Caribbean Cruise – Grand Turk

Our final destination of the cruise was Grand Turk, one of the Turks and Caicos Islands.  Two decades ago, Mr Pict had a job opportunity that would have taken us to live on Grand Turk for at least two years.  He declined for various reasons but I was curious to see what the island was like and to imagine what my life would have been like there.

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The ship docked at a beach resort area but we were eager to see something of the real Grand Turk, albeit from a completely skewed tourist perspective.  We, therefore, squeezed into a taxi and were whisked up the length of the narrow, flat island to the capital city, Cockburn Town.  The population of the whole of Grand Turk is under 4000 so it’s a compact city more akin to a village.  We spent some time perusing the stalls on Front Street and poking around on the beach – my kids found bits of coral, lobster body parts, and sun lounging dogs – and enjoying the view of the stunning turquoise water.

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Our goal for the day was the National Museum so we popped in there when it opened.  I am so often surprised by the quality of small, local museums or those dedicated to narrow interests.  This was the case with the Turks and Caicos National Museum.  The staff were very friendly and knowledgeable and they had really made the most of showcasing their exhibits, curating them in such a way that they told clear stories about the island.  The Museum is sited in the Guinep House, one of the oldest buildings on the island.  We learned that most of the timbers used in its construction were likely salvaged from shipwrecks, one of which was exposed so we could see it for ourselves.  I was rather charmed by this fact since one of my Shetland ancestors was imprisoned in the 1840s for pillaging from a shipwreck, another group of islands with very few trees.

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The ground floor of the museum was dedicated to showcasing its big ticket item: the finds from a wreck known as the Molasses Reef Wreck.  A caravel from the very early 16th Century, it is the oldest European ship excavated in the Americas.  While some like to claim that it could very well be Columbus’ ship Pinta (yup. him again), the museum staff were clear that identification has not been possible beyond stating the caravel was Spanish in origin and dated prior to 1520 at the latest.  It is possible, for instance, that is was a slave ship.  Regardless of its specific history, it was very cool to see the remains of such an old vessel.  We saw timbers that still had the wooden “nails” in them, various armaments, and a massive anchor.  A related exhibit illustrated how the ballast on the sea bed had been critical to identification and analysis and demonstrated how archaeologists had worked on the site.

Upstairs, we found an exhibit about the salt industry, the Fresnel lens of the island’s lighthouse, the story of an Irish helmet diver whose two brothers had drowned while diving, the culture of the indigenous Lucayans, and John Glenn’s landing in 1962 following his orbiting of the earth.

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Following the Museum, we returned to the resort bay.  My in-laws decided to relax on the ship but we Picts decided we would have a final beach day.  The kids played on the sand and in the surf with their dad while I listened to a podcast while lying on a shaded lounger.  That is the type of beach time I can compromise on.  Not a bad hurrah for the last shore day of our cruise.

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Caribbean Cruise – Dominican Republic

Our first destination on the cruise was the Dominican Republic.  It was the only day on which we went on an organised excursion.  This was a good move for two reasons.  First of all, the ship docked in a cove that was designed purely for cruise ships which meant it was completely artificial and overtly touristy and the nearest actual town was too far to walk to.  Secondly, the excursion turned out to be excellent and allowed us far greater insights into the Dominican Republic than our own explorations would have done.

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We met with our tour guide and driver and hopped on the minibus.  There were the eight of us and a dozen other people so it was a small group.  The nearest city to the dock was Puerto Plata and, as we drove through, our guide was able to point out several things unique to the country and explain a bit about the culture.  We saw lots of whole roasted pigs on sticks being cooked and sold at stalls on the busy streets.  We learned that this was because this type of roasted pork was the traditional meat for Christmas dinner and lots of people would be buying it that day, Christmas Eve.  We were also informed that the city took its name not from the metal silver but because of a particular tree that grew on the hillsides, the grey leaves of which seemed to look silvery in the mountain fog.  Our drive also took us past various views of the mountain named Isabella.  We learned that this was a name bestowed upon it by Christopher Columbus and that the first European village in the New World was located nearby.  It was such a beautiful place to be the launch pad of a history of disease, conflict, slavery, and genocide.

