The Jewel in the Formula 1 Crown

We woke up early this morning to a whiff of excitement in the air – we were anchored off Monte Carlo and today we were going to the Formula 1 Grand Prix! 🙂

All F1 races are full of money, glitz and glamour but the Monaco Grand Prix is known as the ‘jewel in the crown’.  Monaco is world famous for two things – motor racing and its casinos.  It is full of millionaires, flash cars and even flashier yachts.

We have been to several Formula 1 Grands Prix before, namely: Canada, USA, Spain, Belgium, Austria, Hungary, Australia and we had also been to see the practice session in Monte Carlo before, when visiting Villefranche on a cruise in 1995.

But today was the real deal and the weather already promised to be hot and sunny, with a tantalising sea breeze.

We got the liberty boat across to the shore fairly early; there is always a lot to do on race day even before the actual F1 race starts.  For example there are other, lower-formula races as well as the F1 practice sessions and the drivers’ parade.  There are also lots of stalls to look around selling merchandise, food and liquid refreshments.  🙂

Then, of course, there are the millionaires’ yachts.  You could easily spend a whole day looking at them and dreaming…  The yachts were absolutely amazing; huge, sleek white things with their names painted on them, their own private gang-planks and their own inflatable tenders.  Some of the names were Lionheart, One More Toy, Caipirinha and one for me called Deb’s Delight.  (I wish).  The yachts were huge; much bigger than our house at home!  We could see the rich and famous guests drinking champagne on board some of them.   In fact, we saw Eddie Jordan embarking on Lionheart.

It was certainly a world away from our little working-class lives.

The sun was blazing in a cloudless Mediterranean sky so we enjoyed a couple of cans of ice-cold beer each.  We had brought a big Union flag to wave and we had a brief chat with some Brazilians who had brought their flag.  They high-fived Trevor because he was wearing his Ayrton Senna t-shirt.  🙂  One of the things we love about the F1 Grands Prix is that there are about 100,000 people there, from lots of different nationalities, yet there is never any trouble.  The atmosphere among the fans is always great.

We took our seats at the “swimming pool” grandstand and inserted our ear plugs prior to the start of the parade lap.  People who have never been to an F1 grand prix can have absolutely no idea of the volume of sound once those cars start – it really is deafening and hurts your ears after one or two laps.  Ear defenders or plugs really are a must.  🙂

Even those who claim they are not really motor racing fans cannot help but get caught up in the excitement; it’s infectious.  From the tremendous noise and the smell of tyres and oil and petrol in the air, to the excited tones of the commentator coming over the loudspeaker and the cheers and shouts of the crowd, it really is a great day out.  Add in the odd crash and the appearance of the safety car for a bit more excitement.

The race was won by Sebastian Vettel, followed by Fernando Alonso and third place on the podium was our own Jensen Button.

Back on board the Journey we showered and changed for dinner and had our meal accompanied by the free house wine.  🙂  We then went along to the show lounge where they were a classical pianist was performing; I was looking forward to it as I love classical piano music.  It was a pity, however, that there was only about a dozen people scattered around the show lounge; the Journey was not due to leave Monte Carlo until 1.00am, so it looked as though the majority of people had gone or remained ashore rather than come back on board.

Tonight was our last night on board the Azamara Journey, we would be due back in Nice tomorrow for our flight home.

Plebs in St. Tropez :-)

This morning we woke up early to find the Journey at anchor at the millionaires’ playground, St. Tropez, or Saint-Trop as the French nickname it.  As usual, the weather was warm and sunny.  We had not been to St-Trop before so we were looking forward to exploring this gorgeous piece of coastline.

Once we’d disembarked the liberty boat, we took our time exploring a local market.  I liked the produce stalls the best; the French really are exceptional with their locally-grown vegetables such as onions, garlic, tomatoes and many different fragrant herbs.  There were also stalls with mouth-watering looking cured meats and sausages.  The smell coming off them was very appetising.

We also browsed craft stalls as well as stalls selling the usual holiday ‘tat’, like t-shirts and baseball caps.

