Carribean Cruise 2009

thursday, december 3, 2009

Day 17 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 17 New York City

This is the last full day of our great vacation; tomorrow we fly back to California.

Breakfast this morning could not have been a bigger contrast to yesterday; we stopped at a little place called Bread and Co – it was great; Sandra had a bagel with cream cheese, I had oatmeal, we both had good coffee it only cost us $6.75!

Following breakfast the four of us jumped in a cab and headed all the way down to the southern tip of Manhattan. We strolled along the waterfront taking in the great views of the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island, checked out the World War II Memorial (several gigantic vertical granite slabs with hundreds of names inscribed on them) and walked through the old fort. The weather was really great; it was one of those crisp bright winter mornings – we really enjoyed it.

Heading north we passed a piece of a metal statue that used to be beside one of the World Trade Center towers before 9/11. The statue was damaged and mangled so they moved it to this spot as a temporary memorial; there is also an eternal flame that burns at the site.

We headed up Broadway and encountered the Wall Street Bull; this is a gigantic brass statue of a bull that has become a popular tourist attraction. Interestingly, parked in a small pickup truck just beside the bull was a huge inflatable rat that was being used as a silent protest by some laid off construction workers. The obligatory posed photos were taken. Just a little further up Broadway, directly opposite Wall Street, is the Church of the Holy Trinity – a beautiful little old church with many graves and memorials that date to the American Revolution. In the church yard is a very moving sculpture; a large cedar tree was completely uprooted during the 9/11 attack and amazingly did not land on any structures. During the recovery they found all of the tree roots still intact and an artist coated the roots in bronze – this is the sculpture that now stands in the church yard.

A quick trip down Wall Street could not be resisted; it’s a really short street – with the New York Stock Exchange and the hall where George Washington was inaugurated featuring prominently. There was a very heavy police presence in this area.

On we moved to Ground Zero where all of the construction we saw the last time we were here is starting to pay off; the beginnings of a large tower can now be seen rising above the screens that surround the square. This is still a very emotional place.

Following our predetermined plan, we hopped in a taxi and headed for the Museum at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT). Both Sandra and Kat are very avid sewers so we had agreed to a couple of stops today that should help support their habit – this was the first of them. We arrived at the FIT only to find that the museum did not open until noon – we were 15 minutes early. What could we do to fill in the time – ah, eat!

Walking up 7th avenue we found a Chinese restaurant called the Ginger House – in we went. This being a college area of town the prices were very low – like $5.95 for a nice lunch. However as the place filled up we did not notice many students, it was mostly business folks. The Ginger House was great value and the food fine. Sufficiently nourished we headed back to the museum.

Entry to the museum was free (you can’t get any better than that) and the display consisted of a single special exhibit focused on American designers. The exhibit was quite small; I sat for most of the time watching the explanatory video while Sandra and Kat walked around the displays of dresses; I noticed much pointing, ooing and ahing – so I assume it was good. Sandra can add more here if she wants.

Walking just a few blocks further up 7th we stopped to check out the Christmas display in the windows of Macys on 34th street – very holiday-spirit kind of thing.

Another 10 minute walk took us to the fabric store to beat all fabric stores – Mood Designer Fabrics! This is the store that was made famous by the TV show “Project Runway” – it took a little bit of finding (we actually walked passed it), since it does not have any ground floor store front – it’s up on the third floor. Amazingly when we came out of the old rattling elevator and into the store I realized that a film crew was set up with cameras all over the place; they were shooting some footage for a new reality show called “The City” which will run on MTV. Off Sandra went into the warren of a store; there is so much fabric! I wandered around checking out the camera equipment. After about 10 minutes Mike, Kat and I were approached by a young girl working with the film crew who asked us to sign a waiver since we had been filmed – wow Hollywood here we come!

Well somehow Sandra only bought a couple of Mood tote bags, since we have to fly home and we are already at our weight limit. Bummer.

Even though it was only early afternoon we decided to head back to the hotel and do some packing before heading out to dinner.

There was a unanimous decision regarding where to go for dinner; back to the Carnegie Deli! We headed down to the front of the hotel to get a taxi at 6PM, then – discovering that it had started to rain, I headed back up to the room to fetch the brolly. After about 15 minutes the doorman finally got us a taxi and we headed off – but it was a complete waste of time, gridlock having set in due to the Christmas tree lighting ceremony. Our plan was to get a taxi to the deli then walk back via Rockerfeller Center to see if we could get a glimpse of the tree.

The taxi had to take several detours to even get within 2 blocks of the deli – which was a good mile from the tree. We gave up on the cab and walked the last bit in the increasingly heavy rain. On the way, we passed Carnegie Hall – which now makes the name of the deli make a lot more sense.

The Carnegie Deli was every bit as good as our first visit – even though we did not get our favorite waiter, Wayne. The mile high sandwiches arrived – complete with bread that is at best a garnish on a sandwich of this magnitude. The corned beef is like no other I have every tasted – it literally (I mean it) melted in my mouth. This time both couples sensibly decided to split sandwiches; though Kat and Mike ordered something different - a humongous pile of corned beef served open face on top of a thick potato pancake (knish), the whole thing was topped with melted cheese.

We rolled out of the deli and headed down 7th street in the direction of Rockerfeller Center. It was raining quite heavy and for every step we took the crowd got bigger and bigger. Turning left we tried to move closer to the area of the tree, still a good 3 blocks away – but it was useless. At one point I did catch a distant glimpse of Aretha Franklin on a big screen TV, and we could hear her singing. We tried to find a bar to wait it out, but they were all full. I must say that the NYPD did a great job of crowd control – you’d think they’d done this kind of thing before! It was cold, wet, crowded and not getting any better – so we decided to head back to the hotel.

We headed up to our rooms, dried off and then headed to the bar for a final night cap. I managed to get the only table available in the bar, so finally something was going our way. We sat and reminisced about our fantastic trip while sipping a nice cold Guinness (Cosmo for Sandra) – all in all a terrific end to a terrific trip.

thursday, december 3, 2009

Day 16 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 16 New York City

We breakfasted in the lobby of the hotel; Sandra and Kat had discovered that Eggs Benedict was invented in the Waldorf Astoria so they had to try them – they had been eating this particular breakfast practically every morning on the ship, so they also needed to do a comparison. I think all of us were pretty disappointed with the breakfast; the service was very slow and when the cooked breakfasts finally arrived the potatoes were cold – Sandra called the waiter over and got things sorted out. The taste test came out in favor of the QM2 - all this for $75 per couple. Just to be clear, we don’t mind paying top dollar for top quality and service – in this respect the Peacock Alley Restaurant at the Waldorf Astoria just did not come through.

After breakfast we hiked back down to Time Square to see if we could procure ticket for the Radio City Music Hall Rockettes Christmas Show – we had assume it would open at 10AM, but were surprised to find it did not open until 2PM.

We jumped in a taxi and headed to the Museum of Natural History – this is the one with the big dinosaur skeleton in the entryway where they filmed some of the movie “Night at the Museum”. We paid our $24 entry fee (which included extra to see the special “Silk Road” exhibit) and spent a few hours checking out the well presented exhibits. The Silk Road exhibit was well done and very informative.

The Metropolitan Museum is directly across Central Park from the Natural History Museum; and so, with only my iPhone as a guide, we set out on foot to traverse the park. The weather was cold but bright and dry so the walk was very pleasant. We did take a few detours to look at some of the beautiful bridges and lakes, but after about half an hour we made it across.

The entry fee for the Met is $20, but the coat checking is free! After paying our way in we headed straight for the restaurant having burned a lot of energy crossing the park – actually it was late afternoon and we had not had lunch.

Since Sandra and I had visited the Met about 18 months ago, and Kat and Mike had not, we decided to split up and meet up again at the end of the afternoon. The collection in the Met is unbelievable; everything from modern art, ancient Egypt, sculpture, grand master painting… We really tried to focus on just a few of the things we wanted to see, but it’s really hard not to get distracted as you move from one area to another. After a while it just becomes a blur… oh another Rembrandt, oh another Monet, oh another blah blah. When visiting a museum like this you really have to take a few breaks as you going through to appreciate it.

Dog tired, we jumped in a cab and headed back to Time Square for our second attempt at procuring Rockettes tickets. It was about 5PM and the traffic was snarled all the way down 5th Avenue – we move at sub-snails pace. Finally we arrived at the square; there were lots of street vendors with carts selling roasted nuts and we couldn’t resist a bag of sugared cashews (Sandra’s favorites). There was no line at the ticket booth and we amazingly got 4 tickets in the 4th row, orchestra section, for the 8PM Rockettes show – for $43 each! On the way back to the hotel we fell into another Irish bar for a quick beer / cocktail – it hit the spot.

Back at the hotel we had to do a quick turn around and then back head out; we decided to get a taxi to the theater – even though it was fairly close. The cab driver gave us a hard time for only asking for such a short ride – it was about 3 blocks, but we were low on energy, so we didn’t care.

The Rockettes show was simply out of this world; I have to admit that I did not know quite what to expect – I knew there would be lines of chorus girls doing high kicks but it was so much more than this. The show included 3D animation (we had to put on those special glasses), singing, amazing dance routines, integrated video graphics and live animals (yes they had sheep, a donkey and 3 camels parading across the stage). The show lasted about 90 minutes and it was non-stop action; we all thought it was amazing – and our seats were fantastic.

