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|Queen Elizabeth 2 - 2007
Christmas Markets Cruise & Queen's Grill
This is the story of a short cruise on the QE2. In this case the precise destination was of secondary importance to us. It was booked as an indulgence to try the Queen's Grill Restaurant and Accommodation for the first time. We normally book the Mauretania Restaurant and basic cabins, often inside cabins, although as regular customers we have almost always been upgraded to better cabins with portholes and sometimes to the Caronia Restaurant. Once we heard the QE2 was going to be retired to Dubai after 40 years of service we felt we should try the best she had to offer - or nearly the best as we did not think we needed a Penthouse Suite with Butler! It happened that there was a very special offer briefly on the internet which made a Q3 cabin and the Queen's Grill restaurant affordable on a short cruise North to visit some Christmas Markets. There was added interest in that we were due to join up with the Queen Victoria at her first port on her maiden voyage - Rotterdam.
Obviously few people were keen on the North Sea in December which was to our advantage. They may have been right as we immediately met gales and the North Sea proved so bad that the pilot station for Hamburg had been abandoned. After a long wait in rough seas we continued towards Oslo which we entered early providing us with an overnight stop. It was sad that we missed potentially the best of the Christmas Markets. However Oslo is interesting and it was the time of the Nobel Peace prize presentation which was to Al Gore and all involved with the IPCC. Satellite observations and interpretation was, of course, the area in which Pete's main research and international contributions centered. The first sightings of Queen Victoria in Rotterdam and the town itself were interesting although we had been moved out to a distant container port at the last minute on the pretext of security although one suspects it was to reduce the chances of any unfavourable comparisons with the classic and elegant lines of what many feel is the last of the true ocean liners. Our last port, Zeebrugge, is best forgotten.
On embarkation we were greeted enthusiastically at the gangway by Phil Gray, the Maitre D' in the Mautetania restaurant who we have got to know well and were greeted by other staff we knew as we were escorted to our Stateroom - it is always a feeling of coming home when one gets on board. This was however our first experience of the Queen's Grill and associated accommodation. The Q3 stateroom on 1 Deck was much larger than we have become accustomed to with a 6 foot double bed rather than narrow twins and far more storage including walk in and walk through wardrobes. We got a huge three pane window but there are no balconies at Q3 level. The bathroom was art deco style with combined shower /bath and bidet. The stateroom was in glowing hardwood finish with golden panels and trims and had an elegant round wooden stand for the TV and a large open up and out drinks cabinet with some cut glass but unfortunately it was otherwise empty. Other features were a small fridge and big safe.
We had a nice bunch of flowers but were disappointed that there was no cooled champagne to greet us - we have been used to at least one bottle of real champagne cooled and waiting for us from the hotel manager but in this case there was just a half bottle of French sparkling wine and a note welcoming us on board for the first time! We checked and immediately ascertained that John Duffy was not the hotel manager for this trip. John has been hotel manager of QE2 since 1981 and was the youngest four stripe officer in the history of Cunard and the longest serving officer of the fleet so we thought he was probably at the naming ceremony for the Queen Victoria, or on leave.
We had been early to board because we have priority through our new diamond cards - they keep changing the details of the loyalty schemes and you now get extra perks and a diamond pass if you have done 150 days on Cunard ships. It is a worrying fact that we have done over double that, mostly on the QE2 - we will miss her so much when she goes to Dubai. Cunard have started to do a simple meal for those boarding in the Lido where we again bumped into staff we know including Papa who never ever seems to take leave. We had a salad and moved upstairs to investigate if there was tea in the Queen's Grill lounge but it seemed not on boarding day so we returned to the Queens room (confused?) where the white glove service was as impeccable as ever with the dainty sandwiches with the crusts cut off, cakes and scones. We quietly checked up at the Queen's Grill that we had the table for two we had requested and settled down to unpack. We already had one suitcase stored on board from the last trip - the baggage room will be another facility which few ships can offer even for the most regular passengers.
It is now time to come to the Queen's Grill itself. It is reknowned for, arguably, the best food of any cruise ship so we had exceedingly high expectations. The overall standards of food and service on the QE2 are however very high in all the restaurants so this provided a difficult problem for our assessment. Lets firstly look at what extra you get in choice of food and wine. The Queen's Grill restaurant offers basically the same daily menu as all the other restaurants although the ingredients, preparation and presentation may be superior. This Daily Menu is put under your door early in the morning to allow you to plan ahead. There is in addition a comprehensive A La Carte menu available with most dishes not requiring notice (Chateaubriands and whole ducks being a couple of exceptions where we were asked to let them know at lunch time). We probably ate more from the A la Carte menu as we were on for a short time but eventually one might tire of even Foie Gras, whole ducks flambeed beside the table and Dover Sole.
