African Diaries — The Other Kenya

African Diaries — The Other Kenya

Kenya has long been synonymous with safari (the Swahili word for travel), unless you are a water-sports enthusiast. In that case, it’s the turquoise waters of the Indian Ocean, home to seven national marine parks alive with coral gardens, multi-colored fish and sea turtles, that will call your name.

The Serena Beach Resort overlooked the Indian Ocean with the grace of an Arabian palace.

Always ready to embrace the best of all worlds, I decided that after a twenty-four hour journey across two continents in airplanes booked to capacity to take me there, I would first catch my breath on the coast before starting my exploration of the famous games reserves of the country.

 

 

Shanzu Beach

The guest accommodations were nestled in lush tropical gardens.

Built along the idyllic stretch of palm-fringed sand of Shanzu Beach, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) north of Mombasa, the Serena Beach Resort rose from the shoreline with the intriguing elegance of an ancient Swahili town. Inspired by the rich architectural tradition of the East African Coast, the property was divided in a number of whitewashed two- and three-story buildings nestled in lush tropical gardens.

An ornamental fish pond bordered  the plaza.

The public areas had the feel of an Arabian palace, with oriental furnishing and  rugs. The trellised terraces of its main restaurant opened onto a large central fountain, and further down toward the beach, an ornamental fish pond filled with aquatic plants bordered a plaza designed to recall a Swahili town marketplace.

 

My room opened onto a shaded balcony.

The guest accommodations had intricately carved wooden balconies and fretwork screens overlooking courtyards shaded by exuberant bougainvilleas and frangipane trees in bloom. They were clustered along narrow stone-paved alleyways winding toward the ocean. But before I would  enjoy the lure of the sea, my travel-wearing body yearned for a visit to the Maisha Spa.

 

Maisha Spa

The hallway was oulined with frangipani blossoms.

Located in a remote  corner of the gardens, the Spa was a heaven of tranquil luxury within the seclusion of brightly whitewashed walls. Although mine had been an impulse visit, the staff kindly managed to schedule an immediate massage for me. Shortly thereafter, clad in a plush white cotton robe and smart leather sandals, I was following an attendant along a marble floor hallway outlined with frangipani blossoms.

The serene treatment rooms induced total relaxation.

My treatment suite was equally inviting, with an oversized, state-of-the art massage bed and exotic fretwork sliding doors that opened onto a beautifully landscaped private courtyard. Diffused natural light bathed the entire area. And best of all, my therapist was as exceptional as the surrounding. A steel-fingered magician, she delivered a memorable treatment that had all the therapeutic benefits of a deep-tissue massage without the usual discomforts. Now fully rejuvenated, I was ready to investigate the shore activities.

Mombasa Marine National Reserve

Local sailors proposed ngawala trips to the reef.

The Serena Resort  was blessed with an expansive frontage of lawn and soaring palm grove overlooking the silky sands and gentle surf of the Mombasa Marine National Reserve, a 80 square mile (210 square kilometers) environment of crystalline waters and pristine beaches. In the distance, a roll of whitecaps announced the famed coral reef laying a short 15-minute boat ride away. Friendly local sailors in their ancient ngawalas  (traditional local trimorants made from the trunks of mango trees) and mtumbwis  (small dug out canoes) were always ready to negotiate a price to ferry visitors to the reef.

The reef was alive with colorful fish darting around the coral.

I couldn’t resist trying out a ngagwala ride, just for fun, but I booked a “proper” dive boat excursion the next day, for an organized morning of snorkeling. The sea was perfectly calm, crystalline and warm. It was a thrill to float above the busy life of the reef. Along with a couple of varieties of coral, I spotted a number marine species, including sea urchin, crabs, starfish, octopus, sea cucumbers, more varieties of fish than I could identify and even a couple of the sea-turtles in the distance, for a memorable snorkeling experience.

An Endangered Turtle Sanctuary

Yet, the most significant memory of my stay occurred later, on the last evening of my visit. Earlier on, I had expressed interest in the hotel’s involvement in a project aimed to protect the nesting sites of the endangered migratory Green Sea Turtle.

The Serena Resort’s beach was a nesting sanctuary for the endangered migrating Green Turtles.

As I was leaving the restaurant after dinner, I was intercepted by a staff member. A cache of Green Sea Turtle eggs had been salvaged that afternoon from an exposed area up the coast. They were about to be resettled in a safe nest on the property’s sanctuary. Did I care to participate? Did I ever! I was immediately escorted to the site and introduced to Dr. David Olendo, the biologist in charge of the project. Under his guidance, I spent the next hour digging in the sand and helping to deposit some 140 eggs into their new nest, in the precisely correct position to ensure safe hatching. I regret to this day that I couldn’t be there sixty days later to see the hatchlings make their precarious run to the sea. but I like to think that another fortunate Resort guest did enjoy the experience.

