A Travellerspoint blog

Another Great Day in Paradise

Time to do a animal midwifery course

sunny 28 °C
View Life in the Slow Lane - Canal Barging with Lyn and Chris 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Another glorious day out there today, the hottest one so far. Plenty of suntan lotion and not a fleece in sight – that's the way we like it!

At one of the very first locks of the day, I suddenly hear Chris scream my name from the lock-side as I sit in the bow of the boat. The next thing I see is the windlass flying through the air. Fortunately it didn't hit my head or Lyn's camera, it bounced off the side of Ragnar and sunk to the bottom of the lock. Oops.

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Thankfully there is a chandlery store after the next lock, so we only have one lock to negotiate with just a single lock key. As it turns out, there are other boaters there too, so we get some help opening the lock gates.

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The locks here on the Llangollen Canal are much narrower than they were on the Shropshire Union, some of them having literally just an inch to spare each side of the boat – meaning that you have to lift your fenders so that they don't get stuck.

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Compared with last year's boat trip along the river, we haven't seen as many birds this year. I guess there are different fish in the canal to the river, as well as the type of vegetation that grows along the banks.

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Last year herons were the most common variety, whereas this time it has been swallows. They are so quick the way they dart above the surface of the water, twisting and turning as they go. I set myself a challenge at the start of the trip: to photograph one in flight. I have failed miserably. I did catch this one sitting on a fence though.

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Another unusual bird we have seen a few of this time, is the grey wagtail.

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A wren

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Snow geese

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Pied Wagtail

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My main excitement on the bird front, however; is the reed bunting. I haven't seen one for years and never been able to photograph one before.

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Suddenly Captain Dave exclaims: “Giraffe on the hillside”. It might have looked like a giraffe at first (fleeting) glance in silhouette (giving him masses of benefit of the doubt), but it was of course a deer.

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Not just one deer, several. In fact, a whole deer farm. “As you were guys. Excitement over”.

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Today has been the hottest day of the trip so far, and at times it seems even too hot sitting at the front of the boat. We are glad of the shade when we travel under bridges or overhanging trees. So for mooring tonight, we are looking for shade rather than sun!

We find the absolutely perfect spot: shade from some large trees, a great view, far enough away from other boaters to offer some privacy, and the tow-path wide enough to set up the table, chairs and BBQ. It isn't until we have moored up – after Chris yet again manages to do his signature backward somersault as he tries to pull the boat into the bank with a rope that isn't attached the other end – that we realise we have been beaten to this little piece of paradise by thousands of flying ants! Onward we go.

The next place we stop gets the thumbs down by the crew (Lyn and me) as the local farmer is spreading “fertilizer” on his fields adjacent to the canal. Finally we find a suitable area, with shade and cows in the fields both sides of the canal. Very rural and countryfied.

We'd just settled down with a drink when we notice a cow having very recently given birth. The calf is still limp on the ground and she is licking it.

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We watch with fascination as she tries to gently nudge the little fellah into standing up.

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He manages a few unsteady steps before stumbling down and crumbling into a heap on the ground again.

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He receives a lot of attention from his mum in the way of gentle nudging and a lot of cleaning, but the most he can manage is to raise his head up again. Other mothers come and investigate, as if to offer congratulations and advice on the new baby. Nothing. He remains down. After around half an hour of seeing no life whatsoever from the calf, we decide that we should let someone know. Chris goes off to find the farmer, who seems quite unperturbed about the whole thing. He arrives some time later on his quad bike, prods the baby a little and drives over to tell us that all is well and they usually rest like this for ages after being born when the sun is hot.

Still feeling a little distressed about the situation, we keep a close eye on the mother and newborn while we light up the BBQ and grill some sausages and burgers. And have a drink. Or three. Just to calm our nerves you understand.

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Eventually, quite a few Bratwurst (and Captain Morgan) later, the little'un is on his feet and feeding from his mum. Phew. We can sleep well tonight after all.

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Posted by Grete Howard 10:15 Archived in England Comments (1)

Starting our return journey via Chester

A rude awakening

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View Life in the Slow Lane - Canal Barging with Lyn and Chris 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

I am fast asleep in the middle of the night when I hear an almighty bang. Sitting upright with a jolt and a shout of “Shit! What was that!”, I put my legs over the edge of the bed, only to find something soft underfoot on the floor. It must have been even more of a rude awakening for David – not only does he fall out of bed while asleep; he also has someone try to step on him while he is down!

Ragnar is a well equipped boat for six people, so has ample room for four plus a large dog. However, space is still very restricted on board, and the two single beds in the stern of the boat are extremely narrow at only 50cm wide. For someone who is used to a 200 cm wide super king sized bed, it can be a trifle challenging to try to turn over. David's mattress leans outward and the shifting of weight during a rotisserie-style manoeuvre in the sleep, meant he toppled over the edge.

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Having travelled on Ragnar two years ago, we were fully aware of the size restrictions, so I came prepared with my inflatable Thermarest mattress this time to try and soften up the bed a little to help my back. It certainly helped me sleep a lot better, without waking up every 20 minutes or so with pins and needles or a backache as I did the previous two trips. The “double” bed at the bow of the boat is if possible even narrower comparatively.

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There is plenty of seating on the boat, although none of it comfortable. The dining area converts to another “double” bed if we so desire, but we chose a six berth to have the extra room – not just for the dog, but because the cabins and separate toilets are at either end of the boat for some privacy.

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There is also room for the crew (Grete & Lyn) to sit at the bow of the boat, watching the world go by as the captains (David and Chris) take it in turns to be in charge of the boat.

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Although Lyn did have a go at steering Ragnar for a while.

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Bruno doesn't like the noise or loud bangs / shaking as the boat hits the side of the locks, so we try and get him off the boat and onto the towpath at the earliest opportunity.

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Going through Northgate Staircase on the way up is nowhere near as intimidating – mostly because this time it's manned by a lock-keeper!

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Some locks are easier to open than others – the gates weigh in excess of a ton!