Wandering back towards our hotel we noticed that St. Patrick’s Cathedral was open so we popped in for a quick look. St. Patrick’s is an impressive building; although not that old by European standards, it still presents a commanding presence with high vaulted ceilings and beautiful stained glass windows.

Even though it was a quite late (for us anyway) we were felt the need to replenish the calorie stores so we stopped and had a drink and some pizza at a place called Alfredo’s just off 5th avenue. The pizza was extremely thin crust and excellent, Kat had the Alfredo – it was also very good. I found the ambience to be a bit yuppie and the service was not the best; although the waiter was honest enough to admit upfront that the beer selection was garbage – he was right. Our waiter also warned us about the festivities that were going to take place the next night; the lighting of the Christmas tree at Rockerfeller Center. Basically the area around Rockerfeller Center, several blocks in all directions, gets completely closed off to traffic and totally jammed with people. We trudged back to the hotel; we are all really knackered and looking forward to a good night’s kip.

thursday, december 3, 2009

Day 15 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 15 New York City

The QM2 docked at the Brooklyn Cruise terminal at 6AM this morning, but we weren’t awake to see it – we were knackered and fast asleep in our cabin. We finally rolled out of bed at 7:30AM, packed up our hand luggage and headed out to the buffet for a final chow down. Our designated departure time from the ship was 10AM, but we had to be out of the cabin by 8:30AM so we found a quite spot in the Library and settled down for our wait. Even though we are sad to be leaving the ship we are also looking forward to 3 nights in Manhattan before we return home.

After several announcements it became apparent that departures were running 45 minutes late; I began to worry that we would be late for our pre-ordered car – and end up paying waiting fees. However, Sandra went to the Purser’s desk and explained the situation; this resulted in us getting an escorted exit off the ship – which was very nice; a snide comment from one person in line was soon silenced by Sandra and a minor riot was avoided. We picked up our baggage and were through the customs check by 10:45AM.

Our van arrived and we were whisked off to our hotel in Manhattan; the Waldorf-Astoria. This hotel is fancy (that’s an understatement); we passed through a massive ornate vestibule and into an equally large columned lobby area. It was only noon, so we had to haggle a bit with the desk clerk to free up a room for us – not really a problem.

We have a beautiful corner room on the 11th floor (1130); doorbell, high ceilings, period furnishing, large screen TV and large bathroom – by mid-town Manhattan standards this is a large room.

Mike and Kat joined us and we headed out to find somewhere to eat lunch; after all we are coming down from the cruise ship induced food high – and we need our fix! After checking with the concierge about a real NY deli we were directed to the Carnegie Deli at 55th and 7th; 5 blocks up Park Avenue, turn left the about another 10 blocks. We decided to walk, trying to burn off some of those extra cruise pounds. It was raining a bit, but not too cold; still, by the time we got there we were ready to get warm and eat.

Carnegie Deli did not disappoint; we were fortunate to get straight in without waiting – even though it was busy. Eating at this deli is a total experience; massive sandwiches, rowdy atmosphere and a healthy dose of abuse from the server. Both rooms of the deli have walls that are packed with signed photographs of just about every famous person you could imagine.

Our server, Wayne, was the star employee and he had a standard routine that he worked on first-time customers to help you speedily get though the daunting menu. A series of movie-shorts was playing on a large screen at the back of the room; I soon realized that our server Wally was the star of the show – performing his own song and dance routines and black n white sketches (all very well done). Our food arrived; Sandra and I had decided to spilt a corned beef sandwich – it was outstanding and a struggle to get through. Mike ordered a Woody Allen sandwich and when it came he almost fell off the chair; there was enough meat on the thing to feed 6 people – I kid you not! Wayne would not let us leave without ordering cheesecake – we broke down and let him bring us 1 piece, which turned out to be more than enough for 4! A great experience, the total for 4 with sandwiches, drinks, slaw, onion rings (excellent), cheesecake, coffee and abuse was $111 + tip.

We hopped in a taxi and headed for the Guggenheim Museum, about 10 minutes north. The architecture of the Guggenheim is unbelievable; it’s like a big spiral, similar to a snail shell. We paid out $18 entry fee and headed is; almost the entire exhibit was Kandinski the abstract artist – these are the kind of paintings you have to stare at for 15 minutes then walk away just as confused as you were 15 minutes ago (at least this is how they appear to me). One consolation was a side gallery that showed some great impressionist paintings. The lowlight for me was another side gallery featuring an installation by a new “up and coming” artist; the very large white room was completely empty other than a big black dried liquid stain on the floor along with a burned out light bulb attached to a cord plugged into an outlet in the floor. Amazing. One lady nearby asked the guard assigned to the room “does it light up?” – being nice to her the guard replied “it used to”. I appreciate that there are people who appreciate this stuff; as hard as I try I just don’t get it. Well at least the building was spectacular.

We hopped in a taxi and return to oasis that is the Waldorf. Later in the evening we took a stroll to Time Square, about 10 minutes away. The square has changed quite a bit (for the better) since our last visit; the center section has become pedestrian-only, tables and chairs are set up and the ticket booth has a large official structures. The lights in Time Square are amazing; walking past one particularly large screen I think I could feel heat coming from it. We took a quick shifty up and down the square and then fell into an Irish bar in a side street; we weren’t hungry since we were still trying to digest the lunch time sandwiches, so it was Guinness and cocktails!

We were really pretty merry by the time we started to walk back to the hotel; it was cold so we were all buttoned up tight, but it had stopped raining. We detoured past the Rockefeller Center and checked out the ice rink and other Christmas installations – including a gigantic tree which we’ve heard is to be lit tomorrow night. There was also a really good light and music installation on the side of the Saks building. We made it safely back to the hotel and stumbled into bed.

thursday, december 3, 2009

Day 14 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 14 At Sea

Our final sea day before returning to New York; I wish we were doing “back to back cruises” like some we have met on this trip.

Just before noon we got to witness (along with most of the passengers on the ship) the first testing of the QM2’s snow making equipment. Over the past few days the ship has been slowly transforming itself into its Christmas theme; lots of trees, garlands, lights – it’s quite nice. In addition, snow making machines have been installed above the grand lobby in the center of the ship. Just before noon they turned on the machines and a flurry of fake snow (actually bubbles) floated down onto the expectant crowd; cool.

We bumped in to Kat and Mike (having a pre-noon drink in the champagne bar (yes this ship has an entire bar dedicated to champagne) and decided to try the Britannia Restaurant for lunch – it’s our last day and this is our first trip to the Britannia for lunch. We’ve actually had quite a few lunches in the Golden Lion Pub where they serve a limited but good menu; fish and chips, bangers and mash etc.

After lunch we returned to the cabin and started the dreaded packing; not my favorite activity.

Dinner at the Todd English restaurant was excellent, as usual – though my cold has returned so my taste buds were a bit hindered. I ordered braised rabbit which brought much protesting from Sandra and comments of “how is that little cotton tail” from the others at the table – I just chomped on and enjoyed it. Sandra had the melt-in-your-mouth “love letters” ravioli.

The packing is all done and the cases have already been taken away from out side the cabin door. Sandra is trying to talk me into going for a final drink, um – maybe a hot toddy will do the trick! We’ve got a car arranged to pick us up from the cruise terminal and take us to our hotel in Manhattan tomorrow morning, so hopefully things will go well.

sunday, november 29, 2009

Day 13 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 13 At Sea

Only two more days on this wonderful ship; we slept late and trawled through the buffet for breakfast – on sea days the buffets can get quite busy, don’t these people know I’m hungry?

After breakfast we took a few turns around the deck, winds were up to force 4 (14 knots) and the temperature was down in the seventies. We headed indoors and Sandra did some trinket shopping at the onboard shops (coffee mugs 2 for 1, woo hoo!).

Dozed for a bit (we are on vacation after all), had lunch then headed to the Spa – ah what a life! By now I have my spa routine down; 10 minutes in the herbal hot room (apparently this detoxifies you, I think that’s a load of **** - it’s just a nice warm room), 10 minutes in the really hot aromatherapy steam room (I can’t figure out if this pleasure or pain, but I’m told it’s good for you), 10 minutes in the Finnish dry sauna (this is the one that smells of Cedar) then off to the indoor aqua therapy pool.

The pool was quite busy with about 8 people in it, mostly older men – around these guys I feel quite young and slim (hard to believe I know). The sea must have turned a bit rougher since we were out on the deck because the water in the pool was being sloshed from one end to the other – it was a strange experience. Following the pool I lay in a lounger to dry off and read a bit of my book. I then retired to the relaxation room which is a kind of long glass enclosed conservatory with a line of really comfortable loungers; this is also where those who are getting spa treatments hang out before or after. The one-way glass in this area affords the spa customer privacy from those walking the promenade deck just outside the windows. Here I lay for about an hour and read my book and people watched.

People watching on the QM2 is a fantastic pass-time the previously mentioned deck lounger wars is one great example of what folks get up to. Another is what I call the “cruise ship bragging game”; invariably when strangers meet on cruise ships the first topic of conversation, often even before “where are you from?” and “what do you do?” is “how many cruises have you been on?”. This then flows into a spiral of ever-escalating cruising one-up-man-ship. Mostly I try to avoid conversation with strangers; after all I’m not too keen on conversation with friends – but the next time I am engaged in this fun game I intend to just invent a completely fake story about how I’ve sailed the seven seas since I was a boy, fought off Moby-Dick, accompanied Jonah and showed Ferdinand Magellan the way to go.

