Thursday, 24 April 2014

Spain To America In 14 Miles ….. Mar/Apr 2014

25 Mar – 03 Apr: Brewers Bay to Lameshur Bay, US Virgins – 18 18N 64 43W

P3280021Back to Civilisation

We had a lovely sail across from Culebrita in the Spanish Virgin Islands to St Thomas, our first stop in the US Virgin Islands.  We were hard on the wind again, but the breeze was light and the seas flat, and when a couple of catamarans left the anchorage with us it was race on and a tacking dual ensued.  Both catamarans were flying German flags (red rag to a bull for skipper) and just as we were about to claim victory they veered off for a different destination, spoilsports!

We stopped just one night in Brewers Bay, clear water, white sandy beach, flat seas, great wifi – what more could you want?  Oh, did I mention the adjacent airport, excellent for plane spotting and it wasn’t TOO noisy.  P3260011We met up and had a great night with Brits Mark and Sue on Macushla who we first met back in Fuerteventura in the Canary Islands and although we have kept in regular contact on our daily SSB Radio Net we hadn’t crossed paths since.

Next day we moved a few more miles around to the capital, Charlotte Amalie.  We entered through the western channel and passed a couple of hundred yachts, anchored and moored – the most we had seen since Georgetown in the Bahamas, plus there were 2 cruise ships docked, back to civilisation and tourism we thought – and then we got to the busy bit!!  P3260009-0013 more ginormous cruise ships were docked downtown, super yachts lay squeezed together fender to fender in the marina, and the harbour was choked full of private yachts of all shapes and sizes and amazingly the odd turtle. 

We had been warned the Virgin Islands were busy, but we didn’t mind - there was just so much to watch, float planes landing and taking off through the yachts under sail, party boats full of rum punched pink skinned holidaymakers, all manner of floating vessels providing harbour cruisers day and night, cruise ships and super yachts coming and going, and the odd mad kayaker, windsurfer or kitesurfer weaving there way through– it was all on for young and old.

P3280019Turning Into Social Butterflies

Evenings were spent socializing, we had caught back up with Koza, Americans on C-Time who we had done our inland travel with in Dominican Republic, Brits on Miss Molly who we last saw in Grenada 2 years ago arrived, as did Brits on Goldcrest – last seen on their previous boat Red Panda in Malta.  For a few days life turned into a social whirlwind, it was just great.  It is the people we meet along the way that truly make this lifestyle enjoyable and this season has been excellent, meeting new friends and reconnecting with old. P3280017

Ashore the town seemed totally geared to the cruise ship market, a stroll along the waterfront had us passing Gucci and Prada stores with minimalistic window displays of one handbag apiece, top end jewellery stores by the dozen occupied well renovated old brick storehouses and duty free liquor stores offered every brand of alcohol imaginable. 

Across the road the outdoor market displayed the usual tourist fare of t-shirts, sunhats and sarongs.  Sensibly we didn’t venture ashore when there were about 8,000 cruise ship passengers out shopping, instead we went for a look on a cruise ship free day and the place was almost a ghost town.

P3290030Time For Some Serious Racing

Koza had moved on to nearby Christmas Cove and Jim (a serious multi hull racer from Brisbane) had got talking to the owner of  Hotel California Too  a 70ft Santa Cruz  race boat anchored nearby participating in the St Thomas Regatta and had got himself a crew position and had managed to get Mark one too. 

So we had an early start out of Charlotte Amalie and were anchored in Christmas Cove on Great St James Island before 8am.  Mark and Jim had a blast of a time racing on Hotel California Too and they took line honours  in every race.  The final evening party and prize giving of any regatta always has a unique atmosphere and was a lot of fun.P4020095  The owner was keen to keep his new gun crew together and asked Jim and Mark to crew for him again in the upcoming British Virgin Islands Regatta with further talk of St Barths and Antigua Race weeks.  One step at a time I said, BVI’s yes, the others – well we will see!  

Finding Some Peace & Quiet

Our English friends Rob & Sarah on Serafina joined us in Christmas Cove, it was great to see them again.  We had left Maine together last September on a day sail down the coast then ended up in different anchorages and never caught them again, it was great to finally reconnect.