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Mother Moorhen seem to like our suet pellets (which we brought with us because our garden birds back home refused to eat this particular brand!), which they in turn feed to their young. I have to say that baby moorhen are not attractive – they are scrawny and bald, not at all cute as baby birds should be.

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Chester
While everyone else goes for a walk around Chester, I stay on board reading a magazine in the sunshine as my ankle is complaining loudly after overdoing the walking yesterday.

They come back with black bin-bags and a few other items of necessity (toilet roll, wine, bread and bacon), with David claiming vehemently that he has never been to Chester before. I assure him he has, but it isn't until I show him the photos I took last time we were there (on my Flickr account on line); that he actually believes me.

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A short journey through Chester and its suburbs with some pretty amazing properties along the canal-side, we reach the countryside yet again, with its rabbits, geese and horses; and buzzards soaring above.

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After a hard day's work, Chris and Bruno enjoy a well-deserved snooze in the sun before we light the BBQ. At last a reasonably warm evening. Chris and I are now sporting matching bruises: Chris from hitting his shin with a hammer; me from being pushed into the side of the boat when I asked David for a push ON TO the boat.

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Posted by Grete Howard 02:05 Archived in England Comments (0)

Chester Zoo

The animals are not co-operating today

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View Life in the Slow Lane - Canal Barging with Lyn and Chris 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

As I said yesterday, the cooker is not exactly efficient on the boat, but I still manage to make bacon sandwiches for breakfast this morning. I also manage to set off the smoke alarm on the boat.

Today the plan is to take a break from canal boating and visit Chester Zoo, which is a short walk from a mooring point by Bridge 134. Chris stays behind with Bruno, while the three of us set off on foot to get to the animal park. The path goes through the middle of the zoo – although you cannot tell or see any of the beasts from the path unfortunately – to the entrance the other side. With my sprained ankle I am finding it rather painful to walk, but I am determined to get there!

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The zoo is very impressive – beautifully laid out with meandering paths, elevated wooden walkways and large enclosures for the animals.

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The only problem we are finding is that the enclosures are so verdant, to the point of being overgrown, that it is quite hard to spot the animals. As our local zoo in Bristol does not have any of the large animals, these are at the top of our list, such as elephants, giraffe, cheetah, jaguar; but I was also enthralled with the flamingo on her egg and the onager (a new species to us – although it looks suspiciously like a donkey!) All in all, it was a beautiful zoo but the animal spotting – and photography – was somewhat disappointing; as was echoed by a couple of locals we talked to who visit regularly.

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With my ankle feeling extremely sore after four hours of gentle walking – I decide I want to take a taxi back to the boat rather than walk. The Guest Services at the Zoo call a cab for us, but trying to explain to the driver where we want to go proves easier said than done. “Bridge 134 please” “You what? What's the name of the road?” No idea. Eventually, after a lot of explaining, pointing, guessing and a couple of U-turns, we are all singing from the same hymn sheet and the taxi driver finds the road which goes over Bridge 134. Result!

We join Chris and Bruno for a rest stop, watching a couple of guys in army fatigues banging something against the brick built bridge. None of us can work out what on earth they are doing. After a while they walk on over and asks if we have a can opener they can borrow. It turns out they are trying to open a can on sweetcorn (obviously) to bait the fish (of course) so that the fish would hang around for when they bring their rods back after work later (naturally). We not only lend them a can opener but also give them a bunch of suet pellets which the birds don't want.

From Chester we continue along the canal to Ellesmere Port, through some pretty grotty industrial areas where the canal is full of flotsam and rubbish. I miss most of it as I take a nap with my foot on the bed after having overdone the walking this morning.

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Late afternoon sun, dark storm clouds and lovely scenery - just such a shame about the pollution in the water.

For the last couple of days we have all four taken part in the Great Bin-bag Hunt of 2015. We know we packed some, but none of us can find them. I can remember seeing them, as can Chris. Lyn and David deny all knowledge. As the one bag the marina provided us with is now full and beginning to smell, the hunt intensifies. Seeing a retail park near the canal, Lyn and Chris set off on part II of the Bin-bag Hunt. Unsuccessfully as it turns out. David and I meanwhile finally find some swans who actually want our food, although it seems they bite into David's fingers as often as the suet pellets.

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Last year, when we toured the Severn and Avon Rivers, we saw a number of herons, but this year we haven't seen a single one – until today.

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As we pass Bridge 134 again, we see the soldiers in their civilian clothes, sitting on the riverbank, trying to reacquaint themselves with the fish they fed earlier on. Strange hobby. Some fishermen have extremely long rods which stretch right across to the other side of the canal; and they send you looks that could kill as they reluctantly remove it at the very last minute. You'd think that if you fish along a canal you might just expect there to be boats coming along...

We go back to the same place we moored last night and settle down for the night. Chris grabs the rope at the stern to drag the boat in to the edge of the canal, but finds the other end is not attached to the boat and he ends up doing a very spectacular backward somersault into the bushes at the side of the tow- path.

Although the threatened thunderstorm did not materialise this afternoon, it is still too cold to sit outside drinking this evening, so we retire to the "lounge" for the evening.

Posted by Grete Howard 09:31 Archived in England Comments (0)

A 60s day through Northgate Staircase

Flower Power rules!

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View Life in the Slow Lane - Canal Barging with Lyn and Chris 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This is the third year we have shared a narrow boat holiday with our friends Lyn and Chris; and dressing up for a day has now become a ritual. The first year we were pirates, last year we dressed as sailors and this year we chose a 1960s hippy theme.

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Clothes, wigs, 60s music and posters on the side of the boat – there was no doubt to passing boats and pedestrians that we were having a Flower-Power sort of day as we went about our daily boating tasks.

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On the outskirts of Chester, we encounter “The Mad Duck Woman” who is walking around with three carrier bags full of bird food which she doles out to the birds on the waterways, while talking to herself and anyone else who happens to be within earshot. She has a lot of pent up anger towards the boating community as she tells us the sad story of dubious origin about a swan which became stuck in a lock last week and got squashed between two boats and died.

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Today we have another experience, where the canal goes over a the A5480 road at the Deva Aqueduct.

