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CRUISE to Tenerife: In the footsteps of crime author Agatha Christie

08:00 23 January 2016

Agatha Christie [inset, courtesy of Mathew Prichard] and the scene at Tenerife

Agatha Christie [inset, courtesy of Mathew Prichard] and the scene at Tenerife

Mathew Prichard

A cruise that immerses you in the world of Agatha Christie—the woman who for many is still the undisputed ‘queen of crime’—follows the crime-writer’s visit to Tenerife in the late 1920s. It is one of the themed cruises the travel trade offers, tested by travel writer and Christie fan Allis Moss:

Port of Funchal in MadeiraPort of Funchal in Madeira

Christie’s grandson Mathew Prichard was on board Fred Olson’s cruise liner MS Balmoral to share family secrets and photos and read us her stories.

Also on board was the Agatha Christie Theatre Company staging her radio plays including Three Blind Mice—on which the iconic, long-running London production The Mousetrap is based—and recently rediscovered, if gruesome, gem Butter in a Lordly Dish.

The plays, with leading actor Roy Marsden of ‘Adam Dalgliesh’ fame, are performed on stage in 1930s costume accompanied by authentic sound-effects from classic ringing phones, clinking G-and-Ts and so on.

Ahead of our ship arriving at Funchal on the Portuguese island of Madeira, Mathew reads The Man from the Sea, set in La Paz on the Spanish island of Tenerife.

Funchal Bay in MadeiraFunchal Bay in Madeira

The narrative, read out in Balmoral’s lounge in Mathew’s modest reading style, has the feel of a fireside story, despite the mercury rising.

Our first port of call is not on the Christie trail, but Madeira, where we savour its liquor by that name. This island paradise has dwellings and churches clinging to the escarpment rising from the harbour.

I take a 15-minute ride in the cable car up to the summit at Quinta do Monte, where the last Austrian Habsburg emperor Charles fled after the First World War with his wife and eight children. Charles is buried at the church on the hilltop.

Our descent from Quinta do Monte was unusual—by wooden sledge, with a pair of ‘gondoliers’ standing on the back to skate us down the winding streets.

Cable car to Funchal from Quinta do MonteCable car to Funchal from Quinta do Monte

But all too soon it was time to move on. At the next port of call and back on the Christie trail, I swap Madeira for the wines of the Canary Islands produced from the vine that flourishes in the volcanic soil.

We disembark at Tenerife’s Puerto de la Cruz to wander in Agatha Christie’s footsteps after watching one of her plays performed in the small fort overlooking a black beach of volcanic sands that make up all these islands.

Christie set sail for the healing sunshine of Tenerife in 1927.

The previous year was arguably her annus horribilis. Her mother had died and her marriage to pilot Archie was all but over.

View of Funchal from Quinta do MonteView of Funchal from Quinta do Monte

Christie vanished for 10 days, resurfacing at a spa hotel in Harrogate. The nation’s search for her in the newspapers of the day put the woman rather than her fiction ‘centre stage’, even calling on the talents of fellow literary luminaries like Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Dorothy L Sayers to solve the brief mystery.

Ironic that her writing, grandson Mathew says, was very much second choice. Agatha had longed to be a musician, but considered herself first and foremost a wife.

“Almost all her life there was the line in the passport which says ‘occupation’,” Mathew tells us. “She would have put down ‘married woman’, despite all the books she was writing.”

Agatha set sail for Tenerife leaving the hullabaloo of her temporary disappearance behind her. She would have needed time and space to write as well as recover.

Still on the author’s trail, I pick up another Christie clue at the orchid gardens of Sitio Litre in Tenerife for tea and cake in the shade of a towering 500-year-old dragon tree.

The next day I arrive in Lanzarote. Only low white dwellings can be seen, as decreed by the island’s cultural guardian, artist Cesar Manrique. Every building here has to be below a certain height—and white. Everything is white, except the sand, which is red or black. I head by coach to the Fire Mountains of the Timanfaya National Park for a camel ride and demonstrations of the heat in this volcanic rock.

Gravel from two metres down is hot enough to scorch your fingers. Water poured in a narrow bore hole four metres into the soil erupts seconds later as steam.

Christie’s ace Belgian fictional detective Hercule Poirot, fashioned from composite idiosyncrasies she observed as a volunteer nursing refugees from Belgium during the First World War, was a keen proponent of invigorating “the little grey cells”.

But ‘rest and recuperation’ is equally important. Fresh sea air and good food in temperate climes is just the ticket.

Apart from her phenomenal professional success, Agatha also made the record books for surfing and was a keen swimmer.

Time to take a dip in the ship’s top deck pool, and with nothing but an amaretto coffee to portside and sea and sky to starboard, follow it up with a wallow in the jacuzzi and a ‘whodunit’—an Agatha Christie, of course.

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Fred Olsen Cruise Lines for 2016 include a 13-night Madeira, Lisbon & the Canaries cruise on Balmoral, departing Southampton October 30, calling at Funchal, Santa Cruz (La Palma), Santa Cruz (Tenerife), Las Palmas, Arrecife and Lisbon, returning to Southampton November 12.

Current prices from £1,119 each for an inside twin-bed cabin, includes on board food, entertainment and port taxes.

Reservations: 0800-0355242 (Mon-Fri, 8am-8pm, Sat 9am-5pm, Sun 10am-4pm).

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