Setting a New Record for Jet Travel?

Fairway Bay, New Zealand

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean-9591Eighty-eight hours, boat to boat. Not counting our luggage.

We caught the ferry from Tortola to St Thomas on Saturday and overnighted there in order to catch our 08.00 American Airlines flight next morning. We were up at 5.15, the flight left on time and we then cooled our heels in Miami airport for six hours, waiting for our connection (also AA) to Dallas Fort Worth and on to Sydney.

The board said the flight was leaving on time, so we made our way to the gate, where we sat and waited…

The flight captain gave intermittent apologies and updates: our plane was sitting at the gate (it had arrived late, due to mechanical problems out of Boston) but the crew had been delayed out of somewhere else due to weather and diverted to another airport. The airline could call on a standby crew, but they could only find two crew, and they needed four, so we’d have to wait for the other crew to arrive from the other airport.

Further delays…

We eventually boarded two hours late. Presently, the captain came on the PA and announced that the air conditioning on the port side wasn’t working and we’d have to wait for a mechanic.

The mechanic arrived, but couldn’t fix the problem, so had to ‘placard the a/c as non-operational’, which involved, (explained the captain), lengthy paperwork.

Some time later, the captain came on again. “The paper work is complete, but now there is no-one around to move our bridge so we can’t push back. We’ve called several times, but no-one has answered.”

Twenty minutes or so later, we took off, but by then we were going to miss our connection in Dallas.

En route, the captain informed us that there was bad weather in Dallas, and the air traffic controllers were going to “bring us in low from a long way out and it’s going to get a bit rough”. We were put into a holding pattern for a time, and then we descended through thick cloud, through stomach-lurching air pockets with lightning flashing around the wing tips.

Passengers were getting anxious, as was the stewardess who came on the PA in a stutter of nerves, saying, “I’d just like to remind you there are air sick bags in the seat pocket in front of you, if any of you would like to make a donation. And if you have small kids, please make sure you’re holding onto them really tight.”

So very reassuring!

The plane looped and banked, while spectacular forks of lightning zapped across the sky. I thought (and maybe the captain did, too), that we were going to abort the landing, but we eventually touched down, and everyone clapped.

Then… the captain – by now sounding incredibly weary – announced that there was no-one around to operate the bridge, so we’d have to wait to disembark. And a little while later: “Due to the lightning, no-one can operate the ramps, so we can’t unload the luggage. I don’t know how long this storm will last, but no-one is going to get their bags tonight.”

To cut a long story short, we queued for vouchers and for a shuttle and made it to a hotel at 2.30am and collapsed into bed, but without our luggage.

With 24 hours to kill, next morning we asked the concierge for suggestions of what to see and do in Dallas. She thought for a minute and said, “Um, you could go to the mall?”

Only in America!

And to cut another long story short, we boarded our Qantas flight that night, flew to Sydney and then on to Auckland (feeling very strange to not be getting off in SYD), where we discovered – not really surprisingly – that our bags had not arrived with us.

We caught the bus into town and the ferry to Gulf Harbour and walked the last couple of kilometres (quite thankful not to have our big bags!) to Sel Citron, nestled in Fairway Bay.

It sure was nice to be home.

Eighty-eight hours.

OK, so I know it’s a ‘First World problem’, but it was a helluva trip!

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

PS: Our bags eventually turned up two days later.


The End of the (Caribbean) Road

St Thomas, US Virgin Islands

By: Kerry

Flamenco Beach, Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands

Flamenco Beach, Culebra, Spanish Virgin Islands

Our original agenda had us sailing Fantazia all the way to Antigua, but we need to get back to NZ to turn Sel Citron around and point her towards Fiji before winter hits.

Delays out of Florida and a few longer-than-anticipated sailing legs mean we aren’t going to make it all the way.

From Marina del Rey on the east coast of Puerto Rico, we jumped off to the island of Culebra – in the ‘Spanish Virgin Islands’ – and then on to St Thomas in the US Virgins and finally to Virgin Gorda and Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

In all, we sailed 1500 nautical miles from Florida to Tortola – a sizeable chunk of it into strong headwinds.

It’s been a really good trip on lots of levels: we’ve seen places we’d probably never have seen otherwise and shared good times with Mick and Garth. We’ve learned a thing or two from John, who’s got a few sea miles more than us under his belt – and who’s kept us amused with yarns about his days on the road with rock stars. And Christine’s stories of Parisian photo exhibitions and village life in the Loire have us wanting to move to France!