At Northgate Staircase, the Chester Canal goes under the railway in a series of three interconnected locks. As we approach the locks, a boat is coming out and shouts across to us: “You are lucky, you can go straight in”. Which we do, with no further ado.

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Today's captain is David with Lyn and Chris operating the locks, opening the sluices to let the water out of the top lock for us to go down to the next level. Soon all hell is let loose – there is water everywhere! The middle lock is flooding, spouting out water over the pavement both sides of the locks, down the pedestrian slope and the staircase next to the locks. Chris runs over in a panic: “Dave, there is something terribly wrong...” I shout to the ground crew to close the paddle again, which they duly do. Captain David hands over the reign to Captain Chris and goes off to investigate. He figures out that we should have emptied the bottom two locks before emptying the top one into the middle and the middle lock into the bottom one. It makes perfect sense of course had we stopped to think. In our defence, the previous staircase we encountered had an escape channel to the side, so that when you empty the top lock, the middle lock just overflows naturally to the sides. Not this one, here we flooded the entire area.

The locks here are wide enough for two boats side by side, and we share it with a family of three. The mother-in-law is to one side, taking video of the lock with her iPad. She has to jump to safety as the water flows over the top on the lock gates, over the side of the lock and tries to wash her away down the stairs. We are all very concerned that had there been a frail elderly person, or a young child there, they could easily have been washed into the canal.

You can see the water on the side of the canal in the photo below, even after we lowered the level considerably. The water is still flowing over the top of the gates at this stage.

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Once we have it all figured out, the descent runs smoothly and safely, and calm is restored to the boating community yet again.

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The other boat – whose captain and crew were not very confident or experienced – did ask us if we would be available to help them on the way back up again on the return journey in a couple of days' time. We find out later that the flooding happens regularly - at least once a week – and no-one has ever been washed into the canal as the water is not powerful enough. Apparently it always happens when a boat comes out of the top lock at the same time as the boat travelling downstream goes straight into the lock (as we did) rather than pull up next to the huge sign with the instructions. Oh well, you live and learn.

There is absolutely nothing glamorous about sitting in the front of the barge as it goes into or out of the locks. The bottom is dark and smelly, with slippery, muddy, mouldy sides that attract molluscs which will spit dirty water at you like a fountain stream! The scenery is not that great either.

We travel past Chester itself to secure a place to moor for the night, but find it quite difficult as the aroma from a sewage farm keeps following us. Eventually we settle down for the evening and actually have a proper dinner (spaghetti bolognaise courtesy of Lyn). Although the boat is very well equipped, and has a four burner cooker, the bottled gas is extremely slow so cooking is a bit of a challenge.

Normal drinking service assumes after dinner, followed by a few card games.

Posted by Grete Howard 02:53 Archived in England Comments (0)

Ready, steady, slow!

Tranquillity reigns

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View Life in the Slow Lane - Canal Barging with Lyn and Chris 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

This morning at Wrenbury Mill we have to stop the traffic as the main road crosses the lift bridge. Oh the power!

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In fact, it is not just traffic – Lyn is proud to say she stopped an entire bicycle road race!

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Having packed a huge 3kg tub of wild bird food; I get really excited when we spot a duck with her brood this morning. However, they seem totally disinterested in the food and just swim happily by. Humph!

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The swans with their cygnets are equally oblivious to the "delicious" suet pellets.

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Once we enter the Shropshire Canal, life becomes even more tranquil and serene, with surprising little traffic on the waterways.

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In fact, life is so tranquil and slow that we are no longer moving. Oh dear. Not another call-out for an engineer? No power. Again. Nothing. Frustration reigns. This is getting beyond a joke – surely we can't break down again so soon after having the boat fixed yesterday. After a few curse words, and a bit of pushing and shoving; we realise that we are stuck on a sand bank. Grounded. Captain David puts Ragnar into reverse and eventually manages to free us from our predicament. Phew!

Soon we are on our way again, we a few more lift bridges and locks to negotiate before we moor for the night.

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Some of the locks are really quite deep – claustrophobically so – and the sides are very damp and mucky. As I found out when I try to lean out to take a photo and touch the lock walls with my elbow. Yuck!

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It has been a "fleece on – fleece off – fleece on – fleece off" kind of day, and there is still a cool wind so we try to find somewhere to stop for the night with shelter from the wind but in the sun for a bit of warmth.

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For the second evening running, we get too piddled – and to full up – on drinks and snacks to be bothered to cook dinner. This cannot go on!

Posted by Grete Howard 07:15 Archived in England Comments (0)

Life in the slow lane

A week on board a narrowboat called Ragnar

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View Life in the Slow Lane - Canal Barging with Lyn and Chris 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

For the next seven nights, Ragnar will be home for the five of us: Captains David and Chris with deckhands Grete and Lyn; plus Bruno, the Deputy Dawg; as we travel slowly along the Llangollen and Shropshire canals from Whitchurch to Chester and back.

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Picking the boat up is smooth and painless, and as soon as we manage to load our mountain(s) of stuff, we are on our way.

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Our stuff (minus clothes) before we left home. The others have about the same amount again...

As the boat is facing the opposite direction to the one we want to travel, our first task is to find somewhere to turn the boat around. At 57ft, the boat is not exactly easy to manoeuvre, especially as the canals are generally no wide than 30ft. Fortunately, there are a number of turning circles – otherwise known as winding holes in boating speak – where there is enough room to turn your narrow-boat.

To say the the captain of the boat in front of us is inexperienced is a grave understatement – he has obviously just picked the boat up from the marina like we did. Unlike the roads in the UK, on the canals you drive on the right. Well, most people do; this guy is all over the place, and eventually he gets stuck in the reeds on the left hand side of the canal, just before the winding point. Not sure whether he is trying to turn the boat around completely or just totally messing up a right turn, we decide to overtake him and get our own boat facing the correct direction. Captain David makes a smooth turn but our passage is now completely blocked by the wayward boat which is diagonally across the canal. Chris jumps off to try and hold our craft in place while the other captain sorts himself off. There is quite a strong wind today, and both boats are fighting against it. Chris pulls hard on the rope to try and haul Ragnar to the side of the canal, walking backwards across the tow path that follows the length of the canal.