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Soon we were leaving the city and were wildly bouncing and careering along unsurfaced, winding, uphill roads that took us into the lush vegetation of the rural areas of Puerto Plata province.  On the way, we learned about eclectic subjects such as vernacular architecture, mahogany, the lottery, and tiny stores that sell individual ingredients such as one egg or a few slices of meat at a time.  Our destination was a village where we could learn more about the rural way of life in the region.  We were invited to enter one home, which was Tardis like in its use of space.  I especially enjoyed seeing the kitchen, which was an adjacent but separate building from the home, and the clay wood fired cooker.

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We were shown around the agricultural area and the produce being grown was identified and its uses explained to us.  I found that to be thoroughly interesting.  I, for one, had never seen coffee plants in real life before.  I also saw my first breadfruit tree.  Our 9 year old had two bucket list items for his time in the Caribbean: to see bananas growing and to see cacao in the wild.  He achieved both goals on the trip as there were seven varieties of banana being grown, including a red variety I had never seen before, and there were trees full of cacao pods.  Our wee chocoholic was elated.  He was even more ecstatic when he learned that he was going to get to sample hot chocolate made from the locally grown cacao.  It was richly delicious.  Other members of the family tried the freshly ground coffee.  We all thoroughly enjoyed chunks of freshly harvested pineapple and guava.

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Our next stop was the village elementary school.  As an educator, I found it really interesting to see the similarities and differences in the education system and the way the school buildings and classrooms were organised.  I was, however, glad that school was not in session (given it was Christmas Eve) as I would have felt uncomfortable seeing the students used props for tourists.

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We then had a break for lunch.  It was a buffet of the types of food Dominicans would eat on a typical day.  I especially enjoyed the rice and beans.  The boys loved the fried chicken.  During our lunch pit stop, there was some dancing entertainment to showcase the fusion of indigenous, African, and European culture in the Dominican Republic.  We also saw a man making cigars and sampled some local alcohol.  Our cat fanatic 9 year old was absolutely thrilled to meet a local cat.

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The final destination for the day was a beach, as this area of the country is famed for its beautiful beaches.  The boys loved the opportunity to just let loose and splash and crash among the waves.  Our guides provided some body boards so they tried that out too.  Even as someone who does not like sand, I had to agree it was a pretty good way to end the trip.

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I liked what I saw of the Dominican Republic, from the brief sampling we had, and would definitely consider returning to explore more of the country, its varied history, and its diverse cultures.

Caribbean Cruise – Miami

We Picts closed out 2018 on a bang as we spent the festive period on vacation.  My in-laws had generously gifted us a Caribbean Cruise for Christmas so the eight of us celebrated the season on the high seas, spending a week exploring new places and cultures (for the kids and me at least), and experiencing a cruise for the first time in the case of our youngest two children and me.

Of course, before we could board the ship and sail off in the lap of luxury, we had to get to Miami.  We, therefore, spent two days driving south from the Philly suburbs to Miami.  That’s a whole lot of the I95, a useful but incredibly boring road that sometimes feels as if it is never going to earn.  We spent the first night on the outskirts of Savannah and arrived in Miami the following evening.  We had hoped for a bit more time in Miami but holiday traffic had other plans for us.  Nevertheless, we were able to meet up with my in-laws (who had flown over from the UK) in time to have a delicious dinner.

