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Peter and Pauline Curtis's 2018 Christmas Newsletter
The pictures can be clicked or tapped to open in a 'Popup' and there is enough detail below the pictures to go from one to the next by clicking or tapping near the right edge for a slide-show type summary. Unfortunately every phone and pad will be slightly different but to my surprise the concept works well on all my Android devices and mainstream browser.
We hope you will enjoy it
The time is once more upon us to write our Christmas Newsletter and I wonder whether it is actually worth while – how many people read the ever increasing length and number of newsletters which arrive around Christmas and how many people are starting to regard them as another form of spam. Are we all interested in hearing about other peoples holidays, pets or grandchildren? I am not sure, we have often tried to give ours a theme to make them more bearable but looking back they do concentrate on holidays and to be somewhat repetitive as you will have already noticed. Even the introduction remains the same! This year has been the time to do a couple of the biggest items remaining on our 'bucket list' - a World Cruise and a journey on the Orient Express train and this mostly concentrates on those two.
The year started with a journey to remember for the rest of our lives. Overall the cruise was 78 days long and took us from Southampton across the Atlantic via the Azores and Port Canaveral to Fort Lauderdale from which there is a complete circumnavigation of South America returning via the Panama Canal to Fort Lauderdale then back across the Atlantic to Southampton. Of the many places we visited fourteen were new to us and others overlapped with our South American Journey last year. Not all of the places of interest were 'ports' in the conventional sense and included the Beagle Channel, Cape Horn, then the Magellan Straits at the tip of South America, and also two Chilean Glaciers and a long period in the Chilean Fiords. One must not forget the Panama canal where it was our first passage since it has been widened.
There were many long sea passages which we quite like with many excellent speakers covering the areas we visited giving us a much better understanding of a large area of the world. We also had local winemakers come on board including Valdivieso from Chile for wine tastings and wine dinners which have opened up new areas to us. The cruise was termed an Exotic Voyage by Cunard as it cannot strictly be called a World Cruise as it does not go right around. It does have all the other advantages of their World Cruises for passengers undertaking the whole journey such as included gratuities, special lounges areas with a concierge, extra parties, various other perks and a special Gala event which was at Tango Porteno in Buenos Aires.
But the journey was to us much more about the places and the scenery. I found it somewhere between difficult and impossible to pull out just a few highlights so I thought a look through our pictures might help. We pick and 'tune' the best pictures for what we still call a 'print' file which can be shown to others or run in the background for us - that did not help as it had 2,133 pictures. So what about those on the web - that cut it down to just 1,038 ! So finally I am down to ten rather arbitrary picks out of over 35 places we visited in 78 days.
Rio de Janeiro for the huge range of contrasts. We were there for two days, arriving at dawn and watching the moon set behind the Sugar loaf but still clear as the first rays illuminated the city, the bright colours of the murals on the dock buildings, the famous beaches, the forts, the local show in the evening. Then the following days the views from Corcovado and Christ the Redeemer, then up the Sugarloaf looking back to Christ the Redeemer just showing through the clouds. And within walking distance there was some spectacular architecture including the Museum of the Future.
Montevideo must have a mention for the Tango museum and a visit to the top of the famous Palacio Salvo that dominates the central square. At 105 metres tall it was once the tallest building in South America.
We were in Buenos Aires for two days. The first day we spent round town on foot, highlights were tours of the Teatro Colona and the Palacio Barola where we climbed to the very top and perched beside a searchlight in the 'lighthouse' with more spectacular views. Then to the Presidential Palace, known as the Casa Rosada to see the Balcony so well known from Eva Peron. The second day we explored further but returned earlier to prepare for another highlight for those travelling the whole way round.