Good to Know

  • Getting there — By Air: Moi International Airport was the international airport deserving Mombasa. It offered several daily connecting flights from Nairobi Jomo Kenyatta International Airport, the main entry point for international visitors to Kenya. Moi International is 30 kilometers (18 miles) west of Shanzy Beach. Transportation to and from the airport could be easily pre-arranged through the property. 
  • Staying there — The Serena Resort and Spa was a five star luxury resort featuring 164 rooms in two- and three-level structures scattered village-style within 25 hectares (62 acres) of lush gardens, along a 2 kilometer (1.25 mile) beach. The beach was part of the Mombasa Marine National Park and Preserve.
  • Activities — In addition to its gorgeous beach, the Resort featured a free-form Olympic-length swimming pool located in the center of the palm grove overlooking the sea.  All manners of water-sports activities including diving, snorkeling and wind-surfing could be arranged through the Resort. Additionally complimentary recreational activities included a fully equipped health club, with tennis and squash courts.

Location, location, location!

Shanzu Beach, Kenya

African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

African Diaries – Along the Zambezi River

Having returned from the remote South Luangwa National Park irrevocably enthralled by my first experience in the African wilderness, I was yearning to get back to Zambia. When there is a will… I was off again the following June, to discover the national parks along the Zambezi River, right at the start of the ideal “dry season.”

Lower Zambezi National Park

Byy the end of the rainy season, the Lower Zambezi flood plain turns into a broad expanse of lagoons.

Located on the northern bank of the Zambezi, downstream from Lake Kariba, the Lower Zambezi National Park remains an area of primeval wilderness. This 75-mile (120-kilometer) stretch of land between the Chongwe River and the confluence of the Luangwa River extends 20 miles (32 kilometers) inland to the Zambezi Escarpment. Although the park covers an area of 1,580 square miles (4,092 square kilometers), the escarpment acts as a natural barrier to many species, concentrating most of the game’s activity near the edge of the river.

Hippos rush to the Chongwe River.

The valley was home to many mammal species including hippopotamus, elephant, buffalo, zebra, lion, leopard, genet, civet, and a large number of gazelles. It also offered some of the most abundant and colorful birdlife I had come across anywhere. The river bank was scalloped with channels that created lush islands along the main river. This idyllic environment had led a few of the most reputed safari operators in the country to develop a number of luxury camps along the river. My favorites had managed to retain a laidback bush camp vibe.

Chongwe River Camp

The view extended across the Zambezi to the Zimbabwe.

Stretched along the bank of the Chongwe, at the point where it met the Zambezi, the Chongwe River Camp offered a sweeping view of the western boundary of the Lower Zambezi National Park and Zimbabwe’s famed Mana Pools on the far bank of the river. The inspired architecture of the lounge with its curving concrete platforms lined with thick pads and toss pillows, showcased the exuberant wilderness that surrounded the camp. Throughout the day, elephants and buffalos came to the water for a drink or a bath, while pods of hippos filled the river like so many moving islands.

A Goliath Heron takes flight. With a wingspan of 185–230 cm (73–90.5 in), it is the world largest living heron.

Drives across the Chongwe River into the park were always exciting, but my favorite way to explore this unique environment was from the water. Canoeing down the quiet, shady channels was as blissful a safari experience as I have ever come across, enhanced by the expertise of my guide, Wedmore Kumbani. He could unobtrusively stir our canoe to find a leopard stealthily quenching its thirst or a fifteen-foot long Nile crocodile sunning on the bank. I also credit him for introducing me to the joys of birding by allowing me observe close-up the rich birdlife on the river, from the giant Goliath Heron to the jewel-like Malachite Kingfisher.

Memorable first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher.

My first sighting of the latter remains an adrenalin-charged memory to this day. Wedmore spotted one of the tiny birds clinging to a reed and maneuvered us to it. I single-mindedly began shooting while he was nudging the canoe to get me ever closer. Suddenly, from beneath us, a submerged hippo decided to make its presence known. It abruptly surfaced, its flank scraping the side the canoe, sending it spinning. Wedmore skillfully steadied it while I clung frantically to my camera. The bird was long gone by now, but I had memorable images of my eventful first sighting of a Malachite Kingfisher, and after calm had returned, of my closest encounter ever with a hippo.

Chiawa Camp

My tented suite featured an open deck with an irresistible claw-footed Victorian bathtub with a view.

Chiawa Camp was my idea of what Eden should be: spectacular views, abondant game activity, and outstanding creature comforts. Nestled under a lush canopy of riverine forest in the heart of the Park, Chiawa blended so unobtrusively into its surroundings that elephants and buffalos routinely paraded within feet of my tent on their way to the river. More than once, the short walk from the lounge to my tent was delayed while a pachyderm ambled down the path, claiming its incontestable right of way. 

An unexpected visitor shows up for lunch at Chiawa.

The two-story open-front lounge sat a short walk up a gentle slope from the edge of the water. The upper deck offered a panoramic view of the river. A telescope made for close up observation of the game hiding in the high undulating grass that covered the small islands nearby. With so many enticements to an armchair safari, the hardest thing about Chiawa was to select from the variety of daily game watching activities, on land and water, available at the camp.

