Friday, 30 January 2009

Still queasy

Disappointed the Daily Mirror did not follow up on the story, they were apparently mollified by the letter Fred. Olsen sent to all the passengers. I tried to get them to change their mind but no go. I feel very angry about what happened, and I do think it was criminally negligent of them to set off with us in those conditions in that ship. My personal opinion and I think shared by many.

Friends yesterday said they had been on the Ventura before Christmas, the ship which had all the oiks and trouble on it (see early bulletins in my blog). On their trip, it was clear that P&O had frantically filled the ship with voucher-offers, an appalling rabble of drunks and louts who had fights, shouted at the waiters, and were generally vile.

We have all seen the cruise-holiday offers in the papers for weeks if not months, and now we (and separately our friends) have experienced the results first hand. I can only think that cruising could be pleasurable if you go for a really long voyage, round the world, say, where there won't be any or much of this ill-mannered intrusion.

I don't really identify myself with the 'oh-so-nice' main group of cruising passengers, but I do think you ought to be able to relax on your holiday. The companies must be frantic...packing anyone at all on board, and at a terrible cost. We only went because of the price, but lots of other people who wouldn't normally go on cruises are also booking onto these ships. It must be a nightmare if you have booked up months ago, and saved up for a special holiday, and then find it's invaded by yahoos. The whole industry is clearly in trouble.

Now, various friends have been in touch to say they have enjoyed this blog, it should be a book, I should be a 'calamity travel writer', etc. (Didn't know there was such a category, but maybe it's a good idea.....)

As for me, I am still feeling very tired, pale and washed out, appetite gone, etc. I still have those faint rocking feelings. Very odd. I feel I will have a more balanced view of the whole trip when I have recovered my strength and energy. I can't decide what to do next......

Thursday, 29 January 2009


Within 24 hours of getting home Fred. Olsen had a letter through our door, admitting things had not been very good, blaming force majeure, and offering us a discount on some future booking under various conditions.

However, following the coverage in the Daily Mirror, I emailed the paper to say that I strongly believe that ship is not safe (due to its internal layout and arrangements) and should not be allowed to sail in such weather conditions, and that passengers should have been warned and offered the chance to postpone their holiday, especially as there were so many old and infirm people aboard.

The journo I spoke to said they had had hundreds of people contact them with similar arguments, and he asked for a copy of the F.O letter which I faxed to him. My sister also sent some photos - only one of mine really showed what those waves look like. Waves are surprisingly difficult to photograph, as you probably know. Timing is all!

Anyway, the thing to do is buy a Daily Mirror on Friday.

I see the BBC has had some coverage too, interviewing people as they left the ship. You can get all this by googling 'Balmoral' and the media route you want.

Personally I still feel a bit queasy and not eating, and the floor is still moving around gently (Friday morning). I'd like to know why this happens, and how long it goes on for.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Home again

Home again, what a relief. Great to see that people liked the the blog.

The floors here are still gently moving under my feet? How long does that last?

Disembarkation was managed very smoothly this morning. We had to leave most of our luggage outside our cabins last night and that was all ashore waiting for us in deck order.

Talking of luggage - we took too much stuff. I had been tempted into thinking the dressing-up might be fun, bought a pretty frock etc. But first of all the weather forced them to abandon the initial party schedule, and then I was so disillusioned by it all I just didn't want to go to any of the dress-up dos. I could see that people did look very elegant wafting along in evening dress, but my guess is that when they are dressed like that they spend more money in the bars... champagne instead of a half of lager, and a box of chocolates for the lady. So it's not really about having a party. What we should have had with us was comfortable and very casual stuff, trainers, sweatshirts, etc. Though we did not have as much luggage as some of the others.... Usually at the parties you get the chance to meet the captain but a) I met him by chance one day in the lunch queue, b) we'd had some meetings with him discussing the isobars and c) I'd have probably had an argument rather than just chit chat.

Breakfast service this morning was an eye-opener. Gone were all the cheery smiles and hallos from the waiters. Instead there was a distinct froideur, surly behaviour, backs turned and a bad atmosphere in the corners. One or two people remarked on this. The truth revealed, I guess. These waiters have been watching people stuff their faces morning night and noon for ten days, and now they have to get ready for the next lot, who are bound for the Cape Verdhe Islands.

We had all been told what to tip, typically £2 a day per passenger for cabin services and £2 a day for restaurant staff, so for us that was an extra £80 to pay in cash. I think the staff are paid a very low wage so the tips are how they actually earn their money. The ship supplies envelopes and you leave them in your cabin or in the restaurant.

