A day at sea

We are spending the entire day at sea, bound for Souda Bay, Crete at the leisurely pace of about nine knots. Sea is all but dead calm, sky is perfectly blue, temperature is mid-70s.

The Ionian Sea is more than 10,000 feet deep here, so the water is darkest indigo blue, with shafts of sunlight streaming down, converging to an undetermined point far beyond sight. It reminds me of the water in the Gulf Stream when we crossed many years ago on our way to the Abacos.

I finish second in the putting contest.

Dress code for the evening is formal, so out comes the tuxedo.

And that is a day at sea.


Argostoli, Cephalonia

So far, this has been the highlight of the voyage.

Ours was the only cruise ship to pull up to the small terminal, so we would not overwhelm the small town of Argostoli, the capital of Cephalonia, one of the seven and the largest of the Ionian islands off the Greek coast.

We had signed up for the natural wonders tour, because it warned of a high level of activity and we figured most of the older passengers would choose a more sedate leisurely tour. We were wrong—a total of four full size buses were filled to capacity for the trip. Our tour guide spoke fine English, since she was born in Montreal, and she pattered on with a historical survey of the island and the wonders we were about to witness.

Our first stop was the Dragorati Cave at the village of Sami. To reach the cavern, you have to walk down more than 100 steps, and early indications were that some of our fellow passengers would never make it back up. The cave is spiked with thousands of stalactites and stalagmites which display the subtle colorations of the minerals in the waters that form them at the rate of one centimeter every century.

After about an hour in and out of the cave, just long enough for everyone to gingerly step down and slowly crawl back up to the surface, our bus took off for Melissani Lake.

After more stairs and ramps down to the sunken lake, we alighted at a small landing where row boats met us for a quick tour of the tiny body of water. What makes Melissani worth seeing is that it is underground, with a shaft of light streaming from above where the ceiling collapsed some thousands of years ago. Scientists have since determined that the waters from Lake Melissani flow from one side of Cephalonia to the other—underground.

The effect inside the little lake is stunning as we floated across the clear deep water through the sunlit section, then along a small stream where the water shallows to about 10 inches before it leads to a sealed cave. The effect is not unlike the Indians in British Virgin Islands. The cavern here, however, is home to thousands of bats that sleep during the day in the ceiling and feed at night. We were not interested in staying around to watch them wake up.

Later in the trip, our guide slowed the bus down to show us where the waters that feed the lake drain out on the other side of Cephalonia. She also pointed out spectacular beaches that rival anything in the Caribbean, particularly Myrtos Beach on the northwest peninsula of the island.

Near the end of the tour, our guide gave us an emotional account of the slaughter of thousands of Italian soldiers by the Nazis during WWII and showed us the cliff where many of the former allied forces were gunned down by the Germans to fall into the abyss below. The incident was made into a movie starring Nicolas Cage based on a popular book that uncovered the gruesome story of treachery and savagery among enemy factions who started the war on the same side.

With that bit of cheery commentary, our guide followed up with a few stories of virgins who plunged to their deaths rather than being raped and sold into slavery by Barbarossa working for the Turkish ruler Suleiman the Great.

By the time the tour ended and we disembarked our bus, we needed a drink.

We also needed lunch, so we wandered along the waterfront street looking a block inward hoping to spy a welcoming establishment. But Argistoli’s commercial district is strung only along the waterfront at the port, so we settled for a nicely appointed restaurant named the Captain’s Table overlooking the Red Train central desk and the bay beyond.

The menu at the Captain’s Table features an entire page of appetizers and tastings. Against our better judgment, we ordered five—stuffed vine (grape) leaves, grilled sausage with fries, fried zucchini and eggplant, spinach pie and sautéed mussels. And bread.

Three of these would have been plenty. Four would have been piggish. Five were just sinful, stupid gluttony.

We washed all this down with a small 187 ml bottle of white wine for Lynn and a 500 ml pichet of red for us to share. The total bill was 35.50 euros. If not for our gluttony, the bill would have been about 25 euros.