After wandering around the market a bit we decided to get some postcards and sit with a cold beer (!) and write them out.  We bought the cards and the stamps and walked along the sea-front looking for a suitable watering hole.  There is only one main road in and out of St. Tropez so there was quite a lot of traffic, and every other car seemed to be a flash, expensive one.  We saw Ferraris, Porsches, Maseratis, Lambourghinis and a Rolls Royce.  Everyone around us seemed to be dressed in designer clothes and shoes and dripping with jewellery.

There were many charming pavement cafés and restaurants, all doing a roaring trade, so we found one with a sea view and ordered a cold beer each, at five Euros (nearly a fiver!) a glass.  We sat down with our beers, people-watched, and wrote out our postcards.  When we’d nearly finished our beers, the waiter came over and, instead of asking us if we’d like another one or there was anything else he could get for us, he presented us with the bill!

His meaning was abundantly clear – please leave, plebs, you are not spending enough!  No problem mate, we know when we’re not wanted.  🙂

After leaving the café a little bit piqued, we walked along the sea-front and our attention was caught by a French gendarme stopping the traffic occasionally and strutting up and down, full of his own importance.  However, as we watched him more closely it seemed evident all was not as it should have been – he was shadowing passers-by, copying their movements, touching their hair then moving away when they turned around, and generally acting the fool, much to the amusement of people passing by.  He also blew on his whistle which actually did have the result of stopping the traffic, before he blasted to “get set, go” as if starting a race.  It really was quite funny and obviously a farce, put on as a tourist attraction.  I later discovered there had been a comedy farce film called Le Gendarme de St Tropez so obviously this is what he was taking off.  🙂

After walking along the beach I got the unmistakeable smell of fresh fish, so I was instantly hungry.  We decided to go in search of a restaurant to get some lunch.  I already knew what I was going to have; moules marinières.  Yum yum.

We found a nice little café tucked away, ordered another beer each and I enjoyed my fresh mussels with crusty bread, while Trevor had some lasagne and chips (!)  I absolutely cannot resist a good dish of moules marinières; in fact I’m a dab hand at making my own.  The recipe is as follows:

INGREDIENTS (serves 1):
1kg of live mussels, well scrubbed and rinsed in cold water.  The mussels should be live; discard any that do not close when sharply tapped.
1 shallot or small white onion
1 clove garlic, crushed
125ml of dry white wine (Muscadet is ideal)
Pinch of chopped fresh coriander
Sea salt and fresh black pepper
Dollop of soured cream

Finely chop the shallot or onion and add, with the crushed garlic, to a pan in which you’ve heated 1sp of olive oil.  Cook the onion until soft, then add the coriander, white wine, salt and pepper.  Allow the liquid to come to the boil, then add in the mussels.  Put the lid on the pan tightly and allow the mussels to cook in the liquid and their own steam – you only need to cook them long enough for them to open.  Discard any mussels that don’t open.  Add the sour cream and mix well.   Serve with fresh crusty bread and a very cold glass of dry white wine!  Delicious.

After lunch we decided to go back to the ship for a spot of sunbathing or just relaxing, as it was such a hot day.

Back on board we spent a relaxing couple of hours up on deck before getting ready for dinner.  Tonight they were putting on a barbecue and deck party under the stars, as well as showing the Manchester United v Barcelona match for the many British people on board.

The food was spectacularly arranged, the centrepiece being a huge ice sculpture in the shape of a seahorse.  There was sizzling steak, pork, sausages, as well as a magnificent array of seafood, cold meats, vegetables and salads.  We were really spoilt for choice.

We loaded our plates then managed to get a seat in the prime position for viewing the footie on a TV screen they had erected on the deck especially.  Waiters came often to fill our wine glasses with the free house white, and at the other end of the deck a live band played.  The clear skies deepened to an indigo blue, then black as the stars came out and shone brilliantly.  It was a lovely night.

At around 11.00pm the Journey weighed anchor and sailed off into the night.  Tomorrow we were due to arrive in Monte Carlo, Monaco.

