Location: Edinburgh, UK
And so we have reached our final destination, at least for the next year: Edinburgh (Edinburgh Scotland for our American readers). We enjoyed a few days in New York in June - including a tour of the impressive Ground Zero memorial pools - before embarking on the Queen Mary for our pampered passage home. All luxury then fled as we checked our house in Cheltenham (still standing after two tenants) and then headed north to find somewhere to rent in Edinburgh for an experiment in Scottish living. This took longer than we'd thought so we experienced the full horror of the hordes of Festival goers flooding the city as we lurched from viewing to viewing. Finally found the perfect perch: a little house on a hill with a view over the city where we can lie in bed with our cups of tea in the morning and watch the sunlight on the castle. Room for guests so join us if you can: our rates are very reasonable....
Location: Annapolis, USA
And so we say farewell to historic Annapolis, where we've spent the last 3 months in a condo on a creek. (We started off in a little cottage but had to move out rather hurriedly - insects on the carpets...). We've seen a lot of oldest son Robert and his wife Cat, Cat's family, and old friends from our time at NSA who managed to look delighted when we turned up again. Many old haunts revisited in Washington and Baltimore and Annapolis, and some new activities attempted - notably yachting near Chesapeake Bay, where Martyn tacked and gybed in response to orders barked from our captain (Anne supervised with a Dark and Stormy - rum and ginger beer - in hand). We welcomed the advent of spring and the arrival of the glorious dogwood, cherry and magnolia blossom, then the even more amazing azaleas and rhododendrons. Now we're headed for New York and a return to Blighty on the Queen Mary - a tough week but the only way back for us seasoned sailors. Landing on 8 June and then it's a diet of marmite sandwiches to recoup the millions we've squandered on this little 9-month jaunt...
Location: Seaside, Florida, USA
We're now ensconced for the month of February in the village of Seaside, Florida, on the Gulf of Mexico. The village was developed in the 1980s using architecture modelled on Florida panhandle 'cracker' cottages, i.e. constructed using simple local materials like wood and tin and designed to allow breezes to flow through wraparound porches and opposing windows. Strict building regulations stipulated that all houses adhere to this concept and remain at a certain height, have picket fences, etc. The result is a charming, if Disney-like, enclave in pastel colours and white trim which has attracted the rich and famous as a holiday resort (not including us, of course). See pix - it's gorgeous. Apparently Prince Charles stayed here and was much taken. Our own cottage (dating all the way back to a pre-historic 1981) has turned out to be the first ever built in this style - unbeknownst to us when booking - and we keep waking up to find people outside taking photos. You can walk everywhere or hire bikes, unusual in the US of course. We knew in advance that Seaside had been used in the 'The Truman Show' (film about the subject of a Big Brother-type show who tries to escape) but the cutesy surroundings are also reminiscent of 'The Prisoner' (ditto drama about man imprisoned in a pastel village) so all in all we're always surprised when we manage to get past the village boundaries. The weather's been mixed - some really severe thunderstorms - but we've had some great walks along the very white sand and emerald waters of our local (2 minutes) beach.
Location: Savannah, Georgia, USA
Hugely relieved to be allowed into the States and not forced to travel on in the cargo boat to Tilbury with our one fellow passenger - would have had to hang ourselves. Savannah was warm on the first day but then rapidly got cooler so that for the first time in months we were digging out jumpers to walk around the beautiful old colonial squares. Has stayed sunny but around 50-65 degrees (which the locals are calling a 'cold snap'). We've found a little apartment in a quaint old street for a week, and then we move on to the northern Gulf coast of Florida and our cottage in Seaside, film location of 'The Truman Show', where we'll be staying for the whole of February. Visitors welcome but there's only one spare bedroom - get your bids in quick. After Florida it's up to Annapolis (Maryland) till June and then, finally, home to UK.
Location: Kingston, Jamaica
Likewise warned not to go into Kingston because of violence, but the port agent called us a reliable taxi driver and over about three hours we had a rollicking tour of the town's parks, a historical house, the Bob Marley museum (closed on Sunday, but they let us into the grounds) and a Jamaican fast food joint for jerk chicken - see photos. At our request the driver also took us to see a part of Trenchtown, the poverty-stricken 'ghetto' (their term) where Bob Marley grew up. Our driver talked about the corruption endemic in Jamaica and how the country hadn't been ready for independence 50 years ago in 1962. Certainly the economy didn't seem too good. People we met seemed very friendly and helpful though, the houses and buildings were painted wonderful colours and everyone, everywhere, was listening to reggae, so that the impression was very upbeat. Some of the ship's crew had reportedly had some somewhat different experiences in Jamaica on other occasions though, so perhaps we just got lucky.
