As we sailed away from Copenhagen, the Women's Marine Orchestra that had played on the open decks before sailing continued playing from the quay. There's something stirring about hearing "Anchors Aweigh," when indeed, you are actually weighing anchor. They also played Christmas carols in the frosty air. The few onlookers who had come to see us off were divided among the hardy souls who braved the chill and those who waited in their cars and flashed their headlights as we passed. An overnight call in Copenhagen was a nice change from day calls, and I commend Cunard for scheduling it.
Are there advantages to sailing northern waters this time of year instead of following the sun to the Canaries (or Caribbean)? Absolutely. Most cruise travelers only see Northern and Western Europe during warm weather months -- and while certainly the weather tends to be more pleasant then, you don't get as much of a feel for the places. In many cases, residents of these areas are away on their own holidays in summer. Now, everyone's home and in most cases, out on the streets, day and night, celebrating this traditional festive season.
Plus there's another bonus. There are cultural events in these places that take place only in winter. For example, Cunard offered passengers on our overnight call to Copenhagen the opportunity to see the Royal Danish Ballet perform "The Nutcracker." Those who ventured forth got to see a new interpretation of a classic ballet, performed by one of the world's great dance companies, and the performance was attended by the Queen of Denmark! Museums that are overrun with tourists during the summer are easier to enter in winter when only local people go. And there are seasonal organ and choir concerts, featuring music of the season. (Choirs are either disbanded or on tour in the summer.)
So while it may seem counterintuitive to take a big ship cruise to a region in the throes of winter, wrapping an itinerary around a holiday as important as this one to Europe offers us a genuinely unique experience. In fact, the popularity of this type of big ship cruise is growing; P&O pioneered the itinerary last year and offered it again in 2007 (In 2008, its Aurora will focus on Christmas markets). Fred. Olsen's Balmoral is another option for next year's holiday season. Those seeking a small-ship markets experience can choose from among river operators like Uniworld, Viking River and Deilmann. Even Hurtigruten's Finnmarken will feature markets in a December 2008 fjords itinerary.
Naturally, once Christmas is over -- all ships (with the exception of the year-round Hurtigruten) -- skedaddle to warmer climes.
Each morning in port, the Staff Captain makes an announcement in which he gives the weather conditions and the location of the gangway. (Queen Victoria has docked in every port, so there has been no tendering on this cruise.) As we arrived in Oslo, Norway's bustling capital, he noted that the temperatures were around the 4 degrees Celcius mark; he also added that it's the coldest port of call he'd ever cruised to.
With Cruise Critic's port profile on Oslo on hand, it's pretty easy to get your bearings. The city is located on the Aker River at the head of the Oslo Fjord (offering, by the way, plenty of picturesque scenery as ships sail in and out). It's one of the largest in terms of size, and this is intriguing -- it's also the least densely populated capital city in Europe!
This capital has modern architecture, lots of parks, world-class museums and public statues nearly everywhere (including a lot of naked ones!). Norway's royal family resides in town (the palace is in the heart of the city). Norway itself is one of the younger Scandinavian countries -- it was part of Denmark and then Sweden before becoming independent in 1905.
Beware: It's also astoundingly expensive, and even if you like to try out new restaurants while in port, you may find yourself heading back onboard. You'll notice the high standard of living. In fact, Norway today is one of the richest countries in the world, thanks in no small part to its offshore oil.
And if it's a charmingly scaled city, there's one problem with our visit today -- which fell on a Sunday. Despite this visit's just-before-Christmas timing, most of the shops are closed. What few shops that are open on Sundays do not open until 2 p.m., which may come as a surprise to American and British passengers who are accustomed to shops being open on the so-called "day of rest." In much of Europe, an effort is made to keep Sunday a day for family, not so much for religious purposes these days but because there is a strong social democratic commitment to workers having time off with their families. The convenience of the shopper is sacrificed for the well-being of shopkeepers. Those among us who take this being a Christmas markets cruise literally are griping about a missed shopping day.
In all honesty, while I've enjoyed the ambience of the various Christmas markets we've visited so far, I'm starting to feel a bit of burn-out and am just as happy to try another diversion.
Queen Victoria is docked in the city, just a short walk from downtown (centered around Karl Johans Gate), and on this frosty morning, I had it all to myself. Oslo was virtually empty of pedestrians. There were no cars on the streets, and the trams and buses had not yet begun operating. It almost felt like wandering around a Christmas toy train village. All the shop windows were alight, and there were garlands of white lights and greens draped above and across streets in the retail district. The Lilliputian feel is also due to Oslo's scale; it's modestly sized with few buildings over a couple of stories tall. The style of architecture I recalled was of model European buildings I had assembled as a boy for my train set: tiled roofs, pastel-colored walls and casement (rather than sash) windows. All that was missing was snow to make me feel I was in a snow globe village.
Queen Victoria's program listed two possibilities for Sunday morning worship in Oslo: St. Edmund's Anglican Church and the American Lutheran Church. (There is daily Roman Catholic Mass celebrated onboard the ship.) One way to experience a different city, if one is so inclined, is to worship with a local congregation. I went to St. Edmund's Church and was pleased to be present for its annual children's Christmas pageant. There were all the usual characters: children got up as Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds and kings. The African priest who was celebrant was very proud of the kings actually having frankincense and myrrh on hand (if no gold, given the world price). He asked them to show their gifts to the congregation. The shepherds were not about to let the kings out of their sight, so they decided to shepherd them as they walked up and down the aisle, displaying their wares. It was all very charming.
