Archive for February, 2015
On Wednesday 11th February we left Florida and headed for New Orleans, travelling by Greyhound bus. Although we have done a lot of long-distance bus travel during the past five years, we had not travelled by Greyhound since our first ever visit to the USA almost 40 years ago. Our friend Jane picked us up at Sarasota airport, where we returned out rental car; we had lunch together and then Jane took us to the bus station. We had a long stop in Tampa, which enabled us to have a brief look round the city. Then it was an overnight bus journey, with two changes on the way. We arrived in New Orleans at 8 am (Central time) and were met by Vicki, whose condo we had rented for the next five nights.
Mardi Gras parades
We had been to New Orleans before, but booked this trip in order to experience the big Mardi Gras carnival held there. Over a period of six days we watched about 20 parades. They tended to follow a similar format, basically alternating floats and marching bands from high schools or universities over a very wide area. Some of the floats were extremely well done, with elaborate figureheads, and perhaps lit up for night parades. We particularly liked two articulated floats, one illuminated like a funfair (each segment representing a different stall or ride) and the other a dragon.
Other floats were differentiated only by the scenes or cartoons painted on the side (these were often very good, although we didn’t understand all the political references). Each of the standard floats had two tiers of people on board, wearing masks and throwing things to the crowds. These most common ‘gift’ was a string of coloured beads, so people who had watched a parade could be seen walking round the city with a dozen or more strings around their necks. Sometimes the people on the floats would throw, not just a single string, but a whole packet of beads. This could be quite heavy, when thrown from some height at a force. One such packet hit Sandie in the face, and knocked her specs off. It was very lucky that Ian was able to grab them before they were trodden on by someone in the crowd.
Other things were sometimes thrown from the floats, such as plastic cups with the parade’s insignia, and small soft toys. None of them were worth more than a few cents at most, yet people in the crowd were desperate to catch them. They stretched out their arms and jumped up and down, calling for the people on the floats to throw their goodies to them. We found this amazing. A woman who stood next to Sandie at one parade related how she had tried to encourage people to throw gifts to her. Her latest attempt was to bare her breasts every time a float went by. She stated very forcefully ‘I want free stuff!’. Yet she was also telling a bystander where she would be next morning to give away her acquisitions. We decided there was scope for a PhD study of the psychology of Mardi Gras.
One giant party
When we arrived in New Orleans and saw our first parades, the city was relatively quiet. But over the coming days more people arrived and he atmosphere steadily built up. The streets filled with people drinking, wearing fancy costumes and forming impromptu parades. By Tuesday – Mardi Gras itself – New Orleans had become one giant party. The only people not enjoying themselves were religious fundamentalists – a large number, from all over the US, whose express purpose was to warn people of the dire consequences of their merrymaking.
When visiting a place or event for the first time, we normally research pretty thoroughly before booking our accommodation, to ensure that we choose the most convenient location. In this case, we failed! Our mistake was to assume that the French Quarter – the heart of historic New Orleans, the picturesque part where all the tourists flock – would be where all the action took place. We had the option of a hotel to the west of the French Quarter, and a condo to the east. They were equidistant from the centre, and for various reasons we chose the condo.
We were stunned to discover, on arrival, that the big parades do not come into the French Quarter at all, because the streets are too narrow to accommodate the floats! The nearest they come is Canal Street, which forms the western boundary of the French Quarter. Too late, we realised that the hotel would have been a much better location. After watching the big parades, often late at night, we had a long trek back to the condo, and not enough time between parades to go there and rest/wash/change clothes. However, although there were no parades there (except for a few small walking parades) the French Quarter was certainly buzzing with partygoers.
The weather was unfortunately not on our side most of the time we were in New Orleans. The first three days were pleasantly warn and sunny, but when the sun went down the temperature plummeted. The first evening was bitterly cold, with a strong wind blowing, which made it hard to enjoy watching the parades. Determined not to suffer on subsequent evenings, Sandie bought a winter coat next day from a new/used/retro shop in the French Quarter. Ian bought a heavy scarf, and we both equipped ourselves with hats and gloves.
This was just as well, because we saw no more sun while in New Orleans, so the days were cool too. On Monday evening there were very heavy storms, so the parades were curtailed and we were grateful for our rain capes. On Tuesday – the climax of Mardi Gras, and our last day in the city – it was extremely cold, so despite having a good vantage point, and warn clothes, we had to quit the first parade early and seek shelter in a café. We were being prepared for our return to the UK!
We took off from Guadeloupe on 2 February, in a very small plane that took us to Puerto Rico. There we went through US immigration (very quickly!) before catching a larger plane to Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The journey was uneventful except for a few slight delays and the fact that Sandie’s laptop (fixed on Dominica) stopped working again!
