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‘We discovered cruise holidays in the Caribbean a few years ago,’ says Margaret, 66, who lives in Longframlington, Northumberland. ‘A trip to the sunshine away from cold, dark, damp UK winter was a temptation my husband John and I couldn’t resist. The warmth and colour of the Caribbean and the vitality and welcome from its people make it a destination for anyone of any age. Cruise holidays allow us to see a variety of scenery every day as we island hop, and then we can return “home” to our P&O Cruises ship.’
Margaret’s first favourite Caribbean memory is Bathsheba beach on the dramatic east coast of Barbados. Barbados is an island of contrasts – the glitz and glamour of the celeb-strewn west-coast beach resorts versus the rugged beauty of the east, where the air is cooler and the seas are wilder. This side of the island was actually more popular originally, and it’s where many of the grandest plantation houses were built and, subsequently, smart hotels in the late 19th century – which are now being restored and reopening as boutique hotels.
‘Leaving the hustle and bustle of Bridgetown, you are soon out into the countryside, with acres of open space punctuated with palm trees, lush green fields, and occasional enormous, bright red poinsettias,’ says Margaret. ‘In the heat, the welcome breeze from the ocean at Bathsheba beach is such a pleasure. There are stunning rock formations out to sea and views in every direction of the sweeping coastline, dotted with coconut trees – it’s a part of the island we enjoyed very much.’
‘I confess, my husband always hopes our cruise does not stop at St Maarten,’ laughs Margaret, ‘as I like to visit my favourite jewellery shop, Kay’s Fine Jewelry, on the quayside.’
P&O Cruises ships come into port in St Maarten’s capital Phillipsburg, on the Dutch side of this intriguing Caribbean island (the other half belongs to France and is called St Martin). There are plenty of tempting shops in Phillipsburg, plus picturesque streets with leafy courtyards and colourful houses. You can venture to the French side and its charming capital Marigot, or a water taxi can take you from the cruise terminal to a nearby beach with a difference, as Margaret discovered: ‘Any first-timer to this island could not fail to be surprised at the fun you have on Maho beach. Situated right next to an airport, planes both small and large arrive at regular intervals, passing over the swimmers and nearby buildings with a roar and blast of air as they touch down on the runway a few yards – yes, yards! – away. It is both fun and exhilarating to watch.’
Tortola is the largest of the British Virgin Islands. Around its fringes is a yachting hub with fantastic white-sand beaches and lots of watersports on offer, but the island is relatively undeveloped thanks to its rugged volcanic landscape, and you can find many quiet, calm spots.
South-west of its compact and charming capital Road Town is the Mount Sage National Park, nearly 100 acres of virgin rainforest crisscrossed by hiking trails. Margaret loves a beach though, and Cane Garden was her favourite on Tortola. She’s in good company, as it’s consistently voted one of the best beaches in the Caribbean.
‘An open-sided, slow-moving bus took us high above where our ship docked, for a view of the island,’ says Margaret. ‘Then we headed to Cane Garden Bay, small and scenic, with colourful stalls, small boats moored offshore, and for us the chance to watch at close quarters pelicans diving into the sea – often among the tourists. A pretty frigate bird joined the party, too.’
Jamaica’s beaches, music, nightlife and food all have an awesome reputation. And with its clear waters washing over powder-soft sands, lush banana groves and rainforest-clad jagged mountains, it is staggeringly beautiful. Margaret disembarked at Ocho Rios, a gorgeous port town close to one of Jamaica’s star attractions, Dunn’s River Falls.
‘From one ship to another, this time a catamaran suitably named Cool Runnings, sailing in a strong breeze up the coastline to Dunn’s River Falls,’ she recalls. ‘There, if you wished, and with the help of guides, you could climb up the falls. Not for the faint-hearted, and you definitely bond with strangers as everyone holds hands to climb, causing much laughter. The base of the falls has large, worn-away tree stumps, sending cascading jets of water into the lower pool. Sailing back to the ship with a few rum punches in us and the sound of calypso music in our ears, everyone was smiling.’
Lastly, Margaret has fond memories of a lesser-known island, and a real hidden gem. St Vincent is the largest of a string of 32 islands forming the country St Vincent and the Grenadines, and it’s dominated by a large volcano, La Soufrière. The scenery, as you can imagine, is quite dramatic.
Margaret always makes sure to visit some beautiful tropical gardens when she’s in the Caribbean and on St Vincent there are two crackers: the Botanic Gardens near the busy little capital of Kingstown, and Montreal Gardens. The latter is on ‘a never-to-be-forgotten drive up the windiest of roads ever known – but boy is it worth it!’, Margaret explains. High up above sea level this private estate boasts a series of gardens – ‘formal’, ‘colour’ and ‘rainforest’. There are great views if you can tear your eyes away from the exotic blooms and Margaret remembers ‘the occasional glimpse of a little critter’.
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