Sue and Alan, old friends of Christine and John, joined us in St Thomas, and we had a few fun, chilled out days in Cane Garden Bay and Virgin Gorda, before catching the ferry from Road Town back to St Thomas for the long journey home…

Iguana, St Thomas

Iguana, St Thomas

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A Tale of Two Cities

Marina del Rey, Puerto Rico

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean-9244Ponce is known as ‘The Pearl of The South’ in Puerto Rico. Its centre is crammed with grand and opulent public buildings in its own, unique ‘Ponce Creole’ architectural style, which is a tropical amalgam of Neoclassical and Art Nouveau, with a little Rococco flourish here and there.

On the main square, the cathedral is painted in mauve with white trim and fronted by a fountain attended by stone lions that apparently came from France. Next door is the Parque de Bombas – painted in red and black horizontal stripes – that houses the museum of Ponce, the tourist office, and a vintage fire truck in its foyer.

It’s charming and quirky and clean. And disturbingly empty of people.

Though apparently reluctant to admit it, Ponce has been in decline for around a century: since the US started manufacturing sugar from beet rather than cane, undermining the mainstay of the Ponce economy. Later, political decisions saw development focused on the north coast of Puerto Rico and the south was overlooked. And then the GFC hit. Ponce’s port – though looking almost new – lies dormant. Probably a billion dollars worth of cranes and equipment, utterly idle.

It’s eery and sad.

By contrast, Damian and I spent a day sightseeing in San Juan.

Old San Juan is crowded on cobblestone streets between massive fortress walls on a finger of land with El Morro – a fort/castle – at its tip.

Like Ponce, San Juan’s architecture is flamboyant and grand, painted in wildly vivid colours, one building brighter than the next. But unlike Ponce, San Juan appears to be thriving: it’s a hub for cruise ships, and throngs of white-socked Americans filled the quay-side restaurants and kept the many tourist shops, cafes and galleries busy.

Few of the cruise ship crowd ventured beyond a block or two from the waterfront. Deeper into the Old Town, restaurants were humming with Spanish-speaking locals. People walked briskly, the traffic jams consisted of BMWs and Jeep SUVs and everyone seemed busy.

The place was buzzing.

We had lunch at Barrachina, the restaurant that claims to be where the pina colada was invented. Of course, we had to try one… or two…

And then we spent the afternoon strolling the back streets, taking photos – probably more than I’ve taken in the whole trip so far!

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

Mutton Dressed as Lamb and Pig on a Spit

Ponce, Puerto Rico

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean-9126“Fried Pork Chops” feature on many a menu in Puerto Rico, but on Sunday in Guavate – in the mountains an hour or so from Ponce – Pig on a Spit, or Lecheron, is the order of the day.

Lecheron restaurants line either side of the narrow, winding street, their windows displaying golden-crusted, impaled porkers turning slowly over gas flames. In between the restaurants, stalls sell pina coladas and icecream, and tourist tat ranging from San Juan snow domes to blow up smurfs.

Extended families come from as far away as San Juan to make a day of it, enjoy the carnival atmosphere and generally eat, drink and be merry. The street chokes with cars and motor bikes and people, from pig-tailed kids to heavily tattooed bikies and Goths to grandparents – and of course, there are the ubiquitous acres of bouncing fluoro lycra.

There’s no such thing in this country as ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ (or pork chop as piglet, as the case may be!) – no matter what age you are, buy your clothes three sizes too small – that’s why they’re made of stretch fabric. Wear the highest shoes you can manage and BLING IS BETTER!!!

Christine, John’s wife, flew in from New York this morning – John picked her up in San Juan and joined us back in Guavate.

We were the only gringos in town and we had a really fun day with the locals – who laughed and joked with us (in Spanglish) and included us in their exuberant embrace.

We stood in the crowd at the edge of the dance floors, watching the locals merengue, bachata and salsa (the oldies cutting the rug with considerable more panache than the youngsters!), and cheered on the sixty-ish woman who could shake her booty with a force and flamboyance that could buff concrete, as she played to the audience, especially the appreciative gringa in the corner (yours truly).

Late in the afternoon, we drove back through the pine forest on the winding downhill road with bellies full of pig and Caribbean rhythms thrumming in our heads.

 ~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

Onwards to Puerto Rico

Ponce, Puerto Rico

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean-9079With Mick and Garth’s departure, it left sailing the 300-odd miles to the east coast of Puerto Rico to John, Damian and me. Not a distance you’d normally be concerned about, but once again, we were beating against the trades and negotiating the bottom end of the notorious Mona Passage between Hispaniola and Puerto Rico.

