Island Sky – Noble Caledonia

8 Reviews

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Date of travel

January, 2015

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Getting to another destination

I am going to Aldabra, I told some friends. Where on earth is that? Never heard of it. I thought you had been everywhere in the world? Is that part of the Magic Circle? – were some of the comments they made. Aldabra is definitely nothing to do with the Magic Circle; that would be abracadabra. Aldabra is in the Indian Ocean, north west of Madagascar, the second largest coral atoll in the world and was designated a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1982. (The largest, in case you are wondering, is the Great Chagos Archipelago, 500kms south of the Maldives)

But first I had to get there. I had booked with Noble-Caledonia, a Silver Travel Advisor recommended partner and I flew to Mahe, the main island of the Seychelles, via Dubai. There we were met and taken to Beau Vallon, a beach area on the far side of the island where we were to stay two nights at the Hotel Le Meridien Fisherman’s Cove. On the second day a sightseeing tour of the island was arranged followed by a restaurant lunch and visit to the Botanical Gardens. And then we embarked on the MS Island Sky. What a pleasure it was to be back on board my very favourite small ship and to be welcomed by the Expedition Team some of whom I have sailed with several times in the past. The ship can accommodate 114 passengers but rarely does so as a number of the double cabins are allocated to solo travellers such as myself. On this cruise there were about 93 passengers and 75 crew. A ratio never matched by the big cruise ships. First we had the mandatory lifeboat drill, followed by a long wait for the pilot to come on board to see us out of the harbour and then we sailed away with a glass (or two) of pina colada on the open air Lido deck.

During the next three days we visited three islands in the Seychelles group: Desroches, Alphonse and Farquhar. All three islands were similar, the first two having a small airstrip to serve beach resorts, but having a local population of between 50 and 300. Our itinerary each day followed much the same timetable. We went ashore in the zodiacs (inflatable dinghies taking 10 passengers) and were divided into groups according to our ability to do either a fast, medium or slow walk each one accompanied by a naturalist from the Expedition team. It was not obligatory to join a walk and many people simply wandered around the islands on their own. Then there would be time for swimming or snorkelling before returning to the ship for lunch. On Farquhar the water was very shallow for swimming but nevertheless very pleasant after a hot walk. The Hotel Manager from the ship sent out two of the restaurant staff on a zodiac with cool boxes and pineapple smoothies! Now you would never get that from a large cruise ship. A 3,000 passenger ship would never get anywhere near these small islands, let alone provide smoothies ashore for all the passengers! During the times spent at sea the naturalists on board would give talks on subjects relative to our cruise such as plants, coral reefs, fish or birds of the Indian Ocean.

Next stop was Aldabra. It was a long way from Farquhar, 306 nautical miles so we didn’t reach Aldabra until mid afternoon the next day. Uninhabited and extremely isolated it consists of four islets around a large shallow lagoon encircled by a coral reef. The atoll has about 100,000 Giant Tortoises, about five times as many as in the Galapagos! There is a research station on the atoll and some of the rangers, scientists doing research into the flora and fauna, came out to meet us and each zodiac going ashore or for snorkelling was accompanied by one of them. We anchored off Aldabra overnight. On reflection we probably didn’t actually drop anchor as we were outside the reef where the water was probably too deep to anchor. Apart from the giant tortoises Aldabra is home to the coconut crab and the Aldabra Rail, the only surviving flightless bird species of its kind. I watched it jump from the ground to a low branch, the highest it was ever likely to get. Green turtles and hawksbill turtles also breed here. On our second day we enjoyed a zodiac ride round the lagoon looking at colonies of frigate birds and red-footed boobies. Visits ashore or round the lagoon were restricted by the tides which unfortunately were going out when we wanted to go in and going in when we wanted to go out; so by the afternoon we gave up and sailed off to our next destination. We really would have appreciated more time at Aldabra but so much depends on the tides and I don’t know if these are known two years in advance when the Noble-Caledonia brochures are planned.

Cosmoledo is another rarely visited and uninhabited atoll in the Aldabra group comprising a dozen small islands surrounding a shallow lagoon. Here we spent the next morning on a sandy beach, wandering around the island, swimming and enjoying ice cream brought ashore by the ship’s hotel department!

