M/V PAUL GAUGUIN AROUND TAHITI- THE PRELUDE

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The Paul Gauguin

The journey out to Tahiti and the islands of French Polynesia is one of the longest flights that you’ll ever make from mainland Europe and, having done it before back in October, 2010, I’m (more or less) ready to go back there again next month. But, even having done the trip once before, I still find the logistics involved in getting there and back quite staggering.

From my local airport at Newcastle, there’s a short, two hour Air France flight to Paris Charles De Gaulle, (that is, assuming that the notoriously volatile French air traffic controllers don’t choose to go on strike). From there, it’s a change of terminal after collecting my baggage, and then time to check in for the long haul out to Papeete, the capital of Tahiti.

Air Tahiti Nui is the national airline of Tahiti, and they fly big, four engine A340’s from Paris out to Tahiti, via a two hour stop in Los Angeles. The first leg from Paris to LA occupies a full twelve hours.

At LA, there’s a two hour stop to undergo a mandatory customs and immigration inspection, before you reboard the same plane (and sit in the same seat) for the remaining, eight hour haul out across the Pacific. By now, that plane has been completely cleaned, reprovisioned, and manned by a fresh crew. All of this is done sitting in economy, unless you get that lucky, blessed nod to turn left upon embarkation.

Now, economy on Air Tahiti Nui is actually pretty damned fine. The seats are arranged in a 2-4-2 across configuration, and the leg room is actually not bad at all. Disclaimer time: I’m a sky scraping 5′ 6″ tall.

Sure, the sum total is a journey time of around some twenty-seven hours, but pray consider this; when was the last time that you had that long to simply chill, enjoy a movie (or eight) on your own seat back TV, while savouring decent food and drink? Not often, I’ll bet.

You’ll feel the eleven hour time difference for sure when that plane door finally yawns open on touchdown at Tahiti’s Fa’a International Airport. But, even at 2130 at night, that heat will still hit you like a blast wave. And, once achieved, Tahiti is a living dream; one sculpted in towering rock formations, tumbling waterfalls, and graceful, gently swaying palm trees. The word ‘idyllic’ barely begins to do it true justice.

Having achieved this exotic, remote landfall, there’s two blissful days to acclimatise at the Inter-Continental, a fabulous waterfront hotel that’s just a short drive from the airport. It’s all manicured gardens and exotic pools, outdoor restaurants and fabulous accommodation, looking out over the peerless Pacific Ocean to the island of Moorea, just thirty-seven miles away. It’s as serene as it is surreal; Miso soup for breakfast, anyone?

But, of course, the real ‘Jewel in The Crown’ awaits in the port of Papeete on Saturday morning, in the form of the pristine, perfectly primped ‘Pearl of the Islands’- the gorgeous little Paul Gauguin.

Svelte, seductive, and specially built to cruise these languid, laid back waters, the Paul Gauguin comes in at just 19,000 tons in all. She cossets some 330 guests in six star, all inclusive, casually styled decadence that makes her the most exclusive, as well as inclusive, way to see these islands dotted like gemstones in the sparkling emerald carpet of the South Pacific.

With three all inclusive, open seating restaurants, indoor lounges and an outdoor bar/disco, and even an outdoor water platform for lowering her own kayaks, sailboats and scuba equipped divers into these incredible waters, the Paul Gauguin has become integral to the economy of these far away islands. Indeed, her trim, tidy little silhouette has become just as much a part of the local Polynesia beauty pageant as the looming bulk of Mount Otemanu itself.

In short, the Paul Gauguin is classy, expansive, laid back, and both delightfully languid and luxurious. She is certainly the best way to savour the sights, sounds and stunning scenery of French Polynesia that I can possibly imagine. And, just knowing that she will be waiting quietly for me in the harbour of Papeete fair guarantees that my long journey out to join her will truly fly by.

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COSTA NEORIVIERA TRANSFERRING TO AIDA CRUISES

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Yet another of the Costa company’s smaller vessels is departing the fold next year, when the 48,200 ton, 1,196 passenger Costa NeoRiviera transfers across to Aida Cruises, the flag bearer of Carnival Corporation’s German portfolio. The ship, originally built as the Mistral for the now long defunct Festival Cruises, will sail from Palma on her maiden voyage as the AidaMira on December 4th, 2019.