After the spa it was time to get dressed for dinner, the final formal night – I’ll be packing my penguin away before the night is out! Tonight we had made reservations for the final of the four deck 7 restaurants; the Chef’s Galley. This is a really small restaurant, sitting maybe 20 people. The idea is that the chef demonstrates the dinner by cooking each course before it is served; the place is small enough that everyone gets a good view and the chef has a microphone headset so you get to hear his explanations. It’s a good concept and they rotate the menu each night to a different food style; for our visit the focus was on Pan Asian. I have to say that this was the worst meal I’ve had on the QM2; I found the hot and sour soup to be bland and the vegetables uncooked, the Korean BBQ beef was practically raw and the Thai green curry was a sad excuse. The fish cake and the cabbage wrap were just OK and the dessert seemed to be a simple scoop of ice cream from the machine in the buffet next door. The previous night it was “steak night” – hopefully it was better. We consoled ourselves with the knowledge that we had booked at the Todd English restaurant for our last night on the ship.

And so it was on to the Grand Masquerade Ball, the final ball of this cruise. We found a table and began the people watching and drinking. The idea of this ball is for everyone to wear some form of elaborate mask – which was a lot of fun. Sandra procured a couple of masks for us from the sales desk at the entryway to the ballroom; mine was a simple Dick Turpin affair ($2) but Sandra’s was a more elaborate half-face feathered and jeweled thingy ($15). The obligatory silly photos were taken – then it was off to the show.

The show tonight was called A Passionata; a high energy singing and dancing extravaganza – very well executed by the resident team. A word of warning to those who plan to attend the shows on cruise ships – get there early if you want a good seat, typically half an hour is required. On the QM2 arriving early was OK because the waitress drink service was excellent.

After the show we found a Christmas tree and took turns taking pictures of each other. Since we did not eat a lot at dinner, a trip through the midnight buffet was an essential stop before turning in for the night.

friday, november 27, 2009

Day 12 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 12 Tortola

This morning at about 6AM the QM2 anchored off Road Town the capitol of Tortola in the British Virgin Islands.

We tendered to shore and procured a taxi; once again $20 / head for 2 ½ hrs. Note that many of the taxis here are actually open bus-type wagons seating about 20, in fact this is what the QM2 official excursion used. We got a 15 seater Toyota van with air conditioning for just the 4 of us.

Our driver, Dennis, was competent though a lot less chatty than any of the others we’ve had – to be fair there was also a lot less to see on this island. The island is very small and hilly; the road around the island was extremely steep in parts – but the views were magnificent.

With a distinct lack of topsoil, Tortola has no agriculture; it appears that its one and only industry is tourism. We saw many small hotels and lodgings but no big resorts; the island is well developed but, like most of the other islands, we saw lots of construction. Tortola is still a British dependency and the UK sends a new governor every two years (what a job that must be!). There are all the usual signs of a home away from home; like driving on the left, UK road signs and a certain politeness. Though the traffic drives on the left, it was interesting to observe that all of the cars had the steering wheel on the left – not the safest of situations, but they get all there cars from the US.

Leaving Road Town the road climbed steeply and we soon were rewarded with a brilliant view of the harbor and the QM2 sitting majestically at anchor. We soon crossed the ridge that divides the island and could now see the Atlantic side, again breath-taking. As we climbed further we began to get a feel for the general area; there are many islands within a short distance of Tortola – St. John, St Thomas, Peter Island, Beef Island…

At the very top of the road we came across a small restaurant / bar with a viewing platform on top. We picked up refreshments and headed for the roof where we got a great 360 degree view around the whole of Tortola. If you happen to visit this spot, watch out for the rather rude Scottish bartender.

Suitably refreshed we headed back down the mountain to Cane Garden Bay, a small town on the northern coast. Our first stop here was at the tiny little 400 year old Callwood rum distillery. The distillery didn’t look a day over 350, it was really dilapidated – but in a very quaint way. A complete contrast to the Mount Gay distillery we visited on Barbados. On walking through a very low doorway we entered the heart of the enterprise; the tasting room, bottling line and aging room – all in one. The space we were in had standing room for about 6 people. A young guy, possibly the company president, was lounging on a barrel and reluctantly got up and wandered to the other side of the tasting counter. After hearing a very brief history of the distillery and a description of the 3 grades of rum, we paid our $2 and had a taste – it was pretty forgettable. A second employee, possibly the company vice president, was sitting behind the counter sticking labels on bottles – this was the bottling line; I asked how many employees worked at the distillery and the young guy just shrugged and waived at himself and his label-sticking colleague. In some ways I enjoyed this distillery more than the much-polished Mount Gay version.

We jumped back into the van and took a short ride to the middle of Cane Garden Bay where we stopped for about 10 minutes. There were several larger market stalls some restrooms and access to a fantastic beach. I took a few minutes to go down to the beach; the sand was white and clean and the beach was well populated with sun worshippers. This would be a great place to stay if you just wanted to lie on the beach for a week.

On the way out of Cane Garden Bay Dennis pulled over by a funky looking shack called the Bomba Bar. Apparently the entire bar is constructed from things that had washed up on the shore; I saw plenty of drift wood as you might expect, but also a computer monitor propping up a bench and strangely, an assortment of ladies knickers hanging on a line! Many signs nailed to the bar announced various events, but the biggest event was the Full Moon Party which happens once per month (funny that); Dennis informed us that the full moon party was famous throughout the island for serving a special mushroom tea that would “put a sparkle in your eye”.

Our final stop was at the very southern point of the island where we drove over a tiny bridge to get to Frenchman’s Cay – actually a tiny island. Dennis took us to Soper’s Hole Wharf, a small marina filled with sailing boats and surrounded by tourist shops, restaurant and bars. We sat at the bar and I had a drink of Nelson’s Blood, a local rum punch, in a tin cup (available for an extra charge). This area is nice and worth a quick stop.

Soon we were back at the cruise pier, having successfully circumnavigated another Caribbean island (maybe there’s an award for this!). We paid the driver (yes you always pay after the tour), hopped on a tender and returned to the ship. The Golden Lion pub beckoned so we headed to deck two and I had a pint of Boddingtons and Bangers ‘n Mash.

This afternoon I did something unusual – I had a nap! All this vacationing is hard work and my cold was starting to get the better of me, so I lay out on the balcony of our cabin and dosed off. I was rudely awakened by the ships horn, this is a very big ship – so it needs a very loud horn. I was startled because so far the ship has only sounded its horn when it was pulling out of port – and I did not think I’d been asleep that long. The horn was sounded about a dozen times, then it stopped and I dozed off again. Later in the afternoon Sandra told me she had been sitting in the library, at the very front of the ship, when this horn blowing event had occurred. She looked up to see another cruise ship, the Pacific Dream, cutting dangerously close to the QM2’s bow (that’s the front of the ship – I’m such a nautical wiz these days) as it pulled out of Road Town. Our working theory is that the captain of the QM2 must have been pissed off at the other captain – just like when you honk your horn at some reckless driver on the freeway.

Dress code tonight was semi-formal, so just the regular black suit and tie for me. We had made reservations at the Piazza, one of the four deck 7 restaurants I have previously mentioned. The dinner was excellent, Italian as you might have guessed – again way better then the food in our assigned Britannia Restaurant. Dessert was so good Sandra had to play her imaginary friend trick, so she could sample 2 items!

We decided to skip the show tonight, as we ate late and I’m still feeling a bit under the weather (which is strange because we’ve had great weather). Anyway the show tonight was an Irish Flautist; neither of us was desperate to see it.

We are looking forward to a nice relaxing sea day tomorrow as we start our journey north back to New York.

friday, november 27, 2009

Day 11 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 11 St. Kitts

I went up on to the top deck at about 7:20AM this morning to get some shots of the island of St. Kitts and it’s nearby smaller sister island Nevis (together they form the country of St. Kitts and Nevis). The views were spectacular, as both islands are basically the tops of volcanoes – there was a nice rainbow of St. Kitts.

At ~7:45AM, the QM2 docked at the cruise pier of Port Zante in the St. Kitts capitol of Basseterre (pronounced bass tare). As usual we met up with our fellow travelers Kat and Mike for breakfast before heading off the ship.

The cruise pier is quite narrow and leads right into the terminal which was filled with the usual tourist shops. Following our by now well established routine, we headed straight for the information booth and discovered that there were ample taxis available for hire and that a trip all the way around the island would take about 3 ½ hours. We followed he signs to the taxi area and met up with the sales guy; after a bit of haggling (successful this time) we settled on $25 / head for a full island tour with stops at some spots we had previously picked out. Amazingly the same older couple who had rode with us on the Grenada tour turned up as we were making the deal, and agreed to join us.

Once again we found ourselves in a 7 passenger late model car – quite nice; our driver’s name was Randy. The center of Basseterre is only a few minutes ride from the terminal and we soon found ourselves in a small town square, complete with small clock tower – all the while Randy rattling off statistics and information about the island’s history.

St. Kitts is another former British colony and has only been independent for 26 years. Like many of the other islands, there is a very strong British influence; street names, driving on the left, parliamentary system etc. After only about 10 minutes we are all thinking this is a really nice island and that the tour was promising to be a good one. Our driver turned out to be very smart and knowledgeable – there was nothing he did not know, amazing.

