Caribbean and Transatlantic Cruise December 2014

Sunday, January 11, 2015

After a great nights sleep at the Dukes Palace Hotel, we headed downstairs and found our way to the breakfast room. The buffet breakfast in the hotel was really very good; two large rooms, one with a wall of windows looking out onto the hotel courtyard, are tastefully decorated and dotted with white linen clad tables. There is a large range of food available for breakfast including both a hot and cold section with the usual array of meats, eggs, and cereal. A wonderful purpose-built cabinet houses a great selection of breads that also spills out onto a table. To top it off, this being Belgium, another table holds several large blocks of chocolate – a special knife sits nearby that can be used to hack off the appropriate breakfast-sized chunk. All this can be washed down with several glasses of Cava, if so desired.

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Suitably stuffed, we donned our winter gear and headed out to explore Brugge. It was a beautifully sunny but bitterly cold morning as we headed for the main square. I have to say that Brugge could be one of the most photogenic cities I’ve ever visited, everywhere you turn there is a photo opportunity – once again I inwardly cheered the development of digital photography. It still being fairly early in the day, the main square was relatively deserted save for a line of horse drawn carriages awaiting the arrival of tourists willing to pay the fair – don’t attempt to pet the horses, they bite! I found the main square to be just as spectacular in the daytime as it had been the night before.


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We set off through the meandering streets and soon got a sense for Belgium’s three main retail items; chocolate, lace and beer. The chocolate is superb, the lace exquisite and the beer (selection and quality) is out of this world! Almost every street in Brugge has one or more shops selling chocolate, lace or beer. Most of the chocolate shops delight in showcasing their skills in forming everyday items from delicious chocolate – bizarrely many of the shops also create chocolate versions of certain body parts (too rude to mention). 

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Passing through an alleyway under the Burg, or Town Hall, we crossed the canal that circles the historic center of the city and made our way to the famous corner where everyone who comes to Brugge takes a picture.

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We had planned to take a guided boat tour on the canal, but the weather was so cold we couldn’t face waiting in line and then being out on the windswept canal for over an hour. So instead we sought out a nice warm café, called the Tea Room de Proeverie located at Katelijnstraat 6, and ordered the house specialty, hot chocolate – of course! The hot chocolate was like nothing I’ve every had before; a small tray was delivered containing a cup of steaming hot milk, a small dish of molten chocolate, a dollop of whipped cream and several chocolate candies. We figured out that this was “self-assembly” beverage and proceeded to mix the molten chocolate into the steamed milk, finishing it off with the whipped cream. Needless to say – it hit the spot on a freezing cold day. This café has an association with the chocolate shop called Chocolaterie Sukerbuyc located directly across the street and after we were suitably warmed up we visited the shop and stocked up on chocolates to take home. 

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Only one statue carved by Michelangelo left Italy during his lifetime; the so-called “Brugge Madonna is located in The Church Of Our Lady, just up the street from the Tea Room de Proeverie. Unfortunately the church was undergoing very extensive renovations, the majority of the interior was closed off. However for a small fee we gained access to a side chapel where the Madonna was on display 

The sculpture is set in an altar-like structure, behind a low wall designed to hold the tourists at bay, and as with most priceless works of art these days it is placed behind a sheet of Plexiglas – making photography a bit of a challenge. The sculpture was removed twice from Belgium after its initial arrival. The first was in 1794, during the French Revolutionary Wars. It was returned after Napoleon's final defeat at Waterloo in 1815. The second removal was in 1944, during World War II, with the retreat of German soldiers, who smuggled the sculpture to Germany enveloped in mattresses in a Red Cross truck. It was found two years later in Altaussee/Austria and again returned.

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Next we planned to mount an ascent of the gigantic tower in the main square; however when we got up close to the tower, and observed how narrow and steep the staircase was, we opted for lunch instead. Just off the square we found a nice place for lunch called the Het Hof Van Rembrandt. We sat upstairs with a great view down the street; the food was OK but as usual, the beer was great.

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We couldn’t visit Brugge without a trip to the famous Beer Wall, which is located in the 15th century mayor's house. The wall purports to contain “all the beers in Belgium”, given the sheer number of beers available in this country I think this is a hard claim to verify. The wall itself is located in a passageway that leads through the building; each beer, along with it’s accompanying glass, is located in it’s own little cubby hole within a large shelving system – the entire thing is covered on the front with Plexiglas. At the back of the passageway is an open-air courtyard and a bar leading to a terrace overlooking the canal. This location is actually the other side of the famous photographic corner of the canal. I could image that in the summer the Beer Wall would be mobbed with tourists, but today it was not busy at all.

On the advice of the hotel concierge we dined at Au Petit Gran on Philipstockstraat. This small and cozy restaurant is run by a husband and wife team and specialized in grilled meats and fish. Our table was near to the open kitchen, which I always like, allowing us to see the chef in action. All of the dishes ordered by our table were excellent - these included steaks, fish and shrimp; the service was great and the atmosphere was quiet allowing for conversation.

 

Returning to the hotel we decided to investigate the Rapunzel-like tower that is located to the left of the main entrance. The ancient elevator was permanently out of commission, and so we ascended the ten floors via the spiral staircase – fun but tiring. I don’t know what we expected to find at the top, but were a bit disappointed to discover only a dark and disused storeroom – maybe the maiden with long hair had finally made a break for it? While the tower may not have been an exciting adventure, on one of the lower floors – just along from the tower, we discovered that the hotel in fact has it’s own ancient chapel. I found the chapel to be a nice quiet and serene place, even if there were a couple of hotel bedrooms located one either side of the altar!

For our final morning in Brugge we once again breakfasted at the fantastic buffet in the hotel before hitting the road for all day drive, via the channel tunnel, up to northern England where would end our vacation visiting family, there and in Scotland.


Saturday, January 10, 2015

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The ship docked early this morning at the old Queen Elizabeth II terminal in Southampton – which is old fashioned and warehouse-like compared to the glitzy new terminal we used last time. Having sent all our suitcases off to be staged for unloading last night, there was no packing to do - only a few loose ends to put in hand luggage. After a final breakfast in the dining room with our UK friends we joined them in the Todd English restaurant (our designated waiting spot) to await disembarkation. Waiting to get off the ship is the worst part of any cruise.


Finally our number was called and we made our way into the terminal and collected our bags. We said our farewells to our cruising companions and met up with my brother in the large dock building; he had pulled his car into the designated pick-up point and we proceeded to attempt to load in all the bags. The pick-up process in the old terminal is not ideal; a single line of cars feeds two loading spots – large queues quickly form. Unfortunately we made the situation worse by taking a long time to load and unload all the bags until, like a gigantic 3D jigsaw puzzle, we got it all to fit. As I finally climbed into the car I glanced down the long line of cars; the look of utter contempt on the faces of many drivers will haunt me for a while.

So we set off from Southampton for the 1½ drive up to Folkstone where we would board the channel tunnel train for Calais. My brother had pre-purchased the train tickets; this process assigns a departure time but with a several hour window – so there was no stress about getting to the station at a precise time. Along the way we stopped off at a large supermarket and picked up some sandwiches to eat on the train.

We found the whole process of taking the car onto the train and through the channel tunnel to be fantastic. Exiting the motorway we pulled up to a ticket booth with a large touch screen. As soon as the car stopped a camera read the license plate and located the appropriate record, a quick touch of the electronic screen and the tickets were printed out. 

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With about 45 minutes until our departure we chose to pick up some coffee in the large duty-free shopping / restaurant building. At the appointed time we jumped back into the car, drove quickly thought the cursory passport checkpoint and headed for the train. It’s an amazing sight to see a very long train being loaded with cars; we drove down onto the platform and then through a door in the side of the train, up a ramp onto the upper level and then all along the length of the train to where the car in front was parked. 