The Gala Event at the Tango Portena in Buenos Aires. Tango is a spectacular dance and the history of the tango was explained to us both in both Montevideo and Buenos Aires with competing claims. The tango started in the upper class brothels in both of those port cities in the 19th century and is a fusion of African, Creole and European cultures with couples, embracing on the dance floor, improvising to the influence of the melody and the rhythm of the music. It was much later in the 1950s that it changed into a respectable dance for married couples and now it has been popularised by the TV dance shows. The Tango Portena had a small typical orchestra to explore these different styles of tango and dance and Mora Godoy presents her tango company in the tango dance and its folklore. She is a famous and well-respected dancer of tango ballet and has danced with many famous people including President Obama and Mick Jagger. The show was accompanied by unlimited white and red wines and plates of canapes and desserts. We enjoyed the evening even the journey back to the ship was good, considering there were 18 coaches with 700 people, all moving together.
Ushuaia features as the most southern town in the world and is the capital of Tierra del Fuego (Land of Fire), founded October 12 1884 as a penal colony by Augusto Lasserre. The museums and sculptures stood out.
Excitement at Cape Horn brought excitement as the weather deteriorated and the landing by one of our Fast Rescue Boats (FRBs) to pass presents for the Lighthouse keeper nearly ended in disaster. First one then the second FRB sent to help got entangled in the kelp the area is well known for. Meanwhile the winds had increased to a steady 45-50 knots reaching 70 - 80 knots as frequent squall lines passed. Finally one of our tenders which serve as lifeboats was sent to the rescue and eventually managed to get a line to the two FRBs without getting entangled. We could not see details but one person was certainly in the water to get the line across which could not have been pleasant even in full survival gear. The tender then backed out pulling the two FRBs on long lines one behind the other and reversed slowly towards the ship whilst getting rapidly blown downwind and out of the sheltered lee of the Island. Eventually and after some well executed manoeuvring in very heavy seas the two FRBs were collected and breasted up either side of the tender and brought home and eventually attached and brought on board - memorable seamanship by the cox of the lifeboat. The whole exercise took close to three hours. By that time any thoughts of an actual circumnavigation had to be shelved and we returned to calmer waters in the Beagle Channel.
The Chilean Fiords and the Glaciers arguably provided the most memorable scenery. A FRB was dispatched to bring back ice, for drinks and the centre piece for the big party that night. The Full Exotic Voyage party takes place every sector for those going all the way round and this one was even more splendid than usual. It featured not only the "QV Discover South America 2018" but also one of the pieces of ice brought back by our Fast Rescue Boat from a little iceberg. There were the usual impressive ice carvings at either end and magnificent displays of finger food including Hot Scallops, Cold Seafood, Sushi, The Cake, and some superb Petit Fours including some melt in the mouth macaroons we congratulated Renato on - he promised to bring us some the next time we were in the Verandah.
Manta in Ecuador I have skipped many fascinating places to come to our maiden call in Ecuador. Manta dominates Ecuador's central Pacific coast, just south of the Equator. It is the centre of the country's tuna fishing fleet. The Queen Victoria berthed next to large trawlers who were busily transferring their catch of tuna into large metal containers. We took a tour which took us to the towns museums then on to the small town of Montecristi, founded by the Spaniards in 1628. For centuries. the very finest Panama hats, as worn by Sir Winston Churchill, film stars and royalty, have been woven in and around the town. The design of these hats has barely changed in the past 400 years and the finest examples can take months to complete and cost thousands of dollars. There are also cheap versions from 25 dollars upwards. Pete bought two of different qualities of Panama, a basic one to keep in NZ and a 'fine' one (18 weaves per inch) with leather lining made in Montecristi itself (as are all the best Panamas) from Modesto.
The Transit of the Panama Canal was our first from the Pacific to the Caribbean and our first since the new locks have been open. Although we used the old set of locks we could see and watch operations at a distance in the new locks and canal cuts. The new locks are a massive 1,400 ft long, 180 ft wide, and 60 ft deep allowing ships carrying up to 12,000 containers to transit. The locks are accompanied by nine water re-utilisation basins. These gravity-fed basins allow reuse of 60% of the water and using 7% less water per transit than the existing locks. When first built the canal was the largest engineering project man had undertaken and it was barely eclipsed by the Apollo program. The transit took 11 hours and in 2011 the toll was $360,000 for our passage and it was unlikely to be less.
