Saturday, October 29, 2011

Never a Dull Moment on the Queen Mary 2

You might wonder what you would do if you were on a seven-day transatlantic cruise from New York to Southampton. After all, there are no port stops on the way. Surprisingly enough, days speed by as there is plenty to do on the Queen Mary 2 including films in the Planetarium; the Cunard Insights Lecture Enrichment Program; Bridge classes; performances by the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art; the Canyon Ranch Spa & Fitness Center; computer classes; afternoon tea; dancing classes; wine tastings; and darts competitions.

Even in seven days, there isn’t enough time to do everything. After breakfast, I would typically walk a brisk nine laps (3.3 miles) around the teak deck (Deck 7) to get my blood flowing and walk off the over-indulgence of the day before.

I particularly enjoyed the two presentations in the planetarium: Passport to the Universe and Cosmic Collisions. I used to go to the planetarium in San Francisco frequently as a child and didn’t realize how much I had missed it until I went to the presentations on board the Queen Mary 2. After watching galaxies collide, the problems I’ve been wrestling with seem small in comparison. We humans are but a small part of an enormous universe. I think it’s important to cherish what we have but let’s not take ourselves too seriously in the process.

I also heard an interesting art talk about artistic inspiration in the Clarendon Fine Art Gallery. I didn’t realize that Vincent Van Gogh wanted to be a preacher but was expelled from preacher school because he was too enthusiastic. Van Gogh apparently had incredible mood swings that were over the top and repelled people, including his dear friend Paul Gauguin. After living with Van Gogh in the south of France for a period of time, Gauguin left because he could no longer take Van Gogh’s intensity. Van Gogh cut off his ear in the hope that Gauguin would come back.

The biggest surprise for me was how much I enjoyed Carmen in 3D. I’ve never been an opera fan but watching a performance in London’s Royal Opera House on screen at the Illuminations Theatre on the Queen Mary 2 while wearing 3D glasses was entertaining. It was nice to have the opera, which was sung in French, translated at the bottom of the screen.

About the food – it was good in the Britannia Restaurant (main dining room) but not great. On the Queen Mary 2, where you dine depends on the stateroom you’ve booked and there are four different dining rooms: Britannia Restaurant; Britannia Club; Princess Grill; and Queens Grill. I don’t know for sure but I would imagine that the food is better in The Grills. If you don’t happen to be staying in the Queens/Princess Grill stateroom categories and want to have an exquisite dining experience, go to Todd English, the alternative restaurant on board. I had the Love Letters truffled potato appetizer, which was delicious.

More photos of the Queen Mary 2.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The Queen Mary 2

 I’m now enroute across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary 2 and there are days on this classic ship that I feel like a member of British high society during the 1930s when an ocean voyage was the only way to get from New York to Southampton. I’ve been spending some of my leisure time enjoying scones and clotted cream served by white-gloved waiters at afternoon tea, dancing at the Black & White Ball in the Queens Room, and taking power walks on the teak deck around the ship on Deck 7 with the wind rushing through my hair.

Sailing away from New York Harbor past Ellis Island and the Statue of Liberty with the New York skyline in the distance was truly my most moving sail away experience. I thought about my father who arrived in New York Harbor from Genoa on the SS Dulio in 1927.

Before getting on this cruise, I had made it a point to upgrade my wardrobe because I had heard that the Queen Mary 2 was very dressy compared to most other cruise ships. On this seven day cruise, there are four formal nights. Although ladies need to wear a dress on these evenings, it isn’t necessary to invest in an expensive beaded gown that would feel like an anchor in your suitcase. And the vast majority of people were dressed very casually in the morning and afternoon. If you don’t feel like dressing up for dinner, you can always go to the King’s Court, the Queen Mary 2’s rendition of the Lido Deck. I’m going to have to convince my fellow Northwesterners, most of whom don’t like to dress up, that this cruise isn’t as stuffy as they might think. It is a distinctively British experience but it isn’t outrageously stiff and formal.

Half of the passengers on the ship are British, and although I haven’t met all 1,200 of them, the ones who I have met are warm, friendly and witty. Most are retired but I’ve met some traveling with children. Many have done the transatlantic crossing more than once.

On day 1 of our voyage, the weather was beautiful. It got progressively worse on day 2 and on day 3, the outside decks were closed due to strong winds. Instead of taking my daily walk around the deck, I had to resort to the gym for my exercise. According to the Captain’s Log, the waves were from 7.5 to 12 feet and although we all could certainly feel the rocking motion of the ship, it wasn’t rough enough to knock anything off shelves or tables. In fact, the rocking motion must have put a lot of people to sleep because as I was taking a tour of the ship, I could see that many had found cozy spaces in front of the windows and had apparently dozed off while reading a book. The Commodore Club on Deck 9 is a particularly good place to watch the waves crashing against the ship because it is located forward on an upper deck. At any rate, the Queen Mary 2 is an ocean liner that was built to handle conditions in the North Atlantic so it has been pretty much a smooth up and down ride.

I’ve been really impressed by the speed of the satellite Internet connection in the middle of the ocean. The bandwidth is even good enough for me to check my voicemail using Skype. So if you’re concerned that you will be cut off from the world while taking a transatlantic voyage, you don’t have anything to worry about.