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Having parked the car we climbed out and began to prepare our picnic lunch. The interior of the train is quite spacious with about a three-foot gap between either side of the car and the wall of the carriage; it’s utilitarian, not fancy – actually quite pleasant. After a short wait, the doors between each train carriage closed – we had 4 cars in our compartment and a sizable gap behind us. As the train pulled away it was so smooth we did not even need to take our coffee cups off the roof of the car. We ate our lunch and even found time for a quick dance in the open space during the 35-minute transit of the English Channel.

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The process reverses on the French side and we soon found ourselves on the freeway heading for Belgium. The area between Calais and Brugge is very flat with little in the way of interesting scenery, but the roads were smooth, there was little traffic and we remembered to drive on the right hand side. At some point we crossed the border into Belgium, I think there was a sign – but the main way you can tell you have changed countries is that the road signs change from French to Flemish.

After a couple of hours we reached the outskirts of Brugge and, following the GPS prompts, we began to negotiate the ever narrowing streets on our way to the historic center of the city. Our destination was the Hotel Dukes’ Palace located a short walk from the main square. Apparently the center of Brugge is designated a “shopping day” on Saturdays and we discovered that this results in several of the smaller streets being blocked to vehicles. Of course the GPS had no knowledge of “shopping days” and so happily attempted to route us down several blocked off streets. Several failed attempts later we pulled over and called the hotel for alternative directions, which eventually led to our successful arrival.

The Hotel Dukes’ Palace (yes the apostrophe is in the right place perhaps indicating the palace at one time belonged to more than one Duke?) was fantastic. There are several buildings, probably from different time periods, joined together to form the hotel – there is even a Rapunzel-style tower! The guest elevators are located just off the lobby as is a very nice lounge that leads to the bar. The restaurant and breakfast room are also on this floor. 

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Our room was extremely spacious and very tastefully decorated; we had a nice view across the rooftops of the city with the steeples of the main churches and the tower in the square rising above. The room also included a very well appointed bathroom separated from the bedroom by a large window. A writing desk, plenty of closet space and a safe were also included. Each room in the hotel appears to be uniquely decorated. Having checked in and freshened up we headed out to explore the historic city center and eat dinner. 


The entire center of old Brugge is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site and it lives up to this billing – it is simply magnificent, a photo opportunity at every turn. Our hotel was only about a 3-minute walk from the beautiful central square that is lined on all sides by spectacular old Flemish buildings. Winding cobbled streets with quaint shops, restaurants and cafes with ancient churches and municipal buildings form the core of the old center that is surrounded by a moat-like river. We wandered around in awe of the sights, not really noticing the bitter cold, until it was time for dinner.

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On the recommendation of the hotel concierge we selected De Vlaamsche Pot restaurant for dinner; it was only a 2-minute walk from our hotel. Located down a small alley, the restaurant at first glance looks extremely small and is set back from, and stuck onto the side of, a larger neighboring building. From the outside Vlaamsche Pot looks a bit like The Old Curiosity Shoppe – it is so quaint, especially as it was still decked out in Christmas décor. Stepping into restaurant feels like stepping into the small front room of a very old Belgian house. However several other rooms reveal themselves as you walk back thought the restaurant. 

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Sandra and I both ordered the excellent country pate as a first course - served with a small salad and a strange picked mixture. For the main event I ordered the famous Flemish Beef Stew that consisted of chunks of super-tender beef in a hearty dark sauce, served piping hot with Belgian fries, and curiously apple sauce on the side; it was excellent. The fries in Belgium are served everywhere, including at many stalls throughout the city. In the restaurant a waiter who scoops them out of a large metal bowl and onto your plate serves the fries with a flourish. My stew was washed down with a couple of Duval beers; not my first Belgian beer – but my first actually in Belgium. Sandra ordered a chicken dish that came in a light sauce with vegetables – it was a whole small chicken, she could not believe her eyes!

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I found the food in Vlaamsche Pot to be wholesome, piping hot and well cooked; though the restaurant was a bit cramped and the tables a bit small. Even though it was literally freezing outside, I think the proprietor overcompensated with the heating – this made the environment a bit uncomfortable but overall I would definitely recommend this restaurant.


Friday, January 9, 2015

Transatlantic Day 6

Our final day at sea, and we are just getting used to it! I find I go through phases when on a long cruise; initial euphoria for a few days, then after about a week so I start to question why I signed up for such a long voyage, then after a couple of weeks I’m completely adapted to the routine of life aboard and would just as soon it went on for another month.

Just went out on the balcony for a weather check; still not really very cold yet – could probably walk around with just a sweater, but my running nose appears to have returned so I’m staying in today. Seas are also relatively calm though it’s quite foggy.

Today was the last of 5 one-hour time changes that need to occur so that when we get to the UK we are on Greenwich Mean Time. On prior transatlantic voyages the clock was advanced during the night, but on this trip the changes have been implemented at noon. Basically the time between noon and 1PM is eliminated. At first we thought this was crazy; with a daytime clock change the lost time could have been “productive” time whereas with a nighttime change the lost time is sleep time. However we’ve noticed that on this trip we have been markedly less tired than on other transatlantic voyages so we don’t mind missing an hour during the day to gain an hour more sleep.

Completed most of our packing; the remainder will be done just before we go to bed and then the cases will be placed in the corridor so they can be stowed by the crew ready for disembarkation in the morning.

In the morning we will be meeting with my brother and his wife and going on to Bruges in Belgium, via the channel tunnel, for a couple of days.


Thursday, January 8, 2015

Transatlantic Day 5

Continued warm weather and moderate seas; walked the decks again without coats.

Started the packing process (ahhh!).

Had a very good Indian dinner at the specialty restaurant. Final formal night; at last I can pack away the penguin suit.

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Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Transatlantic Day 4

We were awoken several times in the early hours of the morning by announcements over the PA system in our cabin. The first announcement called the emergency response team to the ships laundry; this was followed by several updates from the captain. It was evident after the first update that it was a non-event, but the captain insisted on many subsequent reports – each timed perfectly to occur just after I’d fallen asleep from the previous one.

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I’m now convinced that we are not in the North Atlantic at all. The last time we made this crossing, at the exact same time of year, it was snowing on deck – today we were out again without sweaters and in nice warm sunshine. Last night we supposedly passed within 50 miles of the last resting place of the Titanic – I believe an iceberg was involved. Either global warming is more advanced that anyone suspects or we are actually heading back to the Caribbean. I knew I should have packed that spare ships’ sextant and Atlantic chart that I had lying around the house. The captain has promised colder weather ahead, but I’m now beginning to doubt his credentials.

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The ships chefs demonstrated their hors d’oeuvre and ice sculpting skills this morning so we trundled along for a look. I have to say that ice sculpting is not a skill I think the average person would use very often at home - “darling shall I do a nice ice sculpture of the Eiffel Tour to go with our beans on toast tonight?”

We visited the dog kennel area up on the top deck where those wishing to bring their canines across the pond can house them for the duration of the voyage – this is unique to Cunard and harks back to the heyday when taking a ship across the Atlantic was the only means of transport.


Tuesday, January 6, 2015

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Transatlantic Day 3, weather remarkably warm – after breakfast we walked the promenade deck with sweaters (even new ones), it was 61F and sunny. Are we really in the North Atlantic in January?

Dinner at the La Piazza specialty Mediterranean restaurant; not as good as The Lotus version from a few nights ago, same $15 cover charge.

Attended a cabaret review by Cilia Imrie, I wished I hadn’t.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Transatlantic Day 2 of the transatlantic crossing, felling better.

