Nov. 25, 2013 – travel review, submitted to Yorkshire Post, my former employer, in the faint hope of a reply from one of the few people left there …
First day on the Queen Victoria, I tell people I always wanted to run away to sea and eventually decided this was the nearest I’d get.
I get more sympathetic nods than laughs. In the demographic we have slipped into, a cruise to the Canaries in November, in a floating hotel, is indeed a slightly rollicking adventure. A fall from the mizzen-top might not be likely but the coded call for the heart-attack team becomes familiar. There is one on the first night. We hear later that the victim was only dehydrated, after driving all day, but he was given full precautionary care and presented with a bill for $4000 in the morning. When my wife feels groggy in the Bay of Biscay, I lock her in the cabin with a packet of Kwells.
Cabin is an inadequate word. Cunard prefers “state room” and that is fair enough. It is immaculately maintained and includes a king-size bed and a full window with sea view. We paid £999 a head for it, and all the food and non-alcoholic drink we can manage, for 12 days. It was a special offer. But we meet people who got the same at the last minute for under £600, which causes some discontent.
In the course of the 12 days, we pick up a beginners’ guide to cruise lines. P&O equals Cunard for might and value, but is a little more populist. Fred Olsen vessels are smaller and shippier, which sounds attractive, but if we suffer at Force 7 on the Victoria, we will suffer more on an Olsen boat, the veterans point out.
Cunard is the custodian of cruising as a rather grand thing and half its clientele have come to dress for dinner and listen to harpists in surroundings of polished wood. The other half are retired working-class, paying bargain fares and cheerfully refusing to acknowledge a rule against fags in the Churchill Cigar Lounge. The classic cruise entertainments go down surprisingly well with all but there must also be a lot like us who are not much interested, although I enjoy bridge classes, my wife develops a soft spot for a Gareth Malone type who organises a choir and we catch some newish films in the Royal Court Theatre – which reminds us of The Grand in Leeds and must be as big. It hosts live acts, too, but they seem to us like parodies of cruise entertainment. And the background music which fills the ship’s lounges is deadly. It is hard to believe the musicians of the world could have produced so much pointless noodling between them – and that any entertainments director could have thought it all perfect for generations who grew up to the sounds of r’n’b, rock’n’roll, Motown, jazz, Hendrix, Dylan and all the rest.
We get what we paid for, however, in accommodation, catering, travel and good company at the dinner table. Our grumbles are drinks costs and confused tipping expectations. All bills are in US dollars and it helps make your eyes water that £10 translates as 16-17 dollars. But a pint of Boddingtons and a good slug of Riesling is £13.50 even in Sterling, once an automatic service charge of 15 percent on drinks has been added. There is a space above your signature to write in a “gratuity” too. So a couple of drinks can easily cost $50 and a shared bottle of wine with dinner at least $40 more – translating to, say, £60, by mid-evening, after a couple of dollars each to a couple of waiters. Brandy, sir? Er, better not.
We have already agreed to a tips levy amounting to $276 (£165) for two of us, which is supposed to include a cut for the backstage crews. We feel we should have got a hat or something. It would be hard not to tip your cabin steward and favourite waiters anyway, because all they see from you personally is your envelope on the last day. Most veteran travellers opt out of the fixed-rate levy and do their own thing. Most of the ship’s services are run for Cunard by contractors and everybody has their doubts about how the tips which go through the books are used. There is wide agreement that this is an area where more clarity and justice could be selling points.
If we did it again, we would make a point of having a balcony where we could sit out and entertain with our own wine, bought ashore for four or five Euros.
As for the travel, we saw the trip as an opportunity to sample some of the warm-Atlantic islands. We have been cautious about the Med for a while , following a bad experience on the Costa Brava, when a couple of small cuts from snorkelling along the rocks turned appallingly septic, although the water looked fine.
The advantages of the Atlantic resorts are a more even spread of temperature across the year and a cleaner sea, although it is almost certainly cooler too.
Our first stop, Madeira, is fantastically green in comparison with the scorched Greek and Spanish rocks we usually go to. By ingenious use of every drop of water which falls on the central mountain, it grows everything from potatoes and carrots to bananas and peppers and the central produce market in Funchal is a must-see. Check out the sweets made from dried fruits, as possible presents.
The swimming looks inviting but for as far as we can see in Funchal, you need to find a pier with steps to get into it. There are beaches elsewhere on the island, but most are stony or black with volcanic sand, we are told. However, we would come back – especially for a winter break.
It is quite an upmarket destination and we are entertained to notice that, in the unsupervised spaces between dockside and water, there are signs of the eternal anarchic tendencies of the labouring classes –i.e. the names of deckhands, from all over the world, daubed on the harbour walls as a sort of compensatory game, when they are dropped over the side with a paintbrush while everybody else goes into town. It seems to be a surprising local tradition, as we see it nowhere else.
Next stop, La Palma, is similar but smaller, and Spanish rather than Portuguese. I buy cigars hand-rolled from local tobacco and a present for my grand-daughter at what must be the world’s only tasteful seaside T-shirt shop.
Next comes Tenerife. We moor at Santa Cruz, which is likeable enough in a working-town way but not quaint or beautiful. We take a bus to the old capital, La Laguna, and find the old town there more to our taste. We do not see the beach resorts on the other side of the island. No doubt they offer good packages of basic holiday essentials and if we ever come back, it will be for a bargain price.
A day later, we are in Lanzarote, which is the revelation of the whole trip. . At first, the scenery looks startlingly plain, thanks to the local farming practice of spreading black volcanic ash over the fields, to conserve water and keep down weeds. But the topography is more varied than it first looks and as our eyes accustom to it, we start to appreciate its stark grandeur – and the stylish simplicity of the human buildings, which are almost all low-rise, painted white or cream, and bounded by hand-built walls of local stone. We are looking at the inherited influence of César Manrique, an artist and architect who exported himself to New York and collected admiration from peers such as Picasso, Miró and Warhol, and friendly connections with the rich and famous in general, before returning home to become some kind of Prince of Lanzarote. With an eye on the future in the upmarket tourist trade, he managed to impose strict rules on all sorts of development as well as picking up some plum commissions for himself.
We have booked to visit one of his personal projects, his Jardin de Cactus, on a trip I regard as the Missis’s Day Out until I get there. It is a stunning collection of giant cacti imported from Mexico and elsewhere, in a meticulous setting. Even in an economy fresh out of peasantry, the man was wielding startling amounts of money or clout or both and we are not surprised to pick up a hint, from the guide on another coach, that there are local suspicions about the accidentalness of Manrique’s death in a car crash at the age of 73, in 1992. So far, however, his influence persists and Lanzarote will remain in our minds as the Island of Good Taste.
After it, Lisbon is not exactly a disappointment but it is not the climax of the tour. I expected it to be more rasmshackle, more exotic. It is not Lisbon’s fault that it is a big modern city, largely recognisable to anyone who has been to Madrid or Edinburgh.
Nearly forgot to mention – how modern est moi – that the captain of Princess Victoria, Inger Klein Thornhauge, turns out to be a sturdily handsome young woman from the Faroes, via Denmark. One day I am in the Deck 3 launderette, ironing, when she makes her mid-day announcement from the bridge. My companions are also men, washing and tumble-drying.
“You can’t help thinking,” says one, “that in the good old days, it would have been men driving the ship and the girls down here.”
But as you see, I’m safely back. And my socks are hardly shrunk at all.
* Chris and Liz Benfield booked through cruisedeals.co.uk and arranged parking at Southampton through cruiseparking.co.uk/
** Cunard was invited to comment on this article, with particular reference to tipping policy, but has not done so yet.