A Caribbean Christmas
Angela Cave left grey skies and bitter chill behind in search of an alternative Christmas experience in the Caribbean…
There is something delightfully ‘end of termish’ about flying out of a grey UK in search of Caribbean sun when you would normally be worrying about whether Waitrose had any sprout stalks and if your bronze turkey is big enough to feed the family battalion. Christmas overseas was something that we had contemplated many times but somehow never got around to pursuing – and then the brochure arrived, the islands beckoned and we booked before we could change our minds!
We were certain we would love our accommodation – Fred Olsen’s MS Braemar is an old friend and we had booked a suite to ensure we could enjoy the island views and the sun on our own balcony and have early morning coffee watching the world drift by, perfect. The practicalities of being away for Christmas were a slight challenge, but only very slight. We packed our Christmas cards to remind us of home and the rest was standard Caribbean, sun tan lotion, straw hats and snorkels.
On arrival after a text book flight we were therefore amazed to see that people on board had already decorated their cabin doors with their own very jolly wreaths etc. and so we decided to join the fun and headed for Bridgetown Barbados as we had a day in port. The walk into town was, as ever, an interesting mix of the everyday and the holiday, jingle bells belting out of supermarkets bedecked with snowmen and reindeer, street hawkers selling everything from hot snacks to Santa’s hats and, our destination, Woolworths stacked high with every sort of Christmas paraphernalia. We were tempted by a large, ready decorated tree for our cabin but practicality and the long walk back curtailed our enthusiasm and we settled for some battery-operated lights, tinsel and a door wreath – and a sign saying, ‘What happens under the mistletoe stays under the mistletoe’ complete with Rasta Santa – we were not, you will note, aiming for good taste.
Christmas Eve was very special, we were in St Vincent and we had booked a trip to the island of Mustique, much beloved of the jet set, both now and in earlier times, and so we set off under blue skies and on an even bluer sea for the trip across. As the good burghers of Mustique value their privacy there were not so many people on the tour and I had already decided that Basil’s Bar was to be my first port of call. Like many iconic bars across the world from Harry’s Bar in Venice to Raffles in Singapore it is, in itself, nothing special, it is the cachet afforded by its clientele and its history that makes it special. However, it sits out on stilts above the water and has a fabulous view, so it ticked the boxes. Mick Jagger has his own seat and Tommy Hilfiger et al are frequent visitors so if you like a bit of celeb spotting it may be ideal – but as I was fairly certain I wouldn’t know one from the other I was happy to sit with an excellent rum punch and just watch the pelicans diving for fish.
The island itself really is tiny, no cars just golf buggies supplying the villas with everything they need and as the sea looked so inviting we decided to swim. Wonderful soft, blonde sand and conch shells rolling back and forth in the waves, it was simply wonderful. There was a rather good public changing and shower facility too which saved the shimmy in the towel moment. I love foreign supermarkets and I just had to see what was for sale in the gingerbread village general store and it was as expected – more Bolinger than Bovril, but this is the home of the super-rich! Back on board and the Christmas mood was palpable, lots to do or nothing at all to do, the choice is yours and we dined and then strolled around the deck enjoying the novelty of the brightest of stars in the warm velvet of a Caribbean night – with carols playing in the background.
Christmas Day is traditionally at sea and we opened our presents – bought locally – sitting on our balcony in the sun with a glass of buck’s fizz, a great start to a great day! There was a party on the upper deck, Santa arrived with some elves and I have to say it was one of the best Christmas Days I have had for a very long time indeed – no responsibility, all of the Christmas elements and the opportunity to just enjoy the day in whatever way you felt like. I had worried that it might have that feeling of enforced jollity that makes me avoid New Year’s Eve parties, but this wasn’t people trying to have a good time- this was people having a great time!
Dinner was formal for those who wanted formal, there were alternatives but I love an excuse to wear a posh frock – and the food was, as ever, superb.
Boxing Day saw us moored for the day on one of the Dutch Antilles ‘ABC’ islands – in this case Bonaire.
Bonaire is a very laid-back place indeed, flamingos, salt pans and wonderful beaches plus an intriguing market full of local crafts – and more reggae Carols to ease things along. We set off for the smaller island of Kleine Bonaire which is a marine reserve and well known for snorkelling and turtles, ideal to swim off the Christmas treats! Our mode of transport was, oddly, a Chinese junk which plies the waters and has a fascinating history which Captain Chris is happy to share on the short sail across.
The water was all shades of turquoise, the turtles were doing turtle stuff and the snorkelling was excellent– the more adventurous did a longer swim from the far end of the island, others pottered just off the beach but as there is a sea shelf just off shore the underwater cameras were well used, including my own.
Aruba followed, then Curaçao with its sugar candy Dutch houses fringing the harbour and on to Antigua, a favourite island. The local bus deposited us at the historic site of Nelson’s Dockyard just as it opened in the morning and we strolled in as the various stalls were setting up and the day’s commercial activities getting underway. This is a wonderful outdoor museum referencing Admiral Lord Nelson’s sojourn in the Caribbean. There is a fascinating indoor museum, two charming hotels and a good sprinkling of small shops, bars and a ships chandlery as this is a busy yachting harbour too – and the place where various people rowing or sailing across the Atlantic fetch up. James Cracknell and Ben Fogle’s tiny craft from their rowing trip resides here as testament to their endeavours.
New Year’s Eve
New Year’s Eve found us in Tortola, home of the Pusser’s Bar where a ‘Painkiller’ may be enjoyed with a plate of conch fritters. Cane Garden Bay is a precipitous 4X4 journey from the cruise terminal and with its crescent moon shaped beach, diving pelicans and multi coloured beach umbrellas, a great way to relax before dinner and a party on board. The beach umbrellas proved necessary when a heavy squall of rain disrupted procedures, but what is a beach bar for if not to shelter bedraggled bathers! A rum punch later, the sun returned and sun loungers steamed dry in minutes. Our New Year’s Eve Party on board, preceded by a Gala Dinner, was under the stars and enjoyed with new friends and champagne- and the journey ‘home’ took 5 minutes and no taxi required!
As the days passed there were lectures to attend, shows to go to and sun loungers to lie on if all of that got too much, and, of course, more islands to explore. St Maarten provided the opportunity for some serious sailing- the 12 metre challenge sailing the America’s cup course was very hands on, Dominica, the island of lush rain forests provided a local music and dance welcome and the stunning Emerald Pool, and Martinique, a very French Island, saw us exploring the Dupaz rum distillery and enjoying some of its produce.
Our final island was St Lucia, home of the Trios Pitons mountains and a last swim and snorkel before our flight day back in Barbados.
Lest you think that the last day was taken up with packing and worrying about flight details, clever Fred Olsen offered a shore tour to the absolutely stunning St Nicholas Abbey so we were able to leave the luggage, enjoy the day and be delivered to the airport in good time to make the overnight flight home.
In truth this was, despite my trepidation about missing Christmas at home, just one of the best Christmases I can remember since I stopped believing in Father Christmas. Would I do it again? Pass the phone!
• Magnets make great cruise companions – cabin walls are metal so you can fix notes, newsletters etc to them using fridge magnets.
• An underwater camera is a good idea – practice before you go.