We headed out of town and the north up the west side (Caribbean) side of the island. It’s obvious the government is trying to influence the population; we saw signs like “St. Kitts and Nevis – it’s Working!” and “Disasters can happened at any time – let’s be ready!” There were also a lot of roadside signs warning about HIV / Aids and advising people to get tested. There is also strong evidence of quite heavy investment; the island is not yet very well developed as a tourist destination – we saw many signs for construction projects and quite a bit of construction.

The island is very beautiful; the interior rises up in one big peak about 4000 ft high and Randy explained that the basic shape is like a chicken drumstick (the big peak being on the meaty part). All of the towns and hamlets are around the outside of the meaty part and down the bony leg bit. The island ceased sugar cane production in 2005 to focus heavily on tourism as the major industry. However the island is still heavily covered by sugar cane that is just left to grow naturally in order to stabilize the topsoil. Where the sugar came comes down to the roadside it has been cut back about 10 feet and flowering shrubs have been planted – there are flowers everywhere.

We stopped briefly and Randy pointed out a nearby Acacia tree with what look like large white flowers. On closer inspection the “flowers” turned out to be small egrets; the islanders call these their “flying flowers” – Randy even knew the Latin name for the egrets (a taxi driver that can quote bird names in Latin!). A little further north we massed the main fort on the island which was high up on top of a hill, we had previously agreed not to stop here – as it looked (from the brochure) like little more than a big wall around the top of a hill (I may be doing the fort a serious injustice here).

Turning off the main road heading for our first major stop, Randy pulled over at an apparently unassuming spot in the road. We asked if we could see monkeys on the tour, and had been assured that we would. I guess we should have made it clear that we wanted to see real monkeys in the wild – this is not what we got. A young girl sauntered over to the car, and as I got out I saw that she was hold a very young green vervet monkey on a leash – her first words were “welcome, I’m just trying to do a bit of business here”. This was code for “you want a picture, you pay the price!” It was all a bit pitiful really, the girl obviously needed the money, but the 3 month old monkey (complete with diaper, so as to not get the tourists messed up) was so sad. Before I knew it, the monkey was handed to me and Sandra was clicking away; all for a couple of bucks.

In this same area was a small garden that we were encouraged to enter; there being several of the usual trinket stalls just inside. I bypassed the stalls and headed for some very large rock outcrops at the back of the garden. Lying prone on one of the rocks was a local island gent holding a leash attached to a fully grown green vervet monkey, again wearing a diaper. The monkey may have been the sole source of income for the guy, but I did not attempt a photo, and he did not ask for money – which was just fine with me. The other large rock outcrop was adorned with a couple of petroglyphs; ancient figures carved into the stone by the island’s original inhabitants. The carvings had been enhanced with white paint to make then clear, I found this a bit disappointing – but it did make them clear. The signs apparently depicted the fertility gods, as evidenced by one being skinny and the other being fat – a sort of ancient before and after pregnancy logo.

Heading further up the same road and into the interior of the island we reached our first real stop; Romney Manor, a former plantation house – now ruined and turned into a Batik fabric manufacturing facility, with beautiful gardens. Randy informed us that Samuel Jefferson, the great-grandfather of the third US president had once live on the plantation. Sandra and I had seen Batik fabric production before, on trip to Malaysia, and so we bypassed this bit and just focused on the grounds and gardens. The gardens at Romney Manor are spectacular; at this point on the island it is practically a rain forest and so things grow exceptionally well.

Randy turned out to be quite the plant and flower expert, naming everything in sight and even at one point helping out a buddy driver by giving a quick lecture to his tour group. One highlight was Randy’s description of a large banyan tree, including a demonstration of how to swing like Tarzan on a dangling frond – of course I had to try, so did Sandra! The heat and humidity were quite high, so we were glad to be back in the air conditioned car and on our way after a very pleasant stop.

Continuing north along the west coast we passed through several small towns and at last reached the northern most point of the island, about 14 miles from Basseterre. Here the Caribbean Sea and Atlantic Oceans meet; and we could see the waves from one side running into the waves from the other – it was very strange.

Starting our return south down the east side of the island, we drove off the main road down to an area called Black Rock where volcanic lava flows had reached the water (many years ago). The locals had, as usual, erected make-shift sales stalls; one enterprising lady was operating the Black Rock Pub – an improvised wooden hut about 8 ft across with a cut out window for a bar. Being a bit on the parched side, we headed straight for the bar and ordered Carib beers (Sandra had a water) and proceeded to swing our drinks while we checked out the spectacular views.

The eastern side of the island is less populated but still very beautiful. We soon started to see some really large modern houses set into the hills; Randy explained that this was part of a recent wave of investment. Having successfully circumnavigated the meaty part of the drumstick we headed south down the skinny bone bit. At his point we saw some very large resorts under construction and one even completed (Marriott). The road reached a high point where we could look north at the Marriott resort and south across narrow peninsula that is at the end of St. Kitts – this view was brilliant, again you can see both the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean separated by a tiny strip. Further along we could see that the peninsula had a few small peaks. Randy told us that Robert Redford and a group of investors were build about a dozen luxury villas on top of one of the peak – with views of both the ocean and the sea, for about $2.5M each.

We finally headed back to the port where we did a bit of trinket shopping before returning to the ship; the tour had been almost 4 hours, and well worth it.

While we out touring, the Norwegian Dawn had dock right opposite the QM2 – this was the same ship we had seen the day before in Barbados. Seeing the two ships side by side really brought into contrast how much bigger and impressive the QM2 is compared to other standard cruise ships.

Unfortunately I appear to be coming down with a cold – I hope it’s not going to be too bad.

The evening was fairly uneventful – penguin suit, watched the sail away, dinner (it was turkey (this being Thanksgiving), show, dancing, blogging and bed – goodnight!

wednesday, november 25, 2009

Day 10 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 10 Barbados

The QM2 docked at the Barbados cruise terminal at ~7:30AM; the weather was very bright, and a quick step out on to the balcony revealed that this was going to be a hot day.

Following breakfast in the Britannia, the four of us headed down to deck 1 in an attempt to get off the ship. There was a line. We waited. We waited. Patience is a virtue, I reminded myself! It turned out that there was a SNAFU with the buses that were trying to get to the ship to take the passengers on the short, 2 minute, ride to the cruise terminal. When we finally got down the gangway it was evident that the cause of the confusion was just plain poor organization on the part of the ships crew. On the way to the terminal we saw that the port was in fact at its cruise ship capacity; there being 3 other ships tied up in addition to the QM2. The other ships were; the Norwegian Dawn, Carnival Victory and the Ocean Village. I must say the QM2 really shines when placed alongside regular cruise ships.

In the cruise terminal I located the information office and asked about getting a taxi for a tour; following the usual bantering I got hooked up with Patrick the award winning taxi driver (more later), dressed in very smart clothes – he looked quite dapper. We were joined in the car by a pair of Australian sisters; there were 7 of us (including Patrick) in a 7 seater car – so it was a bit cramped, but perfectly fine – in fact the car was quite modern. The agreed price was once again $20 / per person for a 2 ½ hour tour – there must be some kind to inter-island cartel!

Off we went and Patrick started in with his spiel. It turns out that the island awards a best taxi driver award every year and no one has won it twice – but Patrick had won it three times; he was on TV and in the Papers. Patrick was very proud of his achievements, and told us he had been given a trip to London and Paris.

Barbados is very different from Grenada; it is relatively flat, has a well developed infrastructure and a distinctly British feel to it. The island was a British colony / protectorate from 1625 until 1966 when it gained its independence.

We first drove through the capital city, Bridgetown. The main street in Bridgetown Broad Street) is like a Caribbean Oxford Street (one of the main shopping streets in London) - with many high end shops; Patrick was quick to point out that the shops on this street were duty free. At the end of Broad Street we came to Trafalgar Square, complete with a statue of Admiral Nelson, the famous British naval officer. Even though the Barbadian version actually pre-dates it, it bares very little resemblance to the splendor of the London version. In fact the local government has recently renamed the square; it is now officially called Hero’s Square – but Patrick confidently told us that everyone would always call it by its former name. Patrick really seemed to be the “man about town” – honking hellos, waving at many folks; at one point he stopped outside the main police station to chat with the Chief of Police.

I have to mention a funny event that occurred as we drove on; one of the Australian sisters shouted a question from the back of the car – she asked Patrick “if he had learned to speak English in school?” Patrick answered that English was the only language he spoke and that he had learned it from his mother as a child! The confusion arose following Patrick’s discourse with the Chief of Police – which he had conducted in the local island version of English; in this version they speak very fast and omit “unnecessary” words.

Out of town we drove, heading inland through fields of sugar cane – the islands main crop. Patrick insisted on showing us the contrasting living conditions on the island; and so we headed down dirt tracks for some of the poorer rural hamlets. Many of the houses (shacks) we saw were several hundred years old – but they were nothing more than small wooded boxes, literally. Some of the shacks pre-dated the use of glass in windows, instead having simple wooden shutters.

Back on the main road we went through several roundabouts (traffic circles) just like back in Britain – oh, by the way, traffic drives on the left hand side in Barbados. We headed for a low ridge from which we could look back across the island to the coast and see the four cruise ships docked in the harbor.

