Music At Sea May 23rd - June 6th 2010 Azamara Journey Wednesday June 9th. 2010

Wednesday, 9 June 2010

Brooks Blog

A personal account of the 34th ‘Music at Sea’

A Western European Cruise Adventure onboard ‘Azamara Journey’

May 23 – June 6 2010

Barcelona, Spain - Gibraltar, United Kingdom

Lisbon, Portugal - St. Malo, France -Antwerp, Belgium London (Greenwich) England - Amsterdam, Holland

Kiel Canal, Germany - Copenhagen, Denmark

Travellers certainly notice climate change! The Antarctic earlier this year was, at times, warmer than England, and arriving in Barcelona for this 34th Music at Sea, the temperature outside the airport was lower than that at Heathrow! Bizarre!  

That May evening, football crazy Barcelona was buzzing with anticipation for the final of the European Champions League. The teams involved were Bayern Munich and Inter Milan, the latter having defated Barcelona on their way to the Final, but there was no trace of resentment from my driver as, commentary blasting from his radio, he cheered Inter on to victory.  To me there has always seemed to be a touch of hysteria about football commentaries in Spanish, reinforced that night by the emotions of the cabbie who appeared to have difficulty keeping a straight path – especially when he threw both hands in the air to scream “GOAL”! I suspect he was from the same driving school as my dear sister-in-law Gloria, who, stopped by a policeman concerned that her car was swaying from side-to-side, turned down the Strauss waltz emanating from her car radio and calmly responded that she was neither ill nor drunk but had been so enjoying the music she had not noticed her hands turning the steering wheel from left to right in time with the beat!  Her Majesty’s finest was unphased. “Madam, PLEASE pay more attention to your driving – and should the music change to a Tango, stop the car immediately!” 

And so to check in at the Barcelona Hilton which I approached with trepidation. Let me explain. Many credit cards offer perks – along with a hefty subscription – and, some years ago one of the perks with my credit card was one year’s membership at Gold level of the Hilton Honours programme. Its clever marketing as once you’ve been greeted by those magical words ‘Upgrade’ and ‘Complimentary Breakfast’ even the most cynical business traveller becomes a fish wriggling at the end of the Hilton Hook gasping ‘Please don’t take away my Gold Card’ - which, of course, is exactly what they will do if you don’t spend pots of moolah with them on a regular basis. It’s a one sided relationship but I am faithful to Hilton and I expect them to be faithful to me – which is why the following encounter at the Athens Hilton was particularly traumatic.

Junior Suit at reception: “Good evening Sir and Welcome to the Athens Hilton”

Me: “Good evening – Here’s my Hilton Gold card and my Credit card”

Junior Suit: “Ah………Yeeeeeeeees”

Long pause whilst he fiddled with his computer (Come on, lets hear those magical words “upgrade” etc etc). I decided to give his thought prccesses a friendly nudge in the right direction. 

Me:  “You have (pause for emphasis) my - GOLD - card number on file I believe?”

Junior Suit: “Ah………Yeeees……..I have your number in the computer Sir ……..but Sir is no longer a Gold Card member”

Me: “WHAT!”

The lobby went quiet, heads swivelled.

I lowered my voice – when dealing with Junior Suits it is essential to keep one’s calm!

Me: “There MUST be some mistake. I am have been Gold Status for many years and…….” 

Junior Suit: “But Sir…..”

Me: “PLEASE” ( I know how to grovel) “There HAS to be an error  - I am absolutely CERTAIN I’m at GOLD level”

Junior Suit: “Sir….I assure you….” Junior Suit was looking nervous –  Middle Ranking Suits were hovering – could this be a training exercise in crisis management?

Me: “But I’ve have been staying at your hotels even MORE than I usually do……please stop looking at that computer screen and listen to what I’m saying…..its absolutely UNBELIEVABLE that I would not be at Gold level”

I paused for breath – and Junior Suit took his chance:

Junior Suit: “But Sir, you HAVE been staying a lot with us recently which is why you are no longer Gold level – you have been upgraded to Diamond level”

I hardly heard him – visualise a baby about to throw all its toys out of the pram and you have an accurate picture. 

Me:”I’m GOLD. ……Gold… Gold…Gold… Computers make mistakes…I know I’m Gold….. GOLD…..Don’t even THINK of DOWNGR……….…”

Suddenly I realised what he’d said.