We staggered out of the Captain’s Table and walked a short distance down the street to catch the ferry across the bay to the port city of Lixouri, about a 30 minute boat ride away. By now, the sea breeze had filled in quite briskly, and I reckoned it hit 20 knots, since we could see whitecaps on the back of the waves. Since our ferry was steaming ahead at 10 knots VMG, the apparent wind was a good 30 knots before we turned into the basin at Lixouri. Quite a boat ride for 5.60 euros. The trip back was downwind and a lot calmer, but still 5.60 euros.

Although our ship would not leave port until after 9 p.m., we concluded we had enjoyed enough adventure for the day. So we walked back down the cruise terminal but not before stopping at the 160-foot mega-yacht named Prana. I chatted with the crew for a minute, as the deck officer pointed out that the name on the boom was written in Sanscrit, so it was not likely we would ever decipher it. I should have asked but forgot, where they were off to, because I suspect the Caribbean is not likely to be on their winter cruise this year.




No fewer than four huge cruise ships, plus one smaller Greek cruiser, pulled into Corfu in the morning. Each disgorged its entire paying population almost simultaneously. Marching alongside the throngs of four ships for half-kilometer walk down the dock, we met our buses that would take us into the ancient town. For some reason, the Norwegian Star ship’s buses were much closer than those for all the other boats. We kept walking to ours.

Corfu is a larger city, so it is able to absorb the teeming masses from the cruise ships more easily. For us, this was the perfect place to buy tickets on the local HoHo for a quick roundabout tour of the town. Instead of the customary red bus HoHo, I chose the local Corfu City Tour, which offered a smaller, single deck open bus that would fit through Corfu’s narrow winding streets more comfortably. Massive double-decker buses overwhelm these little towns and their ancient streets that were designed for horses not mega buses.

We boarded our bus, fumbled with the language choices of the narrative, and started our tour—which took us exactly back to the port where we had started. At that point, we were instructed to get off the small bus and board the big bus, which by now was completely full. I complained that this is exactly what I did not want, that they had just wasted my time by taking us back to where we had started and making us ride on the lower inside level of a bus I didn’t choose.

The attendant listened patiently to my complaints, then directed me to the big bus, saying there was nothing to be done. I was pissed, to be polite.

The big bus took us to the large green space that the Venetians had cleared out some 500 years ago (at the expense of more than 1,000 homes), where we alighted from the large bus and waited for the small bus to come back. At least we could get half our tour on a reasonably sized vehicle.

Corfu can be toured in less than an hour. We returned to our origin and gladly departed the cursed Corfu City Tour bus to explore the streets of the village. By now it was late morning, time for a refreshing beer at an outdoor café shaded by smallish trees. The local beer is quite tasty, so refreshed, we embarked on further explorations around the colorful streets.

Corfu’s tourist streets present a panorama of clothing, leather goods, cafes, tourist trinkets and art. Lynn was in search of a blouse to complement her travel wardrobe, unable to find just what she wanted in Nice or any of the Greek islands we have visited. But lo, there it was in a little Corfu shop—and very reasonably priced at that at only 18 euros.

Delighted with her purchase, Lynn’s lunch appetite beckoned, so we started paying attention to the menus on display along the streets. Remember our rules—no photos of the dishes, no waiter hawking outside. One more rule is to move at least one block off the main square/street/boulevard tourist area. The food will be more authentic, the prices lower, the service more attentive. Our chosen establishment proved this true once again.

The best name of the restaurant I can transliterate is Tsinoyradiko. We were offered a table by an old gentleman who appeared to be the owner, then waited on by a young, very pretty Greek girl who appeared to be the owner’s granddaughter (maybe daughter—I shouldn’t prejudge).

The menu was extensive, impressive and inexpensive. Lynn chose an order of tzatziki and feta cheese with peppers and tomatoes “from the oven,” according to the menu description. I chose the sausage in red sauce, which I thought might resemble one of our favorite dishes in Barcelona. It did, though in a different type of sausage.

The wine was their house dry red, and I ordered a 50 cl, a pichet in France. Here in Corfu, it came out in a little metal pitcher. For red wine, this was the lightest color we had ever seen, But it was quite good, and the owner toasted me with his own jelly jar sized glass of the same juice.

The food was a delicious as the wine. We waddled out for another walk around the small town, then to the square to board the bus that would take us back to the Queen Victoria.