Next Patrick took us to the “Beverly Hills of Barbados”, an area called Sandy Lane. Apparently many famous personalities have homes in Sandy Lane – Oprah Winfrey and Arnold Schwarzenegger included; the area contains 2 ½ golf courses, a major hotel (where Tiger Woods got married) and lots of high end homes. Homes cannot be built in Sandy Lane if they will value at less than $1M, or so Patrick informed us. At one point we stopped outside a house and Patrick informed us that the owner was a doctor who owned a Hummer, one of only 4 on the island – he had the red one (yes this is a small island)

Finally we hit the coast north of the cruise terminal and headed south. Along the coast road there are many houses, apartments and resorts built right on the waters edge – in fact it was hard to find an open spot where we could stop and take a few pictures, but Patrick knew where to go. The beaches and views along this section of the island really are spectacular – it’s easy to see why people come here to just laze on the beach.

Instead of heading back into Bridgetown, we had Patrick drop us at the Mount Gay rum facility – we had previously agreed that this was a spot we wanted to hit (Mike being a big rum fan). Our timing was perfect; we paid our $7 entry fee and waited only a few moments before the next tour started. There were about 20 tourists in the group and the tour guide was a very well spoken and impeccably dressed young local girl. The guide had a quick whit and was very knowledgeable – having previously worked in the manufacturing process. The facility we visited is used for blending and bottling; the molasses production, distillation and maturing are done at other spots on the island. The tour concluded with a tasting; we tasted the Eclipse and Very Old versions of dark rum – both can be drank straight. I preferred the Very Old.

We next tool a taxi back into Bridgetown with the intent of doing a bit of walking around. The taxi ride was about 10 minutes and cost $2 / head. The very aged, barely ambulatory taxi driver bent Mike’s ear the whole way to town (Mike was sitting up front). When we finally got out of the car we all had slightly different versions of what the driver had been trying to say!

The heat in town was a bit too much for us; after wandering up Broad Street, we found a place for a cool drink – then hopped in a taxi for a ride back to the ship (again, amazingly $2 / head).

The cruise terminal is a fairly new structure and is packed with all the usual touristy shops. We bypassed the shops and hopped on the bus for the ship – and really cool air-conditioning.

A late lunch in the Golden Lion was followed by sitting out on the promenade deck to watch the sail away. I have not mentioned the “deck lounger wars” yet – but we’ve been watching them all cruise. There is a fairly high contingent of Brits on board (~1000 Brits, ~950 yanks and ~ 500 others) – and the Brits have thing for deck lounge chairs. Once a lounge chair is claimed early in the morning, it is defended like sovereign territory all day! It’s quite fun to watch.

So we managed to get a couple of loungers, without doing battle, and watched the Carnival ship deftly back out of the harbor right along side the QM2. Our ship followed, and our witty Irish Captain was quick to note that it was the Carnival cruisers lucky day – since they go to see the beautiful QM2!

Tonight another first for Sandra and I on a cruise; we passed on dinner! OMG – I’m sure this news will be in the Press Democrat tomorrow. With our late lunch, we were just not ready for a sit down dinner at out 6PM appointed time – I’m sure we’ll catch something later, it’s not like there aren’t options!

wednesday, november 25, 2009

Day 9 (Later) Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 9 (Later)

Dinner was another trip to one of the four deck 7 “conversion” restaurants; this time we went to The Carvery – Kat having previously made a reservation. This being an “elegantly casual” night we got to dress down a bit – though gentlemen were still required to wear a jacket (despite my pleading, I discovered I am in fact a gentleman).

The food at the Carvery restaurant turned out to be very good; we all agreed it was better than the regular Britannia, but not as good as the Lotus. A decent Yorkshire Pudding was served with tender beef, potatoes, gravy – all the usual trimmings. They even had English Trifle for dessert – though it was not as good as Sandra’s Uncle Jim’s, but then again he was Scottish! By the end of the meal I thought I was going to explode, so we decided to take a turn around the deck before heading to the bar for an after dinner tipple.

We finished the night with a trip to the theater where we entertained by the ships troupe of singers and dancers.

tuesday, november 24, 2009

Day 9 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 9 Grenada

The QM2 anchored off St Georges, the capital of Grenade at about 8AM today. Yes, that means we have to use the little tender boats to get ashore – drat!

The weather is overcast with the occasional downpour, temperature in the mid 80s and humidity high.

Grenada is known as the Spice Island because nutmeg, cinnamon, cocoa, turmeric and ginger (plus other spices) as well as sugar cane and breadfruit are grown here; it’s a very lush tropical island. St. Georges is known to be the most picturesque town in the Caribbean; the colorful town buildings and houses, many in Georgian style, line the shore and cover small hills that come very close to the coast. The interior of the island is quite mountainous, rising to over 2000ft, and contains a rain forest.

After much waiting around for our tender ticket number to be called, we finally boarded the small boat for the ~10 min ride to the island. Unlike Curacao, we were immediately surrounded by a host of locals trying to get us to buy stuff or book excursions – ah this is more like the cruise ports we know! Actually it was not too bad, if you’ve been through it before.

On the advice of our cocktail waiter, we decided to hire a taxi for a couple of hours of touring around the island. In some ports straying from the tours offered by the cruise ship is not recommended – this is not true in Grenada. Lining the road leading to the tender terminal was a long row of taxi vans; these are “fed” by salesmen that meet you as you exit the terminal. All of the salesmen wear the same uniform and prominently display their government-issued picture ID. We tried a bit of haggling, but despite the obvious outnumbering of cruise passengers by taxi folks – there seemed to be a fixed rate among all of the salesmen. We settled on $20 / head for 2 ½ hours of narrated touring, and ended up with a wonderful driver (again prominently licensed) called Godwin; I don’t think I’ve heard that name since the 13th century!

So off we went in a late model 8 person, air conditioned, passenger van. It wasn’t luxurious but perfectly adequate. As well as the four of us, there was a delightful older couple in the van – we later learned that the older guy was 97 ½ years old! Godwin was full of facts about Grenada and obviously proud of his country. Our route took us through the town and into the interior of the island, rising as we went. The roads we narrow but in surprisingly good condition. Godwin told us of the devastating hurricane of 2005 that had really made a mess of the island; we’d stop at a bridge and he’d say “this bridge was rebuilt for us by the Chinese” or “this building would not have been possible without the help of Canada” (who knew Grenada was basically a PBS based economy!) – it seems that Grenada has no problem accepting relief money from many countries. Seriously, they are very grateful.

The hurricane also devastated the nutmeg crop causing much unemployment; and since it takes about 7 years to get a new tree to produce nutmegs – things have still not recovered. As we drove, Godwin pointed out the many spices growing by the roadside; nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, cocoa… as well as breadfruit. We also heard about the national dish call “Oildown” – a kind of stew with the “meat of the day” coconut, breadfruit and tumeric.

Our first stop was at Annadale Falls, a 100 ft waterfall in the jungle. The van stopped in a ramshackle “reception area” and as we got out of the van an old guy playing a guitar and singing came sauntering up to us. The guitar guy had a neat act; he would eye up his approaching visitor and immediately change the words of his song to include his impression of the visitor as a Hollywood star; apparently I reminded him of Tom Hanks, Sandra was Michelle Pfeiffer. At appropriate points in the song he would pause and hold out his hat for a “donation”.

Four ladies, decked out in beautiful yellow and black dresses with gigantic fruit baskets on their heads, were also hanging out in the reception area. It was impossible to escape the Carmen Miranda comparisons! Godwin had told us these ladies would be here and that they would expect a donation if you wanted your picture taken with them – however they were not pushy at all. We did take picture and leave a suitable donation. Further on down the path we encountered a few stalls mostly selling spices and also necklaces that had been made by stringing together all of the island’s spices.

After a short walk through the forest we came to the bottom of Annadale Falls. Again Godwin had warned us about the young men who like to jump from the top of the falls but expect a donation for their efforts. The fall jumpers met us as we got to the falls and immediately started their sales pitch; they had a couple of interesting angles. First it appeared as if they had been practicing their English language skills to the point where they were actually speaking with regional English dialects – I actually though one of the guys was from Manchester, but he was actually an islander. Second, the jumpers insisted on knowing your first name – and promising to shout your name as they jumped from the top.

After about 10 or so tourists had arrived, off went the jumpers up the hillside to the top of the falls. They actually jumped from an area just adjacent to the falls, landing in the deep pool created by the force of the water. I don’t recall any one yelling out “hey Neil, this is for you” but amazingly several of the young men did remember my name after they had climbed out of the water and now expected their “donation”. All in all it was worth seeing and we did put a few bucks into their communal collection box. As brave as they were, the Fall Jumpers of Grenada have a ways to go to match the Cliff Divers of Acapulco – but in a way I preferred this rustic happy-go-lucky crowd of guys compared to the slick polished pomp in Acapulco.

We pressed on up the mountain and entered the rain forest – which is actually a National Reserve. Grenada seems to be doing a lot of things right when it comes to protecting their assets; as a well as this reserve, there are strict laws that say no new buildings can be higher than the tallest palm tree. I can just see some budding entrepreneur perfecting a new species of immensely tall palm trees! Godwin also informed us that no one could build in the rain forest of make any money from it (I later learned this was not true).