Mayan Temples are the last of the major highlights - the various remains were reached from Belize and Costa Maya in Mexico. The island of Belize was a British Crown Colony until 1981. Belize City is the largest city and was the capital of British Honduras but the capital was moved to Belmopan after the 1961 Hurricane. We went to Altun Ha, an impressive Maya trading and ceremonial site which is 31 miles north of Belize City. Altun Ha means "Stone Water" and is the translation of the name of the nearby village of Rockstone Pool into Yucatec Maya.
The day at Costa Maya enabled us to visit more of the Mayan remains, at Chacchoben, the "lugar del maiz colorado" which translates as place of red corn.
Charleston is not in the class of some of the other places but we still enjoyed it greatly and it gets a mention as a place we would like to return to for longer. This was despite a typical American welcome by two fast armed boats of the US Coastguard complete with machine gunners on the front with belts of ammunition loaded and bullets visible and never a smile or wave, perhaps they thought we had come straight from Mexico - quite a contrast to Belize. Charleston has a tremendous history involving slavery and the Civil war. It was here on 12 April 1861 that the first shots of the war were fired by Confederate forces at Fort Sumter. The town houses and plantation houses are fascinating with quite a number open to visit. We even invested in a 'Table Book' covering them.
We have written about New Zealand so many times that we will not say a lot although there was one magic moment we would like to share. It occured at one of our favourite places in the North of New Zealand, Matai Bay on the Karikari Peninsular. It is right at the end of the peninsular and could well be the most beautiful beach, or more correctly twin beaches, of all of those we have seen in Northland. The beaches are soft white sand and the central promontory and the ends are rocky with good diving. The central rocks are good for fins and snorkel with a fair amount of life but go very deep very quickly off the rocks. At low tide there are big sandy pools with sections deep enough for swimming left within the rocky outcrops. The whole setting is glorious and the bays are very sheltered for swimming as the ends come in. The camp site is in two parts and does not have views directly of the bay but is divided into sheltered sections by lines of trees.
When we got there the beach appeared deserted then we spotted a couple of people swimming and a few spectators at the end of the beach and some black dots in the water. We have seen dolphins here before so we rushed over and to our delight there was a whole pod of the little Hectors Dolphins swimming right up close in the surf and coming right round the people standing in the water. There must have been a couple of dozen. Pete was surrounded as soon as he was in the water, even before starting to swim - it was a magic experience as they just wanted to play and were close enough to touch and occasionally brushed against him as the passed. A totally unexpected experience he will remember for a lifetime. There must have been a couple of dozen dolphins, more than the people on the beach.
Our major trip was North to Red Bull Basin at the join of the Trent and Mersey and Macclesfield canals some 7 miles North of Stoke on Trent. Normally we make a long trip taking several months every other year but this was an extra as we needed some assistance with work on Corinna. Last year she had her 30th Birthday and it is inevitable that some of 'services' have needed love and care. Over the last year we have had to replace the calorifier which uses engine heat to produce our hot water (the equivalent of a hot tank in a house) with a new stainless steel one and Pete has had to rebuild our Wood and Coal burning stove which was splitting open. This involved taking all the casting apart, cleaning up all the joints. and reassembling with new glass rope seals. It also involved re-tapping the screw holes on top where the trouble had started with the top lifting and allowing the sides to spread. It also has a boiler inside which supplies water to two radiators on a gravity feed so lots of large joints had to be taken apart and restored whilst storing the valuable antifreeze and inhibitor for reuse.
The other problem was the one where major help was required as the internal 'holding tank' which was built into the hull was showing signs of rust on the top. Much of the bathroom needed to come apart, ideally without damage, which was not trivial as it is a 'wet shower room' and everything had been put together by screwing down onto silicon sealant. Hours of work with a smooth slightly bowed old stainless steel bread knife was needed to free each joint without damaging the cushion vinyl. Then it was cutting out the lid (4mm steel) , cleaning out 30 years of s**t from the inside and coating with a rust converter/primer as used on oil rigs before painting with bitumen. It was then subjected to an ultrasonic survey before dropping in the new and very heavy stainless steel replacement obtained for us by Tony at Red Bull Services. It was placed on neoprene rubber blocks and secured it with self blowing foam. The rebuilding of the bathroom could then start and eventually the portaloo could be consigned to the garage.
