Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Return To The Mother Country

Map picture

Sitting in our stateroom with the balcony door wide open and the sunlight pouring in, our ship is at anchor in the Dart River in southeastern England right in the middle of the town of Dartmouth, Capital of County Devon. This ancient city, home to roughly 5,000 people, rises steeply on both sides of the river. Overlooking the city itself is the magnificent structure of the Britannia Royal Naval College. The river is actually a long narrow tidal ribbon that runs inland as far as Totnes. We are in the middle of the river, and can shuttle over to the town center in a short two minute ride on one of our zodiacs, a large rubber raft type craft with a large outboard motor. These little craft are like taxis which are available constantly while we are at anchor.

With our door open to our stateroom, I can hear all the boat traffic as it passes, tooting horns in greeting to the ship. There are church bells tolling almost constantly, and there is even an old passenger train still in service which adds its whistle to the cacophony of sound flooding in from outside. We are only the second cruise ship to visit Dartmouth in large part because the depth of the river would make passage by most vessels impossible. In addition, the river has huge tidal flows, so that even our ship is severely limited as to when it may move on the river. Indeed, right in the center of town is the local Quay where a small fleet of boats are tied up. When we arrived this morning, all of the ships were afloat; however, when we returned from lunch at a local pub, the water was completely gone, and every vessel was sitting at an angle on the muddy bottom.

The ship provided a complimentary four hour walking tour of the Naval College today; a very rare honor. Normally the facility is closed to the public. However, we were just not up to another long day of walking, so we opted to hop over to town, and there hired a cab to show us around. “Not much to see” he said, “but if you got an hour, I have a few ideas.” And so we set out on an adventure that took us to an old fort, an ancient church, a long drive along the beautiful shoreline, and to a monument where an old WW II tank which had been recovered, was on display. It was an old American tank that had sunk with all its occupants in a rehearsal for D-Day. Today it is a solemn monument to England’s friends across the Sea, and the memorial and tank are covered in fresh flowers and plaques. Our drive ended at the door to the driver’s favorite local pub.

Welcome to “adventure cruising.” Our small ship can, and does take, its guests to places that larger vessels don’t and cannot go. Each evening there is a briefing by the large staff of onboard experts about what awaits us the next day, and of course, a brief recap of what our day was about. The attire onboard is casual, with the exception of the Captain’s Welcome Dinner, when men should wear a jacket, but tie is optional. The bridge is open at all times, and I went in this morning to observe the tricky passage up the river and the process of turning the ship around and dropping anchor all in one swift move. There is only one restaurant, and mealtimes vary depending on what the day brings.

But, I have gotten ahead of myself. We have been away from home for six fully packed days. Let me see if I can do a quick update:

We were met by our good friends, Bill and Jayne Davison, at the London airport. Bill & Jayne DavisonThey quite literally took a week off of work to spend time with us and to plan our short stay before boarding our ship in Portsmouth, England. We met Bill and Jayne many years ago on a Princess cruise to Egypt, and have been good friends ever since. The idea was that they would rent a car big enough for all of us and then from the airport, we were to drive to Hampshire in the south of England, where I had reservations for all of us at the famous Lainston House.Lainston House  Hampshire, England It was first built as a summer palace for Charles II in 1683, but today is a 5 star hotel nestled into the English countryside. Somehow we did not communicate well, because Bill and Jayne had come down several days earlier in their motorhome to scout-out the area. They rented the car in Winchester which was nearby, and were planning on staying in their motorhome and picking us up for touring. When I told them I actually had a pre-paid room for them at Lainston House, they thought I was joking until we went to the front desk, and a key was produced in their name. We all had a good laugh at the screw-up, but sadly, while the property was quite exceptional, the service was not. If I had to rate the place overall, it would barely get 2 stars.

Bill suggested that we eat at a local pub, and am I glad we agreed. I have now learned just how great this English institution really is. At home, we have become accustomed to “chain food.” However, each little pub is an institution unto itself. First, we had to master the protocol. I mistakenly ordered a scotch, and when the glass arrived, there was a thimble amount of liquid in the glass with no ice. The proper thing to do in a pub is to order a pint of the local ale. Every little local community is proud of its own ales, and I gathered that ordering one is a good idea. Next was the issue of menus and service. Well, there are no menus, and no table service as we know it. There are blackboards around the place with the day’s menu carefully written in chalk. You make your selection, and then go to the bar and place your order. Some time later it is delivered to your table, and that ends the service part. When you are done, you go to the bar to pay your tab! BUT, it is the food that really makes the difference. It is, and was, amazing. Both nights we went out with Bill and Jayne, we had fabulous food. The kitchens in both places were open so that you could see inside, and they were spotless and run with efficiency.

Our first day was spent touring in and around Winchester. First and foremost is Winchester Cathedral. Winchester CathedralA church was founded on this site in 634, and over the years, grew into a massive Cathedral. What exists today was begun in 1079 at a time when Winchester was the Capital of England. We had a great time and saw some more things including an aviation museum. However, jet lag quickly put Lisa and I on a track back for an early nap. Sadly, both during the nap and later that evening when I went to bed, the pain in both my shoulders was so bad that I was unable to sleep well. In fact, the pain was the worst I have had since I broke my shoulder.

At breakfast I brought it up, and we all came to the same conclusion: my “heavy” camera was just too much for my injured shoulders. Pooh! Now what was I to do?

