Queen Elizabeth 2 Transatlantic, August 15-26, 2002
Doug - 40, Eric - 54
Previous cruises total approximately 16 on several different line/ships including Dolphin Cruise Lines/Premier Cruise Lines Seabreeze I, NCL Norwegian Dynasty, Carnival Tropical, Holland America Noordam & Maasdam.
I've always liked the idea of a transatlantic crossing and what better way to do it than the on the most famous ship in the world? She was purpose-built for this type of ocean travel and had been doing it for 30+ years. She's large, beautiful and has a loyal following. In addition, with the Queen Mary 2 coming into service soon, the QE2 will stop regular transatlantic crossings and cruise primarily in Europe (QM2 will take over the transatlantic crossings).
Our previous cruises had primarily been on full-ship charters with RSVP. This is a gay travel company that books the entire ship. While we've enjoyed each RSVP cruise, we were finding that the few offerings they had each year prevented us seeing parts of the world that they would probably never offer or offer infrequently. I've been on a couple of 'regular' cruises and while fine, they lacked the overall camaraderie that having a group with similar backgrounds/lifestyles provides. So, we decided to try a group cruise with a different company. Pied Piper is a New York travel agency that offers group bookings on many cruise lines all year long. They, like any other travel agency can, book a group on a cruise and because of the number of bookings, get a special discount usually not offered to the general public. In addition, so long as they book a minimum number of staterooms, they provide a host who guides the group during the cruise - kind of like a private cruise director! The host hosts a welcome aboard and mid-cruise cocktail party, can offer advice and suggestions about the ship and ports, can arrange group shore excursions and help with any problems you have with the ship or staff. You also have assigned tables in the dining room(s) for the group so you can eat together. You don't have to do anything with the group if you don't want to.
This scenario seemed to fit what we were looking for so after speaking to some friends who had previously taken a cruise with Pied Piper, we decided to book this cruise with them.
Yellow Bird Travel Company
*** Shameless Plug Alert ****
My wonderful travel agent, Linda Boerner at Yellow Bird Travel Company booked this trip for us. We've known Linda and used her services for many years. If you want a trustworthy, hardworking travel agent, try Linda!
*** End Of Shameless Plug Alert ***
Departed Tampa for London @ 17:45 via British Airways
Arrived London Gatwick, transferred to hotel
Depart London to Southampton via VSOE to board QE2
Wednesday, 8/21/2002 - Sunday, 8/25/2002
Arrive NY and fly home
After much planning and packing, we took a cab to Tampa International for our 5:45pm flight on British Airways to London Gatwick. Tampa has direct service to London which is great. This flight was a deviation we requested since Cunard would have flown us out on Monday, 8/19/2002 instead. The first deviation is provided free of charge (plus any expenses the deviation would cause) and each deviation there after is $75 per person (plus expenses). Since we were just flying out early to have time in London, the deviation cost nothing to us.
I love to plan for trips and think being a travel agent would be great fun if I could make a living at it! However, the next best thing is doing the planning yourself then telling your TA what you want! Like most everything else in life, the more you know, the better the decision you can make. Having said that, we had our new passports, some pounds sterling, tube cards and Gatwick Express tickets in hands as we arrived at the airport!
The flight left a few minutes late and was the most uncomfortable flight I've ever been on! We were on a 777 with a 2-5-2 configuration and we were in 2 of 5 center seats. The seats were so cramped and small that you had to hold you elbows tightly at your sides when you ate and you couldn't lean forward more a couple inches to get the fork to your mouth without hitting your head on the seat in front of you. In addition, the food was less than wonderful and the plane was about 60 degrees! We looked at booking business or first class but could not justify the cost. Now, lest you think I'm a major whiner, this was the only negative part of the whole trip!