A quite comprehensive refurbishment and updating of the ship has been announced, prior to her first revenue cruise. Some ninety six of her existing 624 cabins will be converted into suites, and around eighty of these will have a balcony. In terms of dining and leisure options, the re-wrought AidaMira will offer six different restaurants, and half a dozen bars and lounges.

Once the work is complete, AidaMira will embark on a series of longer, more destination intensive cruises, including a complete, fourteen night round trip sailing from Cape Town to the highlights of South Africa.

That will leave only the current, 1993 built Costa NeoRomantica flying the flag for Costa’s own brand of brief lived, more intimate, destination oriented cruises, a now obviously abandoned notion that it seems is to be best left to others. It seems unlikely that the brand will continue as a one ship fleet; so quite likely Costa will also be parting with that ship as well in the not too distant future.

 

BOUDICCA TO SOUTH AFRICA: A NIGHT OUT ON THE TOWN

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“Hot town, summer in the city…..”

The words of the classic old, Loving Spoonful Sixties hit ran through my head like a thread. It’s a February night in Cape Town, and the temperature is in the mid twenties. The famous Victoria and Alfred waterfront is absolutely buzzing on a mellow Monday night.

The ‘V and A’ is a complex of bars, shops and restaurants just five minutes’ walk from where Boudicca sat docked. It’s a safe, almost hermetically sealed playground, where yachts snuggle up to a floodlit waterfront thronged with scores of open air bars and music venues. Thousands of visitors- locals and tourists alike- come out to enjoy it’s vast, breezy expanse. The vibe is as carefree and casual as it comes. Imagine South Beach In Miami, but with prices about seventy five per cent cheaper, and you begin to get the drift.

And, for as much as I do love Miami, it does not have the monolithic swagger of Table Mountain as a backdrop. It looms across the background like some silent, wary colossus, quietly keeping score. Floodlit at it’s base, it looks simply stunning. There’s no backdrop anywhere else in the world that looks quite like it.

Just take a while to stroll and roll, and the whole expanse soon becomes easy enough to navigate. If you’re arranging to meet somebody, the central, quirky Victorian clock tower is as good a focal point as any. Breeze past the mime artists, and the restaurants offering early dinner specials, and find one of the waterfront bars that offers free live music.

I came to love Milligan’s, one of  a pair of adjacent former warehouses long since converted into music venues. Sit indoors or out (personally, I prefer the upturned beer barrels that double up as outside tables) and wash down a fabulous, flaming sunset with a side order of the local Castle Beer. Better still is a bottle of the local, slightly sweet Leopard’s Leap wine. At roughly the equivalent of around £7 a bottle, it seems almost too good to be true. In fact, the price is about on a par with South Africa as a whole.

There’s stellar live music from a resident acoustic guitarist who is obviously popular with the locals. People come and go in torrents, ambling from one venue to another. There are ice cream sellers, strolling musicians and, of course, there are pickpockets, too.

It’s about one in the morning by the time that I amble slowly back to the Boudicca; it’s a walk that takes me all of five minutes. It’s still warm as toast out here, and the party is rocking on long since after I have decided to call it a night. Still, I have an appointment tomorrow, with Table Mountain itself, literally up close and personal, and I need to be ready.

Sleep cradles me like a baby. I hover somewhere between alert and amazed. Maybe all of this has been a dream? One thing is for sure; Cape Town is no one off date for anyone and yes, a return is already in the planning…..

 

BOUDICCA SOUTH AFRICA CRUISE: A DAY OUT WITH THE ZULUS

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When Boudicca fetched up for our overnight’s stay at Richards’ Bay, it’s safe to say that most of our passengers were somewhat less than overwhelmed at first impressions. Richards Bay is an industrial port, right next to a coal exporting centre. To call it ‘short on charm’ would be a radical understatement.

Happily, we were not there to savour it’s delights (a process that would have taken all of thirty seconds) but rather to enjoy the wealth of attractions nestled in the nearby hinterland. And, what it might have lacked in charm, Richards Bay more than made up for with it’s ease of access to some truly memorable wildlife and scenic encounters.

Up to now, almost everything that I had seen and done on this trip had been coastal related but now, for the first time, we headed inland on an excursion that would bring us face to face with bona fide members of the biggest of South Africa’s thirteen indiginous tribes- the infamous Zulus.

