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Cunard Queen Elizabeth 2011
Caribbean Odyssey Cruise - Part 4

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9 December - Road Town, Tortola (BVI)

Tortola, the largest of the British Virgin Islands, is in the north east corner of the Caribbean. It is a small island with less than 20,000 inhabitants, and the capital Road Town only has about 5,000. The island is very popular as a yachting centre, and the international charter brands (Moorings, Sunsail etc) have bases here. The BVI comprises about 50 islands, mostly uninhabited, so are perfect for an isolated sailing holiday.

Tortola is memorable because it has the sandy beaches, the warm blue ocean, and groups of pelicans fishing in the shallows. The sand is beautiful and the beaches have palm trees to provide shelter from the sunshine. Unfortunately the Queen Elizabeth arrived on a dull day but we were optimistic and joined a group of German passengers to share a minibus to a beach. The drive climbs over Jose Hill from Road Town, and down towards Cane Garden Bay and Brewers Bay. Cane Garden Bay is a beautiful beach and we had done a resort scuba dive from there many years ago. We remembered the beach and the hotels, and the Cunard trips were going there too. It was going to be very full of tourists. At the junction we made the choice - right to Brewers Bay instead. Fortunately the beach had a few facilities, including a bar/cafe because after a short time it began to rain. Palm trees are good for shelter from the rain too. The pelicans seemed to ignore the weather, but then they are used to being wet whereas we were not. Fortunately our taxi man returned early to collect us, and the vote to go back early was unanimous. On the way back he stopped so that we could take a photo of the Queen Elizabeth beneath us in the harbour.

Our drive back to the ship went through part of the town so having changed from our swimming togs into normal street clothes we decided to go out again. There was a large openair craft market between the cruise ship dock at Wickham's Cay and the shops in Main Street. There were more shopping opportunities along Waterfront Drive, and we went into the Pussers Outpost. It is a mixture of a shop selling souvenirs, Pussers rum memorabilia, and a bar. We had discovered the Pussers Rum many years ago, and also purchased several of the pretty crockery jugs and decanters, generally from street traders at the gangway on the Cunard Countess although it is also available in the UK. Here it is all now much more proper and commercial, and more expensive. We still had several bottles back at home so were not interested in extra alcohol, although it does make a very nice Rumpot if used to soak cherries. Another interesting building was the Happy Depot chandlery; was it a windmill, was it a lighthouse ?

Tonight we ate in the Verandah restaurant - rare rack of lamb cooked exactly as we like it.

10 December - Philipsburg, St Maarten

Sadly Saint Martin or Sint Maarten was our last port in the Caribbean. It is a unique island, half being French and the other half Dutch. The border still exists, marked by a sign and a plaque commemorating the two nations 325 years of harmony. Philipsburg is the largest town on the island, is in the Dutch half, and is situated on the sandbar which separates the salt marsh from the ocean. It has just two main roads - Front Street and Back Street.

Up to four ships can berth at the cruise terminal and we were warned that it can involve a long walk to the water taxis, and an even longer walk to town. Today was busy and as well as the walk from the ship to the cruise terminal, there were long lines for the water taxis. However each water taxi is large and the lines quickly disappeared. We bought our tickets and took out our towels and settled down onto the beautiful sand of the town beach and relaxed. The beach was good for swimming and soon every patch had someone with a towel; the vendors of sunloungers and parasols had their areas but did not seem to mind if we lay down between. As the morning progressed the bars and cafes came to life, and the shops started doing a brisk trade in souvenirs. Philipsburg is a shoppers paradise and the shops sell everything from tourist trinkets to luxury items at duty free prices.

Unfortunately there are not many buildings of historical interest here where it is possible to hide indoors from the sunshine. The only really old building is the Courthouse which was built in 1793. The Parliament building is much newer, having been officially opened only in April 2011. There is also a one-room Museum in a historic building on Front Street, and a Roman Catholic church. We walked across to the salt marsh, but there was nothing of interest except lots of shallow water.

Front Street also has some pretty wooden shops with corrugated roof, including the Guavaberry Emporium. The building is a local landmark and a protected national monument. It was once the Governor's private house. Guavaberry Island Folk Liquer is made from rums and wild local berries and has an unusual flavour. It can be drunk neat or made into a Guavaberyy colada and free samples were provided to encourage purchases. The sales and marketing effort for the product was very energetic, and with its pretty colour it would be a nice drink for Christmastime. Their leaflet announced 'Berry Xmas' with a recipe for Christmas Colada.