The flight arrived a little early, around 8:00 am Friday (if the flight lands, even late, you have to love it!). We went through customs without any problem other than the group of tourists from Nigeria that held up the lines for about 30 minutes - but hey, we were there! Since we had our Gatwick Express tickets already, we headed to the trains. A helpful hint when traveling anywhere, have luggage with wheels! The Gatwick Express leaves from the airport (thus the name!) and goes directly to Victoria station (thus the 'Express' part!). The trip takes about 30 minutes.
We boarded the train just before it left the station, stowed our luggage and sat down. The weather was about 80 ° degrees and gloriously sunny! To the Brits, this was a heat wave - to us, it was normal! It's always nice when the weather is great where you are going on vacation.
After arriving at Victoria station, we needed to find the Rail Europe office to exchange our Travel Card voucher for an actual tube card. The Travel Card is a voucher good unlimited travel on the tube, city buses and some trains in London for a given time. We chose the 4 day, all zone card. You have to purchase these before you leave your home country then trade in the voucher for the actual card once you arrive in London. Victoria station has an office where you can do this.
Victoria station is very large and very busy. We needed to find track #8 (we arrived on track #2 (I think) as the Rail Europe was 'adjacent to' it. Walking across the bustling station, we found track #8 but not the RE office. I stood to the side while Eric scouted out where the office was. It was actually behind a kiosk so we couldn't see it. We exchanged our vouchers and headed for the taxi stand. We were transported to our hotel in one of the black cabs you see allover London - very roomy! The cab fare was £8 total ( £6 for the fare, an £2 for the tip). The drive was uneventful and had great view of the city, even if we didn't have a clue as to where we were!
We arrived at our hotel, the London Marriott Grosvenor Square in the Mayfair district. The hotel borders part of a park called Grosvenor Square (pronounced 'grove-ner') along with the American and Canadian Embassies. It's very quiet, close to Oxford Street and the Bond Street tube station and within walking distance of numerous restaurants - who could want more? When we checked in, our room was ready for us - very unusual as the check-in time at 3:00 pm. (Helpful hint: when traveling to Europe, plan on not getting into your hotel when you arrive and either have the clothes on you plan to wear that day or have a change of clothes in your carry on. Also have a toothbrush ready and whatever you want to take with you during your first day. You can check your luggage with the hotel until check-in time). We went to the room, took a shower, brushed our teeth and changed back into the clothes we were wearing (see tip above), then left to go sightseeing!
Prior to leaving the US, I had done lots of research and decided I wanted to go on the London Eye (London Eye web site). This is a giant Ferris wheel built by British Airways for the millennium celebrations. It is right over the Thames river near Westminster. This was our first stop. I had booked the tickets the online before leaving and our assigned 'flight' time was 12:00 pm. We checked with the doorman as to the easiest way to get there and off went.
The Bond Street station is about 2 blocks up and one block over from the hotel. We scouted out restaurants, ATM machines, stores, etc on the way. The tube is actually very easy to navigate once you understand how to read the signs and where to look for them. The stations are usually very clean and we loved traveling this way. With our tube cards in hand, we found the train we needed and waited for it (Jubilee line). It arrived within a few minutes and off we went to Westminster station. Upon arrival, the signage is very good and if there are major points of interest around, they usually have signs as you leave the station and go up to street level that direct you. We had to cross a bridge to the other side of the river to get to the London Eye. Once there we found the ticket office to pick up our tickets. This place was busy. When you order your tickets, you enter a credit card. You MUST use this card when you pickup the tickets at the machine. You simply slide in your card and your tickets pop out. If you try to use another card, you won't get your tickets and you'll have to stand in line with everyone else to speak to an agent. We then went to 'queue up' for our flight. The queue snaked away from the Eye for about 2 blocks! They want you to arrive about 30 minutes prior to your flight and it takes exactly 30 minutes to for the line to move so you board the cars when your flight said - very good! The people in line were complaining about the heat like it was 104! We were in long pants and long-sleeved shirts and felt comfortable.
