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Caribbean Odyssey

19th March to 2nd April 2014

Grand Cayman to Antigua aboard the MS Island Sky

 

Wednesday, 19th March 2014 - Georgetown, Grand Cayman


Grand Cayman is quite the grand place. We saw lots of attractive new buildings as we drove in from the airport -- a response to the growing tourism and financial industries here. With the Caribbean sun beaming down on us, we made our way along the dock past thousands of big-ship passengers to board our lovely wee Island Sky and were welcomed aboard by the crew and staff. Most folks came aboard the Island Sky at 6:30, were greeted like the old friends may are by the Reception Ladies, Thea, Lynn and Sally. Before our first dinner aboard we fit in the emergency briefing, and set our clocks forward one hour before gratefully falling into our snug little beds.

 

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Thursday, 20th March - Cienfuegos, Cuba


After the hour’s clock change last night it was lovely to have the opportunity for a little lie-in with our morning at sea. After breakfast, a briefing by Pam on the itinerary for the trip and information about the ship was followed by an introduction to the staff, and then Pierre gave us an introduction to Cuba before lunch. He told us about the 1959 revolution and what daily life is like for the average Cuban today.

Cienfuegos is located in the very protected Bhaia de Jagua on the south coast of Cuba, and our little ship was able to sail right into the main dock. We disembarked after lunch for our walking tour of the town, visiting first the lovely Palacio del Valle, a Moorish style hotel from the 1930’s, where a pig roast was in progress in the gardens. Our guide took us up the ornate stairway to the top balcony where we had a beautiful view of the waterfront area of the town. After refreshments we got back on the buses for the drive out to the beautiful botanical gardens with their enormous varieties of trees, including the sausage tree from Africa (Kigalia africana), several members of the Brazil nut family (Lecythis sp.) and balsa wood (Ochroma pyramidale).

After strolling through the gardens we took the buses back down to the main town through the mile-long plaza with its ornate, 19th century buildings, many needing a coat of paint and some TLC, and had a short walking tour to the main square Parque Martí, where we were able to visit the lovely Therry Theatre, built in Italian style in 1888, where Caruso once sang. Back onboard we sailed back out through the Bay’s narrow entrance at 6:30 pm as we dressed in our finest and joined the Captain and officers for the welcome cocktail and dinner.


Friday, 21st March - Trinidad, Cuba


As we enjoyed our breakfast the ship sailed into Casilda Harbour and authorities came on board to clear us into the province of Sancti Spiritus. At 9:30 we boarded coaches for a full-day programme to visit the UNESCO World Heritage Site city of Trinidad and the surrounding area famous for its sugar-cane plantations. En route we dropped in to visit a pottery workshop where all the artisans were already hard at work creating a huge variety of porcelain and clay vases, bowls, cooking pots, figures and jewellery. Although tourism is unquestionably the biggest industry here, many of the handmade things are utilitarian and for local consumption, including offering bowls for the Orishas (spirits) of the Santeria religion which is still practiced.


Once in the town we were dropped in one of the cobbled streets and took a leisurely stroll through colourful neighbourhoods sprinkled with small private souvenir stalls fronting peoples’ houses and the odd private B&B or rental house as we approached the historic centre of Plaza Mayor. We were invited into La Canchancharra, a bar-restaurant which specialised in a cocktail based on aguardiente, un-matured rum sweetened with honey. As music is everywhere in Cuba, we were, naturally, entertained by an enthusiastic and talented quartet as we fortified ourselves for the morning ahead. Entering the Palácio Cantero we visited a Casa de Santaria, where there was an exhibition of the paraphernalia used by those who practice this fusion of Catholicism and African traditional religions. We returned to the Plaza Mayor to visit the Museo Romantico with its ornate Rococo-revival and Art Nouveau furniture and decor. The rich palazzos of this square hark back to the time when sugar was king and plantation owners were the royal families. By now it was time for lunch, so our guides led us to the Santa Ana Restaurant for a buffet-style Cuban lunch with a varied repertoire of fish, chicken and meats with side dishes and – most welcome – cold drinks including some very refreshing Cuban beer.