Frank had given us a fine-tuning on the katabatic theory: if the trades don’t get above 15 knots during the day, he reckons, the katabatics will kick in. Any more than 15 knots, they won’t and you should stay put.

So we ate the elephant in small chunks: a 60 mile hop to anchor off Saona Island for a nap, then a night-time departure to make the crossing to Boqueron on the west coast of PR.

The trades had been up almost to 20 knots during the day, but we went anyway. The katabatics didn’t exactly kick in, but at least the headwinds were lighter and it ended up being a reasonable crossing.

Boqueron had little to recommend it, and Mayaguez, where we had to go to clear Customs the following day, didn’t inspire either, so we left at 0500 (hoping that the katabatics might ease our way early in the day) and motored 45 miles around the corner and along the south coast to Ponce, arriving in time for the annual mahi mahi fishing competition, the biggest weekend of the year at the Ponce yacht club. The docks were bristling with rods and tuna towers atop 30 or so sports fishing boats.

We arrived in time for the fish weigh-in and the start of the music… Loud, but nothing on the DR!

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

A Short Stay in Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic

By: Kerry

Alcazar de ColonMick and Garth are scheduled to fly out of San Juan in Puerto Rico on April 9, so they’ve decided to jump ship here, where we’re close to the airport, and connect through to PR.

It’s the end of the line for them and we all felt in need of a ‘holiday’, so we booked rooms in a lovely hotel (Boutique Hotel Palacio) in a refurbished colonial building in the Zona Colonial of DR’s capital city, Santo Domingo.

Santo Domingo is the oldest city in the New World, and claims to have the first street, cathedral, university and hospital in the Americas, dating back to the early 16th century.

The Zona Colonial – the old town – has been declared a World Heritage Site and has been meticulously restored: there are impressive churches and official buildings, and cobblestone streets lined with beautiful stone houses that showed architectural links to all the great cities of Latin America. It’s lovely.

We spent a day or so just wandering around the streets – we weren’t really in the mood for museums and such, but happily just snapped photos. Lots of photos.

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Easter in Boca Chica

Boca Chica, Dominican Republic

By: Kerry

Fantazia Caribbean1-8860So we arrived in Boca Chica a bit battered and tired. We were met by Rigo, the dock master at Marina Zar Par, who (of course) had a brother who moonlighted as a taxi driver and it wasn’t long before Eddy the taxi driver had us seated in his favourite Italian restaurant in Boca Chica.

Boca Chica is a tourist town by DR standards. The beachfront is lined with bars and the street running behind it is lined with souvenir shops (as well as more than its fair share of massage parlours). At night, the street is closed and a long row of restaurants sets up tables on the roadway.

The Cruising Guide mentions in passing that BC is “VERY WELL KNOWN for the availability of the opposite sex if you want to party. Be careful!”

Throughout dinner, diners and hookers strolled down the middle of the road between the tightly packed tables, the hookers casually dragging their fingertips across our boys’ shoulders and winking lasciviously at me, the girl with four blokes.

Daylight was a wholly different scene – at least on Easter Sunday. The beach, such as it is, is sheltered by an island and natural reef that form a large lagoon: the marina and port fit inside it, and dozens of pimped up cabin cruisers with monster outboards anchor off, where the adults stand waist deep in the water and use the boats’ swim platforms as wet bars. (An excellent, but under-utilised approach in Australia!).

The narrow beach was crammed with families soaking in the sea or sitting in the shade of the palm trees, eating and shouting over the music. A constant stream of hawkers plied the strip selling a strange assortment of goods, from trays of toffee cherries that looked like miniature toffee apples, to carved wooden tea sets…What the ??

We spent the afternoon sitting in a shady bar watching proceedings and soaking up rum punches. Everyone was in a holiday mood, which meant they were even more social than usual – we’ve found people to be very friendly and inclusive – and being able to speak and have a bit of a joke in Spanish makes a big difference.

Easter, or Semana Santa (literally, Saints’ Week) is the biggest holiday of the year here and the revellers were still making the most of it as we walked home along the beach.

And the music played LOUD well into the night.

 ~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

Blow it out your …

Boca Chica, Dominican Republic

By: Kerry

The katabatic wind theory of night sailing is, as far as we’re concerned, a load of bollocks.

In the months leading up to this trip, Woody has researched the different route options between Florida and the Caribbean, a voyage generally known as ‘The Thorny Path to Windward’.