Knowing we would arrive late, we’d booked a hotel near the airport for the night. The plan was to spend the next day on the east coast (32 years since we were last in Fort Lauderdale!) before heading west for our home exchange in Venice. We arrived even later than anticipated, grabbed a bite to eat, and had a drink in the hotel bar while getting information from the chatty lady who served us.
We got back to our room about midnight, checked emails and found a message to say that a condo had become available in our absolutely ideal location! We were very excited, so next morning we changed our plans and rushed back to Sarasota.
The condo hunt
The condo was indeed ideal, just what we wanted, in the perfect location. But sadly it didn’t work out, mainly because it was overpriced. We made a couple of offers which were rejected. The owner was not in a hurry to sell, the place had only just gone on the market, so she was hanging on for the asking price. We were not prepared to pay that as it was much more than other places in the development have sold for.
Another day we looked at a different condo which was very nice (and much cheaper!), but smaller and in a less ideal location. Unfortunately it too was greatly overpriced.
Friends in Venice
We stayed for a week in Venice, 20 miles south of Sarasota, living in a large and comfortable mobile home owned by Sue and Ed. This was the postponed half of a home exchange arrangement: Sue and her sister Alice stayed in our flat for a week last April. While we were in their home Sue and Ed stayed in a house just around the corner. Alice (who lives in Atlanta) was also in Venice, staying in a house opposite! So we saw quite a lot of them during the week, which was really nice.
On Saturday we were invited to a ‘sock hop’ at the clubhouse. We had no idea what a sock hop was, but it turned out to be a dance with a 50s theme, music and dress (if you had anything suitable to wear – we didn’t). There was lots of jiving, twisting and smooching, plus some entertaining party pieces by club members. And pizza to eat – all in all, a lot of fun.
On Sunday afternoon Alice invited us to wine and nibbles in the home she shares with her friend Dot. Sue and Ed were there too, and we had a great afternoon, with good food, drink and company. On Monday we all went to lunch at the Upper Crust, a favourite café in the centre of Venice.
Work and play
Ian managed to get Sandie’s laptop working again, so she was able to get up to date with emails as well as washing and ironing. Ian also had a problem with his laptop: it was functioning fine, but he kept getting messages about his Windows licence running out. It took hours on the phone to Microsoft to get the problem sorted. Just as well, though, because he had work to do. ERA (our consultancy partnership) had been awarded a contract by the Department for Education in England, which meant a lot of statistical work: Ian was able to make a start on it while we were in Venice.
But we had time off too. One morning, while Ian was working, Sandie went to an Orchid Show in the Venice Community Centre: she was dazzled by all the beautiful flowers – and amazed by the crowds of people there. One evening we went to see the film Black or White, with Kevin Costner: it was interesting and thought-provoking.
Having failed to get his camcorder fixed, Ian bought a new one, and was keen to try it out. On our last day in Venice we walked along the Venetian Waterway Park trail, a path that follows the Intracoastal Waterway around Venice. We walked up one side for about two miles, crossed a bridge to look at the old Venice Train Depot (now a bus station) and then walked back on the other side. The path links with the Legacy Trail, part of which we walked from Sarasota in December. We were rather disappointed as there were few boats on the water, and the landscape was industrialised in places and rather bleak, in contrast with the Legacy Trail where we were surrounded by all kinds of trees. Still, it was good to be out walking in the sun.
Our fourth and final Caribbean island was Guadeloupe, which like Martinique is part of France. So we were back to talking French, spending euros, and driving on the right. It seems odd that these things alternate between four islands, not very far apart.
Due to an unexplained timetable change, the ferry from Dominica did not leave until 10.15 pm. This gave us time for a restorative drink and dinner after our drive around the island, but meant that we landed in Guadeloupe very late. We decided therefore to spend the night in a hotel near the ferry. Next morning we explored Pointe-á-Pître, which is the biggest town on Guadeloupe although not the capital. After the last three islands, this was something of a culture shock. There were streets of modern shops, including some French chain stores, and pavement cafés: we definitely got the feeling of being in France, albeit with a Caribbean flavour!
As the guidebooks say, Guadeloupe is really two islands, linked by a drawbridge. In shape, it resembles a butterfly, and the two ‘wings’ are quite different. We collected a hire car from the airport and set off to explore first the eastern wing, known as Grande-Terre. There are many beautiful beaches along the southern coast, which is therefore popular with tourists. We experienced culture shock again when we encountered traffic jams and parking problems, for the first time in our Caribbean journey.
