Review From The Cabin

My phone rang as I was getting ready to go down for the early dinner seating in Britannia dining room. It was the Captain’s secretary inviting me to join the Captain's table for dinner at 8:30. Another new experience.  I thanked  her for the invitation and said I would be there.

Between unpacking and waiting for the Emergency Drill on embarkation day, I took a quick walk from D at the aft of the ship (my preferred location actually) to the A stairs. The Queen Mary is so long it is almost 300 steps. My fit-bit loves this life on board. She sends me congratulatory messages when I reach 10,000 steps and then tells me I am an overachiever when I am 6,000 steps over that. Guess I should re-define my goals.

This transatlantic leg of my Southampton-Baltics-New York dance cruise is the first time I am cruising as a solo traveller. All my previous dance cruises have been part of a group of dancers or with a dance partner. So when readers of my travelblogues have emailed me to ask how the onboard dancing is for people traveling alone, I have not really been able to answer from personal experience.

Intermingled sequence dance with ballroom to recorded music, and dancing to the big band sound of the Queens Room  orchestra

This post is specially for all my friends at Dale Neale Dance in  White Rock where we are getting sequence dance going to complement the American smooth, rhythm, ballroom, Latin and club dances that Dale teaches.

What makes the three Cunard Queen ships so especially  enticing to dancers, is the combination  of excellent venues for dancing, great dance music every night, and the fact that, unlike some other cruise lines,  the entertainment stuff  don’t waste the dance spaces by hosting activities like bingo and trivia games in the dance locations. 
With two nights in Southampton, prior to boarding the MS Queen Elizabeth, I wondered if there was anywhere to go dancing on the Saturday night before embarkation. A little bit of detective work (thank you Google), led me to a website listing dances in various areas in the UK. By sheer luck, on that Saturday night  there was a dance party in Eastleigh, about a 20 minute cab ride away from our Southampton hotel.
This was my first time flying into Gatwick Airport, though I vividly remember in 2006, spending an uncomfortable time kneeling with my suitcase open on the floor  at the check-in counter, trying to lighten my carry-on. It was  just after one of those crazies had done something to put the skies on alert, and there were new restrictions on carry-on size introduced after I had already left on my travels.

It’s been two years since I sat with the Future Cruise agent on Cunard’s fabulous Queen Mary 2, figuring out that I could follow a Baltic Cruise on the Queen Elizabeth with a westbound Transatlantic cruise on the Queen Mary 2, would get me back to New York. And today we’re off to the UK to board the ship.

Excellent as the food is in the regular dining rooms on the Princess cruise ships, I like to enjoy at least one meal in the alternate dining venues. I was curious about the concept of shared dining as advertised in the SHARE restaurant on the Ruby Princess, but as it turned out the sharing bit seems to have gone by the wayside. The tables were separate and we were seated at a table for two. The alternate form of dining in this case is a 6 course menu created by Chef Curtis Stone  - with a choice of 2 or 3 dishes per course, one of which is a vegetarian option.

As Executive Chef on the Ruby Princess, Chef Amadeo is responsible for 260 personnel, of whom 200 are cooks, who prepare 16,000 dishes every day. No- that is not a typo! Think 3000 guests, over 1000 staff, and at least 3 meals a day. An early riser, chef makes his rounds of the many food venues around the ships before meeting with the 29 chefs who supervise the various kitchens, including his Chef de Cuisine and 5 Sous chefs. They review dishes and meal services from the day before to get feedback and hear of any issues, and then review the menus for the current day. Chef Amadeo graciously agreed to take time from his busy schedule to chat briefly with me.

My last cruise on a jewel Princess, the Sapphire Princess, was four years ago and the Ruby Princess was refurbished in 2015, so my first instinct once I had found my cabin was to check out the Promenade deck and see whether the dance venues were as I remembered them.

The Queen’s Baton Relay is a lead up to the Commonwealth Games in which a baton is carried round the world to arrive at the Opening Ceremony of the Games. Each baton is uniquely crafted and carries a message from the Queen, as Head of the Commonwealth. The relay begins at Buckingham Palace in London when the Queen hands the baton to the first runner. At the Opening Ceremonies the Baton is handed back to the Queen or her representative, who reads the message. On this journey to the Gold Coast 2018 Commonwealth Games in Queensland, Australia, the Baton will visit 70 commonwealth countries before arriving at the Gold Coast for the Games, 4 to 15 April, 2018.