One route has you heading ‘east until the butter melts and then turning south’. The most popular cruising guide, A Gentleman’s Guide to Passages South by the very dapper-looking Bruce van Sant, describes a route that goes along the north side of the Dominican Republic and down through the Mona Passage between the DR and Puerto Rico, which sounds possibly worse than the Windward Passage.

For better or worse, Woody chose the path extolled by an American called Frank Virgintino in his Free Cruising Guide to the Dominican Republic, which tracks, as we have, down the Windward Passage and along the south coast of the Dominican Republic.

Frank poses the credible theory that the on-shore anabatic and trade winds of daytime are mitigated at night by the opposing off-shore katabatic winds generated by the temperature differential between the cooling land and the comparatively warmer sea.

So by travelling at night, you take advantage of lighter winds from a friendlier angle.

Makes sense. But we haven’t found it to actually happen…

So we had another shitty night and day (16 hours to do 100 miles) of windward motoring to reach Boca Chica, where we actually met Frank of the Free Cruising Guide. Turns out that Frank has an interest in the Boca Chica marina…

Nice man, very helpful in putting us in touch with marina contacts in Puerto Rico. Swears by the theory based on 28 years of cruising.

Maybe we’ve just been short on luck or patience…

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

A Few Days in the DR

Boca Chica, Dominican Republic By: Kerry

Da Boyz: Mick, Garth, Damian

Da Boyz: Mick, Garth, Damian

The Dominican Republic is LOUD. Salsa, merengue, bachata and reggaeton blast you sideways all day long. Every shop, bar, car – wherever two or more people gather – the music is dialled to ear-splitting.

On our first afternoon in Barahona, we came face to ear with this local phenomenon, and also with Iban: the quintessential fixer. In a country where the average monthly wage is $400, nearly everyone is moonlighting at something, and propinas, or tips, are an integral part of business.

Iban is second-in-charge of Immigration at Barahona, but with only around three boats a week dropping by, he has time on his very enterprising and well-connected hands. With Customs and Immigration cleared (expedited by Iban), he whisked Garth and me into town in his beaten-up Toyota, took us to the ATM, negotiated on our behalf to buy a local SIM card and drove us around trying to find ice, which was in short supply. We eventually found it at a bar of er, questionable repute where the music was a solid wall of noise, negating the need for the patrons to talk to one another.

He didn’t ask us for money for helping us, but graciously accepted a propina when Garth offered it.

Iban doesn’t speak English – few people in the DR do – but he speaks Spanish clearly and slowly enough that I can understand him. (I am suddenly official Fantazia translator and trying to dredge Spanish out of the dim recesses of my brain). We were interested in doing an excursion to Lago Enriquillo – a sub-sea-level lake with crocodiles and iguanas – a few hours’ drive away.

Of course! Iban would take us on a full-day excursion, incorporating the hot springs and ‘Indian carvings’. He would drive us in his Toyota.

The Toyota didn’t look like it was up to a 300km round trip with five big men and me in it, and our crew definitely weren’t up to a full day crammed in like sardines.

No problem. Iban had a friend with a mini-van. But it would cost an extra $50… He also arranged for a colleague from the Immigration Dept to mind the boat for the day – for a small propina.

We were off at 7.00 next morning but, after a fuel stop (“can you please give the driver some money so he can pay for the petrol?”), we blew a tire. It was early, but not too early to break out a beer…

We drove through nondescript, scrubby hills and small towns of ramshackle weatherboard buildings in faded shades of gelato. Most of the vehicles on the road were pretty dilapidated, too, and motorcycles carried improbable loads, including 40kg gas cylinders almost two metres long, held athwart the pillion seat by the driver.

We stopped for fried chicken and to resupply the esky (600ml bottles of Presidente beer for a buck) as everyone – especially, it seemed, Iban and the driver – was thirsty in the heat.

A young guy was doing blockies: the front passenger seat of his clapped out ute was totally taken over by a massive speaker and the bass decibels were shaking up the dust all over town.

Even louder was the flat-bed truckload of speakers blaring at the natural spring baths. Family groups, teenagers and groups of gangsta-imitating youths splashed in the pools and shouted at one another to be heard over the Latin beats. Large people ate large plates of rice and beans and fried chicken.

It seems no-one in this country, no matter their size or shape, is afraid of lycra: a couple of sizes too small is good, fluoro is de rigueur.

We eventually pulled in to the lakeside car park, which had been taken over by lizards. A gang of metre-long Rhinoceros-horned iguanas stared us down, their chins jutting and their front elbows turned out in apparent indignation. They were happy to pose for photos, but I thought they looked a bit disappointed not to be given a propina.

