African Diaries—Into Zambia

African Diaries—Into Zambia

First, travel plans for this year ground to a halt in early March. Then came the realization that it could be well into next year before it may be reasonable to begin dusting off my passport. That’s when Africa started calling me – again. But memories will have to do for now.

South Luangwa National Park

On approach for landing in Mfuwe.

My love affair with Africa began well over a decade ago in the South Luangwa National Park, a 3,500 square-mile (9,050 square-kilometer)  stretch of pristine wilderness hidden away in the north-eastern corner of Zambia. After years of yearning, months of planning and a mind-numbing 48-hour succession of flights that had taken me from Houston to the tiny airport of Mfuwe, I was bouncing in an open-top land-cruiser, on a rocky dirt trail heading deep into the park.

The valley draws a rich concentration of game.

Its eastern border follows the Luangwa River as it makes its convoluted way toward the Zambezi River, leaving behind a patchwork of oxbow lakes and lagoons. This remote valley, with its ruggedly varied landscape of savanna and forest, is considered by experts to hosts one of the richest concentration of game in Africa.

 

Comfortable bush camps are nestled along the banks of the Luangwa River.

Unsurprisingly, this has led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of small seasonal bush camps in close proximity to the river. Over the next couple of weeks, I was to visit several of them. Each had a unique character, influenced by its location and the wildlife it attracted. I credit the exhilaration of this first experience for my a lifelong passion for the African bush.

The demise of the giraffe is a bounty for a hyena.

Into the Wild

The hyena’s cub intently takes in the scene.

The two-hour drive to Kuyenda, the camp where I was to spend the next two nights, might be long forgotten by now if not for a couple of images forever imprinted on my mind. First came the breathtaking blood-orange sunset that briefly set ablaze the endless African sky before the entire landscape faded to black. 

Then sometime later, a dead giraffe. My driver detoured off-road into the brush, lights muted, explaining that the carcass of an old male had been reported here earlier in the day, and would I mind if we checked it out? I wouldn’t. The still relatively intact giraffe was sprawled across a small clearing, and a hyena had beat us to it.

Behind her, her cub was peering tentatively out of the shadows. “This is the circle of life in the bush,” my companion commented philosophically. “Within a week the scavengers will have it all cleaned up,” he added, doubtless to assuage my tourist’s sensibilities.

 

Kuyenda

Phil has been active in the valley for over half a century in various wildlife preservation capacities. He is considered one of Zambia’s most respected naturalists.

Kuyenda was a classic African bush camp: four cozy wood and reed private guest rondavels (circular huts) under thatch, with open-air en-suite bathrooms and overhead drum showers, clustered around a spacious open-walled dining and lounge area. This is where we congregated at dawn over a hearty cooked breakfast, four guests from various parts of the world and our host, the resident camp manager and guide, Phil Berry.

Open top land-cruisers are the limousines of the bush.

Game watching meant adapting to the rhythm of the sun and the moon, as the wildlife has since the beginning of time. But the wonder of a pristine new day was well worth the ruthlessly early wakeup call. We settled into the land-cruiser, with Phil stopping to point out every new animal or bird sighting. A herd of skittish impalas snapped to attention as went approached, while baby baboons roughhousing in a tree didn’t even grant us a look.

 

My very first elephant sighting ever!

Then we came upon a venerable bull elephant, standing within twenty feet of our truck, apparently still half asleep himself. My very first elephant in the wild! I’d see many more in the days to come, but that first sighting remains unforgettable, even though he gave us only a perfunctory glance before turning his attention to the foliage of a nearby Mopane tree (an elephant favorite treat) for his breakfast.

The magic of a Kuyenda dusk.

The instant that sealed my fate as a hardcore safari enthusiast came that evening, as we were sipping our Sundowner – alcoholic (or not) beverage of your choice (make mine Gin and Tonic, thank you), usually enjoyed while watching the sun set over an especially scenic vista. We were stopped in the dry, sandy bed of the Manzi River, taking in the the perfect stillness of dusk, when we spotted a pair adult male lions unhurriedly making their silent way across our line of vision.

 

Chamilandu

A family of pukus drops by for a morning drink near the camp.

Chamilandu was the most intimate of the camps I visited on this trip: three spacious tree-houses with outdoor showers, perched on ten-foot high platforms. Each was fully open onto its private deck with a startling 180 degree view of the Luangwa River and the distant the Nchendeni Hills. This privileged riverfront location ensured outstanding game viewing at camp as well as on walks and drives nearby.

An hippo mother and young calf emerge from the river at sunset.

A pleasant morning walk offered an excellent close-up view of the abundant water-fowl population. A sundowner drive took us to a nearby cliff to observe a large pod of hippos as they emerged from the river to browse, and afforded us the treated of a colony of Carmine bee-eaters nesting into the cliff. On the way back we got the added excitement of sighting a leopard stealthily on its way to its nightly errands.

 

Kudu bulls sport impressive spiraling horns.

Other favorite memories of Chamilandu? The ready access to water repeatedly brought herds of elephants to the river, and a varied population of antelopes, among them the majestic spiral-horned kudus. This abundance of antelopes meant predators weren’t far behind. We came across an especially regal male one night, who seemed quite offended by our intrusion.

 

Chindeni

Dawn over the Chindeni lagoon.