One objective of our New York Week with Kids was to introduce them as many different cuisines as possible. Balanika was our choice for Balkan/Mediterranean cuisine and it proved to be an excellent choice.

I have found my new favourite hotel for future New York visits. Unlike my regular brief visits to New York as a theatre, food and wine writer (NY Spring 2014), this New York visit had a special purpose. My grand-daughter is part of a youth choir which has the exciting opportunity to perform in a program at Carnegie Hall and I decided to join my family in Manhattan for a full week of exploring New York from the perspective of family tourism.

When I took this picture of the Crystal Serenity, I was luxuriating in the pleasures of a ten night "Italian Dreams" cruise. After spending two glorious days in Venice, we embarked on the Serenity, calling at ports from Kotor in Montenegro to Taormina, Sorrento and others finally disembarking in Monte Carlo. The icing on the cake for me of this luxury cruise, was ballroom dancing every night in the spacious Palm Court or the Stardust Club. I loved that Crystal experience even more than I enjoyed an autumn cruise along the Eastern Seaboard from New York to Halifax on the Crystal Symphony.

Persona is the nature of our character that is shown to or perceived by others. My present cast of characters ranges from mother, grandmother, friend, to professor emerita, medical doctor,  writer, reviewer, dancer, coach, mentor and entrepreneur. But at YVR as my daughter (Alo) and I meet up with her friend (NG) with her bubbly preschooler (EP), a new persona is added to my cast... I am instantly dubbed “Aunty Mandy's mom”. And as I explore the environs of our Mexican vacation spot over the next seven days, my “Aunty Mandy's mom” persona will provide a great counterbalance to the luxury traveller/gourmet perspective with  which I usually approach my travel writing.

Sashimi, ceviche - I love eating raw fish - sashimi style or marinated as in ceviche.  One of my best memories from a visit to Lima, Peru was eating a very delicate ceviche at Rosa Nautica, a restaurant located way out on the water.

One of the frequently hinted at, and therefore anticipated highlights of this trip,  was the opportunity to go fishing for piranhas on the Yarapa river, one of the tributaries opening into the Amazon.

I really did eat a  piranha on the Amazon River - it didn't eat me because it was a vegetarian. Really.  I thought  - piranha - big, sharp teeth, man-eating carnivore. But did you know that in the rivers of South America there are more than 30 different species of piranha? And some eat primarily vegetation.

This is an odd confession to make for a theatre and restaurant reviewer who has lived in North America for 40 years. But the first time ever I visited Las Vegas (A.K.A. Entertainment Capital of the World) was a year ago, when I went there for a dance competition. It's a trifle surprising that I had not made it there before since entertainment is what I write about in ReviewFromTheSeat

Browsing the jewelry section in the Brighton Collectibles store to find gifts for the upcoming holidays, my eye was drawn to a pair of colourful earrings.  I had had great success finding what I needed for myself at the previous day's visit to the Las Vegas North Premium Outlet Mall, and had no intention of buying anything more for myself.

Although like many travelers I love to indulge in the trappings of luxurious surroundings, I have been known to declaim smugly on several occasions that “all I really need is a clean comfortable bed, lots of hot water from the shower, a hair dryer, a toilet where I don’t need to squat, and a fast wireless internet”. During this week long stay at the Plaza Hotel I’ve realized that is not really true. My standards are higher than the basics and there are other minor niceties needed to make me a “happy camper.”

This elegant restaurant is the signature restaurant for the Halekulani Hotel. It is a Five diamond (AAA) and five star (Forbes Dining Award) restaurant featuring French cuisine with local tropical ingredients. It was a short walk from the hotel where we were staying. On arrival we were seated at a window table next to an open window, looking out over the outdoor entertainment area to the blue water beyond. A warm breeze wafted in from time to time, and I had a great view of the singers and the Hawaiian dancer on the stage below.

A light Vancouver rainfall dripped from my umbrella as I crossed the street to enter the Rosewood Hotel Georgia. I was wishing I could be enjoying the blue skies, turquoise seas and white sand beaches of the islands of the Bahamas but no matter how many times I clicked the heels of my chic black boots together the grey sky of Vancouver was still shedding rain drops.