In a case of ‘it’s not the destination, it’s the journey’, the lake itself was underwhelming. The waters have been inexplicably rising for the past few years, which is forcing the relocation of shore-side settlements and accounts for the dead trees protruding from the water.

The boat to the island in the lake where the crocodiles reside wasn’t operating, but we weren’t that fussed: we have them bigger and better back home!

We stopped briefly to climb some slippery stairs to see some ‘Indian rock petroglyphs’ that looked remarkably like recently-etched smiley faces, but didn’t linger as the sun’s heat on the top of our heads was so intense it hurt.

By then, everyone was feeling a little drowsy after beers and heat, so it was a fairly quiet trip around the remaining perimeter of the lake and back to Barahona.

The following day was Good Friday. So we were told, it’s supposed to be a day for reflection and respect. Most notably, you’re supposed to turn your music down and play ‘classical’ instead of raunchy Latino. Mostly, this held true: we wandered the deserted centre and backstreets of town, which looked like a movie set, with all the weather-beaten weatherboard houses (very Boo Radley).

The streets were pleasantly devoid of litter which added to the movie set feel, in stark contrast to the ‘beach’ where hordes of picnickers were congregating to eat rice and beans and fried chicken, drink beer and listen to loud music (just for a change).

The pebble beach looked like it was strewn with confetti: in fact it was tiny shards of multi-coloured plastic flotsam washed ashore.

Everyone was strutting their lycra-clad booty and having a fat old time. We hung around for a bit, briefly watched the girls’ boxing (!) and then it was time to check out: by law, we have to obtain a ‘Dispacho’ from Customs each time we leave one port for another in the DR.

Cruiser lore has it that the katabatic winds coming down from the mountains at night override the trade winds, making for a more comfortable trip. So we’re testing the theory and leaving tonight to do the passage to Boca Chica overnight. Trouble is, we aren’t supposed to leave port after 6.00pm.

We found Iban lounging in the shade under a tree. He’d ‘fixed’ it with Customs to allow us to leave any time we liked. There was a minor hitch when I came up against the Jefe – the Chief of Customs – who wasn’t aware of the ‘arrangement’. But a small propina soon sorted things out.

 ~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~

The Windward Passage

Barahona, Dominican Republic

By: Kerry

This famously cantankerous, 80km-wide strait separates Cuba from Haiti (east-west), and the Atlantic Ocean from the Caribbean Sea (north-south). The prevailing easterly trade winds, blowing in straight off the Atlantic, can kick up big swells and make for a very uncomfortable voyage.

As it turned out, on our first day we raised sails and actually turned the engines off. But it wasn’t long before it got windy and lumpy and we were back to motoring into headwinds. The first night was the worst: on Damian and my watch we were battering into 25-28 knots, rough seas and waves hitting the stern were splashing us at the helm station amidships.

The two nights, three days and 567 nautical miles of the trip are a bit of a blur: it was rough and windy. Enough said. We aimed to stay in international waters in the middle of the strait – to starboard lay Cuba (we passed close to Guantanamo Bay) and to port lay Haiti (cruiser scuttlebutt mutters about pirates and recent assaults on yachties).

We had a brief respite from the wind one hot midday, when we found ourselves in a field of fish traps – plastic water bottle buoys all over the place – tended by lone fishermen in tiny wooden skiffs powered by huge amounts of sail area relative to their size: they reminded me of the old 18-foot skiffs that sail on Sydney Harbour.

The contrast between the skiffs and the multi-million dollar gin palaces we’d been surrounded by a week previously; between the one of the world’s richest nations and one of its poorest, couldn’t have been more extreme.

Haiti’s western coastline is shaped like a huge fish tail: we rounded its southern point and motored straight into the teeth of the trade winds along the coast of Haiti until we crossed the border into the Dominican Republic and dropped anchor off the beach at the first available port of entry, Isla Beata.

Fantazia Caribbean-8657

Isla Beata, Dominican Republic

Fantazia Caribbean-8655

Customs commandeered a local fishing boat to come and clear us in.

Next day saw the worst leg of the trip so far: it took us 10 hours to cover 56 miles to Barahona on the coast of the Dominican Republic ‘mainland’, with strong headwinds and a nasty chop that kept thumping up under the bridge deck hard enough to make your teeth rattle.

Just on 1000 miles since Florida…

~~~ ><(((°>  ><(((°> ><(((°> ~~~