Our coach snaked its way inland, past brush plantations. school children making their way home, and a hinterland that contained God alone knows what. But that ninety minute drive would culminate in one of the greatest travel experiences of my life thus far.

DumaZulu is an authentic cultural village and domestic experience, actually inhabited by members of the ethnic Zulu population. Here, in a compound of rare red earth surrounded by a criss-crossed wooden fence, these people keep their original way of life alive; cooking, eating and making handicrafts, as well as spears and shields. This was no Disney-esque style recreation; the people here actually live on the site.

That fence is no protection at all against the snakes that come here at night; the natives simply kill those. But it does keep out the larger, more substantial predators that lurk in the brush just outside at night. Happily for us, our visit took place in the searing afternoon sun, with no shortage of light.

After a full on, very vocal challenge from a local Zulu, garbed in the traditional fur and head gear, we learned more of the local culture and customs. A Zulu male may attain any number of wives, all for the princely dowry of eleven cows each. And, with the local Zulu shields being made of cow hide as well, it’s apparently that these mostly benevolent bovines feature largely in the spectrum of everyday Zulu life.

Over a smouldering, smoky pit, a trio of young Zulu braves showed us how they made their spears, hammering and moulding them into shape using a series of blunt rocks. I did wonder uneasily whether they might be quietly tooling up for Rorke’s Drift II- The Rematch but to be honest they were amazingly polite, and not at all daunted by our bus load of dollar crusaders.

For a small fee, you can even consult with the Sangoma- the local equivalant of a witch doctor- on any topic under the sun. Though we were told not to take photos of her, the Sangoma was actually quite happy to pose with her charming, assorted, bleached white collection of skulls, bones, and chicken innards, throwing them skywards in theatrical displays that hopefully did not augur too ill for my immediate future.

The huts themselves are squat, circular straw refuges, scattered around the red soil of the compound like so many blemishes on a sun burnt palette. Inside, there’s a fire pit in the centre, and room enough for several people to commune in each. The Ritz Carlton they are not.

Back outside, we sat on some rickety bleachers, drinking genuine Zulu beer out of a collection of locally made clay bowls and jugs. It’s clearly an acquired taste and, to be honest, I have yet to acquire it. But the show we were about to witness was intoxicating enough in its own right, beer or no.

Cue a full on, feisty troupe of Zulu ladies and gentlemen in full regalia, complete with tom tom drums, spears, feathers, and exotic head dresses. For the next thirty minutes or so they stomped, chanted, thumped drums and chests alike. In general, they kicked up up a dust storm that looked like the aftermath of a regiment of charging Rhinos. The X-Factor it was not….

There were displays of macho bravado, no shortage of spear waving, and some truly blood curdling howling of a type not heard since the last Atomic Kitten album. The blood ran colder than that Zulu beer at times, but it was never anything less than thrilling, full on, and in an odd type of way, truly intoxicating. We learned later that what we had witnessed was an actual wedding courtship ritual.

And this really was the truly authentic, heartfelt sound of tribal Africa. Long before Apartheid, Cecil Rhodes or even Oscar Pistorious ever reared their heads, these frantic prayers, offerings and chants were at the very epicentre of Zulu life. You had the definite sense of being on the cusp of something timeless and rare out there. The line between past and present was, at best, a smiley kind of blur.

Still, there was enough time to shop at the authentic Zulu store, too. Here, you could buy CD’s and DVD’s, as well as freshly made spears, shields, and other examples of local artistry. And, while it all seemed to be suddenly a bit tacky, it did serve to remind me just how uneasily native people and their traditions sit alongside the modern world, with it’s endless, perceived sense of technical and material progress.

Back to the ship, and our own tribe of sea safari veterans trooped, tired but happy, back up the gangway to board Boudicca. Darkness had stolen across the quayside; the local sellers had packed up shop and gone home for the day. And, although we would be here overnight, there was nowhere nearby really so alluring as to merit getting off the ship again that evening.

Snug and fast back aboard our own little world, we turned inwards to share our day’s adventures, our pre-dinner drinks out on the terrace, and then a marvellous, mellow dinner, followed by live music in the Lido, and a couple of nightcaps outside on the terrace on Seven Deck.