Tucked in the shade of ancient ebony trees at the apex of a permanent oxbow lagoon, Chindeni was a verdant oasis in the parched immensity of the park when I visited in the final weeks of the dry season. The four tented guest accommodations were raised on wooden platforms at the edge of a bluff overlooking the lagoon. As was the panoramic lounge, cleverly arranged around the trunk of a giant ebony tree that contributed both a sculptural quality and cooling shade to the structure. It was the perfect spot to enjoy an early pre-drive breakfast while contemplating the dramatic sunrise over the hills.

Lionesses are settling in for their siesta.

While the overall variety of game viewing in and around the camp was impressive, my Chindeni experience is forever associated with lions – a major pride of them! We first spotted them at the end of a morning drive, several females of various ages and a couple of adolescent males, all looking sated and ready to settle down in a shady glade for their afternoon siesta.

Tree-climbing lions are an extremely rare sight.

We returned to the area to look for them at the start of our late afternoon drive, and were rewarded with a startling sight: a tree full of lions! The entire pride was draped high in the branches of a huge winter thorn tree, having climbed there, doubtless in search of a cooling breeze to relieve them from the heavy afternoon heat. Now they were gingerly starting to stir, contemplating the challenge of every treed cat in the world: how to get down?

The Mfuwe Lodge

Elephants are a constant sight at the Mfuwe Lodge.

Although time seemed to stand still during my enchanted stay in in the park, sadly, it hadn’t. With a morning flight out of Mfuwe to start the long journey home, I spent the last two nights of my visit at the Mfuwe lodge. With 18 guest chalets and all the amenities expected from a luxury full service hotel, the Lodge was a good way to ease myself back into the “real world.” Although located within the park, it was a mere five-minute drive from the main gate and 45 minutes away from the airport. As in the camps I was still able to enjoy a day’s worth of game drives.

Elephant and hippo are having a territorial disagreement.

A tiny elephant calf is learning to manage a mud hole.

But the highpoint of my stay unfolded right in front of my chalet. From my balcony overlooking the lagoon, at the time reduced to a series of puddles, I spent an entertaining afternoon watching a mud fight between a hippo and a breeding herd of elephants. The hippo had laid claim to the patch, and in spite of all the persuasion the matriarch elephant could muster, it wouldn’t be dislodged.

The two contestants ultimately pretended to ignore each other, and the pachyderms made the best of whatever slime they could appropriate. 

 

I reluctantly left Zambia, promising myself to return. And so I did, the following year. My main destination was the Zambezi River this time, but I couldn’t resist starting my visit with detour via the South Luangwa National Park.

 

 

Nkwali

Nkwali offers a spectacular view of the park and the river.

I opted to stay in the Game Management Area this time, immediately across the river from the South Luangwa National Park. Discretely tucked into a grove of soaring ebony trees on a prime vantage point of the eastern bank of the Luangwa River, Nkwali coupled the casual atmosphere and intimate proximity to wildlife that only a bush camp can offer with the indulgent amenities of a boutique safari lodge. Its six guest chalets and lounge area offered a spectacular view of the steep far bank of the river and the acacia forest that constituted the boundary of the park.

The private pontoon is an picturesque way to access the park.

For all its superb isolation, Nkwali was less than an hour away from Mfuwe Airport. Access to the park was either via a colorful hand-cranked pontoon near the camp or across the Mfuwe Bridge, 10 kilometers away. Game activity was intense in the Game Management Area as in the park itself, and the the pontoon crossing gave us the unique opportunity to witness at close range the sudden eruption of a domestic argument within a pod of hippos floating nearby.

First close range sighting of a leopard!

The splendid cat indulged me with a photo opportunity.

It was exciting to reconnect with all the familiar wildlife of the bush but the most exhilarating moment came when we began tracking a leopard. I had casually mentioned to my guide, Joseph, that on my previous visit I had only managed a night-time glance at one, and I that I was hoping to get a proper look this time. He made it a matter of professional pride to grant me my wish. Locating the elusive feline took cooperative efforts of Joseph and one of his colleagues. They engaged in an extensive radio dialog to direct us to the appropriate location. They were assisted by the terrorized screeches of a troop of baboons who had apparently just lost one of their own to the feline.

Then suddenly there he was, glaring defiantly at us through a jumble of grass, a magnificent adult male, his spotted coat still showing tell-tale red shadows. He seemed to weigh its options for a while, before strutting nonchalantly out of the brush and across the clearing, and fading once again into the high grass. Definitely the ultimate memory of my visit to Nkwali!

From my chalet at Nkwali, I spent a blissful siesta time watching a herd of elephants wade their way out of the park, across the Luangwa River.

Good to Know

  • Getting there—Because of its remote location, the South Luangwa National Par is not as readily accessible from North America and Europe as other better known southern Africa safari destinations. This isolation naturally limits the number of visitors, which enhances the authentic bush experience.
  • Staying there—Chamilandu, Chindeni, Kuyenda and the Mfuwe Lodge are properties of The Bushcamp Company. Kuyenda and Chamilandu are open June to November, Chindeni is open May to December and the Mfuwe Lodge is open year-round. Nkwali is a Robin Pope Safaris property. It is opened year-round

A view from the pontoon – A bloat of hippos sunning themselves on the bank of the river.

Location, location, location!

