Time to Go Home

We had to get up early this morning as we always do on disembarkation day.  The Balmoral was due to sail at 6.00pm tonight on her return journey to Southampton; quite a lot of the passengers (at least the ones that don’t have to go to work on Monday!) who had been on this voyage were also returning to Blighty by sea.  However, we were due to fly home tonight from JFK Airport at 7.30pm.

We ate our final breakfast in the Palms Café before returning to cabin 4170 and collecting our bags.  After a last look round to make sure we hadn’t forgotten anything, we vacated our cabin and went along to the reception desk to post our completed Customer Satisfaction questionnaire.  No sooner had we done this when we heard the announcement for our group to disembark.  We had received notification that we would be taken by coach to the Milford Plaza Hotel in the city centre until our transfer to the airport at 3.00pm.

We disembarked the Balmoral and joined the growing throng of people milling around on the pavement near the bus stands at the pier.  We were able to get a last couple of photos of the Balmoral moored up, but it was utter chaos as a Carnival ship had come in overnight and her passengers were also disembarking.

We had to wait a full hour and a half before there was any sign of our bus.  We fought our way through the crowds of people, luggage and wheelchairs, loaded our cases into the bus and finally boarded the vehicle, a bit disgruntled at just being kicked off the ship so early.  Ah well, at least we’d have the relative comfort of a hotel, hopefully with snacks and tea and coffee, until it was time to go to the airport.

The bus battled its way through the Friday morning New York traffic and eventually pulled up outside the Milford Plaza, a fairly average looking hotel in the Hell’s Kitchen district of the city.  Our suitcases would remain on the bus, and indeed we could leave our other bags on, but I didn’t fancy leaving my carry-on bag unattended so I took it with me.

When we went into the hotel, we asked where the Balmoral passengers had to go.  The concierge (English was not his native language) looked totally blank.  We rephrased the question, speaking slowly “Can you tell us which room the Balmoral passengers are in please?”  He still looked blank, and asked us whether we had a reservation.  “No, no” we said, “We’ve been sent here to await our airport transfer at 3.00pm.  Can you tell us where we have to go?”

To cut a long story short, it turns out the hotel staff had no knowledge at all of us; they were not expecting us.  Incredulous, we realised that the hotel was literally just a drop off and pick up point; we’d effectively just been dumped in  New York!  Maybe the organisers thought they were doing us a favour, giving us another four hours to look around New York city, but Hell’s Kitchen is a bit of a shabby area (although it’s being done up) and we weren’t happy at having to lug our bags around with us.  😦

We spotted a pub over the road that was open, so we went in and had a couple of drinks each before going to McDonald’s over the road for our lunch at 12 o’clock.  They have free Wi-fi in Maccy Dee’s so I was able to check my emails and do some of this blog while drinking my coffee.

After we came out of McDonald’s, we found another pub and went in there.  There were one or two other people from the Balmoral, all of whom were complaining, saying that they could have let us stay on the ship a bit longer.

Eventually it was time to go back to our bus outside the hotel and set off for the airport, which was just over an hour’s drive away.  It is a massive airport with a lot of terminals.  We pulled up outside the British Airways terminal and went inside to join the check-in queue.

Check-in was fairly quick and efficient; then it was through security and into the Executive Lounge for a couple of hours.  🙂  We enjoyed a few drinks and nibbles then went to Gate 3 to board our flight BA176 Boeing 747 for our seven-hour flight back to Heathrow.

And so ended an absolutely unforgettable cruise; it was a complete one-off and one in which we felt so privileged to have taken part.  God rest RMS Titanic and her passengers and crew – she will never be forgotten.

So Good They Named It Twice

Woke up at 5.00am this morning; we didn’t have a cat in hell’s chance of getting back to sleep again because the Balmoral had taken the pilot on board on her approach into the Big Apple, and she was revving her engines with a vengeance.  This caused quite a lot of noise and vibration, so we just decided to get up and watch the approach from our cabin window rather than brave the early morning cold up on deck.  In any case, it’s our fifth visit to New York, so it’s not as if we hadn’t seen it all before.