Another trip to the purser’s desk to attempt to resolve the case of the shrunken laundry; this time we were armed with several key pieces of evidence:

1. The two shrunken sweaters

2. Two brand new sweaters (still with tags attached) of the exact same type as two of the shrunken articles. These new specimens clearly showed how much the mis-laundered version had shrunk

3. A copy of the original laundry form clearly showing we had requested dry cleaning

4. A copy of our ships account clearly showing that we had been charged for dry cleaning

We were primed for a good argument, but alas the man on the desk was really nice – he took all of the information, along with the sweaters, and about half an hour later we got a call to say they were refunding the full value of the four sweaters and also the cost of the “dry cleaning”. 

The weather is quite warm but windy, seas are a bit rough but the ship is remarkable steady. One of the inner glass doors on the promenade deck blew shut and completely smashed.

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Attended an interview / Q&A session with Cilia Imrie and her partner – funny and entertaining, though it felt a bit scripted, like they had done it a hundred times before.

Great dinner with our shipmates in the Todd English restaurant; the food was good but not as good on previous cruises. Items in this restaurant are now ordered a la carte as opposed to a fixed cover charge – we found the cost to be about the same, around $30.


Sunday, January 4, 2015

First of six sea days on the transatlantic crossing – this is our third time doing the crossing and the two prior voyages were also in the winter. 

Felling a bit better today, must have really needed that extended sleep – continuing to medicate.

This afternoon we attended a special presentation of the movie “The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel”; Cilia Imrie one of the actors in the film is travelling on the ship and she spent about 10 minutes telling us about her experiences during the making of the film.

For the next leg of the voyage we have to change cabins; moving into 8019 - this is the same deck but on the other side of the ship. To help with the move we had to pack our “loose” but left the clothes hanging in the wardrobes. Apparently the housekeeping staff will move all of our things for us tomorrow while we are off the ship. The lesson here is, if you can, you should book both legs of your voyage at the same time - we did not to this and by the time we booked the second leg our current cabin was already taken.


Saturday, January 3, 2015

Back to New York and my cold has still not yet reached its peak.

Due to new security regulations all passengers must disembark and clear US immigration and customs – even if continuing on with the next voyage. In addition, no passengers are allowed back on to the ship until all the passengers have disembarked.

Our original plan for this stop was to just stay on the ship as we’d spent 4 days in New York before the start of the cruise. This would have been especially pleasing to me, in my current state of health. However, since we are now forced to disembark – and face waiting several hours on the dock before we can re-embark (I’m sure that’s not a word, but maybe it should be) and since Sandra is now looking for four replacement sweaters, we decided to bundle up in our winter coats and share a cab with our shipmates into Manhattan.

I found a pharmacy near Herald Square where I purchased one of every type of cold remedy known to mankind and then dragged myself off to the coffee shop in Macy’s and awaited the return of Sandra from her sweater hunting expedition. Having dosed myself with the appropriate drugs I sent the next hour fighting off sleep; I was sure that if I fell asleep the store security guards would come and throw we out. Presently the great shopper returned with a successful haul and we were able to return to the ship. As we crossed the Brooklyn Bridge snow began to fall – not much, but more than we’d seen in several years, so it was a bit of a novelty. 

Returning to the cruise terminal as a “passenger-in-transit” definitely has its perks; we were able go directly to the front of the security line and then bypass all the others queues – catching some funny looks from those patiently waiting in line. On the way back to the cabin I stopped at the purser’s desk to discuss the laundry situation, but was surprisingly told they were too busy because it was a “change-over” day, and politely asked if I could come back on another day. Based on my rapidly deteriorating medical state I did not have the energy to argue, but did make a mental note to enhance our revenge plot.

On returning to the cabin at a little after noon, I went to bed and slept for about 18 hours. I’m told the sail-way was not as good as the last time due to the cloudy and foggy conditions.


Friday, January 2, 2015

Final sea day before New York and I now have a full-on cold; during the night someone exchanged my nose for Niagara Falls.

Received laundry back from the cabin steward to discover that, despite our clear instructions, four of Sandra’s favorite sweaters had been put through the regular washing process instead of being dry-cleaned. Oh hell, and other expletives! Now we have four sweaters that would be a good fit for a small child. We plotted our revenge.


Thursday, January 1, 2015

Second of three sea days and I’m still unwell. 


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Our first sea day of the return trip to New York and unfortunately I’m feeling a little under the weather so this will be a short report. Made it to dinner but could not last until midnight. 

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Tuesday, December 30, 2014

screenshot818Today was our final island stop and based on a previous trip to St. Kitts we had high hopes for a good day. St. Kitts and its sister island, Nevis, are part of the Leeward Islands chain and lie to the northeast of Montserrat. St. Kitts was the first English settlement in the West Indies in 1623 and from here other islands were colonized. The French arrived a few years after the English and the inevitable battles over territory ensued. A brief truce was called in 1626 so the English and French forces could combine to massacre the 3000 local Carib inhabitants. After this it was back to “business as usual”.

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We docked in the town of Basseterre with its purpose-built piers and small “village” of shops and restaurants right on the dock. Our plan today was to do a mixture of taxi tour and town visit and so, after the usual Caribbean waiting around, I negotiated 2 hours in a small air-conditioned van for the 4 of us at $15 person. We headed west out of town along the coast road; the high and lush mountainous interior to our right rolled down to the coast on our left. After about 20 minutes we came to our first stop, the fortress at Brimstone Hill.

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Brimstone Hill is a UNESCO World Heritage Site; the massive fortress is perched on a volcanic outcrop some 800 feet above the sea overlooking the west coast of the island. Begun in 1690 by the French and finished a century later by the British using slave labor, the fortress extends over 40 acres. It was finally abandoned in 1851 and restoration work began in 1965. The Queen visited in 1985 to commemorate the inauguration of the fortress as a National Park.

Our driver skillfully negotiated the narrow winding road up the hill and through some very challenging gateways to the car park on a plateau beneath the fortress proper. We quickly breezed through the visitor center then on to the snack bar where I purchased bottled water in anticipation of the upcoming ascent. The walk up the gently graded, well built, footpath was not too taxing; an every-present breeze helped to keep us cool. 

The view from the top of Brimstone Hill was magnificent; now the whole layout of all aspects of the original fort could be seen. It was easy to see why this location was chosen for the fortress; the many cannon placed along the walls afford considerable coverage of the coastline below against enemy attack. The main part of the fortress consists of a central courtyard surrounded by the various functional rooms built into the thick walls: powder store, officers’ quarters, hospital, kitchen etc. The reconstruction work, along with the museum exhibits, was excellent. 

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Heading back to town we stopped at Romney Manor a 400-year-old estate that now houses a small Batik fabric printing “factory” surrounded by beautifully maintained tropical gardens. The original manor, now completely in ruined and not a focus for visitors, was originally owned by Sam Jefferson the great great great grandfather of Thomas Jefferson, the 3rd president of the Untied States. The manor was later sold to the Earl of Romney, hence the current name.

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screenshot827The beautifully preserved bell tower at Romney Manor was used to control the daily lives of the slaves. The sound of the bell was heard throughout the day. It was used to signal key moments such as the start of the day, time to return from the fields at the end of the day and time to go to sleep. Because of their symbolism, most bell towers were destroyed at the time of emancipation. At this time however, The Earl of Romney was regarded as a more benevolent owner as a result of his efforts to release his slaves immediately upon emancipation – other owners chose to prolong the status quo by implementing a further 4-year “apprenticeship”. As a result, the bell tower at Romney Manor is the only perfectly preserved example left standing in St. Kitts.