The tow path is much used by joggers, fishermen, dogwalkers as well as people from the boats; and usually everyone gets by with a little mutual respect. Not so with this afternoon's jogger. Maybe it isn't obvious to her that there is a 60ft boat across the canal in front of us? Maybe it isn't obvious to her that there is a strong wind today? Maybe it isn't obvious to her that Chris is trying desperately to pull the boat to the side of the canal? Maybe it is too much for her to wait until everyone has their crafts under control? Whatever her problem is, she voices it loudly and then impatiently tries to climb under the rope. Oh well, you can't please all the people all the time...

Our next “obstacle” is a lifting bridge. We have just a couple of these little bridges on this trip, as well as a total of 66 locks to negotiate. It does not help that I managed to sprain the navicular in my ankle (as well as tear my facia which causes plantar faciitis) less than a week before we left home, so a lot of the hard work is down to Lyn today (and very probably for the next few days).

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Before we even reach the first set of locks, the engine starts whimpering and we lose power. Nothing. No forward, no reverse, no power. We manage to drift into the bank and tie up while the captains look at the engine. No sign of life. We ring the boat yard who promise to send an engineer out. Getting someone out to help you can be quite a problem as a) you are never quite sure exactly where you are, b)the nearest road may be some distance from where we are for the engineer to reach the boat from where he can park his car, and c) not knowing what is wrong with the boat engine, he may not have spares, or even be able to repair it. Not a good start to the holiday.

The repair man arrives reasonably quickly, and assesses the situation. The problem is down to a very dead hydraulic seal. He has a spare one in the van, and manages to eventually get us going again. As long as we can get to the Grindley Brook Staircase (a series of three locks joined together) before the lock keeper goes home for the day, we'll be OK.

No problem. We get there with plenty of time to spare.

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The “cheerful” lock keeper comments that helping boaters these days is becoming more and more like “care in the community”. I later find myself understanding what he means as we encounter a man with a terribly irritating laugh like the comedian Paul Whitehouse in one of his roles; who is travelling an extremely talkative woman.

The rest of the afternoon goes by uneventfully, and as the sun is going down we pick our spot to moor for the night. We set out the table and chairs on the tow path, chatting to passers by and enjoying a drink or two (or three or four). Before we know it, time has passed and we are beyond trying to cook dinner, having snacked on crisps and nuts all evening.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:53 Archived in England Comments (2)

Rodney Bay - Vieux Fort - London - Bristol

It's goodbye to sunshine, Caribbean warmth, traffic free roads and nightly cocktails


View St Lucia 2015 on Grete Howard's travel map.

Our flight doesn't leave until 20:30 this evening, so we have some decisions to make this morning. We can either stay in the hotel until late afternoon and take advantage of the free lunch (or rather pre-paid; there is no such thing as a free lunch); or we can take the long way round to the airport doing some sightseeing on the way. We decide on the latter. I get easily restless and bored, and we have to check out of the hotel by 11:00, so we can't really go anywhere too far in the morning; and having a sunbed for the day is out of the question unless you get up at 05:00 and secure it with a towel.

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We check out of the hotel soon after breakfast and make our way along the west coast rather than taking the main road across the island. There are some beautiful vistas of the rugged coastline along the way.

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Just outside Anse la Raye, we stop at a woodcarving place where we have a lovely long chat with the owner of the workshop – he explains how a university education from England is the most coveted here in St Lucia, way above any others, including the US. Canada is the second best he reckons. Who are we to argue.

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We choose a smallish but somewhat unusual piece for our collection - partly because of the price of the work, partly because we are running out of space for the masks on the walls at home.

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Cape Moule a Chique

From this small peninsula in the far south of the island – with an awesome road leading up the steep hillside – the view is pretty spectacular in every direction.

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Maria Island, a wildlife reserve only accessible by boat and a steep scramble to get ashore.

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Vieux Fort Town - parts of which were the most unsavoury areas we have come across on all our travels criss-crossing St Lucia.

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Hewannorra International Airport

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Vieux Fort Lighthouse is said to be the highest lighthouse in the Caribbean and the second highest in the world at 730ft above sea level. Built in 1912, the lighthouse is no longer in operation.

Naturally we kept an eye out for birds while on the peninsula.

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Grey Kingbird

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American Kestrel

Having driven through the somewhat grotty town of Vieux Fort, we were keen to find somewhere else to stop for lunch. We spot this resort hotel from the top of the hill and decide to head for that for a nice, long, leisurely lunch.

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When we get there, we find that it is an All-Inclusive resort, and the restaurant is not open to non-residents. Time for Plan B. Not sure what Plan B is, so we drive along the coast until we find a cute little rustic beach shack which is also a kite-surfing school. It's a cool, popular, laid back place, set amongst mature trees right on the beach.

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We order a lunch of fish fillet baguettes and the most enormous “basket of fries” I have ever seen – enough for at least six people. I can't even finish the fish sandwich, let alone the fries.

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We stay a while, just chilling with a cool drink, watching the kite surfers out on the bay, the birds in the trees and the dog in the shade, then walk along the beach taking photos. Life is good.

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Carib Grackle

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Antillean Crested Hummingbird

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Tropical Mockingbird

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Makoté Mangrove

With still some time to kill before the flight, we head further along the coast to some mangroves we noticed on the map. This really is off the beaten track, if you can call it a track. Once again we are grateful for the four-wheel drive.

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The mangroves may be remote, but they certainly aren't unspoilt. Judging by the amount of rubbish strewn around and I would say this is a popular BBQ place for local youngsters at the weekend. The beach is not a sunbathing place for sure, with huge amounts of sea weed washed up on the sand.

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I have mentioned several times before how incredibly chilled the St Lucians are. The handover ceremony for the hire car proves just how laid back they are: leave the car in the airport car park, unlocked, with the paperwork and key under the mat.