More photos of the Queen Mary 2.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Four Spectacular Days in Switzerland

Before we boarded Uniworld’s S.S. Antoinette in Basel, Switzerland, I thought it would be fun to plan a four-day pre-cruise adventure by land to see some of Switzerland’s gorgeous countryside. I don’t know about you but when I think of Switzerland, mountains and lakes immediately come to mind and that was what I was bound and determined to see. Although Switzerland is a small country, you really can’t cover it in four days so I had to make a decision about what section of this gorgeous country we were going to see.

Knowing that we were going to end up in Basel, I focused on the northwestern part of the country. As I started doing my research, I quickly realized that buying a four-day Swiss Pass would be an excellent investment as it would entitle us to free travel throughout the Swiss Travel System with a few notable exceptions.

We landed in Geneva and spent a day exploring the city, including Geneva’s Old Town and the shore of Lake Geneva. Not wanting to spend a fortune for dinner (our dollars didn’t buy us many Swiss francs and a very ordinary dinner could easily cost at least $100), we found a cozy little restaurant called Fifty-Fifty with a convivial atmosphere. We met a Brazilian couple, David and Daniela, sitting next to us who lived in Geneva and struck up an interesting conversation with them. Before long, the owner was offering us a glass of the house limoncello.

The next day we were off to Montreux to catch the GoldenPass Line, one of Switzerland’s classic scenic train routes which goes from Montreux to Lucerne. Our plan that day was to take one train from Montreux to Zweisimmen and catch another train from Zweisimmen to Interlaken. However, due to a bridge undergoing renovation, we had to get off the train at Château d’Oex and bus it to Zweisimmen. Yes, even the super precise Swiss Travel System hiccups once in a while.

In Interlaken, we stayed at the Hotel du Lac, a charming hotel located between Lake Brienz and Lake Thun that has been run by the same family for generations. Our corner room had a gorgeous view of Lake Brienz. The cream of asparagus soup I had at the hotel restaurant was very tasty.

Our primary reason for coming to Interlaken was to visit the Jungfrau region, where majestic Mt. Eiger, Mt. Mönch and Mt. Jungfrau make their presence known. The $64,000 question of the day was how far up this Alpine massif were we willing to go given the weather conditions. Our Swiss Passes would get us from Interlaken (elev. 567 feet) to Wengen (elev. 4,180 feet); to go any higher we would have to start shelling out Swiss Francs – lots of them. At Wengen we decided to bite the bullet and pay an additional 84 Swiss francs and take the Wengernalp cog wheel railway to Kleine Scheidegg (elev. 6,762 feet), where the views of the Eiger north face were spectacular. We spent over an hour breathing the clean fresh air, photographing the stunning landscape and appreciating Mother Nature at her finest.

As much as I had wanted to board the Jungfrau Railway, Europe’s highest-altitude railway which runs partly through a tunnel hewn out of rock to Jungfraujoch (Top of Europe, elev. 11,333 feet), it was obvious at Kleine Scheidegg that we would see nothing but fog if we took the trip. If our Swiss Passes would have allowed us to do it without paying an additional 250 Swiss francs, I would have done it in a heart beat just to experience this pioneering masterpiece among mountain railways. However, for 250 Swiss francs, a view of fog just doesn’t cut it.

From Interlaken, we took the GoldenPass Line to Lucerne, where we spent two wonderful days. In Lucerne, we particularly enjoyed strolling across the Chapel Bridge, the oldest wooden covered bridge in Europe and walking on the walls of Old Town Lucerne where we savored some beautiful views of the city. The highlights of our visit, however, were the trip to Mt. Rigi (its name stems from the Latin “Regina Montium” or “Queen of Mountains”) and a boat ride around Lake Lucerne.

We started our venture on a boat from Lucerne to Vitznau and transferred to the cogwheel railway that led to the summit of Mt. Rigi (elev. 6,000 ft). The weather was gorgeous and the views of the Swiss Alps and Lake Lucerne from the top of Mt. Rigi were breathtaking. It was everything that I imagined Switzerland to be and more! I’ve never been fond of German food, but the bratwurst and fries I had for lunch at the summit sure hit the spot. We then walked partly down Mt. Rigi to catch the cable car from Rigi-Kaltbad to Weggis.

Rather than returning by boat directly from Weggis to Lucerne, we decided that there was still a lot of Lake Lucerne to explore so we opted to take the five-hour boat road all the way around the lake to discover its idyllic bays and romantic inland lake fjords. Lake Lucerne and Lake Tahoe are both beautiful but Lake Lucerne is surrounded by Old World European elegance. I happened to strike up a conversation with a Swiss woman who was traveling with her father and he pointed out the location of a secret munitions factory in which he worked during World War II. We then cruised by Tell’s chapel, where according to legend, William Tell leapt from the boat of his captors during a storm and escaped, allowing him to assassinate the tyrant Gessler and initiate the rebellion that led to the foundation of the Old Swiss Confederacy. God knows how many other interesting stories I could have uncovered about Lake Lucerne if I had spent more time.

After four days of unpacking, re-packing and running around to catch trains, buses, boats and cable cars, I was ready to board the S.S. Antoinette, my floating boutique hotel which would take me down the Rhine from one fabulous destination to another.