The Caribelle Batik “factory” is really more like a craft workshop with a large retail space all enclosed in one big wooden hut. Customers can watch the Batik process being performed with many pots of boiling wax and various inks. Most of the focus is on sales; I bought a tie.

Rather than return to the ship, we asked our driver to drop is in the center of Basseterre at “The Circus”. This small roundabout is apparently modeled on Piccadilly Circus in London – I thought it was a bit of a stretch. Nevertheless the Circus does have a certain quaintness about it; the locals have constructed a number of wooden stalls around the Circus creating even less room for the constant stream of cars that jam up the area. It was not clear if the stalls were a permanent fixture or just related to the Carnival festivities. With rain beginning to fall we headed for an upper-floor restaurant overlooking the Circus for a spot of lunch.

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Ballahoo Restaurant is located along one side of the Circus in Basseterre; its upper floor and open sided veranda-style seating make a great place to enjoy a good lunch while looking down at the hustle and bustle of the Circus. I really don’t think I’ll ever get used to the pace of service in the Caribbean; after a lifetime of eating out, the usual cadence of service in a restaurant has become engrained. So when this rhythm is broken, unless emotions are controlled - frustration can result. Eventually we were attended, the food arrived, it was surprisingly very good, local beer was consumed and all was well. The tranquil scene was temporarily, but wonderfully, interrupted by the arrival of a troupe of local musicians and singers consisting of the aged father (or maybe grandfather) and about six young children playing an assortment of guitars and banjos while singing Caribbean Christmas songs. 

After lunch we wandered the streets taking in the island atmosphere and appreciating the local architecture; it was a strange and enlightening experience to find oneself in the ethnic minority. We found ourselves in Independence Square, the notorious former slave market, now a pleasant park with fountains. To escape the sudden rain we made a dash for catholic cathedral along one side of the square and then finally headed back to the port area where we encountered a dancing troupe celebrating Carnival.

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Monday, December 29, 2014

Today we docked at Bridgetown on the island of Barbados, which is the eastern most of the Caribbean islands. The island is relatively flat and non-volcanic unlike all the other islands we’ve visited on this trip. The eastern Atlantic coast is rugged and the waters fairly choppy so this is not a very touristy area; compared to the western and southern coasts, which face the calmer Caribbean Sea and hence attract more tourists. From its founding in 1627 to its independence in 1966 Barbados was a British colony, unlike the rest of its Caribbean neighbors it was never taken by force.

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On a previous visit to Barbados we did a taxi tour of the island and did not get much of a chance to see Bridgetown; so on this trip our plan was to spend time in the town in the morning and we signed up for a specialized photography tour for the afternoon. 

Bridgetown is a busy cruise and commercial port; today there were 3 cruise ships and one cargo ship docked at the piers. The port provides a shuttle service from the ship to the terminal building, about a five-minute ride. The terminal is quite modern and houses an array of tourist shops along with the customs “checkpoint” – which doesn’t actually check anything. The outside of the terminal also acts as a sort of bus station for the various tour buses and shuttles to the town. 

With our afternoon tour schedule for 1:30PM we wanted to make sure we had enough time in the morning to explore Bridgetown. We were off the ship at about 8:30AM, took the shuttle to the terminal, passed quickly through and found a shuttle van that was headed for downtown; the rate was $2 per person or $5 for two – I opted to pay the lesser amount. Note that US dollars are widely accepted on the island, though we did find change given in Barbados dollars in some places. 

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The shuttle dropped us in the middle of Broad Street, which is the main shopping and business area in Bridgetown. The storefronts and buildings, along with the street signs and sidewalks create the impression of being in England in about 1968 – except for the Barbadian climate. We wandered east to Parliament Square then over a bridge to the wharf area, which looked to be just waking up; restaurants and bars along with a small marina. 

In search of a coffee shop, we looped back to the Parliament area and noticed a sign for the Parliament Museum. Walking around the building looking for the entrance to the museum, we wandered into a small courtyard with signage indicating that the area was for “Parliamentarians Only” – I was immediately met by a uniformed guard who claimed no knowledge of the museum, but when pressed did offer that it would be open “some time later today” – Caribbean time strikes again!

Further exploration brought us to a department store back on Broad Street – again very reminiscent of British stores in times gone by. Questioning of ground floor staff revealed the presence of a “potentially open” coffee shop up on the first floor. At last we were able to sit and have a coffee; free Wi-Fi – that actually worked, also enabled us to get up to date with the outside world.

screenshot805Before returning to the ship we wandered into St. Mary’s church on Lower Broad Street. St. Mary’s was consecrated in 1827, but occupies previous church buildings on the site date back to 1658. We found the church to be very quaint, well looked after and the attendants very friendly. Interestingly, a small plaque on one wall recognizes the visit of George Washington to Barbados; he arrived as a junior officer in the British Army and stayed only a few weeks.

Back at the ship we prepared for our afternoon tour by grabbing a quick lunch in the buffet and making sure we had sufficient camera batteries, hats, sunscreen, inspect spray… Then it was back out to the cruise terminal building where we hoped to find a nice comfortable air-conditioned bus waiting for us. Instead we wandered into absolute chaos; about 100 people we gathered in the center of the bus terminal – mostly wandering around looking confused and muttering their disgruntlement. A few official looking young ladies holding signs for the various tours were attempting to mostly ignore the customers as best they could. Eventually groups of customers were herded onto the few busses that were waiting. After cornering one of the so-called officials I was able to find out that the bus for our particular tour had not yet returned from the morning event. So we waited 45 minutes in the bus terminal come blast furnace trying not to completely loose control and literally melt down. 

Once we got going on the tour things improved; we cooled off (literally), relaxed and began to listen to the lilting voice of our tour guide. Ronnie Carrington is a longtime professional photographer in Barbados and was an excellent tour guide for this trip. On route to our destination, the Scotland District in northeast Barbados, he gave us a brief tutorial on photographic composition and shared his encyclopedic knowledge of everything Bajan (this is how the locals say Barbadian).

Barbados is mostly composed of a coral reef that has been lifted from the ocean and as such it does not have the high volcanic peaks of other islands. This landscape also made it ideal for growing sugar cane that is still harvested on the island but in dramatically lower amounts than in times gone by. At one time there were several hundred sugar plantations and dozens of processing factories – now a handful of working plantations support just one factory. Other less expensive areas of the world are now able to produce sugar in much larger quantities making sugar from Barbados uncompetitive. Landowners, eager to convert their plantations into real estate, run into government regulations regarding land use. So a kind of waiting game develops between the landowners who can’t afford to grow sugar and the government who is steadfastly holding out to maintain large portions of the island in an agricultural state and prevent large-scale property development. The end result is that the land owners just let the plantations grow wild until the government, occasionally, gives in and allows a very limited amount to the land to be developed.

screenshot806We briefly stopped outside one of the working plantation estates and Ronnie showed us how best to compose a shot of the driveway that led up to the house. When selecting this excursion we were a bit worried that most of the participants would be of the “look at my lens, its so much bigger than yours” crowd – but the group was a good mix from geeks to iPaders and everything in between. 

Moving on Ronnie explained to us a bit of the cultural change that occurred as slavery was beginning to be phased out on the island in the mid 1800s. Many of the slaves became paid workers on the plantations and often found themselves moving from one workplace to the next. To support this lifestyle they developed the concept of considering their house as a position like any other, to be taken with them as they relocated. These so-called “Chattel Houses” can still be seen all over the island and we saw many as we passed through small villages on our way to the Scotland district.

The basic idea of the original chattel house was that it could be easily disassembled, loaded onto a cart with the rest of the family possessions, and taken to the next place of abode. Reassembly involved gathering up some loose rocks and stones to make a basic foundation and then nailing the wooden boards back together. The typical house started with one small structure with a high-pitched roof (better in hurricanes) and a “lean-to” at the rear. As the family expanded additional, identically sized, structures were added at the front with the same roofline. Just like Ikea really.