It was when we sat down that we suffered our first slight disappointment - in the old days one had cut glass even in the lower level restaurants and we had expected that tradition to be upheld whilst in practice they were simple glasses no better than elsewhere on board, certainly far below what we use at home for normal meals. The cutlery was however more solid and there were some nice classic silverware coffee pots and water jugs. There were also silver under-plates, silver pepper grinders as well as a more comprehensive set of china not to speak of the special dishes such as those for chilled soup surrounded by ice - see the pictures.
As expected, the wine list was exactly the same in all the restaurants. We were pleased to find our wine waiter, Vijay, was very knowledgeable. We started with our favourite Cloudy Bay sauvignon blanc, and then settled for the Chateau Giscours as our standard red wine. On previous cruises there have been tutored wine tastings, at a nominal charge. One of the free extras with our Diamond card was to attend a wine tasting. This was very interesting, especially when we accidently tasted one wine from two different bottles and found they were very different.
The service was excellent, the ratio of waiters to passengers was slightly higher and the comments we had heard in the past about long waits for each course proved to be completely false although that does imply more advanced preparation rather than cooking completely to order. The Assistant Maitre D' in our area was again excellent and enjoyed hands on cooking (flambees etc.,) and chose and prepared several meals for the two tables next to us. The other disappointment was that the presentation of the food on the plate was little different to the other restaurants. We have seen and heard about how to present food in the cooking demonstrations and also seen the superb presentations achieved by the staff for the gala midnight buffets, not to speak of the competitions. We had hoped for a little imagination on the 'plated' dishes taking into account the reputation of the Queen's Grill. We did not find the expected contrast between its ***** classification and the ***+ of the Mauretania restaurant, although the stateroom was indeed much much better. Perhaps a better measure is to describe the restaurants as ***** and ****+ and our staterooms as ****+ and ** respectively.
It is less publicised than it used to be but there is still the ability to order any dish you like which is not on the menu although notice of 48 hours is requested. This was obviously difficult on a short cruise. We intended to try some of the dishes we had seen being prepared as cooking demonstrations and had brought onboard our original copy of the QE2 cookbook (signed in 1999 by all the chefs) in preparation. In the event we only had one dish 'off menu' which was a lamb Wellington. It was excellent, rare and succulent, but we were disappointed that it had been taken off the bone rather than having the elegant wrapping of the ribs that the chefs always used to take delight in demonstrating. Perhaps we should have specified more carefully what we wanted.
The Queen's Grill has a small lounge and bar area outside which is restricted to Grill passengers (Queen's, Britannia and Princess) where afternoon tea is served. This was very full as we were on on a winter cruise as tea was a highlight of the afternoon. We found one had to come well beforehand or wait till the first people left after half and hour but it was worth it for the hot scones with separate pots of jam and dishes of cream. There were also impressive looking Hors D'oeuvres available with drinks before Dinner.
The closest we got to Hamburg was during 6 or so hours doing large circles in a gale waiting for the Pilot Station to be manned. In the end Captain Perkins gave up and arrangements were made for us to berth early in Oslo giving a passage down the Oslofjord in daylight and an additional overnight. The crew always enjoy having a night in port.
Oslo was the nicest of the three ports on this trip. We arrived almost a day early and had the long run up the fjord to the town in daylight although it was bitterly cold and one could only go outside for short periods. We passed lots of small towns and were far enough North that there was very little light and the lights of the towns and villages sparkled against the hills. Dusk was really falling when we got to Oslo. We had to pause whilst another ship, the little P&O cruise ship Artemis, cleared our berth. Whistles were exchanged and we then moored right under the castle within a few minutes walk of the harbour front and town. We could see a small market area right down by the waters edge in front of the city hall where the Nobel Peace Prize was due to be awarded the following day.
We spent a couple of hours walking round the harbour area that evening after dinner. Unfortunately the Christmas Market had closed at 2000, much earlier than we had expected, but it did not look very impressive from the outside. The waterfront is lined with sculptures, many in a modern style and we took pictures back of the ship and of some of the sculptures including the Flame of Peace.
The following morning we started early and looked first at the Norwegian Royal Yacht, the Norge is one of only two remaining Royal Yachts in Europe. The ship was the Norwegian people's gift to King Haakon VII in 1947. The yacht is owned by the King but maintained and manned by the Royal Norwegian Navy. In summer the complement of officers and crew is 54. The season begins when the King embarks in May and ends when he disembarks in late September. The winter is used for maintenance, with a reduced crew of 20. We were encouraged to go through the security fencing for a closer look and to take pictures.