We both moved on along the southern coast of St John and picked up mooring buoys in the National Park anchorage of Great Lameshur Bay, geographically only 15 miles away from the capital but in reality locked in another far more peaceful world.P4020098

We had a couple of days enjoying our surroundings, did a long hike to some elusive rock carvings (must have missed a turn somewhere) but instead found the ruins of a house that was once home to sugar plantation owners, the paths from the bay deep below were well overgrown, surrounding trees were engulfing the remains.  The National Park (the island donated many years ago by the Rockefeller family) was interesting, we saw mongoose and deer on our walk then snorkelled the edges of the bay and swam with turtles. 

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Off To The British Virgin’s For More Racing

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Popping Back to Puerto Rico ….. March 2014

19 – 21 March 2014:  Ferry & Land Travel to Puerto RicoP3180076

Sojourn to San Juan

Although we have just spent a couple of weeks cruising along the south coast of Puerto Rico we didn’t stop anywhere long enough to do some land travel.  It’s a compact island with an extensive road network but has almost no public transport system.  It is also rumoured to have the highest percentage of cars per population in the world and infamous traffic jams!

Everyone we have spoken to that has been to Puerto Rico’s capital, San Juan, spoke very highly about the old walled town and fort area.  In those days the Spanish Conquistadores led the world in murdering, starving, raping and enslaving the native population in their driven desire for gold but they also built beautiful enduring cities.  As we are fans of Spanish architecture and are always happy to experience a slice of Europe whenever possible we decided to travel back to Puerto Rico by ferry from neighbouring Culebra, and see for ourselves how bad the traffic jams could be and to check out San Juans beauty first hand.

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P3190153In company with Jim and Carola off Koza we caught the 6.30am ferry to Fajardo on Puerto Rico.  Rather an early start for our excursion we thought! Lenny off Aussie boat Feijao was a superstar taking us ashore at 5.45am so we wouldn’t have to leave our dinghies tied ashore for 2 nights, and also kept an eye on Balvenie and Koza in our absence, thanks Lenny and Gina.

We arrived in Fajardo, collected our prebooked car from Island of the World RentalsP3180095 (after spending quite some time checking all the dents/dings and scratches duly noted on the outgoing contract!!), eventually we found our way to the highway north and in no time at all were in San Juan, not a traffic jam in sight. 

We made our way into the old town without any hiccups, found a parking close to our accommodation at SJ Suites  and were sitting back enjoying an excellent breakfast in a very Spanish cafe before 10am.  It’s amazing what you can achieve if you get up at 5am!!P3190123

Snapshots of San Juan

We spent the day sightseeing, it’s just a small old town area and it was a delight just wandering the streets; admiring the architecture - restored grand public buildings,  renovated residential homes, churches and cathedral, plazas and statues and beautiful blue cobblestone streets.P3180061

On the periphery is the town wall, several feet deep and extremely high – combined with the 6 storey high impressive El Morro Fort the defences for San Juan town and harbour were second to none and although there were several attacks by the British, Dutch and French over many years the Spanish never lost San Juan and their control over the gateway to the Caribbean.

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We explored this massive fort, a warren of rooms, armouries, batteries, lookouts, quarters and dungeons hidden inside it over 6 levels.  Probably the most impressive example we have seen in our travels and possibly the largest.

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P3180055Compact & Cute

We spent 24 hours in San Juan, but it is very compact so we felt we did it justice.  We covered nearly every street, alleyway and plaza, ate local empanadas in a tree lined plaza for lunch while watching heavily armed policemen patrol nearby government buildings at one end and tourists (yes, that includes Jim) having their photos taken with iguanas at the other end.

We had pina coladas in the bar that invented them, dinner in an “authentic” (touristy but very good) restaurant, walked the cool and shaded empty streets and harbour promenade early morning, just the 4 of us and hundreds of sleepy cats then returned to our previous mornings breakfast find for another excellent meal, bacon and egg toasted rolls and espresso coffees for 4 – US$20,  excellent.