Waiting to leave, in a section where people could get wheelchairs to be taken ashore, I spoke to a lady who had fallen in her bathroom due to the surges. The ship's doc had sent her for an X-ray to the hospital at la Coruna (lucky not a fractured vertebra but bleeding and severe bruising - she had fallen backwards across the raised metal barrier in front of her shower). She and her h spent the day in the hospital. However the ship's Tours desk would not refund them the £84 they had pre-paid for that day's bus tour. They said the doctor would have to write to confirm she was unable to go. Since she was by then on strong painkillers and other medication, and was only really comfortable lying down in her cabin, it was quite an ordeal to stand and try to argue.

Andrew has just sent me this link to a story in the Daily Mirror...take a look:

Antwerp provided us with the best part of the holiday - a lovely place, rich in the middle ages and then enriched by the enormous wealth of the Congo from the 19th Century onwards. Fantastic architecture and excellent shopping. Delicious meals too, and cakes, waffles, chocolates, pancakes, cream, coffee, chocolate etc etc. Definitely worth a visit. It was only when we were walking back to the ship yesterday afternoon that I felt 'relaxed' for the first time during these ten days. In fact I feel exhausted.

Setting aside the company's decision to sail into that storm, I think the worst thing about all this was what counts as 'normal' or successful on a cruise: the artificiality of it all, the fake friendship from staff - or at least the impossibility of getting to any kind of real honest communication from them. I can see that drifting along in the sun on a flat, comfortable vessel would be good. But I'd still want the main pleasure to come from the 'ashore' part: the real world. On this cruise, our main experience was of the ship, with journeys ashore being only very rapidly planned, and not what we had paid for. Four ports instead of five. So the balance was all wrong. (Literally). I had the distinct feeling that all the decisions made were for the company's balance sheet: the customer spend, not safety and not enjoyment.

They must have known about this atrocious weather before we left Dover. If not, why not?

And if so, why on earth did they set off with so many frail and elderly people, many using sticks or pushers, when the boat is so badly designed for rough weather? No handholds in all those acres of space. They chose to keep everyone aboard, not even offering a chance to think about it. I think they knew we'd never make Tangiers (and get back in time for 27th departure for next trip), and the decision to abandon Lisbon was also made very very early. We had waves up to 52' at one point. That is not funny.

Well, actually it is funny watching people staggering about, but it's not funny when they fall and hurt themselves. I found it to be increasingly distressing to see more and more people hurt, and meanwhile the tannoy announcements were of the 'Aren't we all enjoying ourselves?' kind.

So we are glad to be home. I'm sorry if the posts have been a bit disjointed.

The internet cafes offered another whole story. Sheila said the one in Antwerp featured a fat old othordox Jew who was watching pornography on the screen next to me (I hadn't noticed) but he gave up when surrounded by our little party. They all charge a very low rate, btw, such as 20p for an hour or something like that. The only problem is that they are in such out of the way places. I didn't see a single person using the onboard internet room where it racked up about £1 every 2 or 3 minutes, and there was no facility for using a flashstick or even Word to pre-write a post.

I might be able to send some sort of finishing bulletin but we are really at the end.

Thanks for reading.


Griselda and Andrew

PS Great pix in today's Daily Mirror, page 22. Worth going to get a copy.

Monday, 26 January 2009


I hqve picked up a bug on the ship, feeling a bit groggy today. Here is what I wrote over the last two days.
Sunday evening, 24th January. We are back on board after a day in Antwerp, with Frans van Dyck (descendant of the painter) and local born and bred. What a lovely city.

We did not find an internet cafe and so nothing posted covering Saturday, but I am writing this to add to the other posts and will try to get it up on Monday. These cafes which were once everywhere are now v thin on the ground, in poor or immigrant districts, or where students congregate. My method is to write things up on the little laptop and transfer it all to a flashstick then download it when I can get online. This is usually only a matter of a few minutes and a few pence. But the problem comes when we are in a place with no cafes, such as lovely, central Antwerp. I might carry this all around tomorrow to see if I can pick up a wifi patch.

Anyway, here's today's roundup, starting with our arrival in Antwerp. The ship edged its way up the R Scheldte into the sunlight, through the most amazing industrial landscape of refineries and other toxic-looking plant for miles and miles. Docking required us to turn round in the river which was accomplished almost like clockwork by a pair of tugs. Low-lying oil barges were pushing up past us. Frans was waiting for us at the quay, and eventually we were let go ashore. The preliminaries were quite amusing as the quay officials tried to get the fancy gangplank lined up and meanwhille our own crew members were tying some ropes across the gaps on either side of the walkway, and then set-dressing with some very attractive and convincing plastic white-edged fig plants.

We'd had breakfast earlier in the smart linen and glass restaurant (Ballindaloch), where the food is either buffet style or brought to you. You can order your eggs freshly fried, but the toast comes via a separate route ('Hey, Mr Toastman, you got that certain something....').

It is amazing to see the amount of food people put away...piles and piles of it. And later, when they may have been ashore to a place like Antwerp, or Cherbourg, or Bilbao or la Coruna where there are restaurants of great beauty and interest, they walk or bus into the town centre for an hour or so and then scuttle back to the ship for their free/paid-for lunch. People like us, who eat the local food as we go, are very much in the minority. There is food of some sort available almost every single moment of the day.