Connecting with a young lion with along the Chilanga channel.

My visit to Chiawa was rich in exceptional moments, such as canoeing along the secluded Chilanga channel. As my guide smoothly navigated the canoe in the dappled shade of overhanging winter thorn acacias, we came upon a pair of lions enjoying a drink a few feet away on the riverbank. I experienced a prolonged spine-tingling eye contact with one the gorgeous felines before we all carried on with our own pursuits. Another moment forever imprinted on my mind, while star-gazing in the warm night echoing with bird calls and hippo snorts, was to discover the Southern Cross, perfectly outlined among the millions of stars in the black velvet of the African sky. Safari doesn’t get any better than this.

Victoria Falls

Mosi-oa-Tunya is the largest sheet of falling water on the planet.

One of the Seven Natural Wonders of the World, the Mosi-oa-Tunya (“Smoke that Thunders” in the Kalolo-Lozi tribe’s dialect) plunge 108 meters (355 feet) down in a stunning 1.7- kilometer (1.05- mile) wide waterfall across the Zambezi River. Columns of spray can be seen from miles away from the estimated 500 millions cubic meters (150 million gallons) of water per minute that plumet over the edge. British explorer David Livingston is thought to have been the first European to set eyes on the falls (on November 16, 1855), which he named after his queen.

My Tongabezi guide took took me to the edge of the chasm for a close up rainbow experience.

The Falls are within the Mosi-oa-Tunya National Park, a 66 square kilometer (25 square mile) stretch of land that goes from the Songwe Gorge below the Falls in a north-west arc along about 20 kilometers (12.5 miles) of the Zambian river bank. Roughly one million people visit the Falls each year, which has prompted the development a large tourism infrastructure, especially around the town of Livingston, just upstream from the park, where lodges now crowd the river-frontage and hotel buildings lurk on the horizon. Fortunately further up-river, a few prestigious, long established river lodges have retained their timeless elegance and pristine riverfront environment.

Tongabezi

A magical Tongabezi sunset.

While exchanging experiences with kindred adventurers traveling through the game parks of Zambia, conversation would often drift to favorite lodges and camps. Invariably, someone would bring up Tongabezi. Those who had visited where enthusiastic; those who had not were wistful. Guides and staff always spoke of “Tonga” with respect. As soon as I arrived at Tongabezi, I understood how it had come to be a standard by which Zambian luxury properties were measured.

Al fresco dining at Tongabezi.

Some 20 kilometers (12 miles) upstream from Victoria Falls and Livingstone, across from the Victoria Falls National Park on the Zimbabwe side of the river, Tongabezi was nestled in a  meticulously tended grove of ebony trees overlooking a magnificent bend of the Zambezi River. With its superb service, exquisite cuisine, and the mighty Zambezi shimmering under the midday sun or reflecting the rising moon, it was a serene haven for a gentle re-entry into the outside world after two weeks weeks in the bush. And the perfect venue from which to explore the Falls.

Pied Kingfisher were a constant sight along the river.

My first visit to Mosi-oa-Tunya was at ground level in the company of my guide, who took me along trails that allowed me to get dizzyingly close to the abyss, where I could feel and breathe the spray, and capture perfect rainbows. After this exhilaratingly visceral experience, I went to gaze upon the Falls just as Livingston first did. Tongabezi held the concession for what is now known as Livingston Island, at the head of the Falls. Here, after a short boat ride, I enjoyed a gourmet picnic lunch at the edge of the chasm. David Livingston never had it so good!

Areal view of  the geological evolution of the falls and gorges.

I returned the next day for a bird’s eye view of the Falls, in a small bubble-canopy helicopter that flew me all around the area. In addition to taking in the thunderous natural wonder, this areal perspective gave me a fascinating view of its geological evolution. Since its original formation in the Upper Paleolithic age (20,000 b.c.), six individual gorges have formed, and the Falls have recessed eight times, all previous positions clearly visible from up high.

The Lower The Zambezi National Park stretches between the Zambezi River and the Escarpment.

Good to Know

  • Lower Zambezi — Because of its remote location and limited infrastructure, the Lower Zambezi National Park is not easily accessible. It is best reached via small (loosely) scheduled prop planes to air strips barely larger than a dirt road. However, its pristine isolation and the outstanding density and variety of game congregating along the river, coupled with the luxury of the camps along the river make it superb destination well worth the effort.
  • Chongwe—Chongwe River Camp has nine classic tents under thatch and two private tented ‘suites’, the Albida (two-bedroomed) and the Cassia (one bedroom honeymoon). 
  • Chiawa— The camp is a property of Chiawa Safaris https://www.chiawa.com . It has nine luxury tents that can accommodate up to 16 guests, each raised on wooden decks with river views.
  • Tongabezi—The awards-winning Tongabezi Lodge https://tongabezi.com offers six private Houses and five River Cottages nestled on the banks of the Zambezi River, accommodating two to five guests each.

Location, location, location!

Victoria Falls, Zambia

South Luangwa National Park,

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