As time has passed these chattel houses have become permanent structures and families have enhanced them with porches and beautiful paintwork.screenshot812Moving on through village after village Ronnie pointed out a very peculiar pairing of buildings; for every small church on the island you will always find a nearby rum shop – this must be like one of the universal truths of Barbados. This led to an explanation of the Sunday ritual in the villages in which the women and children go to church while the men stay home and cook the lunch – along with the claim that all Bajan men were good cooks. I wondered how much of this was true, at least these days, and couldn’t figure out how the rum shops fitted in to this neat little picture of idyllic island life. As we passed through the villages I caught glimpses of men lazing around outside rum shops – most looking a little worse-for-wear; and a slightly different picture of life in the village began to form in my mind.

The Scotland district is located in the northeast part of Barbados, occupying a good portion of the eastern Atlantic-facing coast. The area is more rugged than the rest of the island and this landscape being slightly reminiscent of Scotland, led to its naming. I couldn’t really see the likeness myself, and the sheep we encountered certainly were at best distant cousins to their Scottish counterparts.

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The geology of the Scotland district is also distinct from the rest of the island; it’s not composed of coral – and this continues to cause quite widespread shifts in the land that is quite unstable. Perhaps because of this, the district is quite sparsely populated and has virtually no tourist development. However our guide regaled us with stories concerning the health of those who do choose to live in this more rugged part of the island. Barbados is second only to Japan in having a very high number of residents who are greater than 100 years old, and many of them live in the Scotland district. Ronnie even produced a large photograph of his 96-year-old mother to prove his point, and she did look younger than him! It’s claimed that the longevity derives from several factors including; eating more locally grown vegetables, the fresh air that blows in untouched all the way from Africa and the hilly terrain that causes the locals get a good work out as they walk to and from the ocean each day for their morning “constitutional”.

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From the higher ridges of the Scotland district we wound our way down to the Atlantic coast for several photo stops. Beautiful beaches but rocky treacherous waters dominate this coastline; a steady warm breeze made for a very windswept landscape. Our final stop was at a roadside rum shop where we sampled the local rum punch and wandered across to the beach to view the curious rock formations.

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I found this shore excursion to be very informative but more in terms of the island than photography. Beyond the first stop and the little tutorial on the bus Ronnie did not venture much away from the bus to give any instruction on where and how to get the best shots; my impression was that if asked he would have been happy and willing to oblige. However I found Ronnie’s knowledge of Barbados and his delivery of the informationto be exceptional.


Sunday, December 28, 2014

St. Lucia is the second largest of the Windward group of islands; the mountainous terrain includes the famous Gros Piton and Petite Piton which are volcanic spines rising sheer out of the sea on the west coast.

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This was our only “tendered” stop – which means the ship does not dock, but instead anchors a little offshore and offloads the passengers using small tender boats. Today the sea was a little rough which hampered tendering operations, slowing down the rate at which passengers could get to shore; we waited two hours before boarding our tender for the short ride to the dock in the town of Castries. 

Due to the delay in getting to shore, and the relatively early scheduled departure time for the ship, we opted not to go for a taxi tour today. Instead we decided to walk around Castries and perhaps do a bit of shopping. Compared to other ports of call Castries is not very “touristy” – the town appears to be more set up to cater to the locals. Ordinarily we’d love this, only as we wandered into town we realized that, it being Sunday, all of the local shops and businesses were closed. 

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The only place that was open was, surprise surprise, the local church – which from the outside looked a bit shabby, but on the inside it was really very pretty. The church was actually the Roman Catholic Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception and formed the eastern boundary of Derek Walcott Square named in honor of the 1992 Nobel Prize winner for literature. Incredibly, this tiny island also produced the 1979 Nobel economics winner, Sir William Lewis. A 450-year-old Samaan tree also dominates the square.

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Back at the dock we ate a very mediocre lunch at Chef Robby’s restaurant; the usual crowded, disorganized experience accompanied by the usual slow Caribbean service – I don’t think we’ll ever get used to this!

So that was St. Lucia, a bit of a disappointment due to the slow start and the town being basically closed. In addition the overcast weather meant we could not even catch a glimpse of the famous Pitons. 


Saturday, December 27, 2014

Our second port of call was the town of Roseau on the island of Dominica; variously pronounced Dom-in-ic-a or Dom-ineek-a. Dominica is the largest and most mountainous of the Windward Islands at 29 miles long by 16 miles wide and is not to be confused with the Dominican Republic. The island is known for its natural wonders; water falls, rain forest, a boiling lake and sulphur springs.

screenshot787We went ashore with our UK / Ireland based friends and on the dock I negotiated for a taxi tour of 5 hours for the four of us at $45 per person. We much prefer to ride in a car with a small number of people and in this case I was able to negotiate the same rate for our small group as others were being offered in large vans. After three hand-offs we met our driver and climbed into a nice, modern, air-conditioned 7-passenger mini-van – it was very comfortable. 

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We headed up the coast from town for a short while and then turned sharply inland heading for the rain forest and the Emerald Pool. During the 40 minute drive up narrow, winding and at times literally washed out roads our driver occasionally stopped to point out the various flora and fauna of the island. Compared to other drivers we’ve had he was not the most liberal with his descriptions, and at times he had to be prompted – but he was OK. On and off rain added to the driving excitement and about 5 minutes from our destination, we stopped at a roadside bar to buy tickets for entry into the rain forest – which is a National Park (the tickets cost $5 per person).

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In the parking lot of the National Park we by-passed the trinket stalls and deflected a not-so-aggressive guide who was offering his knowledge to tourists. The park building consisted of a small bar / restaurant and a ramshackle visitor center with very interesting electrical wiring. We followed the signs for the 15-minute trek to the Emerald Pool and immediately entered the rain forest. The pathway to the pool consists of a gravel track with occasional rough-hewn steps that decide about 100 feet, at times following along a small fast flowing river. Along the way the scenery is just magnificent with lush green vegetation and tall moss-covered trees rising up to a dense canopy. The air was cool but humid and there was the sound of a distant waterfall that increased in intensity the more we descended. 

Eventually we arrived at the Emerald Pool, the 15 minute trek had taken us about half an hour – we must have been running on island time! The pool is fed by a spectacular 40-foot waterfall and is bounded on one side by a cavernous cliff. Several tourists had decided to take a brief dip in the pool, but due to the apparently cold water they did not stay wet for too long and they were climbing out as we arrived. 

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100 photographs later we began our ascent back up to the parking lot. Thankfully the park provides a relatively smooth concrete walkway that loops back up from the pool and so we avoided having to negotiate the rough steps and gravel path we had encountered on our descent. More spectacular scenery, more photographs and then we eventually returned to “civilization”.  Back at the visitor center I ordered drinks, including a locally brewed Kabuli beer (“the pride of Dominica”), and some fried plantain (good) and fried breadfruit (not so good).

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Back in the taxi we headed in the direction of Roseau and then once again out of town and up more mountainous roads, stopping briefly to view some distant waterfalls, before arriving at the sulphur springs. More trinket stalls line the road leading to the springs and the air is filled with the intense smell of sulphur, most commonly associated with “rotten eggs”. Many people could be seen gagging and turning around, heading away from the springs due to the increasing intensity of the smell. I pushed on to a small viewing platform perhaps 8 feet above the point at which water and steam could be seen bubbling from the small stream, occasionally shooting a couple of feet into the air. It was interesting, though not spectacular.

