|Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2011
Caribbean Odyssey Cruise - Part 1
What a wonderful way to spend 23 days in December - going to the Caribbean. While this was not a special cruise, it was of special interest to us because we previously visited the Caribbean on the Cunard Countess in 1991, 1992 and 1994. When we were still working we enjoyed escaping from the British weather in February to the sunshine and friendly islands. Those cruises involved a flight from Gatwick to San Juan Puerto Rico, whereas this cruise had no flying. However it was not exactly as we had planned. Shortly before departure we received a letter that the first port, Madeira, would be too busy on our original date and the itinerary was changed. In fact the cruise was reversed so that the first port became the last one, and all those in the middle were swapped too. Anyone who had arranged independent tours on the islands would have cursed.
Cunard Grill passengers and Cunard World Club Diamond and Platinum members have priority check-in; we now have over 500 days on Cunard ships so are well above the 150 days threshold for the top level of membership, Diamond. This meant we were in the first group to go through the security machines at Southampton, which opened exactly on time at 12.00. This was our second cruise on the Queen Elizabeth, she is very similar to the Queen Victoria, and we had been invited to lunch on board in 2010, so we immediately felt 'at home'. Onboard we found many of the officers and crew were from the Queen Victoria, the Queen Mary 2 or the QE2, and we greeted everyone so it was some time before we finally reached our C4 Oceanview cabin 4138 on 4 Deck with its partial view of a pretty lifeboat. Captain Julian Burgess, from our Queen Elizabeth World Cruise in 2011, was our Captain again. We had previously asked for a table for two for dinner in the Britannia restaurant, and we had been given a window table in a quiet corner. Our Maitre D' was from the QE2 and QM2 and we found flowers and truffles in our cabin as well as the usual complementary wine. Our wedding anniversary had been in October and it had been noted. Later we received a card from the Captain, a special cake, and a voucher for a free photograph. We quickly booked our complementary lunch in the Verandah and then booked a box in the Theatre before climbing up to the Lido on Deck 9 for lunch. We always walk everywhere on board because it helps burn all the calories from all the good food.
The first two days to the Azores were at sea. It gave the opportunity to settle in and get into the daily routine of Gym in the morning before breakfast, collecting books from the excellent library, and booking tours. There is always a lot to do on sea days, and the chefs came to demonstrate fruit and vegetable carving, and produced some beautiful bouquets of colourful flowers.
Days at sea usually have Formal evenings and these first two days gave the Captain the opportunity to meet everyone, and for the photographers to take thousands of photos of it all. We usually avoid being snapped, but the temptation of a free photo meant that we had one photo with the Captain but it was not good enough; later we had a much better formal photo taken. The Cunard ships have a number of excellent locations for formal photos. Overall it was a busy evening as it was also the evening we had booked a theatre box for after dinner. We had booked a box for the first production show as soon as we got onboard the Queen Elizabeth as we prefer a particular box - in practice we need not have hurried as few were taken even by the first show.
The Theatre is where all the lectures, films and many of the demonstrations take place as well as the shows in the evening. It is a combination of the Grand Lounge and the Theatre on QE2. It is very large, with capacity for over 800 people. The gallery and the two rows of private boxes on each side, 16 in all, give the impression of a nice traditional theatre on shore. The boxes can only be booked for the 'Production Shows' by the Royal Cunard Singers and Dancers who have always been very good on both the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Victoria, a complete contrast to the similar shows on the QE2. Most of the private boxes are for two although there are some for four.
We did not initially try the boxes for the shows on our first cruise as we thought they were an expensive addition with little value but we were very wrong. Pete booked one for Pauline's Birthday on our second cruise on the Queen Victoria and we were pleasantly surprised at what we got for the supplement. One checks in half an hour before the performance starts and are led to seats in a private lounge by a White Star Bell Boy in classic Cunard red complete with pillbox hat. You are served a glass of champagne or champagne cocktail, and we mean champagne unlike so many functions these days that economise with cheap bubbles from who knows where - this time it was a Kir Royale (Champagne and Cassis) and there was the big silver three level stand of finger desserts in front of you and the evenings delights commenced. We were led to our box by our 'bellboy' in his red uniform and pillbox hat where another chilled half bottle of Veuve Cliquot champagne waiting in an ice bucket along with a superb box of Cunard Pink Marc de Champagne Truffles - much better than the previous chocolates. It is a hard life on board!