The congregation was comprised of English ex-pats, Africans, Asians and a number of Norwegians. While the presence of African and Asian worshipers is not unexpected (given that Oslo is a national capital with embassies and consulates), it also attests to a multicultural world in which there are Norwegian citizens who are not descended from the Vikings, but whose ancestors (or they themselves) have come from another continent. I was glad I had made the effort to find the church, and the vicar, an expansively welcoming woman from the North of England, was pleased that Cunard had invited passengers to visit.
Oslo's got plenty of other diversions for winter visitors (as well as summer guests).
Its most prominent tourist attractions include Oslo's new Nobel Prize Peace Center, City Hall (which has the most amazing murals throughout depicting scenes that range from World War II resistance -- the city was occupied by the Nazis -- to family life) and of course, the world-famous Munch Museum. On a nice day, the Vigeland Sculpture Park, an 80-acre expanse on the outskirts of town, is amazing; it features numerous sculptures created by Gustav Vigeland and is known for its bigger-than-human-sized works that capture life in various cycles, from birth to death.
After a brisk morning, I headed back to the ship. One of my favorite aspects of cruising is the chance to be onboard while most other passengers are in port. While some services are curtailed, depending on the country visited (bars are closed while in port in France, and casinos and duty free shops are shuttered almost all the time), it's the perfect time to take advantage of others. The spa is open -- and offering port day discounts. There's no wait at the Internet Cafe for a computer. And service at Britannia, which is typically filled on sea days, is much brisker today.
On my way in to the restaurant, I was introduced to a visitor onboard: Knut Kloster, a Norwegian, is one of the most innovative scions in modern day cruising, having launched Norwegian Cruise Line (NCL) and created ResidenSea (the luxury condo vessel); he was onboard to meet with John Maxtone-Graham, the esteemed maritime historian, who's writing a book on the SS France (also known, during its tenure with NCL, as Norway).
A quiet day in port is also a good time to prowl around and acquaint myself with parts of the ship I haven't yet experienced. I love that Queen Victoria has a Card Room because it reminds us that the ship will serve the British public for whom playing cards is more important than for Americans. Another aspect of the ship that indicates that it will be more British in tone than QM2, its predecessor, is that the casino is quite small (Europeans aren't as fond of gambling onboard cruise ships as Americans).
Indeed, I learned the other night that Cunard, which was brought into the Princess Cruises fold a few years ago, will return to U.K. management; the line will be transferred to Carnival U.K., which operates lines like P&O, the largest line serving Britain.
There are a lot of bars on the ship, but some of them serve as little more than corridors through which passengers pass on their way from the Britannia Restaurant to the Royal Court Theatre and vice versa. The Cafe Carinthia, Chart Room, Midships Bar and Champagne Bar are so similarly shaped, sized and situated that I have to read the name plate of the room on the wall to know in which I am.
The ship's library has gotten a lot of attention as being the first two-story venue at sea, and true to its word, Cunard has created a gorgeous two-deck space just off the atrium. The much-anticipated spiral stairway with its Tiffany-style dome is beautifully executed, but it is very large and takes up floor space that could have been used for additional bookcases, chairs or desks. Is it essential to the operation of the Library? Probably not, but it is eye-catching. It's well-stocked, offering fiction, nonfiction, and large sections of travel books, books on the sea and biographies. While the room is open 24 hours, the bookcases are locked when the library is not attended. By the way, don't miss the special writing desks; they're tucked in a corner, overlooking the sea. And the comfortable leather armchairs are a terrific place to read a book.
The size and attention to detail of the Library is a statement of Cunard's commitment to an activity that is relegated on some modern cruise ships to a couple of bookcases near an elevator lobby. This is non-revenue-producing space, and it is lavish and wonderful.
I'm not a great fan of Art Auctions at Sea, but if you're going to have them -- and as they are huge centers of profit for cruise lines, it's a tradition that will carry on -- it's better to offer them a gallery, as is here, for displaying the works. The arrangement is much better than on most ships, where you stumble across the stuff set up on easels in bars, lounges and stairwells.
Another big favorite is the Commodore Club. This lounge was a smash hit when QM2 debuted, and it's even better now! The bar is longer with more stools. The room is deeper and can accommodate more people. While not dominated by a single model like the one on QM2, the room is decorated with models and paintings of Cunard ships and not just the famous old ocean liners. I was delighted to find a model of the Cunard Countess, which many former passengers remember with fondness.
Another Cunard tradition that has improved on Queen Victoria is its pub. I love the Golden Lion Pub, a great evocation of a Victorian public house. Am I the only person who sees this as the Queen Victoria's own Queen Vic, the pub in Eastender's, England's most popular soap opera? With beers, ales and a stout on draft (Guinness, Boddington's, Beck's, Stella Artois, Budweiser, Bass Ale), as well as darts and pub food at lunch, this is a great place and is popular throughout the day. Like all other bars and public rooms on the ship (with two exceptions: Churchill's Cigar Bar and the Empire Casino), it is smoke-free. (Outside the Golden Lion Pub, however, there are tables and chairs, which are technically in the Casino, one of the smoking-permitted areas on the ship.)
Tomorrow, we have our second day at sea. Cunard has a superb enrichment program, and I am looking forward to John Maxtone-Graham's lecture on the Titanic, Giancarlo Impiglia's talk on Cunard Line's revival of Art Deco, and Tatiana Faberge's session on her family's ties to the imperial Russian family and its generations-long jewelry business. And these are only a handful of the offerings!
A retired security analyst will speak on the Falklands War while other offerings include a classical piano recital, a class for beginning computer users, a watercolor arts class, team trivia and, of course, snowball jackpot bingo.
Too many activities, and too little time!