And there ends another holiday. St Lucia was not how I expected it – good and bad – but thoroughly enjoyable all the same. The All-Inclusive concept and the hotel was way better than I feared, the bird watching a little disappointing, although we did notch up 31 different species in the end, 10 of which were new to us. Would we go again? No. Not because we didn't like it, but because there isn't enough here to warrant a second visit. Would we recommend it? Most definitely!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:33 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Mamiku Gardens

Flowers, birds, butterflies, lizards. And chocolate ice cream.

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Mamiku Gardens

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After finding Millet Reserve closed yesterday, I was concerned about whether Mamiku would be open or not today, but thankfully it is. We are today's first visitors and the guy in the entrance booth comments on the size of my lens. When he hears I am interested in bird watching, he points out the endemic St Lucia Warbler in a tree right inside gate. One more ticked off the list.

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The gardens are nicely laid out on a hillside with well defined paths and a self-guide to all the trees, bushes and herbs from a pamphlet which ties up numbers on the plants with explanations and facts in the leaflet.

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One of the gardeners proudly approaches us to show off their hummingbird nest – hummingbirds are not exactly big birds, and their babies are so unbelievably tiny!

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I am seriously impressed by perfectly formed nest and the amount of accurate and detailed work that has gone in to create it. Clever little things those tiny hummers.

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Mum is hanging around keeping a close eye on her babies.

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On the veranda of the little restaurant, we share a snack with a bullfinch. I had no idea birds enjoyed chocolate ice cream too!

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The lizard is less impressed with the offerings.

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More birds flit around the tables and trees surrounding the café, with special mention to the Red Eyed Vireo which is a new one to us, making the ninth new bird for our “Life List” on this trip. Not a massive amount but still quite exciting.

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Red Eyed Vireo

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Carib Grackle

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Lesser Antillean Bullfinch (female)

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lesser Antillean Bullfinch (male)

We wander up and down the shaded paths which meander around the grounds, admiring the orchids, bougainvillea and other pretty flowers.

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Later we come across a group of mixed nationality cruise tourists. One guest looks at my camera equipment – I am rather laden with not only the 100-400mm on my EOS5DIII around my neck, but also the EOS6D with a Tokina 18-28mm – and quips “You could have traded all that in and got an iPhone, you know.” I grab my mobile from my pocket and hold it up, replying: “like this you mean?” We all chuckle.

We come across a pile of stones representing “Grandpa's House” according to a sign nearby. The house belonged to Henry Shingleton Smith (affectionately known as Grandpa) and was supposedly built in the 1700s. Henry spent most of his life farming this land, mostly coconuts. Henry died in 1948 from pneumonia/malaria, and his son Michael (the current owner of the estate) continued to live in the house until 1952. The last paragraph on the sign amuses me: “Since then, the house has been left relatively uninhabited” Hmm, really?

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I could easily spend all day wandering around the grounds, sitting on one of the many benches dotted around the gardens or in the café with a cool drink watching the birds, but we have a relatively long drive right across the island to get back for our last night in St Lucia.

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Posted by Grete Howard 13:41 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Grand Bois Forest

A drive in the country

semi-overcast 30 °C
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Millet Bird Sanctuary
There are many nature trails in St Lucia, and there is one I particularly want to see due to its high concentration - and ease of spotting – endemic and other birds found on the island: The Millet Trail.

As I have said before, road signs are almost non-existent and maps do not show enough detail; but again we have a pretty good idea about where to find the trail. The road is not too bad (for this country anyway), and when we see signs for Millet School we know we must be getting close. In fact, we find the trail without too much trouble, only a couple of wrong turns this time.

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We also find that the trail is closed. A group of local youths hanging around near the junction offer to show us the (unofficial) trail. We decline as the main reason for coming here is the birds (the kids have no birding knowledge) and the feeding station for said birds – which are inside the fenced off area.

Oh well. We decide to drive into the surrounding forest area instead. Play it by ear and see what we can find.

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Grand Bois Forest

The road becomes more interesting the further into the forest we drive. We meet a timber truck soon after turning off the main road, but no other traffic. There is just us.

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At one stage half the road has been washed away in a landslide, but in typical laid back St Lucian style, there are no warning signs, no safety rails and we just drive by as far away from the crumbling edge as we can possibly make it.

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The road is flanked by some awesome ferns the size of trees, and although it is a fabulous drive; there isn't much to photograph.

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Then I see a movement from the corner of my eye. I beg David to stop the car and to my amazement there is actually small area to pull over just along the road. I get out and start walking. The movement I saw is a hummingbird (Purple Throated Carib) and he is still around.

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Standing still, he seems to perform for me – flitting here and there, from branch to branch, all around me, sticking his tongue out, looking around, landing on a branch straight above my head, then heading for a heliconia to suck its nectar. And then he is gone.

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Can you see his tongue?

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The whole show lasts for about twenty minutes and is absolutely breathtaking. Totally wild, in an area rarely frequented by people, let alone tourists. Awesome!

Banana Plantations

The growing of bananas is big business in St Lucia, and all over the island you see these large fields with blue plastic bags used to keep pests away from the fruit. Much of the production is organic and large signs boasting “Proud to supply Sainsbury's with Fair Trade Bananas” can be seen along the road side.

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We arrive back at the hotel just in time for a (very) late lunch which becomes even later because the restaurant is so busy. Today must be changeover day for tourists, as we see many more people dressed in travel clothes than we normally do, and even a simple dish of a salad takes over an hour to arrive. The pregnant waitress – who looks like she is way too young to be expecting a baby – is very embarrassed about the delay and keeps apologising.

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We spend what is left of the afternoon chilling before the Manager's Cocktail Party this evening. Every week the hotel arranges an evening for the guests to meet the staff – who are very sociable, mingling and chatting with the customers to ensure everyone is having a good time and enjoying their stay.

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The cocktail party is also a platform for local artists and vendors to come and display their wares. I am interested in a carved mask to add to my collection, but find the ones here to be more tourist tack than local art. I will wait.

Posted by Grete Howard 11:08 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Soufriére

Caribbean's only drive-in volcano

semi-overcast
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And today for something completely different. Renting a car is one of the best things we did here in St Lucia – not only has it given us the freedom to do what we want when we want it; it has also saved us tons of money. Take the trip today to Soufriére for instance, if we were to take this as an excursion from the hotel, it would cost us $120 each! For the two of us, that is not far short of the cost of the hire car for the week.