Three hundred and fifty kilometres within the Arctic Circle, lies the city of Tromsø, our furthest north destination of this Norwegian Fjords cruise to the Arctic Circle.

At about  7 AM yesterday morning the Queen Mary 2 crossed into the Arctic Circle. I  was watching the seas from my verandah. The sky was clouded and gray-blue waters stretched out to the horizon.

For a theatre-loving foodie, few cities in the world can match New York and on traveling out of New York, I always try to plan a few days in Manhattan before or after my trip.

Situated where the Vienna Ring Boulevard touches the City Park, the Kursalon Wien was built in Italian Renaissance style between 1865 and 1867 and is quite beautiful. The first concert featuring Johann Strauss compositions took place in 1868. The Kursalon has four ballrooms located on two floors and a terrace with views out over the greenery of the City Park. The Strauss, Lehar and Schubert Halls are on the first floor while the Lanner Hall,  upstairs on the second floor, is the in-house concert hall.

For our last evening in Vienna we chose to have supper  just up the road from our hotel, at the Restaurant Koenig von Ungarn. It was located right near the building where Mozart  lived for three years from 1784 to 1787 during which time he wrote Le Nozze di Figaro.

On cruise day 3 we arrived in Istanbul where the ship was docked overnight. Istanbul, which also has a fascinating history, is a divided city in that part of it lies in Europe, while part is in Asia Minor, separated by the Bosphorus.   Istanbul is the largest city in Europe, and as our guide told us, among the world’s most populated city within city limits with an estimated 11 million people. Moreover the actual population is probably even larger than that recorded by census, as many residents return to their home towns for census day and are not counted as residents in Istanbul.

On this cruise, I chose to book several excursions as there is so much to see and I was hoping for excellent and knowledgeable guides.  However in Lesbos I planned to simply walk around the harbour area of Mytilene and find a taverna to have a lunch of calamari and Greek salad.

Although I have cruised several times on the Queen Mary 2 (and love cruising on this ocean liner) and once on the Queen Victoria, this was my first time on board Cunard's Queen Elizabeth. Once I had checked out my cabin and seen that my luggage was not yet there for me to unpack, I took my camera and went exploring. Very quickly I realized that I liked the smaller, more intimate feel of this ship which has the capacity for 2,092 passengers compared to the maximum passenger capacity of 3090 of her larger sister ship. 

On my second day in Athens I woke to another warm and sunny day. Highs were predicted to be around 24ºC. The first task on my mind was to find the local Post Office and buy stamps for the postcards that I planned to  mail to my grand-children. I gave them a map of the places that the cruise will take us to and hopefully getting the picture postcards will mean something to my grand-daughter, who has studied the continents and the various countries and their capitals.Today is the day of the big transit strike so I was curious to see what difference this made in the traffic through these narrow streets.

Following advice on an excellent website for travel in Greece, namely "Matt Barrett's Geek Travel Guide", I made a hotel booking at the Hotel Attalos on Athina Street, about 5 minutes walk from The Plaka area.

After Istanbul, our second port in Turkey was Izmir, once the ancient town of Smyrna, at the head of the Gulf of Izmir on the Aegean Sea. It has been suggested that Homer may have been born in Smyrna. The modern city of Izmir is third in population after Istanbul and Ankara.

When circumstances result in reservations through different airlines, airport connections can be tricky with connection times either very tight, so you sit wondering how long it will take to retrieve your luggage and get it to the next check-in, or else layovers too long to be comfortable but not long enough to leave the airport and go do something fun. Travelling from Vancouver to LAX to connect with a 7:15 pm international flight on Turkish Airlines to Istanbul and onto Athens, I looked in vain for a direct YVR-LAX flight to get me into LAX with at least 3 hours before the TA flight, but my options were limited. So in the end I took an early morning flight and planned to sit patiently in LAX and get writing done.

After two days exploring the city of Dubai with its towering skyscrapers and golden sand beaches, I checked out of the Grand Hyatt Hotel and my friend Laila came to fetch me for the drive to Abu Dhabi. Depending on where you are going the distance is about 120 km and the road is straight and in excellent condition so the driving time at a reasonable speed is about an hour and a half. For long stretches of road, all you see is sand and scrub, and it is incredible to think how these cities have risen out of the desert.

After tasting Lebanese, Chinese, Indian, and various other Middle eastern foods in Dubai, it was time for a different range of culinary experiences in Abu Dhabi and I had only two days to try them out.

