Spring flings in England

After 2 weeks in a closed environment in which I was almost always the youngest person in any gathering (and that by quite a long way), I was desperate to spend some time with a few age peers – although obviously that wasn’t the only reason I was so keen to see my friends. So it was with great relief and anticipation that I stepped off the Queen Mary 2 in Southampton.

England was, of course, cold and wet (as is obvious in the movie above) – but the debarking process at the Southampton docks was so slick and trouble-free that it almost made up for the weather. And despite the rain and mist, it was a special day for Cunard too – when the Queen Mary 2 left Southampton later that day, en route to New York, it was joined by the two other ‘queens’ in the Cunard fleet – the Queen Elizabeth and the Queen Victoria. There are some lovely pics here:

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-3066199/Cunard-s-luxury-ocean-liners-come-fourth-time-Southampton-begin-175th-anniversary-celebrations.html

My ex-South African friends Michele, Chris and Ruth have all lived (separately) in the UK their entire adult lives. They were among my closest friends in Cape Town in the mid to late 1980s, when we all worked as juniors at various jobs, earning very little money, lived in communes with a range of folk (some odder than others; and sometimes we were the odd ones), and drove jalopies if we were lucky enough to have a car at all (we were often reliant on bicycles or other people with cars). We jolled at the River Club, played pool at The Lounge in Long Street or Stones in Obs, danced at Deviate, smoked zol in the outside roof-garden at The Loft, had late-night Irishes at Café Camissa, and slummed it at the Crow Bar or the George.

We haven’t all been together in 27 years (since my 1988 wedding), and we wouldn’t be on this trip either, as Ruth had to go to America on business, but we grabbed what time was available to us, and I spent Sunday with Ruth and her family at their lovely home in the Hog’s Back in Surrey.

me and Ruth 1987

Above: Me and Ruth in 1987 (at our commune in New Church Street, Cape Town)

Below: Me and Ruth in 2015 (in Ruth’s garden in Surrey, UK)

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Dersy real English Sunday lunch

Above: As if I hadn’t been spoilt enough for food on the Queen Mary 2, the Derseys treated me to a full-on English roast Sunday lunch – cooked, a little ironically, by Julien, a Frenchman.

The Dersys

Above: The Derseys at home – Annabel, Ruth and Julien.

Ruth and Anni

Above: Ruth (on piano) and Anni (on violin)

On the Monday, I travelled by rail to Ashford International – and it’s worth a word here about two things: the price of public transport (and everything else) in the UK; and the lack of clear and understandable rail timetables – something that put the Gautrain’s ridiculously opaque ticket-buying system at Johannesburg International airport into perspective.

First, South Africans spending rands are dead in the water in the UK. Not only is the exchange rate risible (it was about 18 to 1 when I was there; I think it’s nearer 20 to 1 today), our actual spending power in the face of the astonishingly high cost of living in the UK is so weak as to be almost nonexistent. So, thank god for my lovely lovely friends, who paid for all my rail travel while I was there, and also, for that matter, for everything else.

As for the rail timetables – Ruth and I asked a few different people how I should go about getting to Ashford International, which seemed to involve several changes. The guy at the ticket counter gave us information that was dead wrong. A helpful commuter who looked online on her phone for us while we waited on the platform got it half-right. And the only reason I actually ended up in the right place was because a train driver, seeing me sitting reading a book on some random platform in the southeast of England, took it into my his head (for reasons I don’t know) to ask me if I was waiting for the Ashford International train. ‘Yes,’ I replied. ‘Well, this is it,’ he said, pointing. ‘You’d better get on right now – I’m about to close the doors.’

