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|Queen Elizabeth 2 - 1999|
A Silver Anniversary needs a very special commemoration and there are few greater indulgences than a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2. We were fortunate that there was one scheduled for the Panama Canal, which we both wanted to see, and the Caribbean, which we have always enjoyed, at exactly the right time. The cruise left Southampton the weekend following for the Atlantic Crossing to New York and Miami before the Panama and Caribbean sector returning to Miami. Our original plan was to then fly back, however some changes in schedule resulted in Cunard offering to add on a return sector to Southampton via the Canaries and Madeira as well as some compensation - an offer which we could not refuse!
This is not our first cruise and the first question everyone asks is why? We started because we like to keep on the move and quickly found we got bored in a hotel in one place - most of the time on a cruise you are moving overnight and moored in a new places every day. This was to be the first time that we would have the extended passage across the Atlantic on the classic liner - in fact the QE2 is the now the only liner in operation. There is a big difference between a ship built for the Atlantic and for cruising in warm sheltered waters and one only has to look at the lines to see the difference and it goes a lot deeper - a much stronger hull, with fine lines under water and the matching power to ignore gales and punch through hurricanes. We cut to the South to miss the center of Hurricane Irene but still met winds giving 80 knots "over the deck" and seas well over 8 meters without slowing down below 25 knots. We were told she could maintain those speeds until the winds rose to over 80 knots - a true hurricane.
Cruising considerations limited her size to fit through the Panama canal, which she does with two feet to spare (and the dismantling of a part of a building every transit). The Atlantic heritage means she is the fastest civil ship of any significant size and far faster than any other cruise ship. She is built to withstand and continue to operate normally through weather which sends others fleeing for shelter.
The overall standard was very high, last year we were slightly disappointed, but all our concerns have been addressed and this year it was even better than we have previously experienced - even at the bottom end the food is good and in several cases the best examples of a dish I have ever had. The ship is classed only to the extent that there are different restaurants depending on the room booked. The service in the restaurants has been excellent and the staff bend over to be helpful and mix and match to provide what one wants such as slightly healthier options of steamed vegetables. The alternative informal Lido buffet service restaurant is again a very different experience. On entry one is given a tray and a waiter adds the cutlery - you are then allowed to move it as the initial dishes are added but then a line of waiters are hovering to grab it and carry it from you whilst you add extras such as fruit juice and then carry it to your chosen table to lay it out.
As I write this section I am indulging in the tea ceremony - delicate sandwiches and kilo-calorie cakes served every afternoon by precisely orchestrated staff in stiff starched uniforms and white gloves. We are still technically in gale force conditions and I am looking out at rainbows from in the spray lifting off the tops of the huge seas. You can feel the ship is moving and occasionally you can feel her shake herself free of a bigger sea and a few seconds later see the spray thrown up from the bow disappear past the picture windows. Meanwhile the final inspections and adjustments to the angles of the spoons and cups have been completed, the piano has started to play, the cups clink and there is muted hum of conversation drowns any other sounds as we slip along at 25 knots under slowly clearing skies.
Coming back to the point the entertainment on the Queen is excellent - we have never been ones to go to "shows" but the main evening shows in the Grand Lounge held us several evenings. There are always a series of talks by well known people, this time several famous cricketers spilling the beans. There was also a fascinating cookery demonstration by the chefs showing how some of their specialities are prepared - they have also, surprise produced a cookery book for sale in the Library shop. I should perhaps mention that QE2 prides itself on having the largest and most up to date library afloat - we certainly made a lot of use of it and it was streets ahead of the village library. There are always some concerts in the evenings which conveniently brings me to the this particular cruise.
Many of the Cunard cruises have a theme and the first sector is a "Classical Music Crossing". The Queen boasts the largest theater afloat as well as the Grand lounge where most of the evening shows take place. During the days and evenings there were a series of talks and concerts in the theater including two memorable talks by John Suchet - a historian, writer and expert on Beethoven as well as television celebrity. These were most entertaining and gave considerable insight into Beethoven as a person and his life in Vienna - stories of how the young Beethoven established his reputation in the live variation "contests" until there was no competition possible with example of some of the pieces which resulted played by Bernard Laskey. The second lecture was supported by the Monaco String quartet as we edged through Irene. The Monaco string quartet has already given two excellent performances themselves on previous evenings. There were also talks by Neil Evans and performances by the Piano Duo of Kurt Bauer and Heidi Bauer-Bung, probably very good but eclipsed by the Monaco Quartet's playing and the superb talks by John Suchet with their musical support.
What else is there to do - many days between tea and dinner there are receptions - one does not really need to explore the wine list after a few glasses of bubbly with the captain. There are many regulars with Cunard and the Cunard World Club is good for another reception and there is always the possibility of getting to know the officers well enough to get to the wardroom receptions. They are also experimenting with wine tastings and we got invited to one of those by our wine waiter. The wine list is good and we rapidly reserved a few bottles of Cloudy Bay 1997 - an excellent Chardonnay which was in the bin ends list.
Back to the cruise itself - it can be broken up into 4 very different sectors. The transatlantic crossing, New York and the trip down to Fort Lauderdale, the Panama and Caribbean sector and the return crossing via the Canaries. I have separated out the short New York to Fort Lauderdale as the QE2 was almost empty, perhaps 350 people and the same applied whilst in the ports. New York had a free tour which we took mostly because it included lunch in the famous Window on The World Restaurant at the top of the World Trade building whose two towers are considerably higher than the Empire State Building - it was a day with clear blue skies and one could see the whole of New York and most of New Jersey laid out under one. It was quite an odd feeling to see aircraft passing below one and close enough to see the passengers.