However, as early risers, the next morning we had enough time to explore Miami Beach.  As frequent readers of this blog will be well aware, I am not a fan of sand.  The only good sand is glass as far as I am concerned.  However, Mr Pict and the Pictlings love the beach so I suck it up, brace myself, and just deal with my discomfort.  The kids found a shiny but decidedly dead fish and our youngest son found a teenie-weenie coconut.  While they enjoyed the beach and the warm sea air, what I liked about the beach area was all the 1930s architecture of Ocean Drive and its environs.  I love Art Deco for its elegant use of geometric shapes and clean lines and pops of colour.  There were also some sleek buildings in the moderne style and some that seemed to have a hispanic influence.

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As luck should have it, we happened to be standing on Ocean Drive when the local fire brigade drove past in a formation.  While the emergency lights were flashing, there were no sirens.  That is because this was no emergency.  Instead, it was their Christmas parade.  The fire engines were being driven by Santa and elves while the Grinch and a gingerbread man appeared as passengers.  There were children on board too so we waved enthusiastically at them as they passed by.

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We left Miami beach and headed to the port area to ready ourselves for embarking onto the cruise ship.  I admit that I found the whole process quite stressful.  As someone used to either travelling entirely under my own steam when road tripping or experiencing the relatively controlled routines of flying, the process for boarding the ship felt quite stressful.  My anxiety hit peak when we had to leave our luggage with a porter which pretty much left it unattended among hordes of people.  Having travelled around London for decades and then having flown in the post-9/11 world, the whole idea of “unattended luggage” is anathema to me.  Add to that the fact that I experienced having possessions stolen from my luggage 20 years ago and I was deeply unsettled by the whole thing.  Then there were milling crowds.  I am British and, therefore, culturally hard-wired to strongly prefer orderly queuing.  The random hustle and bustle unsettled me further.  It all just felt a bit chaotic and haphazard.  Even when we boarded, because our rooms were not going to be available for a few hours more, it was a case of everyone scuttling to find a space in which to settle down.  In the grand scheme of things, these are all small beer quibbles but I cannot deny that those were an intense few hours for me, neurotic control freak that I am.

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We wandered the ship to start getting our bearings and finally had access to our rooms in early afternoon.  Then we were finally off.  We bid farewell to Miami and I headed off on my very first cruise.

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Assateague Island

The entire focus of our trip was a visit to Assateague Island – everything else we had done as we travelled south along the coast was just grist to the mill.  Assateague is a barrier island that is split between Maryland and Virginia.  We were visiting the National Seashore (this bagging another National Park property) which is wholly within Maryland’s border.  We began our trip, as we tend to do, with a stop by into the NPS Visitor Centre.  We have been to many NPS Visitor Centres but the one at Assateague was among the best.  The information regarding the flora, fauna, and history of the island was presented in easily digested gobbets, amply illustrated with images and objects.  My boys particularly enjoyed a tortoise shell and a horse skeleton.  Best of all, however, there were live whelks and horseshoe crabs in a touch pool tank.  They spent ages guddling around in the water.  I think they may want a pet horseshoe crab now.

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We began our actual exploration of the island with a circular trail through sand dunes.  This afforded the boys ample opportunities to climb things, whether trees or large pieces of driftwood.  There was also a crumbling raised asphalt road dating from the interwar years that appeared at various points on the trail.  That was a weird juxtaposition among the sand dunes and trees.  Mr Pict thought the NPS should have made an effort to completely demolish and remove it but to my mind I think that it forms part of the history of the island and I rather like the idea that it sends a message about humans trying to develop the island but being repelled by nature.

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The next stop was the ocean.  Yes.  The ocean.  In late November.  My kids were adamant that they were not visiting the beach without going in the water.  I had absolutely forbidden it the previous day, when we were on the Delaware Coast, because the wind chill was bitter.  There was much wailing and whining and protesting, chief among the arguments being that we used to let them go into the sea in Scotland on chilly days, albeit chilly summer days.  I was not persuaded.  On Assateague, however, I relented but advised that they just paddle at first while they determined whether they could actually cope with the cold.  They donned their swimming kit, bounded across the sand, and were in the water in no time at all.  I meanwhile wore their beach towels like shawls as I watched them.  They did abide by my ruling and paddled for a short while before they decided to jump around in the waves and inevitably get soaked.  No swimming but plenty of jumping and dunking.