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P3190158Space … the Final Frontier

We navigated our way out of San Juan with only one wrong turn and headed east towards the Karst Country and the Arecibo Observatory.  The observatory contains the worlds largest radar and radio telescope set above a 20 acre big dish (that’s the dish below us in the photo).  Launched in 1992 the idea is that this technology will allow us to chat with all the aliens out there in space, but has any one told the aliens they need to build one so they can talk back?? At $10 each entrance fee we felt it was overpriced, just a shame we didn’t see the ”buy one get one free voucher” in our tourist book until after we left!!P3190161

We drove through the Karst Country, hundreds of steep knobbly hills have been formed by water sinking into the limestone creating lots of sinkholes, which in turn has created the hills as these are the bits that haven’t sunk.  They were all very lush with vegetation and quite unlike anything we have seen before.  Unfortunately they do not photograph well, the different contours are so close together, steep and dense you lose the 3D effect.

Transiting Puerto Ricos Spine

We travelled along the high backbone of the country, climbing up and down then up again, on a maze of roads through some rather uninspiring villages and into the Central Mountains and cloud forest.  It is unfair to be too critical of the quality of the housing here, it is right in the middle of the hurricane belt and concrete block housing is the most sturdy.  P3190162However rows of little square block houses detracted from the natural beauty of the surroundings in the cloud forest high on the top ridge running through this island, there was certainly scope for improvement.

Carola found us a bed for the night at the almost new El Canon Guest House in Barranquitas.  It wasn’t an easy task finding somewhere to stay, most tourists to the mountains visit as day trippers from the coastal resorts or San Juan and there were few accommodation options.  The air was definitely cooler at altitude and the cloud forest lived up to its name, I took this photo during a brief break in the rain, minutes later we were engulfed in mist again. 

P3200163A Comedy of Mishaps

Next morning we headed east, the winding roads continued and it was slow going.  We had intended to detour to El Yungue National Park, but decided we had all seen enough trees to last us for a few more weeks so headed back to Fajardo early to have plenty of time to do some shopping at West Marine and Walmart (it’s a long time since we left the USA!) before the 7.30pm ferry.

Our foray into West Marine took way longer than planned as we were redeeming reward vouchers worth $240 and they were in $10 increments, 24 separate voucher numbers of over 10 digits needed to be input into the till by a not so speedy sales assistant.  P3190155This meant valuable time was ticking away so it was a speedy run around Walmart when we decided to catch the 3.30pm ferry instead of the 7.30pm as planned. 

Things turned a little pear shaped when Jim opened the car to unlock the boot, turned on ignition to get the aircon going then closed the door and all the doors locked - with key in the ignition!  But at least the boot was open, so we emptied the bags out, pulled down the small divider into the back seat and I just squeezed through (no photos thank goodness).

P3180054Back on the road we then missed the turnoff for the ferry terminal (a sign would have been very useful) so travelled several extra miles until the next motorway turnoff, time was getting very tight when we finally found the waterfront so we dropped Jim and Carola by the ferry terminal with their bags and the shopping to get the tickets while we took the car back.  

When we emptied the car only Marks bag was there, had Jim taken my bag by mistake or was it still in the carpark at Walmart?   While we were debating our next move Carola arrived with my bag, Jim had picked it up thinking it was Carolas and they knew we would be worried when they realized, so now three of us at the car hire office and Jim at the ferry terminal.P3180049 

With paper work finally completed it was a mad dash back to the terminal where things slowed down momentarily, the ferry had broken down – we weren’t going anywhere!   It was at this point when we were consolidating the shopping bags and packs that Carola realized that her pack was now missing.   She was sure she had given it to Jim when she brought mine to the car hire office, Jim couldn’t remember but was sure he hadn’t lost it, I thought she only had my bag but wasn’t sure either and Mark just didn’t have a clue!  It was a black day pack, can you imagine how many black day packs were sitting on the floor in the ferry terminal??!! P3180103or was it at the car hire office or possibly in Walmarts carpark? So off Carola went to the car hire office – again - and happily returned with her pack, all was well at last, we just needed a ferry.

