Our Voyage around the world on Queen Elizabeth (10th January – 9th May 2014).
By David and Patricia Hodges, Ickham, Canterbury, England
Travelling for pleasure is motivated by the curiosity to discover unknown and, hopefully, secret destinations. Naturally, mode of transport is of crucial importance. Despite the relative comfort and safety of air travel, many people choose to go by ship and see this as the ultimate romantic adventure: but romance in its wider sense, and not necessarily confined to travelling with a lover. I was told by several individuals travelling on their own that a long voyage by ship leads to self-discovery of the kind that only the sea can elicit.
With the cacophony of sounds ships make on departure – and in the rain – the Queen Elizabeth left her berth at Southampton to begin her journey around the world. Venturing forth across the Atlantic (where we had the roughest seas of the voyage) our first port of call was a very cold New York.
We were told during the week’s crossing that the Mid Atlantic Ridge in this ocean formed as the two continental plates of Eurasia and North America pulled apart from each other, creating a ‘scar’ in the seabed as molten rock burst to the surface to plug the gap. In some places, apparently, such as Iceland and the Azores, the land rises up enough to break the surface of the water. The Statue of Liberty, a monument to freedom and opportunity, provides food for thought for the passengers as we steam by. Contemporary politics and ideas that we live by were earnestly discussed on board. People on trips around the world appear to be particularly interested in their social, political, historical and physical environment, and curious about other cultures. Racial harmony, mixed-race marriages and a surprising cultural mix (both guests and staff) made for a truly international trip.
Despite evidence to the contrary, hope for freedom, peace and love seems to survive from New York to Tokyo; linked by these concepts, we clearly were much closer to the other passengers than is apparent on the maps. New York was of course quite familiar to the vast majority, but its excitement endures. The cosy familiarity continued in Florida, where the beautiful Everglades were our next port of call.
Fort Lauderdale is a young (read ‘uninteresting’) town but there is much to see on the coast and beaches along the waterways and canals. Donning rain ponchos, we struggled onto the Everglades in a noisy airboat, in the hope of seeing a few alligators. Alas, the water was too shallow, so no luck. But afterwards there are the reassuring words by the ‘environmentalist’ staff who breed the creatures and who announce that no, keeping them captive is not cruel, in fact they quite like it.
Alligators, they state, only want to be fed and do not yearn for liberty, going to the movies or reading books. We visitors turn to each other, acknowledging silently that the legendary American sense of humour has not changed.
After Fort Lauderdale we stopped in Aruba for a welcome walk on a white sand beach. Oranjestad is the capital city of Aruba. In the local language, Papiamento, the city is often referred to simply as ‘playa’ (beach). Along with the Netherlands, Curaçao and St Maarten, Aruba is one of the four constituent countries that form the kingdom of the Netherlands. Unlike much of the Caribbean region, the island has a dry climate and an arid, cactus-strewn landscape. Not difficult to enjoy, then, whether sipping a cocktail on the beach, shopping in the modern malls or participating in the many water sports on offer.
Enjoying the next stop – Limón in Costa Rica – required more ingenuity, however, as the animals failed to appear in any satisfying numbers and we were there specifically to see them. We needed to peer like professional safari guides to get to see any. In general, we all concurred, this is our experience of travelling to see wildlife, and the only place you can get a good look at our fellow species is either in a zoo or in the Ngorongoro crater in Tanzania where they are, to all intents and purposes, trapped for the delight of (camera) safari groups. However, a few sloths in Limón and some rather splendid birds did make a brief appearance to the general delight.
The Panama Canal, a highlight for many on the trip, was not disappointing and over the course of a day we sailed its 51 miles (82 kms). Then, dropping back down onto the southern coast of Panama, we went into the Pacific Ocean, passing under the emblematic ‘Bridge of the Americas’ along the way. This is the bridge that links North and South America by road. The shortcut created by the Canal, one of the largest and most difficult engineering projects ever undertaken, makes it possible for ships to travel between the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans in a much shorter time than before.
We have since learnt that the engineers building the Canal worked so quickly that they built the equivalent of theChannel Tunnel (from England to France) every three and a half months! We then visited Punta Arenas (Costa Rica) on the Pacific Coast, followed by San Francisco. Always welcoming, the great city offered us the pleasure (yet again) of its eclectic mix of architecture on rolling hills and symbolic landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge. Travelling by cable car, we are reminded by the native population of the country’s amazing diversity and dynamism. Here we saw an old friend for a delightful dinner at his rather fine Club and heard about a variety of charitable projects that he and prominent businessmen in the city were involved in.
Interesting plans to try and narrow the gap between the rich and poor that still haunts the western world. Meanwhile, life on the ship itself got better as the distance from home got longer and, not having much else to do, we needed to rely on each other for company and conversation. Still, friendships (not always marriages!) flourish in these improvised environments where the terrifyingly frequent safety drills make everyone think we might need each other at some point. So the stakes have got bigger and people more interesting as we open up our life stories to each other.