The next day we all agreed to once again visit Salisbury to see the Cathedral there. Salisbury CathedralWe all remembered from our previous trip how wonderful it was, and we all felt that it was much more special than what we saw at Winchester, and indeed it was. I cannot tell you why, but Salisbury Cathedral is such a special place that it is very difficult to describe until you have been there yourself.

It was on the way back to our car that the entire trip almost came to a complete stop when I once again suffered a fall. This is really becoming a bad habit!! While we were walking along a sidewalk, my left foot slipped over the curb, sending me falling onto my hurt shoulder and right into the lane of oncoming traffic. Brakes squealed, and people shouted, and before I knew it three big men, and I mean BIG men were lifting me up and off the street before I could even catch my breath. Thankfully the cars stopped just in time, and I rolled this time more than fell, but I have re-injured both shoulders, and now added my right knee. If this keeps up, I may have to get a walker, or at least a cane (which I am considering).

At that point, I was ready to head for our ship in Portsmouth, but not before everyone decided that I needed to see if I could find a small lightweight camera that I could use. Having now injured myself yet again, carrying my big heavy camera was really out of the question. And so, we found a camera store, and to my amazement they had a small Sony camera that in every specification was better than my Nikon. The only problem was the only one in stock was the display model, so clearly I would have to take that. But, it had a very mediocre lens, and after much discussion of finding an alternative, the manager appears from the back with the exact Sony lens I would want. It was being “held” for someone, but I could have it! I would need an extra battery, but alas they were sold out, but the manager would sell me her battery at a discount, and before you knew it I left the store with a new camera outfit!

It was an hour drive to Portsmouth, and a sad moment to have to part from Bill and Jayne. They had literally gone way out of their way to see that our three days was fun filled, and we cannot thank them enough. However, it was time to board our ship and new home for the next 37 days.

Even though we have never been on this ship, the Silver Explorer, we have been with SilverSea on many previous cruises. Many of the crew recognized us, and the newly appointed Hotel Manager is someone with whom we had a private dinner on our last cruise – so let’s just say we are being treated like royalty.

Our welcome to “adventure cruising” came before dinner on our first night. I was dumbfounded when the speaker asked for a show of hands of those who had cruised on this ship in the past, and more than half the room did so. This program of SilverSea has only been around for four years, but clearly a large number of people already knew about it and are coming back for more.

Our first stop was to be at Lyme Regis. Lyme Regis, EnglandNow don’t go hustling to your maps, because chances are that you are not too likely to find it listed, except in really small print. Lyme Regis is a small coastal town in West Dorset, England which is home to around 4,000 people of which 45% are elderly. At one time, it was a major British port, but today its claim to fame is the nearby “Jurassic Coast,” a World Heritage Site.

By way of example of what this ship does, the call to Lyme Regis represented the very first visit of a cruise ship, and was therefore a major celebratory event. The town turned out in full force and turned the day into a celebration. They even got the Royal Navy to send the HMS Exeter, a modern day destroyer, to anchor next to us and for their crew to participate in the town’s activities. HMS ExeterWe went ashore in zodiacs. Unfortunately the weather was not good. We had very choppy water and strong winds. The temperature was only 40 degrees F, and the winds were steady at 40 mph. Therefore, our first exposure to the zodiac was rough, wet and very cold!

Arriving at the jetty, we were met by the Mayor, and also by the Official Town Crier. A large gathering of the local populace was also there, and a party was had by all. We boarded small jitneys for the journey uphill to meet our motor coaches. The streets of the old town were too small for them to meet us at the jetty, so this was the only way to keep us from enduring a long steep walk.

There were two different tours offered here, and we chose the one that would visit the world famous and award winning Abbotsbury Sub Tropical Gardens. Abbotsbury Sub Tropical GardensAfterwards we were driven to a very special location along the coast where at this time of the year, thousands of swans come to nest and hatch their eggs. Abbotsbury SwanneryIn spite of the cold overcast skies, the gardens were well worth the visit, but I was quickly almost reduced to tears. Everything was so rushed and new, including my camera. I never had time to read the 160 page manual, and the menus were totally different on this Sony from my old Nikon. I missed several great pictures, just not knowing how to even turn the darn thing on. Then I could not tell what I was shooting, and finally I hit a button by accident and it appeared that all my pictures from the gardens were gone. At this point I was about to throw the darn thing against a wall.

As we drove to visit the swans, I “found” the deleted pictures, and came up with a few answers on taking pictures, so I managed to calm down a little. Somewhere on the drive back I figured out my last challenge, but the real revelation came when I pulled the pictures up on my laptop. They were stunning! Anyway, more to follow on this as I figure out what I have here.

The Swannery was amazing. We just happened to be there at the exact time when the eggs were hatching, and we actually got to see that event occur several times. Just being surrounded by thousands of beautiful swans was interesting enough for a day’s adventure.

That brings us full circle to our stop in Dartmouth. Since I started this blog, the sun is now going down and the ship has moved out of the river towards our next stop, Tresco, the Isle of Scilly. I am headed off to our daily briefing, and I hope you are enjoying these as much as we are enjoying our trip. Obviously with so much going on, I have barely even looked at the pictures, much less gotten them in shape for publishing – so bear with me as I try to figure out how to do all this with the limited time available.


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