The Eye constantly rotates and takes 30 minutes to do one revolution or flight. The cars pass by the boarding area and you simply walk on as they go by - very cool. Each car holds between 20 and 30 people and is air conditioned. The whole thing is glass so you have excellent views. The center of the car has an area where you can sit down and railings all around with North, South East, and West above the windows to indicate the direction you are looking. You can rent audio guides that point out areas of the city you'll see and maps showing the same information. We decided not to do this and just looked and took pictures. As your capsule comes down and you are about to exit, they take an automatic picture you can buy also (we didn't). This was a great experience and would highly recommend it (especially if the weather is great).
After leaving the Eye, we walked along the Thames, crossed a bridge to Charing Cross station, passed Heaven (large, famous gay bar) and wandered around. It was time for lunch. We found a restaurant (Garfields) and finally got to sit down for awhile. The food (fish & chips for me) was less than stellar but I had to try it. We left there and wandered around, walked past 10 Downing Street, went through Westminster Abbey then took the Westminster tube back to hotel for a well deserved 3 hour nap! We dressed and walked up the block to a restaurant called Shisha which served Lebanese food like Shish kabob. Very good and authentic - hookah pipes everywhere! We then headed back to the hotel for the night - more sightseeing tomorrow! (I didn't know at the time but Eric was not feeling very well so we took a more relaxed approach to sightseeing and didn't try to see everything I had on my list. I'm a control freak and try to plan too many things to see and do - it would work wonderfully if everyone else just stayed on my schedule!)
Today we were going to Hampton Court Palace - weather was beautiful. We got up, dressed and walked up the street to a restaurant called Ponti's which was basically Italian but served breakfast, lunch and dinner. I have a problem pay lots of money for hotel breakfasts and lunches and would rather spend my money on other things. I love eating out and will spend vast amounts of money on good food but not for breakfast - I can't eat that much! They served all kinds of things from sandwiches, full English (eggs, toast, baked beans, bacon) and American breakfasts and otherwise. Food was good and prices were good too. We ate there each morning. After breakfast, we went to the Bond street station and took the Jubilee line to Waterloo station. We bought a train ticket for Hampton Court Palace (only a couple of pounds as I remember) and got on the train. The trip took about 40 minutes. After leaving the train, you exit the station, turn right, go over the bridge and you are at the palace. Tickets were £11 each with a discount coupon from the tube book we received with our vouchers. Make sure to pick up an audio CD guide - free. We walked all over, listened to audio guides, visited the gardens (very impressive) then had lunch at one of the cafes in the palace - food was actually very good and reasonable! About 4:30pm we had seen all we wanted and headed back to the train. On the way, we stopped at some of the shops across the street from the palace and had a beer on the river right at the foot of the bridge. We took the 5:39pm train back to Waterloo then tube back to Bond Street station. We stopped in Selfridges but the prices were too high for me. I went back to the hotel while Eric did some shopping on Oxford Street. Took a nap (detecting a theme here?) then stopped by desk on way out for restaurant suggestion near hotel. They suggested Richoux on South Audley Street, about 2 blocks from the hotel. We walked there and were seated right away. Food was French and alright (Eric's was better) but not what I was hoping for. I had veal and Eric had a duck breast. We walked back to the hotel and bed.
We slept in this morning. The weather was a little overcast with some light rain off and on. We decided to go to the Wallace Collection today. We stopped for breakfast at Ponti's then walked north for about 4 blocks to the Wallace Collection. From theirweb site: The Wallace Collection is both a national museum and the finest private collection of art ever assembled by one family. It was bequeathed to the nation by Lady Wallace, widow of Sir Richard Wallace, in 1897, and opened to the public just over three years later on 22 June 1900. Its first visitors were variously delighted, amazed and bemused. Among its treasures are one of the best collections of French 18th-century pictures, porcelain and furniture in the world, a remarkable array of 17th-century paintings and a superb armoury.
We used the audio tour guide again and it was wonderful. If you like paintings and period furniture, you'll love this place!