Back aboard, we lounged around with cocktails and wine, then decided to forego the more formal Britannia restaurant for the informal Lido buffet. Problem is, we are assigned to the later seating at 8:30 p.m. in the Britannia, which means we don’t finish dinner until 10 p.m. or later. At the Lido, we can eat on our own schedule from a most diverse selection. Lynn had a yen for pasta (sorry for the mixed ethnic metaphors), and I sampled the Indian cuisine that was the featured menu. The Lido offers a wine list as well, so we did not go dry through dinner, ate well and walked out at a more reasonable 9 p.m.

Life is good aboard the good ship Queen Victoria, as we expand our options. It was an early night, as we needed to be up relatively early for the next day and a tour of Cefalonia, our short sail of some 125 miles away.


I fear that our concerns about cruising are validated.

The Queen Victoria sailed into Dubrovnic just after sunrise, and we jumped out of bed to watch our huge ship approach the port and tie up to the terminal. The ship approached the dock at a nearly imperceptible speed, then spun around to berth just in front of the Aida Belle, which had already taken its space on the terminal. We watched the shore side crew take the messenger lines and lug the main ties to the dock and the cleats.

We had chosen not to take any of the organized tours, rather to eat a leisurely breakfast, then head out on our own into the old town of Dubrovnic. We were fortunate to be the last two on the bus, so no waiting at the dock and right off on the short trip from the cruise ship terminal to the drawbridge that delineates the old town.

Dubrovnic has been fought over and conquered by a number of countries and conquerors, as recently as less than two decades ago in the Serbian war that erupted following the breakup of Communist Yugoslavia. Today Croatia is a member of the EU but not before its most famous historical city was besieged, bombed and blasted. A large sign at the entrance to the old town maps the numbers of structures that were damaged and destroyed in the war of the early 1990s.

The historic old town of Dubrovnic is tiny but on this day the crowds from no fewer than at least five cruise ships filled it to crushing capacity. The steep narrow stairs leading to the walk around the old walls were jammed with tourists pushing to get in at the same time. As we made our way down the main street of Placa, we were slowed to a crawl by hordes of guided tour groups.

This is what happens when cruise ships disgorge thousands of curious tourists at once. And we were part of it.

We worked our way around the groups to explore the tiny town and found the Jesuit church dedicated to St. Ignatius, small but significant, simple on the exterior but tastefully Baroque in the interior. Being Jesuit trained for nine years, I enjoyed the visit.

Making our way through the narrow, steep streets and steps of the old town, we found a bar that promised a great view and cold beer. Just what we needed. What they didn’t mention was that they had no WiFi or working bathroom, took no credit cards and accepted payment only in a combination of Croatian kona and EU euros. I wound up paying 13.50 euros for two beers, about eight dollars US a piece. The official currency of Croatia is the kona, about seven to a euro, and they get you both ways on the currency exchange, because you can’t spend the kona anywhere else but right there. So you are nicked both buying and selling kona.

Our walks finally led us to the old port, where a row of young women aggressively hawked their harbor tour glass bottom boat excursions.

We finally chose one that was certainly not a traditional boat but was smaller than the rest. The boat itself resembled a floating spaceship with a glass bottom that revealed a foil under the bow. The boat was powered by a single outboard motor, and we quickly realized as we left the dock that there would be no commentary from the skipper, who simply pulled up his fender, slipped his line and took off on a wordless tour around the harbor.

The trip was about as interesting as a bowl of broth, but we did have a chance to view a few islands, all the while as I watched the bottom through the glass. But as pretty and clear as the water was, the bottom showed only nondescript rocks and grass, no fish, no corals, no reef, nothing of interest below at all.

After a couple of hours in old Dubrovnic, we had seen all we needed, so we made our way back to the bus and our ship to spend a delightful afternoon reading on our balcony while watching fellow passengers return in groups before we pulled away from the terminal at precisely 5:30 p.m. Almost imperceptivity, the Queen Victoria slipped her lines, and the powerful thrusters glided us off the dock.

Once free, the Queen Victoria quickly ramped up speed to 18 knots, nearly twice as fast as we have run before, for the 250 mile overnight journey to Corfu. I suspect we will inflict the same level of punishment to little Corfu as we did to Dubrovnic today.




