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Ports o' call

Point an elbow and race against the ticking clock

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Tom Haines
Globe Staff / March 21, 2004

This is what I can tell you about Funchal.

Not far from the narrow streets of the city center, where old men with soft faces sip espresso, the orbs of a gondola lift above harbor, traffic, and modest homes terraced with patios where laundry is hung by people who probably wish a gondola did not pass overhead.

After exiting the gondola at the top of a mountain that plunges to the ocean, you can pay 10 euros (about $12, unless the dollar keeps falling) for the opportunity to sit in a wicker sled. With that, two fit and swarthy men dressed in white cotton outfits and straw hats push and puff. The sled speeds up, the road narrows and descends between high stone walls. About this time, a thought arrives: "Um, if these guys push too fast, or if they just happen to stink at being sleigh pushers and I don't know it, and this wicker sled flips and splats and shatters and I get launched like a lawn dart toward that high stone wall, well, that's going to kill."

That doesn't happen, though, on a Funchal Sleigh Ride. What does happen is that after a few minutes you are standing at the bottom, next to little stands selling crafts and trinkets, and a long line of taxis. You feel not unlike the good Admiral James Stockdale, as caricatured in that "Saturday Night Live" skit, where he's all disoriented and disturbed and prone to blurt, "Where am I?!"

The answer, of course, is Funchal, a city on Madeira, an island set west of Morocco and an Atlantic outpost of Portugal. The island is said to be a cool place, full of steep ravines and bright flowers and rustic lives, but I can't tell you about that, because if I had taken the time to check it out, I'd have missed the boat -- in my case, the Queen Mary 2. On a January day, it was the largest of several ships tucked into port for a 9-to-5 fling.

Such is the fabled port of call. In a life at sea, there is nothing quite like it. Early adventurers craved any port in a storm. Centuries of sailors have offset close quarters at sea with boozy bars and a woman or man in every port. A generation of children grew up watching Julie McCoy and Captain Stubing wishing hearty adventure to "Love Boat" passengers sporting hair feathered in the middle as they descended upon Puerto Vallarta.

Since then, a bulked-up cruise industry has converted sheltered harbors lined with containers and cranes into entertainment pit stops, engineered entrees to islands or countries. For those who set sail from Miami, for example, Nassau (Bahamas), Bridgetown (Barbados), and others are served up like a shuffleboard game or line-dancing on the Lido deck. Such was the case with Funchal, the first of five stops on the Queen Mary 2's maiden voyage.

I can tell you more about Tenerife, the island where the ship docked 24 hours later. There, on a steep hillside, all dry earth and scrubby green rising from the sea, works a farmer. He is old but strong, able to stoop for a long time planting in a field. I know this because I saw him through a 210mm camera lens. The sun was pounding on him, but the breeze was refrigerator cool, and I thought I could almost see what he was planting. I'm betting peppers.

I'm not sure, though, because Miguel, the taxi driver, said we should keep going. The clock ticks, even on island time. I liked Miguel. He spoke Spanish, because Tenerife, in the Canary Islands (also west of Morocco) is part of Spain. Miguel also spoke Spanish because he was born in Caracas, which, like Tenerife, was claimed by Spain long ago.

Miguel and I talked a lot about Africa, mostly with our hands. It went like this: "Africa, think about that, crazy, so close, yet such a big, different place."

Miguel would point off toward the east and say maybe four or five sentences on the topic. I would point after him and reply, in Spanish, "Yes. Good. Good. Yes. Good."

We talked about it forever, or at least until we hit traffic back by the docks. Miguel leaned out his window and bantered with a taxi driver carrying two other QM2 passengers into town for dinner. They had been idling in traffic for an hour. I doubt they ever got to see the farmer.

Now about Las Palmas, the port city on the Canary island of Gran Canaria and our third stop in three days, I have no idea. By the time we arrived, people were ready for us, and that made it hard to explore. The arrival of the Queen Mary 2, the most recent ship to become the longest, tallest, and fastest ever, had been just a wee bit hyped. Ships apparently mean something in an island port that was visited by Christopher Columbus. Either that, or some Chamber of Commerce official was kicking these people $50 each.

Thousands lined the dock, clamoring behind fences as QM2 passengers strolled down a ramp clutching maps to the shopping district. At first, I thought it was going to be like in an airport. You know, you walk out of customs into a big room full of people waiting for their friends and relatives. The people glance at you, then look off, as if to say, "Nope, not mine."

Not in Las Palmas. These people were fired up and they wanted a piece of QM2 history. That meant us. They shouted out, "Welcome! Hello!" Kids asked for T-shirts and posters. Men and women, young and old, cheered and lunged to touch passengers.

It was all very rock star, enough to make me want to climb back up the ramp, turn, raise two arms in the air and shout: "You are all beautiful! Thank you! And good night!"

