Tales of Table 18 or Well-Nigh a Paradise
DW (“Dear Wife”) and I embarked, on the frigid afternoon of January 12, on the New York to San Francisco segment of the Queen Victoria's 2010 World Cruise. As we live but a few blocks from her Manhattan berth, our transit consisted merely of a five minute taxi ride, a momentary wait in the “V.I.P” lounge and then straight aboard in time for settling in and a first lunch in the Queens Grill. Luggage was delivered promptly, as usual.
We took our first meal alone at our table of eight as our tablemates were not yet in evidence. It was exciting to gain a new view of Manhattan (and our apartment building) from the comfort of that wonderful dining room. Already, from those same floor-to-ceiling windows, the view tasteful softened in a frame of elegant shades and drapes, we have seen so much: under them, Venice has been laid out and the Bosphorus strait has glistened with the lights of Istanbul. This time, we anticipated the jungle of Panama and the passage under the Golden Gate.
The Grills areas and particularly the lounge and Queens Grill restaurant remain smashing successes. These rooms lend themselves, by virtue of their size, shape, décor, illumination, location, orientation, and service, to a conviviality, a demure, yet joyful, social grace, which is simply magic – and unmatched anywhere else at sea. The Grills areas on QM2 are no match at all.
Our suite, a Q6, was luxurious and well-situated midships on Deck 7. Closet and drawer space was certainly sufficient for two weeks but for the world cruise might have been a tad tight as many of the tables and bureaus had dead space (even a peculiar box under the bed interfered with luggage storage). Instead of these, more drawers and shelves would have been useful. All told, however, the suite, with its large and well-furnished balcony, is quite the way to travel and spoils one for anything less. I remain convinced that the Grills represent a very good value for money.
We cast off our moorings a few hours later than scheduled to let the North River (or “Hudson”) ice clear a bit. The promenade down the Hudson, past the glittering towers of Manhattan and out to sea was, as always, a spectacular experience. It makes one all-too-aware of what is missed now in the QM2's calls instead on Red Hook, Brooklyn.
The much remarked-upon plague of the “norovirus” (gastroenteritis) was upon the ship. Throughout the voyage the crew distinguished themselves with literally unending cleaning and disinfecting chores. These efforts were to good effect as the virus was eradicated by our call in San Francisco. We waited with some apprehension for the Chief Medical Officer's noon daily reports on the “situation” which he always assured us was “under control.” Fortunately, we were not affected. The doctor, as if to emphasize the non-life-threatening and prosaic nature of the virus, would close with “Toodle-oo” or “Toodle-pip.” Toward the end of the voyage, though noting that the scourge had ended, he opined that the few passengers remaining with “upset tummies” could attribute their conditions to “dietary indiscretions” pronounced “DIE-a-tree Indis-CRE-tions.” Right he was, as the food was extremely good indeed and one must be careful not to overindulge. His crisp Briton accent was a pleasure to hear. Captain Wright is also, by all accounts and indications a friendly, efficient, and decorous fellow.
One morning, C.D. Alistair Greener identified us to the ship on his daily telly show: we, the happy, lucky, and obviously jovial passengers at Queens Grill Table 18. We had much to be grateful for and expressed our good cheer vehemently, to the pleasure, we trust, of those we also befriended who were seated nearby at smaller tables. We enjoyed all our meals immensely save for those on the first day. The galleys do seem to be off on the day of a visit to the ports of New York as we have had the same disappointing experience on QM2 this past September on the first evening. Quite odd. It also remains a shame that Cunard continues to present “Pol Acker” sparkling wine as a gift to passengers. One of our tablemates, unfamiliar with the proper use of the stuff as drain cleaner, remarked, with his lilting Australian accent, upon first tasting it: “Holy Dooley, that's ROUGH!” Rather Cunard should drop the traditional “gift” or present something potable.
Our tablemates were an accomplished, charming, vivacious, and cheerful group, one couple from Scotland, another from Australia, and, a special treat, Roger McGuinn (folk singer and founder of the rock group, the Byrds) and his wife, Camilla. Rarely are great accomplishment and deepest modesty twinned as they are in Roger's character. He treated the ship to two lecture/concerts in the Royal Court theatre which were by far the finest entertainments we have ever enjoyed aboard a Cunard ship. The McGuinn’s, as well, held a party for us, the fortunate diners of Table 18, where Roger performed al fresco – another unforgettable pleasure. Were he ever to perform again on board we recommend seeking out that voyage.
