Archive for January, 2017
The first half of January passed with the usual round of activities and voluntary work. Sandie continued her dancing and her family research. Ian did more painting, and continued trying to get his book published. He has joined a local writers’ group, hoping it will give him some ideas. We’ve also started planning our summer travels!
On Facebook, we read about the ‘thousand mile challenge’, which claims that it is good for health and fitness to walk a thousand miles each year. Sounds a lot, but when you work it out, it’s less than three miles a day on average. We generally do quite a lot of walking, so guessed it would not be too difficult, but decided to monitor daily distances just for fun. We equipped ourselves with cheap pedometers, and Ian set up a spreadsheet. There’s an ongoing debate about what to include, or not include, so it’s all very approximate, but so far we are well ahead of our target. In addition to the walks we normally do – into town, along the beaches etc – we’ve done a few short walks from the condo, and are getting to know the neighbourhood even better.
We were expecting a dip in temperatures – January can be cool, even in Florida – but mostly the weather has stayed warm and sunny, except for one weekend. That Saturday evening we went to the cinema, planning to see the film Lion, but it seems that everyone had the same idea, and it was sold out when we arrived. Instead we saw Jackie, about the aftermath of Kennedy’s assassination. The following Saturday, we went to the Asolo Theatre to see a play called The Great Society. This followed on from All the Way, which we saw last year. The Great Society covered the period of LBJ’s presidency, after he was elected in his own right in 1964. It had a brilliant script, excellent acting and a great production. It lasted almost three hours, but we were so engrossed, we hardly noticed the time.
Off to the Bahamas
Cruising has never appealed to us – we prefer to be on land and see things, rather than look at the ocean. So when a friend sent us details of cheap cruises from Miami our first tendency was to ignore them. But they were amazingly good value, and when Sandie looked closer she found one which sounded as if it might suit us: four nights at sea, but all day on land, at three different islands in the Bahamas. So we decided to give it a go.
On Thursday 19th we drove across to Miami. Checking in for the cruise was quite a performance. Of course we expected security, and were not surprised to find that we were not allowed to carry liquids on board. We were however taken aback to be told that we could not take empty bottles – no airline that we’ve ever flown with has banned them. We had to queue over half an hour to get to the check-in desk, and the girl who dealt with us there gave us wrong information. As a result, we went up and down in a lift which got us nowhere, and lugged our case all the way to our cabin on the 8th deck, where we discovered that our room keys did not work. While Ian went to find guest services and have them changed, Sandie noticed that luggage was being delivered to all the other cabins. The porter was horrified when told that we had not been offered this service.
After our negative first experience, things did improve. Our cabin was fine, and the public areas of the ship were smart and comfortable. However, there were some disappointments. We were told that all food and drink was included – this should have been some food and some drink. Of the six restaurants on board, only two were ‘free’. We were not surprised to find that you had to pay extra for certain alcoholic drinks, but Sandie was disgusted to find that she would have to pay for a cappuccino!
There were other things that surprised us. Our (doubtless outdated) image of cruise ship passengers was that they were old, rich and well dressed. When we booked, we were told that there was no strict clothing code, but one rule – no shorts after 6pm. If this ever was a rule, it was completely ignored: people turned up for dinner in skimpy shorts or scruffy jeans, often with trainers and/or baseball caps. And the average age was much lower than we had anticipated. There were a few ‘oldies’ like us, and some middle-aged people, but the majority of passengers were young. It was more of a young person’s ‘booze cruise’ than anything else, and this was reflected in the noise levels and the entertainment on offer.
Our ship was operated by Norwegian Cruise Lines out of Miami, but we did not encounter a single American (or Norwegian!) among the crew. The majority of crew members (and officers) came from China, Indonesia, the Philippines or Croatia. One waiter told us that they sleep on the ship – and therefore we assume do not need a green card.
