Home Again

20 04 2011

17th April 2011

Aurora sailed into Southampton during the early hours of 14th April, heralding the end of our mammoth cruise.  The disembarkation was a work of careful planning by P&O with 1500 plus passengers each with up to five pieces of luggage wanting to leave at the same time.   All luggage was tagged according to deck number and then ferried down to a huge warehouse where it was stored in rows.   We were fortunate in that our deck was the first to be called, and so within ten minutes we had found our bags, and then our driver to bring us back to Sidmouth.  A very smooth operation.

We are now back to reality, dealing with three months mail, gardening, not to mention the hundreds of photos to be sorted. 

However, Devon is looking at its best in the spring sunshine as we enjoy the current heatwave – its good to be back

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PONTA DELGADA , Azores

15 04 2011

11th April 2011

The Azores are made up of 9 islands, some 760 miles from Lisbon,Portugal.  The islands owe their dramatic shape to volcanic activity many years ago.  Earthquakes of any size are apparently rare, the last recorded one was in 1957.

We were making a very brief morning visit to Ponta Delgada, mainly apparently to refuel.  Because we had to be back on board by 12.30 we decided to take an official ship tour this time in four-wheel drive which would take us off-road.  The itinerary was to visit Sete citadades, a 15 sq mile extinct volcanic crater in which two separate lakes have formed, one deep blue and the other emerald green.

We drove out of Ponta Delgada and west along the pretty coastal road, past small villages. Everywhere was very green and lush.  Pine trees covered the hillsides and wild Spring flowers were in bloom in the hedgerows – it rather reminded us of home.  The weather was glorious, blue skies and warm sunshine – we were so lucky again.  Then we left the main road and climbed on dirt tracks until we came to a high ridge and drove towards the lakes.  The views were magnificent – on both sides.

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We made many stops are vantage points for photos and were able to look down on the village of Sete Cidades.  We were shown were many years ago the flooding was so serious that the grave yard and its contents rose, so they had to move the graveyard up the hill.  After this serious flooding, when houses had water up to the first floor, a kilometre long tunnel was built by hand to drain excess water out to sea. Adventurous folks,with suitable boots and a torch, walk this tunnel from time to time.

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In the village we stopped for coffee and a visit to the pretty church.  Everywhere azaleas were in bloom – wild in the hedgerows and all round the lakes – a colourful site.  The miles hydrangeas were not yet in bloom. 

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After a good explore of the area we stopped at another volanic lake  Lago Rosa – the hillsides being covered with pine trees.  On our way back to port, we stopped at a special viewing platform where whales and dolphins are regularly seen – but not that day! 

The weather had started to change and we could seem thick mist starting to roll in.  Before we knew it our brief  morning visit was over and we were back on the boat for the last sailaway, with one of the resident bands on deck providing lively music. 

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This is our last visit before getting home in a couple of days time.  We will make a final entry in our blog  – so keep an eye out.





St. Lucia, Caribbean

10 04 2011

3rd April 2011

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St. Lucia is the second largest of the four islands in the Windward group, with its famous Pitons, old volcanic spines rising sheer out of the sea.   With its volcanic aspect, dense forest and wonderful coves and bays, St.Lucia is among the leaders in the Caribbean. 

As is our normal practice now, we were among the first off the boat and met up with a local named Baptist selling minibus tours   We had some idea of where we wanted to go thanks to Holiday Which? which featured this lovely island in March 2008.  After a few minutes there were ten of us who agreed the price and the route.  We had a brilliant day covering the main hi-lights of this beautiful island.

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We drove along twisty hilly roads to Marigot Bay, stopping to sample some unusual local fruits and rum and to take photos of the famous Pitons.  A quick stop was made at a banana plantation and we saw how they form and learnt how a crop of fruit will only take 9 months from the planting of a small plant to harvesting fruit. 