After lunch we remounted the buses and drove to the Valley of the Sugar Mills, where we saw the production machinery and the contrasting housing conditions of the plantation owners and the slaves who actually grew the sugar cane. The drive took us to a plantation originally belonging to the Isnaga family, where some of those who had imbibed too much sugar this morning charged to the top of the old tower which had been used in the 19th century to survey the property and keep an eye on the slaves, and may also have been used as a fire tower. It was hard to resist the many insistent sellers of a variety of beautiful and interesting handmade items of worked cotton, wood, metal and grasses. People here can do so much with so little! And it is evident that there are advantages to not having the opportunity to play video games and browse the internet.


We drove back into Trinidad just as rain descended – once again, we had perfect timing! The countryside here is magnificent with a backdrop of mountains against fertile valleys with their geometrical layouts of crops including bananas, tobacco, sugar cane, and a variety of vegetables. With the shortage of petrol, most people here rely on old-fashioned methods of travel and we saw many folks on horseback or in horse-drawn carts, and working fields with oxen and horses. As Pierre told us in yesterday’s lecture, Cuba’s ecological footprint is the smallest in the world. It leads to a way of life that may be poorer in some material goods but reflects a slower and maybe more enjoyable pace of life. There is time to spend with family and enjoy life’s music. This evening we had our first recap, with Jane telling us about the rhythms and dances of the Caribbean and John describing some of the trees we’ve seen (along with a poem to the pod), after which Pam gave us a quick briefing on Zodiac operations. We finished the before-dinner activities with Conrad’s instructions on snorkelling and the fitting of fins and masks. Bring on the coral reefs!

 

Saturday, 22nd March - Sailing the south coast of Cuba


A day at sea was very welcome after a couple of very busy ‘touring’ days and many of us took advantage of the quiet morning to have a bit of a lie-in before a leisurely breakfast. Off the port side we could see the lovely cays of the Jardins de la Reina, a protected natural park where access is strictly restricted – not a bad idea for this heavily-trammeled part of the world. With breakfast over, Denis gave us a presentation of the birds of this part of the world, outlining some of the interesting adaptations and behaviours of the local species we may see. We learned that anhingas (“evil/ghost bird”), are true water birds and the only ones that can actually do a freestyle stroke, and green herons use their old feathers as lures, and then Denis went on to describe the habitats and characteristics of some of the raptors and land birds we can hope to see – with a short interruption by the sperm whale show!


After some extended whale watching and a small coffee break, we reassembled in the lounge for 638 Ways to Kill Fidel, with Pierre, who spun the tale of the remarkable life of Cuba’s Castro and the many plots by people in the USA to get rid of him. A couple of old film clips enlivened the morning and brought back (childhood of course!) memories to many of us. After a post-lunch break for an afternoon siesta, Jane invited all those who wanted to try their hand at some watercolour painting to join her in the lounge. The first lesson consisted of some advice on materials and then a session of colour-mixing using only Phalo Blue, Permanent Rose and Windsor Yellow. Some weird and wonderful colour combinations ensued! This was followed by an ice cream social on the Lido Deck and then Hannah gave us an introduction to Life in the Seas, giving us the categorical background on the many biological forms to be found on a diving or snorkelling trip.

 

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Sunday, 23rd March - Santiago, Cuba


The home of the revolution welcomed us with a rather dense smog emanating from the three refinery chimneys near the entrance to the harbour – although to be fair, this might have been augmented somewhat by an early morning sea mist. At any rate it made for some great photo ops as we sailed past the impressive bulk of El Morro Fortress as Pierre narrated over the PA, and into the dock near the downtown area of Santiago de Cuba.


Our guides welcomed us back – we’ve had the same ones since our first day at Cienfuegos, so they are becoming old friends – and we boarded the buses for our morning tour. This took us back out to the Fortress, which is even more imposing as you climb the hill to the outer wall and cross the drawbridge. It’s quite a warren of rooms, open walkways, staircases and drill squares, not to mention the odd cave in which you can imagine the on-duty sentries holing up for a smoke during the rainy season; at least when the sergeant wasn’t watching. The views from the ramparts were lovely: although this is a highly industrial area with both refinery and mines contributing to the air and water pollution, it is also very picturesque with its rocky white beaches and misty mountains in the distance. Back into town again as the buses stopped briefly at the Moncada Barracks where Fidel set off the 1953 revolution – more of a failed rebellion at that early stage, and he ended up in prison for his trouble – which eventually saw Cuba break the shackles of American capitalism and establish the first communist republic in the New World in 1959. The city takes great pride in its role as the birthplace of the nation and there are many public statues and squares to its heroes.