Aboard the Queen Victoria

Our boarding process was so smooth, efficient and fast that we found ourselves in our stateroom before our luggage arrived, so we went straightaway to our safety muster. We were assigned to muster station C, which happily was located in the Chart Room pub.

We gathered with about 50 fellow passengers, all carrying our bright orange life jackets folded tight into a cube as they had been stored in our stateroom closets. After the captain had recited the required safety speech, we were directed to don the toilet seat-style PFDs. I couldn’t resist trying the strobe light, then realized I didn’t know how to shut it off. Lynn was relieved I didn’t try the whistle too.

By the time we repaired back to our stateroom, our luggage had been delivered, so Lynn directed the process of unpacking. For the first time in two weeks we would not be living out of our suitcases. That’s unusual, because Lynn is the ultimate nester. Even if we are out for a weekend, she sorts our all the clothes in drawers and closets. For some reason, four days in Newport, one night in New York and ten days in Nice did not inspire her nesting instincts. Facing 14 days in the tight confines of a ship stateroom, she put everything in its place.

Happily, we found our smuggled load of wine and whiskey undamaged, so we celebrated with a glasses of the complimentary split of champagne waiting in our room courtesy of Cunard. We have been assigned a portside balcony room about midship on the eighth deck, which gives us a magnificent view of the ocean to the west side as we will head south from Venice to Croatia, Crete and eventually Athens. Undfortunately for our departure, the port side of the ship faces the terminal, while the starboard side faces Venice, so we missed the view of la serenissima as the sun set over San Marco.

Our stateroom on the QV is a bit larger than our QM2 room, with a much bigger flat screen TV mounted on the wall and a love seat couch next to the bed. Not that it matters to us, the shower is smaller. No fatties need squeeze in.

Since we had been assigned to the late seating at 8:30, we had plenty of time to do some preliminary exploration of the ship. Although the Queen Victoria is quite similar to the Queen Mary 2, there are some little and significant differences. For instance, the all-day buffet restaurant on the QM2 is called the King’s Court and is located virtually the entire length of the seventh deck. On the QV, it is named the Lido Buffet and is placed on the ninth level but very convenient to our stateroom. I would explore and discover other differences the next day.

We were assigned to dinner in the Britannia at table 516, a six-top. On the first night, two of our group did not show up. Our other dinner companions were an elderly couple from Des Moines, Carol and Chuck. She has a sister living in Hahnville, just outside New Orleans, and he used to be a radio announcer, so we have some professional experience in common. Unfortunately, Chuck is hard of hearing. More like deaf, even with hearing aids. So he was not able to contribute much to the conversation, since he could not hear much of the conversation.

Dinner was fine, but this ain’t Nice. It’s not even Newport. Both Lynn’s chicken and my pork chop were well prepared though a bit dry. I ordered a couple of glasses of the house French red, which were so corked, we couldn’t drink them. When I notified the wine stewardess of our problem, she immediately replaced them and confirmed that she could smell the rot herself in the glasses.

By the time we finished dinner, it was after 10 p.m., and we were just a bit road-weary, glad to head back to the room for a good night’s sleep as the QV glided through dead-calm seas southeast toward Dubrovnic.

Up early the next morning (sun rises about 7:00 a.m. at this longitude), I took my usual morning walk around the ship. The promenade on the QV is on the third deck, as it is on the QM2, but there are no great views of the stern or the bow. It is the same length, three times around equal one mile, two times equal one kilometer. But without the bow and stern views, the walk is less visually interesting.

In fact, as I discovered all day long, there are several differences between the Queen Victoria and the QM2. The QV seems to offer many more outdoor seating spaces, which leads me to believe that she does not make as many crossings as the QM. This ship seems more of a cruise ship, while the QM2 is more set up for longer passages and crossings. The QV is a bit smaller (2,000 passengers, compared to 2,600 on the QM2) and of course younger, just ten years old with a refit last year. And the Queen Mary 2 offers a public viewing area of the bridge; the Queen Victoria does not, much to my disappointment.