After a couple hours at the Wallace Collection, we left to see Leighton House off Kensington High Street. It was recommended by all gay guides for London that I found but don't quite know the attraction everyone else seems to have for it. Rather dissapointing. We stopped at a coffee shoppe for a break then found a charity shoppe (thnk Goodwill). We adopted Panchetta here (cute pink piggy - see QE2 photos). Stopped in a few stores on way back to tube station. Back to hotel for nap then dinner.
We discovered an area above Oxford Street with pedestrian 'alleys' that had many restaurants with outdoor dining. We decided Auberge was the place for us that evening. Food was OK - Eric's was better. I was expecting more from French restaurants in London as London is much closer to France than the US but the French food in the US is much better (or we were eating at the wrong places!). Walked back to the hotel then nighty-night!
Today was Buckingham Palace and the British museum - weather was again very nice. Our tickets (ordered on the internet before we left) were for entrance at 9:30 am to the palace. We left the hotel, had breakfast at Ponti's, then took the tube to the Green Park station. Walked through the park to the entrance to the palace. Stood in line about 15 minutes then passed through the tents for security and to purchase tour books (we did!). The tour was self-paced and the palace is impressive - worth the money. After exiting the palace, we tried to take a picture of the back of the palace but were told we couldn't. We shopped at the tents on the way to the exit then left. We took the tube to Tottenham Court for the British Museum. We had lunch before going to the Museum across the street at the Forum. We finally saw the real Elgin Marbles (when we were in Athens, we saw the replicas!) and the Rosetta stone. We stayed about 3 hours and could have spent the entire day and not seen everything. We went back to the hotel for, you guessed it, a nap then dinner!
Dinner tonight was at a Spanish restaurant we saw on the way to the Wallace Collection. The food was excellent - the best meal we had in London. I had a beef tenderloin in a mustard and brandy sauce that was wonderful. Good red Spanish wine - what more could you want? (I ate veal and beef both in London and on the ship quite a bit even though the mad cow scare was still on - figured who could tell if I contracted it anyway? J). On the way back to the hotel we stopped at an internet cafe and sent an e-mail to friends. We went back to hotel for the night.
Today we board the Queen Elizabeth 2! The weather was hot and hazy but somewhat sunny. Eric went out for coffee while I started packing. We decided to splurge and booked passage on the Venice-Simplon Orient Express which left from Victoria station for a leisurely 2 hour trip to Southampton. You are served champagne and a 3 course lunch with wine during the trip. The decided to take a cab to Victoria station since lugging luggage on the tube dressed in coat and tie didn't appeal to either of us! We checked out of the hotel and took a cab to Victoria Station. The Cunard documentation said to be dropped off at the Hudson Street entrance to the station as this was closest to platform #2 where the train and VSOE lounge were located. I don't know where we were dropped off but it ended up being as far from the train as possible! Yikes! After going though the wrong set of doors and setting off an alarm, someone asked where were going and directed us to where we needed to be (we were dropped off at the entrance closest to tracks 13-14). Once we saw where were were, we had walk all the along one of the tracks into the station proper then across the entire station to track #2 - wasted the tip on that cab driver! We checked in at the VSOE lounge and they immediately put our luggage on the train. We could have checked in earlier and had tea in the lounge but the documents said check-in was from 11:00 until departure. Anyway, we given our tickets and we were escorted to the Observation car. There were several cars that made up the train. We were seated at a table for 4 next to the windows (table cloths, crystal, silver!). We were served champagne while waiting for the train to leave. There is no air condition on the train and the windows were open. We were in coat and tie so it was borderline hot. However, all the other gentlemen kept their coats on so we did also. Two ladies joined us at the table, one was an oncologist from Japan who spoke broken English but we enjoyed speaking to her and the other was a woman from Ireland who spoke a lot! The group was convivial and we enjoyed the journey. Lunch started off with a seafood bisque and rolls then steamed cod with baby leeks and a crawfish sauce. Even though I don't care for fish, I ate it and it was tasty. Desert was a selection of small pastries and fruit. Wine and coffee were served with lunch. Of interest, we were traveling at a slow pace compared to the trains that ripped passed us! It was disconcerting as you had no warning that a train was coming and suddenly it was roaring past your seat (the windows were open for air). We were startled several times. In addition, our train slowed then stopped for about 30 minutes because there was a backup at the port and they didn't want a train full of people to add to the congestion. We arrived about 4:00 pm, walked off the train and into the terminal. Since we came by the train, we were directed to the Grill class line even though we were not Grill class passengers. However, the regular check-in lines moved much faster and we would have done better to check in that way. Check in took a couple of minutes, picture ID card issued then off to board the ship! We were escorted to our cabin, #4097 on 4 deck. We liked the location and layout of our cabin - we saw some other category C5 cabins others in our group had and our layout was much better. We had a port hole, with a single bed underneath, a closet at the foot of this bed, a large dresser, another single bed and hall to the door and bathroom. The hall had another closet. The bathroom was nice with good sliding doors on the shower. There was also a table, chair and ottoman in the room.