A highlight of the morning’s tour was the Museo Ambiente Histórico Cubano, the country’s oldest residence, which was built for the city’s founder Diego Velázquez in 1515 and has miraculously preserved the architecture of that early period along with furniture and fittings of the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries, including magnificent woodwork in the ceilings, shutters and doorways. A visit to the beautifully-manicured Santa Ifigenia cemetery rounded out the morning. Here the heroes of the Revolution are laid to rest with appropriate ceremony amongst those wealthy ex-patriots whose lands and riches they expropriated on behalf of the new government. One wonders if there is lot of rolling going on under the pristine marble stones.


We had a free afternoon and after a cold beer and some lunch a few energetic souls opted to stroll back into the town to do some shopping or enjoy another cold one with music. By dinnertime the pilot was back onboard and we slipped our lines and headed away from this beleaguered country which nevertheless manages to feed, educate and keep healthy into a ripe old age a large population of very diverse and very engaging people. We toasted their success with the Colonial Cuba Cocktail Party in properly revolutionary dress but typically decadent style. 

 

Monday, 24th March - Great Inagua, Bahamas


Jane kicked off the morning at sea with “Fusion” an account of the settlement and cultures of the Caribbean, which included the archaeological picture of the earliest people up to the recent development of the Rastafarian religion, featuring some of the region’s most famous artists and their culturally-significant works. After a break for coffee, Pam filled us in on plans for the rest of today and some options for the following days, after which Rick gave us Marine Mammals with some information on the identification and behaviours of the whales we’ve encountered so far and those we might – if we spend lots of time looking – see if lucky. Adaptations of these amazing creatures include dark and light colouration which might help provide camouflage, special throat pleats to help with filter-feeding, and specialised tails and hindquarters for diving.


With an excited group of Inaguans coming aboard for a tour, lunch, and presentation of a beautiful glass sculpture to welcome the ship, we prepared to go ashore in the Zodiacs for the first time for an afternoon of exploring and swimming on the Island Sky’s first-ever visit to Great Inagua. The first caravan set off to explore the island in a motley array of vehicles as the Zodiacs brought in the swimmers and snorkellers, and when they returned an hour and a half later the first group went out to see the pink flamingoes and a bit of the island. It was a shock to see the dry scrub vegetation after the rich farmland of Cuba – it must be so hard to have a garden here! But the beach...ohhh, the beach...it was heaven, with the white sand, the blue-green water, the blue skies and a coral reef almost within wading distance. What a lovely place – a new destination for our little ship.


Pierre kicked off our recap with information about Guantanamo Bay Naval Base, and John finished by handing out star charts and explaining how to use them to find the constellations. We are hoping that tonight will bring clear skies!

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Tuesday, 25th March 25 - Grand Turk, Turks and Caicos Islands


The star searchers reported success from last night as they drifted in for breakfast – with the dark skies far out at sea, the Pleides, Orion and many lesser constellations appeared bright and clear. As we had breakfast the Captain and crew brought the ship neatly in to the new private cruise ship dock at Grand Turk, and we were narrowly followed in by Holland America’s huge Eurodam.


As soon as we’d finished breakfast we were ushered out through the cruise terminal to our morning activities. Some had opted to take a submarine tour of the nearby coral reefs, while others walked over to a waiting catamaran for a sail to another reef which is reserved for snorkelers. This one, called The Library, lies on the edge of a shelf that drops off into deep ocean, and is inhabited by many different species of fishes and corals. Our guides brought along some fishy food for the denizens and as we dropped into the water, we were immediately surrounded by fish of every size, shape and colour imaginable, all gathering for the free breakfast. We had a wonderful time exploring the shelf – even those newbies to snorkelling who’d been nervous yesterday swimming beyond their standing level suddenly found themselves happily floating above the deep blue dropoff, too immersed in the busy marine life below to worry about minor details like depth of water.
The guides called us back to the boat and we motored closer to the nearby beach where they dropped anchor again and we were able to snorkel in shallower water where the coral was not so diverse but many fish were closer without the aid of the feeding. Here a lucky few spotted a nurse shark resting on the sand and got some terrific photos of this harmless – to humans -- predator.


