Optical overload on a Mediterranean cruise

By Graham Bright

Mother Nature puts on an unexpected show for Graham Bright and his wife during a cruise aboard Cunard's Queen Elizabeth.

The Queen Elizabeth leaves Auckland bound for Wellington in 2012. Cunard's newest liner offers indulgence on a grand scale. Photo / Richard Robinson
The Queen Elizabeth leaves Auckland bound for Wellington in 2012. Cunard's newest liner offers indulgence on a grand scale. Photo / Richard Robinson

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 aboard Cunard's splendid Queen Elizabeth.

Slumped on sunbeds, we suddenly noticed a dark shape looming beneath the surface of the ocean little more than 50 metres 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.

But when it came to startling sights, nothing could have prepared us for the vision of a fellow passenger, 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.

On our first evening we were ushered to our table for two in the Princess Grill restaurant at the top of the ship, where we were delighted with the stunning panorama of the sunlit ocean 12 decks below.

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 relaxing 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 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 sun lounges 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.

The captain's cocktail party 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.

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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?

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.

After 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. Yes you see an awful lot of sea on a cruise, but a whole lot more besides.

The writer travelled as a guest of Cunard.

- PAA

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