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Queen Elizabeth 2 1999
The highlight of the trip - the Panama Canal - came next. We had a partial transit up through the Gatun staircase of locks rising 85 feet to Lake Gatun. The passage takes several hours as the ship has to first be manoeuvered alongside the entry wharf by tugs and attached to railway "Mules" which keep ships central whilst they go through the locks. Their are two sets of locks in parallel each consisting of three locks in staircase - where the locks run into each other with only a single gate between each. The QE2 was designed to just fit the locks and has to pay the highest tolls of any ship 170,000 US dollars for our passage payable in Cash in advance.
The whole canal is a marvel of engineering and had a whole run of engineering firsts when it was first completed. The French tried first and failed whilst attempting a sea level canal - it cost them over 20,000 lives mostly to disease. The Americans then took up the challenge and after clearing out the swamps and eradicating yellow fever eventually completed the canal in 1914 with 3 locks each side of the largest ever manmade lake - lake Gatun. It remained the largest project completed by man prior to the Lunar programme. Even now it holds a few firsts including the largest lock gates ever made and most of the structures are original after 80 years. It takes a workforce of 8000 to maintain the structures, dredge the canal and carry out routine operations.
The next day was at Cartegena, an old walled city in Columbia which has a poor reputation and it is recommended to take the organised tours - those who went on them were not impressed. We felt we had made the right decision just to relax and top up our tans a little in the blistering sun - Cartegena is only 10 degrees from the equator and temperatures were in the 80s even overnight.
The next passage took us North to St Thomas, one of the US Virgin Islands, which we had visited several times before on the Cunard Countess. The Americans insist on it for the duty free shopping but there are also lots of beaches with excellent snorkeling both on St Thomas itself and also on adjacent Islands. We sailed out to Bucks Island where we snorkeling for a good hour over reefs and searched for turtles and Rays. A turtle was found and we have some film of it grazing on the bottom and its twice hourly return to the surface to take 5 deep breaths before returning to the bottom. The reefs were full of life and again we got a lot of video and shot the remainder of the film in the waterproof one shot camera. The QE2 has to anchor at St Thomas as there are no tugs and we did a little shopping before returning on the tenders to the Ship. We topped up with Pussers Rum and bought one of the matching flat bottomed ships decanters with the full story on the sides - we had admired them on previous visits and managed to get a good price in Universal on Main street, helped by a promise to mention them on our web site.
It was then time for the passage back to Miami. The evening we left St Thomas not only had the special final dinner but also had all the Halloween festivities and to finish things off a magnificent Midnight Gala Buffet with giant ice carvings and elaborate decorated displays. This was the best we have seen on the QE2 and I spent some time talking to Reinhard, the pastry chef and some of his staff who had created some of the displays. I congratulated him and he modestly attributed it to his staff although he did take credit for inspiring them - most of the displays are made in their own time and he now encourages them to sign their works in the icing.
After a gloriously smooth cross enabling us to top up our tans on the aft deck we arrived at Teneriffe and moored at Santa Cruz. We know Teneriffe well from previous holidays so we did not take either of the tours and just walked round the town, the capital of Teneriffe. There are some pleasant parks and shops if one requires them. The temperatures were into the thirties and we ended up with a "pint" of Dorado beer in one of the open air cafes which fill the broad tree lined streets leading down to the sea.
The next day was Funchal in Madeira, a full day with a late evening departure scheduled. We went round Funchal in the morning, a much more pleasant capital town than Santa Cruz de Teneriffe - clean and full of locals shopping. We bought some of the local honey Madeira cakes - these are very different to the "English" Madeira cakes being very solid and rich. We went into Blandys Wine Lodge and tasted some of the ten year old Malmsey but did not buy any this time - we still have some from the last visit and we have found we can purchase many of the ones we tried in the UK. They have a guided tour and museum and we provisionally planned to come back in the afternoon to repeat the tour we took three years ago.
The other must visit in Funchal is the Indoor Market which covers two floors round a courtyard plus a large lower level fish market. The exotic fruit and vegetables are heaped high on the first floor whilst the ground level has the flowers and other stalls but it is the fish market we find most fascinating with everything from whole Tuna to the extremely unusual Espada fish which is only found in a very small local area and in another area near Japan. The name translates as scabbard and one can see why with the long jaw and slim black scale covered body nearly two meters from head to tail. They seem to have areas covered in black and white veining which are sort after and are left when the rough black scales are removed prior to sale. The picture shows the huge eyes - they live at 600 feet - and the veining. They are caught by lowering lights and then reeling them up - the fish follow and die as they reach the surface.
In the afternoon we decided to try to get up to the Botanical Gardens. We caught one of the local buses which turned out to be one of the experiences of the holiday. The Gardens are high on the hillside overlooking the town and the driver had aspirations as a rally driver and took us up flat out round the towns side streets clearing his path round the blind bends with his horn and doing emergency stops when he found something too big to dive out of his way or when a passenger dared to want to get on or off. This was all with standing passengers who, other than ourselves, seemed to expect this exuberant driving and were wedged into corners or clinging to handholds. The gardens were well worth the trip up and one could easily spend half a day or more.
The next day was at sea but the evening was full as there was one of the Formal Rotisseurs dinner which featured the Espada fish we had seen the previous day as well as the Baked Alaska ceremony with the flags of all the nations present hung over the tables. There was then a brief break to gets ones breath and we sampled a little more of the Jazz - we still find it difficult to enjoy. There is certainly some exotic playing but it never comes together and remains a number of soloists taking turn to compete - we often find that they have played two or more pieces without us realising. The evening ended with another of the gala midnight buffets with another set of spectacular ice carvings as well as many chocolate and sugar decorations made by Reinhard himself.
The Bay of Biscay was passed without event, the winds were supposed to have reached force 7 but it was impossible to tell inside. The month seemed to have passed remarkably quickly and any concerns that we would get bored with the long passages have been completely dispelled. The food and wine has been excellent and the service we received was marvelous, especially from Jose and Louise who could not do enough. We bought one of the new Queen Elizabeth 2 cook books and the Maitre D' arranged for all the Chefs to sign it making it a nice souvenir as well as providing some good recipes to buffer our return to reality. We will return.