Our route took us through the little fishing towns of Anse le Ray and Canaries where brightly painted wooden buildings jostled with each other.  Driving through the rain forest reminded us of parts of New Zealand earlier in our tour.  Thick lush vegetation, tall trees and shade from the strong sun.   This was followed by a visit to the “drive-in” volcano north of Soufriere with its sulphur springs  Thousands of years ago the volcano imploded and the top dropped down inside leaving a huge crater.  We stopped to pick up a volcano guide and then drove right into the crater.  There was a very strong smell of sulphur as we exited the minibus.  We were able to take photos of pools of bubbly steamy sulphur as we listened to the guide with her historical and technical talk.

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Our next stop on this busy tour was to the Botanical Gardens and Diamond Falls.  The gardens were full of colourful exotic plants and trees.  At the end of the walk we came to the falls, some 30ft high which are fed from the nearby sulphur springs.  The colour of the water changes depending on the chemical content at the time.

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Then it was back in the minibus and the short drive to Soufriere which stands at the head of a deep bay and is over-shadowed by the twin peaks of the Pitons.  The town has according to the travel books has a strong French influence, but we found mainly West Indian – brightly coloured basic wooden houses and shops squeezed in together.   We were able to explore this little town and its waterfront for a while, although finding nothing to spend our dollars on.

On our return trip, Baptist stopped at a local bakery and bought some very hot local bread and cheese for us all which was quite delicious.

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It was a good tour taking just over 6 hours in all, giving us a good feel of this lovely island.  In Castries where Aurora was berthed we made a quick visit to the local market selling local vegetables and fruit spices, etc. as well as the usual cane and wood souvenirs but we did not make any purchases, instead headed back towards Aurora, a bar and a few very welcome cold beers.





Panama Canal

10 04 2011

1st April 2011

As long ago as 1524 King Charles V of Spain considered the building of a canal in this area  In 1878, the Geographical Society of Paris organized a committee, headed by the then world famous Ferdinand de Lesseps, who recently completed the Suez canal.  Work was begun in 1881, but the project proved more difficult than anticipated.  Yellow fever and malaria killed some 22,000 workers; the construction problems were insurmountable and along with financial mismanagement the French company was bankrupt by 1889.  Finally, in 1904, after US  intervention and investment, construction began again on one of the greatest engineering feats of the world,   More than 75,000 workers took part in its construction, the first sailing through the completed canal was on August 15 1914,  Its completion was helped by a sucesful campaign to eliminate yellow fever and malaria.

We arrived in the waters of Panama City at around 6 am and saw many passengers on deck armed with their cameras to record the event.   The 50 mile journey through Canal was to last around eight hours and for most of that time we had a commentary from Graham our Resident Excursion Officer. 

It cost Aurora some $322,000 to make the passage

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We sailed under the Bridge of Americas which carries the famous Pan American Highway, and then proceeded to the Miraflores Locks which raised Aurora 54 feet.  The next lock Pedro Miguel lifted us 31 feet.  Then it was under the recently opened (2004) Centennial Bridge.  before proceeding through the Galliard Cut (the work having been done by hand!)which slices through the Continental Divide.   We crossed the Gatun Lake (until fairly recently  the  largest man-made lake) and saw a crocodile on a bank and various bird life.  The vegetation was thick, some of it quite colourful.

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At the other end of the Gatun Lake we came to the Gatun Locks which took us back down the 85feet.  Each lock was 110 feet wide – Aurora is 106 feet wide!  We were guided through the locks by a “mules” on each side with steel cables attached to Aurora.  These mules ran on rails alongside the lock.  Fascinating to watch.

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New widening works on the canal enabling ever larger vessels to pass through are programmed to finish by 2014 costing some $5.2billion

It was a fantastic day, we had never before thought we would get to travel through this amazing piece of engineering.  We have seen some quite wonderful natural sights on this voyage; the canal was the best manmade one .





Aruba ABC Islands Caribbean

4 04 2011

3rd April 2011

Situated just 18 miles north of Venezuela, Aruba was formerly one of six islands belonging to the Netherlands Antilles and still has the Dutch influence.  Only 19 miles long and 6 miles wide, this little island has an average temperature of 82 degrees F, constant cooling trade winds, crystal clear waters and white sandy beaches.