We always laugh at the line “New York, New York, so good they named it twice” because we could say that that applies to Durham – we live in Durham City, County Durham, so it’s the same thing.  🙂

We watched the Balmoral go under the Verrazano Narrows Bridge, and sail past the Statue of Liberty and Ellis Island on her way into Pier 88.   We then went up to breakfast early and went out on deck, where we could see the WW2 warship the Intrepid moored up.  There was a retired British Airways Concorde on the deck of the Intrepid; we noted that it was G-BOAD (Alpha-Delta).  We felt quite sad seeing Concorde sitting there; she should still be flying.  😦  We have had the privilege of crossing the Atlantic in three and a half hours; now it takes us seven hours.  Technology has taken a step backwards.

After breakfast we went along to the Neptune lounge as we were due to go on a full-day New York City and Titanic history tour after we’d been through USA immigration.  However, when we got there, we learnt that there should have been two tour buses leaving, but the guide on one of them had had an accident and was in hospital.  They therefore said they needed 47 people to go on the afternoon tour instead i.e. when the first bus-load returned, or else the whole thing would have to be cancelled.   Therefore Trevor and I volunteered to go on the later excursion, which would now give us the morning in New York to do our own thing.

When passengers on Deck 4 were called to disembark, we left the Balmoral and showed our passports, visas etc at port immigration, as well as having our photos and fingerprints taken.  Then the morning was ours.  🙂

It was bright and sunny, and warmer than we’d imagined.  We found ourselves on 48th Street and decided to head into the centre of Manhattan and have a look around the shops.  When we got to Times Square the place was fairly crowded; people hurrying here and there, the famous yellow taxis hooting their horns and the frenetic hustle and bustle you get in New York 24 hours a day.

I spotted Sephora, which is a massive cosmetics emporium you only find in the USA and Canada; they don’t have them in the UK more’s the pity.  For makeup fans it really is a treasure trove; just about every well-known brand of cosmetics, perfumes and toiletries under one roof.  As I am a Benefit cosmetics freak I was pleased to see a huge Benefit stand; much bigger than the one we normally see in Boots or Debenhams.  The stuff was cheaper than it is in the UK too.  So I bought some foundation, blusher, an eye-shadow palette and a mascara, saving 20 quid overall on what it would have cost me back home.  🙂

We had a good wander around; it’s surprising how many miles you end up walking when taking in the sights, sounds and smells of New York.  After about three and a half hours we decided to go back to the Balmoral for some lunch, as time was getting on and we needed to check in for the afternoon excursion at 1.50pm.

After lunch we were fairly tired as we’d been awake early, but we only had time for a half-hour power nap before leaving the ship once again to commence our tour.

At the dockside we gathered into a meeting room for a presentation by Paul Kurzman, who is the great-grandson of Isidor and Ida Straus, the famous Macy’s owners who perished on the Titanic.  Ida Straus was offered a place in a lifeboat, but refused to leave her husband, telling him, “We have been together many years.  Wherever you go, I’ll go too.”  Paul told his great-grandparents’ story and answered questions.  Apparently Isidor Straus’ body was found and identified, but they never found Ida’s body.

After the talk we got on the bus and were taken on the grand tour of New York.  The guide pointed out the new World Trade Centre being built on Ground Zero, as well as other famous sites such as the Empire State Building, Central Park and the Dakota Building, where John Lennon lived and outside which he was shot dead by Mark Chapman in 1980.

We also went to see a memorial to the victims of the Titanic disaster; the guide also pointed out what used to be the White Star Line building.  We then went along to the Chelsea Piers to see where the Titanic would have come in at Pier 59, had she successfully completed her maiden voyage.  Chelsea Piers is now a maritime museum as well as a sports centre, and there were many cyclists, roller bladers and joggers on the specially-allocated track outside.

We were taken next to Pier 54, where the Carpathia had docked on 18th April 1912 bringing with her the 705 survivors of the Titanic sinking.  Quite a lot of floral tributes had been left at the pier gates along with personal messages.

We continued our tour of the Big Apple; as the sun went down and dusk descended, the lights of New York started to twinkle and the theatres on Broadway erupted in a blaze of neon.  We then went to the South Street Seaport where there was a large shopping mall and fast food emporium.  Our guide said we had an hour to spend here if we wanted to get something to eat and/or use the restrooms.