Frans took us for mussels and local beer. We tried to get the cathedral tour but not available today, we can go tomorrow. We walked to the raiilway station – what a fabulous job they've done restoring it, with four levels of trains all stacked inside the magnificent 1900s building. The Diamond Museum is closed for January. But we walked round the diamond district where there are millions of rather boring rings on display in the shops, and lots of diamond-cutting gear for sale in the supply shops nearby. A tram (underground) took us back to the old city where we ate waffles and drank hot chocolate. Yummy.

Tomorrow we can do a bit more looking round, and get the cathedral tour. Tonight we could be going to the Captain's final cocktail party but that would mean dressing up and somehow we just don't feel like doing that. We're all a bit tired after the cold day. At the moment there's some old Dr Who stuff on the telly. Last night as we went to sleep our neighbours knocked on our cabin wall as our tv was too loud....oh dear. We had fallen asleep watching David Attenborough talking about damsel flies and dragonflies.... such amazing closeup photography.

Cherbourg. Just back on the boat having sent off the last dispatch. A very pleasant city with lots of restoration and renewal. Street market with v expensive chickens (20 quid) and other home produce. A really surprising number of opticians shops. We had a cup of Moroccan mint tea from a charity stall, raising money for a project back in North Africa. That's the nearest we've got to Tangiers.

I am back up on the tea-deck where I wrote yesterday's bulletin, and some people are saying they paid two thousand to come on this, the captain told them to write and complain, they are sure the company knew about the bad weather before setting off, and that the papers back in England have us down as 'The Cruise to Nowhere'.

It's hard to know what stance to's partly shocking and partly hilarious, partly makes you want to shrug your shoulders and partly makes you want to pick up cudgels and have a fight with someone about it. This was billed as a four-star cruise, and that's a very optimistic description. The food is really dull and repetitive. Christopher points out it's just not possible to provide food at high levels of quality for more than about 60 or 70 people. Here they are serving 1400 and it really does come out canteen style. Not four star.

In the cabin washrooms, you get liquid soap but no shower cap or handcream – though they bring it if you ask for it. Not four star.

Our friends here are saying 50 people left the ship at Bilbao, two people have been airlifted off to hospital with suspected broken vertebrae. Six ambulances at one port and seven at the other. It's not possible to verify all this, and rumours can spread, but we have heard some of this before. One guy they spoke to had bruises on his face from falling. Another man's wife had a twisted back and has had to have two steroid injections. They say the company has cleaned up with cabin service, with so many people confined to their rooms. Two people in wheelchairs toppled over. He says, unlike the RN where a captain is able to make all his own decisions, this captain is under company orders. I am sure that is right. The successful voyages of the Balmoral's sister ship Black Prince which actually crossed our path and made it to Lisbon also raises questions – why couldn't we? More seaworthy?

Now we're off – Andrew is going out to supervise. The day turned out very nice and clear, with sunshine. Also the pavements do not move around like mad under your feet...I have just had one or two ghostly unsteadinesses. Out on the deck here, the jacuzzis are in full flow with happy old people sitting in them. The pool on deck 7 is also full, with swimmers.

Tonight it's apparently a curry night. Last night's supper was billed as Red White and Blue British night, but the main food was Bratwurst and for pudding Apfelstrudel. The music was Mozart, Bach and Beethoven – all very British. The punters had put on a good show, with lots of r, w and b clothing.

Chris has just come in from supervising the departure from the dock - the pilot launch was full of photographers, so possibly the press are onto it. Time now 5.25.

Saturday, 24 January 2009


This is the city of a thousand opticians. Excellent lunch by the harbour. French keyboards are different layout. Here is last nights bulletin, and btw, thanks to all who have texted.
The moment we were away from Bilbao yesterday afternoon the Capt made another of his doomladen announcements. We'd be abandoning the la Rochelle-l'Orient-Cherbourg itinerary due to absolutely appalling weather bearing down on the Atlantic coast. In fact, we'd be whipping out of the Bay of Biscay as fast as possible.

What's more, to compensate us for this further curtailnment, we'd be heading up to Antwerp instead. This is so far away from the advertised and longed-for 'Sun and Soukhs' tour as to be laughable.

He gave us a talk this morning showing the wind speeds predicted for the whole area, including a centrum of bad weather reaching windspeeds off the known scale – higher than Hurricane Force 12 I assume and this great blister of peril and pain would be moving along the north Spanish coast from la Coruna to Bilbao, with its skirts reaching up through the whole of the Bay, making entry into la Rochelle impossible. He said the waves were predicted for 15 metres (up to 60'). We've been cracking jokes about the ship falling to bits even in the waters we've been through, but maybe even the company would have fears for its safety in seas like that.

