April 15, 2011
We Are Cunard
Posted in: Guest Stories
Eric Flounders is back with his final installment from Queen Elizabeth’s maiden transit of the Suez Canal. In today’s blog he talks about Petra, Pyramids and the Picadilly Line…
On Wednesday we decided to abandon caution and splash out on dinner at the Verandah. The females in our party had learned that the Verandah Grill on the first Queen Elizabeth had been the favourite restaurant of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor and they immediately developed Wallis Simpson delusions.
But what is the point, many might say, of abandoning our lovely Britannia restaurant with its excellent food, a wide choice and exemplary service – and which is included in the fare paid – just to pay more to eat in a different part of the ship?
Well, even Dukes and Duchesses fancy a change from their customary palatial surroundings from time to time; everyone relishes a night out.
And, when all’s said and done, The Verandah is hardly expensive.
But it is priceless.
It is superlative in every way. The room is tasteful, restful and hushed; the service, surprisingly on a ship where service already approaches perfection, is even more personal, attentive and dignified than elsewhere; the food is superb.
However, we couldn’t linger longer as the next morning was to be an early start and the beginning of a long day – the much anticipated tour to Petra.
We left the pier the next morning in an impressive convoy of 35 identical coaches; we must have looked like an invading army as we sped through the wide streets of Aqaba and up into the mountains – ragged, jagged peaks, arid and devoid of vegetation. A hot and inhospitable landscape which we wondered at in comfort.
But the road was good and the distance to Petra covered in just two hours – a distance that the old Caravans would have taken two weeks to negotiate. Along the way our guide kept up a non-stop rattle of quick-fire commentary that was almost impossible to follow. He had the added misfortune of not being able to tell his right from his left, with the result that as we all dutifully craned to look right as instructed we found ourselves ogling ancient Bedouins’ goats, instead of an unmissable temple of Aphrodite (of which there seems to be an infinite number) which hurtled by entirely missed to the left.
No matter how much you may have read about Petra, it still takes you by surprise. There we were stumbling down a rocky path into a fairly insignificant valley heading for an equally insignificant ridge. Then suddenly the path disappeared into a cleft in the ridge and we were plunged into a narrow gorge, cliffs towering above us and in places almost meeting. No wonder the place was lost for centuries. On and on, down and down, twisting and turning. Those who had swotted up in advance kept telling their comrades at each bend that the famous Treasury would burst into view. But it didn’t.
Finally, after a good twenty minutes of anticipation and disappointment we glimpsed ahead, set against a blue patch of sky between the cliffs, just the tiniest corner of the topmost pediment. And a minute later we burst out into the sunlight of a great natural amphitheatre, where ahead of us towered the breathtakingly impressive Treasury. Breathtaking not just because of its size, not just because of its dramatic site, not just because it is a spectacular confection of classical styles and not just because it is 2000 years old. All these things individually make it breathtaking, but most of all the knowledge that it was not built but was carved out of the rock face with chisels. And it is so perfect it could have been done last week. There are other magnificent structures in Petra – all the pre-Roman ones carved and not built. And while others may be as awe-inspiring and fantastical as the Treasury, nothing compares with the overwhelming surprise of that first view.
Petra just has to be seen by anyone who can. Never mind that it is an architectural car crash made up of a clash of styles and - as our knowlegeable Insights lecturer remarked – must have been fashioned by people with more money than taste: it is simply up there with the Sphinx and Machu Picchu.
The climb back was long – over an hour – and hot. But no-one complained. And in true Cunard style the company had managed to find a five star hotel nearby for a much needed lunch.
Not surprisingly the ship was ghost like that night. Everyone, including me, was early abed and as dead to the world as the occupants of Petra’s tombs.
But I didn’t go before the departure from Aqaba. As we stood at the stern watching the lights fade we were able to see with one glance four countries – Egypt to starboard, Israel to the left astern with Jordan on the right, and Saudi Arabia to port.
Today we have glided up the Gulf of Suez in near perfect weather – just the weather in fact for croquet on the lawn. And that is what we did (and something we could not do on any other ship). But whereas the bowls on the adjacent green continued sedately, we soon discovered that croquet mallets make wonderful weapons when your opponents start making up the rules. I lost the match and so think it is a stupid game which should be replaced with polo; my companions think it is terrific and intend to go back tomorrow.
I shall be water-skiing behind the ship.
As we advanced slowly towards Suez, at the Red Sea entrance of the Suez Canal, everyone was faced with a difficult choice: whether to take the full day tour to the Sphinx and the Pyramids, which involved disembarking in Suez and rejoining the ship in Port Said, at the Mediterranean end of the canal, some fourteen hours later. To do this meant missing the transit of the Canal; so what was it to be – an Ancient Wonder of the World, or a relatively modern one? It wasn’t possible to do both,
For most people the decision may have been made for them by the nocturnal departure time for the Pyramids tour – 3.30am. The option of just staying on board sipping whatever in the shade as we glided the length of an engineering miracle past the palms and minarets of Egypt seemed irresistible. And indeed that was the option most people chose.
Not that we missed an early start. Those who wanted to witness the entry into the Canal had to be on deck by 5.30am: and as the mist rose and light came, those who were, were greeted by a great gathering of ships forming the northbound convoy. Our convoy was made up of 33 vessels; we were number 11. Slowly they moved forward in turn, each attended by a fussing little tug. We seemed to be the only passenger ship while the rest ranged from huge tankers and container ships to little workaday trams. They came in every size and every condition, from the immaculate to the rust- streaked. Our lovely ship seemed like Masefield’s quinquireme of Nineveh surrounded by dirty British coasters with salt-caked smoke stacks – though if you cut out the poetic licence few were just coasters and even fewer, unlike us, were British.
As passing places in the 110 mile Canal are limited, the northbound and southbound convoys pass in the Great Bitter Lake – which we reached just over three hours after entering the Canal. The southbound convoy is timed to arrive first and anchor, while the northbound convoy sails through into the northern section. The southbound convoy, massed at anchor, was even bigger than ours. It was a ship anorak’s dream.
The northern section of the Canal was just as you would want it to be, with desert stretching off on each side of the dead straight liquid road with Africa to port and Sinai, on the Arabian peninsula, to starboard. It was a nineteenth century poster – waving date palms in the occasional oases, fishermen in tiny boats, boys playing along the banks and sand as far as you could see. We seemed to float across desert, and, call me an old fool if you like – many do – but we seemed to be enveloped in the romance of Empire and the myriad journeys made by our forebears to India and beyond.
It took some ten hours to reach Port Said at the Mediterranean end of the Canal. There we berthed briefly to await the return of the Pyramid watchers, and peered down on busy streets vibrant with hooting cars. As darkness fell we cast off and slowly edged past the long piers out into the Mediterranean.
Today we are at sea and bound for Athens. It is sunny but there is a stiff breeze and the ship is moving a little. That put paid to our thoughts of bowls as the green is situated as far forward as you can go and as high as you can go. Thus the movement is exaggerated, as on a seesaw, and the bowls are happily playing themselves. We should have done it as we steamed smoothly through Egypt.
No matter; it leaves more time for packing. We disembark tomorrow and head back to the mayhem of Heathrow and the chaos of the Piccadilly Line. Can’t wait!