We had chosen Box 5 which is our favourite as it is on the lower level, has plenty of space and has the best angle on the stage. The first times we had boxes which could seat four thinking they would give more room but in practice you get more space in a box for two as it does not have ramped seats. We had seen the show 'Hotel Royale' once before but it had been rewritten and was much better than last time. An excellent evening and the pictures of the cast we were given will be added to our collection of Cunard memorabilia.
Looking back - the best show was Victoriana which was written especially for the Queen Victoria where The Royal Court Theatre was inspired by the grand theatres and playhouses built during the Victorian era. In keeping with this theme, Cunard specially sponsored Victoriana, a spectacular show taking guests back to the apex of the British Empire and paying tribute to the milestones of the era. It captures Music Hall memories with authentic character performances, the elegance of Victorian fashion and a tongue in cheek look at the Gothic Revival and inventions such as the light bulb. Cunard's team reputedly spent two years developing the show. The results were memorable with contemporary choreography, elaborate period costumes and a grand finale based on the last night of the Proms with Land of hope and Glory. The German guests behind us walked out but everyone else was waving flags and loving every moment. The fireworks which brought the show to its climax were both unexpected and effective. We still treasure the souvenir brochure along with all our other Cunard memorabilia.
The second day at sea offered a special Cooking Demonstration in the Grand Lobby, with the chefs working with portable stoves, and the stairs and galleries covered with people and cameras. Food is such an important part of our cruise and we always try and watch demonstrations and thank the chefs for their work.
In the evening we went to dinner in the Verandah Restaurant. The menu was Chef Zimmermann's Degustation Menu which consists of 7 courses giving one a chance to sample some of the best the Verandah has to offer. Chef Zimmermann is the Culinary Ambassador who is responsible for all the Cunard ships and masterminded the concept and implementation of the Verandah Restaurant which is based on the Verandah Restaurants on the original Queens. The Chef is aiming for the first Michelin Star afloat and it should not take very long to get his first - he used to have one ashore.
This was our third 'Degustation Menu', we had two on the World Cruise in 2011, one being part of a special dinner with wines from Wente. It lost nothing in repetition - we have already put up pictures of some of the courses and we have integrated some of them with the pictures below. The overall experience takes close to three and a half hours but we were hardly conscious of the time and it all went very smoothly, as always, under the eye of the Maitre D' Laurence Bitout. We can not think of anywhere we eat in the UK that comes close. We could not resist taking a few more pictures to add to our collection - those below are selected as the best we have.
Petite salade de coquillages et de homard, velours de tomate "grappa" et avocat
Lobster and shellfish Salad with Avocadoéi Vine Ripened Tomato Jelly
Torchon de foie gras de canard mi-cuit a la poire, nougat brulé
Duck Foie Gras with Pears, Cooked "au Torchon", Served with Nougat Brulee
Pigeon roti, enéves, ahatoignes et coings, sauce "Grond Veneur" au chocolat amer
Roast Pigeon Breast, Endive, Chestnuts and Ouince, "Grand Veneur" Sauce and bitter chocolate
Poélée de Saint-Jacques et langoustines au beurre de citron vert, pates imprimées d'herbes, emulsion cremeuse de cepes
Scallops and Langoustines, Sauteed in a Lime Butter, with Herb Printed Pasta, Creamy and Frothy Boletus Emulsion
Grenadin de boeuf poelé aux morilles, legumes primeurs a la truffe, pommes soufllées, jus réduit au modere
Organic Beef Fillet Sautéed with Morel Mushrooms, Baby Vegetables with Block Truffle, Soufflé Potatoes, Madeira Glaze
French Cheese Trolley
Quartet of desserts
Coffee and Mignardise
Our first stop on the new itinerary was an afternoon in the Azores at Ponta Delgada. This was our second visit. The Azores were discovered in 1427 by the Portuguese and the first settlers have provided an unusual mix of Portuguese, Moors, Jews and Bretons. The Azores Archipelago has nine islands and are only 900 Nautical Miles West of Portugal - they were a popular stopover for ships making the long and arduous Atlantic crossing with many harbours providing good shelter against the weather but less good against pirates and privateers who frequently attacked the poorly protected harbours. The islands are clearly volcanic with areas which are still active. Our crossing was much less arduous than for the early pioneers and only took us two days and even the dreaded Bay of Biscay had little to disturb the Queen Elizabeth.