Looking at his charts no doubt he and the company made the right decision but there are mutinous reactions from some of the passengers. The captain was besieged by angry people after his talks. A retired seacaptain said he has already written to the company asking for compensaion. He thought the captain knew about this weather before we left Dover. He also said lots of people left the ship at the first port of call, and lots more have been voluntarily confined to their cabins out of fear, injury or queasiness. A day in the sickbay costs #450 though you have to have insurance which would cover this.

While Andrew was making some turns around the deck this afternoon (4 circuits = 1 mile) I sat in the pale sunshine looking at the sea. Within 5 seconds this seacaptain passenger had come to sit beside me (so I can still pull). He has written to the company already demanding compensation. He also within the space of 5 minutes let me know he had been married 47 years then divorced, has a good pension from the Port of London Authority, that this pension will be augmented when the new container facility on Canvey Island comes into operation in 2012, that he has two properties in Poole, two grown up sons, and that he's a keen and competitive karaoke singer. This sounded like a serious mating call to me, very amusing. He was off to the Silver and Gold (frequent cruisers) Cocktail Party and asked if I would come to hear him singing at the karaoke later tonight. (Unlikely).

I am at the moment up on the topmost level (11) having had afternoon tea. It's nice and light up here, though everything is grey again now, after our little sunshine a few hours ago.
The jazz expert gave us his final talk this afternoon – all about Jazz and the Blues. The wine expert did a talk about New World wines. Earlier today Andrew went to the daily quiz in another of the lounges. One question was: which English king first started a zoo? The answer when read out by the Philippina hostess was “Edward VIII” which provoked a widespread protest. (I think it was James I).

Two sweet old ladies have been very interested in this mini-laptop and have now gone down to change. All around me the staff are cleaning and tidying, sweeping and scouring. They all pay huge attention to hygiene, and each time we go into a cafe or restaurant or bar on the ship, or come back on board after a shore trip, we get anti-bacterial foam sprayed onto our hands. Another passenger, a lady chef, is obsessed with the danger of infections at the self-service food counters, and wraps the handles of all the serving spoons in a napkin to avoid touching them whenever she wants to serve herself a portion of anything. She says people may get their hands clean as they come into the restaurant but they can then cough, sneeze, pick their nose or otherwise cover themselves with germs and then share these spoons. Yeuk.

At lunch (it tastes almost as if it's all gone through the wash) we were talking about why this sort of cruise is so unsatisfactory. I think it's partly a kind of class war, but mostly the stultifying effects of being subject all the time to other people's decisions. In theory it should be a great thing – a luxurious floating hotel taking you to interesting places. But in practice there are in-built rules and regs about what to wear, what you can do, how you can do it, what will happen next. Perhaps it's not fair to judge all cruises by this one as things have gone so badly wrong. We've been very cooped up because of the wind and cold, not even able to access fresh air very much for a lot of the time, and it's been very very rocky.

Ah, welll now I've been moved by a floor-mopping girl to another saloon but will not stay here as it's a bit smokey. In fact most of the ship smells ok, with the exception of the smokey bar and a dreadful whiff, a faint but rising stench in parts of the cabin corridors and some of the lower stair levels. This has got worse with the bad weather and I can only imagine it's the sewage tanks slopping about. That really is yeuk, no?

I also think they may have a system of blowing the smell of breakfast through the cabin air-conditioning, to wake people up in the mornings. Not sure.

In general, things look very clean though. The ship's laundrette is also pretty good: four Miele machines with automatic soap dispensers. A token from reception costs two quid, and that includes soap and free use of the dryers.

I'd really like to hear back from you – we have dashed into internet cafes to get this stuff online and I hoped to have reactions back so I can see what you want me to write about. I don't know if what I have written is ok – let me know!


Off to Antwerp now.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009


Latest bulletin, composed on the Asus and fed in from a tiny internet cafe in the old city of Bilbao. Cold, wet. Getting into the port was a hoot....we moored up, but the swell was so bad the captain had us moved across into the cargo port (someone said, 'the scrap yard') and that meant waiting for a whole fishing fleet to be shifted, and then a load of cranes. When he announced this over the tannoy, there was a huge derisory (or cheerful) cheer. Some people are getting v angry. Andrew says this is the worst (ie only) bloody cruise he has ever been on. Actually we are enjoying it all now, as things are just one messup after another, but we are still clean and comfy in our cabins, fed with ok meals (VAST choice in many different onboard restaurants, and watching other people consume gargantuan amounts of food.
So it´s mid afternoon Wednesday, we are going to take our first look at the Guggenheim about 10 minutes walk away. I will leave you now with this morning´s missive, written about 10am. No idea when we find another chance to upload some info but I will when we can.
I am adding in a line here - just to say the Guggenheim is great fun, a colossally expensive building patrolled inside by a swarm of beautiful attendants who watch every move you make. I was thrilled that the main exhibit was Cy Twombly whose work I have laughed at for years and really like, and there were a couple of extra permanent installations I liked, but the top floor was closed and we were quite tired, so we only spent a couple of hours there. However the ticket price was reduced because the exhibits were not all open, which was good. The excellent tram service outside runs along through cut grass. There is a brilliant funicular lift on the opposite bank which gives you a fab view of the whole city. And the bars in town are splendid, rich, good to visit.