Michele had had a more successful rail journey southwards, and was waiting at Ashford International with Chris when I arrived there.

me and Michele 1987

Above: Me and Michele in 1987 (at Lady Anne Barnard’s Garden, Groot Constantia, Cape Town)

Below: Michele and me in 2015 (in Rye, UK)

Michele and me in Rye

Chris and me 1987

Above: Chris and me in 1987 (at Algeria campsite, Cedarberg, western Cape)

Below: Chris and me in 2015 (in Dungeness, Kent, UK)

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The three of us set off to Chris’s Dungeness home in his trusty little Land Rover, stopping briefly en route to have a look at the small farm where he aims to breed alpacas. (The farm is beautiful and alpacas are gorgeous – what a goodlooking new career Chris is going to have!)

Chris’s house at Dungeness (a headland on the wild coast of Kent, made largely of a shingle beach, and loomed over by a gigantic nuclear power station) is every bit as interesting as the place itself. It looks – like all the other shacks in the area – modest from the outside; inside, it’s a little work of art.

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The burnt-out shell of a train carriage, roughly refurbished on the outside and with every necessary modcon inside, is Chris’s kitchen – it’s sited within the ‘bowl’ of the wineglass-shaped house, with the ‘open’ part of the wineglass made up of a huge window facing the sea.

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Chris's house from teh lighthouse 3

Above: The view of Chris’s house from the lighthouse (his house is second from the right).

Below: The view of the lighthouse from inside Chris’s house (from his bedroom)

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Below: Fun with friends – a walk along the shingle at Dungeness; ‘at the beach’ (haha); Chris and Michele in front of the power station; me and Chris in a real English bluebell wood.385

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It’s such a sad truism that all good things must come to an end, and I wasn’t happy to leave first Chris, as Michele and I set off on our train journey back to London; and then Michele, after we’d negotiated the Tube to St Pancras and I’d found the Heathrow Express. But it was good to see my dad again at Heathrow after a week apart (he’d spent time with his UK family), and I was excited to get home after 3 weeks away.

I loved every second of my trip but it was marvellous beyond words to get back to my kids of all kinds (flesh, fur and feathers), and also to South Africa’s wonderful climate, beautiful wide-open spaces, and lovely people of every colour and culture.

We do indeed have our problems in South Africa but we live in such a gorgeous country, with interesting and largely well-meaning and hardworking people (excluding, obviously, practically everyone at almost every level of the ANC government). For South Africans who aren’t as lucky as I’ve been this year, and get an opportunity to step outside our borders for a while and see what’s happening elsewhere in the world, and also to miss home, let me reassure you: the grass may be greener on the other side, but that’s just because it rains there all the time!

Cruising on the QM2 – stops along the way

We stopped in at only three ports en route from Cape Town to Southampton, partly because of the presence of ebola on the African west coast, and partly (apparently) because of pirate activity in the waters nearer land. This meant that for eight days, or about 8 000 km, we sailed north across the Atlantic without so much as a passing glimpse of land – from Walvis Bay in Namibia to Las Palmas in Gran Canaria.

By the time we got to Las Palmas, therefore, we were extremely keen to get off. We had a lovely few hours strolling through the city – the capital of Gran Canaria, which is itself the most populated of the Spanish Canary Islands off the northwest coast of Africa.

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Signpost just outside of Las Palmas harbour – usefully providing land distances to my father’s two homes!

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A tale of two ships: my dad giving some size context to this exact replica of Christopher Columbus’s caravel La Nina, in which he and 23 men sailed across the Atlantic to the new world, making landfall in the Bahamas in October 1492. In the background is the Queen Mary 2.

Gran Canaria isn’t the prettiest port city I’ve ever seen – it seems a little fleabitten, with downmarket shops and nasty short-term-rental flats lining the seaside. Because we’d landed early in the morning, most of the cafes were closed, giving it a slightly bleak out-of-season feel.

We were keen to find a place that would give us free wifi, and it soon became clear that we weren’t the only ones – a bunch of QM2 staffers crowded around the doorway to one of the cafés, all of them intent on their devices. When we joined them and tried to log on, we were asked for a password, and it became clear that one staffer must have bought him or herself a cup of coffee to get the password, and then passed it on to the other 20 people waiting keenly outside to get word to and from their friends and family.