Our base on Grande-Terre was near the town of St François. On our way there we stopped to visit the remains of Fort Fleur d’Epée, scene of battles between the English and French in 1794. It is on a hill and gives great views of the offshore islands. Trying to find our accommodation was a real challenge – we asked several people who had no idea, but finally a kind man got in his car and showed us the way. Our bungalow was on a new complex, all very smart, but really in the middle of nowhere, and up a very bumpy dirt track. Going out in the evening was impossible: negotiating the access road was bad enough in daylight.
There is a narrow finger of land which juts out from the south-east corner of Grande-Terre. The day after our arrival we parked our car part way down, and walked the remaining six miles or so along a footpath. Most of the time we were walking through trees just inland, but with occasional detours to get a view of the coast. At one point we passed between the sea and a small lake, where foam was constantly blown by the wind, making it look as if the lake had been filled with detergent. And when we reached the Pointe at the end of our walk, the views were truly spectacular.
While at St François we visited some other small towns, and spent time on a number of beaches. The most attractive was Plage de la Caravelle, near Sainte-Anne. The sand is fine and golden; there are lots of palm trees giving shade as well as adding to the scenic beauty. Unfortunately the beach has been more or less taken over by Club Med, which has a huge complex there. Though they cannot stop the public visiting, they do their best to exclude them from all the amenities. We decided to ignore the warning signs, and made use of a couple of spare loungers. We were amused when an aqua aerobics session started, but after a while the entertainment palled and we decided it was time to move on.
On Thursday 29th we drove up to the northern tip of Grande-Terre. This was less spectacular than the point we’d visited earlier, but there were wonderful views at the nearby Porte d’Enfer. Heading south again we stopped briefly to visit the amazing cemetery at Morne-à-l’Eau. It has hundreds of large impressive tombs – most but not all in black and white checkerboard design – packed tightly on a hillside which forms a natural amphitheatre. An amazing sight to conclude our tour of Grande-Terre.
Our accommodation on Basse-Terre was easier to find than the previous place, and the road to it was paved. However, it was equally ‘out in the wilds’, some miles from the nearest shops – and as for restaurants?! One thing we noticed was that the evenings were cooler: Basse-Terre is mountainous, and we were quite high up.
The main roads round Basse-Terre form a figure 8. The day after our arrival we drove the lower (and larger) part of the 8, with various stops en route. In the attractive but extremely busy town of Basse-Terre (capital of Guadeloupe) we visited Fort Delgrès, and admired the impressive monument to this leader of the resistance which opposed Napoleon and the reintroduction of slavery.
After driving north up the coast we turned east on the road that bisects Basse-Terre. It passes close to two hills known as the Mamelles (because that’s what they look like!). We climbed to the summit of both (each one took most of an hour each way). The paths were not too steep, but they were very slippery and there were stretches of deep mud. We returned to the car in a pretty disgusting state. We made another brief stop to do the short walk to Crayfish Falls, but that was rather an anti-climax.
Another day we stayed closer to our accommodation. In the morning we walked up to the so-called ‘troisième chute’ of Carbet. The walk was about an hour each way, and most of the time it was an easy path. But at the end it was necessary to descend steeply; there were steps, and a ladder, but inbetween there was a very difficult patch with only a rope for help. We had to follow the Schagen method of descending on our bottoms, and while taking pictures of the waterfall were wondering how we would ever get out again. Fortunately, we made it – just.
After calling at our gîte for some reviving coffee, we drove up to La Soufrière, the volcanic mountain. We did not attempt to reach the summit, but stuck to paths graded easy. These took us around the mountain to La Citerne, an old volcanic crater now filled with water. There were good views along the way, although the mountain was often obscured by cloud.
On our last day, the weather was grey, with quite a lot of rain. We visited the second Carbet waterfall which involved a longer drive but a shorter walk. The waterfall is higher and more impressive than the third, although the top tended to vanish into the mist. On the way back we stopped briefly to visit the ‘Grand Etang’ (Big Pond), and then headed for the airport!
Les Saintes (Caribbean island hopping 4a)
How many Caribbean islands did we visit in total? You could say that it was five, because we did a day trip to Les Saintes, a group of small islands which are part of Guadeloupe. The short ferry crossing takes you to Terre de Haut, the largest of Les Saintes and the only one with significant habitation. We walked up to Fort Napoléon (a stiff climb) and had to pay for entry, unlike the other forts we’ve visited on this trip. But it was well worth it, because the views from the battlements were stunning. Every few yards, we had to stop and take another photo!
After leaving the fort, we spent time on two beaches, at opposite ends of the island. Terre de Haut is quite small, so the distance between them was only 2-3 miles. But it is also very hilly, so the walk was quite tiring.