As we toured around the city of Dubai, my friend told me that there were excellent examples of cuisine, both Middle Eastern and International, to be found here. We were determined to sample as many as possible different cuisines in the limited time we had. The three restaurants  I visited in Dubai were Wafi Gourmet (featuring Lebanese cuisine) in Dubai Mall,  Zheng He's Restaurant  featuring Chinese fusion cuisine in Madinat Jumeirah  and Khan al Murjan restaurant (featuring Egyptian, Lebanese, Moroccan and Turkish cuisine) at Wafi mall. 

On my second day in Dubai, I was lucky to enjoy being shown around the city by my friend Laila who lives in Abu Dhabi and came to Dubai to take me to Abu Dhabi for a visit with her family.  Our plan for the day in Dubai was to spend some time in the Jumeirah area and in the afternoon to visit the Gold and Spice Souks in the older part of the city.

After 16 wonderful nights about the Queen Mary 2 on the Hong Kong to Dubai segment of the world cruise, we arrived in the port of Dubai early in the morning. A group of us from Dancers at Sea had booked a two day post-cruise stay in Dubai. The disembarkation and transfer to the Grand Hyatt Hotel was relaxed and easy, and by noon we were checked in and settled in our rooms.

Cochin or Kochi, is a port city in the Arabian Sea, on the west coast of India in the state of Kerala. The name Kochi translates to "small lagoon" in Mayalam. Mayalam is the local language in Kerala,  derived from Sanskrit and Tamil and is one of 22 official languages of India. It is one of the 85 related Dravidian languages, spoken by 215 million people. Amazing what one learns when going on a ballroom dance cruise!

Between Hong Kong and Dubai, the QM2 docked at five ports. The first, Phu My in Vietnam, was the port for Ho Chi Minh city. Next was Laem Chabang, the port for Bangkok, and that was followed by a stop in Singapore where there was a major turnover of guests departing  or boarding the ship. Between Singapore and Dubai there were only two stops on the 9 night segment; Phuket in Thailand and Cochin, India. On my previous South East Asia cruise, two of the ports of call were in Vietnam. While I really enjoyed the visit to Na Trang, a sleepy looking fishing village on the south centre region of Vietnam I was less enchanted with the visit to Ho Chi Min city (Saigon), the port of call on this current voyage, so on this cruise I decided to stay on board when in Phu My.

With this cruise covering 16 days, and ten of them being sea days, Robert, our dance instructor, had scheduled a series of dance workshops covering the gamut from waltz to west coast swing. Each workshop was supposed to last an hour but several times they were going so well that we ran over time.  Because none of our group are beginners and we are all pretty much at a similar level, each session has been really enjoyable and we have been able to pick up new skills in each individual dance, while continuing to focus attention on posture, frame and movement.

I thought that on this dance cruise I would experiment with the structure of the Travelblogue with respect to the Sipping and Supping aspect of my posts.  Instead of interspersing the food talk and pictures with my dance and travel experiences, I plan to keep a Culinary Sampling of the meals, mainly dinner, aboard the Queen Mary 2 on this trip.

With 10 days out of 16 at sea, we will have plenty of dance workshops. The first dance workshop was scheduled for 9:30 in the G32 Disco just behind the Queens Room Ballroom. 

I don't know whether the information on the poster is still current but according to that write up, the QM 2 measured along the water is the world's largest ship. That is probably why they can have that great ballroom, the Queen's Room. Walking along the corridor from one end to the other certainly feels like quite a hike. Luckily our cabin is situated aft, so all the REALLY important places like the Britannia Restaurant and the ballroom are right below us.

When I first heard about the Dancers at Sea (DAS) dance cruise from Hong Kong to Dubai, I thought 16 nights was longer than I wanted to be away for. I had also cruised from Hong Kong, to Thailand and Vietnam, when I did the Asia Cruise two years earlier, and had little desire to revisit the two ports on that part of the itinerary. So I decided to take the option of the 9 nights Singapore to Dubai leg. The dates fitted in nicely with my visit to Toronto to see Rhinoceros, the absurdist play my daughter was directing at the University of Toronto Scarborough campus. So I was going to return to Vancouver for three days and then fly to Singapore to board the QM2.

This travelblogue will follow my journey on a 16 night cruise aboard the Queen Mary 2 from Hong Kong to Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.