Blame it all on Julia Child. Except for weekends at the beach, we stay home in the summer. Not only do we like Washington's warm weather, we tend our urban garden and look forward to outdoor concerts and the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. Most of all, we hate battling high-season crowds and paying top prices.
This past year was different. When we learned that Julia Child was guest of honor on the Queen Elizabeth 2 Chef's Palate Atlantic crossing June 24-30, 2001, we immediately signed up. Julia Child is my idol, and a lifelong fantasy has been to sail the Atlantic on the Queen. Moreover, my husband Peter wanted to mark his 60th birthday (July 16) in the land of his forebears, Scotland. So, we planned our vacation accordingly. Unfortunately, Peter could not get away from work that last week of June. Therefore, my sister Clo, a travel agent, accompanied me on the voyage and Peter arranged to meet me later in London.
Sunday, June 24
As we approached the New York pier where the QE2 awaited us, we spotted the ship's single funnel looming above the other vessels -- an awesome sight. Less impressive was boarding the 70,327-ton vessel via an unglamourous, canvas-covered walkway. We were mollified, however, when a chilled bottle of champagne greeted us in our spacious stateroom on 3 Deck (the ship has eleven decks).
First on the agenda was muster, as required by international maritime law. We struggled into our day-glo orange life jackets and dutifully trooped to our assigned stations. Once that was out of the way, we set sail around 6 p.m., and the horn let out a deafening bellow. A powerful tugboat nudged our ship out of the New York harbor as Clo and I sipped our bubbly, peering down from an upper deck. On the east, the Manhattan skyline drifted past us and the Statue of Liberty was silhouetted against the sunset. We were on our way!
Soon it was time to dress for dinner. On QE2 Atlantic crossings, each night at sea is formal, and we enjoyed dressing accordingly. Another plus: the ship's three Grill restaurants, Queen, Princess and Britannia, do not have early and late seatings. Instead, passengers may dine anytime between 7 and 9 p.m.A minor glitch occurred: Cunard had mistakenly seated us in the Britannia dining room instead of the smoke-free Princess Grill, which we had requested. The problem was cleared up with the help of maitre d' Robert Cheadle, who placed us with two delightful table mates from Malibu, Elaine and Jackie. Seating only 100, the Princess is the smallest of the QE2's five restaurants. We also think it's the prettiest. As we consumed our salmon and pheasant, we admired the vision of sparkling crystal and gleaming white napery. A single red rose graced each table. Afterwards, the "Welcome Aboard" gala opening show provided a perfect ending for our first day aboard the Queen.
Monday, June 25
Know what the best thing about an ocean voyage is? No jet lag. To avoid this, the ship's clocks (and hopefully, passengers' watches) are set forward one hour each evening when sailing east. After a light breakfast in the casual Lido, we took a brisk walk around the deck. From a half-dozen cruises, I've learned how to avoid gaining weight: always take stairs instead of elevators; walk at least a mile around the deck each day, and most important: take a camera, NOT a plate, to the midnight buffet. (This late night spread is a tradition on most cruise ships, but the QE2 does it up big. The Queen's lavish repast was adorned with intricately carved fruits and vegetables, monumental ice sculptures and whimsical models of British landmarks including an amazing marzipan rendition of Stonehenge.)
Our Chef's Palate voyage featured a chef's demonstration each morning. Today's event was a seminar and tasting of Kenwood (California) wines by Mark Phillips, president of the Washington Wine Tasting Association. Phillips led his group on this trip. His presentation was quite informative and amusing, especially a horror story about an unidentified Washington restaurant and a $500 bottle of wine.
After lunch, we hit the outdoor pool. Since the weather was surprisingly mild, we sunned ourselves afterwards. Later I had tea in the Queen's Lounge. I enjoyed the veddy British ritual, but skipped the cuke sandwiches and pastries, saving room for dinner: caviar with all the trimmings and grilled rock lobster. We worked off the calories by dancing the reggae, swaying to pulsating, Caribbean music in the Yacht Club.