“Did… you…. say…..UP……graded?”

Safe behind his counter Junior Suit was giving me the type of look normally reserved for lunatics. Swallowing nervously, his Adam’s Apple ascending and descending faster than Nadia Comaneci on her trampoline he continued:

“UPGRADED SIR - Diamond is our highest level”

Me: “Diamond is higher than Gold?”

Junior Suit: “Oh Yes Sir, Diamond is our highest level. You’ve now been upgraded from Gold to Diamond Status”.

Not so fast Junior Suit – this wasn’t making sense to me. That day’s  news had been all about people hoarding Gold – not Diamonds.

Me: “Have you seen the price of Gold recently?”

Junior Suit: “Pardon Sir? ……. Oh, Sir is jesting……….Ha – Ha – Ha” (Sir was NOT jesting) “Diamond is our highest level…..In fact” he continued  “I can’t check you in here. You need to go to our specially designated Diamond Check-In on the eigth floor – we will carry your cases” 

I walked the gauntlet of curious eyes to the elevators – let them stare, a cat can look at a king and I was Diamond Status! Entering the elevator I pressed the button for the 8th floor…. No reaction…..  I pressed again…… Nothing….I gave it a hearty thump…… Zilch! What to do now?

Across the lobby Junior Suit was deep in conversation with a Middle Ranking Suit, I hated to disturb them - but there was no option. 

Me: “Excuse me - the elevator doesn’t seem to be working this evening” 

The lobby went quiet – this was the best entertainment they had had for a long while.

A Senior Suit appeared as if by magic:

Senior Suit: “Sir – the elevators are working perfectly”

Me: “I can assure you this one is not. I’m pressing the button for the eigth floor and, as you may have noticed (said with withering sarcasm), I’m still here. Not only am I still here, I am, in actuality, about to have a nervous breakdown”.

Senior suit was unmoved: 

Senior Suit: “Sir, you need to put your card into that slot” – he put a card into a slot on the elevator display – “then press the button for ‘8’ like this” he did it as only an experienced veteran can, and then swiftly withdrew his hand as the elevator doors glided to a close. “I thought you would know……..” were the last words I heard him utter as I wooshed heavenwards. 

In the hushed ambience of the thickly carpeted 8th floor the young woman smiled her welcome as she took my card. 

“Mr Brooks welcome to the Hilton Executive Lounge” she gushed  “You have Diamond status so just let me check you in, upgrade you and perhaps you’d like to help yourself to a drink in the lounge? They are complimentary for Diamond Status”.

My worries disappeared. In the quickest conversion since Saul outside of Damascus, Gold status seemed a trifle - totally irrelevant!

Forget Gold – Diamond is what its all about!

 ‘A Royal Caribbean giant dwarfs ‘Azamara Journey’ on a misty Barcelona morning. May 23, 2010.

Early the next day I boarded Azamara Journey, and sought out the Cruise Director  – Tony Markey. He was in his office proof-reading the following day’s programme. 

Me: “Tony – Do the howlers ever get past you?” 

Tony: “Well, there was the time we omitted an ‘L’ in ‘Pool Deck’ …….so it came out as “Poo Deck”.

Me: “Embarassing”

Tony: “No one seemed to notice actually!” 

Me: “Any more?”

He looked thoughtful.

Tony: “Last month, we were writing about a ‘black and white’ rock formation in the Azores which, when we went to print, emerged as ‘black and shite’.

Me: “Grief, Tony, how did you manage that?”

Tony: “Easy, “S” is just underneath the “W” on the computer keyboard”.

Me: “You must have had a load of complaints for that one”

He looked disappointed.

Tony: “None actually”

Then his face brightened:

“But my best one” he continued – rather proudly I thought – “was several years ago on Seabourn when I didn’t notice we had put a ‘c’ instead of an ‘o’ and we invited all the guests to enjoy the Executive Chef in a  ‘cocking demonstration’. 

Me: “Don’t tell me that didn’t give you some hassle?”

Tony: “I’ll say  – we had a full house – and several let their disappointment be known when it turned out to be a COOKING demonstration!”