At the top of the mountain the road ended and we got out to find another series of small stalls selling the same array of goods - there was also a small shop and café. But the highlight was seeing a monkey calmly sitting on the fence eating a banana – I quickly shot off several pictures, and he didn’t charge me a dime! Godwin told us that if we wanted to walk up and see the volcanic lake at the very top of the mountain we would have to pay a $2 fee per person at the booth that crossed the road. Well we’d come this far so we coughed up the money and walked on. It was a very short walk to a point where you could look down on a small lake surrounded by the rainforest. There was also a small visitor center, this time bought to you by the good ol’ US of A!

On the way back down the mountain we stopped at a roadside shed called Mark’s Bar, where Godwin gave us a great demonstration of the various spices and rums of Grenada. We got to see cocoa beans in their raw state, nutmeg, cinnamon and he even went out into the garden and pulled up some roots that turned out to be tumeric. The island’s sugar cane is turned into rum which in turn is “spiced” with the bounty of spices available. The demonstration concluded with us tasting some 137 proof rum!

Godwin dropped the 4 of us in the center of St. Georges and we wandered about a bit. There is a really lively market where locals buy fruit and vegetables, but it did not look like the kind of place tourists would hang out. In fact there were not too many tourists about, though I did not at any point feel unsafe. We were trying to find a place to get some lunch, maybe even the aforementioned oildown, but nothing looked like the kind of place that catered to tourists. So we jumped in a taxi and headed back to the tender pier, and caught the next boat back to the ship. Just as we got to the ship I could see very heavy rain hitting the town – what luck! We were back on the ship by about 1:30PM.

We agreed that Grenada was a pleasant surprise, which is surprising since none of us knew what to expect! It was generally agreed that Grenada was better than Curacao and we’d come again, given the chance. We did not have time (or energy) to visit the southern part of the island where a lot of the major resorts are located. Perhaps next time.

monday, november 23, 2009

Day 8 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 8 Curacao

The QM2 docked at Curacao’s Mega Pier (yes that’s what it’s really called, odd since it was really small – maybe it’s some kind of island joke?) at about 7:45AM. We breakfasted in our cabin; amazing you just hang your order card on the front of the cabin door before you go to sleep and they bring your breakfast at the requested time in the morning. We were off the ship by 8:15AM; somehow we managed to miss hooking up with Kat and Mike.

Curacao is part of the Netherlands Antilles group of islands and the main town of Willemstad was a 10 minute walk from the pier. The town is colonial Dutch in style and the houses and other buildings lining the main river inlet are very much like Amsterdam; only more colorful. Willemstad is divided into two pieces; the old bit (Punda) and the newer bit (Otrabanda). The two parts are separated by a river channel that connects the sea to a large inland lagoon. Crossing the river channel is accomplished via a very unique pontoon pedestrian bridge (The Queen Emma Bridge) that opens and closes several times a day to allow large ships to enter the lagoon.

Just along from the pier, at the mouth of the river is an old fort call Rif. The Rif Fort turned out to be the most commercialized ancient building I have ever seem; shops and bars have been built into the fort walls creating a small mall – in fact they actually refer to it as a mall; quaint as it was I could not help my feelings of disgust.

As we approached the pontoon bridge we realized that it had been opened to allow a big cargo ship to enter the lagoon; a sign informed us (in 5 languages) that we should take the free ferry, a little further along. So along we trudged; it was already starting to feel pretty humid. We crammed onto the little ferry, locals and tourists pressed cheek by jowl, and crossed to the Punda side in a couple of minutes. During the crossing I noticed that a large cruise ship was approaching the mouth of the river; hence the reason for the pontoon bridge to stay open.

After we got off the ferry we dallied a while to watch cruise ship motor up the river and dock just past the ferry pier. To give you an idea of how close the cruise ship was the to bank of the river, we could easily see into the cabins on the ship! The pontoon bridge then closed; this is accomplished by means of a boat motor on one the end of the bridge and a really big hinge on the other. The whole affair took about 10 minutes.

The printed information from the ship had informed us of the best points to take in on our walking tour of the town. We first headed to the “floating market” which actually is not floating at all; instead the fruit and vegetables have been unloaded from boats along one of the waterways and onto market stalls right by the boats – so it’s an “almost floating market”. Next we headed the “Central Market” which, at least currently, is not really central to anything. Maybe it’s an island thing? The Central Market was another locals place, which we enjoy exploring way more than the tourist markets; even if we aren’t able to sample the wares which included; fish, pigs noses (yes), pigs feet, tripe and an amazing variety of obviously home made potions.

After a quick sortie though a local supermarket (well more like a small shop) just to get the feel of the place, and a turn around Queen Wilhelamina Park we sat down at an outdoor café to once again try and get a decent cup of coffee. The coffee turned out to be not bad at all; Sandra, being a seasoned Amsterdam visitor, informed me that it was quite authentic - it even came with a small ginger cookie.

We had been informed not to miss the historic old Synagogue and museum, so off we went. Upon paying our $6 entry fee we got to do something that neither of us had ever done, enter a Jewish synagogue. The place is important because it is the oldest surviving Jewish temple in the Americas, having been built in 1732. Upon entry, all males are required to cover their heads – good job I had on my trusty old Tilly Hat. I did discover that scull caps were provided in a big basket by the door, and so of course I had to try one. It didn’t make me feel any different. I found my first synagogue visit to be no different than the many ancient churches I have visited; though this particular temple is a bit weird because it has a sand floor - more on this later.

The small museum next to the temple contained many interesting items; not least of which was an ancient chair used in the “right of circumcision”; who made this a right anyway? And to complete the set, a case containing all of the tools used to carry out the little snip job, was proudly displayed. The museum also has a beautiful 13th century parchment text of the Talmud as well as a rusty old 17th century iron chest that would not have looked out of place in the cave on the Pirates of the Caribbean ride at Disneyland (my favorite ride, by the way).

Almost forgot, I promised an explanation of the sand on the floor in the temple. The museum director informed us that the sand is meant to remind the Jews of several things; the Sinai Desert, of the time during Spanish rule (when Jews were forced to convert to Catholicism) when they still performed Jewish services at home and used sand on the floor to mask the sound and of God’s advice to Abraham to “go forth an multiply like the sands of the desert and the stars in the sky”. Later on we heard a few other explanations for the sand on the floor – it’s anyone’s guess at this point.

We sauntered through the town, over the pontoon bridge and were back at the ship by about noon – just in time for lunch (got to build up that strength!). Sandra and I both agreed that Willemstad was a nice little town (it is really little) and that half a day was about the right amount of time to take it in.

We finally caught up with Kat and Mike in the bar of the Golden Lion Pub, on deck 2 (isn’t this ship amazing?). Stories were exchanged, pints consumed, steak pies gobbled, fish n chips wolfed down and then we headed up top to watch the ship cast off and sail away from Curacao, at about 1:30PM.

monday, november 23, 2009

Day 7 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 7 At Sea

This is our final sea day before we hit 5 islands in a row. I have finally figured this cruise out; all of the sea days are intended to allow us to build up our strength before the strenuous effort of exploring 5 islands, one after the other – the 24hr food helps as well!

I took in an excellent lecture in the morning; “Frozen in Time”. The lecture was given by the author and explorer John Geiger and presented his explanation for the loss of the 1854 British Artic Expedition, which disappeared without a trace. Included were some quite gruesome pictures of 3 bodies they exhumed from graves they discovered in the Artic. Post mortems revealed that the bodies had very high levels of lead in them; it’s believed the lead came from the canned food that the expedition took along – canning having only just been invented.

We all lunched at the Todd English restaurant – enough said.

After lunch I lazed at the Spa all after noon – I know it’s tough on this cruise. I even dozed off in the relaxation area – I hope I didn’t snore too loudly; otherwise they may have to rename this area.

Dinner was uneventful – you know, more great food served with impeccable style. It was however, another Penguin Suit night. More James Bond music.

The evening’s entertainment started with a great show featuring the 4 young resident singers and the entire QM2 orchestra. They performed songs from musicals as well as popular composers – a definite cut above the average cruise ship performance.

We then moved (via the bar) to the Buccaneer’s Ball in the Queens Ballroom. A Caribbean band was playing and it was “normal “dancing, so Sandra and I could strut our stuff, LOL. Many of the revelers were decked out in appropriate pirate attire, especially the Gentlemen Hosts – who really got into the swing of things. I noticed that a mini pirate kit could be purchased at the door for $10; I couldn’t resist. The kit consisted of a pirate hat, eye patch and bandana – not quite Johnny Depp, in fact not even close. The kit must have had the desired affect because when I returned to our table, no one recognized me – hard to believe isn’t? The kit was duly passed around the 4 of us for the obligatory pictures, are we cheap or what?

A good night was had by all.

We retired, thinking of the exciting days ahead; Curacao, Grenada, Barbados, St. Kitts and finally Tortola.

saturday, november 21, 2009

Day 6 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 6 Panama

Well we have finally reached our first port of call; Cristobal in Panama – this is the main port on the Caribbean side, and entrance to the Panama Canal. The QM2 docked at pier 6 at about 9:00AM; this means we will get to walk off rather than use the little tender boats – which is great.

After a breakfast in the Britannia dining room it was back to the cabin to slap on an inch thick layer of sun block and a good dousing of insect repellant – this is after all the former mosquito capital of the planet! And, after removing all outwardly indications of any wealth (for fear of being robbed) we headed to our appointed holding area for our pre-booked shore excursion – a day long tour of the canal via the Panama Railway Company and tour bus.