Bilbao. Blessed sleep during the night. (Deep satisfaction that Barack Obama has been sworn into the US Presidency. The most optimistic thing to happen in my lifetime, possibly). We are docking about midmorning, At the moment I am in the ship's theatre with Andrew listening to a talk about jazz piano.

Yesterday someone said ten people had been taken to hospital at la Coruna. It wouldn't surprise me. The ship is designed like an hotel with great open lounges and spaces so when huge waves rock the ship there is absolutely nothing to hold onto. Since a large proportion of the passenger is elderly, many using sticks or zimmers to get along, things get very dicey. People were falling down all over the place. The cruise director fell down the stairs. (It did not disturb her wig). People with walking sticks are at an advantage possibly for the first time since they bought them. It's simultaneously hilarious and dreadful seeing people falling over or clutching at the air and each other to try to avoid falling. Also, many of the tables are without any of the traditional rims, so that bottles, glasses, plates, cutlery and everything else slides off, and we have broken glass etc to deal with. All this on top of very little sleep for two nights makes for a stressful atmosphere. Most people are showing a stiff upper lip about it, and the crew are fantastic trying to keep things orderly, but things are not great under these circs.

The ship is designed for smooth sailing in calm waters but with increasingly extreme weather events like this no doubt they'll have to rethink the interiors. It is just not safe. The captain held two audiences last night to explain what had been happening. There are not one but two extreme atmospheric lows up near Iceland (975 millibars) and a very long-lasting high down by the Azores at 1035 mb, and these three 'buggers' as he called them combine to force huge highforce winds eastwards towards Europe. It's a very steady and stable system, and unforeseen. I wonder if F. Olsen will offer another cruise in this region at the same time next year?

I want to say a word about the yoga. The ship's daily paper announced yoga classes at each morning at 8am for a fiver. The first morning (Sunday), following no sleep, I doubt if anyone turned up, but there was a meeting called Introduction to Yoga at 11. About 10 of us turned up, men and women, all dressed and ready to go. A smooth Indian physio explained he would teach us all about yoga, and while we sat on the floor he stood and talked through a lot of his proposed curriculum, but he said the five sessions would cost 100 pounds and would be starting the next morning, Ten disappointed calm-seekers slunk away. The next day's bulletin announced the usual class, and with a fanastic effort after another very bad night I went up the six floors (no lift) as the Reception staff assured me it would be at the advertised price. I was the only person and teacher said there would be no class as the gym had been damaged by the storms with windows broken. I asked about the price, and he said the newspaper had had a misprint – it would be twenty pounds a time. The next morning, the paper said nothing about yoga, and we were in la Coruna so everyone was keen to get off the ship, but the teacher rang me in the cabin at 7.30am to encourage me to go along to his class. I declined and went ashore. I think it's crazy to turn away a group of enthusiasts by overpricing.

The piano in this theatre is shot. It is just totally wrecked. No voice left. Nothing in tune. Apparently they told the classical pianist who plays for us every now and then that they had to put it in there in a hurry after the last one fell of the stage and was smashed. Time for a new one I think.

I am hoping to find another internet cafe in Bilbao to feed this into the blog. We'll be here tiill tomorrow afternoon, then setting off for la Rochelle, and then as extras l'Orient and Cherbourg. There has been quite a lot of grumbling about all this, as people have saved up for their trip to the sun (Tangiers and Lisbon) but the great west wind has made that impossible. The shipping line is very concerned that we are back on time so as not muck up their schedules. Hence our few hours in la Coruna represent the furthest extent of our voyage.