Anse la Raye

Heading down the coast, we pass through small fishing villages where life goes on as it has done for decades - long before the all-inclusive tourists or cruise day-visitors arrived. Clapper-board houses line the narrow streets, fish and fruit markets spill out on the narrow pavements, and people sit on their porch watching life go by.

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We stop a few times along the way at view points overlooking particularly scenic stretches of coastline, or as here, one of the fishing villages which line the shore.

Canaries

Canaries is also known locally as 'Kanawe' and means Amerindian cooking. The small town was founded in the 18th century by the French and until the late 1960s, was only accessible by boat.

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At each of these view points, stalls selling souvenirs have sprung up, often with self appointed “guides” who will tell you a little bit about what you are seeing, in the hope that you will feel obliged to buy something. The highlight of this stop, however, is not so much the view or the tat for sale, but overhearing a St Lucian trying to explain cricket to a bunch of Germans. I'm afraid most of it fell on deaf ears.

Pitons

Although they appear to be standing side by side, the 750m high peaks are in fact on either side of the bay, with three miles separating them. In 1997, the Pitons National Park was declared a UNESCO Heritage site and they are the symbol of St Lucia, appearing on many local goods such as the very pleasant beer by the same name.

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Soufriére

The town of Soufriére got its name from the sulphur mining in the 19th century and is now a quaint village with a sleepy feel.

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The village is a favourite destination for themed boat trips carrying tourists on day trips from their hotels.

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Sulphur Springs Park

The springs were formerly an active volcano which last erupted in 1780, although the last major seismic activity was some 40,000 years ago. Are we due for another any time soon?

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The crater dome of the volcano has collapsed, forming a huge caldera and hotter than boiling sulphur (at 170 °C) still billows from cracks in the walls, and bubbling muds fills murky pools.

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Drive-in Volcano
It is billed as “the Caribbean's only drive-in volcano” - does that mean there are other drive-in volcanoes elsewhere in the world? Until I came here, I really wondered how that worked in reality – I had seen photos of the volcano from Google Earth, but that didn't make me any wiser.

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In reality, after paying your entrance fee, you drive up and park along the side of the road next to the active area. Like most tourist sites in St Lucia, there are no formal arrangements, and everything is very laid back. You do, however, get a guide. Up until a few years ago, you were able to walk in amongst the cracks in the rocks and bubbling pools, but after a fatal accident, the whole area has now been made much more secure and an elevated wooden walkway takes you safely along the sides of the bubbling mud pools, naturally hot waterfalls and fissures with steaming sulphur.

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When thinking of a “volcano”, the first thing that springs to my mind is a cone shaped mountain with a caldera at the top that you can look into after climbing its steep and slippery scree walls. Here the whole area is a caldera, and it is open on one side towards the ocean, so it doesn't look like my traditional image of a volcano.

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Anse Chastanet

Having read about this place on a birding forum, I ams keen to head out to the hotel of the same name for lunch. The narrow, winding, potholed, forest track leading here is an experience in itself, no wonder most tourists arrive here by water taxi!

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The restaurant is set right on the beach and the food is superb. We opt for the dish of the day which is pan seared mahi on a bed of pineapple couscous with a beurre blanc. Easily the best fish lunch on the whole trip!

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As I'd hoped, we have a few birds to entertain us, including the endemic Lesser Antillean Pewee, and two of the three hummingbirds found on the island:

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Green Throated Carib

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Bananaquit

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Zenaida Dove

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Lesser Antillean Pewee

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Antillean Crested Hummingbird

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Grassland Yellow Finch

Castries

St Lucia's capital city has around 70,000 inhabitants. Most of the city’s historic buildings were destroyed by major fires between 1785 and 1948, but there are still some ramshackle backstreet areas where life appears not to have changed in over a hundred years. On our way back to Rodney Bay, we stop on a hill overlooking the town to get a good view.

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We have noticed a huge difference in the atmosphere of the town when there is a cruise ship in port, as well as the number of people of course. The more I see the huge cruise ships, the more I am put off by that kind of holiday; but each to their own. Today the town is quiet.

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While enjoying a little pre-dinner drink on the balcony, I overlook the window of some French guests who also do not know that net curtains become see-through after dark when there are lights on inside. I am beginning to feel like a voyeur!

Posted by Grete Howard 04:11 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

Martinique

There's a reason why the boat is called "Wave Rider"

semi-overcast 29 °C
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An early start this morning for a day trip to the neighbouring island of Martinique. Despite the marina being just around the corner from our hotel, we are one of the last to board. We manage to find a seat at the front of the catamaran, fairly protected from the wind and the spray – the latter of which doesn't become evident until we leave the sheltered area around the marina.

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You know it is going to be a rough crossing when you overhear the captain say: “oh huh, it's a bit choppy out there”.

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This day trip is obviously billed to appeal to those people who are staying in all-inclusive resorts, who don't want to miss out on their cocktails, and as soon as we get on board a young girl comes around with rum punches, and a light breakfast is available inside. Nice friendly crew, although at times it leaves me with a “hi-dee-hi” feeling of being a holiday camp with enforced jollity. Fortunately it is not overdone and once we're on the open seas we can't hear anything over the loudspeakers anyway.

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On the way out of the marina we get a good view of Pigeon Island, and the fort at the top of the hill.

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We are followed for a while by a couple of beautiful Red Bill Tropicbirds with their long, elegant tails.

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A school of flying fish perform near the boat, using their wing-like fins to glide over the water for a considerable distance. The average “flight” of a flying fish is around 50 metres and they are able to stay out of the water for up to 40 seconds. Quite impressive!

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One by one passengers make their way inside as they get drenched by the spray coming over the front and side each time the catamaran slams down into the swells. The video below just shows a very light dusting, as I really don't want to damage another lens – salt water and cameras don't mix well.

Apart from the odd Brown Booby hanging above the boat, there really isn't much to see until we get near to Martinique.