Later that day, Azamara Journey slipped her moorings, gliding through Barcelona harbour to the open sea.  It was a glorious evening and many of the MAS group took Dinner at the back of the ship, taking in the balmy air and marvelling at the ever changing colours as the sun slowly slid into the sea. Seagulls swooped, hovered, dived and plunged into the ship’s foaming wake.  We were having our dinner and they were having theirs. Man and Nature in harmony! What a way to start a cruise!

 Azamara Journey sails up the River Thames June 1 2010 

(London Evening Standard)

Our route took us to Gibraltar, Lisbon, St. Malo (a big hit) Antwerp and then up the River Thames to London where we arrived late and in pouring rain! How about that for gratitude after I had talked up the British weather!  Nearly 30 of us were lookng forward to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s newly opened sequel to “Phantom of the Opera’ namely “Love Never Dies”.  We were in for a dramatic evening – both on and off stage. Immediately we left the ship our coach driver, stuck in a traffic jam, radioed through that he could not make it! It was no problem to switch to a riverboat (a speedier and more scenic entry to London than crawling through rush hour traffic) but, as we waited on the dock, a young woman leaped into the river in an apparent attempt to commit suicide. (I use the word ‘apparent’ since with around 200 people standing on the dock under the watchful eye of the river police there was little chance she would be successful).  The commotion delayed us and we arrived at the theatre a few minutes after the official start time. Here I give special thanks to the theatre manager Emma who personally took a phone call from my wife Ann, listened to our tale of woe, and held the curtain. Thank you Emma. I don’t know any other theatre manager who would have done that. You saved our evening.  It was a spectacular show and we heartily recommend it.

Grim’s Dyke aerial view

The next day was to be our special shore excursion to Grim’s Dyke, the former home of Sir William Gilbert of Gilbert and Sullivan fame, and the setting for our tenth anniversary concert. On each of our Music At Sea cruises this year we are holding special anniversary concerts in spectacular and unusual settings – On the Alaska/Rocky Mountaineer MAS (Sold Out) it will be July 1st. at Chateau Lake Louise, in the heart of the Rocky Mountains overlooking the lake and glacier; during the West Coast wine cruise it will be at the private home of John and Rosemary in Ramona, California, and in October, on our Egypt/Israel Mediterranean cruise we will cross the Bay of Naples to the idyllic tiny island paradise of Ischia where, at Villa ‘La Mortella’ the former home of Sir William and Lady Walton, I will need to make the difficult decision of deciding which of their TWO Steinways I wish to play!

But back to Grim’s Dyke. Dear reader you may think I’m exaggerating but I run out of superlatives here. This was a wonderful day – including the weather! The rain had disappeared overnight and we arrived at Grim’s Dyke on an idyllic English Summer’s day as described in many a Jane Austen novel. 

Surrounding Grim's Dyke Hotel is one of its most spectacular features, the grounds, an enchanting mix of wild woodland and formal gardens.

The MAS anniversary cake – prior to being devoured!

The famous gardens with majestic Giant Redwoods, Rhododendrons and Bluebell carpeted woods (there is even a Monkey Puzzle tree), were in full bloom, The air rendered intoxicating with the scent from their blossoms whilst the numerous birds thriving in this perfect garden setting trilled songs of welcome throughout the afternoon.  Gilbert loved this house and we were thrilled to see numerous mementoes relating to Gilbert and Sullivan, newspaper articles and diagrams of costumes for the original productions. Eddie the manager welcomed us with a brief history and then we were ushered up the wide wooden staircase to the galleried music room and scene for our festivities. Lunch followed by a concert from myself, followed by a traditional English Cream tea followed by the Gilbert and Sullivan singers. What a thrill to hear these well known songs in the actual building where so many were composed. The reaction of the group was ecstatic – so much so that a casual spectator could have been forgiven for imagining he had strayed into the return of the Rat Pack in Las Vegas!

The MAS Group at Grim’s Dyke June 2 2010

Tired but happy, we trouped onto the croquet lawn to pose for our picture, mix and mingle with local alumnii who had come to join us and visit the lake – now a muddy swamp -  where Gilbert drowned trying to rescue a woman swimmer in distress. You didn’t know he drowned? Well technically he didn’t as he was taken to the house where he passed away in the study.  But there’s a strange twist to this story involving the woman he rescued.

What became of her?

Dear Reader, she went on to marry – and then murdered her husband! Remember – you read it here first!

