Friday, September 4, 2009

Setting sail and Madeira: Cart!

The Independence at Funchal
We had a typical English send-off of fog and drizzle as we left Southampton on the Independence of the Seas. With a gross tonnage of 160000, not even the remnants of Tropical Storm Danny, with winds in excess of 60 knots -- just shy of hurricane force -- and waves over six metres, could faze it much.

Setting up for another run
Our first port of call was the Portuguese island of Madeira, and the beautiful city of Funchal. It wasn't long before the oppressive heat sent us looking for a bus tour, followed by an amazing gondola ride some 560 metres up the Monte. It's from there that you can take the famous 'toboggan ride', which Stephen had been trying to sell us on all day. I'd expected something much sturdier -- and, I dunno... wheeled -- from his description of the 'carts', but Nancy said they actually looked more stable than she'd expected.

It was a moot point as it turned out: the line was too long for us, and so, in our infinite wisdom, we decided to walk down the Monte, along the same path as the carts. We passed a cabbie leaning against her car, takin' in the crazy tourists on that first stretch of the toboggan ride, just as the insanity of what they were doing was starting to take hold, no doubt. We hadn't made it too far down -- alternating between ducking in doorways and running for the next one -- before we realized she'd passed us, and was idling at a clear point up ahead; she'd obviously spotted that fare from a mile away, and we were all the happier for it.

As luck would have it, there was a wine festival going on in Funchal that very day, so we got the cabbie to drop us off near there, and waited for the stalls to open following the siesta. Stephen was so parched that he apparently forgot where he was, and happily paid £1.50 for a Dixie-Cup-size sample of what he thought was juice. Now you need realize just how much Stephen hates alcohol: he may have half a beer if there's nothing else to drink, and that's about it. Well, you should've heard the gasping cries of "Poison!" coming out of him when the fortified wine that was mixed with the tropical juice hit the back of his throat; you'd've sworn he was suffocating. Tea 'n' I, on the other hand, loved it, and picked up a bottle of both the dry and sweet Madeira wines (a form of port).

We ended the day on a great note: the previous evening, Tea, Nancy and I had attended a charity auction on the ship, and Tea won the opportunity to blow the ship's horn as we left Madeira the following day. We surprised Stephen with it in the morning, and he'd been looking forward to it all day. It was a fantastic experience -- much more than simply pressing a button a few times -- as we had a long conversation with the captain -- "Three cups of water will raise that ship," he said, as we talked about a previous cruise of the Panama Canal -- on the biggest bridge in the world, and got to see how they get this floating hotel out of such a small port.

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