As penny-pinching as I was on that trip, even I was too embarrassed to beg the password from one of the crowd, so my father and I dove back into the city streets to find a café of our own, and wound up at Bar Da Vinci. There, for the first time in 10 days, I was able to check my emails and do a bit of net-surfing without keeping a keen and worried eye on the clock ticking off the super-expensive seconds in the corner of the screen.

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The lovely café we found in a Las Palmas back street that cheerfully gave us free wifi with a couple of cups of excellent cappuccino.

Next stop, only one day away, was Madeira, a Portuguese island known for its wine, among other things. We landed in its capital city, Funchal (which means ‘fennel’), and could immediately see why it’s a popular year-round resort – it’s busy and interesting, and really beautiful, situated in a gigantic natural amphitheatre, the greened mountains flowing down to the sea, their steep slopes crammed with homes of all descriptions, from the luxurious abodes of the evidently well-heeled to (cheek-by-jowl) pondokkies that wouldn’t look out of place in a South African township, often with little vegetable gardens and chicken-runs in the back yards.

I know this because we travelled over them – we took the cable-car up the mountain, a 15-minute trip that I loved but which also scared the crap out of me (I have a fear of heights).

Madeira cableway

At the top, we followed Brigitte’s advice (thanks, Brigitte!) and took a toboggan halfway down. It feels careeny and out-of-control, with two men piloting the sled using nothing but a rope apiece and leather-soled boots for brakes, but there’s no doubt these guys know exactly what they’re doing.

A slightly hysterical movie of our toboggan trip.

And a very cheerful addition was that this picture (below), snapped by a roadside photographer and presented to us in a folder not 5 minutes later as we came to a halt, and costing a very reasonable $10 – a giant improvement on the usurious $25 per happy-snap the Queen Mary 2 unflinchingly charged. I was so conditioned to waving away the money-grubbing QM2 photographers by then that I waved away the young man offering us this pic – thank goodness my dad is more patient than I, and actually listened to the price, and then happily bought it for us.

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And wait, there’s more – on the folder is an email address inviting the tourist to email in for a digital copy of the pic, which I did when I returned home to South Africa, and not only was this jpeg sent to me immediately, I haven’t had a single bit of spam from them either. Now, that’s what I call value for money!

My dad and I walked down the mountain from the toboggan stop back to the harbour, a lovely stretch that we both felt in our thighs the next day. It was a fabulous walk, taking us through the steep winding streets of Funchal, and giving us up-close looks at the architecture, gardens and people. I loved every second of it.

 

Why I didn’t get off in Walvis Bay. And why, oh why, did it take 4 hours to embark us in Cape Town?

Our first stop on the QM2 after leaving Cape Town was Walvis Bay in Namibia, the very next day. I chose not to get off there, for two reasons, and both have to do with the port authorities in those countries.

First, it took the South African authorities almost 4 hours to get everyone aboard in Cape Town. God knows what the holdup was, or why it was so incredibly badly organised, but being pushed from pillar to post in the CT Convention Centre, forced to stand in loooong queues for hours (literally) and not being told a single thing about what was going on, really started the trip on a very bad note. When I finally gained access to one of the ballrooms (where some sort of preliminary check-in procedure was done), after standing in a queue for almost 2 hours, I was able to get a cup of coffee and a seat, and while I waited (and waited and waited) for the next step (whatever that may have been), I sat quietly listening to a thousand or so people around me complaining bitterly about the treatment they were receiving. Really, South Africa, you could have done better than that.

So, the very next day, when we reached Walvis Bay and were told that the Namibian authorities would require all passengers to go through a full passport and customs procedure, both getting off and getting back on the boat a few hours later, I opted not to go ashore.