Here, back aboard our own charmed little universe, the lights shone on the still, dark waters that lapped at our ship’s flank. From being down and deep in the dense, exciting tribal playground of DumaZulu to all the languid, laid back bonhomie and comfort of Boudicca, I mused that it had, indeed, been quite the day.

And we were by no means finished yet.

 

 

 

 

CRYSTAL SERENITY TO OFFER TRIO OF SIX DAY MEDITERRANEAN SAMPLER CRUISES IN 2019

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Crystal Serenity in her current guise

2019 will see the stunning, six star Crystal Serenity offer a trio of six day taster cruises in the Western Mediterranean next May, giving prospective passengers a raft of great opportunities to sample the ship’s newly restructured interiors and dining options. Paramount among these; the first move to continual, open seating evening dining since the ship’s original launch back in early 2003.

The extensive refurbishment, due to take place between October 14th and November 10th this year, will see the 68,000 ton ship’s guest capacity drop to a total of just 980 in all, giving a total passenger/space ratio of 70.3 in all.

To put that figure into context, that would be half the capacity- and thus twice the space- as offered by the similar sized, legendary QE2 prior to her retirement in 2008.

New categories of Penthouse Suites and Seabreeze Suites will be added to the ship, mainly at the expense of smaller grades of suites and balcony cabins. And, together with the new and enhanced wealth of dining facilities on board, all of this amounts to the most extensive remodelling of this hugely lauded ship since her launch, some fifteen years ago.

If you’re short on time options, or just want to experience the sybaritic Crystal lifestyle and ambience for the first time, then one of that trio of six night cruises might just well be the thing for you. The options are as follows;

ROUND TRIP ROME (CIVITAVECCHIA): 11-17 MAY, 2019

Rome to Livorno (For Florence or Pisa), Portofino, Monte Carlo, Saint Tropez and Ajaccio, Corsica. UK fares from £2,048 per person

ROME (CIVITAVECCHIA) TO BARCELONA: 17-23 MAY, 2019

Rome to Sorrento, Propriano (Corsica), Cannes, Marseilles, Barcelona (Overnight stay). UK fares from £2,048 per person.

ROUND TRIP BARCELONA: 23-29 MAY, 2019

Barcelona to Cassis (France), Livorno (For Florence or Pisa), Monte Carlo, Calvi (Corsica), Barcelona (Overnight stay). UK fares from £1,903 per person/ This sailing is also in port for the Monaco Grand Prix.

All three sailings are offered as all inclusive packages. And, while all are short on actual sea time, there is always the option of foregoing one (or more) of the shore visits for the chance to spend more time simply luxuriating on the ship itself. Not a bad way to spend a day, as it happens.

While any one of these trips would make a great appetiser, or an even better chance to get reacquainted with the Crystal experience, I can imagine little better than combining all three trips for one long, glorious, hassle free way to see the best of the summertime Mediterranean (and all of the Corsica calls, in particular, are very attractive), while packing and unpacking just the once.

Lovely stuff.

BOUDICCA- CAPE TOWN LANDFALL

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Table Mountain, also known as the Tafelberg to native Afrikaans

While this entire, exotic sea safari had a score of memorable moments and sights, it was the grand finale of arriving in Cape Town, and then spending three days and two nights there, that had really sealed the deal on this epic adventure in the first place.

Our final South African landfall was achieved with careful, studied grace. At around noon, Boudicca came within sight of land, as a string of jagged, seemingly arid peaks and hillsides shimmered in the searing mid day heat. And the realisation of how close our last, most spectacular landfall now was, just made the adrenaline flow like tap water. I stood there as though welded to the deck, with my jaw scraping the tops of my shoes.

Table Mountain emerged from this vivid, moving dreamscape like some vast aircraft carrier that had just come swaggering over the horizon. And, while some of the world’s most famous sights flatter to deceive in terms of scale (think New York’s Statue of Liberty, or Copenhagen’s diminutive Little Mermaid), the vast, looming bulk of Table Mountain-or Tafelberg, to give it the actual Afrikaans name- truly was every bit as impressive as it had always been billed.

As we slowed and swung inland and the harbour pilot came bustling on board, the great, brooding brute of a mountain seemed to be coming straight at me. Massive, black and menacing, it flooded the horizon in both directions, fanning out like some relentless Roman phalanx of old. Before I knew it, Boudicca was slowly nudging up to her berth amid the Cape Town harbour bustle, and our final South African landfall had been quietly achieved.