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As we approach land, Fort-de-France (Martinique's capital and our destination) looks very much larger and more commercialised then any town in St Lucia.

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===Martinique===
Martinique is an overseas region of France, and an integral part of the French Republic as well as being a member of the European Union. They speak French and the currency is the Euro. Damn! If I'd known I was going to be visiting the Eurozone, I would have brought some Euros with me as I do have a few stashed away at home. Not that I am really thinking of buying anything.

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Our first stop on arrival in Martinique, is the cruise terminal Duty Free shopping area. Here people rush off to get their cheap cigarettes, alcohol and perfume; while we don't even bother to look at what they are offering for sale apart from picking up a couple of post cards. No stamps available though, but the lady explains to me where the post office is in town. Or at least I think that's what she is telling me; my French is almost non-existent.

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One of the conditions of being able to buy goods without paying excise duty on them, is that you return immediately to you ship. So once everyone is back on board (a few did get somewhat carried away in the store and didn't quite make the allocated return time) we travel the very short distance from here to the main dock, which is conveniently situated right in the middle of the town.

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As part of the day trip, a guided tour of the town has been arranged, starting with the “craft market”, which turns out to be a warehouse on the docks themselves, packed full of souvenir stalls, through which we are herded like cattle. So far our time on Martinique has been exactly how I have always feared cruise ship visits would be, and I am not impressed! We walk from the waterfront area up the side streets through the town. The whole area is tatty, run down and totally devoid of charm.

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Our second stop on the walking tour is the St Louis Cathedral, a late 19th-century Romanesque Revival church of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese. The original cathedral was built in 1657, but it, and the subsequent five cathedrals built on this site, has been destroyed by various natural disasters that have plagued Martinique over the years. The current structure dates back to 1895 and was built with an iron frame in order to withstand these calamities – but of course is now totally rusty!. Hence it is currently covered in scaffolding. The church's main claim to fame is that it was designed by Gustave Eiffel, and as far as I can see, its only redeeming feature.

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In fact, I get more excited about the reflection of the church in the modern glass building behind it.

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The tour is led by one of the crew from the boat, and although she is very sweet, she lacks enthusiasm and knowledge about her subject, reading the information from a small notebook. We decide to opt out of the rest of the trip - which includes the library and another shopping stop at the spice market - to go in search of the Post Office and a pair of swimming shorts for David instead.

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We find the post office. Closed. We ask in a couple of small souvenir shops if they sell stamps. They don't, and they cannot understand why the post office is shut. Great! We have more luck with David's swimming shorts, and fortunately he can pay by credit card so doesn't need to change any money into Euros.

Unfortunately the fort by the entrance to the wharf is also closed, so we rather dejectedly return to the boat where a BBQ lunch is being served. And guess what? They've run out of chips! The burger is nice though.

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Fort St Louis

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We are joined by a shirt-less pot bellied Scotsman who is around 4ft 6in tall with facial hair in places where no human should have facial hair. Like his appearance, he has a clown-like personality, and I am not sure whether it is a good or a bad thing that I can't understand most of what he says.

From Fort-de-France we make our way along the coast, and the biggest excitement of the day so far is seeing a Marine sea-rescue exercise. A man is lowered from a helicopter into the water and picked up by others in a rubber dinghy – like something out of a James Bond movie.

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At the black sandy bay of Anse Noire, we have free time to swim, snorkel, sunbathe or just chill.

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The snorkelling is extremely well organised, with everyone provided with an inflatable buoyancy aid (great idea!) which not only helps those swimmers who are less than confident in deep water (such as David), but it also helps the crew to keep track of where everyone is. Not only do they have a lead snorkeller at the front, one of the crew members goes out in a kayak to keep an eye on everyone – I am very impressed with this set up and their attention to health and safety.

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Rocher du Diamant

During the Napoleonic wars, the British built fortifications on the top of this "island" and hoisted two 18-pounder cannons to the summit! Looking at the sides of the rock, this seems like a physical impossibility! 120 men were stationed here, with caves on the Rock serving as sleeping quarters for the men; the officers used tents. For two years the rock was the stronghold of the British before being captured by the French. It has now been handed over to the local birds.

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The 175m high basalt island - Diamond Rock - gets its name from the reflections that its sides cast at certain hours of the day, which evoke images of a precious stone. In reality, the glistening white material is guano – bird poop!

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On the way over, people were fighting to get the front seats on the outside deck of the boat. For the return crossing, there is only four of us out there. Such wimps! There are an awful lot of green faces during the crossing, and a few hasty visits to the facilities. OK, so it is pretty rough, and we do get absolutely soaked to the skin, but it is a lot of fun!

Trying to get some pictures of the Brown Boobies hanging on the thermals above the boat is challenging to say the least! Not only the usual complications of trying to photograph flying birds; attempting to hold the camera steady with a long lens attached when I am bobbing up and down on the ocean, is more miss than hit.

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Having recently read this story about photographer Dawn Kish who ended up looking rather battered and bruised after encountering rough waters, I am a trying very hard to be careful not to hit myself in the face with the camera in the process.

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I finally manage to get a few decent shots of the Boobies.

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We return to the hotel tired and windblown, and although we both enjoyed our day trip to Martinique, I can't say it was good value at $200 per person. I did, however, come back with more than I bargained for: a sunburn! I obviously did not take into account the reflection of the sun on the water. Plenty of moisturiser and the red will turn to brown in a couple of days.

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When David orders a cocktail called “Kiss Sex Goodbye”, I realise it isn't going to be my night. Our favourite waitress, Cathy, teases him about it relentlessly.

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I am not sure whether she is showing off her exhibitionist side, or if she has just lost her common sense, but one of the single girls in the hotel goes back to her room which is on the ground floor right next to the restaurant. From where I (and numerous others) am sitting, I get a perfect view when she changes her clothes as she hasn't bothered to draw the curtains. No pictures of that, sorry.

Cathy (the waitress) confirms that the Jerk Chicken is spicy and she is somewhat taken back when I tell her to ask the chef for extra chilli. When she brings the dish out, she jokes about getting me a large jug of water.