On our first visit to the Azores we took a tour which first took us to one of the Botanical Gardens where we were fascinated to find that they proudly showed us some pohutukawa, the NZ 'Christmas Tree' we know well. The coach then took us high up to the lake formed by the last major volcanic eruptions in the 16th century. Although the weather was not perfect it was pleasantly warm and we still had stunning views. We regretted we did not have time to explore the footpaths which went down and round the lakes but a 7 mile walk was definitely out - most of our group found the 70 meters to and from the viewpoint arduous. The cloud and mist came swirling round us as we continued high on the island but cleared again for views out over the coast. Some areas are still quite active and, like in Rotorua in New Zealand one can find steaming holes into which sealed pots of food are buried and slowly but naturally cooked - an Azores Hangi. Unfortunately we did not get to see or try them on our tour. The final stop on the tour was at a pineapple grower - the pineapples are grown under glass in the Azores and take nearly 18 months from planting as a divided 'tuber' to when they are ripe. The first stage is provoked by smoking the greenhouses for 8 days which starts the flowering cycle. Different greenhouses have pineapples at different stages of growth.
This visit the weather was different and there was concern that the wind was too strong to get into the shelter of the harbour. Fortunately the pilot was able to get on board and the wind calmed as we made our approach. We moored at the Cruise Terminal - newly built since our previous visit in 2006. We had only 4 hours ashore so made the decision to walk around town, instead of taking a tour. The Cruise Terminal is at the end of a short pier within the main harbour and it has a number of cafes and shops, including a Burger King for fast food addicts. It is right beside the centre of town, and only a short walk up to the Church of St Peter from where there was a good view of the new terminal and the ship. We had a look inside the church and took a couple of pictures before walking a little further up hill into the main streets.
We quickly found the old city gates and square before continuing our exploration. We remembered the quaint streets with lovely balconies and open squares shaded with plane trees - a very interesting mix of architectures and culture. It confirmed our earlier conclusion was that it was a good place to stop and, a pleasant change from the Canaries where we used to stay on a regular basis and probably had enough of interest to support a break of 3 - 7 days.
One of the things we were looking for was a supermarket because we wanted to find some of the famous Azores goat cheese and eventually came upon one. We spent some time looking round and eventually got to understand enough Portuguese words to work out which were cow, sheep and goat cheeses and bought three including a little round hard Queijo Cabra Alentejano and a complete baby Bravissimo from Terceira, a combination of cow sheep and goat milk in a black wax. We also managed to stock up a few extra of the Cholesterol reducing yogurts in spite of paying 6 euro per packet - those we had brought were not long enough dated to extend to the end of the cruise. We were tempted by the delightful small local pineapples and would have purchased them if we had not had so much fresh pineapple on board already.
We then just meandered round until we came to some museum signs. The main museum - the Museu Carlos Machado, founded in 1880 is in the former Convento de Santo André dating from the 16th century. This museum is considered the most notable museum of the Azores with collections in natural history (particularly zoology), botany, geology and mineralogy, regional art , jewellery, glazed tiles, porcelain, toys, paintings, sculptures and folk art. It is unfortunately closed for refurbishment but looked very impressive from outside.
We did however go into a fascinating part of the museum complex which remained open - The Church of the Jesuit College which recently became the Sacred Art Centre. In 1977 the church and all its assets were donated to the Ponta Delgada City Hall which granted the property to the Azores Regional Government and the building became a museum in 2004. From our research it seems that the overall museum project cost 550 million euros. The construction of the first building began in1592 and was succeeded by the present monument in baroque style. The facade dates from the 18th century, as do the two beautiful large blue and white glazed tile panels each side of the altar. The woodcarving of the altar piece is said to be the largest wooden monument in Portugal, and the detailed carving and the three dimensional effect is spectacular. There has been minor damage over the years and we saw evidence of new carving to replace broken pieces. Only part of the woodcarving had been painted and gilded when the Jesuits were banished in 1760, and this highlighted the contrast between the plain wood and the intended glorious final result. We were not interested in the modern paintings but admired the pair of paintings of the Coronation of the Virgin and the Musical Angels, the earliest being painted on wood by Vasco Periera Lusitano in 1604 and hidden behind a more recent canvas which was a copy on the same theme. Unfortunately photography was banned inside.
Finally we passed the Palacio da Conceicao, a pretty Government building overlooking a small garden.