Mfuwe, Zambia

A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

A Caribbean Heaven — Les Saintes, Guadeloupe

Day… ? It is the surest sign of an outstanding cruise that after a few days of exquisite pampering aboard the Silver Whisper, I have blissfully lost track of time. The ship is slowly entering the tranquil bay that will be today’s anchorage. In the clear morning light, an ethereal rainbow arches from the verdant hilltop of a pristine islet. We have reached Les Saintes, the best kept secret of the Guadeloupe Archipelago.

Europe in the Caribbean

A perfect rainbow welcomes us to Les Saintes.

Guadeloupe is the southernmost of the Leeward Islands. As an Overseas Department of France, it is also the largest European Union territory in North America. Its archipelago consists of six small inhabited islands and a number of islets and outcroppings. Even by Caribbean standards, it is blessed with more than its fair share of stunning beaches, soaring mountains and spectacular snorkeling spots. Yet, while popular with French sun seekers, Guadeloupe has virtually escaped the attention of international tourists.

Le Bourg retains the atmosphere of a French seaside village.

Thanks to this oversight, the twin islands of Les Saintes (Terre-de-Haut and Terre-de-Bas, separated by a narrow channel), although a mere 20-minute high-speed ferry ride from the main islands of the archipelago, have retained an unspoiled, off-the-beaten tracks atmosphere. This is immediately obvious as our ship’s tender eases toward the small dock in the center of what looks like the quintessential French seashore village. Aptly named Le Bourg (The Village), it centers around a pedestrian main street lined with sun-washed, red-roofed houses and cafés along a sparkling turquoise harbor.

The Best of Les Saintes

Brown pelicans nest along the rocky coastline.

The coast of Terre-de-Bas features dramatic rock formations.

With a handful of fellow passengers, I transfer aboard a local motorboat for a morning on the water. Soon, we are zipping by hidden coves with perfect white sand beaches and secluded beach-front bungalows. Then the coastline becomes rocky, humans disappear and pelicans take pride of place. 

We head toward Terre-de-Bas. The island is dominated by a mountainous massif that shelters a protected forest as well as a couple of hamlets and hilltop villas. The coast of the nine square kilometer (three and a half square mile) island is lined with cliffs and rocky points that seem to be favorite anchorages for a few adventurous yatchies. We exchange polite waves and continue on, back toward Terre-de-Haut. After giving a passing look at a notable blowhole spraying out of a jagged rock face, we continue on to the high point of our morning: The Pain de Sucre.

Underwater Magic

Le Pain de Sucre is renowned for its exceptional snorkeling.

Named for the 50 meter (165 foot) high Sugar Loaf volcanic hill that rises just off the beach, the area is renowned for its calm, crystal clear waters and exceptional seabed. Although rocky, it has been colonized into a remarkable water garden by fine coral formations and a variety of sponges. Multicolor sea fans and sabella sway in the current, while bright butterfly fish, angel fish, groupers, blue sturgeonfish and many other wander by. This is one of the best snorkeling experiences I’ve had in years.

Lunch With Goats

A palm grove surrounds Pompierre Bay.

The horseshoe-shaped Baie de Pompierre is held in high esteem among discriminating beach-goers. Since it is located just one and a half kilometer (about one mile) northeast of Le Bourg, I decide to check it out. Along the way I stop by a food truck for a bokit, a local specialty that consists of a piece of fried dough about the size of a pita, stuffed full of meat or fish and fresh vegetable, and sprinkled with a peppery sauce. I opt for Poulet-Crudités (chicken and chopped veggies) and continue on to the unruly palm grove that shields the beach from the sea. Pompierre is indeed worth its hype: a golden strand of fine sand bordering a shimmering cove protected from the harsher wave by Les Roches Percées, a lacy reef forming a narrow inlet. There is even a tiny island to swim to in the middle of it.

The rocky coastline conceals sandy coves.

I resist the temptation and sit at the edge of the trees to turn my attention to my bokit, which immediately catches the interest of one of the friendly little goats who seem to inhabit the grove. I lose the battle of wills and agree to share the remains of my sandwich with the determined nanny goat.  She makes short work of it, brown paper wrapper included. An efficient way to deal with litter. She moves on after that as I regretfully leaves this small corner of Eden. I am have one more destination in mind before returning to the ship.

Napoleon Didn’t Sleep Here

The Fort Napoleon terrace offers panoramic view of the island.

It’s another 10-minute uphill walk to Fort Napoléon. Built on a high bluff in 1867 to replace an earlier fortified lookout, the fort was named in honor of the then ruler of France, Napoleon III (nephew of the famous Emperor). The monarch never visited there, nor did the fort ever served in battle. It was was instead used as a penitentiary in the late 19th century and again during World War II. It is now a museum dedicated to Les Saintes’ history, culture, and environment. It is surrounded by a botanical garden of local succulent plants, and home to a colony of iguanas. While the fort may have been of strategic importance during colonial times, today it is mainly its spectacular panoramic view that makes it worth the climb.

An idyllic morning on Terre-de-Haut.

By the time I return the ship, the tiny island has made my list of places to revisit for a proper stay. Now, this being written in a time of Coronavirus, I have make a pact with my best snorkeling buddy: when we can finally escape the twilight zone of confinement, and as soon as it is prudent to once again fly off to far flung places, Les Saintes will be our first destination.