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The chicken, like everything else we have eaten at this hotel, is lovely, but even with the extra chilli I would say it is still only a 5-6 on the Grete Scale of Spiciness.

Posted by Grete Howard 08:07 Archived in Martinique Comments (0)

Cotton Bay and Union Nature Trail / Mini Zoo

Getting lost is half the fun


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It always takes a while to get used to “Island Time” where there is no rush, people are perpetually laid-back and time-keeping is an alien concept. One of the German guests in the hotel really has not adapted to this mentality yet, as she tries to storm the breakfast gates when the restaurant does not open at 07:30 as advertised. The otherwise friendly staff are not amused by her thunderous face (really not a pretty look), and they still carry on regardless, taking no notice of her. Take a chill-pill woman!

After a half-hour “fitness massage” (which in reality is nothing more than a hard rub and does little to alleviate David's continuing bad back), we grab our gear and head for the hills. The higher we climb, the worse the road becomes. I have seen smoother dried-up riverbeds. Thank goodness for the four-wheel drive and great tyres!

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Travelling at slower-than-walking pace has its advantages as we spot a few birds along the way:

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Common Ground Dove

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Cattle Egret

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Mangrove Cuckoo

Cotton Bay

Beginning to think that we are somewhat geographically misplaced, we are happy when we finally come across some road construction workers toiling away in the tropical heat. “Which way to Cotton Bay”? They put us right. Just around the corner is a nice, smooth road, which in fact would have taken us directly to the bay without the need for the last hour-and-a-half of off-roading; but I bet it wouldn't have been as much fun!

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Cotton Bay is a small crescent shaped bay which is a haven for horse riders and kite surfers, with the occasional jet-skiier thrown in for a little excitement. The riders look like they are having a lot of fun, riding bare-backed and bikini-clad into the ocean.

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Lots of trees shade the beach, with some perfectly placed branches for chilling.

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There is even some eye-candy for us women too.

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Overhead, brown boobies circle, occasionally dipping in the water to pick up some lunch. After strolling the length of the bay, we decide we too are in need of some refreshments, and a rustic beach café provides just the place. We are joined by a friendly and inquisitive Lesser Antillean Bullfinch which flits between the tables, chairs and serving counter.

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Having quenched my thirst, I head around the corner to check out a wooded area for some more birds. A beach salesman approaches me eagerly, and seems somewhat surprised when I explain my quest. “You looking for birds”? he says, puzzled, then “there's one”. I look in the direction of his pointing finger and see a grackle on a branch high above me – a bird which is found on every street and in every garden on the island, much as sparrows are back home. “There's another” the salesman volunteers, pointing to a fast flitting black shape between the trees. Hoping I'd be eternally grateful and repay his generous birding tips by buying some tacky souvenir from his stall, he continues to point out grackles to me for the next ten minutes. His sales ploy isn't working and we decide to head off for some more exploring.

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Turning off the main road, we find ourselves driving past some amazingly luxurious villas. The road, however, leads to a dead end. And the next road. And one more.

Although distances are not great - St Lucia is only about 28 miles long and 14 miles wide – driving times are usually much longer than they would be if covering the same distance at home. There is basically only one main road on the island, plus a number of tracks in various degrees of good, bad and bloody awful state. We soon find ourselves in the middle of nowhere (red arrow on map below), having come from Cotton Bay (blue arrow) and wanting to get to Rodney Bay on the north west coast. After five of the roads end in nothing, we eventually approach a woman waiting at a bus stop on a five way road junction: "which direction to Rodney Bay"? We know approximately where we are from the name of the school, but as we are on the highest point of the ridge, and all roads lead downhill from here, it is hard to judge which way to go to get back to the hotel.

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We make it back in time for lunch, which seems to take forever to arrive. The fish burger is worth waiting for though, this is none of your 'regurgitated, reshaped, covered in breadcrumbs and deep fried' stuff, what I get is a plain, steamed fish fillet on a toasted bap, smothered in fresh salsa.

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The lunchtime menu is somewhat limited in the blu Hotel, and does not change the whole week we are there. It is more than adequate, however, and having tried every single item listed, I can confirm it is all good!

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After a short rest we head for Union Nature Trail and Mini Zoo. We have been unable to find a decent street map of the island and road signs are almost non-existent, but we have a general idea of where the Nature Trail is located from the Forestry Commission website. We find Union village (as identified from the name of a school. Again.) so realise we must be in the correct general area. The website suggests the trail is just off the main road, with a large visitor's building. It certainly isn’t obvious. When it becomes clear that we have driven way too far, we try to turn the car around – not easy on these single track roads – and venture down a few of the little side roads off the main drag. When we find they all take us to a residential area, we finally give in and ask a young chap on the side of the road if he can direct us to the Union Nature Trail. He looks at me blankly, but when I mention Mini-Zoo, his eyes light up in recognition. “Down that way, turn right, then left and left again” he tells us, pointing right. Not sure whether his verbal directions or pointing hands are correct, I look at him quizzically. “Left, left” he repeats, this time pointing in the correct direction. OK, so that is settled then.

The car park for the trail has half a dozen cars in it, so we are confident we have come to the right place. We wander in through the open gate towards the Visitors Centre and ticket booth. Locked. No-one about. We shout out. No-one home. We try the doors upstairs. Nothing. The toilet doors are open however, so at least we can use the facilities.

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We decide to walk around the zoo anyway expecting the person in charge to just come over to us when they arrive back so that we can purchase our entrance ticket. The zoo really is “mini”, and consists of half a dozen aviary style cages, although the first thing we see is a wild merlin sitting on a tree stump.

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The cages contain animals such as the St Lucia Iguana, terrapins, agouti and the indigenous St Lucia Parrot, but it is very hard to photograph any of them as the netting is very fine and you can't get close to the cages.

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The whole thing is very sad and depressing (although the animals appear well fed and in good condition), and I am not sorry when no-one turns up and we can just leave. We never do find the hiking trail, so we give up and go back to the hotel for a cocktail (or five) instead.

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Posted by Grete Howard 05:58 Archived in Saint Lucia Comments (0)

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