Early next morning we docked at Diego Suarez, also known as Antsiranana, at the north of Madagascar early next morning. and disembarked at the jetty, a change from going ashore in the zodiacs and “wet” landings i.e. stepping into the sea by the beach. I had visited a National Park on a previous visit to Diego Suarez so this time watched the hikers depart in 4x4s. They left in the order Long, Medium and Short – according to their walking ability and no reflection on their height. I joined a smaller group for a city tour that included a visit to the British War Cemetery. I have to admit to being woefully ignorant about the British involvement in this area during World War 2. Then we wandered round the local market and did some shopping. Lovely locally made mats, bags, baskets, tablecloths etc were very reasonably priced. We were due to sail at 12.30 but in fact didn’t sail away until 2 p.m. ish; some people said it was engine trouble; my theory was that there was due to be rough sea when we got out of the bay and they didn’t want to be serving lunch then. Heaven forbid if we should spill our wine!

We didn’t reach Nosy Mangabe, still in Madagascar, until 4 p.m. the next day, a long time at sea. I passed the time of day going to a couple of lectures and spent time on the top deck where there is a very pleasant area with deck chairs and sunloungers and some shade as protection from the sun and/or wind. We went ashore at Masoala National Park and set off on our walks. Long, Medium and Short have now morphed into Fast, Medium and Easy walks. Most of us spotted black and white ruffed and white fronted brown lemurs and a very bright chameleon. It was “60s and 70s night” in the Club on the ship after dinner. That referred to the music, not to the age of the passengers, though it could easily have been about us as well! It was a jolly evening with plenty of drinking and dancing.

Still in Madagascar our next stop was at Ile Sainte Marie, a small island off the east coast of the country. We started with a “dry” landing off the zodiacs at the town of Ambodifotatra. (Most of the names of both places and people in Madagascar are very long; the capital is Antananarivo, known locally as Tana.) On arrival at the jetty each zodiac was allocated a local guide who took us round the town to visit one of the churches and the ubiquitous market; then we were to take a tuc-tuc for a fast 20 minute drive through the countryside to the end of the island and into a zodiac for a short drive round to Nosy Nato Island where the hotel department from the ship had set up a barbecue on the beach. This was a huge logistical achievement as everything had to be brought ashore by zodiac, including Dong, our on board musician, and his electric keyboard to entertain us. After lunch, which we shared with a very friendly stray dog, some of us wandered off and found a bar where a very cute little semi tame bamboo lemur came down from the roof to sit on our shoulders. And of course we had a beer at the bar overlooking the lagoon. Very pleasant. All in all this was, for me, the most enjoyable day of the cruise.

However at the evening “recap”, a daily event going through what we had seen and what we would be seeing next day, our Expedition Leader told us we would not be visiting Reunion, the next island on our itinerary because of a cyclone going through (we had avoided it so far) and the authorities had closed the port on account of rough seas. Also closed were the portholes of the cabins on the lower deck but that is still the best place to be and my cabin, in the centre of the ship was the most stable even though I was without daylight for 24 hours. Cabins on decks two and three on the Island Sky are huge; I counted ten generous paces from my cabin door to the window and with a separate sleeping and sitting area – far more spacious than cabins on many of the big cruise ships. So we were to go straight to Mauritius and have an extra day there. That suited me fine as I was not that keen on Reunion, very volcanic, and our original schedule had us leaving the ship and going straight to the airport at Mauritius. Now we were to have a full day there and full marks to all concerned for making arrangements at the last minute. It was an interesting day and we covered 256kms. Seeing most of the sights of the island but the minibus I was on had a useless guide, but an excellent driver, and the weather rather spoilt things: misty, murky and a tremendous rainstorm (that cyclone again) when we were having lunch, which was an excellent meal in a restaurant with beautiful gardens. Before going to the airport next day we visited the Pamplemousse Botanical Gardens and had an early lunch at Eureka House, a wonderful old colonial building.

It had been a thoroughly enjoyable cruise on the Island Sky, without doubt everyone’s favourite small ship. We had sailed from the Seychelles to Mauritius via Madagascar and visited several other small islands where big cruise ships can never venture and, of course the amazing atoll of Aldabra. Go there now with Noble Caledonia before someone decides to build a monster resort as a threat to the delicate ecology of this precious area.

Dinah Holland

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