 

 

Good to Know

  • Getting there — Located on the main island of Guadeloupe, Pointe-à-Pitre International Airport has daily non-stop flights from Paris, France, as well as regular flights from a few European Union countries and U.S. East Coast cities (most notably Miami). From Pointe-à-Pitre, there is regular ferry service throughout the day to Le Bourg.
  • Getting around — There are very few four-wheeled vehicles operating on this small, hilly island. Most visitors do their exploring on foot, or opt to rent a scooter.
  • Silversea Cruises is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in June 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Katavi

Iles des Saintes

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

A Caribbean Escape – Old San Juan, Puerto Rico

After a serene day of cruising the turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea, the Silver Whisper glides into San Juan, Puerto Rico, just as the setting sun is sprinkling coppery hues onto the medieval El Morro (the Promontory) fortress.

A Photographer’s Treat

The vivid La Perla neighborhood stretches along the northern shore of the city.

As the ship makes its graceful way toward the entrance channel to the inner harbor, we are treated to a unique panoramic view of La Perla, the colorful historical shanty town wedged between the ancient city wall and the sea. Established in the late nineteenth century, when the development of Old San Juan pushed its most disadvantaged population outside the fortifications, it stretches for almost half a mile (750 meters) like a vivid puzzle along the rocky coast, from the edge of El Morro to the massive Castillo San Cristobal.

Sailing past the mighty El Morro.

After an exciting, slow motion photoshoot of the iconic El Morro showcased from every imaginable angle, we berth at the cruise terminal of the Old San Juan Piers, an easy walk away from all the major attractions of the historic city. We’ll be here for the next 24 hours, and I am looking forward to a day of roaming around the ancient Spanish colonial town.

 

The crew of a Brazilian Navy ship stands at attention.

The next morning, we get an unexpected wakeup call courtesy of the Brazilian Navy. One of their ships is easing toward the far side of our pier, before coming to a stop right alongside the Silver Whisper. From our private veranda, I have an eye-level view of the entire crew in their gleaming white uniforms, standing at perfect attention on the deck. Meanwhile, at the stern, the ship’s band is enthusiastically belting out a medley of the spirited tunes for which their country is famous. This is one of these serendipitous moments that reinforces my passion for far-flung travels.

A Spanish Heritage

The streets remain steeped in Old World charm.

Shoehorned onto an islet that guards the entrance to its harbor, San Juan is the second-oldest European-founded settlement in the Americas*. Established by Spanish explorers in 1521, a whole century before the Mayflower laid anchor in present day Massachusetts, Old San Juan, as the colonial town is known today, remains an historical jewel steeped in Old World charm.  Although Puerto Rico came under control of the United States at the conclusion of the Spanish-American war in 1898, and the modern city that radiates from the waterfront is firmly planted into the present, the centuries of Spanish rule have left their indelible imprint on Old San Juan. 

The Raices fountain honors the various ethnicities Puerto Rico’s heritage.

Within minutes of stepping off the ship, I start my journey back in time with a stroll along the broad Paseo de la Princesa. The shaded nineteenth century, sea-level esplanade stretches just below the city wall, to end at the waterfront with the magnificent Raices (or roots) fountain. Designed by architect Miguel Carlo, the fountain was completed in 1992 to commemorate the five hundredth anniversary of Spain’s “discovery” of the New World. It consists of a collection of statues honoring Puerto Rico’s mixed African, Spanish and Taino/Amerindian heritage.

The Oldest Cathedral in the New World

The Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist.

Soon, I come upon the elegant Neoclassical Catedral Metropolitana Basilica de San Juan Bautista (or Metropolitan Cathedral and Basilica of St.John the Baptist). Completed in 1540 as the seat of the first catholic bishop in the New World, it is the first cathedral church in the Americas. It is also home to the tomb of the Spanish explorer and founder of the original settlement, Juan Ponce de León. From here, every winding lane seems to lead to El Morro.

 

An Impregnable Medieval Fortress

The colossal walls of El Morro are dotted with domed garitas.

Perched atop of the 140-foot (43-meter) promontory at the northwestern tip of the islet of Old San Juan, the sprawling Castillo San Felipe del Morro, named in honor of King Philip II of Spain (1527 – 1598), was started in 1539 to guard the entrance to San Juan Bay and defend the port city from seaborne invasions. Its expansion continued in stages until 1790, growing from a bastion mounted with a cannon to a mighty six-level fortress. Vast barracks, storerooms, and dungeons are enclosed within its colossal outer walls dotted with garitas, the domed sentry boxes that have become the iconic symbol of Puerto Rico.

Land access to El Morro was protected by a a vast field-of-fire.

In its over 400 years as a military site, El Morro withstood countless attacks and was never defeated by sea. It was only taken once, in 1598, in a land assault led by the British forces of the Earl of Cumberland. It was this attack that prompted the construction of the Castillo de San Cristóbal at the opposite end of the bluff. No longer in use as a military site, the fortress is now a National Park and Museum. Its vast, open grassy lawn, once a “field-of-fire” for its redoubtable cannons is now a favorite destination for family outings and kite flying

The Castillo de San Cristóbal

The shanty town of La Perla rises from the ocean.

Leaving El Morro behind, I take Norzagaray Street, the boulevard that now follows the top of the city wall to the Castillo de San Cristóbal. It offers a spectacular view of the colonial era Santa Maria Magdalena de Pazzis Cemetery and the colorful neighborhood of La Perla.

The multi-tiered Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere.