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

Internet connection

Connecting on board is difficult and costs a bomb. I am using a tiny ill-lit internet cafe in la Coruna to send this. This is a lovely city on the sea, hills, ancient churches, spectacular views, lots of sports grounds, and the bad weather featuring head of the TV news. We are having a special meeting with the captain of the ship this evening to discuss the conditions. I think likely our itinerary is being radically curtailed.
I have a report I wrote on my laptop on our first day at sea, will try to load it for you, but not sure I can do it here. It will describe our embarkation. What a laugh.
The four of us have just had lunch in a cafe here, run by two lovely sisters, one lived and worked in Surrey for 21 years, so English language no problem. Delicious rather salty lunch. We´d like to come back.
Sir John Moore is buried here - his monument very stately and elegant in a walled garden overlooking the main harbour. He is regarded as a hero as he was fighting against the French when he was hit by a cannonball, trying to embark the remnants of the English army. I am not describing this very well, rather hasty I fear. Anyway, when his men got back to England they found he was not regarded as a hero as his troops had been in retreat. But the Spanish thought he was OK so they have set up a very nice memorial to him.
We are going to have to leave here early to avoid the next wave of this huge storm. The weather here is very cold and icy, hail, strong winds, etc.
On board, it´s all a bit like being in the glamour part of an airport...lots of plastic, and glitter. There is full programne of entertainment, ranging from the dire to the faintly amusing. It was lovely to come ashore and be in a real place...stone, fresh air, real people, dogs, children, beggars, ham shops, steps, old ladies, etc etc.
We will come back here, I think, as it is very nice. The city is proud of its Galician culture - its an extension of Wales or Ireland, very Celtic. Also, therefore, wet.
I will now try to load up my earlier bulletin...if I can do it you will be reading what we did a few days ago.
I'll be writing this on the Asus and transferring it online when I get a chance. The ship is very nice, the other passengers are very nice, the food is copious and very nice. The internet room is ferociously expensive.

At Dover we found we were in a long long queue which tailed out to the road. After waiting some while we did a recce and then decided to walk to Terminal 2. The whole thing was totally shambolic. Just one long line for everyone whether they were seeking a parking place for the duration of the cruise or dropping passengers off. The marshalls hobbited up in their thick yellow jackets had to shout to each other through the wind to communicate. The old grungy architecture added to the doom-laden hopeless atmosphere. We, pulling our suitcases along – up, down the kerbs, past railings, through gaps – were overtaking the cars, and probably jumping the queue by at least an hour. We found our cabin numbers, labelled our cases, handed them over and grateful for the warmth in the building, went up the escalator to check in. As 'new-to-cruisers' we were given red cards and allowed aboard head of the queue. We had our pix taken for security and went to the cabins where all but one of our cases waiting for us. Amazing. The one missing case was eventually tracked down inside one of the huge mountains of luggage to be found at every major landing or lift-lobby, There were dozens of Indonesian and Philippino crewguys scrambling over these monstrous piles, dragging cases away to cabins, for three or four hours after we sailed, so we were very fortunate to be able to unpack so swiftly on arrival.

Cabins fine, like a Travelodge room only smaller. Again we are fortunate to be on Deck 4, quite low down, and midships, as the weather and the forecast is pretty rough.

We are out on deck up at the top of the ship as night falls. Sheila suddenly says 'Unmoor!' and as if at her command the stevedores take Balmoral's for'ard mooring rope from the stanchion and drop it into the sea. The two tugs Doughty and Dauntless swing us round into the darkness. Unfortunately, the emergency drill drags us away from the fascination of leaving the dock and we have to go below and practice putting on our emergency kit and learn our lifeboat drill. A crazy game like bingo carries on with cabin numbers being called out, the replies being the number of people per cabin. We also learned how to jump off the ship and into the water – in theory at least.

The sea seemed calm enough with all the computer controls and stablilisers, and I made a couple of phone calls to friends before we headed out into the channel. Amanda – a sailing friend – sounded suitably impressed by the forecasts. She and Julian have a full weather station in their kitchen so she could see the vast storm which is waiting for us out west.

The crew are all oriental, the bridge being staffed by Norwegians. The passengers seem to be all English, and I have seen only two babies on board. It's like going back to the 1950s – everyone is so nice. No rudeness, no vandalism, nothing nasty. I can see why it's so popular. The interior design of the public spaces is very good – part Deco, part sparkly, and all very clean and soothing. For me the excitement comes from the weather... the captain has just announced (Sunday midday) that we have Gale Force 8 winds, 8 metre waves, the sea is 10 degrees, we have squalls, our speed is limited to 12 knots to avoid damage to the hull and to avoid slamming into these huge rollers. We are presently about 45 nautical miles south of Plymouth having made such slow time from Dover over night. We will not get to Tangiers at this rate and will be a day late reaching our first port – la Coruna.
Our meal in the main dining room was very luxuriously served but we four, being foodies and in what Kentucky Debbie calls the boomer generation, are picky and c ritical. We had between us salmon, soup, and salad as our starters, and piri piri prawns, falafels, steak and calves' liver for mains. All a bit canteeny. Asking for a piece of fresh fruit for dessert threw them – they could only muster a bowl of chopped banana, apple, orange and grapes. Fair enough.

(Note to self: What do you expect for forty-five quid a day?)