Today it boasts of having the highest standards of living in the West Indies thanks to tourism and its close proximity to the Venezuelan oil fields.

Once again we were up and away early and at the local bus stop for a ride to the tip of the island.  Return fare for both of us was $5!  On the way we passed some ten large American style hotel complexes with their trimmed trees, hedges and lawns – not for us.  We were heading for the windsurfing beach!  Tony was quizzed by a very fit young blond (young enough to be his granddaughter) on his windsurfing abilities.  There was a gusting off shore wind and coral reefs to avoid.  A board and sail were selected so kitted up, off he sailed.  For the next hour or so Tony sailed, having fun avoiding the coral and taming the gusts.  Meanwhile patient Chris found some shade and a chair and sat and enjoyed the view.

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We then caught the bus to Arashi beach.  This area was the natural Aruba, far from the American developments; being a Sunday it was quite was busy with local families and groups enjoying large picnics.  We swam in the sea, Tony snorkelled, and just enjoyed being in the breeze on the beach. 

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The lighthouse did not appear far away, so we decided to walk to it following the approach road used by vehicle traffic.  However it took a lot longer than expected, but the view at the top was worth it.  We could look over the windward side of the island, and the countryside beyond, which is fairly arid and flat.

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Next to the lighthouse we discovered a short cut for the return trip to the beach, where  we  caught the bus back to Aurora.  A shower and change gave us time for a brief look around Oranjestad with its Dutch-style buildings and harbour full of deep sea fishing boats.  As it was a Sunday few purchases were made but we did find a bar for a refreshing cold beer.  Iguanas were sunning themselves on the rocks.

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And so ended yet another good day ashore, while back on board we were to enjoy a brilliant song and dance show after dinner.

Only two more visits to go !!

 

 





Huatulco , Mexico

4 04 2011

29th March 2011

 

Following the success of Cancun, the Mexican Government looked for a similar resort on the Pacific Coast, the result was Huatulco, with 9 bays and 22 miles of beaches.  Development only started 20 or so years ago and has a Mexican feel, but it still feels unfinished.  It appears to have been hit by the world recession as various half built developments stood  abandoned.

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We were off Aurora early, walked round to the pretty marina and negotiated with a local boatman to take us to a nearby bay suitable for snorkelling.  On the way he stopped at various points of interest, including a blow hole. Later in the day from the cliff top a whale and her calf were seen by others, going north. 

On the beach we settled ourselves down under the palm roof of one of the many cafe/restaurants.  We all went snorkelling and eventually found a very interesting area at the entrance to the bay with lots of colourful fish.  We spent most of the day either snorkelling, swimming or drinking beer and sampling local food, before our boatman arrived for our return.  We had time for a quick shower and change and a short visit the little town square full of small shops selling local produce before sailaway.

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A very simple, but enjoyable day in Huatulco





Acapulco. Mexico

31 03 2011

28th March 2011

 

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Francis Drake was very successful pirate in these waters  raiding the treasure ships coming to the area from Manila for trade.  It was in the 1920s that this lovely area became popular with wealth Mexicans.  Acapulco was a haven for the rich and famous in the 1940s and 50s.  Today it is still a popular resort attracting many visitors and of course cruise ships

It was lovely to be back in warmer waters again after our drenching in chilly San Francisco.  We left the boat before 9am – it promised to be a scorcher of a day.  Met by a barrage of taxi drivers at the gate to the quay, we seemed to attract a local guide, wearing an official badge and blue shirt who guided us on foot to the local market.  We were a quite apprehensive as we walked through some very rough areas. (most people we later discovered took a taxi)  We made a few purchases, bargaining hard.    Later we took a taxi  to La Quebrada area where the famous divers were due to perform at 1 pm.  Arriving a little early we were fortunate in getting a seat in the shade with a good view and prepared our cameras.

The dive show was quite brilliant.  A total of 11 young men climbed bare foot to various points on the cliff face, up to 35 metres, rather like mountain goats.  The first to dive were presumably the less experienced, then in pairs higher up the cliff, some doing backward dives, others spinning, until finally the diver from the very top went.  Lots of oohs and aahs from the crowds – quite spectacular.  Needless to say we took lots of pictures and cine.

