We started the cruise with three days at sea which meant that I had to give a lecture on all those days, but on the fourth day we landed at Madeira, m'dear. But before I tell you about that I just want to recount the story of John's birthday, which was on 12th March. He answered the door of the cabin at eight o'clock in the morning - very scantily clad, I might add - to find a waiter bearing a bottle of champagne, a half lobster each, poached eggs, a card and a present. He was both delighted and surprised I can assure you. That evening, which we shared with out delightful dining companions, Eileen and Mary, the waiters serenaded him with Happy Birthday to You and presented him with a cake. A good time was had by all.
Madeira was great fun. We went up in the cable car to the top of a mountain - with a great view of the island as we did so - and then came down in a hair-raising toboggan ride, pushed by two men dressed in white and wearing straw hats. It was quite frightening as we hurled down the narrow twisting streets. Our next port of call was a small island called La Palma which had retained its old world charm and character and where we sat and had a quiet drink. By now it had got extremely hot and it was a great relief to return to the ship and stretch out by the pool.
The next day we arrived at Tenerife. If ever I have seen a beautiful island ruined by tourism this was it. The waterfront is quite awful, all high-rise buildings and blocks of flats. It had all the charm of a fifties development, thrown up (pun intentional) to attract the hordes. Fortunately we boarded a coach headed for the volcano Teide, driving through deep wild pine forests and away from the murk of the city. This volcano last erupted in 1926 but on the day we saw it it seemed calm and peaceful, nestling in its covering of snow. The landscape round it is quite strange and lunar, caused by ancient lava flows. This showed a different side of Tenerife which I loved. But soon we plunged back into the city of Santa Cruz and nobody was more glad to escape and get by the swimming pool.
I thought that Tenerife was bad enough but there was worse to come, namely Las Palmas in Gran Canaria. Again, I feel certain that if one had gone into the hinterland one would have seen some beauty but as it was there were drab streets packed with shops and that was all. I went to the bank, called in at a shop selling make-up, went to a wine tasting on the quayside, and we hurried back on board.
But next day we came to the Queen of the Canaries, namely Lanzarote. We boarded a coach trip to the Ring of Fire. In other words we went straight to the volcanic part of Devil's Island - so named because it is as hot as hell - and went onto an active volcano. They have cleverly built a restaurant on top and all the food is grilled on a barbeque heated by the volcano itself. When we had explored this we set off through the weirdest landscape imaginable. Conspiracy theorists believe that NASA faked the moonlandings here and though I don't believe it personally, it certainly would be possible.
After this we had a camel ride through the desert. Our camel was called Gelal and was a beast of great character. The woman in front was riding alone and had a weighted bag on one side of her saddle so that the camel wouldn't be lopsided. Gelal thought it contained food and nuzzled it until eventually he gave up in disgust, moved his head round and began to eat the woman's hair. I reprimanded him sharply and he gave me such a look from beneath his long and beautiful lashes that I almost turned to stone.
By the way we owe the preservation of Lanzarote to an artist called Cesar Manrique who fought tooth and nail to keep the island from being overwhelmed and disfigured irreversibly by developers. If only some of the other islands had had a similar person!
I met the most interesting and attractive man on board. His name is Matthew Biggs and he is a well-known gardener, appearing on the B.B.C.'s Gardeners' Question Time. He was a lecturer for a gardeners' club who had come on board en bloc. He, John, Nicky - the golf pro - and myself formed a Gang of Four and were often to be found in the Observation Bar late at night, sipping red wine and listening to the fabulous pianist, Teng-Teng.
We had one more stop before we sailed for Southampton and home. That was in Portugal. Again we went by coach to a little village dominated by a large and magnificent castle which had become a hotel. This was where I did most of my shopping.
Guess what: it was raining in Southampton.
All the very best,