Today we tried the Watercolour class and watched a Welshman create a beach scene while answering lots of questions from a keen amateur audience at the same time. 'I was doing a lovely scene at Southend, the sky was black, then orange, then black again and there was a red flame from the oil depot. How should I have done it? '

The Introduction to Yoga class up on Deck 10 turned out not to be a class but a sales pitch. About ten middle aged people turned up, wearing baggy trousers and trainers – all ready for a good stretch. But a charming slender young Indian doctor and physiotherapist asked us all to sit on the floor while he explained what would be covered over the five days. It would cost #100, and include a free consultation. It's hard enough to stand on one leg on the ground, but up there at the top of a tall ship in a gale, it's all very rocky. While we listened to him a very fit young woman started doing exercises with a strap, stretching her leg out while lying on a mat. The gleaming row of exercise bikes and rowing machines was empty. The waves were crashing over the bow below us, and spray and rain drenching the gym windows. A disappointed group of us slunk away to think about whether we'd go for it. It starts at 8am tomorrow – important we do our yoga on an empty stomach, or we will belch, that is what we were told.

Monday, 19 January 2009

Storms and safe landing

Not sure if I can load up the text I have stored on a flashstick. Seems not.
We have arrived in la Coruna 24 hours late due to horrendous storms - waves 40´high, winds of Gale Force 9 and 10, very little sleep. People falling over. Very very rough seas.
Our cabin is about 30´above the waterline but we have had huge waves drenching the window.
A bit scary sometime but cool Norwegian captain says the ship can take it.
Lots of waiters etc v polite.
Passengers very NICE.
Whole thing is like the 1950s - no trouble.
Will add more tomorrow.
Just wandering round city centre now in lightning storm and hailstones. Lovely architecture, galleried balconies.
Having an exciting time.
Will not reach Tangiers due to slow progress and more storms tomorrow. More tomorrow.

Saturday, 17 January 2009


I am of course a technical whizz, apart from a few instances. I set up my email this morning to send out auto-responses if anyone contacted me, but it has been sending my 'away from my desk' message to everyone who ever sent me an email in the past. This is embarrassing and time-consuming. If you get one of these messages, please just laugh.

The weather has also been playing tricks - rainbows, sunshine, squalls, heavy downpours. This is merry enough to observe from the comfort of home, but may not be so attractive when we are boarding a ship. Heigh ho.

I feel I should also say I have a kind of inner sadness about all this, going off for a jolly holiday when the news from Gaza is so awful. While I was dressing I heard a doctor talking about the kinds of injuries he had lately been dealing with in one of the hospitals there. This is an intense conjunction of something I have been thinking about for a long time. Years ago I wrote a short story about how tourists would go to various destinations for sun, sand, sea, sex, etc etc, quite ignorant of how they were in fact constrained by borders and barbed-wire keeping them from the warzones nearby. In many places in the world now, this association is horribly true. The hot sun and sand seem to attract both activities. Actually all landscapes can suffer this monstrous co-existence. This morning in my bedroom I had both sets of facts in front of me: my suitcase full of holiday gear and the radio describing the intimate details of children blown to bits. All these things are connected. It was not a mistake when I called our ship the Amoral, in my last post.

However, I cannot by myself alter anything, even though I can describe how I feel about it. I can also describe the problem I now have of trying to fit too much stuff into my suitcase. I need those shoes, I do. And that sweater... And....

So we are leaving the house in the care of our good friends Nick and Paddy who are ex-SAS. They are going to have some R&R after a bereavement.

Gale force winds

Despite being less than 24 hours old, this blog already has a small following. There's even a comment on the first despatch - in French! Wow.

I had an email from Debbie in Kentucky who used to work at Dover Harbour Board. She said "Do say how you rate the services at the Cruise Terminal." I shall, Debbie.

There is an amazing account online somewhere, reviewing this operation. Just before Christmas, on a cruise to Festive Markets in the Baltic, our very ship was delayed coming in to dock by storms. The crowd waiting to embark on the next junket was told at short notice they would have to find somewhere to sleep as they'd now be sailing the next day. Not easy, to find 1000 hotel beds in Dover. Some did OK, went to Folkestone. Some must have driven home. But some elderly types who no doubt remember Churchill decided to bed down at the terminal. There were 16 or 17 of them and the terminal staff eventually agreed to open up a different building for them where a security guard could be posted. However, I think it was not heated but nonetheless they stayed there, sleeping on the floor and those waiting-chairs, all night. So you see - going on a cruise can lead to all sorts of unexpected and wild adventures, even before you've left England. You have to be intrepid. And that includes navigating the social attitude to the whole idea.

My sister-in-law Gillie rang last night to say goodbye and to check on a few details.

"Wild sea-horses" she said "could not persuade me to go on a cruise." Actually, she said it twice, correcting me because I quoted it back to her without saying 'sea'.

And at my reading group last night (discussing 'Timbuktu' by Paul Auster), some of the gang will be going skiing and I thought they looked at me with a kind of pity - either because they know something I don't, or they wonder why I'm going at all. I see now I should have quizzed them about all this. Anthea was warm about it; she is booked to go on a musical cruise later this year on the same ship. Lizzie, who is not after all coming with us because her passport application got horribly tangled up, was too distressed to talk about it. She kept throwing back her head and breathing in a long, deep, mournful, aggrieved inward-dashing sigh.

