Havana, Cuba

With the house prepped for a long absence and all the packing done, I took a taxi to Bristol Avonmouth port and less than an hour later, I was in my Ocean View cabin on Pacific Deck 7 aboard the elegant and iconic cruise ship Marco Polo. Being a Diamond member of the CMV Columbus Club, I was welcomed in my cabin with a bottle of champagne, canapes, fruit, flowers and a welcome card. Facilities within the cabin were just as welcoming; a flat-screen TV and tea and coffee-making facilities were also great additions. Now we were all ready to head for faraway places including Jamaica, Belize, Mexico, Cuba and Bermuda.

Our first day sailing was the last day of February 2017, passengers had arrived from all over the UK with others having flown in from Australia and the USA especially for this cruise. While passengers were boarding, I was able to observe the ship discreetly bunkering – that is re-fuelling. For our first night we attended the safety drill, enjoyed dinner and the Welcome Show. During our first full day at sea, there was a shore excursions talk and a Solo’s meeting with drinks and canapes. Over 80 of the total 730 passengers were taking advantage of the solo travel options which are offered by CMV. Ian M. Butterfield gave a talk on photography later in the day. There were very rough seas so deadlights were closed over the portholes on the lower decks and remained so for several days. We were treated to the show Meet the Singers. This point marked the first of many changes in time zone with the clocks being put back one hour. Two more days at sea followed which allowed for the first of many fascinating talks on Forensic Science by Keith Hadley which held guests in rapt attention. We were also entertained by Christopher Gee with his comedy, magic and impressions act. The weather roughened into Gale Force 9 conditions and at one point the United States Coast Guard sought assistance from Marco Polo to divert and search for a missing yacht, sadly, nothing was found.

We reached Ponta Delgada, Azores on 4 March after five days sailing and I chose to walk around the town and visit the marvellous Antonio Borges Botanical Gardens in the centre of Ponta Delgada. The massive Australian fig tree with its host of protruding roots was a wonder to behold, pathways passed through an archway constructed of lava stone and over a bridge made of the same material. After lunch back on the ship, I shared a horse-drawn carriage ride for an hour tour. The ABBA show delighted that night. As was becoming tradition clocks were put back again.

There followed six days at sea to reach St Maarten’s in the Caribbean. We enjoyed more talks by Keith Hadley on Forensic Science, from Louise and Neil Bonner on Geography and Journalism, and from Ian M. Butterfield on Photography. I was invited to dine at the Captain’s Table one night and I was able to attend the Columbus Club Platinum/Diamond member’s cocktail party. There were more shore excursions talks and several very good shows over the following days. My place at dinner was a circular table in the Waldorf restaurant for nine solos, including three ladies who all remained great company for the duration of the cruise with diverse and interesting backgrounds. Clocks were again put back by one hour with monotonous regularity during the westbound trans-Atlantic crossing.

On Saturday 11 March we reached Philipsburg, St Maarteen. With two of my new found companions, I boarded the public minibus in Philipsburg and went out to Maho Beach on Mullet Bay to watch the planes landing at the nearby Princess Juliana International Airport. The Sunset Beach Bar affords good views and has an electronic display board listing arrivals, although we did discover that typically bigger aircraft arrive in the afternoon so on this occasion we missed those. Back in Philipsburg I walked the length of Great Bay beach.

A visit to Road Town, Tortola in the British Virgin Islands was our next port of call. I walked to the J.R. O’Neal Botanic Gardens in the morning then took the Scenes and Swim excursion to Cape Garden Bay which was glorious. That evening we enjoyed a Greek-themed dinner and, later, music from the highly-talented Marco Polo Orchestra.

Passing south of Puerto Rico during the night, we arrived at La Romana in the Dominican Republic the next morning. Our full-day excursion was fantastic; by coach to Bayahibe and then two hours on a catamaran to the tropical paradise of Saona Island we were accompanied with music, drinks and dancing on the way. We experienced hot sunny weather and enjoyed a buffet lunch under the palm trees, followed by a swim in the sea. After enjoying the island we were treated to  a breath-taking speedboat ride back to the mainland stopping en-route for another swim in a sheltered bay where our Dominican hosts opened what they called their ‘Caribbean pharmacy’ dispensing rum and Coke to their passengers. A starfish was found and was gently nurtured while we all closely viewed and admired its unusual form. It then drifted away reassuringly blowing bubbles. Next day was a full day at sea with the temperature hitting 25 degrees. We enjoyed the Rat Pack Revisited show. 