We thought that ought to be enough for the year but then the gearbox died. That is a long story which has not yet ended. The short form is that the type of Hurth gearbox was always prone to having a short life and we had taken to carrying a rebuilt spare. We also have River Canal Rescue (RCR) cover, the equivalent of the AA or RAC which now has addition of insurance included for items such as alternators hoses, engine mounts and most importantly gearboxes. So when the gearbox failed we called RCR and they came quickly as usual but they were no longer prepared to fit the Hurth gearboxes and instead used a more modern TMC replacement which was close to a direct replacement but in our case not close enough as it led to horendous fore and aft vibrations. Currently we have got Corinna home but the job is not complete after three months whilst last time from when we called RCR to when we were moving with a replaced gearbox was three hours! We hope we are on the final stage towards curing the resonance with new stiffer engine mounts and packing pieces and a new drive coupling - just the gear change needs reconnecting - we will see!
Much of the summer was spent at home as it was time to paint the outside of the house which took over 5 weeks as there are many hundreds of panes of glass and lots of decorated wood and plaster work. In any case we prefer not to go away in the summer especially during the school holidays and we had had just had a long time away. We did get to the Countryfile Show at Woodstock complements of Rohan.
We support the Mikron theatre Company and we sponsor their show at Goring Lock - we took Corinna up and brought back some of our neighbours after the show had ended, by then we needed our navigation lights. That was our last journey before the gearbox failed! We also went to their other show at 'The Pig Place' on the canal where there was also a 'Friends' get together in atrocious weather. The shows are almost all outside but that was one of the few venues without any shelter and the water was pouring off the actors whilst the audience huddled under umbrellas but it was actually enjoyed by all. We also went to the end of season get together followed by their last performance of the year at Marsden, stopping at Lichfield on the way to see the new Icon in the Cathedral.
The Mikron Theatre company is now into its 47th year and have just become one of Arts Council England's National Portfolio Organisations with secured funding to reach their 50th anniversary. Their show on the NHS was one of their best ever. They tour on their narrowboat, Tyseley, in the summer and by road in spring and autumn, to every conceivable type of venue, reaching audiences that other companies cannot and have performed at allotments, care homes, community centres, dry docks, festivals, lifeboat stations, pubs, rallies, restaurants, village halls and Youth Hostels, even once inside a tunnel and even the odd theatre! If we have not yet persuaded you to see them you must.
The Queen Victoria was spending the summer in the Mediterranean and passengers could join the ship at Rome, Venice or Barcelona. We had wanted to travel on the famous Venice Simplon Orient Express for many years. We had always thought of it as one of the three classic indulgences which one ought to do once in ones lifetime - we missed Concorde but had many cruises on the QE2 leaving the VSOE. We left on Pauline's birthday and celebrated our wedding anniversary on board the Queen Victoria passing a milestone of 1000 days on Cunard ships during the cruise, another good excuse to eat and drink in the special Verandah restaurant.
Here I will concentrate on the train journey which was in two parts divided by the channel crossing. The brown and cream carriages of the Belmond British Pullman departed London on 20 September, and connected in France with the blue and gold carriages of the Venice Simplon Orient Express train which then arrived in Venice on 21 September. Tthere is a special check-in facility at Victoria, with uniformed doorman to great us outside a waiting room full of marquetry from historic carriages. Our two heavy suitcases were checked through to Venice. We later discovered that the baggage was loaded onto trucks and taken by road to Venice as neither train has a baggage car. It then went by boat to the Hotel Kette where it was in our room waiting for us. We only had to carry hand luggage for overnight and a suit carrier containing the formal clothes required for dinner. "Tuxedo and glamorous finery is encouraged" as they said in the literature so the dress code matched well with our needs for formal evenings on the ship.