With all this new experience under our belt we were called back to the boat again for drinks and a mid morning muffin before the sails were set for the home port. A happy, tired, and bedraggled group returned to the ISK for lunch which most opted for on the sunny Lido Deck, where we could watch the Eurodam preparing for its departure. Free of the dark shadow of our former neighbour, we enjoyed the rest of the day as the only ship in port. The afternoon was devoted to a serious tour of the Island with chatty driver-guides who took enormous pride in showing off their native land, taking us to a beautiful lighthouse, touring us through beautifully preserved old neighbourhoods, showing off the high points of land with their view of the protective reef that nearly rings the Island, and most especially the wonderful local museum with its great exhibits. These included the story of the finding and excavation of the Molasses Reef wreck which is the New World’s oldest ship discovery, most probably dating to somewhere between 1500 and 1520, although locals like to think it may be Columbus’ lost Pinta. It’s entirely possible as his first landfall may have been Great Inagua, where we were yesterday, and his first settlement was at La Isabella on what is now Haiti, not that far away. Other exhibits in the museum featured the Lucayans, one of the Taino groups which occupied the Bahamas and these Turks and Caicos Islands until European settlers destroyed their civilisation; and other, more recent local history. Arriving back at the Island Sky in time for dinner and immediately set sail on our overnight passage to Hispaniola.


Wednesday, 26th March - Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic


This morning we came into a busy dock at Puerto Plata in order to take on fuel and do a major resupply for the ship, so Pam arranged a tour for us to see the sights of this, the capital of the Dominican Republic. The first stop was at the nation’s – and in fact the Caribbean’s – only cable car, which took us up nearly 800 m to the top of Isabel de Torres Mountain in the national park. What a cool oasis this was: early morning here is peaceful and green with lots of birds hopping around in the trees, and new flowering bushes being planted amongst those flowers already in bloom.


Our guide took us to visit the beautifully-displayed Christ the Redeemer statue, a copy of the one in Rio de Janeiro, and on to a small artificial lake nestled in the trees below the main pathways. All too soon it was time to get back on the cable car for the 10 minute ride back down to the buses and on to the Brugal Rum Factory, where a tasting convinced some to buy a bottle or two. The Amber Museum tour gave us an interesting history and exhibit of this precious tree sap which is made into beautiful jewellery for sale in the attached shop. Our final stop was at the Fort of San Filipe, built in 1577 to defend the town, mainly from pirate attacks by the like of Sir Francis Drake – a hero in Britain but a scoundrel to folks in this part of the world. Afternoon naps were followed by the opportunity to do some more watercolour painting with Jane, and a talk by Hannah illustrated with the beautiful paintings of Marianne North, a Victorian-era painter who traveled around the world and recorded the native plants and landscapes. At recap Rick gave us some information on sperm whales and Conrad showed us some footage he was able to capture of the coral reef fish we’ve seen during our snorkelling expeditions.


Thursday, 27th March - La Romana, Dominican Republic


Overnight the Island Sky cruised around the east end of Hispaniola and by breakfast time we were tucking into the third-largest town in the DR, La Romana, for a morning ashore. Our tour took us first to the Cueva de las Maravillas, one of the archaeological gems of the Island. This huge limestone cavern was rediscovered in the 1920s and only in 2003 opened to the public. It was sacred to the Taino who covered some of its inner walls with about 500 pictographs of their most powerful guiding spirits. The cave itself was enormous and very well equipped with lighted stairways tracing their way through the most visited galleries, including one which was probably a place where ceremonies were held as it had evidence of burials and fireplaces.


Outside the cave again, we watched the feeding time for protected iguanas – a food animal to the Taino - whose population was nearly wiped out with the increased traffic around the cave during the 20th century. Now there are so many they are actually selling some onwards. The next stop was the artificial Medieval town of Altos de Chavon, a popular local wedding venue with its pretty church (we were informed that Michael Jackson was married there...probably not the best advertisement for couples in love) and cobbled streets and alleyways. Lots of attractive shops and a few nice restaurants fill much of the space, but the biggest attraction for us was the small but wonderful Archaeological Museum with its excellent didactic panels and a fine collection of well-documented tools, household goods and ceremonial items.