Under the superlative care of senior maitre d' Andrew Nelder (ex-QE2 and a life-long devoted exemplar of the very best of Cunard White Star service), we enjoyed weeks spent in great measure at table coddled in comfort. Oh, how we indulged, imbibed, laughed and feted in no small measure thanks to the effortless and attentive service from David and Daniel in table service and from Sommelier, Kevin. No special order was any trouble. English silver service was flawless and table-side flambés, carvings, etc. were performed with finesse, exactitude, lovely aromas and a lovely and appropriate theatricality.
As always, we so much appreciated the seeming ease which can only result from immensely hard work behind the scenes. The food was of excellent though not always superlative quality in that, for example, the beef was good but not dry-aged prime. The caviar was very good and plentiful but not the Sevruga of days of yore. Every dish, save a few the first night, was properly cooked and seasoned, well-conceived, well-plated, etc. There was much more fine dark chocolate on offer than previously. Good show, Cunard. Also, the after-dinner three-tiered trays of Petit Fours, tartlets, bon-bons, and truffles were delightful. I learned much about wine under Kevin's tutelage. If you are reading this, Kevin: thanks again for your strength with that recalcitrant cork on the Jeraboam of Veuve Clicquot!
Days passed as they tend to do aboard: nothing to do and not enough time in which to do it. We missed likely 85% of the entertainments offered us. Between meals, we enjoyed the gym where well-taught and well-attended exercise classes were on offer daily: spinning for me and “Zumba” for DW. Evenings brought elegant attire (jackets ALWAYS required for men, thank goodness), ballroom dancing, and even the disco (Hemispheres) which was, unfortunately, nearly deserted many nights.
Though buglers no longer sound the evening call to remind passengers that the time has come to dress for dinner, Cunard has happened upon the nice substitute of one’s butler delivering canapes (caviar toasts, lobster salad in brioche, etc.) to the one’s stateroom at about 5:30 each evening. Nice touch, that. Our Butler also replenished our fruit bowl, delivered various newspapers, and served any meals, by the course, we wished to take en-suite. With the inimitable languor, the ennui (in the best sense of the word), which overtakes passengers at sea, we took, upon retiring each evening, to leaving closed the heavy drapery between our bedroom and living room so that, the next morning, by the delicate sounds of her unseen hands laying out the china, we would awake gently to hear her presenting our breakfast after which she announced, softly: “enjoy your breakfast, Mr. and Mrs. . . ..” Nearly a paradise indeed though DW notes that, in inferior contrast to the breakfast service at the Four Seasons, Prague, she did not actually bring a toaster to our room to make the toast! I noted the care with which the garde manger station had scored, with the tines of a fork perhaps, the edges of our slices of melon (in order to increase their visual appeal). Whenever, elsewhere, I am presented with naked melon slices again I shall surely sigh.
Evenings were always crowned with some ballroom dancing in the Queens Room. The orchestra and singer were quite accomplished and nice to listen to. Dancing was somewhat difficult, even for the gentlemen hosts, at times, because tunes which the singer called-out as “rumba”s were played, consistently, at Bolero tempo. “Swing” was often called-out – to be followed by a quickstep instead! This left many on the floor quite flummoxed. M.C., Jennifer, was kind and helpful in mentioning this to the band but received the reply that “[we] must play the marked tempo” which is utter nonsense.
Ft. Lauderdale, Florida:
Seas were calm on the slow run down to Ft. Lauderdale where, on our own ashore, we enjoyed tandem bicycling and Segway personal transporters in Hugh Taylor Birch State park. That evening, the send-off we received from the residents of the towers along the channel was, as always, tremendous fun, what with all the shouting, tooting, honking, flashing lights, and cries from ashore that we should “enjoy the WORLD!”
Grand Cayman brought a worthwhile Cunard shore excursion to a beach where we rested under the shade of a tree on the provided loungers and enjoyed a swim in the Caribbean before returning to the ship – of course in time for lunch!
We took one of the Cunard “highlights of. . .” tours which revealed a city which was, to us, of only glancing interest, unfortunately.