Back in town we drove through the botanical gardens, which to be honest looked a bit sparse – I was glad we didn’t stop. One interesting attraction in the gardens involves a tree and a bus; during a recent hurricane the school bus was parked in the botanical gardens for safekeeping – only to be totally crushed by a falling tree. 

We finished the taxi tour with a drive to the top of a hill overlooking Roseau and then were dropped back in the center of town. 

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Dinner in the Todd English restaurant where helped the other couple from our regular dining table celebrate their 62nd wedding anniversary


Friday, December 26, 2014

Our first port of call, St. Thomas in the US Virgin Islands – this meant our US cell phones worked and the US dollar was the currency. St. Thomas was purchased by the US from the Danish as a defensive move during World War 1 for $25M. The island, which is 40 miles east of Puerto Rico, is volcanic and 14 miles long and just 2 miles wide. Charlotte Amalie is the largest town on the island, and also the capital; the ship docked about a mile to the west of the town center.

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The usual array of trinket shops greet the cruise ship traveller on the dock; we find the goods in these stores to be mostly junk-grade – so we pushed our way through to the “taxi” zone. On previous island visits we had great success in hiring a local taxi driver for a few hours to show us the highlights – not so on St. Thomas. The taxi zone was absolute chaos; no organized lines, lots of shouting, people running around – it’s normal to be handed down through the taxi organizing hierarchy until you finally meet your driver, but this system seemed to have completely broken down. No regular taxis were available; the best we could do was a couple of seats on an open sided 20-person bus (for some long ago almost forgotten reason we call these buses “mammy wagons”). We had no desire to spend several hours in such unpleasant conditions, and so we opted to get off in the center of Charlotte Amalie at a cost of $4 per person. 

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Corrugated sheet metal is definitely the construction material of choice in the Caribbean; it’s used for most roofs, fences and almost anywhere. The corrugated sheet metal, shoddy brickwork, ubiquitous black mold and strange paint color combinations give Caribbean towns a run-down, almost but not quite quaint appearance. Without our usual taxi tour, we opted for a nose around the town. The mammy wagon dropped us off at Emancipation Square, so named for obvious reasons, and we were immediately drawn to a large mounted copy of the US Liberty Bell; apparently the original pilgrims stopped off at St. Thomas on their way to the New World. Imagining how beautiful and lush the island must have looked back then I wonder what drove them to carry on with their quest?

Charlotte Amalie has one main street and it consists entirely of jewelry shops, I’m not kidding – there must be at least 100! We’ve never seen the attraction in buying jewelry in places like this; it’s hard to bring it back if it falls apart or the gold starts to look green after a few weeks.

Blazing heat, high humidity and generally being unimpressed and out of sorts drove us to find a place for a cool drink. Down a side street we found a bar with free wi-fi, it was outdoor seating but shaded – so we plonked ourselves down and ordered a couple of alcoholic slushy drinks and a few fish tacos. Suitable refreshed, fed and digitally up-to-date we headed back to the ship via another mammy wagon. 

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So that was St. Thomas, I’m sure if we’d been able to get a taxi tour we’d have gained a totally different impression – but if you are visiting this island, don’t like to jewelry shop and aren’t able to get a tour outside of Charlotte Amalie – I’d recommend just staying on the ship. In hindsight, perhaps this is one of the few islands where taking a shore excursion offered by the ship might actually be worth it.

Back onboard and about 20 minutes after leaving port, the ship lost all power – lights out, no air conditioning, no propulsion. We drifted for about 10 minutes until power was restored.


Thursday, December 25, 2014

Christmas Day and our final day at sea before St Thomas. screenshot779We have rarely been away from home on Christmas day – perhaps once in over 30 years so it feels doubly strange to be away and aboard a ship sailing for the Caribbean.  “Merry Christmas” was the greeting from all passengers we encountered – few if any “Happy Holidays” could be heard, which I found very pleasant.

We opened our Cunard presents to find, as expected, a couple of nice Wedgwood commemorative coffee mugs.

Strolled the promenade deck in the morning; beautiful weather and the Caribbean Sea was very calm.

In the afternoon we attended the children’s Christmas party in the main ballroom; we were surprised to see perhaps 100 children in attendance since they had not been obvious to us thus far in the cruise – maybe they lock them up somewhere? We tried not to get in the way and stayed on the periphery of the events; the kids were on the dance floor singing and dancing until the arrival of the main guest. 

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I have to say that Cunard did a brilliant job with this party; on a large screen was projected a map of the world and as time passed Santa’s sleigh could be seen making it’s way across the ocean until it neared the Queen Mary 2. Then the screen switched to a video of Santa up by the ship’s funnel and in various spots around the upper decks. After much anticipation, with all the kids screaming, Santa entered the ballroom following by a brass band playing Christmas music in the style of a New Orleans Mardi Gras. 

Christmas dinner in the main dining room offered the traditional British turkey plate along with Christmas crackers and fig pudding – very nice.


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

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Our second sea day passed in relaxation; we often find ourselves unusually tired on these days and this inevitably leads to intense speculation about the cause – how can we be so tired when we spend most of the day just relaxing? 

In the afternoon we attended a Christmas carol singing event in the main lobby with several of the ships crew dressed in Dickensian attire around the main Christmas tree joined by several hundred passengers. Song sheets were handed out and we joined in the merriment – most of the songs were familiar to me even though I had not sung them for over 30 years. The many trees and decorations around the ship further enhanced the Christmas mood; including a huge gingerbread village assembled along the main central corridor. 

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Not having cruised over the Christmas period before we were unaware of some of the passenger rituals. One such tradition involves hanging a Christmas ornament on your cabin door; of course some passengers take this to extremes – one door was adorned with many decorations including flashing lights. We also happened to glimpse into a cabin and see a small but fully decorated Christmas tree! We hurried to the onboard shop to procure a suitable ornament for our door, which Sandra ingeniously attached with a Band-Aid. Thus we avoided the shame and scorn of being decoration-less cabin door passengers.

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This evening we had dinner in one of the specialty restaurants; each evening a section of the buffet area is very cleverly cordoned off by the use of hitherto unseen movable wall panels. This space is transformed into a “restaurant” with white table linens and white glove service – there are several menu themes that are used for this event and on this particular night the theme was “Lotus”, a fusion of Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Indonesian food. The food is served as a tasting menu, so no menu choices are needed; in the past we’ve really enjoyed these events and tonight lived up to expectations. Note that there is a $15 per person cover charge and reservations are required.

On returning to our cabin we found we had received a Christmas card signed by the captain and senior staff along with two boxed gifts. To avoid hauling extra weight we had exchanged presents before leaving home, so we opted to not open the Cunard gifts until Christmas morning – though the contents of the boxes was pretty obvious.


Tuesday, December 23, 2014

We have three days at sea before our first port of call at St. Thomas. We like to use the sea days to rest and recuperate – easing into life on board. Our daily ritual is arranged around the various eating options; for each meal there are a variety of choices from the more formal dining room to the very relaxed buffet. We are not big fans for the buffet, on any cruise; it always seems like a bit of an arm-wrestling melee with a higher probability of catching someone else’s communicable disease. In addition, Cunard has decided that offering passengers the use of a tray in the buffet is a bad idea. I suppose this is meant to discourage the creation of Everest size platters and thereby save some money; but my observation was that those who choose to eat in excess were doing it anyway – just making multiple trips. The end result is even more congestion and confusion in the buffet area.

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We find that taking breakfast, lunch and dinner in the formal dining room to be a lot more civilized – though it does mean adhering to the set meal times. In addition traditional afternoon tea is offered everyday at 3pm and other specialty restaurants offer dining options for a nominal fee.