Inside the hallways and stairways, the Queen Victoria plays on the tradition of Cunard, but nowhere near the level of the QM2, whose namesake predecessor was legendary in the maritime industry starting in WWII. The Queen Victoria displays photos of famous celebrities from the early 20th century, who of course could never have actually sailed on this ship that was commissioned in 2007. The QM2 devotes one hallway to the same stars. The rest of the QM2’s walls display moments from her predecessor’s storied history, as well as the history of the Cunard line all the way back to the first ship and the reason all the Cunard non-royal names end in “ia.” (Answer: they are all Roman names, e.g. the Carpathia.)

The Queen Victoria’s main lobby is equally elaborate to her older sister ship’s, and the public spaces are mainly the same—Britannia Restaurant (ours, the lowest level of formal dining); Chart Room bar; Verandah (specialty dining with a surcharge); Commodore Club (farthest forward) but without the view of the QM2); Golden Lion Pub (maybe the best food on the ship); and the requisite shops, gym, spa, pools (two large and four hot tubs), and sports facilities.

The QV has a limited, tented semi-tennis court but does not have the golf simulator that the QM2 offers. Both ships, of course, have shuffleboard courts. The average age of passenger absolutely dictates the last.






Au revoir Nice, bongiorno Venice

It’s getaway day, never the highlight of anyone’s voyage, trip or excursion.

We got up a bit early (by our standards), cleaned up the apartment, packed the last of the clothes, carried the luggage to the street and walked down to the imposing Assemblee building to hail Uber. Unlike last time, Uber arrived in one minute.

Our driver Kevin was no romantic or tourist guide. He wordlessly but compentently made for the expressway to get to the airport, even though the drive along the promenade is far more beautiful and probably no slower on an early Saturday morning. By 10:30, we were in the airport, a smallish but very stylish terminal that you would expect in a place like Nice.

I was concerned about the hassle of checking luggage on Easy Jet, and they lived down to expectations.

Easy Jet is one of those European super cheap airlines that charge virtually nothing for a ticket but exorbitant fees for everything else, like seat selection, food and checked baggage. The baggage fees are lower if you book them in advance online. The only problem was that when I checked in online for our fight the day before, Easy Jet’s web site gave me boarding passes but would not allow me to pay the lower baggage fees. The only alternative would be to pay at the airport, which is considerably more expensive.

A total of 94 euros for two bags, in fact, or about $113. Our tickets were only $118. When I pointed that out to both the ticket agent and the charging clerk (You have to go to two places to complete the transaction), both said, yes, that does happen., too bad. I will just have to deal with this issue when we get back to the U.S.

The fight was packed, but we were lucky to have drawn two exit row seats. The passenger on the window was from Red China and proved to be one of the rudest, most objectionable people we have ever encountered on a flight. Before we took off, he pulled out and ate an apple, the remains of which he deposited in the barf bag in the seat pocket. Then he proceeded to open and eat an entire large bag of potato chips, crumbs and shards everywhere and placed the empty bag in the same seat pocket.

When we landed, he tried to crawl over me in the middle seat and Lynn on the end, even though he had nowhere to go, because the aisle was full of people waiting patiently to get off the plane. Lynn was having none of that; she stopped our Communist companion in his tracks with a stern admonishment that he had nowhere to go, so stay where he was. He was cowed but unrepentant.

The Venice airport is about the same size as Nice’s thought not as stylish. But our passage was unimpeded, since we were moving from one Schengen country to another. After collecting expensive baggage, we walked through as if we had flown from New Orleans to Tampa.

A fairly friendly and rotund taxi driver took us to our ship along the causeway that connects Venice to the mainland for a set fare of 45 euros for the 15-minute drive. He pulled us right up in front of the Queen Victoria, where we paid him, gave our luggage to an attendant and then passed through our registration for the ship virtually alone and without so much as a minute’s wait in the huge terminal. The entire process took less than ten minutes.

We walked aboard the Queen Victoria for exploration, dining and unpacking. Happily, we opened our bags to find our stash of wine and Scotch unharmed. Let the voyage begin.

(Note to faithful readers: we are now on the ship with limited, expensive and slow Internet access. Therefore, photos may have to wait until we get onshore to a WiFi cafe where we can drink wine and update this blog.)