The Castillo is the largest fortress built by the Spanish in the Western Hemisphere. Completed in 1785, it covers 27 acres (11 hectares) and soars to almost 150 feet (46 meters) above the water. Designed to guard agains land assault from the east, it is a tiered network of fortifications that would force invaders to face several defensive barriers before the fort could be breached. It is from here that the first shot of the Spanish-American War was fired in 1898. Access is much more peaceful today, and the ramparts offer glorious views of city, the piers and the ubiquitous El Morro.

Wandering the backstreets reveals ancient cloistered courtyards.

From the Castillo, it’s a leisurely stroll back down to the pier, through the narrow back streets of the colonial town. I drift in and out of artisan shops and stumble into my most memorably experience of the day: I strike a conversation with a charming craftswoman who creates original jewelry from local beach glass. I step in, intent on picking up one of her delicate pieces to commemorate the day, and end up sitting on her stoop with the artist, Idalia Velazquez, sharing life experiences and thoughts on random subjects over a cup of coffee, as though we were long-lost friends.

 

It’s back to the ship after that. Tonight we set sails for the Leeward Islands.

One last glance at El Morro.

 Good to Know

  • *In case you are wondering: The first permanent settlement in the New World was Isabella on the island of Hispaniola (in present-day Dominican Republic). Built in 1493 by Christopher Columbus on his second voyage, it was promptly decimated by disease and hunger. Columbus and his remaining men then built another town, which became Santo Domingo, the Dominican Republic capital.
  • Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the on-going Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all their current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

A Few Souvenirs

Location, location, location!

Old San Juan

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

A Late Fall Caribbean Escape

It begins on a June morning, when I wake up to the unwelcome news that my long anticipated cruise around Cuba has vanished from my fall travel calendar. Overnight, the United States government has imposed new restrictions on travel to the island, including a ban of all cruise ship travel between the two countries. The three ports-of-call circumnavigation of Cuba and multiple related on shore experiences had been the deciding factor for a close friend and I to book this late-fall, two-weeks Caribbean itinerary. What to do?

Silversea Saves the Day

Passed this first moment of consternation, my friend wisely suggests that we table any further thought – let alone decision – on the matter until “we hear from Silversea.” While this would  be my first sailing experience with the Monaco-based luxury cruise line, she is a long-time fan. She has grown to trust the unfailing attention they commit delighting their guests. She is convinced that they will soon propose a satisfactory alternative solution.

Silversea does no disappoint. Within a couple of weeks, along with the courteous option to cancel our cruise for a full refund, a new much altered but intriguing new itinerary is proposed: a mosaic of islands stretched along the Caribbean Sea. They are a varied lot, shaped by their historic British, French, and US influence respectively. And most enticingly for me, they represent many of the prized snorkeling destinations of the region. Count me in!

All Aboard

The Observation Lounge

We board the Silver Whisper in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, on a sunny November afternoon. Check-in is seamless, and in no time we are greeted by Satish, our very own white-gloved butler who assures us that he will be taking excellent care of us throughout our stay. He begins by offering to unpack our luggage, which is being delivered as we speak. We decline the unpacking, but we do allow him to uncork for us the welcome bottle of French Champagne chilling in its silver ice bucket.

Sleeping area of our Veranda Suite.

It’s time to engage in what my friend calls “attitude adjustment.” We have a couple hours to settle at leisure into our elegant, 26 square-meter (285 square-foot) Veranda Suite before we are required to show up at the lounge designated for the safety drill that marks the start of every cruise. Our sitting area, with its love seat and barrel arm chair arranged around an oval marble-top coffee table, and facing the built-in writing desk and 40-inch flat panel television, opens through floor-to ceiling glass sliding doors onto a 6 square-meter (60 square-foot) teak veranda with its own sitting arrangement. At the rear of the stateroom, the sleeping area, which can be isolated by a thick opaque draw-drape, features two well spaced twin beds and bedside tables and reading lamps.

View from our private deck.

With unpacking our first order of business, we take turns moving into the walk-in closet. It is thoughtfully appointed, and spacious enough to easily accommodate the two-week wardrobe of two women. At the rear, the granite-tiled bathroom with its separate tub and walk-in shower, double-sink vanity topped by a wall-to-wall mirror, its lush terry robes and generous supply of Bvlgari toiletries suggests exquisite indulgence down to the smallest detail.

The Hedonistic Pleasures of a Day at Sea

The Bar retains an intimate atmosphere.

Our itinerary begins with a day at sea, the perfect opportunity to check out the many pleasures of the Silver Whisper. Built at the prestigious high-end cruise vessel and mega yatch Mariotti Shipyard in Genoa, Italy, the ship entered service in 2000. It then went through an extensive refit in 2018 to ensure that it remains technically up to the minute, and continues to offer its guests the latest amenities and comforts. Yet it also retains the timeless grace of the legendary cruise ships of old. And with a total passenger capacity of 382 and a crew of 295, it offers one of the highest crew-to-passenger ratio in the luxury cruise industry. In addition to its 194 guest suites distributed along six decks, the ship features four restaurants ranging from casual dining to haute cuisine, a designer boutique that would be right at home on Rome’s Via Condotti and a state-of-the-art amphitheater. Add an intimate bar, a panoramic glassed-in observation lounge, a superb spa, a fully equipped gym and vast pool deck to give the Silver Whisper all the glamour of a European multi-starred resort.

Breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza

With a blank slate for the day ahead, I indulge in a leisurely breakfast on the deck of La Terrazza. When we dined here last night, from a menu of succulent farm-to-table-inspired Italian specialties, the softly lit restaurant felt cozily serene. This morning, with the Caribbean sun streaming through the curved outer glass wall, and open air deck as well as dinning room seating options, it is a cheerful, lively place and an invitation to linger over the generous cornucopia of its breakfast buffet offerings. I opt for a deck table and order a-la-carte instead, to better focus my attention on the infinite shades of blue of the undulating sea all around.

Caribbean sunset at sea.

The day gently glides by after that. I lull away hours by the pool with a book, while my friend is off to the spa. We reconnect at tea-time in the observation lounge over a decadent spread of dainty finger sandwiches, pastries and freshly baked scones against a discrete background of live classical piano music. Back in our suite, I revel in one of my favorite moments of the day: watching from the privacy the veranda the blood-orange sun dip into the darkening sea. Then it’s time to dress for dinner at the gourmet Le Restaurant.

We pass the Mega One Triton shipwreck on the way to our snorketing destination.

The Call of the Deep

In the early hours of the following day, we dock on Grand Turk Island, a sleepy, sun-drenched sliver of land 11 kilometer (7 mile) long by 1,5 kilometer (1 mile) wide, all shimmering white sand and swaying palm trees. And it is a favorite destination for divers drawn to its famous 2200 meter (7000 foot) deep coral walls that drops down a mere 300 meters out to sea. But it is equally appealing to snorkelers for its abundant marine life. A catamaran awaits right next to the self-contained cruise center to take me on a sail around the island, ending at the Boaby Rock Point with a colorful snorkeling experience.

The sun is getting low on the horizon by the time I return to the ship, salt-encrusted and exhilarated. Tonight we are sailing toward Puerto Rico.

 

Good to Know

  •  Silversea Cruises (Manfredi Lefebvre d’Ovidio, Executive Chairman) is recognized as a leader in the ultra-luxury cruise line industry, offering guests large ship amenities and an all-inclusive business model aboard its intimate, all suite vessels. Including the Silver Whisper, it consists of a fleet of 11 ships featuring itineraries that encompass all seven continents.
  • At the time of this writing, due to the Coronavirus pandemic, Silversea have suspended all its current voyages. However, conditions permitting, they are planning to resume operations in May 2020. Consult their website above for the latest information.

Location, location, location!

Grand Turk

Andalusia Road Trip – Granada, The Nasrid Legacy

Andalusia Road Trip – Granada, The Nasrid Legacy

Day Five – It’s mid-afternoon by the time we reach Granada, the city synonymous with the most emblematic monument of the seven centuries of Islamic legacy to the Iberian Peninsula: The Alhambra. Stretched across an entire hilltop, the fortress was the seat of power of the Nasrid dynasty (1230 to 1492) and the Moors’ last stronghold to surrender to the Catholic Monarchs.

An Albaicin Hideaway

The Albaicin is a maze of steep cobbled lanes.

Through the three centuries of its power, the city of Granada had spread North across the Darro River from the Alhambra to include the Albaicin hillside. A steep warren of winding cobbled lanes, narrow whitewashed vertical houses, pocket-size jasmine-scented courtyards and souk-like shopping, the ancient neighborhood retains to this day its picturesque Arabic character.

Our terrace overlooks the Alhambra.

To make the most of our Granada experience, this is where we’ve chosen to stay. The topography of the neighborhood means that accommodation opportunities consist mainly of tiny bed-and-breakfasts and short-term rental apartments. We choose the latter on this visit, and have the good fortune to find a comfortable light-filled two-bedroom retreat on the top floor a beautifully restored ancient residence halfway up the hill. Our private terrace overlooks the roofs of the old town and the majestic Alhambra proudly looming above them. We linger here, soaking in the atmosphere until the late afternoon light starts to brush the walls of the fortress with golden dust. Time to head up to the Mirador San Nicolas at the very top of the Albaicín hill and watch the sun set over the most dramatic views of the city.

The Mirador San Nicolas offers the best view over the Alhambra.

Across the wooded escarpment of Darro river valley, the forts and palaces of the Alhambra complex, at eye-level with us now, are taking on coppery hues. The atmosphere is festive on San Nicholas Square, where guitarists and singers are entertaining the crowd. Just below the square, we spot a couple of restaurants with terraces facing the stupendous views. They are much in demand of course, but it is still early for Spain (7:00 pm) and we are in luck. We settle at the terrace of El Huerto de Juan Ranas for a leisurely drink. The light keeps changing, and a full moon rises on cue, right over the Alhambra. My son Lee thoughtfully keeps the tapas and the sangria coming while I shoot pictures non-stop. It’s quite late by the time we make our way back down the ancient alleys to our apartment after what will rate as the most perfect evening of our trip.

The Nasrid Legacy

Under the Nasrid rule, a complete royal city flourished within the fortifications of the Alhambra.

At the height of the Nasrid power, a royal city of palaces, houses, baths, schools, mosques and military barracks flourished within the walls of the Alhambra. While a few remains of the complex date further back, most of what survives today – the Alcazaba (military fortress) and the the Palacios Nazaríes (Nasrid palaces or royal palaces) were built in the 14th century. They now face each other across a broad parade ground incongruously flanked by the grand Renaissance Palacio de Carlos V (Charles V Palace), both constructed by the Christian Monarchs  in the 16th century.