As we arrived in Hawaii the ‘holiday’ fun really began as grey skies gave way to the State’s resplendent sunshine and blue seas. Visiting Honolulu, a modern city forged from volcanoes, we all start to wonder why the whole world doesn’t want to live here: vibrant, ethnically and culturally diverse, it looks like the promised utopia. The historically minded depart for Pearl Harbour; the more hedonistic have a beautiful drive up Mount Tantalus. We are treated to excellent views of the valley on the way up as well as from the look-out post at the top. We hired a car and went off into the sunset to sample local shrimp in the open air on the North Shore; amazingly, we seemed to be the only tourists there. The friendly native population appear to take all this fresh air for granted, which adds to the relaxed atmosphere. A stop also at Maui and its capital, Lahaina, made for an excellent port of call, with dozens of trendy art galleries, unique shops and restaurants. Once the capital of the Hawaiian Kingdom, Lahaina was also a historic whaling village during the whaling boom of the mid-1800s. Up to 1500 sailors from as many as 400 ships took leave in Lahaina, including Herman Melville, who immortalized the era in his classic novel Moby Dick.
Leaving Lahaina we head in a south-south-westerly direction towards American Samoa and Pago Pago, always in the hope and excitement of learning more about our world. We arrive at the Samoan group of islands which lie in the middle of the South Pacific. The islands are now divided into the independent country of Samoa and the islands of American Samoa. Pago Pago is the capital of American Samoa. A drive around the island in a hired car shows us the people’s hospitality and the beauty of the island. In 2000, the population was 11,500; a mixture of colourful semi-urban communities, tuna canneries provide employment for a third of the population of the island of Tutuila. A delightful harbour surrounded by dramatic cliffs plunge almost straight into the sea to reveal unforgettable views. If you’re ever there, do not miss Tisa’s Barefoot restaurant, a simple wooden structure on a little beach. Here we lunched on fresh tuna and lobster just out of the water, cooked in banana leaves and served not with a little panache, and an inexpensive but drinkable glass of wine.
In pursuit of further incursions into paradise, the ship continued its journey to Tonga (a maiden call), some 2,000 miles north-east of Sydney. Having been to New Zealand and Australia before, we were perhaps a little blasé but a boat trip out into the Bay of Islands and a proper walk in Sydney showed us the vitality still to be experienced in these countries. In Sydney we were taken out for a delightful evening by the beautiful and clever Carla Polson and her charming fiancé, Daniel, now her lucky husband. Again, another personal highlight for us, Brisbane afforded us the pleasure of spending the day with an old friend, John Polson, and his always lively son, J.B.
After a very interesting visit to an extraordinary exhibition by a Chinese artist, we lunched on the sort of fantastic food and wine that Australia is famous for, overlooking Brisbane’s river.
Papua New Guinea was next; we went to Rabaul, a township in East New Britain province. We toured the vicinity around the port, saw Japanese war tunnels (the Japanese occupied the island in the Second World War), and the immaculately kept Allied War Cemetery which is looked after by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The Japanese turned Rabaul into a fortress and a major supply base for their Pacific fleet. Slave labour was used to dig hundreds of miles of tunnels into the pumice hills and one particular tunnel included a hospital capable of treating 2,500 patients. Needless to say, Rabaul was subjected to frequent air raids by the US but the Americans did not attempt to storm the town as the cost in lives would have been intolerably high. Rabaul therefore remained in Japanese hands until the war ended in September 1945. A very enjoyable and poignant stop for all of us.
Yokohama, one of the core cities of Greater Tokyo and Japan’s largest seaport, was a revelation because of the hospitality and enthusiasm of its people: they came to see the ship in great numbers. They set up welcoming signs and a vigorous crowd had us as the priority of the day, possibly due to the ship’s maiden call to Japan. This seems like an odd thing to remember today but the Japanese seem insatiably curious about other cultures and communicated warmly and effectively even if knowing no English. Needless to say, the country has much to offer but the gardens are quite special, they are not mere decorations but aesthetic sites, artefacts which are very much part of ancient Japanese culture and as important as ever for today’s population. Nagasaki provided us with much meditation and in fact, surprisingly, the best welcome of all during our voyage.
For the two of us, probably the most exotic of all our ports of call was Busan in South Korea where we visited a local market, fish-market and a shrine to a female Buddah on the coast; a beautiful temple which is not just a monument for visitors but a live place of prayer for the locals.
As everyone knows, China has become increasingly important in modern times because of its thriving economy, something which was very apparent during our visit. The Chinese thrive on their image in the world as an innovative country on a par with the best in the western world. Many years ago, in 1990, we drove overland to China, from west to east, by Land Rover: a rally to commemorate the Paris to Peking rally of 1907. This time we went to Shanghai, a futuristic city, Xiamen, and a bustling Hong Kong.
Vietnam, always a pleasure for many on that side of the world, was new to us and a very pleasant surprise. We went to Hanoi and Da Nang where we bought beautiful jade items and other treats.