The Pullman carriages all date from the 1920s or 1930s. Our existing information sheets described all eleven carriages on the British Pullman : Audrey, Cygnus, Gwen, Ibis, Ione, Lucille, Minerva, Perseus, Phoenix, Vera and Zena. Ibis is the oldest carriage and was built in Birmingham in 1925 whereas Ione was built by Metropolitan Cammell in 1928. Both were retired in 1968 and then purchased from the Birmingham Railway Museum in 1981. Ione was also upholstered in Liberty Ianthe and has burr wood panels and Victorian frieze. Each carriage has different decoration and upholstery and there was plenty of time to walk through the carriages and admire the different designs. Tables seated two people, although there were a few compartments which seated four.
The train was met at Folkstone by a brass band and glasses of Balfour English sparkling wine were served. We shortly discovered there was a problem with the timing of our shuttle and the TV screens in the terminal building were all marked "Retarde" and "Service actuellement perturbe". Fortunately we were not going to miss our connection at the other end and many extra glasses of Balfour English Sparkling wine appeared !
At Calais the coach continued to Calais Ville Station where the legendary Wagons-Lit carriages of the Venice-Simplon-Orient-Express train were waiting, with a line of smiling stewards standing to attention by the carriage list. Carriages go from letter A to L and we were in letter K. The sleeping-cars are mostly the classic 1929-vintage LX-series with ten 2-berth compartments each containing a convertible sofa which changes into bunks overnight, a footstool, coat hangers and a small folding table. Add on restaurant and service cars and the train is a half a kilometre walk from end to end. There are racks for small luggage and a nice washbasin in the corner. The cabins are not en suite and toilets are at the end of the corridor. Slippers and dressing gowns are provided.
There are 3 restaurant cars: in order from our carriage there is the Etoile du Nord, l'Oriental and the Cote d'Azur. The next car is the Bar Car 3647. We had asked for the early sitting at 1845 in the Etoile du Nord which was built in Birmingham in 1927 and we first had a look into the very busy Bar Car 3647. We had an excellent dinner and shortly after we finished we pulled into the Garde de Nord station in Paris where a few guest departed and more got on. Once more we found Bar Car 3647 very full and perched on the corners of seats in the hope we could get somewhere comfortable for a drink but it seemed to mostly be cocktails so we gave up.
It was now time to go back to our compartment which had been converted into its overnight format. It is quite narrow to squeeze around the ladder to change and hang up the formal clothes. The beds are comfortable although do not choose the upper berth if you expect to get out often during the night. Pauline climbed up the ladder and decided she would not descend until breakfast time. Our steward arrived to restore our cabin to daytime layout and deliver our continental breakfast at 0730. For the hungry there is also the option of a celebration breakfast in the restaurant car at a supplement of 150 euros. By 08.00 we were eating and enjoying the magnificent Swiss scenery through our window. September is a good time to make the journey because the days are long but the disadvantage is we never saw snow on the mountains. The journey is through the Gotthard Pass, not the Brenner, towards Lugano and Milan and is very pretty, especially around Lake Lucerne.
It was now time for exploring the rest of the carriages which was a real delight. The carriages themselves are largely original and all pre 1930, although they have modern running gear underneath them - a requirement of current regulations. The carriages are much heavier than modern ones so the total weight is over 1200 tons. They were all beautifully decorated and in superb condition with gleaming varnish, exquisite marquetry and polished brass - a level of luxury which could never be attained these days.
We chose lunch early, at 12.00 with a table for 2 in the Cote d'Azur restaurant which was built in 1929 and decorated by Rene Lalique and has lovely Lalique glass panels. The VSOE shop also sells matching Lalique jewellery. It reminded us of the old RMS Queen Mary in Long Beach which also had Lalique glass panels. We could watch the Swiss landscape in comfort from our table. The fixed 3 course menu was salmon fish trio, magret de canette with fresh fig sauce, broccoli puree and turnips, and finally pistachio and raspberry cake with crystallized violet petal ice cream. This was perfect but there is also La Carte from which we chose one alternative main course: the fresh duck foie gras tossed in Muscat wine served with seasonal vegetables at a supplement, which we shared alongside a duck. We had barely finished in time for afternoon tea which arrived with champagne in our cabin at 1600.