We finally got off the ship and over to the railway station by 11:00AM. The outside of the train gave no hint of what we experienced once we got inside – the carriages were superbly outfitted in early 20th century style, with wood paneling and beautiful seating. Our Panamanian guide then began to give us a series of interesting facts about the railway, the canal and Panamanian history. The train set off and we settled in for the hour long ride across the isthmus from Colon to Panama City. In due course, the food trolley arrived – staffed by one of the railway servers who all young females and wear a very smart uniform. Expecting excessive heat ahead Mike and I had a beer, even though it was not yet noon.

The railway mostly follows the track of the canal; in fact it follows pretty much the same line as the original railway that predated the canal and was instrumental in the successful construction of said waterway. There are some spectacular views of the lakes and rainforest; at several points the line runs on a causeway with water on both sides of the track for several miles. There is an open section on the train where I stood and tried to get some pictures of the scenery; I was trying to spot some wildlife (we’d been told to look for crocodiles and monkeys) but all I saw was another kind of wildlife… The train at one point passes right by a prison and I just happened to catch the inmates at shower time. Showers in Panamanian prisons are apparently al fresco.

After about an hour we reached the other side and got off the train at Panama City Passenger Station where our trusty tour bus was waiting for us – having apparently raced ahead of the train. With our guide in toe we set off for the Mira Flores locks, about 10 minutes away. The visitor set up at Mira Flores is very good; there is a visitor center right at the lock with a small museum, informational movie and, up on the 5th floor, an observation deck looking right down onto the lock.

We were fortunate to see a gigantic container ship transit the lock when we were up on the observation deck. The process is very well orchestrated – you’d think they did it every day (actually it runs 24x7). The ship enters the lock under its own power then the gates close behind it. At this point ropes are attached to several (2 on each side I think) small trains (they call them mules). The mules not only help to move the ship along but also keep it from touching the sides – for these large ships there can’t be more than about 2 feet of clearance on either side. The lock then starts to drain – this happens much faster than I expected; the whole thing seemed to drain in less than 10 minutes. At some point the front lock gates open and the little mules help the ship on out. It is an amazing site to see. I should point out that it rains a lot in Panama (that’s a huge understatement) – which is just as well since the whole operation of the locks depends on the rainfall. In fact it takes about 1 million liters of water to get a ship from one ocean to the other.

We stayed at the Mira Flores visitor center for about an hour then it was back on the bus and off to the Pacific Ocean. The tour guide took us to a nice vista point where we could get pictures of the Bridge of the Americas that crosses the canal, effectively joining South and North America. From here we could also see Panama City across the bay; I was really surprised to find it a very large modern city with many high-rise structures. Our final stop was in a small shopping area on an island that had been connected to the mainland via a causeway. Though touristy, this was actually quite a nice area – a bit like Mexico, only a bit. We had a beer and got back on the bus for the return journey to Colon on the Caribbean side. I must say it is a very strange feeling to be able to see both the Pacific Ocean and the Caribbean Sea in the same day.

The bus driver’s secret was revealed as we found ourselves heading down a nice modern freeway for the 1 hour return trip. Not much to see until we got to the outskirts of Colon; a series of, at best, shanty towns with a distinct third-world appearance. Closer to the port we encounter a massive series of warehouses that make up the free-trade zone of Colon; 20,000 people work here every day – it’s a huge contrast to the aforementioned hovels. Apparently the free-trade zone is where a lot of the products from those container ships end up. If you want to do a deal for a boxcar-size load of flat screen TVs – this is where you come.

We briefly see some of “Old Colon” before entering the port. The old part of town has that distinctly run-down, mold-encrusted, wrought iron balcony, loose pack dog, armed guard outside all the jewelry stores, old men sitting outside shops reading the newspaper, hoodlum on the corner kind of look to it.

Another quirk of Colon; the town is apparently the final resting place for just about all the old school buses from the US. The buses are sold to individual driver-operators who take great pride in decorating these old jalopies according to their own taste. The locals call these buses the red devils and some of the paint jobs are incredible; ranging from religious themes to lighting bolts to super heros.

Returning to the ship at about 5PM we just had time to get back to the cabin, shower and head to dinner – thank god it’s an “Elegant Casual” night; where do they get these names? – I don’t think I could be “elegantly casual” even if I had Tim Gunn giving me pointers for a month. All this really means is that I don’t have to where a tie – still got to don a jacket, just no need for a tie. Why don’t they just call it “No Tie Night”?

No I’m not going to give you a blow by blow account of everything served at dinner; sorry.

It must have been a tiring day because Sandra and I decide to call it a night; as I write this Sandra is passed out on the bed. It’s 9PM on Saturday night.

(Comment from Sandra) Actually I was not passed out I was merely resting my eyes for an hour or two so that I could find my way to the midnight buffet.

saturday, november 21, 2009

Day 5 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 5

This is the final sea day before our first port of call – which is Cristobal, Panama. The weather has turned quite warm; I could only take about 5 minutes on our balcony this morning as it was in full sun. We breakfasted in the Britannia Restaurant, a first for us on this cruise – Sandra reported that the Eggs Benedict were perfect!

Oh my god what a relaxing day; we met Kat and Mike in the Golden Lion pub for lunch and then I trekked off to the Spa for hydro therapy (much needed after the beer therapy) and assorted saunas. This was followed by 2 hours of relaxing reading in the Spa while being pampered with ice cold water (with just a hint of orange). I can’t believe I got to just sit (lie) and read for 2 hours undisturbed – yes it was the dogs bollox!

A quick note to our friends at Centro Espresso; we‘ll be docking in Panama at about 9AM on Saturday morning – we expect you to be there with our care package! I once worked with a guy from Panama and as a “gift” one time, he gave me some genuine Panamanian coffee – it was bloody awful.

Well tonight is only a semi-formal night (as opposed to the full-Monty = formal); so I get to hang up my penguin suit for one night and put on my regular dark suit – to be honest, from a distance, I can’t tell the difference – but then again I have absolutely no fashion sense (as Sandra is apt to remind me, and it’s true). I can also box up my dickey and just wear a regular tie. I feel so blessed.

All togged-up and off to the martini bar for a quick one before dinner. For an extra treat tonight we went to the onboard specialty restaurant call Todd English (we had to pre-book); it seems to be a trend on cruise ships to offer customers the option of paying a little extra ($30) for a fancy meal. Sandra and I ate at the Todd English last time we were on this ship and we really liked it - hence the trip tonight.

The meal was absolutely fantastic; every dish a work of art and mouth wateringly good. We had an array of appetizers that were shared around the table; baked goat cheese, shaved Brussel sprouts, calamari, jumbo shrimp, roasted beets and a special form of ravioli called “love letters”. Kat ordered a bouillabaisse of crab, lobster, clams, mussels etc. - when it arrived it was in a gigantic bowl with no liquid. The waitress then arrived with a large pot of lobster sauce which was poured over the seafood OMG! This was followed by the main event – I had tenderloin of beef with roasted lobster on top, accompanied by truffled potatoes. Sandra had a big hunk of Sea Bass, cooked to perfection and accompanied by a great risotto. Desserts we equally spectacular; you know a chef is pulling out all the stops when he makes carrot caviar to go with the carrot cake. Unfamiliar with the breed of carrots that lay eggs, we had to ask as to the origin of this strange item. We learned that the carrots are first juiced, then filtered, then a small amount of gelatin is added and the mixture is drizzled into hot oil – creating tiny little caviar-like balls. I really must try this when I get back. Sandra and I had a molten chocolate cake that was just to die for.

We liked the Todd English so much that we booked to go back for lunch and dinner before the end of the cruise.

Following dinner we took in The Mad Welshman Jimmy Smiles’ show. This was a singing stand-up comedy act that consisted mainly of verbally abusing members of the audience, based on their country of origin – of course we loved it! After the show we sidled into the chart room to hear the jazz trio and have a nightcap. All in all a great day.

friday, november 20, 2009

Day 4 (Later) Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 4 (Later)

The afternoon was spent exploring the Spa. The central area of the Spa contains a pool or it could pass for a gigantic hot tub, off to the side are the sauna, herbal hot room, steam room and reflexology foot massagers. We availed ourselves of the wonderful facilities and then lounged around in the quiet area for a bit – it was so relaxing. While I continued to relax Sandra sneaked off for afternoon tea with Mike and Kat; however when I returned to the cabin she had brought me a couple of sandwiches and a scone – so I didn’t feel left out (God forbid I miss a meal!).

Dinner was another formal night so it was back into the penguin suit for me; Sandra wore another spectacular outfit – all those weeks of pre-cruise shopping are really paying off. We met up with Kat and Mike in the Chart Room for pre-dinner drinks; the string quartet was playing, the room is superbly decorated and the ambiance was perfect (I could get used to this).

I should mention that on the second night we were joined at our dinner table by a nice German couple who had requested to be moved away from the tour group they were traveling with, so they could meet new people. After dinner, and another drink, we headed for the theater where we were entertained by a fantastic British opera singer; Annette Wardell. I’m a very marginal opera fan, but admit it was a very nice performance.

Following the show we went to the Queens Ballroom to watch the dancing – very entertaining. The QM2 provides “Gentlemen Hosts” who are hired to dance with any single ladies. These guys are mostly very old and seem to dance just a bit better than they can walk. It’s fun to watch the “hosts” jockeying for position when there is a scarcity of single women. Sandra broke into a mild panic when I mentioned that I needed to go to the bathroom; this would of course leave her alone and vulnerable to attack from the dreaded hosts. I was encouraged to “tie a knot in it” until Kat and Mike returned to the table. I just made it. I also have to mention that toward the end of the dancing session the floor was deemed crowded enough that we could venture out with out being spotted – and so we danced, for about one minute.