We had a look around the different food outlets before deciding to go Mexican.  Trevor had beef tacos and I opted for a plate of nachos.  We washed our food down with a cold Budweiser each.  The nachos were quite disappointing actually; there was no meat at all, just a few kidney beans, and there were no jalapeño peppers, which I love and which form an integral part of nachos.  Also, there was no guacamole.  Nonetheless, the food filled a hole and we were fairly full when we got back on the bus for the return journey to the Balmoral.

It was about 9.15pm when we got back on board, so I went and got showered and changed and we started to pack up a few of our clothes and things, in readiness for putting our cases out later on, ready for disembarkation tomorrow morning.  😦

We then went along to the Neptune lounge for the late show.  This evening it was the Balmoral orchestra, giving their tribute to the “Big Band” era.  They are an excellent orchestra and their concert was superb.  It’s just a pity that the show lounge was only about a quarter full; most of the passengers were either making the most of their evening in New York or had gone to bed, anticipating an early start in the morning.

Afterwards we went back to cabin 4170 and finished our packing, only leaving out what we would need tomorrow morning.  Then off to bed for our last night on the Balmoral.  As the ship was moored up it was nice and quiet, and we both slept well.

All at Sea

Woke up early to a bright and sunny day and, guess what? That’s right, tonight is formal night so that meant free ‘champers’ at breakfast time again. 🙂

We hot-footed it up to the Palms Café and once again I enjoyed some fresh fruits, smoked salmon, coffee and a couple of glasses of the gratis champers. As it was such a lovely morning we took the glasses outside on to the aft deck, by the swimming pool, and enjoyed them sitting in the sun. We also each indulged in another couple of glasses. 🙂 People walking past did a double-take and asked where we’d got the champagne or some made comments like “It’s a bit early for that, isn’t it?” When we told them that it was a traditional Fred Olsen touch to have champagne breakfasts when it was formal night, they went into the Palms Café with a single purpose. We’d set the precedent. 🙂

At 9.30am we went along to the Neptune Lounge where Susie Millar was giving a talk with a difference; this time about the last remaining White Star Line ship, the SS Nomadic, which is currently on display in Belfast. The Nomadic had served as a tender ship to the Titanic and was just like a little scaled down version; in fact it was known as Titanic’s “little sister”’. When the Titanic went down, Nomadic had continued to serve as a tender ship to the Olympic and then had been taken to Paris and moored on the Seine, where it had its funnels and engine removed and had been changed into a floating restaurant and bar, and eventually fell into disuse.

However, the city of Belfast had been saddened to see what had become of one of their ships that had enjoyed such as illustrious history, so they arranged for the Nomadic to be towed back to Belfast, where she is currently being refurbished to her former glory and once again has the White Star Line pennant flying high from her masts. Next time we go to Belfast we’ll definitely have to go and have a look.

After the talk we spent some time wandering about on deck before going up to the Observatory for a light lunch of soup and sandwiches, and listening to the Captain’s noon announcement.

Apart from that we spent the day in our usual leisurely sea-going way: attended the talks, had an afternoon nap, enjoyed a couple of drinks and just relaxed. I did a bit of kumihimo braiding to pass the time, then went up to the salon to get my hair put up for the final formal evening.

Once we’d got all dressed up in our glad rags, it was time to go along to the Neptune lounge once again, this time for the Captain’s Farewell cocktail party. One thing we’ve always appreciated about Fred Olsen cruises is that they always give away a fair amount of free booze. If it’s not champagne breakfasts then it’s deck parties with prodigal quantities of rum punch. 🙂

Captain Robert Bamberg did a really good speech; at one point his mobile phone went off and he removed it from his pocket, looked at the display and said “From the bridge, all is well” to tumultuous applause. He then echoed the thoughts of all of us when he’d said it had been quite some voyage, and one that we’d never experience again. He touched all our hearts when he said that, in 16 years of being at sea, this was the best cruise he’d ever had the privilege of sailing on. 🙂

The Captain thanked us and left the stage; it was a pity he left a bit too quickly to see the standing ovation all the passengers gave him.

Then it was off to the Ballindalloch restaurant for the “last supper” as it were. Tonight was a sumptuous meal of mixed seafood platter of salmon and herring, followed by fresh lobster tails and vegetables. They did the traditional baked Alaska parade and we took some photos of our table mates; David and Joanna and Donny and Barbara. As a memento, I gave each of the ladies a kumihimo bracelet I’d braided during the cruise. 🙂 We also left them our calling cards and we promised to keep in touch.