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Of course, what Assateague is most famed for is its population of feral horses.  We had seen one, through some bushes, as we drove onto the island but we were obviously keen to see more.  Once everyone was dried and dressed, therefore, we headed back along the road and had several horse encounters.  We found a safe place to pull over and park up so that the two younger boys and I could hop out of the car and see the horses up close – though not too close, of course, and within the rules.  Nobody really knows how it was that domesticated horses became feral horses occupying the island.  There is, of course, the usual story about them having been survivors of a shipwreck but they are probably just the descendants of the horses pastured there by 17th Century farmers.  Whatever their origins, we were delighted to see them as closely as we did.  My 10 year old loves horses so he was over the moon.  It also meant we had achieved the main goal of our entire overnight trip and we got to end our Thanksgiving travels with a highlight.

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Concord Point Lighthouse and Elk Neck Park

We had started our second day in Baltimore so early that we found we were leaving the city before noon.  We, therefore, decided to do something spontaneous as we drove through Northern Maryland and head to the Chesapeake.

We first stopped in Havre de Grace.  I have driven past the small city several times before but have never actually been in.  It looked quaint and picturesque, the type of place that would be pleasant for a stroll.  We went straight to the Concord Point Lighthouse, which is sited where the Chesapeake meets the Susquehanna.  During the War of 1812, the British attacked the city and, during that attack, Lieutenant John O’Neill manned the cannon single-handed in order to defend the town.  Injured and captured, the story goes that his 16 year old daughter rowed out to the British vessel and plead for her father’s release.  She was succesful and her father was released and the British Admiral awarded her bravery with an expensive snuffbox.  When the lighthouse was built in the late 1820s, O’Neill and his family were made its hereditary keepers as an expression of gratitude.  The granite lighthouse is 26 feet high with the lantern bringing it to 36 feet.  Although we could not go inside, apparently it is a rope ladder that allows people to ascend through a trapdoor to the lantern.  The keepers did not have to be accommodated within the lighthouse itself as there was a separate dwelling nearby.

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After our visit to the lighthouse, the boys were keen for a dip in the water.  We, therefore, headed to a town named North East – which also looked very pleasant – and Elk Neck State Park.  The kids immediately donned their swimming gear and rushed down to the shore.  The beach was rough, scrubby, and pebbly but the kids said that it turned to finer sand once they were further out in the water.  The incline into the water was gentle and the kids could get really quite far out while standing.  Beaches are not my thing but the kids had a blast swimming, splashing, and floating around.  It was a good way to burn off their energy before the rest of the journey home.

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Road Trip 2017 #28 – The Birds and Bodega Bay

Regular readers of this blog may recall that I am a movie nerd.  I have successfully managed to inspire my sons into being movie nerds too, especially the middle two kids.  I have not indoctrinated them, of course, but my enthusiasm for film has transferred to them and now we can all enjoy watching movies together, analysing them, comparing them, and obviously being entertained by them.  As a fan of Alfred Hitchcock, I have given my kids a gentle introduction to his movies.  We started with ‘The Trouble with Harry’, then moved on to ‘Rear Window’, and then ‘The Birds’.  When I told them that we would be staying in the area where ‘Shadow of a Doubt’ (which they have not seen) and ‘The Birds’ were filmed, they were eager to go and visit the locations.  I was happy to oblige.  Mr Pict had accompanied me on the same mission 17 years before so was also happy to indulge us this time.