Just the previous month, on a research job I’d flown to Namibia to do, I’d been subjected, at Windhoek’s so-called international airport (where there’s no toilet paper or hand soap in the cloakrooms), to a level of disorganisation and rudeness that I found truly breath-taking. I was travelling with a colleague who often does the same trip, and who confirmed that the Namibian authorities seem to actually try to be as actively unhelpful and sullenly obstructive as they possibly can. So I didn’t want to repeat that profoundly unpleasant experience.

By comparison with the ridiculously bureaucratic demands of the South African and Namibian authorities, those in Las Palmas and Funchal required only that we carried our QM2 identification cards with us. They seemed to grasp the concept of allowing thousands of rich tourists cheerful and easy access to their cities, the better to spend pots of money there.

Stuff to do (including absolutely nothing) on the QM2

My dad was the best lecturer on our leg of the trip (Cape Town to Southampton on the Queen Mary 2), and I’m not just saying that. I attended all five of the lectures he gave, and three of them were so packed out that people were sitting on the stairs in the 475-seater lecture theatre. My dad modestly ascribed this to the fact that the weather outside was bad but there were plenty of other things people could do to get out of the rain and wind.

day's activities

The lecture programme was fabulous – I went to talks on everything from pet behaviour to reconstructive surgery, all given by leaders in their fields.

The lecture theatre, called Illuminations, doubled as a movie theatre, playing a recent release daily around 5pm; and a planetarium, with 150 reclining seats under a 3D dome, showing mindblowing documentaries every day.

As you can see by the example (at top) of the itinerary of just half a day’s onboard activities, there was always lots and lots and LOTS of things to do – from exercise, card-game and art classes to computer workshops and art shows, musical concerts (of all descriptions and sizes, all over the ship, all the time), big-screen live football, sports events (deck quoits, paddleball), handiwork and hobby workshops (scrapbooking or scarf-tying, anyone?), trivial pursuit contests… The list went on and on. There were also daily clubs and gatherings for various religions, genders and dependencies.

My dad and I were thoroughly humbled in the evening trivial-pursuit challenge in the Golden Lion pub, which we participated in regularly before dinner. Back at home (where, apparently, our friends and family are just dof), we always nail these kinds of games; but on the ship, we dipped out badly. In our defence, many of the questions were UK-centred (about, for example, TV personalities or shows that we wouldn’t know about); but many of them weren’t – they were just really good questions that we didn’t know the answers to. A couple of times we did so shamefully badly that we didn’t admit to our results.

QM2-Royal-Court-Theatre

(Pic from http://www.cruise-australia.net/QM2.htm)

There were several shows a day put on in the +-1 000-seater Royal Court Theatre (above) – aside from the truly fabulous QM2 dancers and somewhat less fabulous (slightly shrill) but still pretty darned good QM2 singers, we saw comedians, a guy who did a Neil Diamond tribute show that made me dance in my seat, and various other performers and entertainers, including a fantastic magician who contrived to produce a real bowling ball from a sheet of drawing paper, and I’m still gobsmacked by that – I mean, there really is just no way you can hide a bowling ball up your sleeve.

I was excited to read on the programme that night that the magician was going to hold a workshop the following evening, for anyone who wanted to learn a few tricks, and that all that was required to attend was to sign up at 9am the next morning, at the purser’s desk. There were a limited number of spaces available, so I duly presented myself at the purser’s desk fresh and early the next morning, joining the ever-present queue, and finally getting to the front of it at about 10 minutes to 9. When I explained to the clerk on duty that I was there to sign up for the magician’s workshop, he pointedly looked at his watch, then looked back at me and said, slowly and clearly, ‘Nine. Oh. Clock,’ as if I were deaf or stupid or both. I’d long since given up being astonished by the rudeness and unhelpfulness of the pursers, and resigned myself to waiting for 10 minutes to put down my name. (In spite of this rigid adherence to the sign-up time, the pursers still somehow managed to significantly oversubscribe the workshop, with about double the number of people attending, the result of which was that the magician’s attention was stretched to the limit – so although it was still fun, we didn’t get the one-on-one magic training he’d wanted to give.)