After a quiet afternoon at sea for resting and recuperation, Jane’s talk, How archaeology changed our idea of the Caribbean, described some of the recent professional excavations in the Islands and how they have changed the picture of the Taino and Carib Indians and their predecessors, and how marine archaeology is contributing to the tragic story of European settlement here. After Pam’s evening briefing about tomorrow’s visit to the British Virgin Islands, we were given a peek at the lovely illustrated chart of the voyage featuring Hannah’s drawings, which will be the raffle prize for contributing to the Phillippine Relief Fund, a Noble Caledonia project to help fisherfolk affected by last year’s catastrophic typhoon to buy new boats. Following dinner the crew thanked us by putting on an entertaining show featuring each of the ship’s departments in a variety of song, dance and skits.



Friday, 28th March - British Virgin Islands


Jost van Dyke is one of the smaller inhabited BVIs, and like most others, is steeply mountainous and heavily treed. One can imagine the first people making their way along the Lesser Antilles in their dugout canoes landing here and nodding to one another: yes, this is more like it – it looks more like our rainforest home on the Orinoco; we can make a living on islands like this. The best beach for swimming here is on the other side, and a few energetic folks hiked the mile over the hill to try their luck in the waves; the swimming was pretty exciting!


While we had lunch the ship went on to Tortola for a visit, hastily arranged with the local agent by Pam when our planned stop at Virgin Gorda proved unadvisable due to the high winds. Alongside at the pier in the capital of the BVI, Road Town, we proceed to board small buses for an often-precipitous tour right around the Island with photo stops at some of the most stunning vistas of blue-green sea and nearby islands, including Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island. A highlight was the interesting mural hand painted by local artists, which follows the highway for several hundred metres and illustrates some of the history of the island. With a bit of time to spare we stopped for half an hour in Cane Garden Bay for refreshments. Some folks wandered on to the beach for a little paddle, avoiding the crashing waves, and others discovered little gems in the settlement such as the glass-blowing studio where the artist was recycling crushed glass bottles to create some pretty tableware and ornaments. Alongside until ten p.m., we took our time returning to the ship, encountering many of the crew who were ecstatic at the change in plans as it allowed them a few moments on terra firma and a chance to phone home.

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Saturday, 29th March – St. Bart’s


It’s the big regatta day in St. Bart’s and the harbour was chockablock with magnificent yachts, many with uniformed crew preparing for the race. A few folks opted out of the morning tour of the island in order to watch the start at eleven o’ clock, while others had decided to do a trip of the Yellow Submarine instead. Still others wandered the upscale shops and restaurants along the seafront promenade which stretches right around the sheltered harbour.


Some really amazing sailing yachts were tied up there, with their crews forming little knots on deck to strategize about the upcoming races. These events are serious business for their owners, who are often corporate entities using the prestige of the events as advertising for their businesses. Many Europeans also own luxurious homes here, often situated high on the hillsides to enjoy the beautiful views over this and nearby islands. The regular folks have small houses or apartments along the streets behind the main drag with no view other than the loading docks for the chain stores in front of them.
Many folks took advantage of the on-demand Zodiac shuttles going on all day until 9 tonight to come and go from ship to shore for various activities, but everyone was back in time to enjoy the BBQ on the Lido Deck, with live music and crew dressed to kill in their Caribbean colours – and the bar gang in Rasta dross.

 

Sunday, 30th March 30 –Nevis


After breakfast we boarded Zodiacs for our trip ashore to meet our buses and guides for the morning tour of the island, which took us first to the “hot pools”; a toasty reminder that this is a volcanic island; then past the lovely stone 17th c church where Admiral Nelson married his lovely Fanny, to a derelict former hotel which even earlier had been a sugar plantation, now for sale at $6 milllion – but there was no sale this morning. From here we went on to the beautiful Nevis botanical garden, where a gardener took us round the paths and rattled off the names of the flowers, trees and other plants with impressive authority. We were only half listening, spellbound by the beauty of the place, its soft tinkling fountains and waterfalls proving a lovely backdrop to dramatic plantings of colourful botanical specimens from all over the world. In the greenhouse we were greeted politely by a friendly trio of bright green, blue and red parrots with a “good morning” followed by a wolf whistle. I guess they’re ready for whoever turns up.