We decided to focus on Bodega and Bodega Bay since the kids had actually seen ‘The Birds’ and would recognise the locations.   When we reached Bodega, we drove up to the church and parked up.  The kids and I got out and wandered the few yards to the Potter House.  This is a private residence so, rest assured, we were careful not to be intrusive or to cause a commotion.  The house was built in 1873 and originally served as a schoolhouse and it served as the school building in the Hitchcock movie, the set of an important scene in the film and, therefore, featuring prominently.  Of course, we could not resist acting out the film but we wanted to be respectful of the local residents so we acted it out as if it had been a silent movie.  My kids are such ham actors.  St Theresa’s church can be glimpsed during that scene so we took some photos and reenacted some silent action scenes there too.

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The movie creates the impression that the schoolhouse and church are right on the coast but, in fact, Bodega is a short drive inland from the bay.  We, therefore, jumped back in the car and headed to Bodega Bay.  The main focus of our visit to the town was the Tides Restaurant.  It plays a prominent role in the movie and is still identifiable as the key location, despite being remodelled a fair bit since the 1960s.  When I was last there, it felt very much like Bodega Bay barely tolerated the Hitchcock connection.  Apart from one leaflet, there was nothing that declared the place to have been related to the movie.  This time, however, it appeared that the town had embraced the movie as a tourist opportunity.  Inside the Tides there were ample references to the film, from stuffed ravens to a mock up of a building with smashed windows.  More opportunities for ham acting, in other words.  The kids bought some ice lollies and we stepped out onto the back deck to look at the bay.  We could see the spit of land opposite where the Brenner house stood (it was torn down immediately after filming), the road where Tippi Hedren drove out to that house, and the jetty where she rented a boat to cross the bay.

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Once everyone had finished their iced treats, we jumped back in the car and headed along the coastal road to Salmon Creek Beach.  It was early evening by this juncture and the air was distinctly chilly.  There was no way the kids were even going to go for a paddle, let alone a swim.  However, we found a new way to keep them entertained.  The beach was covered with little huts that had been built out of driftwood.  They were really great, really competently built structures.  I don’t know who had erected them and for what purpose but I do know they would fare a lot better than I would if marooned on a desert island.  That inspired my kids to gather up driftwood and build their own structure.  We ran out of time before they got anywhere near completed but it kept them entertained for over an hour.  They also found a washed up, decaying cow carcass.  I am sure most people’s kids would recoil at such a discovery but my kids reacted like they had found buried treasure and studied the corpse, fascinated.  It’s possible I have exposed them to too much Hitchcock after all.

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Road Trip 2017 #6 – Point Dume and the Great Kite Caper

The third day of our vacation fell on a Saturday.  LA had been crowded and full of too much hustle and bustle even on weekdays so we decided to get away from the city and go for a nature ramble instead.  J and L suggested that we meet up with some friends of theirs and go for a hike which seemed like just the ticket.  Their friends in turn suggested a coastal hike so that we would benefit from the cooling sea breezes on such a hot day.  We, therefore, headed to Point Dume.  Yes, I too am disappointed it is not spelled Doom.

Point Dume is essentially a cliff in Malibu.  My middle two sons – the comic book geeks – were excited to learn that the promontory was the site of Tony Stark’s CGI mansion in the ‘Iron Man’ movies.  More excitingly for me, the adjacent beach was the location of the climactic scene in ‘The Planet of the Apes’.  Our hike took us along a pathway with a gentle ascent up to the promontory.  It offered us incredible views of the surrounding landscape, from the mansions behind us, to the beaches beyond, and the ocean stretching to the horizon.

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My boys and their wee cousin decided to give me palpitations by scampering down a sandy slope from a viewing platform to a cliff edge below.  Mr Pict and L followed them down to keep a closer eye on them but still my fear of heights was escalating to panic attack proportions watching them inch closer and closer to the edge.  I had visions of the whole cliff face sheering off.  I actually felt giddy and queasy and was glad when everyone decided to clamber back up to more solid, stable ground.  Meanwhile, to try and distract me from the potential for Doom at Dume, the friends pointed out various landmarks in the distance and told me about the grey whales they often see passing in the winter months.   I have never seen grey whales before so that would have been a superb experience.  We did, however, see a pod of dolphins arching in and out of the water and there were sea-lions with their pups galore piled up on the rocks just below us – though looking straight down at them was also triggering my fear of heights.