If you didn’t feel like doing anything at all, there was a choice of lovely places to be while you did it. The library, especially when it was a bit windy outside, was my favourite. On the 8th deck, it’s right at the front of the ship, with windows all around. There’s a row of university-style workstations, plus a couple of groupings of plush comfy sofas and chairs around coffee tables; and a row of chairs facing a row of big windows, if you wanted to turn your back to the world and bask in the sun like a dassie. The selection of books was great – there really did seem to be something for everyone, and I re-read every Kate Atkinson they had – and there was also a big and enthusiastically used reference section (fellow travellers were, by and large, both well read and curious).

library

(Pic from http://www.queenmary2.eu/fotogalerie.html)

There was a small bookshop attached to the library, with maps, diaries and calendars, small gifts, stationery and handicraft items (including wool and knitting needles!) for sale, plus a selection of books, most of them about the Cunard line and its ships, but also copies of books written by the various lecturers, including my dad’s memoir, The King’s Eye and John Vorster’s Elbow, which did a brisk trade.

There was a ‘viewing lift’ that rose out of the library – a glass elevator on the outside of the ship that went up to the 11th deck, and a total thrill for me. (And there was another glass elevator, inside the ship, that rose out of the Grand Lobby and went up to the King’s Buffet.)

Canaries3

Another wonderful place to do nothing was on Deck 7, the promenade deck (above) – lying on a deckchair, reading a book, watching the sea go by, and dozing. You could do the same on the very top deck, Deck 12; and as we approached the chilly north and the temperature dropped, an option was to take to a deckchair inside the glass-roofed Pool Pavilion, where you got all the sun and none of the cold wind. Sheer bliss.

deck12_pavilionpoole

(Pic from http://www.our-cruises.com/queenmary/deck12_pavilionpoole.jpg)

My book wins a prize

john meyer

John Meyer: A Retrospective (1972-2012), the book I wrote under the project-management of design supremo Kevin Shenton (who also made it look so lip-smackingly gorgeous), won in its category, Arts/Fine Arts, at the inaugural South African Independent Publishers awards last week. Organiser Darryl David called it ‘a truly beautiful book’.

The official list of winners is here. (I would’ve so loved it if they’d spelled my name right in this list, but never mind!)

Dressing up (and a dressing-down) on the QM2

There’s a fabulously elegant Titanic-pre-iceberg feeling to the Queen Mary 2 at night, when people having dinner in any of the main restaurants are expected to dress up – smart-casual/semi-formal most nights, and sometimes full-on formal.

For anyone who doesn’t want to dress up – and I must admit I began to find it tedious, putting on my gladrags night in and night out – there’s always the casual King’s Court Buffet, where you can eat in your sweats if you like, and I quite often did.

My so-called gladrags actually consisted of a curious collection of my daytime clothes, accessorised to look like nighttime clothes; and in one case, a red Japanese-style pajama top that looked so fittingly formal paired with smart black pants that it got a few compliments.

pajama top as formalwear

Believe it or not, a 2011 Jet sundress worn with some glitzy earrings, a one-off purple gilet (thanks, Bev) and enough confidence looks quite a bit like formalwear. The fact that I partnered my very dapper father in his penguin suit on these formal nights completed the trick of the eye my koontreh wardrobe required to pull off looking up to scratch on the Queen Mary 2.

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The dressing down in this post goes to the QM2’s purser’s desk. The first time I queued here – I didn’t realise it then, but it would be the first of many – I took a picture of this apparent misuse of quotation marks in the ‘help’ sign. In fact, the quote marks are 100% correct, because whatever the purser’s desk may be, it’s not a help desk.

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It’s also not a desk. It’s a long counter containing 9 or 10 computers – in other words, 9 or 10 stations – which was only ever manned by 2 or 3 people, while the queue for attention often stretched 10+ strong, out of the Grand Lobby and down the central corridor. Coming from South Africa, where this is how everything works, it made me feel right at home.