The entertainment this evening was hilarious; it was the Balmoral Crew Show and featured crew from the housekeeping department, purser’s office, restaurant staff, deck hands and guys from the engine room. There was quite a lot of talent among them; some of the did traditional dancing which was superb; others sang and some of them did comedy dancing. The engine room guys had dressed up by putting their overalls around their hips and shortening the arms and legs; they then had their bellies painted to look like faces and they’d covered their arms, uppers bodies and heads with black bin liners to look like “hair”. The overall effect was of a very short man with a big face and big afro hair. They danced around to the “Crazy Frog” theme and it really was very funny.

We ended the evening as we usually do; going up to the Lido lounge for the music quiz; we got 16 out of 20 and still didn’t win. Then one of the singers, Gavin Murray, did a Queen and Freddie Mercury tribute; I really enjoyed his show as I love Queen music.

We then went along to the Morning Light pub for a nightcap before turning in for the night. Tomorrow morning we were due to wake up in the Big Apple.

Halifax – The Titanic Connection

We got up early this morning and looked out to a very grey and foggy Halifax. We were due to go on one of the excursions this morning; to the Titanic cemeteries. It might seem strange to come on holiday and spend half a day looking at grave stones, but there were 300+ victims of the Titanic disaster whose bodies, a lot of them unidentified, were brought to Halifax.

We visited three cemeteries in total; a Jewish one, a Catholic one and an inter-denominational one. They looked a bit like war graves with the identical headstones laid out in serried rows. Some of them had names on them, but a lot of them just had “Died 15th April 1912” followed by a number. This was the number they were allocated when they were pulled from the water. Some of them had been identified many years later and their names had then been added to their headstone. All of the graves had flowers put on them; there had been a memorial service in the cemeteries on 15th April 2012 and roses had been put on every single grave, showing how much the Titanic disaster continues to affect the people of Halifax a century later.

In the cases where the bodies were known and claimed by relatives, larger and more elaborate head stones were in evidence, with touching epitaphs. One of them was the grave of John Law Hume, who had been one of the heroic bandsmen. There was a gorgeous floral tribute with a violin set into it and his photograph at the base of the tribute. It had the words “He played on as the ship went down” and a note was left from a Yvonne Hume, obviously a descendant. It was really lovely.

After our visit to the cemeteries we returned to the Balmoral for lunch then went back ashore again; our purpose was to explore the Maritime Museum. This museum contained all sorts of nautical stuff; not only about the Titanic but lots of other ships as well, from both the merchant and the Royal Canadian Navy. There were full scale models of the ships as well as artefacts from them and it was all very interesting. We spent a good hour and a half in the museum, which was fairly crowded, mainly because of tour parties. We still managed to see everything we wanted to see, however, including part of the Titanic grand staircase and an intact Titanic deck chair, the only one in the world.

When we came out of the museum we went to find the post office to get some stamps to post our cards back to England. They had some special Titanic commemorative stamps which were massive, about 1” wide by 3” long. They took up a lot of space on the back of the postcards! We found a bar nearby and went in and ordered a beer each which we enjoyed while writing out the postcards. Then we posted them and decided to make our way back to the Balmoral.

We got back on board around 4.30pm. I’d already made up my mind that I was going to give dinner a miss tonight so we had a nap as we’d had a fairly busy day. At least it was smart-casual again so it didn’t involve getting my hair put up; I was able to get ready fairly quickly.

While Trevor went to the Ballindalloch restaurant I just went along to the Morning Light pub for a drink, before going up to the restaurant around 7.45pm. I was just in time to have some cheese and biscuits, as well as coffee and an after-dinner liqueur.

The entertainment in the Neptune Lounge later on was a variety show, featuring snippets from all the main cabaret acts that we’d seen this cruise. It was excellent as usual. Then it was up to the Lido lounge for the quiz and the late night cabaret, which was called “Boys’ Night Out” and starred all the male singers and dancers from the Balmoral show company. It was brilliant, as well as being really funny.

Then it was off to bed again after a fairly full day. We had one final day at sea to look forward to before our arrival in New York.

