My wife and I recently went on a 10-day cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2, from New York through New England to Ville de QuÃ©bec.
Fighting the crowds at the ship's buffet plus the noise of the dining room was exhausting enough, but the experience of being "herded" all over the place left one depleted. Still, I was looking forward to the dining experiences, the highlight of our previous cruises---but my hopes in that department were quickly dashed. From the first bite, the Thai curry was agonizingly flavorless, as was the eggplant cannelloni. Some of the fish (tuna?) was literally too tough to swallow, and the miso soup contained indigestible things that resembled strips of cellophane. I love sea vegetables, but this was something else. At breakfast, some of the fruit was either unripe or well beyond its prime. On the second or third day I wrote a letter to the head of the food and beverage service complaining about these incredible deficiencies. I suggested (as examples) that the curry needed some hot peppers and the cannelloni needed some garlic. I regret that I didn't mention their herbal deficiencies, because from that point on, the head waiter decided that I needed to be served garlic and hot peppers with every meal. If that was all I could get, I decided to take it---after insisting that the garlic and peppers needed to be fresh, not canned. From that point on, I was pursued at every luncheon and dinner meal with a little dish of chopped garlic and (presumably) peppers, but the peppers---if that's what they were---tasted more like parsley. I pointed that out to the Indian head waiter. who I hoped would be sympathetic to such matters, but he seemed to be surprised and powerless to change anything, in spite of assurances to the contrary. One evening we decided to abandon the formal dining room and dine in a dark corner of the one small buffet with its limited selections. I was immediately detected by somebody on the staff, and my little dish of chopped garlic and insipid green things was presented without my even being asked if I wanted them that night! There was no escape! I fully expect to start receiving them in the mail any day now! By the way, my letter to the food and beverage person was never acknowledged.
One day at breakfast we met a sophisticated French-speaking lady from MontrÃ©al who shared my views on the food, and she cautioned us NOT to invest money in the expensive specialty restaurants on the ship. Pity.
On such adventures, we always choose a dinner table with the maximum assigned number of people, with the hope that some of them might be interesting. Our four other companions at dinner were indeed very good people, but my attempts at discussing anything that I found interesting were met with smiling gazes. Our conversations were protracted over a period of two hours in an extremely noisy atmosphere, where minuscule, bland, scantily sauce-drizzled courses were slowly presented one after another until one felt like screaming! Fresh-ground pepper was always offered, but it didn't help.
There were not many activities that interested me, but we did attend a piano recital by a Russian woman pianist. She opened with Chopin's Grand Polonaise in A-flat, a work that everyone recognizes. It is a work that is better than any performance I've ever heard of it, and her performance was no exception. The piece is extremely awkward to make sound really good, and her performance sounded like she was playing with a foreign accent at times. In other moments, she did a lot of good playing, even if she occasionally fell to the temptation to bang the hell out of certain flashy passages. Some of the pieces that followed aren't worth mentioning ("Clair de lune", a tiny Chopin Prelude, etc.), but some are: namely, a Scriabin Nocturne for the left hand, and Rachmaninoff's Prelude in E-flat, Op. 23, no. 6---really beautiful music that she played beautifully, without any suggestion of overdoing anything, and with a gentle wafting of the perfume unique to each piece.
What a disappointment it was, then, to have to suffer through her last work, Balakirev's "Islamey", which sounded like every note was being fired individually from a machine gun! If the piece had any shape at all, it was lost on me. In fairness, the piano was a horrible-sounding Yamaha (not quite a concert grand) which sounded like it was mounted on an old cast iron wash tub. I think it was slightly amplified, because the unresonant bass was too loud, which distorted the entire balance of the sound.
On the eighth day my wife was not feeling too well. I took her temperature which was over 101 degrees, so we went down to the medical center. They diagnosed type A influenza, sold her some very ordinary medications at an inflated price, and told her to remain in the stateroom! Room service was now my wife's only option, but the menu was grim, to put it mildly. French fries and potato chips garnished a few ordinary sandwiches, and tomato soup was the only option in that category. The next day the nurse wanted to see her again. Her fever had vanished, and she was cleared to move freely about the ship on the last day. But---alas---the room was quite small and I couldn't escape the infection.
On the last two days at sea the vessel came upon the most turbulent waters any of the staff had ever encountered on that ship. Other cruise ships in the area turned back and found safe haven, but the Queen Mary 2 plowed right through it, and the Captain seemed to be quite proud of the fact. I sent my criticisms to the cruise company and---concerning the turbulence---a Guest Relations Specialist wrote back (and I quote): "Whilst we do not know for certain why the other ships returned to port, we do presume that this is due to the fact that they are cruise ships, which have a flat bottom and were unable to deal with the expected weather conditions" Whew! A flat-bottomed cruise ship must be a holy terror! For me, it was a nightmare, but my wife, being quarantined, managed to sleep through much of it! The doors to the outer decks were bolted shut and we moved about the ship at our own risk. Meanwhile, there was a fire within the Gas Turbine Exhaust System, so all personnel were sent scurrying and bouncing around (accompanied by various alarms) until they put it out. All entertainment activities were canceled or postponed. I managed to get down to the dining room, but I was afraid to take an elevator. The ship's undulations covered a range of at least 360 degrees, which means you could be jolted in any conceivable direction, plus several that didn't seem conceivable. One of my favorites was a sudden lurch where your head and feet seemed to be moving in exactly opposite directions and you could never be quite sure how you would end up. But the best one was an eerie jerk which---I am convinced---because of its time-distorting characteristics, created a situation where the entire ship and all of its contents passed briefly into the Fourth Dimension. What a vacation-destination THAT will be to tell our friends about!
On the way up and back to New York, we stopped at a motel that was next to a Golden Corral, a buffet where seriously obese individuals are often seen desperately dining, alone or in groups. The buffet is quite large, but not known for refinements. Still, on this second visit, the Golden Corral wasn't quite as bad as I had remembered.