Perfect Portofino

We woke up early this morning to find ourselves at anchor off the picturesque fishing village of Portofino, Italy.  We had been here once before 10 years ago, on the Marco Polo, so it was nice to be visiting again.

After breakfast, we took the liberty boat for the 10 minute ride across.  All the waters around the French and Italian Rivieras are pretty shallow, so the larger ships have to anchor.

Portofino has a little harbour tucked away in a small bay, so there were many large and small boats moored up, and the waterfront was dotted with small boutique shops selling stylish clothing and shoes.  The prices were not very much in evidence, but in a place like Portofino, if you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.

Overlooking the harbour from high above is Castello Brown, an interesting looking castle which also houses a museum.  As the weather was pleasantly warm, but overcast, we decided we would take a leisurely climb up the narrow winding hillside paths up to the castle, in search of some fantastic photo points from which to capture the picturesque little port.

The path was not too steep, thanks to the zigzag design which wended its way up the hill.  We passed several private homes on the way, perched on the side of the hill overlooking the harbour, and we wondered how on earth they got their furniture up there; there certainly wasn’t any access to vehicles.  The paths were leafy and we could smell the evocative scents of herbs such as sage and basil.  Sometimes grapevines would twist and twine in trellises overhead.  It certainly was a pleasant walk, despite the fact that all the free booze we’d had yesterday (at the airport lounge, on the plane and on board) was taking its toll.  🙂

When we arrived at the top we had a superb, unimpeded view of the harbour.  We sat for a while on a rustic bench and enjoyed the view and the scented air.  We then walked a little further along to the lighthouse before taking a gentle stroll back down again.

Once at the bottom, we browsed among the little shops and cafés and bought ourselves some delicious home-made ice cream. Well, we were in Italy after all!  🙂  Then we decided to take the boat back to the Azamara Journey in time for lunch.

Once again we decided to eat at the poolside grill.  I had a delicious home-made burger with lots of fresh salad and a free glass of house wine. 🙂  Later we just spent the rest of the afternoon pottering around the ship before having a pre-dinner nap, then getting ready for dinner.  Sometimes on a cruise you can feel as if the whole holiday consists of eating! 🙂

The evening entertainment was actually very good; better than last night’s!  It featured the Cruise Director, Canadian Eric de Gray.  Despite his highlighted permed hair and orange tan, he was actually a very talented singer.  He did lots of numbers from West End musicals, and did a cracking Phantom of the Opera.

Then it was off to the Mosaic Café for a nightcap.  They had a bloke on the piano singing Elton John songs who was slightly annoying, so we only had the one drink and then off to bed.

Nice in Nice

It’s holiday time again folks – this time a four-day mini-cruise around the French and Italian Riviera, ultimately finishing up at Monaco for the Formula 1 Grand Prix. 🙂

We set off at 4.00am to drive to Newcastle Airport for our flight down to Heathrow, then subsequently to Nice on the Côte d’Azur, the “millionaires’ playground”. Two days ago (and early yesterday morning) Newcastle Airport was closed due to the large ash cloud caused by an erupting volcano in Iceland! So we didn’t know whether we would have to drive down to London, get the train down, fly down or whether we’d even get there at all!

That’s one of the things you have to consider when booking a cruise; unlike a hotel, which will still be there if you arrive late, a ship won’t be! If you missed the sail-away you would have to get to the next port of call and join the ship there. But a bit of a problem if you’re doing a transatlantic! 😦

However, as from yesterday afternoon all the flights seemed to be more or less back to normal going in and out of NCL. Therefore we decided just to take our chance and go for the flight BA1321, departing 06:55.

We checked in and made our way to the executive lounge to await our call to board. It was 05:10 and there was a small queue outside the double doors leading into the Cheviot Lounge, as it doesn’t open until 5.15am. We didn’t know that as we had never been there that early before!

We got ourselves settled and had a couple of large vodkas to liven up our breakfast orange juice. The early morning sun was streaming through the large plate glass windows; the VIP lounge at Newcastle is very pleasant and airy and we had a good hour or so to while away in there.