On sea days Cunard offers several lectures each day given by prominent speakers, those knowledgeable in their field. Today we attended a really interesting lecture by former Concorde Captain Tim Orchard; by an amazing coincidence this was the same pilot who flew the Concorde we had visited in the museum in New York – we had seen his signature on the ceiling of the cockpit. This particular talk was entitled “My Office at 60,000 Feet” and covered takeoff, cruising and landing from London to New York. Captain Orchard holds the time record for a passenger flight across the Atlantic; flying from New York to London in 2 hours and 52 minutes. 


Monday, December 22, 2014

Embarkation day, always a bit of a hectic time – though today went reatively smoothly. We checked out of the Westin and, with the aid of the doorman, manhandled our 3 large suitcases into the waiting taxi for the ride downtown, across the Brooklyn Bridge and along to the cruise terminal. Following the usual security and check-in procedures were soon boarding the beautiful Queen Mary 2; it had taken us a little over an hour to get from the hotel in Manhattan to our cabin on the ship – pretty good! 

Our cabin, more correctly called a stateroom these days, is 8004 – meaning its on deck 8, left (port) side near the front (bow). On our last trip aboard this ship we also stayed on deck 8, though a bit nearer the middle of the ship (amidships). Deck 8 houses the ships lifeboats which means that most of the cabins have their balcony view obstructed for which a small discount is offered. However towards the front of the ship there are no lifeboats attached and so our cabin has an unobstructed view from the balcony.

Sailing out of New York harbor is such a treat; even on a cold and cloudy night the views of lower Manhattan, the bridges over the east river, Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty are fantastic. We bundled up in our warmest clothes and gathered on the large deck at the back of the ship for the sail away. Christmas music was playing, we drank champagne and gawked like little children at the spectacular views as the ship pulled out and began her slow maneuvers passed Staten Island and into the Verrazano Straits – our voyage had begun.

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Sunday, December 21, 2014

The shopping phase continued into Sunday with a trip to Macys at Herald Square – another cavernous, sprawling warren of a place. I found a nice comfortable chair near the in-house Starbucks and settled down to read my book while Sandra ventured off into the jungle of designer clothing racks. A short time later she emerged carrying several bags – always an indication of a successful hunt. 

It’s hard not to notice the Empire State Building as you walk though Herald Square, and since it had been several years since our last trip to this magnificent tower, we decided to pay it a visit. Part of our logic for this detour was based on the assumption that most people would be doing their Christmas shopping and so the queue would be small. As we approached the tower we began to feel as though our plan was working out; we were able to enter the building and walk though several “cattle pen” areas and right up to the airport style security checkpoint. So far so good! On we went through more waiting areas with no queue in sight until we finally hit the back of the inevitable line. From this point on, things moved very, very slowly.

The viewing platforms for the Empire State building are on the 65th and 103rd floors; an extra fee, that we opted to pay, is charged to ascend to the higher platform. After an interminable wait we reached the tiny elevators; when the building was designed I don’t think the architects had any idea of the extent to which it would become a tourist attraction. The first elevator slowly brings you up to the 60th floor for another round of waiting; at this point we opted to use the stairs to reach the 65th floor rather than wait around for the elevator. Even on a cloudy day the view from the 65th floor platform is very impressive; we feared for a howling wind but as it turned out things were very calm, but very cold.

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About 100 photographs later we found ourselves, once again, waiting in line for an elevator – this time up to the 103rd floor. We couldn’t remember doing this bit on our last visit, and so we were a little disappointed to find that the viewing area at the top is all enclosed with glass, making picture taking very difficult. We spent some time enjoying the view before taking the three elevators back to the ground floor – thankfully the queues were much shorter. 

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The visit to the Empire State Building took about 2 hours, only 30 minutes of which were spent actually taking in the views. We both agreed that some kind of signage at the entrance to the building, indicating approximate wait time, would be a good addition to this attraction.

Finally we got lucky and were able to jump right into a taxi for the short journey over to Chelsea Market in the lower west side of Manhattan. The market is located in an old biscuit factory building that has been tastefully renovated. The main thoroughfare winds its way through the ground floor of the building with dozens of shops and restaurants along the way. The architecture is red brick / exposed beams meets old warehouse creating a very pleasant atmosphere. The merchants are one-of-a-kind, artisan-types and the food is fresh and organic. We selected a restaurant called The Green Table and were not disappointed. We highly recommend Chelsea Market for lunch, specialty shopping or organic produce.

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For Sunday dinner our friends from the last Cunard cruise joined us; they had just flown in from the UK and would also be taking the Christmas cruise on the Queen Mary 2. On the recommendation of our concierge, we dined at Piccolo Fiore – an Italian restaurant (did I really need to write that?) just a few blocks from the hotel. 

When we reached the restaurant, to my great surprise, I realized that Sandra and I had eaten there on one of our previous New York visits – and really enjoyed it. The food at Piccolo Fiore is classic Italian executed very well – we had a great time.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Another bitter cold, sub-freezing day, but we did not let this stop us from venturing out once again to explore New York City; this time heading for the Intrepid Air and Space Museum on the west side of Manhattan. 

The USS Intrepid aircraft carrier saw action in the Pacific during World War II and also in the Vietnam War; following its decommissioning it was turned into a floating museum. The museum collection actually extends from the ship out onto the dock and contains an impressive array of military aircraft along with a space shuttle a Concorde supersonic passenger plane and a submarine.

There are several entry options for the Intrepid Museum; the basic entry fee gets you into the ship and to see the aircraft collection while additional fees are charged for entry into the Space Shuttle Pavilion and for a guided tour of the Concorde. We opted for the full monty. We arrived just in time for the start of the Concorde tour and hurried into the ship to pick up our tour guide and join the other 7 members of the group. The Concorde tour was outstanding; the guide was extremely knowledgeable, entertaining and enthusiastic – and the plane has been very nicely restored. Our small group was invited on board where the guide, aided by his iPad, took us through what it was like to board and fly in the Concorde. We were encouraged to spend as much time was we liked in the plane and even got to visit the cockpit – though the captain’s seat was out of bounds. However, Sandra was able to sit in seat 1A – the favorite seat of Her Majesty The Queen!

  

 

A separate pavilion has been constructed on the dock to house the space shuttle Enterprise along with associated exhibits, including a special Hubble Telescope display. The entire space shuttle is contained within the pavilion; it’s suspended above the ground to allow visitors to walk beneath the massive machine – it’s an awesome experience. A gantry has been assembled at the nose end of the shuttle, ascending the short staircase allows for a brilliant view of the front end and all along the length of the aircraft. 

Leaving the museum we took a short walk to the Studio 54 Theater in an attempt to purchase same-day tickets for the Broadway show Cabaret. Alas, on this day we were not so lucky; the show was sold out – but we were offered two tickets for the Sunday matinee at $257 each, we passed.

We now entered the shopping phase of our New York visit; first stop Bloomingdales. The Bloomingdales store is located several blocks east of Central Park and, like many of the large department stores, consists of several interconnected buildings that I find can lead to a very frustrating shopping experience. On a previous visit we had lunched at the in-house burger restaurant and found it to be very good – so we opted for this again. The restaurant, called Flip, has an impressive menu – including the ability to select your personal blend of ground beef and many other custom options. I made the mistake of ordering an Indian- style lamb burger wrapped in a naan bread, I would not recommend it – unless you have a penchant for a burger so dry it attempts to suck every drop of water from your body as you eat it! Fearing serious dehydration, I gave up and settled for the fries – which were at best 2 out of 10.

Shopping complete, we once again attempted to get a taxi in late afternoon Manhattan – this failed endeavor led to another monstrous 20 block hike, this time all the way back to the hotel. On route we stopped at a great market inside Grand Central Terminal that consisted of several shops selling a host of bread, cheese and other really good quality food items. Often when we are on an extended trip we get a bit burned out with the whole restaurant experience; on these occasions we opt for a simple dinner of bread, cheese and wine in our hotel room. The market in Grand Central provided us with everything we needed for a low-key dinner “at home” in our hotel.