We wandered around the ship to try and get our bearings and went up on deck to where best to stand during departure. We were able to pick out some others in our group because of the Pied Piper pins they wore and because you could just tell! We ended up leaving about 30 minutes late because of a late plane. The weather in Southampton was much cooler than in London and after we start moving, it got fairly cold. We obtained sustenance (ie: cocktails!) and were up on Upper deck forward to sail away. We went back to the stateroom and unpacked then went to the Pied Piper cocktail party at 7:30 in the Crystal bar. Our host was Mark Klein. We introduced ourselves, ordered a drink and met the others in the group. One couple (straight - but that's OK too!) never showed up for any of the PP events. There were about 20 of us in the group this trip. Pied Piper arranged for tables in the different restaurants based on where you were assigned to dine. On the QE2 and QM2, the category your cabin is in decides which restaurant you dine in. We were in a C5 cabin so we dined in the Caronia restaurant. There are 4 levels of dining on the QE2 - from top to bottom is Queens Grill, Princess/Britannia Grills, Caronia and Mauritania. We originally booked in Mauritania but when a further price reduction came through via Pied Piper, we upgraded to Caronia. Mauritania has an early and late seating like many cruise ships and you are assigned to either early or late. All the other restaurants have single seating so you can show up anytime they are serving (usually between 6:30pm and 9:30pm) and dine. You still have an assigned table however. The other difference is that your first formal dinner will be on different nights. Queens Grill, Princess Grills and Caronia were on one night and Mauritania was on a different night. We dressed in tuxes 4 nights and coat and tie the first and last nights. There were 6 at our table this trip and 2 tables in the Caronia with Pied Piper guests. There was no one in Queens Grill this trip and only 2 in Princess Grill. The remainder of the group was in Mauritania. Generally speaking, the major difference is the size of the restaurant, the presentation and as you go up in category, you can order items off the menu given notice. The service is supposedly better also. Our servers were very good and quickly learned our likes/dislikes even though we moved around the table every night! The food I found to be very good but some of the dishes were odd - like the 'traditional English trifle that had a base of Jello!). Some dishes were plated in the kitchens while others were plated tableside. I ordered a beef filet which was brought out and heated up on a silver tray over a flame before placed on my plate. Vegetables were generally served tableside as well. The selection of wines were good and prices reasonable. Since we were at a table of more than 4, we ordered our own bottle each evening. On other cruises, if others were drinking wine, we'd usually buy one bottle and the other couple would by a second - works out most of the so long as your tastes are similar.
After dinner, some of the group went to the show but we wandered around on deck. While on deck a helicopter flew right up next to ship and stayed with us for several minutes before flying off again - never did figure out what that was all about but it was interesting. We all assumed it had something to do with 9/11 but we don't know what. We'd had a long day and decided to call it a night around 11:30pm. We returned to the cabin for our first nights sleep. The beds were a little small and instead of a blanket you have a duvet. This was alright but the cold air from the porthole came right down the wall in waves onto my bed!