Our flight was on time, so off we went for the one-hour flight to Heathrow. We arrived and walked through security, customs etc. at LHR without any problems at all to await our connecting flight to Nice. We even had time to have another drink in the “Crown Rivers”, the Wetherspoon’s pub in Terminal 5. 🙂

Once we were on the aircraft and airborne, we could relax and look forward to getting there. I could not get the Stranglers’ Nice in Nice song out of my head. 🙂  Just look at that girl, she owns the ground that she walks on, and she’ll walk all over you…”

We touched down in Nice airport around 12.15pm to blue skies and the Mediterranean sea sparkling in the distance.  We were already in the holiday mood and couldn’t wait to join our ship, the Azamara Journey.

It was just a 20-minute coach ride along the spectacular Côte d’Azur coastline to the embarkation quay, where we could see the Journey moored up and waiting for us.  Once we’d been issued with our boarding cards we embarked the ship and received a chilled glass of pink champagne, before making our way to stateroom 4047 which was on the same deck.

Whilst not a balcony stateroom this time, 4047 was nonetheless spacious and airy, with a nice big window and king-size bed.  There were lots of mirrors so this served to make the room a lot bigger than it was.  There was a bowl of fresh fruit, a fridge with complimentary soft drinks, and a mini-bar.  It all looked lovely and the room was beautifully furnished and decorated.  There was also a selection of Elemis toiletries in the bathroom; full sized ones as well, not just the mini sample-sized ones.

Azamara Club Cruises offers cruising to the “upper end” of the cruise market, and our first impressions of the Journey certainly agreed with that.  A small ship at just over 30,000 tons, she holds only 694 passengers so the cubic metres per passenger are fairly generous.

As ever, we did what we always do when we first join a ship and went in search of a cold beer, so we could sit up on deck in the sunshine and enjoy it.  We went to the pool deck where they had a salad bar and a burger/hotdog stand, and got something to eat and a big glass of cold Heineken.  Afterwards we sat at the edge of the pool; the sunshine was very hot.  A combination of the beer and the heat was very soporific, and as we’d been up since 3.00am BST we decided to go back to our cabin and have a nap before lifeboat drill at 4.30pm.

Once lifeboat drill was over, we returned to 4047 to find our single suitcase had arrived.  As this was only a four-day cruise we only needed the one case between us, instead of the two large cases we usually bring for a fortnight or more.  It therefore didn’t take us long to hang up our clothes and get washed and changed in time to watch the sail-away.

Another thing that was different about this cruise was that there was no set dining time, or set table.  Usually we like to dine fairly early, between 6.00 and 6.30pm, so that our dinner has time to go down a bit before bed time.  But on the Azamara Journey it was “freedom dining” so you basically just went into the dining room whenever you liked.  We were therefore able to watch the Journey glide away from the quayside and into the shimmering blue waters of the Mediterranean.  Then it was off to the Discoveries dining room at 7.00pm for our dinner.

We were soon to discover that the house red and white wine is free with lunch and dinner on the Journey!  This was good news as we usually buy a bottle of wine between us to consume with our dinner.  There was a great choice of food on the menu; lots of appetisers, salads, soups, main courses and desserts.  It was difficult to know what to have, and it was all plentiful and tasty.

After dinner it was strange to be going along to the show lounge for the Captain’s “cocktail party” at 9.30pm.  When we arrived, we were handed a glass of ‘champagne’ and took our seats; the captain was already half-way through his speech, introducing his officers.  It was a far cry from the very formal pre-dinner cocktails, canapés and dancing that they have on Cunard ships.  A bit of a damp squib, really.

Then the cabaret act started for the evening – an impressionist.  Oh dear; he was dire.  Half the time you couldn’t tell who he was supposed to be impersonating and he’d probably be buzzed off if he was on Britain’s Got Talent.  😦

Afterwards it was off to bed in 4047 on our first night aboard the Azamara Journey.