We adjourned to a nearby bar for the afternoon and early evening, seemed the most sensible thing to do.  We were all finally accommodated on the car ferry which docked at 10pm, but of course we had no dinghies ashore, we had never planned to be back so late.  I had started chatting to a couple that looked liked fellow cruisers (its quite easy to pick us amongst the tourists) they were a lovely French couple off yacht Papaya and they offered to take us back to our boats at anchor, this was really kind of them as they weren’t even in the same anchorage as us.   Finally we were home by 10.30pm.

A Perfect End to a Comical Afternoon

 

Monday, 7 April 2014

The Virgins – First Are The Spanish ….. Mar 2014

16 – 25 March 2014:  Culebra & Culebrita, Spanish Virgin Islands – 18 19N 65 14W
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The Virgin Islands At Last

When we left the USA in December our goal for the season was to get to the Virgin Islands.  Finally, 14 weeks after leaving South Carolina and 50 miles after our crunchy start to the day in Puerto Rico we pulled in behind the reef entrance to Ensenada Honda on Culebra, part of the Spanish Virgin Islands, we were there at last.

We had never heard of the Spanish Virgins before arriving in the Caribbean, basically they consist of a handful of Puerto Rican offshore islands that lie between Puerto Ricos east coast and the US Virgin Islands further to the east.
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We spent a lazy couple of days in the peaceful anchorage inside the reef then moved all of a mile and a half up to the head of Ensenada Honda to Dewey township.  Another hectic round of socializing ensued as we met up with Aussies Koza and Feijao and Brits on Greta May.

P3160028Much Needed Exercise

We haven’t been swimming much this season, and the only walking we have been partaking in is the enforced visits to the supermarkets (too hot in the sun) so we decided to stretch our legs with a bike ride over to the top of Culebra to “one of the five most beautiful beaches in the world”.   It was a hot and sweaty outing with a nasty hill in the middle just to get the heart rate pumping and the legs wobbling.
  
The beach was packed, we never give much consideration to the day of the week, they are all the same to us, but it seems it was the weekend and the crowds had come over from Puerto Rico to enjoy all manor of activities – paddleboarding, surfing, swimming, tank spotting but mainly lying on the beach and baking in the sun.

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Paddle, shoot or surf at Flamenco Beach, Culebra 
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We left Balvenie and Koza at anchor in Dewey for 3 days and the 4 of us caught the ferry back across to Puerto Rico, picked up a hire car and set off to explore San Juan and inland Puerto Rico.  More to come on that excursion on a separate blog posting.

P3240012Cute Little Culebrita

We moved on a few short miles across to Culebras smaller neighbour and anchored off the southwest corner just inside the reef.  We were hopeful that the snorkelling would be good, but not today.  We had an easy walk up the hill to the abandoned lighthouse, the views were stunning. 

We could see down into the small bay at the top of the island, it beckoned us with its horseshoe bay, white sandy beach and outlying reef.  It was back to Balvenie, anchor up and around into Bahia Tortuga.P3240015

Turned Turtles and Bubbling Baths

We entered through the gap between the reefs, not something to be done with a northerly swell but we had good conditions, found a spot to drop and settled in to watch the afternoons entertainment of turtle catching.

A small power boat laid a net down the side of the bay, several people with snorkel gear jumped in and patrolled the net continuously and removed several captured turtles and one ray.  The ray was returned to the water but the turtles were put in big tubs, eventually the net was removed and off they went.
P3240036 It all looked rather professional although there was no signage on the boat or crew.  We certainly hope the turtles didn’t appear on a menu somewhere that night!! 

Our afternoon excursion was off to the baths.  Set into the headland on the eastern tip of the bay are a couple of rock pools.  The larger pool had quite some surge and big waves crashing into it and looked very  lively.  But set above it was a much smaller pool, just the biggest of the waves managed to flow over the rock wall providing plenty of bubbles and much entertainment.  There were even a few colourful tropical fish swimming around, all up a top spot for a relaxing afternoons dip.
 
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An almost perfect end to the day was happy hour ashore with the Kozas, watching the sun dip in the west.  I say almost perfect because the no-see-ums decided to join us too, such a shame as it was a magic spot. P3240071
A Northerly Swell is Coming …. So We Best Be Going