Singapore next. We had an excellent Chinese lunch in a restaurant on top of a very modern building where we could see the whole city from above. The name Singapore is, we were told, derived from the Malay words singa (lion) and pura (city). The city-state consists of 63 islands including the main one, Jurong Island. The national language is Malay for historical reasons but the local colloquial dialect of English, Singlish, incorporating vocabulary and grammar from various Chinese dialects, Malay and Indian languages, is often spoken in the streets.
Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) was next, followed by Penang. Here, we were treated to butterfly and spice gardens, and, as usual after a stop, dining that evening aboard included some delightful Malaysian dishes.
Next we went to Colombo (Sri Lanka), another new country for us, and a busy and vibrant city with a mixture of modern life and colonial buildings as well as a great museum of traditional culture and ancient artefacts to enjoy.
After leaving the harbour in Colombo, we set northwesterly courses, sailing across the Gulf of Mannar. Once in India we followed the west coast of the southern part of the country leaving the India ports of Cochin and Chetwai en route to Mumbai (Bombay). This stop was like a home away from home for the Brits, who are well acquainted with India’s peoples and food. Here we visited the Gateway of India monument which was built to commemorate the arrival of King George V and Queen Mary in 1911, although the monument was not completed until 1924.
With an estimated population of thirteen million, Mumbai is the most populous city in India. Its port handles over half of India’s seagoing passenger traffic. The city is also the home of the famous Bollywood, the largest film producer in the world.
Next stop was Abu Dhabi (which means ‘father of the gazelle’ in Arabic) and this was quite the hottest place we visited (42C degrees). The sizzling desert, camel market in the oasis of Al Ain, date picking by a supple tree climber and a magnificent modern mosque provided our first look at the Middle East on this trip.
Continuing South East, we headed parallel to the coast of the United Arab Emirates on the starboard side as we approached the port of Dubai. The official language here is Arabic, but English, German, Hindi/Urdu, Malayalam, Tamil, Persian, Russian and Tagalog are also widely spoken. Dubai is the second largest Emirate and has the largest population in the area, after Abu Dhabi. With enormous construction and development in a variety of industries, the country has attracted worldwide attention through innovative real estate projects, as well as sports events and world conferences. The aspirations of the ruling sheikh are reflected in the ultra-modern architecture of the city.
A true monument to capitalism, the country boasts magnificent modern architecture, including the tallest building in the world, the Burj Al Khalifa, a magnificent construction from whose top we could see the urban space surrounded by the interminable desert. A very formal English tea at the Burj Al Arab hotel – the building is shaped like a ship’s sail – turned out to be the felicitous combination of traditional luxury from east and west that the United Arab Emirates are known for. Around this time, for the following week or so, the captain and his staff had to take special precautions as we sailed along the Omani and Yemeni coastlines. Somali pirates, still a problem, meant that we were confined to the ship interior after 6p.m. – no deck walks although the evenings were beautiful and the swimming pools inviting. Restaurants, public areas and cabins had to have curtains drawn from early evening so that no lights showed to prospective sea bandits. Armed Royal Navy personnel were also aboard in case of an attack. This was unpleasant enough for the passengers but not as bad as an outbreak of norovirus which, luckily, was fairly quickly contained by the judicious measures of the efficient staff. Luckily we were not personally affected by the problem but became understandably paranoid about hygiene and food standards (which we found to be impeccable).
The very idea of visiting the Middle East is a promising mix of realism and utopia. Aqaba (Jordan) showed exactly this combination: relaxed spiced coffee moments and friendly shopkeepers in a background of an unstable political arena. Cancelling our next port of call at an Egyptian port was hardly an auspicious place to begin our visit to the area. However, sailing through the Suez was quite an experience, a river snaking its way through the desert where people waved at us in welcome as they worked on the lush land along the Canal and fished from their dhows. A very disappointed shipload of people had wonderful memories of this country in more stable days which we all hope will return soon.
So we went to Israel instead. The country continues to stretch its American patron to the limits but our stay there could not have been more pleasant: the relative peace at the time provided a rare window of opportunity to visit Jerusalem where we stayed overnight, the ship having docked for two days in Haifa.
No doubt Israelis stoically await the next rocket whilst the problems in Gaza have not disappeared, but the atmosphere at that point was cheery and quiet during the two unforgettable days we were there, both in Israel and in the Palestinian Territories. But the crisis in the Middle East won’t go away and not being able to go to Egypt was the hard evidence of these seemingly intractable problems.
Back ‘home’ in Europe, we visited Naples (good for shopping and famous for its magnificent squares and palaces), Palma de Mallorca (very attractive, demands another visit).
A stop in Lisbon (neglected on our first time visit years ago) provided an opportunity to get to know the city better. Here we had the fun spectacle of the famous Cunard Queens – the Queen Mary 2, the Queen Victoria and our own Queen Elizabeth – getting together and then sailing together back to Southampton for a great welcome on the Queen Mary’s tenth birthday.
If anybody would like further information on any of the places on our itinerary or the ship itself, we would be happy to provide it. Click the link to our eMail HERE.