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Back at the boat, we went down onto the bay and the very long beach that makes Acapulco so famous. Full of activity, people cooking and selling freshly caught fish and serving it in a makeshift cafe to locals.  Larger fishing boats, manned by up to 12 men would launch their boat and then shoot their net into a large curve, men would jump overboard and proceed to pull the net back onto the beach.  Another man had a net on his own which would cast into the sea.  Meanwhile the pelicans flying above would dive down into the sea coming up with a fish as seagulls were already waiting for him to surface for titbits.  All along the beach were shaded areas or umbrellas with plastic chairs which you could pay to sit on/under.  Local Mexicans were out in numbers, all with their own picnics.  The purchase of food was mainly done from vendors  For sale were tied polythene bags full of what looked like slush puppies, but in fact were Margaritas, complete with straw!   Peeled fruits on sticks, prawns, moules, as well as Mexican food we did not recognise (nor unfortunately taste)  After walking in the shallows for about an hour,  we came to a little beach-side cafe and enjoyed an ice cold beer.  We did not swim as we had been warned of belongings regularly being stolen. 

We then walked towards the Cathedral an unusual blue and white building, initially built as a film set but later converted to a church!  Here was a shady square full of colourful shops selling everything a tourist might need.  After a good explore of this area it was back to the boat ready for sailaway.

 

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San Francisco, California, U.S.A.

26 03 2011

24th March 2011

 

After experiencing some very rough seas, we came into San Francisco Bay early on 24th March.  The storm was so severe that the airport was closed for a time that morning.  It was also 52 degrees F   – a bit of a shock!            Pool 2

In 1769 Don Gaspar de Portola searching for Monterey arrived at the tip of the peninsular were San Francisco now stands and in 1776 a Christian Mission was established. In 1806 the Russians tried unsuccessfully to claim the territory and in 1846 the US declared war on Mexico; two years later the area was claimed for the US by Captain. Montgomery of the US Navy.

Today the city is home to 750,000, but over 6 million live in the surrounding metropolitan area. 

We set off prepared for the bad weather, passing through China Town on the way to our first stop, the Cable Car Museum, passing city workers losing battles with their umbrellas.  Finding that the museum did not open until 10 am, we continued walking and exploring in the rain, passed the fine buildings in Nob Hill; and came to Grace Cathedral, built in the 19th century, with wonderful pane-glass windows. filling every side of this magnificent building.  A lot of the hilly streets are still occupied by attractive wooden buildings built in the 19th century, and now highly treasured and cared for.  We managed get a feel of this attractive city. 

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Back at the Cable Car Museum we discovered that the cable cars use an endless cable hidden in a slot below the surface of the street. A central power plant ensures this cable moves at a constant  nine and a half miles per hour, the car movement being determined by the Gripman applying or releasing grip to the cable. The inventor of the cable car was Andrew Hallidie,who came from England in 1852,operating his first car in 1873. Prior to this date the uphill transport was the horse. Problems here were lack of grip on wet days, health hazards (urine and droppings),cost of maintaining the horses and their short life expectancy of just four years. Hallidie himself witnessed a horse drawn streetcar sliding back on a steep gradient,dragging the fallen horses to their deaths. 

Back outside in the rain we watched as the conductor and gripman worked together controlling their vehicle; at times they would alight and actually push it round the corner.  Going down hill the gripman would  work very hard on his grip mechanism.  The job appears to be highly skilled .

During the mid 19th century gold was discovered, with the increase in population came crime and the Vigilance Committee. Below is a notice displayed in the museum

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Following our visit to this lovely little museum we unfortunately had to wait for 15 minutes in the torrential rain for our ride in the cable car to Fishermens Wharf.  This is still used by the fishing fleet and is full of stalls selling seafood.  It was also very commercialised but not very busy on this wet day.  Our next “port of call” was Pier 39 a wooden built complex home to  a  marina, restaurants, shops and with apparently spectacular views of Alcatraz, the Golden Gate Bridge and the Bay Bridge – not this day!