Location: Panama Canal, Panama
Our cargo boat started running out of fresh fruit and butter some time back (and didn't resupply until Savannah, despite stopping at ports) so after passing through the Panama Canal we made a mercy dash into Colón for apples and bananas. Passengers were warned that Panama was dangerous but with the aid of a taxi driver to take us around we encountered no problems. Colón was mainly very, very poor but with lovely old French colonial architecture. The PM, a supermarket millionaire called Martinelli, has a plan to revive the country and the taxi driver seemed full of praise but on the walls we could see written 'Martinelli is a murderer' and 'Martinelli will sell your mother'. Colón has a brand new duty-free zone ('zona libre') for visitors, with guards at the gates to keep the locals out, and this apparently is to revive Colón's economy. The people will be moved out to better housing, which is fine if it happens, but no doubt the colonial architecture will bite the dust.
By the way, one crucial difference between cruise ships and cargo boats, apart from the obvious, lies in the number of passengers - ourselves and ONE other, in this instance. You live in very close quarters and meet for three meals a day, so a good fellow passenger is greatly to be desired. We shall say no more.
Location: New Zealand
Kia Ora! Which is not a nasty type of orange juice as we'd always thought, but Maori for hello. Visited South Island first, still on the cruise boat from Australia, calling in at Dunedin and a little resort called Akaroa, after sailing up the fjords of Milford Sound and Doubtful Sound (Dusky Sound sailing cancelled due to encroaching mist and rain). Dunedin was reportedly meant to be a new Edinburgh (perhaps more in spirit), but despite a Princes St., a Hanover St., a Queen St. and even sighting of a bus to Costorphine, Edinburgh it ain't - more like Basildon on a February afternoon. Suburbs very pleasant though, and surrounding hills an astonishing green. In Akaroa we took a walk in the hills above the town - just like England only again even greener and with the plus of exotic flowers and birds. Stopped in at a farmhouse which opened its garden to visitors and found it for some reason decorated in the style of a 19th century bordello - ate our packed lunch on purple velvet sofas - and that was just the porch.
Disembarking in Auckland on North Island we toured around by hire car, first to the volcano area of Tongariro (yes, Lord of the Rings country - thought we were going to be able to avoid it, but no) and then the hot springs area of Rotorua, where the whole town, but especially our motel room, smelled of sulphur. Hard to get used to the Maori placenames as many seem difficult to pronounce and they're also all strangely similar, with lots of vowels. The Maori people themselves are far more in evidence than were Aboriginals in Australia (and do comprise a quarter of the population) but we were told they live more in certain areas than others, and certainly some towns and seemed exclusively Maori. Not a lot of mixing, from what we could see, and a superficial impression suggests they're lower on the socio-economic scale. Interesting to hear the language spoken in the street, and the singing we heard at a couple of cultural performances was so melodic and arresting we've bought CDs.
And so farewell New Zealand. Very friendly people - maybe some a little outspoken - and a very beautiful, lush country, a mix between Britain (especially Scotland) and St. Lucia. Despite the consistently gorgeous scenery though, New Zealanders do seem to have modelled all the towns we saw on Basildon - unfortunate. They also share the Australians' confusion about apostrophes, and love of ghastly piped muzak.
It's now Christmas Day and we'll be joining our B&B hosts and fellow guests for drinkies later, followed by a hearty cheese and crackers Christmas dinner in our bedroom. We board the cargo boat for the US tomorrow, and will be incommunicado for 3 weeks - no internet connection. Martyn will be devising a plan for world peace and Anne is learning Cantonese and then translating War and Peace. A happy Christmas to all our readers.
Sea and Snow
Our final trip in Australia has been to drive down the coast from Sydney, then inland to the Snowy Mountains, Canberra, the Blue Mountains and back to Sydney, where we set sail for New Zealand on 11 December. The beaches on the coast were spectacular - never very populated as summer is only just beginning and the sea is still cold, although a few people were swimming (not us of course). Then a complete change of temperature and scenery in the Snowy Mountains, where we had to dig out jumpers for the first time in several months. See photos for actual snow in Australia - strange, as were the 'alpine villages' in Australia's only ski resort area. On to Canberra to see the old and new Parliament houses but unfortunately no glimpse of gorgeous pouting red-headed Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who is constantly on TV here at the moment in connection with some slush fund scandal - how very reminiscent of home....Finally, the Blue Mountains, instantly colder than where we'd started from earlier that morning. Hailing and raining but the view of the Three Sisters rock formations (which Anne had visited as a child) very impressive even in the mist.
