Wow. There is no way to describe the humidity today. The air temperature in the shade is in the high 80s, but the humidity is monumental. There is little or no breeze at ground level and shade is a precious commodity. Still, Antigua is a friendly place and everyone is willing to share their shelter.
What a good-natured friendly bunch Antiguans are. As you disembark the ship and walk into the centre of their little capital, St John’s, you are greeted by the usual taxi tour offers and then find yourself at a crowd of stalls that stretches back seemingly forever, in which lots of different women try to sell you almost identical items. But they’re so NICE about it! Even when you’re being pressure-sold, or someone is trying to con you, they’re so nice about it, it’s almost a pleasure! The plus side for the canny shopper is that you see what you want and keep going from stall to stall until you find it in the size and colour you want and then you haggle over price. At 18 dollars, my polo-neck shirt was still over-priced, but it wasn’t the 25 she initially asked for, and as the woman who wanted 15 dollars didn’t have my size, I don’t think I did too badly.
The taxi drivers are equally nice and also speak perfect English, so they can’t pretend they didn’t understand “No, thank you”! They only ask once, twice tops, unlike some other countries where they literally chase you down the street. This attitude is also more laid back because we are on Island Time. Here, cruise ships are like buses, there will be another along shortly, so why worry? Only two cruise ships in today – us and Adventure of the Seas (Royal Caribbean). It’s a wee bit bigger than us, but, boy, what an ugly ship! Sorry, RCL! The front is studded with what must be picture window cabins, but it just looks like a spider with hundreds of eyes staring at you. And the back and sides aren’t much to look at either. Apparently, the port can hold up to seven cruise ships at once, although I’m not sure where they’d put them! We both ran out of pier before we ran out of ship, and we are not the largest things afloat by a long chalk!
Anyway, we got off at about 9.30ish and wandered into town. I bought a t-shirt and a diet coke. Mum and dad bought postcards, a fridge magnet and a Fanta – of the rather virulent International Orange/ Easyjet orange colour I encountered last time we were in the Caribbean. I’m getting used to it now. It doesn’t terrify me nearly so much as it used to! Clearly, they are not worried about the effects of food colourings here! We pootled on foot through town and declined all offers of tours of the island, as I had to be back for my stupidly timed excursion. Mum wasn’t feeling good anyway, so we returned to the ship about half eleven so I could grab a bite before heading off. This was our first day of real heat and humidity and we haven’t acclimatised yet. Everything felt like hard work.
John Bird, our helicopter rep, corralled us together and we took a people carrier with dubious air con out to the heliport which is on the edge of town. There, we had a safety briefing video and read the cards you usually find in the back of aeroplane seats, and we all put on a little lifejacket in a pouch which you have to wear around your waist – think a cross between a yellow bumbag/fanny pack and a poncho anorak/foldaway raincoat – and then off we went. Six went into the seven-seater red helicopter – they went off first – and then we got into the little five-seater blue- green helicopter. I refrained from calling it Budgie. I got to ride shotgun! There were some complicated seat belts and headsets and stuff to arrange and then the rotors started. To be honest, the noise wasn’t nearly as loud as I expected, but I can see how prolonged exposure to it would be bad for your ears. Our headsets all had microphones so we could talk to each other and ask the pilot questions, but he was so informative, there wasn’t much to say! It was 35 degrees in the cockpit, but when we took off, a breeze came in the window and reduced it to 27 degrees, much more manageable.
Lift-off was a little disorientating. I’ve never been in a helicopter before, but I’ve seen them on tv, and I knew that the tail would lift off first, so I wasn’t that surprised to find myself tipping towards the ground, but it’s an unsettling experience, nonetheless! It took me a moment or two after he straightened up to calm myself, but after that, it just felt amazing. First he flew us over the ship, which was entertaining, as there was not a single soul on deck to wave to us. What a wasted opportunity! Then he headed across over the town and out to sea. I took some photos of the clear water, which, despite being nearly 100 foot deep in places, is still clear enough that you can see the coral on the bottom, and a few of the coral reef (Cade’s Reef, I think it’s called) which is the best place to snorkel, as well as distance shots of Guadeloupe and St Nevis, which are only forty or so miles away in either direction.
Then, at a height of 1500 feet, we flew over Montserrat. He flew us right around the volcano, and showed us the destruction wrought by the pyroclastic flows, which travelled at speeds of up to 100mph and simply buried everything in their path on their way to the sea. When they cooled and hardened to form new land and black beaches, Montserrat was so much bigger that it was nearly two miles nearer to Antigua! He flew over where the city of Plymouth had been and where they THINK the airport was… Very few people died in the eruptions – only twenty-odd who refused evacuation, out of a total of over eleven thousand -, but the city is no more. Two thirds of the island is now an exclusion zone and the remaining 4,500 people live at the other end. They struggle financially as they have no tourism and apparently drug trafficking is becoming a worrying side industry. Entering the exclusion zone either by land or by sea is an arrestable offence. The remaining residents have an airstrip that ends in a steep drop. Seriously, it’s a cliff edge. I took a photo of it. Earlier this week, a pilot drove off the side into a ditch rather than go off the end, as he feared he was going to.
Whilst zooming over the water in a helicopter with a glass floor at 120mph is indeed exactly like the opening credits of Airwolf or Nine to Five, only oddly slower (so slow, in fact, I was a bit nervous we might stall!), over land it’s a different story. The speed remains the same, but it feels much faster, and when we turned right or left, the lurch, although not actually sickening, was certainly noticeable to my system, which clearly much prefers upright. Factoid: my ears pop at almost exactly 1000 feet. I have no idea whether this is true for others, but there you go.
On the way back, we flew over the water at about 400 feet to see if we could spot any whales, dolphins or turtles. We got a glimpse of two turtles and what may have been a couple of dolphins, but that was all. Still, we weren’t there for the wildlife, so no one felt hard done by!
Random observations: Double yellow lines on the roads. The shop mannequins are pale-skinned. UB40 is very popular here, although no one knows what a UB40 actually is/was. Volcanoes smell very strongly of sulphur. Royal Caribbean paint their communications golfballs with dimples so that they look like golfballs.
Last thought: you know it’s a good sailaway party on deck when the people on the next ship over are joining in!