Our first call was at Grand Bahama Island. According to the guidebook we’d borrowed from the library, the main point of interest was Lucayan National Park, so we headed there. It was a long way from the port, so our taxi was not cheap, even though we were able to share it part of the way. At Lucayan we did a short trail which took us to two sea caves, and then another trail which took us through mangrove swamps down to Gold Rock Beach. This was stunning – a strip of pure white sand between pine trees and the brilliant turquoise sea. Some dead trees made it really picturesque, and we spent most of our time there walking along the beach and taking photos.
Next day we were at Nassau. We left the ship early and spent the morning exploring the town. We visited John Watling’s Distillery, two cathedrals (Anglican and RC), the Queen’s Staircase and Fort Fincastle. After lunch back on the ship, we did a separate excursion to Paradise Island, across the bridge from Nassau town. En route we detoured to Potter’s Cay, where men gut the conchs which have been caught, and which are then cooked and eaten at a string of colourful cafés. On Paradise Island we visited the Versailles Gardens, and then strolled along Cabbage Beach.
We were supposed to spend our third and final day on Great Stirrup Cay, a small private island in the Berry Islands group. We had not realised that we would need to transfer to small boats to reach the island. We were given instructions, and dressed in our beach clothes, but just as we reached the exit it was announced that the island was ‘cancelled’ – the weather was too windy for the tender boats to make it safely across the water. So we had to spend the whole day confined to the ship – exactly what had always made us reluctant to go on cruises.
So would we do it again? In a word, no. We don’t regret at all going on this cruise. We went to a country we hadn’t previously visited. We enjoyed Nassau, and the Lucayan National Park. We had the experience of being on a big liner. It was a great-value trip, considering how much we ate and drank. But the trip – particularly the last day – confirmed our feeling that cruising is not really for us.
The days leading up to Christmas were busy for us, with all our regular activities plus special events (some but not all Christmas-related).
The weekend before Christmas
On Saturday 17th we went to see the Sarasota Ballet at the Van Wezel Performing Arts Centre (a huge auditorium which was almost packed). Jewels (which was new to us) comprises three short ballets, Emeralds, Rubies and Diamonds. Although it is not Christmas-themed, the dancers’ costumes, in appropriately colours, gave it a Christmassy feel.
Next day we did our usual Sunday morning beach walk, this time on Lido beach. At the southern tip, we saw a large number of vultures, in the air and also on the sand (finishing off a dead fish). A girl on a stand-up paddleboard had found an enormous hermit crab. Later, while having lunch at the beach café, we saw a large white heron patrolling the tables. People eating were obeying the signs requesting them not to feed the wildlife, but that did not stop the heron, who managed to grab a basket of chips (fries) off one of the tables; they spilt all over the floor, and were then quickly demolished. Ideal food for herons???
Christmas began for us on Friday 23rd December, when we invited some friends and neighbours to join us for drinks and nibbles (it was going to be sherry and mince pies, but the menu got broadened a bit). A dozen people came, and we had a great time. We feel lucky to have got to know so many nice people here.
Christmas Eve started well. In the morning Ian went to his life drawing group, and Sandie to the farmers’ market downtown. She enjoyed sitting in the sun, cappuccino in hand, listening to a steel band play Christmas songs. The weather was warm, so after lunch we went to the pool. Then disaster struck…
At the nearby Asolo Theatre, there is always a great musical production in November/December; this year is was Guys and Dolls. We thought it would be nice to go on Christmas Eve, and Ian had booked seats online. When he checked the time of the evening performance, he discovered there wasn’t one – the seats were for the 2pm matinee, which by then was almost over, and the box office was closed. So the tickets we’d paid for were useless, and we had nothing booked for the evening. We ended up going to see the latest Star Wars film, Rogue One.
When in Florida, the obvious place to spend Christmas Day is at the beach. And luckily the weather played ball – it was one of the warmest days this winter. So after skyping our family back in Gloucestershire, we drove up to Anna Maria Island, and parked at Manatee Beach. This is our favourite local beach, and we knew that the café there would be functioning. When we arrived, about 10.30, it was in full swing. Santa and friends were dong the rounds (Santa later gave presents to all the children there) and there was live Christmas music. The place was packed – only problem was that Ian had to queue half an hour to order our food, while Sandie guarded a vacant table she had spotted. She had ‘all you can eat’ pancakes, while Ian had a large vegetable omelette with all the trimmings.