I lay in bed last night listening to the shipping forecast. I suppose all over the world there are people who lie listening to that lilting litany of shipping areas for no good reason, imagining the great winds circling and swinging in direction over the waters, where the mountainous surfaces of the deep are shouldered into huge unrelenting deathtraps waiting for the fisherfolk or cargo carriers. And thinking of the Inshore Coastal Waters, where there may be people in small boats, just within sight of the land, but still worrying about the reliability of the horizon. My favourite account of the conditions is 'smoke'. Of course my purpose last night was more urgent. I wanted advance notice of the weather for our route - because I shall be in it. Despite the fact that the airs have been light for days, barely touching the cheek, I have to tell you there is a great storm coming across the Atlantic. I kid you not, it is going to hit Gale Force 8 and 9 all over the place and even Storm Force 10 in a couple of areas. If this wind were experienced onland, trees would be uprooted. And we are steaming right into it.

Outside as I write this in the early morning light, I can hear seagulls, no doubt driven inland by the dreadful conditions at sea. I can see small bits of fine rain falling, perhaps the outer edges of a hurricane. The sky is low, grey, rushing past... well, not really, but it is shifting along. Gulp.

I have to bathe and start to pack now. I have a list of chores and errands to do before we go, but can check off one of them: which is to write this episode. Next time you hear from me, it should be from on board the Amoral, sorry I mean the Balmoral. Built in 1988, 34,242 tons, former names Norwegian Crown and Crown Odyssey. Norwegian officers, 400 crew.

Debbie who used to work for the Harbour Board also said this: "I went on two Caribbean cruises courtesy of my folks, with Holland America. Loved it! Like theatre, you get more out of it if you suspend disbelief for the duration. Do take formal dress - you'll feel out of place at the Captain's Dinner elsewise. And it's a chance to get some wear out of that sequined jacket.... As for the other costume suggestions, it seemed to me that we boomers (is that too American?) were the ones who felt awkward about it. Those older and younger just had a good time".

So I shall do what she says and pack a party dress and stop being awkward. I will also pack some crystallised ginger as that apparently assuages sea-sickness. The sequinned jacket went to the charity shop last week.

By the way, my emails are proving impossible to access via the web, so please don't send me any messages.

Friday, 16 January 2009


Never thought we'd go on a cruise. But it's so cheap. Maybe too cheap? The papers had a story last week about yobs booking up and creating havoc. Their ringleaders were put in the brig and then dropped ashore to go to jail. A friend who also knows about these things says that the captains on the Channel ferries deal with drunks aboard by switching off the stabilisers, so everyone sits down. I am not looking forward to the Bay of Biscay in any case, but without stabilisers it might be very sicky.
We are heading off from Dover, down to La Coruna (Corunna), then Tangiers, Lisbon, Bilbao, La Rochelle and back home, all in ten days. Cost - £45 a day for an outside cabin and full board. Almost cheaper than staying at home.
We rang to see if there was any reduction in quality or service and they said not. Some people have paid the full price - as much as £2,600. This seems almost unbelievable but in these mad days, anything is possible.
It all seems very easy, though I am leery about the instructions for dress: formal nights, smart-casual nights, a red-white-and-blue night, and a country and western night. I tend to dislike being told what to wear in any case and especially on holidays. I feel a kind of low-grade snobbery in myself... is it all going to be - aaagh! - too lower class?
And Andrew (my dh) does not take kindly to C&W, though he likes barn dances, so maybe we'll get a bop after all.
My sister Sheila and her husband Chris are coming along too, though they have had flu and been really ill these last few days. I hope they are fully recovered.
When I told her about the dress instructions etc she said "This is going to be like a HOLIDAY CAMP!" (Clearly I am not alone in my anxieties).
And when I sent her a link to a site giving satellite views of the weather over the Atlantic and our route, she emailed back to say "Gales, seasickness!"
So - one way or another we seem to have various anxieties. When friends say 'I know someone who always goes on that boat, you'll love it!' I think - "Huh! how do they know what I like?" And when other friend say "It'll be full of geriatrics!" I find myself puffing up to defend the whole idea.
I told Chris we had a note to say the Sauna/Steamroom would be out of action for our voyage. He said "I didn't even know they had a Sauna and Steamroom but now I know it's out of action I'm really pissed off about it!"
Ah well, it's an adventure. Out on the briny. Lashing storms, distant ports, chasing the sun, no cooking or washing up, choice of early or late sittings for all those meals, warnings about norovirus, all this is to come. I have no idea what to pack to wear. Will it be hot? Sunny? Cold? Wet? Who knows. What a laugh. I'm not sure about the communications set up, or how expensive it is to get online, but I hope it's possible to keep you up to date with our travels in this blog, so keep checking!