Wednesday - Sunday, 8/14 - 8/18, 2002
I'm going to group the days at sea together since I can't find the daily papers to know specifically what we did on which days. However, on Wednesday morning, Mark told those who wanted, to meet in the lobby at 10:00 am for a tour of the ship. Mark was familiar with it as he'd been on it numerous times. We got to see the Queens Grill Lounge and restaurant (reserved for Queens Grill passengers only), the Queen Mary suite, one of the suites on Sun deck (Mark knew the chamber maids who let us in!), and all over the different rooms on the ship. While touring, we ran into Bill Miller, the noted author and ship historian who was speaking a few times during the voyage. He's a wonderful person and gives terrific talks so make sure you attend if you have the opportunity. We attended each talk he gave and I bought his book on US passenger liners which signed for me in the Library.
Our days were mostly get up, eat breakfast either in the dining room or in the Lido, listen to a guest speaker (P. D. James was on board also), meet up with the group, have lunch, shop, meet for tea in the Queens Lounge at 4:00pm each day, catch up with what everyone else did, meet back up for cocktails in the Crystal bar at 7:30 pm then off to dinner. We didn't watch but only a few minutes of one show and it was pretty bad but we don't generally like the shows on ships anyway. Each day you gained one hour as we were traveling east to west so we had 25 hour days by the ships clock.
The group was fun and it was nice to run into people you knew. We tried to lay out on the deck one day but for us Floridians, it was way too cold for us. A few hearty souls were actually swimming the 1st day out - WOW! Meeting for tea in the afternoons was nice as Mark would clue us in to what was going on and answer questions. Tea was very nice but you need to be careful - eating those fresh scones with clotted cream and strawberries are very filling.
The QE2 has it's own florist on board located on 3 deck aft. We ordered flowers for our lapels on a couple of occasions - just stop by early in the day and they are delivered to your stateroom before dinner!
The internet access from the ship is relatively cheap compared to other lines, like NCL! It costs 95 cents per minute to be online. However, they teach you how to compose your message offline, including getting the e-mail address ready. When you're ready, you go online, paste the message, paste in the addresses and send. Each message we sent cost us 95 cents. On the NCL Star in November 2003, it cost me $24.50 to send ONE message!
A transatlantic crossing may not be for everyone but we loved it. The weather overall was very calm although we ran into fog one afternoon and the ships whistle sounded every minute or so which was neat.
Mark arranged for a bridge tour for our group. We met up then headed to the elevators. There were too many in our elevator and it stopped! We used the phone to call for help and told it would be a few minutes. It started to get hot. After a few more minutes, we called again and told them we were expected on the bridge and low and behold, we were freed! They stopped giving bridge tours after 9/11 so it was rather nice that were able to do it.
The library is very extensive and is actually 2 separate rooms. One side has the books to check out as well as couches, chairs and tables to sit at while reading. Magazines, newspapers and other periodicals are also available. The other room is the store where you can buy books, maps, ship plans, gifty-type things, etc.
Today we arrive in New York. We were told that we'd be passing under the Verrazano Narrows bridge about 6:45 am so we got up and dressed to be on deck by that time. We just walked out onto the deck when we started passing under the bridge. It looked like we'd hit it for sure! We sailed passed the Statue of Liberty and where the Twin Towers used to stand. Mark provided commentary since he lives in New York City and was there when the towers fell. Once we were tied up at the pier, we went inside, had breakfast and prepared to leave. We were off the ship and waiting in line for a cab by 10:00 am. We took Jet Blue from Kennedy back to Tampa. We had time for a bite before getting on the plane. We arrived back in Tampa around 3:30 pm.
Overall, it was wonderful trip and we'd love to go again. Well done Pied Piper and Cunard!