VSOE provide a complimentary shared water taxi transport from Venice Santa Lucia station to hotels on Venice Island, Lido and Giudecca Island. We were accompanied by a VSOE representative who escorted our small group from the platform to motorboat 17 and we were soon on our way to the private landing stage of the Hotel Kette. We looked round Venice that evening and the following morning before joining the Queen Victoria via a high speed water taxi ride.
The three week cruise covered many favourite ports and a few new ones namely: Korcula in Croatia, Valletta in Malta, Messina in Sicily, Naples, Civitavecchia (for Rome), Barcelona, Ajaccio in Corsica, Villefranche in France, Livorno (for Florence and Pisa), Corfu, Split in Croatia, Piran in Slovenia and an overnight in Venice on our anniversary before flying back to the UK. It has been written up at great length (14 parts) as A Mediterranean Cruise on the Queen Victoria in 2018 so you will be relieved that I will say no more here other than to say that we have now passed the thousand day mark on Cunard ships and we celebrated 1000 days on Cunard ships at dinners in the Verandah. Our cruising started in 1991 in the Caribbean on the Cunard Countess and continued on the QE2 and then the current three Queens. We have seen much of the world, places we would never have reached by means other than cruising and in an unforgettable style.
Finally there was a fortnight cruise on the Queen Elizabeth from Southampton to the Canary Islands returning via Funchal in Madeira and Vigo in the Galician region of Spain. The ports were all ones we know well and have written about extensively in the past so we plan to only add a little about areas and activities which were new to us in each port along with any extra or improved pictures and pointers to previous visits to cover the remainder. In order the ports were: Southampton, 3 sea days, Lanzarote, Gran Canaria, La Palma, Tenerife, Funchal - Madeira overnight, sea day, Vigo - Spain, sea day, Southampton.
We spent Christmas back in the Canaries in Tenerife in a Hotel we first stayed at 39 years ago on the sea front in Puerto de la Cruz. The weather was exceptional with only a bit of cloud one day and the temperatures reaching 22 - 26 degrees by 1300 most days. We did a bit of walking, as we had planned, and far too much indulging in the local sparkling wine and the excellent buffet dinners in the hotel.
Spain does not have the main celebrations on Christmas day but on 6th January which is the Feast of the Epiphany (Día de los Reyes Magos) when the Three Kings arrived in Bethlehem. For Spanish children this is the most important day of the year when they wake up to find the Three Kings/Wise Men have left gifts for them in their house althugh their may also be nominal gifts on December 25th. We spent part of a day in La Orotava on their Belén (Local style Nativity Scenes) trail - we only completed a third of the 35 . There is an interesting difference in Tenerife that the baby Jesus is absent from most Belén until Chrismas Eve.
The above makes it sound as if all we do is travel (and party) but we have found time for Pete to fit in the usual Home Wine-Making. There are another 11 demijohns bubbling away to help consume all the fruit from the garden, even so the freezers are full of fruit although we have replaced a small freezer in the house with a more efficient and larger one in the garage. Pete still writes Open Source Software, in particular for Ubuntu and Linux Mint and it has been a busy time as a new version is due out shortly. At least our Music collection is under control and all accessible from the computer and more importantly the Pad so we can access it on cruises and on Corinna as well as the house HiFi and Smart TV - we now have rips of over 900 CDs, mostly classical and mostly old as we have picked up much of the collection as bargains.
Pauline, as you will recall, finished her Open University LLM two years ago year and last year 'backed into' the third year of a normal law degree studying European Law which is very appropriate at the present. This year she is doing a course on the Environment and is presently measuring our water consumption. She will also be taking her Watercolour Painting kit on our next trip as well as the latest embroidery project. Pete still keeps up with his fitness regime and has now managed to lose weight on average on the last 13 cruises. He is not sure how long he can keep that up!
Time seems to fly by and we still have no regrets about leaving the rat race early, as we have said before, even if you win the rat race you are still only a rat. It seems more important to feed something back in by teaching, open source and mentoring etc., to make up for everything we have gained from friends and colleagues.