Yesterday, walking along the balcony that rings the Queens Room, I heard the unmistakable sound of swordplay. Surely enough, below me were two dozen fencers wearing protective padding and masks, wielding foils. While Queen Victoria has a number of sweeping staircases suitable for rescue attempts of the Prisoner of Zenda, I had no idea the line was training passengers for such a cause! Indeed, Queen Victoria is the first ship at sea to offer fencing lessons.
Requiring somewhat less energy is tonight's gathering of Cunard World Club's Platinum and Diamond Cunarders for cocktails in the Queens Room. This was not the exclusive gathering it might sound, at least on this sailing, because the preponderant percentage of passengers on board qualifies for this invitation. The room was packed with guests.
The Captain and senior officers mingled with passengers, often running into people they had hosted at their tables on previous voyages of other ships (both Cunard and Princess). The party served as a reminder that a shipping company is more than the vessels it sails.
I have asked a number of fellow passengers, folk conversant in the ways of ships, if there was anything about the Queen Victoria that made it particularly a Cunard ship and not a ship of some other line. They all thought it a good question, but not one of them could point to anything that marked this vessel as a Cunard vessel and not, say, a Princess one or a Holland America one. (And we know by the number of ships that change hands, moving from line to line, that ships can have two or more successful careers with different lines.) What makes a Cunard vessel particularly Cunard is the staff, the persons who learn and carry on the traditions of the company. On my last few sailings on Cunard vessels, I have been seated at officers' tables, the hosts of which had spent their entire careers with P&O/Princess. That is another wonderful seagoing tradition, but it is not Cunard. For this maiden voyage, at least, it has been a pleasure to sail with a crew that was primarily drawn from QE2 and QM2.
At breakfast the other morning I sat with an English couple, the husband of which had been a shore side engineer, working for a company that supplied equipment for QE2 when she was being built. Since then, he and his wife had sailed on the QE2 many times and always sat at the Chief Engineer's table. I have often sat at that table, and we reminisced about the chief engineers we had known. It created a bond between us and renewed a bond between us and Cunard Line.
I met friends for drinks in the Commodore Club last night. As we were being seated, a technician, with laptop in hand, turned on a strip of blue lighting that traces the underside of the cove lighting along the room's forward, curving wall. One friend asked the technician what he thought he was doing. He informed us that this was the "signature color of the ship." He said there was a similar lighting strip in the Commodore Club of QM2, but Queen Victoria's was LED, while QM2's was neon. We opined that the blue lighting did nothing to enhance the room. If anything, it cheapened it. He was stunned anyone would take exception and walked away speechless.
My third dinner in the Britannia Restaurant found our table breaking in our third bus boy. (I'm beginning to think it's us.) Again, the dinner was excellent: most of us had tenderloin of beef, and we all ended up with the rareness we'd ordered after trading around a little. The show last night was an Elton John impersonator, but we (yet again) did not finish dinner in time to attend. Two ladies at my table, however, were prepared to enter the hat parade at the Royal Ascot Ball.
Do you wonder why the Queen Victoria would host a Royal Ascot Ball? Is there a horse race on board? Is the event under royal patronage? No, it's just another of those instances of borrowing a concept through which we associate glamour; if, for instance, most of us have never been to Royal Ascot, at least we've seen "My Fair Lady."
The Royal Ascot Ball had been touted in the ship's advance material sent to passengers before leaving home, so ladies were alerted to the advisability of bringing (or making) a hat. One of the women at my table had bought her hat in London, a typical English wedding hat that makes a statement.
The other lady at my table had adopted a different approach. Using an existing hat, she decorated it with Christmas ornaments: little wrapped presents hung from the edges, and the crown was wrapped in tinsel. Women (and some men) who had brought or made hats were invited to parade around the dance floor of the Queens Room. From among the perhaps 50 promenaders, the cruise staff chose 11 finalists. No one with a store-bought hat made the finals. Most of the hats had been made onboard, using bits and bobs: brochures, breakfast order forms, plastic wine glasses. The winner had made her hat with wine corks, wine glasses and twinkling Christmas tree lights. Each of the finalists introduced herself. They were all English, save the American lady (the one who bought the hat, not who made a Christmas tree from it) from my table. The English really do like this participatory kind of activity, and I can remember 20 years ago when passengers worked on costumes for costume parades, but it died out for want of participation. The English still believe in passenger self-entertainment to a degree lost by Americans.