The full-day transit of the Panama canal was a highlight, naturally: in the dawn light, the mist rising from the waters approaching the Gatun locks brought “Apocalypse Now” to mind. The jungle, so densely- foliate that it remained dark under the canopy long after the sun rose, seemed impregnable and quite forbidding. Shortly thereafter, upon entering the first lock, we viewed, directly ahead, the miracle of the 85 foot rise over which the ship was to pass. Ahead (and above) us in the next lock was another Panamax cruise ship which added dramatic effect, looming so high as it did. Also astonishing was the lack of any clearance between the hull and the sides of the locks as I verified from the windows of the Queens Room when they were considerably below ground level. Only when we were elevated to lake level did the enormity and majesty of the man-made, lock-enabling, Gatun lake became apparent. It took the better part of the day to transit from the Caribbean to the Pacific ocean side. The jungle's density and the intensity of the sun and humidity made the fact of the canal's construction a century ago all the more awe-inspiring. We saw teams of workers cutting back the growth from the shorelines as the jungle appears quickly able to reclaim what we have taken from it.
The full-bore run up to Acapulco and thence to San Francisco did not show the poor Holland America Vista-class hull to its best effect. Merely low swells caused by winds from the West/Northwest as we made our course Northwest caused a repeated and noisy battering of the bow which, at 22 knots, will certainly result in a shortened service life for the ship. By an acoustic quirk in the superstructure of the ship, we, in Queens Grill, were treated, often, to a regular and thunderous booming as Poseidon seemed to wield his trident against the bow. Each impact was followed with a shudder (the “QV shimmy”) and noticeable pitching in addition to the light roll to which we were accustomed. What a contrast to the mighty QM2 which pierces such swells entirely without effort and at much greater speed. But of course QM2 is a liner and QV and QE are cruise ships pushed to extremes when, as during this portion of the voyage, they play the part of vessels which they should not aspire to be.
Disembarkation was much-delayed but not as a result of any failing on Cunard's part. We passed the time quite pleasantly in the Grills lounge after a final breakfast (shirred eggs and caviar for me). Luggage was ready at the pier (which will receive a much-needed renovation over the next few years).
A short taxi ride found us at the Mandarin Oriental overlooking the ship from our aerie on the 43rd floor. The Mandarin is one of the rare hotels which under-promises and over-performs. A stay there in one of the Mandarin signature rooms is a worthwhile treat. We enjoyed tea of our choice and cookies in the room as a welcome and noted that the views were even better than promised, especially in the enormous bathroom. While it is true that there is no Grand Hotel sense of event at this property because the lobby is small, the adjacent bar and lounge dark and awkwardly configured, there is no pool (though the Equinox club is just around the corner with guest privileges), etc., the service and the views more than make up for these lacks. The on-site restaurant, Silks, had an excellent tasting menu in the New American style. The concierge was extremely helpful making reservations, room service was prompt, exacting, polite, and accurate, maid service was excellent, and we appreciated the little touches, like the first initial of our family name tastefully-embroidered on one of the snow-white, silky cotton bed pillows, the offer, each early evening, of a special treat such as a Bento box of nuts or dried fruits presented with orchid blooms, a small bottle of Port, etc. We will certainly return to this property.
That first evening, with her lights aglitter, we watched, from our windows on high, as the Queen Victoria sailed away. The sight was majestic but our feeling also somewhat sad – akin to a lover's “a bientot” rather than an “adieu.”
Otherwise, we wholeheartedly recommend Sutro's at the Cliff House restaurant (a haunt exclusively of tourists, apparently) enjoys magnificent views of the crashing waves and serves very good fish – much better than it need be given its location. The Academy of Science is well worth a visit as it has the best living rainforest and aquarium displays we have ever enjoyed – and also the excellent Moss Room fine dining venue where we enjoyed lunch. Dinner at Bix brought good brasserie fare and dancing at the Top of the Mark was an excellent close to the trip.
Delta's transcontinental “Business Elite” service was actually quite nice – no beds but certainly decent seats and plenty of leg room. We were greeted by name and I happily accepted the flight attendant's offer to hang up my jacket – decorum is not gone entirely from flying these days! Alas, the food was inedible – all good things must come to an end. . .until we sail again we return, reluctantly, to what a memorable Celebrity Cruises advert. calls our “temporary exile” on land.