We then walked up the hill and into the Akershus Fortress built in the late 1290s, then one of the two most important Norwegian castles of the period. The fortress has successfully survived many sieges, primarily by Swedish forces. The immediate proximity of the sea was a key feature, for naval power was a vital military force as the majority of Norwegian commerce in that period was by sea. The fortress was strategically important for the capital, and therefore, Norway as well. Whoever ruled Akershus fortress ruled Norway. The entry was round the back and there were slim guards in immaculate uniform marching up and down over the bridge and round the perimeter. The area is much more extensive than we realised so we saved the museums for another visit - we return next summer on the QE2. We got some excellent and unusual views of the QE2 from the battlements and then walked round them until we were overlooking the waterfront area. We could see and hear there were large crowds in front of the Nobel Peace Center. It seemed time to descend to see what was going on. It turned out that the crowds were for a street concert in aid of Redd Barna, a children's charity, rather than for the Peace Prize.
The Peace Prize, according to the terms of Nobel's will, is awarded "to the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between the nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses." The Peace Prize is awarded annually in Oslo on the 10th of December, the anniversary of the death of Nobel. This year it was awarded equally to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and Al Gore for "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change." Climate and Meteorology was, of course, the area in which Pete worked for most of his career.
We walked through the town and up to the Royal Palace and just saw the final part of their changing of the guard. Most of the important visitors for the award of the Nobel Peace Prize had already left and security was very light after the ceremonial change. We walked down through the town taking pictures and found there was a small crowd outside the hotel where the dignitaries were staying. The town was certainly decorated for Christmas but the actual markets marked on the maps were small or non existant We bought a couple of lace Christmas decorations in a shop for Pauline's mother to look at and possibly copy. We did look round the only large Christmas Market, the one by the waterfront, but it was fell far short of what we had seen in the past in Germany where they livened up rather than closed in the evenings. It was not as good as the one we saw last year in Madeira but turned out to be the only proper Christmas Market we saw on the Cruise!
We returned for a late lunch. We did not want to miss out on any of the Queen's Grill food, and then continued in the afternoon mostly back in the waterfront area as dusk fell. The weather was cold but dry and many of the QE2 staff were disappointed as a surprising number of them had never seen snow, and assumed there would be lots of it everywhere. A local children's brass band gave a concert in the Grand Lounge then played on the quay as we left.
We had not realised the extent of the port area at Rotterdam, it stretches for miles. It is still the larges port in Europe and until recently in the world. Pete got up early to watch our arrival and take some pictures - it took hours to pass all the docks, basins and shipyards.
The highlight was the arrival of the Queen Victoria on her maiden voyage. The QE2 had arrived first and at the last moment it had been decided that the security risk was too much for both ships to be together so we were ignominiously parked in a terminal area more reminiscent of a container port in a developing county - a great disappointment. Even the views of the Queen Victoria arriving were obscured by buildings and we chose to go down on the dockside and watch and take pictures from the under the graceful bow of the QE2.
The Queen Victoria was led in by fireboats with water canons arcing. There was the ceremonial interchange of blasts on the whistles, they have obviously tried on the Queen Victoria but nothing equals that low throbbing blast of the whistle on the QE2. The Queen Victoria does look very smart and, in the modern style has decks full of outside cabins with balconies and far more 'glass' at the front with a much shorter bow. It is not the shape of a true Ocean Liner like the QE2 but that is not what it is perceived people want. We will know more when we take her across the Atlantic ocean next year on the first legs of her maiden world cruise.
We took the shuttle bus into town. Through our window we could see a very long line and waited till it had cleared a little. The decision to move the QE2 out had been at the last minute and the bus guides explained they had not had the time to lay on the additional busses required for a thirty minute journey. During the journey we were warned it was easy to make the mistake of getting on the shuttle to the Queen Victoria so we promptly hopped onto it to get a free ride to have a look at her. It was virtually empty so we were given a guided tour of the central area. When we got there we were greeted by several members of staff who were doing the same and trying to con their way in to see friends. There was some confusion as everyone thought the others were on the QV.
We then walked over the bridge and took a walking route back towards town which took us past a small basin full of boats with the QV opposite us with the original Holland America Line building in the background. The QV is built on a standard hull also used for many of the current Holland America Cruise ships although we understand the internal fit out is to a very different standard. We returned past the maritime museum and looked into some of the workshops and walked down the pontoons. All the information was in dutch so we did not linger.
Zeebrugge is a modern ferry port close to Brugge. We took the shuttle bus which took us to Blankenberge where trains depart for Brugge. We understand it is a lively seaside resort in the summer - not so in the winter - there were bleak windswept beaches with sand swirling underfoot on the promenade and all the hotels were boarded up when not undergoing major building works. It had a bit more Christmas spirit downtown and we went into the church. We bought an extra decoration for the Christmas tree and a couple of the local marzipan rolls for Christmas. Again we just got back in time for our final lunch in the Queen's Grill.
Pauline's book had been on sale in the bookshop and she had copies in the 'authors onboard' section and displayed in the window although she did not give a talk - that's for next time! In the evening there were Christmas carols in the Grand Lounge to round off the trip - both Roma and Phil were in the choir. It was then the serious packing as we could not leave our suitcase on board as our next cruise will be on the Queen Victoria. We can not imagine she will be the same.