It didn’t, however, work for the mainly elderly people on board. One day, I was queueing behind a fairly hefty old man leaning heavily on a walking stick. We’d been standing there for about 15 minutes already, and knew we were going to be there for a considerable while more. Suddenly he turned to me and said, ‘My dear – I’m dizzy.’

I dropped everything and ran across the Grand Lobby where, fortunately, some chairs were being put out for an orchestral gathering a bit later. I grabbed one and rushed back with it, but too late – as I reached the man, I saw him toppling like a big old tree. I flung the chair to one side and, using both arms and as much of my body as I could, tried to catch him. I didn’t succeed at all – he outweighed me by about 50kg – but I did give him a nice soft landing as he collapsed right on top of me.

Apparently, having OAPs flake out while in the queue wasn’t enough to either get more clerks on duty at the pursers’ desk, or (to my mind a perfectly elegant solution) simply put a row of chairs out so the poor dears could take the weight off their old feet while they waited interminably for their turn.

One of the favourite tricks of the any of the up to 3 clerks on duty would be for one to finish his/her business with a passenger, giving what turned out to be completely false hope to the next passenger in line that his/her turn had finally come – because the clerk would then swiftly disappear into the back room, not returning for at least several minutes and sometimes never.

I had many unpleasant experiences with the purser’s-desk clerks; or, put another way, I didn’t have one single positive experience at their hands. The lengths to which they seemed willing to go in order not to help made me feel that surely we were the subject of some outlandish psychological study that was perhaps being filmed by hidden cameras. And before you accuse me of being a misanthropist (Lyn) and bringing this sort of behaviour on myself, let me hasten to add that I was by no means the only person having less-than-satisfactory experiences with the pursers. One of my fellow passengers – a very sweet woman, and certainly a far nicer person than I – actually admitted to me, unhappily, ‘I don’t know what I’ve done to the pursers, but they all just seem to hate me.’

To end this post on a positive note – the rest of the staff on the QM2, who seemed to be mainly Filipino, were hardworking little rays of sunshine. They buzzed around cheerfully, picking up after us and making our lives stupendously easy, telling us how welcome we were, wishing us good mornings and good evenings. Whatever they were getting paid, they deserved more.

Cruising on the QM2 – fabulous food and keeping fit

Taking up from my last post, by the time I’d read, responded to and saved emails on the Samsung tablet, over a cup of coffee in a (mostly) secluded window-corner of the King’s Court Buffet, it would be around 7am, and I’d go back to the cabin. Then it was takkies on, and back up to Deck 7 for what became my daily route-march: 10 laps of the promenade deck came to just over 5km, which near-perfectly matched the daily 5km route-march I did at home.

This daily round gave me quite a good perspective of and bearing on the ship, which otherwise could easily become confusing, as everything looks very samey-samey – there are muster stations and lifeboats, deck chairs and storage bins, entrances and exits, water bowsers and ladders, and various other bits and pieces of similar-looking equipment on both sides (port and starboard) of Deck 7, so a quick glance around isn’t enough to orientate yourself. After I’d worked out that our cabin was near the front of the ship, that solved one problem: simply by looking overboard and checking the direction we were travelling in, I’d know which way to walk to head for our cabin.

Although there were gratifyingly few written rules on board (‘Please don’t throw anything overboard’, posted at various points on the Deck 7 railings, was one; and ‘Please take a fresh set of crockery and cutlery with every return visit to the buffet’ in the King’s Court Buffet was another, and, wonderfully, really nothing more than a written invitation to leave your mess at your arse), there were apparently some unwritten ones. One was that walkers went anti-clockwise. I, walking clockwise, only fully realised on my third day that I was going against the flow, when the filthy looks my fellow walkers were giving me made me feel like Brad David’s character walking against the wheel in Midnight Express.