Onwards to Ocho Rios, Jamaica. We tendered in after a minor modification was made to the land-side jetty access. I decided to walk the town and then some way along the coast road. Those passengers who went to Dunn’s River Falls found them very crowded as MSC Opera and Norwegian Epic were also in port.  Our scheduled visit to Georgetown on the Cayman Islands the next day was aborted as it was too rough to tender in. Instead, we arrived early off Belize in Central America. CMV Guest Services Manager, Olga Klunik arranged an extra local ferry service to tender us in to Belize City at night which was a memorable experience for all those that undertook this bonus trip. I walked as far as the St. John Cathedral with friends.

We were once again back on schedule the next day and I chose to explore Belize City with other friends. The architecture is good and colourful and outside one house that was particularly in need of some TLC, we met the happy owner who looked at me and seemed to say ‘You are a liar’. I was taken aback! ‘You are a liar ...’ he repeated ‘… or a judge’. Hmm, I see. He thought I might be a ‘lawyer’! Architect actually. He said Queen Elizabeth had visited Belize twice and we enjoyed meeting him. The show that night was On Broadway.

On 19 March we arrived in Cozumel, Mexico. I was on the full day excursion to Chichen Itza, first catching a ferry to Playa del Carmen on the mainland followed by a couple of hours by coach on a new toll road across the Yucatan.  A few hours on a guided walking tour of the fabulous Mayan ruins was followed by a grand buffet lunch at the Mayaland hotel complete with entertainment by Mexican dancers. We then retraced our steps back to Cozumel. This was an amazing day and truly was the highlight for me of the entire cruise.

We awoke the next morning to sunrise over distant Cuba and berthed in Havana in the evening of that day. Immigration was quick and easy and a lady friend and I strolled into Old Havana to enjoy the music and charisma of the city by night. 

The following day was very warm and sunny. I walked round the old town and along the seafront in the morning and then took the open-topped bus out to Revolution Square and beyond to the coastal suburbs in the afternoon. Two and a half hour ride for 10CUKS equals approximately £9. There was a great variety of architecture to see and of course the colourful classic American cars are ubiquitous.

The following day was spent at sea. Ian M.  Butterfield lectured on photography. On 23 March we arrived in Freeport on Grand Bahama. I took a shared taxi minibus to Lucaya and had a glorious swim in the Caribbean Sea before walking the entire length of Silver Point beach. Damage from last October’s devastating Hurricane Matthew is still very much evident. I took the minibus back to Freeport and had lunch on the aft deck of Marco Polo. I went ashore once more to view the market stalls and listen to the musicians playing in the bandstand. The ship was bunkering in Freeport. I enjoyed dinner, a game of Scrabble, and a show once back on-board.

Another two days at sea ensued as we voyaged, uneventfully, through the Bermuda Triangle. Entertainer Gerry Graham put on an excellent comedy and music show, and we enjoyed another Forensic Science talk and a Passenger Talent Show.

Thence to fabulous Bermuda. Palling up with four others, I went by ferry from King’s Wharf across the Great Sound to Hamilton. After viewing the Cathedral of the Most Holy Trinity and the lovely Queen Elizabeth Park gardens, we took the public bus the long way round back to King’s Wharf via the Southern Beaches coast road. It was so beautiful that I opted to walk back long the last two miles of the road after lunch on the ship where I was able to see the America’s Cup high speed foil-type racing yachts practicing out on the Great Sound. There were numerous pristine little bays and beaches adjacent to the road. I crossed the bridge into the village of Somerset where I found all the houses were in different pastel colours with the obligatory white painted tile roofs. Discreet protruding spars set on the slight diagonal direct rainwater into cisterns within the roof-spaces so not a drop of water is wasted as there are no gutters as such.  Back aboard ship we were treated to a boisterous sail-away party and dinner enjoying the classic From Russia with Love show and, yes you’ve guessed it, clocks forward.

A few days at sea before reaching the Azores again. This time Horta on the island of Faial. After all those days of sunshine our luck ran out and it turned wet. However this did not stop me and I did climb Monte da Guia to enjoy the views before the clouds descended. Horta itself is a great little town to explore. We saw three more of the Azorean archipelago islands on our evening voyage away to the north-east. Over the next few days we enjoyed more talks and a third comedian entertained a few. Our dining group enjoyed the final Gala Night where Keith Hadley continued to enthral with his Forensic Science talks on how DNA has revolutionized the science. Professional Photographer Ian M, Butterfield posted 12 of his masterful images around Deck 8 and guests were invited to identify locations. I was one of four who were correct but lost out on the tie-breaker question – ‘how many images had he taken throughout the cruise?’ My guess of 2,100 was not the nearest to his actual total of 2,400. The winner won the colour prints of the 12 places. We also enjoyed a slideshow of scenic highlights of the cruise.

On 4 April we arrived back in Avonmouth after our 10,000 nautical mile, 35 day cruise. The Atlantic had on occasion shaken but not stirred us and we had visited remarkable places and seen beautiful sights. Once again CMV had given us a fulsome and high memorable experience. My advice; try it and see the World in all its amazing diversity.