Officers and Crew Tug of War Competition

It is the first time we have ever seen a Cunard Captain participate in deck games, hence the photo of Captain Julian Burgess leading his team to defeat in the Tug of War. Lessons to be learned include the proper team selection (although recognising that his options were very limited compared with the engineers) and the need for much better footwear.

Behind the Scenes during a day at sea

This was a day at sea when there was a chance to look behind the scenes with a tour of the Britannia Galley and behind the scenes at the Royal Court Theatre.

Britannia Galley Tour

We first had a Galley Tour on the Queen Victoria which was a rare privilege because only small numbers could be taken round at that time because of Health and Safety implications. We enquired on the Queen Elizabeth at the start of the World Cruise and one was set up for passengers which attracted far more interest than expected and a large party was led through. This time they were clearly prepared for large numbers and everybody was gathered in the Restaurant and given an introductory talk by the Executive Chef Nicholas before we were led through in groups. During the initial talk we were introduced to the various senior chefs and their staff who filled the double staircase – in total there are 110 chefs and another 60 support staff.

The first stop was beside the giant dishwasher which takes everything through on a conveyor belt and delivering it two minutes later clean and sterile at 170 degrees Fahrenheit so it dries almost instantly. We were shown the machines providing all the drinks, including the all important Espresso Coffee machine! We saw the starters being prepared and plated on mass before being held chilled ready for serving. Each dish has an example prepared by the executive chef to be copied - it was difficult to tell one from another. Apparently the demand for all the options is quite predictable, for example first sitting orders are predominantly fish and second sitting has far more carnivores. The demand is continuously monitored and adjusted from a command station as the meal progresses. Much of the food is cooked to order and each 'to order' dish has a station where up to 8 plates are readied simultaneously. There are separate galleys for each of the restaurants and the Britannia Galley is on two levels. At the end of the bottom level of the Britannia Galley is a separate area which currently handles the Verandah Restaurant.

The highlight was the construction of the gingerbread village and other creations in preparation for the Christmas displays and the Chocolate Fantasia. Cunard has always been famous for such set pieces which used to culminate in the Gala Midnight buffets on the QE2 – sadly space does not allow for them in the Lido on the new Queens but Nicholas is determined to keep some of the traditions alive with replacements such as the Viennese Teas, Chocolate Fantasies and other extravaganzas as long as possible.

The galley tour itself took about 30 minutes with plenty of opportunities for questions and to speak to the chefs in individual areas. The galley is a model of cleanliness and efficiency and everything seemed extremely professional, organised and under total control - a complete contrast to the impression the TV impresarios try to give - but one has to be professional to deliver 850 4 course dinners plus all the extras twice an evening every day of the year to Cunard standards. yet in parallel cook to Michelin standards individual meals on demand for the Verandah Restaurant.

Preparations for Christmas

A look behind the scenes in the Royal Court Theatre

Pete continued the morning with a look behind the scenes in the Royal Court Theatre – this attracted much less attention than the Galley tour. Pauline was less interested whilst Pete wanted to see some of the technology used in what was obviously a state of the art facility. It started with a short talk and introduction to the technical and production staff, actors and singers followed by an excessively loud demonstration of their capabilities for sound, lighting and set and scenery changes. One then went up on the stage to talk to everyone whilst waiting to be taken behind the scenes.

They were setting up for a new show so the lighting controllers were down in the body of the theatre and available to see and discuss. Pete spent some time talking to the Lighting Manager and some of the statistics on the system on the Queen Elizabeth are quite interesting. There are 100 fully controlled spotlights as well as 200 fixed spotlights of 700 watts each. The digitally controlled spotlights contain between 24 and 36 stepper motors each to control direct colour effects etc and are 1200 watts each. The lighting is preprogrammed for all the production shows but can also be manually controlled from the consul. One passenger came up and asked tongue in cheek if the lights could be turned up for a picture of the auditorium and instantaneously it was like daylight in the theatre – if everything is on one is looking at 250,000 watts. It is a big change from the QE2 shows where staff pointed two large spotlights by hand. Very few theatres anywhere have such a state of the art lighting system.

The same state of the art facilities also applies to the stage and scenery. There are tracks for moving scenery across as well as two huge lifts for actors, scenery or even the complete kitchens for the cookery demonstrations. Multiple backdrops can be lowered from above and even the complete rear lighting ‘bars’ can be lowered if required. The ‘sets’ and backdrops are stored between each production and can be completely changed in as little as an hour in an emergency- such as rough seas requiring a change from a motion sensitive production. The tour behind just reinforced the impressions of an incredibly professional and state of the art set up with spotless facilities, storage, wardrobes and changing rooms for the casts.

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