After these first three stops, I'd learned a few things. If you're not careful, you can spend a whole day in a place and never really be there. This usually happens in a bus. But it also can be arranged, for a significantly higher price, in a four-wheel-drive, or a helicopter, or even a submarine. Such excursions drive through national parks, fly above harbors, or motor through submerged sea gardens. To join the adventure, people gather in the ship's fancy ballroom and wait for their tour to be called. Then, staying very close to one another, they leave the ship, look at lots of things, and come back.

Such would be the case last month, on a subsequent QM2 cruise that passed through the Caribbean en route to Brazil. Passengers disembarked in the city of Salvador, which hosts what is considered by some aficionados to be Brazil's best Carnival. QM2 passengers boarded a waiting coach and idled through traffic-choked streets as booths and scaffolding were set up for the party. At the end of the ride, one passenger noted: "Five days on a ship, one day on a bus."

The trick for ports, it seemed to me, was to break free of the program. Charge the gangplank, head down, shoulders firm, past the gantlet of tour buses and taxis, clear of the port, across a street or two. There, you find yourself oddly alone, just another person, unprotected, in a new place. Then the sky, or at least a good beach, is the limit.

That was the plan for St. Thomas (US Virgin Islands), one of two Caribbean stops after the QM2 crossed the ocean. There was one small hitch. The QM2 moored in the harbor at Charlotte Amalie, rather than dock at a pier, which meant all of the 2,600 or so passengers who wanted to go ashore would need a ride. Whoever was in charge of such things must have forgotten this. Because by 9 a.m., hundreds of anxious passengers were milling around the ship's pub, waiting for their tender to be called, looking like a bunch of bar regulars ready to head home after a long night.

Not to worry, organizers said, shuttle boats would be running soon and frequently. More than an hour later, departure was well underway. As one passenger said, "Good thing this ship wasn't actually sinking."

In port, a road led up and over steep green hills to the north side of the island and Magens Bay Beach, where pelicans dive into blue water and people sit in the sun. Under the trees there is a very cool bar where a woman makes a good pina colada. I sipped it and looked at a guy on a stool. He had a bushy mustache, a tank top, and thick sides. A pack of smokes sat on the bar and the guy tipped a cold beer. He wasn't moving. I loved that guy, just kicking it, no schedule, no shuttle to catch, no ship lurking over his shoulder. I could have avoided such envy -- having to sit there listening to Bob Marley buffaloing soldiers while sipping sweet, icy pineapple -- if only I had gone shopping.

St. Thomas's jewelry shops, cast beneath the seductive breeze of no sales tax, are rated even higher than the beaches. Returning to the ship, I did pause long enough to glance at a nice TAG Heuer watch that cost $675, maybe $100 less than you'd pay somewhere else, the woman behind the counter said. At a nearby cafe, a strawberry milk shake went for about eight bucks. I didn't have a calculator, but I think if a thirsty shopper bought the watch and drank the milk shake, he'd just about break even.

With five port stops, a traveler is bound to get one right, to find something out about a place. I'm happy to say I can end by telling you about something I do know: Barbados. I really nailed my seven hours in that nation. Thanks to Kevin.

Kevin and I met on a street corner in Bridgetown, just outside a cafe that sold espresso and pens. Kevin was in his early 20s and drove a taxi. He agreed to give a three-hour tour of the island. He didn't tell me this in advance, but he really knew his trees. First off, he took us to see the island's second-largest tree, a baobab. (We never did see the island's first-largest tree.) On the way to the baobab, Kevin stopped to point out a mahogany tree. On the highway heading toward the low fields of the island's center, he spotted palm and almond and breadfruit trees.

We passed something that Kevin called the "shak-shak" tree, because that's the sound it makes in the wind. Then, after some old chattel houses, remnants of the island's system of slavery, came something known locally as the "mile" tree. Near some sheep, Kevin slowed to point out trees bearing avocado and a local cherry.

I could go on, like Kevin, but I'll stop in a tropical reserve called Welchman Hall. The hall is a narrow gully, moist and green, with an old-growth rain forest. At the bottom of a long flight of stairs leading into the gully, a middle-aged man sat on a bench and listened to a transistor radio that he held near his ear. Nearby, a sign mentioned that Queen Elizabeth II had visited Welchman Hall in 1975. I generally don't expect to find pristine nature when hiking in the footsteps of a queen, but on this day, the place was deserted, a slice of Barbados as the island had been before it had ever been occupied, or colonized, or cleared to produce sugar cane.

Only one problem: Above the steep ledge of the gully, a man was wailing. It was a lonely sound and came from beneath what looked like the roof of a simple shack. Maybe the man had fallen and needed help. Maybe he was sick or hurting. About every 30 seconds, there would be this low shout -- part bark, part bellow -- raining down into the forest.

The wail faded a bit down the path, where another bench sat empty next to a bearded fig tree. Sunlight split green leaves towering overhead. Songbirds flitted unseen in the canopy. A cool column formed from the calcium carbonate deposits of joined stalactite and stalagmite. It was all so unspoiled, so natural. This, I can tell you, was the real Barbados. I think.

Tom Haines can be reached by e-mail at thaines@globe.com.

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