En Route to Halifax, Nova Scotia

Got up fairly early this morning to bright sunshine and a calm ocean. After a good breakfast in the Palms Café we went out on deck; despite the sunshine however there was still a bit of a nip in the air. Well, it is still only April after all, and you know the old saying “Cast ne’er a clout until May is out”.

Our lecture this morning was given by the marine historian Peter Boyd-Smith and discussed the immediate aftermath of the Titanic disaster; what happened once the Carpathia arrived in New York and the initial enquiry into the cause of the catastrophe, as well as the various early (and , at the time, inaccurate) reports in the various newspapers of the time. As a souvenir, we’ve been given a replica front page of the Daily Mirror showing the headlines and news dated Tuesday, 16th April 1912.

Peter’s talk also touched on the ship, the Mackay Bennett, that brought the bodies to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where we are due to arrive tonight at about 8.00pm.

Once again we went up to the Observatory for a drink and a light lunch and enjoyed looking out at the sea. We noticed quite a few birds today, indicating that we are getting closer to land. Indeed, Captain Bamberg in his noon announcement informed us that the ocean depth was only 75 metres; really shallow compared to the 3,800 metres depth at which the Titanic lies.

Our afternoon lecture was given by Charles Haas and Jack Eaton and talked about the New York connection with Titanic and White Star Line; they showed slides of what New York was like in 1912 and what it is like now, and if any of the buildings still existed. As with all the talks we’ve had on this trip, it was very interesting.

When we came out we saw a huge queue and realised it was for a grand afternoon tea being given; you have probably never seen so many cakes and pastries displayed together in your life! There was probably about six cakes per passenger and there are 1309 of us on board. The chefs had really done a great job as ever. Trevor and I didn’t indulge however; it’s not as if we don’t get enough to eat on a cruise, ha ha. 🙂

Later that afternoon we looked out of our cabin window to see “land ahoy”; our first sight of land for a week. We watched the Balmoral slow right down and then the pilot boat came up alongside, the pilot boarded and guided her gently into her berth at Pier 21, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

The dress code tonight was smart-casual and it was hardly surprising as everyone had one goal in mind for after dinner – going ashore. The Balmoral was due to stay in port overnight so it would give us a chance to spend the evening on terra firma. I felt sorry for the entertainment troupe who would probably be performing to a near-empty Neptune lounge later on.

We enjoyed a good dinner again; I started with soused herring and salad, then I had lamb cooked in strawberry and mint, with creamed potatoes, parsnip puree, carrots and peas, a dish which had been served to 1st Class passengers on board the Titanic. Against my better judgement I enjoyed crème caramel for dessert plus a glass of amaretto then, leaving the table fit to burst, we returned to cabin 4170 to change into warmer clothes for venturing ashore.

We disembarked the Balmoral around 8.30pm and took in our immediate surroundings. There were the usual shops and stalls set up at the wharf side selling souvenirs and postcards. We had docked at Pier 21 which is Nova Scotia’s version of New York’s Ellis Island, that is, it was the main immigration processing pier in days gone by, when there was mass immigration in the USA and Canada.

We bought some postcards then took a walk along the street, experiencing that usual phenomenon we get after days spent at sea (particularly rough sea) of still feeling as though you are moving, even when standing still. At this time of night all the shops were invariably closed, but we saw some pretty little bistros and wine bars along the harbour front and it was nice to be able to stretch our legs.

Eventually we decided to go into an Irish bar, similar to the “Scruffy Murphy’s” bars we get back home. It had a nice atmosphere and played rock music in the background. I wanted to write out my postcards but the light was too dim to allow this, but my Android phone indicated there was free Wi-Fi. 🙂 As I had my Netbook with me I was able to check my emails; in addition, we went onto the BBC News website and it allowed us to see the television coverage that our Titanic Memorial Cruise had been given by the BBC, as we’d had one of their cameramen on board with us all week. There was some great footage given of the Memorial Service the other night which allowed us to see the bits we’d missed. 🙂

We stayed in the Irish pub for three drinks each; by this time it was 11.00pm and time to make our way back to the Balmoral. Once back on board, it was nice to return to a cabin into unaccustomed silence as well as to get into a bed that wasn’t moving. We both slept soundly.

The Rest of That Day

We woke up late this morning as we’d gone to bed so late; a luxury that had been denied the passengers of the Titanic. The sun was shining and the sea was much calmer. I didn’t go to breakfast but instead made use of the tea and coffee making facilities in our cabin.