The next morning Azamara Journey retraced her steps down the Thames en route for Amsterdam where many made the pilgimage to Anne Frank’s house. Hardly a cause for humour but the following is so funny it deserves a mention. It concerns a female showbusiness ‘personality’, better known for her physical attributes than her acting ability, making her thespian debut as Anne in a theatrical realisation of the tragic story. On opening night it quickly became obvious that this was a stupendous miscasting and as the play progressed, the disenchantment of the audience with the leading lady increased. Came that tense moment when the Nazis call at the house to arrest Anne. A ‘heart in the mouth’ moment designed to have the whole audience praying that history could be re-written -  but this night it was no to be.

The scene went something like this:

Soldier knocks at the door and Maid opens the door.

German Captain: 

“We have come to arrest Anne Frank – tell us where she is”

Dramatic Pause - then loud shout from the disgruntled audience

“She’s in the Attic!”

Which brings me to the Music At Sea socialising. Coffee Mornings, Tea Afternoons, Dinners followed by nights when we sit into the wee hours exchanging our stories. And what stories!  I had asked one of our couples about their first meeting and Ken replied that he first noticed Rosemary whilst working as a lowly ‘gofer’ in her father’s printing works. They were at opposite ends of the social spectrum. She the boss’s beautiful daughter and he, a young lad, practically penniless, struggling to survive. That eventful morning he was pushing a dolly loaded with glass bottles of acid when Rosemary, wearing an especially tight fitting blouse, caught his eye. Momentarily distracted from his task, Ken inadvertently steered his load into the wall where the dolly, coming to an abrupt stop, ejected its load onto the stone floor where, unsurprisingly the glass bottles fractured and spread their acidic contents! Standing there at that precise time, and unable to move fast due to his physical condition, was a fellow worker who, unfortunately, had a disability – a wooden leg. Yes you’ve guessed the rest. The acid attacked the lower part of the wooden leg which proceeded to dissolve and crumble in front of them!

Oh, I’m sorry, I know the story is in poor taste – but we couldn’t stop laughing!

On a more serious note – and this is serious – I pass on this salutary tale and advice. 

One of the group – an ex-military officer – served in Desert Storm and, whilst he was away, a well meaning neighbour pinned a large yellow ribbon to a tree in his front garden.  The result was the opposite of what the neighbour intended and could have been tragic.   One dark night a man, assuming there might be a woman alone in the house, smashed down the front door with a hatchet, cutting himself in the process. Undeterred, he continued - his route marked by a trail of blood - up the stairs, into the bedroom, into the wardrobe where, convinced she must be hiding, his blood soaked hands left stains over the clothes as a grim reminder of his frantic search.  Luckily there was nobody at home but the lesson to be learned is clear. When you tie a Yellow Ribbon outside a home you are also advertising to the world there might be a lone, unprotected person inside. 

Auriol, now living in Hawaii had childhood memories of UK during the 1930s. One day, happily playing on the beach in Worthing she threw her ball in the direction of a severe looking man who picked it up and threw it back to her. Each day at the same time she would be there and so would he, and for a week they played this innocent game together.  It was her father who told her the name of her new playmate - Emperor Haile Selassie of Ethiopia! 

 Hale Selassie – in more serious pose!

And so we traversed the Kiel Canal to our final port.  Copenhagen, where we awoke to the sight of wind farms – also seen at the entrance to the Thames and Amsterdam – and a slight sea fret which cleared into a gloriously sunny day. Many of our group were staying on for a few days and since we had said our good byes the previous evening I walked alone into the city via Langelinie, the home of the little mermaid. 

 The Little Mermaid

For many years she’s perched there, surviving all winds and weathers, numerous assaults and even two beheadings, but today she was absent.  Could it be that in her advanced years she didn’t do Sundays? No!  She’s visiting China as the undisputed star of the Danish Pavilion at the World Trade Expo. A live feed on a big video screen showed her dissapointed admirers this side of the Atlantic the adoring hordes walking past her in Shanghai. Oh Fickle Mermaid! In Copenhagen we had to be content with a miniscule replica perching on her rock. Very, very tiny – as you can see from the picture. 

 An EXCEEDINGLY Little Mermaid

And with memories of Copenhagen I leave you. Many of the group were staying a few days or continuing to other European cities or cruises. For my part I’m preparing to cross the Atlantic for the next ‘Music At Sea’ departing Vancouver on June 20th. - but that will be another story!

I’ll be in touch!