I obligingly reversed my walking direction, and of course immediately began giving filthy looks to those other walkers who were ignorant enough to go against the flow. (I never discovered the reason for this rule, or how everyone knew of its existence, although I did ask around; it remains a mystery to me.)

My morning keep-fit routine done, it was breakfast time. And I must mention the breakfast I most often had, and the food in general. I always helped myself to the fresh fruit salad, bowls of various nuts, and yoghurts (and I took this outside and ate it on the deck, in the warmth of the early-morning sun, watching the Atlantic froth past). This fruit-and-yoghurt option may seem a modest choice when on offer was, really, practically any kind of breakfast food you can imagine, from full English eggs-and-bacon-with-all-the-trimmings, through kippers and herrings, to savoury mince and baked beans; plus fresh-baked breads and pastries, croissants and toast, jams and marmalades (seriously, if you think it up, it was probably there)… But when you live on your own, as I do, a true fresh fruit salad is an option only once every few days (because on the days following, you’re having the leftovers). And, anyway, every day on board the QM2 was a total taste adventure, so it seemed overkill to stuff myself at breakfast, knowing that fabulous foodie treats awaited in other venues throughout the day.

Lots of people had told me that the food on board these high-end cruise ships is great, but ‘great’ when it comes to food is always a relative concept. In this case, however, not only were my expectations met – they were exceeded. And they were exceeded at practically every meal.

First, there are lots of restaurants to choose from. You’re assigned a certain restaurant depending on your class of cabin – my dad and I were in the ‘lowest’ passenger class, the fabulously fancy multi-level Britannia, which serves up to 1 200 meals per seating and still far outclasses many of South Africa’s top eateries. The nightly menu was truly remarkable: it offered a big range of dishes in several categories (a ‘health’ option consisting of a low-calorie starter, main and dessert, then around 6 starters, always at least 6 mains and 3-4 desserts), and you could mix and match to your heart’s desire – or you could eat your way through the menu if that’s what you wanted to do. And I often did indeed want to – every dish sounded absolutely delicious, and when it arrived, it was not only beautifully plated but did in fact turn out to be delicious. And an additional amazement about all this food was that menu items seemed never to be repeated – in the two weeks I was on board, I didn’t once see a duplication.

We were served by two cheerful, hardworking and dedicated waitrons, Christina and Jimmy; and we had a wonderfully entertaining 6’6’’ sommelier, whom I secretly called Mowgli, because he looked exactly what I imagine Mowgli would have looked like when he grew up, down to the skinny legs and beetling eyebrows.

mowgli

In our ‘main’ restaurant, the Britannia, my dad and I were assigned a seat at the table of an American heiress – one of the world travellers, who get on the ship in New York in January, and stay on it around the globe, only getting off again five months later. This woman (let’s call her Mrs Q) had befriended my father on a previous cruise, and she had enough pull (read ‘money’) to request the dinner guests of her choice. My father was one; the other two were a history writer from Australia and an English professor from Scotland – both relatively young (in their 60s), and both lively and interesting – a huge bonus on a ship peopled mainly by retired septua- and octogenarians, many of them not terribly mobile or communicative, and/or accompanied by minders.

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There was a price to pay for these agreeable dinner guests, however: Mrs Q held us hostage at every meal, taking her time to work her way through her three courses (seldom, if ever, chosen from the extensive menu, proving that if you have enough money, you follow different rules from the normal society conventions of we hoipolloi): she would, for instance, spear a single olive (from a salad that had been made especially made for her) on her fork, and then talk and talk and talk and talk for up to 10 minutes, while we all polished off our first course and waited hungrily for the next one. This little performance would be repeated during the next course, and the next. As a result, dinner lasted a significant while; and as a result of that, we often didn’t make it to shows we wanted to see on time, and/or we got to bed very late.