We spent a lazy morning pottering around the ship, walking around on deck and enjoying a drink or two in the Observatory lounge, where the large windows afford fantastic views over the deep blue sea. We listened to the Captain’s announcement then decided just to have a light lunch of a mug of soup and a couple of sandwiches; it is far too easy to eat too much on a cruise, particularly when it is a long voyage of many sea days.

You would think it would be quite boring spending day after day at sea, but in fact the time passes surprisingly quickly. We crossed the Pacific on the Volendam in 2009 and spent nine full days and nights at sea, but we never find it boring at all. Even just standing at the railing, looking out to sea and thinking pleasant thoughts is an enjoyable way to pass the time. 🙂

The afternoon talk today in the Neptune lounge was given by Philip Littlejohn who, like Commodore Warwick the previous day, was talking about his dive down to the wreck of the Titanic. As ever, it was a fascinating talk and it is so interesting to be able to hear anecdotes and snippets of information from someone who actually had a grandfather on board Titanic.

We had a most agreeable evening meal once again then went along to see the cabaret, which was a fabulous soprano who sang a mixture of operatic and contemporary songs. I really enjoyed listening to her; she reached the high notes perfectly and didn’t screech. One thing we like about the entertainment on board the Balmoral is that there is something for everyone; pop music and modern stuff, songs from the West End musicals and also a bit of classical and opera, so something to suit all tastes.

When the show finished I was flagging a bit after our late night and my massive dinner, so I decided to go back to cabin 4170 and have an early night, while Trevor went up to the Lido lounge for the quiz and late entertainment. By the time he returned to our cabin I was fast asleep.

Nearer, My God, To Thee

01.45am, 15th April 2012
We adjourned, in silence, to the open decks aft of the Balmoral. Trevor and I found ourselves on Deck 7 near the pool, and we could see the White Star Line pennant flapping gently in the breeze. We positioned ourselves on the starboard side at the ship’s railings so we could look directly into the sea. Two and a half miles below us lay the wreck of the Titanic. The night was cold and dark and, like that endless night 100 years ago, the sky was dotted with a million stars. We could hear the Atlantic ocean washing against the sides of the Balmoral, the only other sound apart from muted voices as we gathered to remember the events from a century ago.

02.10am, 15th April 2012
I looked at my watch;  this time 100 years ago the lights had gone out for the final time on the Titanic; her end, and that of 1503 passengers and crew, was very near.

02.15am, 15th April 2012
At the stern of the ship three deck-hands stood, each holding a commemorative wreath. The voice of Rev. Huw Mosford came over the PA system as he blessed the wreaths and they were cast into the ocean. We saw one of them bobbing on the waves as it floated past us. Gentle organ music played in the background.

02.20am, 15th April 2012
Oh dear Lord, what a moment. The Balmoral gave a single long blast of her foghorn in salute; at this very moment, 100 years ago, the Titanic disappeared beneath the waves right in this very spot. All that was left were a few lifeboats, some of them only half full, along with the flotsam and jetsam of the ship and the mortal remains of people who had frozen to death in the black water. She had gone.

One hundred years later, here we were on the Balmoral, remembering and commemorating those lost souls and the 705 survivors whose lives would be forever changed. What a moment to be here, listening to the sounds of the sea, looking at the brilliant stars above us, thinking and imagining. The organ struck up and we all sang the hymn “Eternal Father, Strong to Save” which is the hymn of the Royal Navy and includes the words “Oh hear us when we cry to thee for those in peril on the sea”. My throat was so tight I could barely get the words out.

02.30am, 15th April 2012
The band started to play and Anthony Stuart Lloyd, the Welsh singer we had seen earlier in the voyage, concluded this incredible evening by singing “Nearer, My God, To Thee”. There wasn’t a dry eye on the ship; it really was such a poignant and emotional moment. All I can say is that the whole of this night has been so unforgettable; the whole Memorial Service, music, laying of the wreaths and even the flying of the White Star pennant was just so fitting and so dignified; they really did the victims and their descendants proud.

At around 3.00am we returned to the warmth of our cabin, where we went to bed, physically and emotionally drained. One thing is for certain, we will never again experience another cruise like this one.