After the show we had more drinks, this time in the Commodore Lounge – a very good martini bar, with a large scale model of the QM2 that lights up at night. Sandra, who is becoming quite the Cosmo connoisseur, ordered a “Molecular Cosmo” (a drink specifically designed for, and only available on, this ship) – this turned out to be a regular Cosmo with specially engineered alcoholic foam on top (the foam was dispensed, with great flare at the table, from a special pressurized vessel).

A quick trip to the mid-might buffet for a chip buttie, then it was off to bed.

thursday, november 19, 2009

Day 4 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 4

Captain’s quote of the day “ remember to always keep your words tender, for tomorrow you may have to eat them”

We both slept extremely well; I think our minds are finally going into neutral. This is another “sea day” as we continue south towards Panama which is our first stop; tonight we will pass between Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

I managed to control myself at breakfast and only had some fat free granola and coffee; it was hard to pass up the “full English” – but I’m trying to pace myself. We’ve spent a leisurely morning catching up on e-mail (not work!) and I took in a lecture on the Bermuda Triangle. I have to say I found the lecture a bit of a disappointment; there’s something about a presenter just reading a prepared script that just puts me off. The speaker was Dr. Joe Bishop formerly of NOAA; he did have some good material but I personally found the order and logic of his pitch a bit awkward – I’m such a lecture snob! Anyway, I hope his basic premise – that most of the “unsolved” incidents in the Bermuda Triangle can be explained – because we are currently steaming right through the middle of it!

We are currently lounging on our balcony as the weather has now turned distinctly tropical – it is so relaxing. All we have to decide is where to go for lunch and when we should go to the Spa. We’ve purchased 5 day spa passes that get us into the hydro therapy rooms, steams rooms, saunas and relaxing lounge area. Sandra just reminded me, we have not yet taken advantage of any of the free exercise classes – I just gave her a funny look! To which see responds “oh I forgot, we are getting sufficient exercise lifting our knives and forks up to our mouths”

wednesday, november 18, 2009

Day 3 Panama and Caribbean Cruise

Day 3 Cruise to Panama and the Caribbean

Slept well – very quiet, which is great.

Sandra was up early for a few turns around the deck and was kind enough to bring us coffee back to the cabin. We decide decided on the buffet for breakfast which turned out to be a “full English”; bacon, sausage, black pudding, eggs, beans…

After breakfast I headed for a lecture about the construction of modern cruise ships and Sandra headed for the library and bookshop. The lecture was quite good and I’m looking forward to 4 more from the resident nautical historian, Dr. Quatermaine – not the guy who discovered King Soloman’s Mines. Sandra bought a book written by our ships captain which is all about the nautical explanations behind many phases in common use today; things like “pinch of Salt” or “the whole nine yards”.

We lunched at the Golden Lion pub where we both ordered the fish and chips (with mushy peas) and Sandra ordered a Ploughman’s Lunch for our imaginary friend! I washed my lunch down with two excellent pints of Boddington’s Pale Ale from the old country. The food was fine and the Ploughman’s was a great addition.

We have picked up tickets for the 2:30PM show at the Planetarium and we are currently trying to decide between a nap and the show – this cruising is hard work! Tonight is the first “formal” night and we are looking forward to getting all dressed up.
The weather is changing; it’s already getting warmer (~73F) as we head south – though we’ve had force 5 winds today. Around noon we were abeam with Bermuda to the East – wow I’m already picking up nautical terms, maybe it’s not too late for a life at sea.

wednesday, november 18, 2009

Day 2 Panama & Caribbean Cruise

Day 2 Neil and Sandra’s Cruise to the Caribbean

We breakfasted in the Hotel Jolie, it was included in the price and was therefore mandatory – actually it was fine.

Back to the room, packed up and ordered a taxi. Ah the NY taxi experience – somehow the cab we got did not have a meter, I can’t believe we made this classic rookie traveler mistake! So I ask the guy “how much to the cruise terminal?” his immediate answer, without any forethought… “$30”. After my repeated expletives he explains it’s because we’ve got so many bags – that’s funny I think, since I don’t remember you helping me to load the bags into the cab. After a bit of haggling he decided to cut us a deal at $25.

On we go; it soon becomes apparent that he has no idea where he is going – which makes me wonder how he calculated the price so quickly…hmmm? We finally arrive at the terminal, it was so nice to teach the cabbie a new route.

Check in was flawless and we got to wait in the VIP lounge (care of Sandra’s Cunard status) with all the snobs. Actually there are super snobs, snobs, sub snobs – then us.

We boarded (embarked?) at noon dropped our hand luggage in the room (cabin) and headed for the Kings Court buffet. We had a great lunch with a stunning view of Manhattan and the Statue of Liberty.

Following the obligatory lifejacket donning lesson we headed to the promenade deck for the sail away at 5PM. The weather was very mild, unlike the last time we sailed on the QM2 out of NY when it was (as Sandra likes to say) “really Baltic”. Manhattan was a magnificent display of lights and the Statue of Liberty was beaming.

Our cabin is on deck 8, one above the promenade deck, and we have a balcony – which will come in real handy once it gets a bit warmer. The cabin is very well appointed; we a have a double bed and a sitting area with a small sofa and TV.

First SNAFU, we find out that we have been assigned to the late dinner unlike Kat and Mike – this was not as advertised, so Sandra headed off to set the Maitre d’ straight. All was resolved and we were seated at a nice table in the wonderful Britannia dining room for the 6PM feed.

I should mention that the resolution of the dinning issue did involve Sandra having mild run-in with a rather large Russian gent who tried to shove in front of her at the restaurant desk – he should have known better. I just hope he was not “connected”.

After dinner we watched Kat and Mike take a few turns around the dance floor and then we headed off to see the movie “Angels and Demons” at 10:30PM – really late for us! The movie was good; we brought along some coffee and cake – just in case.

And so off to bed after a very nice first day on this magnificent ship.

monday, november 16, 2009

Day 1 Panama & Carribean Cruise

Day 1 Neil and Sandra’s Cruise to Panama and the Caribbean

Well we are off on an epic adventure; cruising on the Queen Mary 2 round trip from New York to Panama and the Caribbean – more on all the great destinations later. Today we were up at 6AM; finished getting the cats and the house ready and then it was around to Centro Espresso to see Susan for coffee and toast – it was excellent as usual! As a special treat, Susan had just finished cooking a beautiful turkey breast (for Tim’s lunch) and she gave us a nice juicy slice.

Off we went to pick up our son Scott in Sonoma who had kindly volunteered to bring our car back from the airport. We had pleasant and uneventful drive to SFO and check-in was smooth; Sandra had taken care of everything on line the day before!

Currently ~ 2 hours until takeoff and we are sitting in the food court of Terminal 3 deciding what to have for lunch before we board.

(Sandra) Neil the hunter is off foraging for food of course I have already been around all the food options and told him what direction he should take!

(Neil again) Tempura it is then!

We’ve just checked into our room in New York (Brooklyn). The United flight was full, as usual; we both had aisle seats which normally works our fine – however…

We’ve all experienced it; a full plane, you’ve got an aisle seat, the center seat next to you is empty and you’re watching the passengers scramble on – hoping that you get a small person. Things were looking up for me as a tour group of Japanese retired folks started to make their way down the plane. Wow I’m thinking, these folks are all small – great! My enthusiasm was short lived however, as I happened to get the only retired Sumo wrestler in the group for a seat mate.

Five hours later and my back is more than a bit twisted – hopefully I can sleep it off.

Another strange thing happened on the plane…

I’m reading a great thought-provoking book by Malcolm Gladwell called “Outliers” – it’s about how exceptional people rarely (if ever) make it without unusual opportunities. Anyway, I’m ploughing through the book and come across chapter 7: “The Ethnic Theory of Plane Crashes”. Most sane people would have probably stopped and done something else at this point, but I couldn’t resist. It got worse; the chapter chronicled in intimate detail the fate of Avianca 052 that crashed on approach to JFK in January 1990. Wait a minute, aren’t we on approach to JFK – oh well.

The taxi ride to the hotel was fine, the cabbie was kind enough to hold open the trunk lid while I struggled with 3 massive suitcases – I thought that was really kind of him. In case you are wondering, the 4th bag had to go on the back seat between Sandra and I. Don’t you love what our modern world is coming to…when I told the taxis driver our destination I got a shrug, something muttered in a long forgotten exotic eastern European dialect and a strange facial expression. This was followed by a Garmin GPS being hurled into the backseat - all this for $47, what a deal.

The Le Jolie Hotel appears to be in a shady end of Brooklyn – though it’s dark (10PM) so it’s a bit hard to tell. The room is very nice though small, and we have a wonderful view – of the freeway. Sandra reminds me “it’s only for on night”.

We are starving and there is no way we are going walking around this neighborhood tonight. The hotel has no restaurant and so it’s a first for us – ordering in!

The pizzas have just arrived – we got 2 small “pies” as they call them here on the right coast – one would have been more than enough. Oh well we can always take the left overs onto the Queen Mary 2 tomorrow and ask the chef if he’d like to put them on the buffet.