TRAVEL: Queen Elizabeth cruise ship tour of the Mediterranean
Daily life on board a large cruise ship can become an endless round of organised activities for those who like to keep busy. But thankfully some of the best entertainment on offer is occasionally unscripted.
This lesson was brought home in dramatic fashion one afternoon while my wife and I relaxed on the balcony of our stateroom a board Cunard’s splendid Queen Elizabeth. Slumped on sunbeds, we suddenly noticed a dark shape looming beneath the surface of the ocean little more than 50m away.
We stared transfixed as a huge whale emerged for a single leap before plunging back beneath the Atlantic swell off the coast of Portugal. It was a moment of pure out-of-the-blue magic which will live long in the memory.
Not satisfied with just the appearance of this single leviathan, Mother Nature put on another surprise show the following day by arranging for a school of frisky dolphins to perform their gymnastic routines close to the ship. This time we had a longer opportunity to watch and marvel.
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But when it came to startling sights, nothing could have prepared us for the vision of a small Japanese man clutching a straw boater performing exaggerated solo dance moves on a giant outdoor chessboard. Quite extraordinary.
Therein lies the appeal of a cruise – as well as soothing the soul, it’s a feast for the eyes. There are decks to be viewed, people to be watched, seas to be scanned, ports to be witnessed. The whole experience could cause you optical overload.
Not that it got off to a great start. After setting out from Southampton for our 10-day cruise to Rome, the first views on offer were of the sprawling Fawley oil refinery, were a sight for sore eyes.
But that evening, ushered to our table for two in the Princess Grill restaurant at the top of the ship, we were delighted with its stunning panorama of the sunlit ocean 12 decks below. “You like?” asked our friendly waiter, Aleksandar from Macedonia. You bet we do.
In fact we found almost everything on board the Queen Elizabeth to our liking. Our stateroom was spacious and well designed with, importantly, plenty of good storage. Its compact balcony, with its twin sunbeds, became our regular retreat and viewing platform, usually accompanied by a glass or two.
That’s not to say there isn’t plenty to do on board because there most definitely is. The lounges, shops, art gallery, theatre, library, casino, spa, gym, games deck and pools are all immaculately maintained and vying for passengers’ attention. And when the weather is clement, you can take your pick of the sunbathing and relaxation areas on the outside decks.
We soon decided that our favourite bar was the Commodore Club with its spectacular 180 degree ocean views and friendly staff whipping up cocktails at a rate of knots. And we very quickly came to the conclusion that it had been worth upgrading to one of the Queen Elizabeth’s two “grill” restaurants for an intimate atmosphere, excellent food and outstanding service.
The daily programme lists a staggering number of activities and one of my most interesting hours on the whole cruise was spent in a lecture charting the history of the Cunard line from its formation in 1839 as a transatlantic mail service using steamships.
Only later did we discover that the mysterious event held at 5pm in the Admiral’s Lounge every day under the description of “Friends of Bill W” was not a get-together for a group of old nautical chums but in fact code for a meeting of recovering alcoholics. I almost joined them at the end of the cruise, so well refreshed did I feel after 10 days of uninhibited cruise life.
The ease of embarkation at Southampton is marred only slightly by the necessity to cross the Bay of Biscay which soon reminded us who’s in charge by laying on gale-force winds and heavy seas. On a bracing circumnavigation of the ship on the outside deck, we spotted a lone seabird, scores of miles from shore, skimming the boiling waters.
Conditions settled down for our passage off the Iberian peninsula and and sun loungers on the top deck are the ideal spot from which to admire sister ship the Queen Victoria as she cruised south in tandem with us. Two queens processing regally through the white horses of the ocean – another visual spectacle.
The following day there was a close-up of the smaller Ocean Princess cruise liner as we berthed next to her in Gibraltar, with oil tankers left idle by the recession littering the bay. Low cloud hung over the Rock as we explored the crowded, slightly disappointing shopping streets and underwent the surreal experience of popping in to the local Morrisons for a couple of bottles of fizz to refresh the balcony supplies.
They were needed for another day “at sea” although not until after the captain’s cocktail party which started at the surprisingly early hour of 11.30am. Commodore Christopher Rynd assured me that sun had gone over the yard arm – the traditional measure for these matters – so it was safe to indulge in the well-chilled house champagne.
And if indulgence is your chosen path, then the traditional afternoon tea served every day by immaculately-mannered and white-gloved waiters is highly recommended. Once sampled, it’s a habit that’s tough to break.
Walking off the effects of the tea, we wandered to the bow of the ship to sneak guilty looks at the packed fitness centre where treadmills were being pounded and cross-presses pumped. How do they do it? Joining in a fairly relaxed table tennis tournament, or shifting a sunbed into the shade, was my idea of being energetic.
A day in Palma, the impressive capital of Majorca, coincided with torrential downpours of rain. But later the clouds subsided and the top of the ship provided spectacular views of the city laid out along its curving bay, with mountains behind and thousands of luxury yachts moored in the marinas.
In busy Barcelona we spent a morning on the beach before an excellent tapas lunch in a stylish square just off the Ramblas. Sometimes it was hard to remember that we were actually on a cruise holiday. But Come the ship’s afternoon departure it was back to the good old balcony to gaze at the Costa Brava as we sailed east to Monte Carlo.
There were fun and games to be witnessed in Monte Carlo’s harbour, as we boarded the ship’s lifeboats to go ashore because another cruise ship had bagged the only available berth. In a heavy swell, the lifeboats bobbed furiously up and down in the water and boarding was a hazardous exercise.
This glitzy port of call always provides enough interest for a few hours, with plenty of options for a decent lunch, but on the final day we skipped the popular organised excursions to Florence and instead explored the sprawling port city of Livorno before a final session on the sun-dappled balcony. This time the view was of a huge container ship being loaded and unloaded by giant gantry cranes, with the open sea behind.
Yes you see an awful lot of sea on a cruise, but a whole lot more besides.