Hamburg's on tap today, and it's always a job, winter or summer, to sail up the Elbe River and into its arms. Hamburg is a quintessential port city -- life revolves around the water, and the city's love for Queen Mary 2 (thousands gather when that ship arrives and departs) is already legend.
It's also a favorite city because it's full of life and joie de vivre. Hamburg, which is not only Europe's second largest port city but also Germany's second biggest, is the country's cultural hub (as well as its business hub). Located in northern Germany, the city has great ambience any time of year (lots of lakes and forests and, because bombing during World War II was minimal here, a slew of historic buildings).
This morning I opted to enjoy being onboard -- even as others rushed off the ship to explore. I thought this would be a good day to lunch in the Golden Lion Pub, a place where it is almost impossible to find a seat on a sea day. The Golden Lion really is a great re-creation of a British pub. From the red Axminster carpeting (chosen in real pubs because it doesn't show spills) to the heavy round tables for two, and from the captain's chairs to the small-paned bay windows overlooking the sea -- everything is authentic pub decor. The Golden Lion has a small selection of draft bitters and stout and a much larger selection of canned draught ales. After a passenger chooses a seat, a steward serves drinks -- mine remembered me from the QE2 -- and takes a lunch order. The menu is written on a chalk board: bangers and mash (sausages and potatoes), ploughman's lunch (salad, cheese and bread), cottage pie (beef with potatoes), steak and mushroom pie, fish and chips, and chicken korma (Indian chicken with yoghurt, rice and pappadams). The food is surcharge-free and good for its type: English comfort food.
I'm on to Hamburg this afternoon. Queen Victoria docked within walking distance of the Central Railway Station and the city hall, but Cunard provided free shuttle service, anyway, because of construction around the docks.
I took the shuttle bus to the City Hall (known here as the Rathaus), where Hamburg's Christmas market is located. Dating back to 1897, the Rathaus itself is worthy of exploring; from the outside, it's quite eclectic (and you can see its clock tower from many parts of the city), designed in a neo-Renaissance style with a fountain in the center that pays homage to Hygieia, the Greek goddess of health. Indoors, it was renovated about a decade ago, and it's quite grand. It is the seat of Hamburg's Senate and Parliament and, believe it or not, is rated by TripAdvisor as the city's second most popular tourist attraction. If the timing's right, you should definitely take the 45-minute tour to see its state rooms, historic tapestries, gorgeous ceilings and stately portraits.
No time for that today, though, because Hamburg's Christmas market is the big draw, and it's splayed throughout the town hall square (the Rathausmarkt). The entire square in front of city hall had been filled with glass-roofed pavilions. The square was completely ringed by cut fir trees. Alleys separated stalls that sold mostly food items: cheeses, nuts, chocolates, marzipan, stollens (iced yeast cakes with dried fruit), gluewein (hot mulled wine), Tyrolean sausages, and meat pies. Some people were snacking along the way; others were buying treats for Christmas. Overhead, there were white lights, and an atmosphere of German well-being (and well fed-ness) permeated the market.
Because I can't go without a newspaper for more than a day or so, I stopped at the Central Station, one of Europe's largest, to pick up a Herald Tribune. The station was decorated for Christmas with gigantic white-lighted globes, flanked by icicles. The scale of the decorations was amazing. (The globes were the size of cottages.) I determined to walk back to the ship, which took me past decorated shop windows, a museum or two (including the German Coast Guard Museum) and endless redeveloped waterfront: warehouses, now condominiums.
Tonight we are promised fireworks. I am looking forward to seeing how they compare with our Danish welcome and our English farewell.