After a cold drink and a quick stop at the attractive and nicely stocked giftshop, we reboarded the buses for the Nelson Museum with its exhibits on the life of the Admiral as well as a few native artifacts, and then it was on to the the Nevis Museum, Alexander Hamilton’s birthplace. Duty done to the island’s history, we returned to the ship for lunch before donning bathing costumes and heading back to shore again for a bus shuttle out to Pinney’s Beach for a relaxing afternoon of swimming and sunbathing. Being Sunday afternoon, a few local families were there with their children who seemed to be having at least as much fun as we were. Although the getting in and out was challenging, through a lively surf, almost everyone went in for a long swim in the warm water – such a welcome and relaxing break from our busy sightseeing schedule. Recap tonight brought Rick to the mike with information on the sperm whale and the uses of its precious oil, Pierre with highlights from Horatio Nelson’s life, Hannah on some of the small and unusual animals we have seen on the trip, Conrad on useful plants we saw this morning at the botanical garden, and John with some hints on identifying botanical specimens. Pam wrapped it up with our plans for tomorrow at Montserrat and the following one at Ile des Saintes, and – amazingly – it was time to eat again: dinner! Will we be up or down tonight?


Monday, 31st March - Montserrat


It was another lovely Zodiac day today with a wakeup drive ashore to catch the buses for our island tour of Montserrat’s highlights, stopping at the National Trust gardens before heading on to the Volcano Observatory to view a film and exhibits on the devastating eruption that destroyed the island’s capital, Plymouth in July of 1995, along with its airport and docks. The Soufriere Hills had been dormant for living memory but continued to erupt for fifteen years before going semi-quiet again in 2010. People are still not allowed to live or visit the pyroclastic zone as no one is certain it is yet safe. Volcanos aside, the island has its share of other miseries: in 1989 Hurricane Hugo destroyed or damaged ninety percent of the island’s buildings and infrastructure. This series of misfortunes has virtually destroyed the tourism industry here which is now struggling to rebuild, and removed over half the population which had no housing. Today a new capital is under construction and the new airport receives several flights a day.


We arrived back at the dock to find the Zodiacs waiting for along with some busy herons, egrets, pelicans and a lone kingfisher, all of whom had been busily catching fish all morning while we were off exploring.
During a late lunch we were able to sail along the Exclusion Zone and have some close views of the destruction and the awesome power of the volcano’s flows before turning towards our stop for tomorrow at Iles des Saintes. We had hardly made the turn before a couple of sperm whales decided to make an appearance and keep us idling closer to Montserrat a while longer. After some good photo ops they decided they’d had enough of our rubbernecking and vanished, giving us the impetus to go inside for John’s lecture on Continents and Islands, in which he explained why you find certain plants and animals on islands, and what happens to make species disappear. He concluded with some examples of tropical islands and the kinds of abundant life that is often found there and the idea that dispersals are often dependent on wind, wings and waves.


Tuesday, 1st April - Îles des Saintes, French West Indies


Our first really overcast morning brought us into the lovely small island of Terre de Haut with its busy little port; ferry traffic going to and fro from the other islands, bringing day trippers out to enjoy the shops and sights. Many folks opted to have a morning ashore wandering the pretty waterfront and church or exploring as far as one of the two suggested beaches for a swim. Others took their masks and fins off to Conrad’s snorkeling platform to try their luck with the fish in the clear aquamarine water. After lunch a series of tours were offered to visit Fort Napoleon which keeps watch over the bay from the highest promontory. Following their tour a few stayed in town to do some further exploring or searching for those last few gifts to take home. By lunchtime the sky had cleared and it had become quite hot and muggy so a few people decided to don the bathing costumes for a last plunge into the warm Caribbean water, joined by quite a number of the Minerva’s passengers who were also here for the whole day. Guadeloupe and the smaller islands around it including Les Saintes are now an overseas department of France. Les Saintes is another of the volcanic chain we have been sailing along for the past few days and has suffered repeated earthquakes over the years.


Wednesday, 2nd April - St. Johns, Antigua 


Our two week adventure ended at the lovely island of Antigua where we reluctantly disembarked, saying farewell to the many friends we have made amid promises to ourselves to return soon to our own little Island, the Sky.

 

End of Voyage  

For further inspiration, view slideshow of images taken during the voyage 

 

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