Table Mountain and I had an appointment in the morning, one I had made at the age of just six years old.  Now, saddled with my pronounced fear of heights, I still had to honour that long held appointment. My feelings were well and truly mixed; it felt like watching somebody that I truly despised going over a cliff in my brand new Rolls Royce Corniche.

To put it into perspective, the famous, flat top summit of Table Mountain extends for almost two full miles from side to side. It shears a full 3,558 feet into the cobalt blue South African summer sky from the ground. Famously, it is  a haven for a whole raft of fabulous fauna and brush and, as part of the larger Table Bay National Park, it is a world renowned sanctuary for local wildlife.

But these are mostly materialistic drum rolls; actually ascending that implacable old brute is something else entirely, and I have wanted to do it ever since I was a kid. On our included shore excursion from Boudicca, a coach took us on a slow, winding drive that embraced at least a part of that climb. But then we got to the brace of cable cars that make the greater part of that ascent, and that was when my own, very personal moment of truth arrived.

Noe those cable cars are both circular in shape, with windows large enough to afford fantastic views of both ascent and descent for those with nerve enough to face them. What I hadn’t counted on was that each of those cable cars also rotates as it makes the journey. It was a realisation that did not improve my resolve by one jot but, none the less I got into a summit bound car, sat in the middle, and prayed to God that I would not make an idiot of myself.

I need not have worried; that ascent was gentle, and spellbinding to such a degree that my normal fear of heights vanished like so much winter snow. I was too fascinated by the entire, unfolding panoply of glinting, jagged peaks, arrayed against that sparkling blue seascape, to indulge in fear of any kind. The sum effect of that whole majestic, magnificent panorama was like being awake in some particularly vivid dream.

And we got lucky that day, too; ‘no ‘table cloth’  of fluffy white clouds obscured the view from that vast, surprisingly uneven summit. You could quite literally see for miles. And what views they were, too.

Below us, the entire, magnificent sweep of Cape Town lay splayed out like the contents of some fantastic toy box. Buses looked like tiny bugs, scuttling along cotton thin tracts of road, moving up and around hair pin bends. Around my feet, lizards ran helter skelter for some cover from the mid day sun, and small, furry Jerboas scuttled for the shade of any nearby rocks.

On the mountain itself, deep, jagged ravines tumbled unstoppably down into the sea, their slopes studded with pine trees that seemed to cling on desperately for dear life. Random, dislodged boulders stood like so many upturned molars that had somehow been uprooted many centuries ago. At once both mighty and mute, they gave some kind of perspective to this lofty, sprawling expanse of legendary real estate, where the sky and the land really do seem to commune. It is impossible to remain unmoved by this stunning natural wonderland; for me, Table Mountain has more real magic than all of Walt Disney’s theme parks put together.

The descent was gradual, graceful, and tinged with more than a bit of exhilaration. I had come to the mountain, and the mountain had not prevailed. The realisation of a fifty plus year old dream is a summit of another kind and yes, I felt pretty good about myself right at that moment.

Back aboard Boudicca in the late afternoon, and I’m sitting outside at the Marquee Bar on Deck Nine, nursing some glacially chilled South African Chardonnay. The demisters are on full, forming a calming, welcoming cloud of blissfully cooling haze around me. Almost instinctively, some thoughtful crew member distributes fresh fruit skewers that seem like manna from Heaven.

Above me, Table Mountain looms just as before. But now the damned think looks much kinder, more mellow; almost benign in fact. And, if I didn’t know better, I could have sworn that the grizzled old brute was smiling at me.

So it would have been rude, very rude indeed, not to raise my glass and toast it back. And rudeness, while always a no no, is even more so when you’re a guest in somebody else’s country.

BOUDICCA AROUND SOUTH AFRICA: AN AFTERNOON AT THE OYSTER BOX HOTEL

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When touring the vast, open expanses of South Africa, the mind logically conjures up images of great, open game reserves and majestic, prowling wild life, or the fabulous beaches and stunning, mountainous beauty of Cape Town, Fransschoek and Stellenbosch.