Friday, December 19, 2014

Today is the first of three days in New York before we board the Queen Mary 2 for a round trip cruise to the Caribbean. After the Caribbean cruise we will be staying on the ship to cross the Atlantic to Southampton, England – it is such a great treat to do two cruises back-to-back. Finally we’ll finish our vacation with a few days in Brugge, Belgium and some time in the UK.

We’ve been to New York a few times in the past so we don’t feel the need to rush around and cram in every single attraction. Our first stop was the 911 memorial and museum in lower Manhattan. The weather was bitterly cold, slightly below freezing, but there was no rain or snow – so we bundled up tight and tumbled into a taxi for the short ride from our hotel, The Westin, on E 42nd Street in midtown.

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Visiting the site of the 911 terrorist attacks on the two World Trade Center towers is a very traumatic experience. The area of the two original towers has been turned into a large plaza with two expansivesquare ponds into which water flows from all four sides. The ponds occupy the sites of the original towers and the surroundingwalls are adorned with the names of every victim of the attacks.

Beautiful new high-rise glass and steel buildings have been constructed around the original site, including the new One World Trade Center building which rises above all others at 1776 feet tall.

We proceeded to the 911 Museum building, which is a relatively small structure, and got in line for our 9AM reserved time. It’s essential to buy your tickets ahead of time which is easy to do on the museum’s website. The doors opened right on time and we made our way through the airport-style security checks – only without the grumpy workers. After checking our heavy outer coats, scarves, gloves, hats etc. (yes it was very cold) we descended a large escalator into the museum.

Now we realized that the museum was a lot bigger than the small surface building would lead you to believe; the vast majority of it is below ground level. In fact the museum must occupy just about the same area as the afore-mentioned plaza. The museum centers around two main memorial areas that are constructed at what would have been the base of each of the two original towers. To enter the memorial structures you cross over the line of columns that supported the towers; the columns have been cut off at ground level but the shape of the I-beam steel is still clearly visible.

The first memorial is dedicated to all those who perished in the attacks, not just in New York but also at the Pentagon and in Pennsylvania. The inside walls of the memorial are lined with almost 3000 photographs – one for each victim, and large interactive video terminals enable visitors to select a picture and learn about the person. In addition there is a small central auditorium in the memorial that continually shows the stories of the victims. An auditory backdrop is created from a reading of the names of each victim – read out by a family member or friend. A few personal effects are also on display inside the memorial, including wallets, car keys etc.

The second memorial, at the base of the other original tower, is dedicated to the events of the day on 911. A detailed minute-by-minute timeline winds its way around one wall; pieces of the aircraft that struck the towers are on display as well. There are areas focused on the incredible bravery of the emergency responders and also detailed descriptions of how the terrorists plotted and carried out the attacks. No photographs were allowed in either of the memorials.

The rest of the museum, the areas around the memorials, contain exhibits that depict the carnage of the day; bent and mangled steel beams, a partially crushed fire truck, a piece of the freedom staircase (used by many to escape the towers), the last column (the final column removed from the site; it had become covered with personal notes from those who worked on the recovery) and tucked away in a quiet corner – a case displaying artifacts from the raid on Osama Bin-Laden’s compound, included a Navy Seal shirt and a brick from the house in the compound.

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We finished off our 911-focused morning with a brief stop at St. Paul’s church, a short walk from the 911 site. Emergency crews used this church as a rest and reflection place during the days following 911 and it contains several displays dedicated to the event. We visited St. Paul’s on our last trip to New York; it’s covered in a previous blog, so I won’t dwell on it today. Suffice it to say that it is well worth a visit from both a recent and colonial history perspective.

When visiting New York we always try to fit in a Broadway show and we’ve found that, with a bit of effort, great deals can be had on tickets. To this end we took the underground train up to Times Square and the famous “half price” ticket booth; this place sells reduced-price theater tickets – but only for that day and there is no guarantee that you’ll get the tickets for the show you want. On previous trips we have been lucky at the ticket booth, but an alternative strategy is to go directly to the box office of the theater showing the event of your choice for same-day ticket-deals. We arrived at the ticket booth around noon, which was too early for same-day tickets (they don’t start selling until 3PM). Rather than freeze to death (literally) waiting around, we made our way to the Neil Simon Theater in hopes of landing a couple of tickets for The Last Ship – featuring Sting. As luck would have it we managed to get a great deal on two orchestra area tickets for $99 each (about $50 off) – I have to say that this was largely down to Sandra using her extensive “social skills” (something, sadly I am completely devoid of) to talk the guy into giving us the deal.

Cabs on are hard to come by on a Friday afternoon in Manhattan; we trudged along for about 10 minutes until Sandra hit on the idea of going into a hotel, hanging around in the lobby for a few minutes and then emerging like hotel guests in need of a cab – at which point the doorman will step up to help. This strategy paid off and we were soon headed to the Metropolitan Museum for lunch and a quick look at some the highlights of the collection.

Sandra checked the coats, highly recommended to facilitate a comfortable visit, while I procured the tickets. The Met has a strange ticket system; everyone must have a ticket but you don’t have to pay for it – the museum suggests a “donation”’ amount but you can actually pay any amount you like, or nothing. I paid the suggested amount, about $50 for both of us.I’ve covered the Met in a previous blog so I’ll just summarize by saying that it is a gigantic museum in many connected buildings, on several levels with a confusing corridor system. The best way to navigate is to note the room number at the entrance to each space and keep track of these on the map you can pick up at the museum’s entrance. Our focus for this visit was a special exhibit of 19th century ladies mourning attire – and in particular the dress construction and design. As you can guess this was of more interest to one of us than the other.

Trying to get a taxi on the west side of Central Park at 5PM on a Friday evening is not an easy task. Hundreds of taxis came whizzing down 5th avenue but none displayed the necessary illuminated sign to say they were available. After 15 frustrating minutes, and with no hotels in sight to try our previous trick, we decided to start walking south towards midtown, stopping at each intersection to once again try our luck for a cab – but each time none were available. We even tried moving a couple of blocks east in the hopes of better pickings – but still no luck. We continued our slow march south until finally after about 20 blocks we got lucky and were pleased to be whisked off to the warm confines of our hotel.

The Neil Simon Theater was surprisingly small and we found our seats to be very nicely situated about 10 rows from the stage. As we waited in anticipation for the start of the show I became more and more excited; the story of The Last Ship takes place in the region of England where I grew up and I remember the struggles that occurred as the local ship yards closed down. So the close connection to the story and the appearance by Sting, whose work we have enjoyed for years, made for a great combination. I thoroughly enjoyed the show, which was well choreographed and performed; the music and songs were great – even though they occasionally tended to the “sea chanty” genre. At the intermission I could not resist a glass of Newcastle Brown ale and on the way to the bar I picked up some snippets of conversation that gave me incites into how the American audience was reacting to show; “I think the ship is a metaphor for….” “Don’t you think the leading character represents…” – what a load of bollocks! On returning from the bar, drinks in hand, I discovered that Sandra had been engaged in conversation with some of the other members of the audience. Apparently they had asked her opinion of the show and she was attempting to explain story; somehow during this dialog it was revealed that I was from the region where the story was set. It turned out that the people Sandra was talking to were part of a large group, and pretty soon about a quarter of the theater was pointing and saying “hey that’s the guy who grew up in the shipyards” – how embarrassing!

Following the show we took a taxi back to the hotel and enjoyed a nice midnight snack in the bar. A very long and enjoyable first day in New York thus ended.