The Alcazaba

Ramparts and towers were added to the original 11th century Alcazaba military fortress.

This military fortress of the 11th century Ziridian rulers was all that stood on the site when the first Nasrid ruler made Granada his capital.  He added the current ramparts, and three new towers: the Broken Tower, the Keep and the Watch Tower, and made it the first royal residence until the palaces were completed. From then on, the Alcazaba was only used for military purposes and later on under the Christian rulers as a state prison. The Watch Tower, the tallest of the three towers is named from the bell on its turret added under Christian rule, and which until recently was rung to mark the irrigation hours for the workers in Granada’s vast agricultural plain. The towers of the Alcazaba can be visited and offer spectacular panoramic views of the Albaicín and the entire region.

The Nasrid Palaces

The Nasrid Palaces offer exquisite exemples of Islamic architecture.

The Harem open onto private courtyards.

In stark contrast to the Alcazaba with its massive fortification and towers, the Nazrid Palaces are built rather flimsily of brick, wood and adobe. They were not intended to last but rather to be renewed and redecorated by succeeding rulers. The buildings display brilliant use of light and space, but they are mainly a vehicle for the ornamental stucco. Most of the interior arches are only here to decorate. The walls are covered with rich ceramics and plasterworks and exquisitely carved wooden frames. Apparently, the greatest concern here was to cover every single space with ornamentation, with Arabic inscriptions featuring prominently throughout.

The royal palace was structured in three parts, each built around its own interior courtyard, and fulfilling a specific function: the first series of rooms, the Mexuar, was used for judicial and business purposes. Beyond it, the Serallo held reception rooms for embassies and others distinguished guests. The last section, the Harem, housed the private living quarters of the ruler and could only be entered by the family and their servants.

The Generalife

The Generalife is a secluded summer palace.

The Generalife or Garden of the Governor was built in the 13th century as a leisure summer palace where the sultan could get away from the official affairs of the Alhambra. It is set on the slope of the Cerro del Sol (Hill of the sun), from which there is a panoramic view over the Alhambra hilltop and the valleys beyond. Although a mere 10-minute walk from the palace, the Generalife has the feel of a peaceful villa, with none of the decorative excesses of the Nasrid Palace. Surrounded by lush enclosed gardens and serene patios with elegant reflecting pools and gurgling fountains, it succeeds beautifully in feeling like a secluded retreat.  And is my favorite part of the whole complex. 

The Alhambra and Generalife loom over the Granada landscape.

Good to Know

  • Visiting – The Alhambra is the most visited monument in Spain – and the number of admissions is limited to to 6600 per day – which consistently sell out weeks ahead of time. Mercifully tickets may be purchased well in advance on-line  from official ticket office. A general ticket allows access to the entire site with a strictly limited time slot to visit the Nazrid Palaces (you may choose time if you plan sufficiently ahead).  Beware: the link above is to the only official site for ticket purchase.
  • Staying – Our lovely Albaicín apartment was located on Calle Babole and our hostess, Gloria della Tore, couldn’t have been more welcoming or helpful. The property is listed with direct booking sites: Vrbo, HomeAway and Airbnb
  • Eating – El Huerto de Juan Rana, located at Callejón Atarazana Vieja, 6-8, Granada, is open daily 11:30 am to midnight.  Contact:  tel.: +34 958 286 925.

Location, location, location!

Granada

Andalusia Road Trip – a Day in Cordoba

Andalusia Road Trip – a Day in Cordoba

Cordoba had been an important settlement since Roman times, but it was the Moors’ conquest in 711 a.d. that transformed it into one of the world’s leading center of Islamic education and learning. By the 10th  century, it had grown to be the largest city in Western Europe. Then its importance steadily declined after in was captured in 1236 by King Ferdinand III of Castile as part of the Christian Reconquista.

The Roman bridge was part of the Via Augusta.

While a number of interesting monuments remain from its long history, from the massive first century b.c. Roman bridge across the Guadalquivir River to the Alcázar de los Reyes Cristianos (Castle of the Christian Kings), the fortress constructed in 1328 by King Alfonso XI, one building alone is reason enough to put Córdoba on our Andalusian itinerary.

 

 

 

The Mesmerizing Mezquita

The courtyard features a traditional grove of citrus trees.

One of greatest works of Islamic architecture still in existence today, the Great Mosque of Córdoba (or Mezquita in Andalusian Arabic) is a unique symbol of the sophisticated culture that flourished here more than a millennium ago. It is impossible to overstate the beauty and serenity (despite the throngs of tourists) of its monumental interior.

 

 

The mihrab (prayer niche) is the focal point of the prayer hall.

The building consists of a forest of 865 columns of granite, marble, onyx and jasper, many of them repurposed from a Roman temple that once occupied the site, as well as other nearby monuments. The columns support soaring horseshoe-shaped double arches in perfectly symmetrical patterns to create the illusion an immense grove of palm trees. The sides of the sanctuary also include elaborately carved and gilded prayer alcoves. In its original mosque incarnation, it became the hub of Islamic community life in Al-Andalus ( as Andalusia was called then) for three centuries, serving as a teaching center and courthouse as well as a place of worship.

The Gothic Villaviciosa Chapel was the nave of first church built in the Mezquita.

