Thursday, January 31, 2008

To Cruise or Not to Cruise

Some of my friends tell me that they don't like cruises. Too much food. Too many people on the ships. Expensive shore trips that provide a glimpse of a destination with no real insights.

"Chacun à son goût," as the French say. But I rise to the defense.

I've said similar things myself in the past, and with the exception of a couple of trans-Atlantic voyages on the Queen Elizabeth 2 (which doesn't really count as cruising), have mostly confined my cruise experiences to small ships that go to out-of-the-way places like Cape Horn at the tip of South America and the Svalbard archipelago, 600 miles south of the North Pole.

However, I've just returned from a week aboard Cunard's newest ship, Queen Victoria, and I want to report that I had a good time. This is not a small ship. It carries 2,014 passengers and around 1,000 in crew, but I never felt as though I was on the Lexington Avenue subway at rush hour. If I wanted to be around others, I could be, but it was also possible to be alone — and there were quiet places, such as the 6,000-volume library, which gets more use on this ship than the casino.

Yes, there was a lot of food — but no force feeding and numerous exercise opportunities. Just walking around the ship would burn some calories. Deck 3, which goes most of the way around, is one-third of a mile. In addition, there are two swimming pools, a nice-sized gym, with classes and lots of equipment and those shipboard favorites, shuffleboard and paddle tennis. If you haven't tried shuffleboard, you might think this could raise as much sweat as a polite game of croquet, but a couple of Type A personalities playing shuffleboard will get a workout.

During my trip, we did a Panama Canal transit from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific, which was interesting and something that you couldn't see unless on a ship. The transit was preceded and accompanied by lectures, which greatly helped with context and understanding of how the canal works.

And we had one day in Costa Rica — also interesting and sufficient to let me know that I would like to return. In the morning, I went on a jungle river trip and saw a lot of crocodiles and water birds and in the afternoon, visited a nature reserve where a gondola takes visitors from the forest floor to the forest canopy. Deep insights? No. But I learned that almost one-third of Costa Rica is a national refuge harboring examples of 6 percent of the animals and plants in the world. I also learned that the country is well off because of coffee and other agricultural products, has a high degree of literacy and has social programs in place for its four million citizens that include health care and retirement income.

Sounds good to me, and I didn't know this before.

But what I especially liked about the cruise was the soothing motion of the ship (yes, I know that you can hit rough patches, just as you can on airplanes, but mostly it was like being gently rocked, day and night), the sunrises and sunsets and the moonlit nights and — well, mostly just the sense that time pressures dropped away. After a while, I didn't know what day it was and I didn't care. We were going forward to some new port, and that was enough for me.


Monday, January 14, 2008

Cunard Coda

On the evening of Jan. 13, 2008, the three Cunard Queens assembled for the last time in front of the Statue of Liberty in New York harbor. The Queen Mary 2 got there first from her nearby berth in Brooklyn and waited for her sister ships to come down the Hudson River from midtown Manhattan. They arrived a half hour late. The 40-year-old Queen Elizabeth 2 requires tugboats to get her in and out of the pier and to guide her down the river. In former times, pilots were famous for their skills in handling the big ship in tight situations. Newer ships can be maneuvered with a joy stick and don't really need tugs. So the Queen Elizabeth 2 held up the show. By the time she and the Queen Victoria arrived, a cold, steady rain had started to fall and the fireworks were just a gasp against the low-lying clouds. The ships didn't linger. The Queen Mary 2 and the Queen Victoria headed out first. Then the doughty Queen Elizabeth 2 steamed once again into the open sea. According to Carol Marlow, Cunard’s president, this had been her 802nd visit to the Port of New York, with one more to go in October before she becomes a hotel in Dubai.

Queen Victoria Tour

Yesterday afternoon, I toured the Queen Victoria. The last time I saw her up close was in the Fincantieri shipyard outside Venice, where she was built. She was then around seven weeks short of completion — there in the bones but without her finishes. I was amazed at how beautifully she came together. The public rooms are gracious, warm and elegant. Teresa Anderson, the designer, said that she kept Cunard history in mind, with paintings, furnishings and Art Deco motifs that recall the 1920's and '30's, when trans-Atlantic ships were the last word in glamour. The QV has a 6,000-volume library, a theater with private boxes, a small museum, a Queens Room where afternoon tea is served, accompanied by a harpist and other musicians. Evening dress on the ship is usually formal or semi-formal. Queens Grill and Princess Grill passengers have their own dining room and lounge, "just like on airplanes," explained Philip Naylor, a Cunard official, "where there are first class and business class passengers." And the others. I will be sailing on the Queen Victoria later this month among the "others" and will let you know what that's like.


Sunday, January 13, 2008

Cunard in New York

This morning at 5:45 a.m., I was alone on the Battery Park City esplanade, scanning the dark water of the Hudson River. The tide was gently flowing out. The lights on the Verrazano Narrows bridge sparkled in the distance. Had I come too late? Had the three Cunard queens — Elizabeth 2, Mary 2 and Victoria already made their way into port? But, no. There they were. Three great ships, small and glittering in the cold night air. The Queen Elizabeth 2 approached first, pausing in front of the Statue of Liberty and then pulling near, her sleek lines and strong engines propelling her like a youngster and not like a geriatric relic. At 40 years old, she is still the fastest passenger liner on the sea, built for trans-Atlantic runs, with a top speed of 32 knots an hour. I waved to her, a lone figure in a red coat under a street lamp. Mary, behind her steamed toward the Statue and then turned to her berth in Red Hook, Brooklyn. Helicopters circled overhead and fireboats came down the river, spewing tall plumes of water into the air as Queen Victoria came abreast of the Statue. Then slowly, she made her way up the river. I waved some more, and she sounded her horn. Did someone see me or was she saluting the fireboats and New York City? I walked along the esplanade as far as I could, keeping pace with her, and then saw a few other people who had come out to greet the Queens. I met a man and a woman (not together) who had come over from England just for this moment, and a young man who had driven in from New Jersey. Passionately, we watched Victoria head for her midtown berth as the dawn broke and we could see her no more.