Tuesday, June 26
Today, Julia! I had interviewed her several years ago and it was wonderful to see her again. We chatted briefly before her cooking show. Child, who turned 89 in August, no longer does hands-on cooking but provides savvy and often amusing commentary. Cooking that morning was QE2 executive chef Karl Winkler. The presentation began with scallops Provençale, then rack of lamb with a garlic/herb crust. (Happily, the delicacies appeared on our menu that evening.) When Winkler was explaining how to check fish gills for freshness, Julia interjected: "Just smell it." Regarding using butter in lieu of lamb fat, she remarked: "Rancid lamb fat is not a good thing. I had some in Scandinavia." Dessert was floating island, a rather complicated custard with meringue. Said Julia, "Floating island is very easy to make. You only need three people."
That afternoon, the weather turned cold. Seeking indoor pursuits, Clo and I decided to visit the ship's computer learning centre to contact office and family. As we clicked away on our keyboards I reflected that, until recently, it took weeks or even months for sea travelers to reach the outside world. Now, we communicate in seconds!
By now it was time for our massages -- busy, busy busy! I climbed up to Steiner's Spa on 1 Deck where a masseuse named Deborah skillfully kneaded my muscles, especially those in my back and neck. The 45-minute session cost $96, including service charge.
Which brings us to a complaint about the QE2: On many cruise lines, including Holland America and Princess, passengers tip stewards, dining room captains, servers, and bartenders, usually presenting them with cash at the end of the voyage. Cunard, in contrast, adds a service charge to everything (drinks, spa services, etc.) which is automatically divided among the entire crew. This practice seems to take the option away from the passenger and could even kill incentive.
Wednesday, June 26
Due to the time change, we inadvertently slept through breakfast and the cooking demo of Andre Soltner, former owner of New York's famed Lutece. It was a shame, because Soltner is a marvelous chef and very personable besides.
Since the weather was still awful, we did not venture out of doors, preferring to explore the 10 passenger decks of the 963-foot long ship. Whew -- where to begin? The 34-year-old Queen Elizabeth 2 has steamed 4.5 million miles, completing almost 1,200 voyages. Traveling at a cruising speed of about 28 knots, she is the fastest passenger liner in service. A total of 1,016 crew members attend 1,750 passengers, who sleep in 926 cabins (664 are outside). Here's a trivia note: The QE2 boasts one of the largest libraries afloat, a fun place to while away hours in bad weather.
In our explorations of the ship's eleven decks, we stumbled upon the ship's florist, called the Greenery, tucked into a corner of 3 Deck. We learned that most of the floral arrangements come from Holland, where a distribution center gathers blossoms from around the world.
While I was awed by her grandeur, I could see that the grand dame was showing some signs of age. Plumbing was a bit decrepit and the general layout downright confusing; it took me a week to learn my way around. However, we found the service, especially in the Princess Grill, impeccable.
After lunch in the Princess Grill, it was time for my pedicure. Doing the honors was a skilled podiatrist named Kelly who was taking a year off from his practice to travel. It's the best toe job I've ever had ($63.25) which included a soothing foot massage. This pampering was followed by a facial which involved plastering all sorts of goop on my face. It felt great and I even fell asleep, but I don't look any different and I hardly think it was a worth the $96 price tag.
Dinner began with double orders of caviar, requested by our Irish server, Katriona. We decided to tactfully ask her to skip the caviar tomorrow night and bring something else. Tonight the duck and sirloin steak were delicious, and dessert was an assorted cheese plate. In the Grand Lounge afterwards, we heard a fabulous violinist who played gypsy and classical pieces, and selections from "Fiddler on the Roof." Then we repaired to the Yacht Club where we did the electric slide, quite a feat on the gently rolling deck.
Thursday, June 28
Today's food show was an all-chocolate presentation by François Dionot of Academie d' Cuisine of Bethesda, Maryland, outside Washington D.C. After preparing white chocolate cheesecake and a decadent chocolate terrine, he provided delicious samples which we collected for our chocoholic table mates.
After lunch, I was lounging by the pool when I suddenly realized: I SHOULD BE SOMEWHERE ELSE. Mark's wine tasting -- for which I paid $10 -- had started a half hour earlier! So, clad in my jelly sandals and pink cat cover up, I raced down four decks and slipped into the gathering, held at the Caronia Restaurant Annexe. Fortunately, the group was still sampling the first of four wines, divided between "Old" and "New" worlds, compliments of the ship's extensive wine cellar. During Mark's commentary I learned that Cunard maintains a modest wine markup, sometimes lower than the usual 50 percent. I liked an Australian Shiraz so much that I chose it for that night's dinner of chicken in aspic and poached salmon, followed by that divine chocolate terrine. (We had had pre-prandial libations in the Grill, a lounge open to Queen, Princess and Britannia Grill passengers. As we sipped our Pinot Grigio, a waiter brought around mini eggs Benedict made with quail eggs. The concoction was quite tasty, but I would hate to peel all those tiny eggs!)