And so farewell to old Australia. We really enjoyed it - the changing scenery, from coast, to farmland, to bush, and the constant surprise of new flowers and birds which we'd never seen before. The gum trees (which thrive in every type of Australian climate, bush and snow), the calls of the kookaburras and parrots, and the beguiling Aboriginal names - Jindyandy, Paramatta, Murrumbidgee - make for very evocative surroundings. Aboriginals themselves have been hardly visible, except in Darwin, although a lot of lip service is paid to their being 'owners' of the land. The white Australians were jokey, friendly and helpful. Most didn't even realise we weren't Australian, as our English accent blended in with certain types of Australian accent apparently - someone did think we were from as far afield as Adelaide though. The economy is said to be booming but everywhere we went we found closed down shops, and people have told us that the unemployment figures are higher than reported, so not too sure about that. The culture, at least superficially, appears to be one of sand, sea and stubbies, certainly for the young - of which the country appears to be mainly composed. Our only reservations about Australia concerned the Australian fondness for piped music or spoken 'historical' narrative and sound effects everywhere - in shops, galleries, museums, even out in the street and in parks; and a complete inability to use apostrophes and commas correctly, not just in grocery stores but on public and official signage. We are writing a stiff letter to Julia Gillard.
Location: The Outback, Australia
Took an overnight train from Sydney to the old mining town of Broken Hill, still in New South Wales but suddenly very, very much hotter. The streets were all very creatively named after minerals: Bromide St, Kaolin St, etc. Our motel was on the very romantic Chloride St - a popular choice with honeymooners, we believe. Not too much to do in Broken Hill, where the clocks had stopped in 1952 and most of the shops were shut most of the time - a feature we were to find very common in outback towns - so we hired a car to drive even further into the bush, to the Flinders Ranges in South Australia. Driving along the very samey road we passed so many kangaroos, emus, and wild goats that after a while we scarcely bothered turning round.
At our campsite in Hawker (pretty basic - the TV in our en-suite cabin only had 3 channels), the temperature rose into the 100s, but fearlessly we set out into the bush in search of some reported Aboriginal cave paintings. Here Anne made the fatal error of GOING ON AHEAD a few minutes and promptly losing the track. My own private walkabout hell ended about 10 minutes later when I picked up the trail but for a while there it was touch and go - including a tense moment when some heavy crashing about just behind me turned out to be a rather large kangaroo...
But the experience - unbelievably hot, flies constantly at you, the unchanging scrub or bush for miles on end, spectacular scenery and sleepy towns - was more than worth it (although possibly better looking back than actually being there of course).
Location: Sydney, Australia
The centre of Sydney is similar to any large city - skyscrapers, business district - and it's the huge, ferry-crossed harbour and the mature suburbs that provide its character. In the suburbs and in many parts of the city itself you can still see the old Victorian terraced houses with iron lacework balconies, often shaded by the wonderful mauve jacaranda trees whose blossoms carpet the pavement below - very pretty. You can smell honeysuckle as you walk around, and hear the screech of exotic birds (kookaburras among them), so it's half city, half tropical paradise. There are many familiar London placenames - King's Cross, Paddington, Oxford St, Bayswater Rd, Lewisham, Bondi Beach...
We visited Normanhurst, the suburb where Anne's family lived in the 1950s, and tried to recreate some old photos taken during that time (to be posted later). It's pretty expensive here though so we've been reduced to eating meat pies from street stands while reciting Barry Humphries' immortal ode to a meat pie, as depicted on a pavement plaque at Circular Quay - see photo. However, there seem to be plenty of well-off Australians who can afford the prices (except those we saw sleeping rough in the streets around our second, more downmarket hotel in Woolloomooloo of course). Your average Australian now, by the way, is not a white ex-Pom with corks on his hat but a young Asian, at least in Sydney. The former are still as friendly, relaxed and jokey as always depicted.
Since Sydney we've had a spell in the outback - temperature in the 100s, got lost in the bush, blog to follow - and are now travelling down the south-east coast for a bit of seaside (and possibly sharks).
Location: Sydney, Australia
More jacaranda trees everywhere - wonderful. We've finally left the boat and are spending a week in a towering hotel on the edge of Sydney's Chinatown, which makes it seem just like a continuation of our trip around southeast Asia. However, a walk uptown to Circular Quay brings you to the Harbour Bridge and Opera House and all the other tourist sites. We're doing it all - Bondi Beach, the Botanical Gardens, Manly Beach....
Location: Brisbane, Australia
Our first encounter with kangaroos and koalas, at a wildlife park outside the city. Both were very, very tame - the koalas quite happy to be held for photographs (smelling strongly of their diet of eucalyptus leaves), and the kangaroos willing to be petted and have people approach their young up close. The weirdest thing was that the baby kangaroos, or joeys, do not sit in the mother's pouch with head poking cutely out as you always imagine, but dive into the pouch FEET FIRST, so that all you see is a pair of feet and a tail hanging out. Then it rained, and we sought cover in a little corrugated iron shelter but had to keep making way for huge kangaroos who came pounding up looking to get out of the rain just as much as we were. They wouldn't enter while we were there but would wait till we'd moved aside a little before hopping politely in. It was all very civilised. Brisbane itself is a pleasant modern city punctuated - at least at this time of year, spring - with the wonderfully pretty jacaranda trees, which have mauve blossoms looking like upside down bluebells.