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Returning to Aurora at Pier 35 we had a change of clothes, grabbed a bite to eat and then joined the P&O tour to the Sequoia Woods a few miles outside the city.  Before the boom years and the building of thousands of wooden houses, Sequoia trees covered the area, but this little valley was saved as it was too difficult to fell and remove the trees.  The coach took us on a little tour of the city before we made our way over the Golden Gate Bridge through attractive hilly countryside and little towns to Muir Woods.  Again as it was still tipping it down we could not take photos.

At the woods we had about an hour to explore this beautiful area.  The woods were quite empty and therefore quite magical and we managed to cover the main routes identified on the map  In 1905 John Muir a Scottish naturalist and explorer realised the importance of this wonderful area and the need to protect it against the then new logging techniques.  So with the co-operation of President Roosevelt the woods became a National Monument and later part of the National Parks of the States.   The woods are one of the last areas of old growth redwood forest on Earth.  The sequoia (redwoods)  thrive in the fog washed coastal area valley which is drained by a nearby creek.   The trees are up to 252 feet tall, 14 feet across and up to 3,000 years old.  On display was the trunk of a fallen tree with major world events marked, shame the picture is not good enough to show you!!

The third picture below is called the cathedral, from the roots of a fallen tree hundreds of years ago, new trees grew in a circle round the fallen trunk.

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To complete the tour we then drove to the seaside town of Sausalito, once a fishing village, but now full of art galleries, smart shops and waterside bars and restaurants overlooking the bay to San Francisco.  However, it was largely deserted, but Chris did manage to find one or two purchases!  Would have been delightful on a sunny day!

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Returning to the boat, Sailaway was at 6pm, the rain stopped and the skies cleared although it was still cold.  It was very exciting watching Aurora just managing to get under the famous bridge.

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We are now looking forward to going south for a couple of days towards Acapulco and warmer weather





Honolulu, Oahu, Hawaii

22 03 2011

19th March 2011

Polynesian settlers first arrived in the area around 500 AD, in double hulled canoes complete with pigs, chickens and dogs.    Modern history began when Captain Cook landed on Kauai in 1778 and was initially received like a god, but when he returned some eight months later was killed during a skirmish.  In less than a quarter of a century the native population decreased from 250,000 to just 50,000 due to western disease and the corrosive influence of western culture.  Traditional Hawaiian society collapsed.  Oahu today is home to around 800,000 people.  The city of Honolulu is a real buzzy place, thanks to the diverse ethnic backgrounds of its inhabitants – Hawaiians, Americans, Europeans, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans Filipinos and more.

Before any passengers were allowed on shore, we all had to go through Immigration. Once alongside, four USA Immigration Officers came on board to see each passenger and stamp their passport.  As can be imagined this took sometime; through fair means and foul we managed to get ashore after a mere one hour of queuing by 9.30am, not bad as we heard others did not get ashore until after 12.30! 

With our friends we took a taxi out to Pearl Harbour and deposited our bags at the depository (since 9.11 no bags are allowed on to the site) At the ticket office we were allocated a 12.00 slot for the 75 minute programme of film and boat trip to the Memorial over the USS Arizona.   The whole Pearl Harbour Memorial is vast and has recently been renovated.  Typically American and very well run, entrance is free to the new museums and film shows.  Tony paid to go into a submarine, while I toured the various exhibits which explained the background to the war and what happened on 7th December 1941, when around 2,500 were killed and the US fleet was decimated when the Japanese attacked without warning.  This, of course, brought American into the Second World War.  The visit was both interesting and very sobering.

 

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We returned into by local bus – a bendy type bus which travelled extremely fast along the dual carriageway.  Back in town we had hoped to catch one of the trolley buses for a look at Honolulu, but it didn’t arrive, so instead we took an open topped bus.  This was one of the less interesting trips we had taken and slightly disappointing, so after a quick beer we cut our losses and took a taxi to the Ala Moana beach, as recommended by Holiday Which?.  This turned out to be a good decision.