Friday, June 29
This was our last day: time for our long-awaited galley and wine cellar tour. The QE2 has one main galley (the one we visited) and five all together, one for each restaurant. The gleaming, spotless kitchen was state-of-the-art, but we were wary of the slippery floor. We noted that fixtures are bolted down for rough weather. We peered into seemingly bottomless, 250-liter vats of soup and learned that each oven can accommodate 60 prime ribs. No British beef lurked in those ovens; in the wake of the hoof and mouth disease outbreak in the United Kingdom, Cunard currently purchases only American meat products.
Then we embarked on the wine cellar tour, led by provisions manager Cath Wilcoxon. We descended even farther below, to Deck 8, the very bowels of the shop. Secured with a huge padlock was the "Connoisseur Collection," a vault with a wooden rack cradling precious vintages. Chateau Petrus 1977, for example, goes for a cool $585. Cath told us that one evening, a table of high rollers ordered three such bottles and she had to fetch them one at a time from the vault.
After lunch, I caught the final roundtable discussion of the four Chef's Palate participants: Julia Child, Andre Soltner, François Dionot and Mark Phillips. Questions included: "How did you get into food?" "Favorite dishes?" "Disasters?" "Role of TV and the Internet in food?" When asked about fast food, Julia professed a fondness for Burger King!
Afterwards, I swam and napped. Ah, such indulgence! As I gazed lazily up at the sky, a fighter plane swooped by. Then a helicopter brought the pilot to guide the ship through the Celtic Bay off the coast of Ireland. Almost there!
Later, as we sipped our Sauvignon Blanc in the Grill, Julia Child and her entourage were chatting at the next table. Our final dinner included smoked salmon with caviar, cream of broccoli soup laced with Stilton, and lamb curry with assorted condiments, accompanied by the Shiraz. The final show was a wonderful singer who was compared to Caruso, who crooned a beautiful rendition of an aria from "Turandot."
Saturday, June 30
We docked in Southampton early, and disembarkation was relatively smooth. As we had arranged our own transportation to London, we remained on board after most passengers had departed. Clo took the opportunity to take me on a grand tour of the almost-empty ship. On the top (Signal) deck, we peeked into the posh Grand Suites, complete with marble-lined bathrooms, separate dining areas and private verandas. Price tag, which includes butler service and personalized stationery: $22,990 per person for six nights.
As planned, my husband and I had our rendezvous in London, and from there we journeyed to Scotland. But that's another story. Never mind that our garden was a shambles when we returned home in late July. My QE2 odyssey was well worth it.
Cunard has not scheduled the Chef's Palate for 2002, but other lines, including Radisson Seven Seas, Silversea and Crystal offer similar culinary cruises. Crystal has announced an extensive 2002 Food and Wine lineup with myriad destinations.
Photos courtesy of Celeste McCall & Cunard Line.
A freelance food and travel writer based in Washington, D.C., Celeste McCall loves ships, past and present. A member of the Titanic Historical Society, she has embarked on more than a half dozen very modern voyages. She has visited ports of call including Lima, Rio, Buenos Aires, Shanghai and Hong Kong; sailed through the Panama Canal, explored the Volga, climbed the Great Wall of China and Machu Picchu, and snorkeled in Belize.
A former writer and restaurant critic for The Washington Times, Celeste has contributed to local and national publications including Fodor's City Guide to Washington DC, Best Bets (an annual guidebook to DC), Caribbean Travel & Life, Porthole, The Washington Post, Foodservice Monthly, Lodging and Roll Call.
She is a member of Les Dames d'Escoffier, an international organization of women in the fields of food, restaurants and hospitality. When not traveling or writing, Celeste and her husband of 32 years, Peter, who shares her love of travel, like to read, lounge on the beach and cook out in their backyard. They dwell on Capitol Hill with their four cats: Eggplant, Artichoke, Gypsy, and Jesse. Celeste may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
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