Although it was promptly consecrated as a Catholic church upon the Christian conquest, its basic structure was mainly unchanged even as some 40 chapels were inserted into the prayer alcoves. The main alteration didn’t occur until the 16th century when Charles V authorized the construction of a large Baroque cathedral within the center of the former Muslim prayer hall. This caused some destruction, but it also ensured the preservation of the complex. It is estimated that 70 percent of the original mosque survived.

Intricate cupsed arches surround the mihrab.

Officially, the name of the complex is now Catedral de Nuestra Señora de la Asuncion (Cathedral of Our Lady of the Assumption), or “Mosque-Cathedral,” although it is a Catholic church exclusively, but neither are commonly used outside of administrative circles. It is widely known as simply la Mezquita, so that in Cordoba churchgoers go the the mosque for mass.

 

A Royal Stronghold

The Alcázar has retained its massive fortifications.

With its thick defensive walls, the Alcàzar of the Christian Kings, or Alcàzar of Córdoba for short is a metaphor for the history of the Andalusia. Here, Roman, Visigoth and Moorish ruins mingle in an imposing fortress that was in turn a favorite residence of the successive rulers of the area. However, by the time Ferdinand III of Castile took the city, the former Caliphal palace was in a state of advanced deterioration. It was his successor, Alfonso X who began building the present day palace on the site of the old fortress. It went on to fulfill varied functions, from serving as one of the primary residences of Isabella I of Castile and her spouse Ferdinand II of Aragon, (15th century), headquarters of the Spanish Inquisition (16th century) and more recently as a prison (first half a the 20th century).

The chapel now holds a display of Roman mosaics.

The most interesting feature of this blocky fortress is its small baroque chapel, now the Hall of the Mosaics, where a series of impressive Roman mosaics, discovered in the 1960’s during excavations of the nearby Corredera Square, are now displayed around the room. Beneath this hall are the Arabic-style baths divided into three rooms with vaulted ceilings with the familiar star openings.

Although Alfonso used only a fraction of the remains of the original Moorish structure in building the Alcàzar, he chose a Mujerar-style for his palace and gardens – which preserved the Moorish feel of the site.

The Gardens of the Alcázar

The upper level basin collects water from nearby mountains.

The gardens occupy a vast part of the palace grounds. Located on the Southwestern side of the property, it is believed that they were originally laid out by the first Islamic rulers (Abd ar-Rahman II – ruled 822-866) to complete the space destined to the Royal Harem, in a place close to the baths. The gardens were subsequently abandoned when his successor moved his residence to a countryside locations some 10 kilometers (6 miles) away, until the arrival of the Christian Kings gave them the appearance we enjoy today.

The gardens are designed around spectacular pools.

They are laid on three terraced levels. On the top terrace, two large bassins collect water routed from the nearby mountains and channel it down to the long fountain-pools flanked by cypress edges of the middle and lower terrace. On the side of the terrace closest to the fortifications wall, boxwood planted in a grid pattern provide the framework for a series of rose gardens adorned with statues of Isabella and Ferdinand – story has it that it is where they granted an audience to Christopher Columbus to hear about his project for a new route to the Indies. Despite their slightly formal layout and huge popularity with tourists, the gardens are an inviting place to wander, and my favorite part of the Alcàzar.

The Juderia

The tangle of narrow lanesof the Juderia preserve an intimate atmosphere,

Just north of the Mezquita, the Jewish Quarter of Cordoba is the medieval part of the city where the thriving Jewish community lived throughout the middle ages until the 15th century. At the heart of the quarter, the synagogue, a Mudejar construction and one only three original ones remaining in Spain, is now a small museum offering a glance at the Jewish culture’s impact on Spanish history.

Today the charming tangle of narrow lanes and secret courtyards, a must on every visitor’s itinerary, has succeeded to preserve an intimate feel – so far.

 

Good to Know

Visiting

  • La Mezquita may be seen in a couple of hours – although lovers of religious art could possible spend half a day here. Opening hours, November through February, Monday through Saturday: 8:30 am to 6:00 pm – Sunday and religious holidays: 8:30 am to 11:30 am and 3:00 pm to 6:00 pm. March through October, Monday through Saturday: 10:00 am to 7:00 pm – Sunday and religious holidays: 8:30 am to 11:30 am and 3:00 pm to 7:00 pm. Mezquita tickets are sold on-site only. However, because the size of the site, there is no limit to the number of visitors allowed per day, and the ticket-purchase process is fast and efficient. If possible, avoid the 11:00 am to 3:00 pm time-frame as most day-tripper tour groups visit during these hours.
  • The Alcàzar of Cordoba is a municipal building run with the mindset of a public office rather than a site of touristic interest. Opening hours are Tuesday through Sunday from 8:45 am to 3:15pm. Closed on Monday. Other than confirming the opening hours (which could vary for organizational reasons), their website is near useless. Attempts to purchase advanced tickets send you to another clumsy website. Click “on-line booking” then “monument visit” and at this point your English language option shifts to Spanglish with a strong emphasis on “Span”. You may also get error messages through the booking process but persevere – It took me many tries over several days to finally secure my two tickets. However, to my knowledge, it is the only site that will give you the option to purchase entry tickets without expensive guided tours attached. The other alternative is to show up early in the morning and hope you’ll beat the lengthy lines.

Location, location, location!

Cordoba