The rest of the tour largely reinforced our prejudices about large cities - it was not somewhere where we would want to be. It did bring out some of the variety and contrasts - it is not all high rise and fancy shops - a quarter of the population still live in "Railway Apartments" a sort of higher rise version of the terraces of Northern England. They get there name because they are in line like railway compartment with entry to a kitchen, many still with a tub then passing through three further rooms to reach the only two windows facing out onto the now mandatory network of steel fire escape defacing the building - the difference from the North of England is that they cost more to rent for a years than a purchase in England.
The most memorable part of New York was leaving - the passage down the Hudson late in the afternoon without a cloud in the sky to break the golden glow from the sun low above the horizon as we passed all the famous sites and left past the Statue of Liberty. The view back was stunning with New York glowing in the evening sun under its own golden halo.
The day at sea was delightful, temperatures rising rapidly into the 80s and light seas and low winds - a pleasant contrast to the transatlantic sector. The ship seemed deserted with only a few hundred passengers and there was no specific theme for this sector, just two staff hunting down each passenger to lavish attention. We, for the first time, watched a film in the theater "Shakespeare in Love" which Pauline had wanted to go and see ever since it came out - hilarious and just right to follow a bottle of their recommended Moulin-a-Vent (the old vines and no fining or filtering made a bigger difference than I had expected, to the wine not the film that is!)
We did not go to Miami as originally scheduled but stopped at the nearby Fort Lauderdale on the edge of the Everglades a fascinating huge area of swamp land, or to be more precise a wide shallow river covering thousands of square miles. We had a trip out into the Sawgrass on an air boat, a flat bottomed boat driven by two huge V8 engines driving cut down aircraft propellers. These boats can travel through and often over the sawgrass in even a few inches of water so the wildlife can be seen. Perhaps the most interesting are alligators and several turned up as soon as the boat stopped and floated a few feet away. The ones we saw were between six and eight feet long and lethal with a bite of 3000 lb/sq inch - they normal only attack prey small enough to swallow and we were assured do not like human flesh as it is too salt.
The airboat ride was the highlight as much of the remaining facilities were still flooded following Hurricane Floyd although we did get to see and touch some small alligators and look at a rather wet and flooded reconstructed Seminole village. The afternoon was taken up by a visit via the Cunard shuttle buses to the Galleria Center which turned out to be a high class mall with lots of fancy shops doing no visible trade - we tried to buy some Californian wine and enquires showed there was no wine or even normal food in a precinct which probably took ten minutes to walk through and we had to go to a down-market supermarket to stock up.
As I may have mentioned the Caribbean sector had a Big Band theme which had clearly been sold heavily in the states but not mentioned in the UK. This largely supplanted the normal entertainment which did not go down very well with those regulars who had not been made aware of it. We went to some of the performances but they were not really to our taste and the playing tried to hide the precision it lacked by being earsplittingly loud - even so the dances floors were full and the bands continued to the early hours of the morning. We latter found the Big Band Cruises are organised by a separate company whose standards are not to the Cunard level. At least they did not play at the midnight buffet.
The weather continued to get hotter and for the Caribbean sector the sea temperatures rarely fell below 28 deg Celsius and the air conditioning became essential even early in the morning. The first stop was in the Bahamas at Nassau. We should have had a trip to snorkel with Sting Rays on one of a nearby islands but it was canceled, another result of the recent hurricane which had been the worst for one hundred years in Nassau. We instead took a local water taxi to Paradise island for the great sum of three dollars. A freelance guide gave an excellent commentary on the 15 minute trip and well deserved a small tip.
Paradise island is mostly covered with luxurious private accommodation and a few "resorts" - the only way to reach the public beaches is through the resorts. The "Atlantis Resort" we went through was so big it had road signs everywhere but even so it took us close to half an hour to reach the small beach which was still open - the others were being reconstructed by huge earthmovers following Hurricane Floyd. The sea was so warm one did not notice as one entered the water. Eventually we managed to work our way out, another half hour journey including a transit of a huge casino which one could hardly see the far side of - the whole setup was in fact very reminiscent of the hotels in Las Vegas except that one had pay heavily if one wished to use the facilities.
In the afternoon we had an "Island Tour" which replaced the snorkeling - we were fortunate and were up front in a minibus with a very amusing driver. It ended with a visit to the Adastra Gardens with their trained marching flamingos - very tasteless.
From Nassau we had a day at seas heading down to Bonaire, one of the three ABC islands (Aruba, Bonaire and Curacoa) just off Venezuela. We moored alongside a short key with lines strung for vast distances onto odd bollards on the shore. At Bonaire we had an excellent trip on a beautiful 56' Siamese junk, built about thirty years ago in Bangkok, Thailand. Above the water it was completely authentic with superb carving and solid teak masts and mahogany whilst below the water it had been tuned by a New Zealand designer for extended blue water cruising and complete with retracting keels. The present owners have had it for eleven years and cruised it extensively throughout the pacific and eventually settling at Bonaire along with many other cruising yachts. The boat has a web site at www.samursailing.com. They took us out to No Name beach on Klein Bonaire which is completely surrounded by reefs. The swimming was superb with more varieties of fish than I have ever seen and we christened the underwater case for the video with 30 minutes of film. The day ended with a lovely evening passage sitting on deck watching Curacoa and Aruba pass by as we headed for the Panama Canal, the highlight of the cruise
|Click to continue into the Panama canal.|
Peter and Pauline Curtis
Most recent significant revision: 12th October, 2003