After we’d eaten, we went for a leisurely stroll along the beach, as far as Bridge Street. We were amused to see that a lot of people had brought Christmas trees to the beach – many small ones, but some really large. We also saw lots of snowmen – made of sand, of course. We had drinks in a Bridge Street bar, and took the trolley back to Manatee Beach. As the café was closing at 5, we had a very early dinner – but after our huge breakfast we were still not hungry, so ended up sharing. Then we went back to the sea to watch the sunset.
After picking up a leaflet advertising a fantastic light display there, Sandie suggested going to St Petersburg for the day. On the way we stopped at the Asolo box office, and to our amazement – and their credit – they exchanged our wasted tickets. By then the show had only a week to run, and most performances were almost sold out, so we got tickets for the matinee on New Year’s Eve.
We decided to adapt a walk we’d found to make it circular, and take us to parts of St Petersburg we hadn’t previously seen. We walked north via Mirror Lake and Crescent Lake. We emerged on the main road opposite the Sunken Gardens; we hadn’t planned to go there, but as we were passing…. The place seemed vaguely familiar, and we decided we must have visited once before. Later, Ian found a photo dated 27 December 1982 – almost exactly 34 years earlier!
We continued north to the Coffee Pot Bayou, and turned south following a path between posh houses and their dockside moorings. When we reached the main bayfront area, we stopped for drinks in a café and decided to stay for an early dinner. By the time we’d finished it was dark, so we could enjoy the Christmas lights while heading back to our car. Then it was a short drive to see the illuminations which had prompted us to go to St Petersburg. These were amazing – so many lights packed into quite a small area – and well worth seeing. It was provided by a church, and what amused us was the combination of fundamentalist Christian messages with decidedly secular or fantasy figures, such as penguins on a North Pole Beach, Snoopy on a motorbike and of course Father Christmas.
More Christmas lights
In Sarasota each December there is a ‘trolley tour of lights’ which takes you past some of the best decorated houses in the city. We booked too late for the pre-Christmas tours, but managed to get seats on Thursday 29th. The trolley bus was packed, there was Christmas music playing, and the driver told jokes, all adding up to a jolly atmosphere. The Christmas lights and inflatables were amazing – only problem from our point of view was the difficulty of taking night shots from a moving trolley. We were glad when, at one house, we were allowed off briefly to admire Santa’s apartment which had been created in someone’s garden, complete with kitchen, dining room and lounge where Santa was watching TV!
New Year’s Eve
In the morning, being Saturday, we went as usual to the library and the farmer’s market downtown. We were surprised to find a funfair – adult and children’s rides – crammed into the small space outside the library. And the market was even more crowded than usual.
In the afternoon we went to see Guys and Dolls, and were very glad we hadn’t missed the opportunity, as it was a brilliant show. The singing was great, the dancing spectacular and the stage set impressive. We enjoyed every minute.
We went back downtown in the evening. This was our first New Year’s Eve in Sarasota (last year we were at Epcot) so we did not know what to expect. One section of Main Street had been closed to traffic, and there were stalls selling food and drink, three sound stages, rides – and crowds of people. We managed to get a table for a late dinner at Barnacle Bill’s; we went on the Big Wheel, and Sandie went on the Paratrooper (one of her favourite rides) for the first time in years.
What we gather happens in many Florida towns at New Year is that a large object is ‘dropped’ at midnight. In Sarasota, this is a giant illuminated pineapple, suspended in the sky until it makes its descent (rather more slowly than we expected) into a cordoned-off landing area (no danger of hitting revellers on the way). Crowds watched, but made surprisingly little noise: there was no countdown, no cheering, and no singing Auld Lang Syne (though there were some fireworks on the bay afterwards). But the pineapple has definitely landed, so it must be 2017. We wish all of our readers a very happy new year.