So it came as something of a delightful change to tour the rugged, beautiful coastline of Umhlanga, just a short, fifteen minute drive from the port of Durban, where the Boudicca lay docked. It’s a special, quite splendid places, where the massive rollers of the Indian Ocean drum the shore line that winds along and below Durban’s most exclusive suburbs. Our coach rolled past a mesmerising series of gorgeous vistas, where winding mountain roads sit in the shade of vast, jagged escarpments that loomed sharp and black against a powder blue sky. It was muggy that sultry summer afternoon, and it gradually grew slightly overcast, but we had an appointment with some serious, platinum chip hedonism that made the journey well and truly worthwhile.

The Oyster Box Hotel sits atop a gently sloping promontory like something straight out of a Walt Disney fable. It’s a glorious, exquisitely detailed little wedding cake of a hotel, all white exteriors, black and white chequered floors, glittering mirrors and vast, impassive chandeliers that hold sway above a scene straight out of the pages of an Agatha Christie novel. You expected Hercule Poirot and a full, Palm Court orchestra to appear at any given moment.

The gardens leading down to the hotel’s private beach are perfectly primped, immaculately manicured, and wonderfully alluring. At water’s edge a small, red and white lighthouse stands against the flaring, burnt umber smear of the setting afternoon sun. There’s a vast, azure blue swimming pool, and an avalanche of perfectly poised comfortable furniture to just sag into. There’s space to breathe and grace to achieve a state of pampered, indolent bliss.

And, if I had succumbed to all of this, I would have missed out on Afternoon Tea. And that really would have been a shame.

A vast, colourful spread of everything imaginable, from prime cuts of meat to seriously decadent macaroons, was rolled out like some startling, multi hued carpet under those vast chandeliers. Cakes the size of small coastal cities loomed like Table Mountain over a sea of exotic fruits, cheeses and pastries that easily constituted a full meal in its own right. It all looked too delightful to devour, but too decadent to resist. Truth be told, I folded like so much wet cardboard, and went at it like a cavalry charge.

And it’s all done with such subtle, understated taste. Naturally, there’s a glass of vibrant, frothy bubbly served first, just to set the tone. The tea ceremony- and ceremony it is- is  hushed, casual decadence served up with a smile, and there’s no shortage of choices, either.

Once seated and ministered to in one of the gorgeous little salons that adjoin the main lobby way, people simply went and helped themselves to the open glut of goodies that lay just across the hall. Some of them did so repeatedly; at least one man I saw made more round trips than the QE2 did Atlantic crossings. It was almost as if he’d actually done it before.

Naturally, there was perfectly chiming piano music drifting around in the background, and a battery of smiling waiters and waitresses serving both us and the guests lounging outside on the terrace, as they watched the steel grey rollers of the Indian Ocean drumming the beach from over the rims of their tea cups. It’s at once both serene and surreal; the whole experience fosters an air of languid, lazy contentment that’s plainly visible across everybody’s faces.

One lady was heard to remark that it was ‘just like the Ritz’ but, in truth, the Oyster Box has a stance and a feel more akin to Reid’s Hotel on Madeira; a little oasis of primped, platinum chip prestige where the views out over the ocean are as much a feast for the sense as all the gooey, garrulous gluttony draped out under those chandeliers just indoors.

Leaving the Oyster Box was almost physically painful, but my mood brightened as we returned to the harbour, and Boudicca hove back into view. Twilight had begun to descend like a slow crash dive across Durban’s busy harbour, and Boudicca was now lit up like some shimmering, brilliant Christmas tree, with her serried tiers of lights dancing across the ink black waters of the port.

Her single, beautifully sculpted funnel stood sharp and proud against the dying light of the day, looming like some kid of welcoming beacon for the returning bus load of sated Oyster Box refugees. Already, dinner was in the offing, and the first passengers were sauntering into the run of bars along Deck Six for their pre-dimmer cocktails.

Soon enough, there was the gentle rumble of the engines coming to life, and the subtle splash of our morning ropes being dropped into the water from the quayside as we stood slowly out into the starry evening. From somewhere, a piano rolled into some scarce remembered refrain, as car headlights along the coast glowed like a swarm of agitated glow worms. From on board, the ship’s siren boomed out across the bay with a warm bellowing roar that elicited a string of responses from the freighters, tugs and fishing boats that sat shackled to the nearby quays.

Another adventure was dropping slowly, gracefully astern, but I knew that others- perhaps even more quirky, exotic and beguiling- lay just over the same horizon that we were now surging towards.