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It was a Saturday afternoon and the park area behind the beach was busy with lots of family gatherings, all with awnings, barbeques, seats and very large amounts of food and drink.  Lots of atmosphere in the sunshine and breeze Walking along the sea shore, we came across a very large lively party of youngsters from the nearby college,  celebrating holiday week, with police and lifeguards keeping a watchful eye.  We even came across a wedding group who were having their reception here on the beach!  Out on the sea we did see a few surfers and  SUP,stand-up-paddles ,(the latest craze of sea sports)

Having enjoyed our wander round this area (used by locals and not tourists), we walked back to the road and the huge shopping-mall full of very interesting shops on the other side.  Unfortunately for Chris we had less than an hour, so there wasn’t much opportunity to bend the plastic.  Then it was back to the ship via a shuttle bus, and the end to our day in Honolulu. 

Overall impressions of Honolulu, a very American seaside city set in the Pacific.  There are we realised areas of natural beauty, volcanoes, empty beaches but time did not allow us to explore – maybe next time…?





Christmas Island (Kiritimati)

18 03 2011

16th March 2011

Situated in the middle of the Central Pacific, the Republic of Kiribati consists of 33 islands, 21 being inhabited  Although during the Second World War, no fighting took place on Christmas Island, up to 2,500 U.S. troops were stationed here at peak times and an airfield was built.  It was here in 1957 that the British Government detonated the first of a series of nuclear tests in the atmosphere about 35 miles south; the US doing further tests in l962, On both occasions 3,000 personnel were stationed on the island.  Extensive tests in the 60s and 70s revealed no abnormal radioactive levels and life for the islanders continued as normal.  However, there is still evidence of the visiting troops in the form of old trucks and rusting piles of hardware!

Today the island is one of the poorest in the world, with a population of around 5,000 living at subsistence level.  So we were all wondering why this island was on our itinerary.  Tenders had to be used.  It was explained from the bridge that because it was low tide, the normally shallow lagoon was dangerously low so only 15 passengers per tender would be allowed on board at the beginning of the operation.  Considering there were probably at least 1,000 passengers who wanted to go ashore, we made sure of early tender tickets and in fact sailed in on the second tender.  Both tenders went aground, and there were great cheers when our (second ) tender became free and landed on Christmas Island first!

We were greeted by a group of men in their best Sunday orange tee-shirts singing local songs with wonderful harmonies.  A few tables were being set up under a metal awning selling basic necklaces and trinkets made from shells. One table also sold postcards and stamps.

There was a board advertising a trip to a bird sanctuary island nearby, it could also include another stop for snorkelling.  Six of us decided to go on the trip and so we set off with an ranger from the bird sanctuary.  The boat was quite small with just a 40hp engine on the back. It took some 30 minutes for us to reach Moto Tapu bird sanctuary, but how it was worth it.  The island was teeming with bird life – boobies, frigate birds, shearwaters, sooty tern and others we do not remember.  It was still in the breeding season and we saw many nests with eggs or young on the ground.  They were very unafraid of us wandering around taking pictures.  We have some wonderful cine shots.

 

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We then all climbed back into the boat and headed off for Cook Island (yes our friend had been here in 1777).  The wind had strengthened and the waves were getting larger, so we headed for a swimming beach instead of the planned coral reef snorkel.  It was wonderful, not another soul around, white sand, azure sea and a backdrop of palm trees.  After 40 minutes or so playing in the sea and collecting shells, it was unfortunately time for us to make our way back to Christmas Island.  Some of the more nervous aboard were I think slightly relieved.

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Because it was so unexpected, we felt that the trip had been one of the highlights of the whole of the cruise so far 

Rather than return immediately to the Aurora, we then had a little walk around the houses and even found an internet cafe and later a bar selling ice cold beers under a palm shelter looking out on the blue sea.

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Returning to Aurora from a most wonderful day, we felt extremely lucky to discover that a mere 700 people had managed to get ashore and we were the only ones to get a boat trip!