he remembers to send us an email address as we will contact him if we think of returning.
The Botanical Gardens are something special - one has to pay $5 (or £2.5 or 5 euros) to get in but it was well worth it. The first highlight was to see the huge fruit of Coco del Mer palms each weighing several kilos. There were also giant tortoises alongside after which we walked up past the orchid house which had closed at 1400 but almost everything could be seen from outside. We located a Durian tree but could not see any fruit which was a shame after trying it in Singapore. We then spotted the giant fruit bats flitting around although it was daylight and swinging around under the fruit at the tops of the palms.
We followed various little walked tracks, got bitten by many noseeums and looked at the wide variety of birds unique to the islands which are separated by great distances from any significant land. We saw giant conical shelled snails all over the basic tracks - tour groups get a brief exposure only from tarmac paths and must miss a lot. The sheet had a list of the specimens and a basic map but regrettably there did not seem to be a full guide or reference book and we could not find out much about the bats or even buy a postcard or picture - we regretted not have brought the zoom lens and binoculars because our original plans were only to be on the beach.
We walked downhill to town which was very quiet with all the shops closed, other than the odd stall of touristenjunk and postcards. We photographed the Supreme Court, the miniature Big Ben at the crossroads. Victoria is arguably the smallest capital city in the world and the taxi driver said the population in the city was probably only a few hundreds as people all commuted in. The overall population of the 115 islands in the Seychelles is only 82,000.
The tender we returned on to the ship had a small swordfish and what looked like a Kingfish tied on the front, the Deck 6 sport-fishing club had obviously had some success. The area is noted for game-fishing and salt water fly fishing. We understand there are yachts available for bareboat skippered charter. We will investigate for a longer holiday if and when we can afford it.
To celebrate such an excellent day we went up to the Funnel Bar for sailaway with the Caribbean band and tried the ships versions of the Mai Tai cocktail we had been introduced to in Hong Kong - it could be a bad influence. In dinner we picked the brains of our assistant Maitre D' who is from Singapore about the Durian fruit having seen the tree. It was a fascinating story and we learned a lot. The ship is very cosmopolitan and has staff from almost every part of the world so there is always a local expert.
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