One night, an ancient bristly-moustached English-colonel type called Harry joined us. In his mid-90s, Harry clearly no longer gave a fuck about anyone or anything – half an hour or so into the dinner, he looked around the table at all of us, sitting at our empty plates and waiting for Mrs Q to stop yabbing and finish her salad so we could get on with our main course, and he said, ‘So what’s going on here? Is this woman just going to talk all night?’

I was absolutely thrilled. Harry fascinated me the way a dangerous snake would – he was a complete loose cannon, and did and said the most bizarre things. For instance, he had trouble hearing, and every few minutes would pinch both nostrils together tightly in a fist and blow like a hippo breaking the water’s surface, in order to ‘clear his ears’; and, in showing us all how to spell his rather unusual full name, he simply whipped a pen out of his breast pocket, and wrote it large on the starched white Egyptian-linen tablecloth.

But the next night, alas, Harry was gone: Mrs Q had deemed him ill-mannered (which there’s no denying he was), and had asked for him to be removed from ‘her’ table.

Mrs Q drank only champagne (of course), and Mowgli the sommelier somehow conspired never to be able to pour just the right amount for her – it was always too much or too little, which drove Mrs Q nuts. I watched Mowgli carefully to see if he was doing it on purpose, and he never gave the slightest sign that he was; but I suspect that this was his little get-back at a woman who needlessly made him and his colleagues work even harder than they already did.

I went on a tour of the galley (the ship’s kitchen), and it was fascinating.

Although we were allowed in only a small part of it, it gave an idea of the size of the operation required to feed everyone on board all day, every day. Over 160 chefs worked in this space, producing (among many, many, many other things) 16 000 (that’s sixteen thousand) superb meals every day. Truly staggering.

This was the traditional ‘march of the chefs’ through the Britannia restaurant on one of our last nights aboard.

But there are plenty of other eating options scattered throughout the ship. My two favourites were the King’s Court Buffet (mainly because I liked the self-service aspect) and the Boardwalk Café.

The King’s Court Buffet was two important things: large (so there was seldom, if ever, any queuing for a table) and well designed (so ditto re queuing for food). There was a huge range of fabulous foods for all main meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – plus there were always lovely little special extras – flash-fried prawns, for instance, or flambéed fruit, or a temporary Thai-style noodle bar or a carvery. There was also always a cheese trolley, plus mountains of fresh-baked bread.

I especially loved afternoon teatime in the King’s Court Buffet (although there were many places you could enjoy this ritual, served to you by white-gloved waiters in some venues, if that’s your thing): 10 or 12 ranges of fresh, delicious little cakes appeared in the buffet, each one barely bigger than a mouthful (which of course meant that you could have two or three at a time) – petite pecan pies, bantam beesting cakes and banoffee pies, sapling black forest cakes, little brownies, tiny carrot cakes, miniature madeiras, baby millefueilles, pint-sized pavlovas …. again, if you could think it up, it would eventually appear on this astonishing afternoon-tea menu.

Another fabulous dining option was the Boardwalk Café on the top deck of the ship. Since each deck is the land equivalent of a storey, this outdoor eatery had a view over the Atlantic from 12 storeys up. This was a ‘fast food’ station – it offered burgers and hot dogs, plus a range of sides and salads; and (one of my favourite things) a self-service soft-serve ice-cream machine. My dad and I had several happy lunches there.

My only quibble about this restaurant, which was open only when the weather was good, was that it offered outdoor tables and chairs with no protection against the sun – even though the tables had holes that could clearly accommodate umbrellas. As a result, people shifted their tables and ended up crowded together in the scant shade offered by the funnels.  It seemed poor attention to detail, given the immaculate planning and provision of practically everything else on board.

I didn’t even get around to eating in all the free restaurants (for instance, my Dad had some pub grub – fish and chips, if I remember right – in the Golden Lion Pub, which he said was delicious) , and there’s also round-the-clock room service (which we never used). There are also several dining options for which you pay a cover charge or a la carte menu prices, which obvs I never went to.