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Thankfully and finally everyone was ready to move on from the cliff top and we began to snake our way back down on sandy, pebble strewn pathways past cacti in bloom and darting lizards.  We headed in the direction of Zuma Beach.  L and I peeled off to take the gaggle of kids to the beach while the other adults headed off in search of lunch – since we had all entirely failed to pack one.  The kids did not complain as they ended up munching pizza and giant sandwiches on the beach.  You may recall from many a post, however, that I loathe sand.  Between heights and sand, I was having a nerve-shredding day.  Since I was hungry, I tried my best to eat a sandwich despite my 20+ year policy of never eating at the beach.  I regretted even trying.  Not only was I wincing with every bite, expecting my teeth to touch grains of sand, but a ruddy great seagull came swooping down on my head, battered into my skull, and stole my entire sandwich.  I am, therefore, returning wholeheartedly to my commitment to never eat on a beach.

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Despite the sand and seagull thing, we had a wonderful time at the beach.  Zuma Beach is clean and relatively quiet and the boys could go out quite far into the sea while still being at paddling height.  They were loving frolicking in the waves as it was but it made them enjoy the experience even more when a slick and stealthy sea-lion bobbed up between them as it skirted the shoreline.  There were also several pods of dolphins who swam past.  Sadly none were doing aquatic acrobatics but it was magical to see them so close.  We also saw pelicans in flight and built sand sculptures of sea creatures and the kids went scouting for seaweed to outline them.  Little cousin W also enjoyed burying my oldest son in the sand which was all fun and games until a lifeguard didn’t notice him in the sand and stood on him.  Crushed by a lifeguard at the beach.  I don’t think that ever happened on ‘Baywatch’.

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Late in the afternoon as the wind picked up, J decided to get a kite out for the kids to play with.  All was going swimmingly until the kite collided with the telephone wire going into the lifeguard tower and got completely snagged.  Oh dear.  Obviously we had to attempt to retrieve it but it was significantly taller than even the tallest member of our group.  The only option, therefore, was to MacGyver some sort of tool that could be used to unhook the kite from the wire.  Engineering skills were sorely lacking but a tool was nevertheless created.  Mr Pict then plonked our 10 year old onto his shoulders and our son then used the tool to try and catch the kite string and move it off the wire.  They tried different combinations of children on adult shoulders.  At one point, they even had the 5 year old on top of the 10 year old on top of Mr Pict and still the kite remained resolutely stuck to the wire.  Admitting that the tool was probably not going to work, it was abandoned and more simple methods were resorted to – lobbing shoes at the kite in the hopes of knocking it off the wire.  This whole escapade went on for quite some time.  An embarrassingly long time actually.  People strolling on the beach stopped to spectate.  People turned their deck chairs to face the action instead of the sea.  We were their entertainment.  The pressure was on to actually succeed with that many witnesses to the caper.  It got to the stage where other people were volunteering their shoes, thinking their footwear was more aerodynamic or would pack more of a wallop when it collided with the kite.  There was a near constant barrage of shoes soaring across or just below the kite but the odd one that made contact did little to budge it.  Finally, some off-duty military men offered to help.  Maybe it was their army training that did the job, maybe their shoes were the perfect torpedoes for kites, maybe the kite had been budged little by little so that it was finally ripe for the plucking, or perhaps it was just lucky timing, but within minutes of joining in the fray, these chaps had successfully walloped the kite in such a way that it bounced off the wire and was then rapidly caught by our 11 year old before the wind caught it and took it.  Everyone on the beach burst into spontaneous applause, whistles and cheers.  We didn’t provide an encore.

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