A West Coast Adventure and Wine Cruise onboard Celebrity Millennium

Thursday, 30 September 2010

Brooks Blog

A personal account of the 36th ‘Music at Sea’.

A West Coast Adventure and Wine Cruise onboard ‘Celebrity Millennium’

September 17 – 29, 2010

Vancouver, Canada - Nanaimo, Canada - Victoria, Canada - Seattle, USA

San Francisco, USA - Monterey, USA - Catalina Island, USA 

San Diego, USA - Chateau Roberts, Ramona, USA

In theatre speak the word ‘resting’ is applied to those periods when artistes are not working or are, as their agents prefer to express it, ‘available’. This terminology might give the impression that ‘resting’ is an involuntary and undesired situation.  Not so.  For some time I have regularly blocked off two periods in the year when I ‘rest’ and, to the distaste of my agent am unequivocally ‘unavailable’. Christmas/New Year and August.  The reasons for the former are obvious. The reasons for the latter?  Firstly, with many of the regular residents of London gone, it becomes a much cleaner, quieter and more pleasant city and secondly, once you have endured an August holiday cruise onboard a mega-ship in the company of 900 excitable, hysterical children, you would need to be a masochist or parent (the two are combinable) to wish to repeat the experience! So it was that August found me in London, not only sharing the daily chores with Ann but also with the chance to catch up on theatre, which included a visit to Sondheim’s  ‘Into the Woods’ in Regents Park (magical and widely regarded as one of the best productions EVER) and ALW’s latest blockbuster ‘Love Never Dies’ - from which we emerged emotionally drained and anxious to dive into a double brandy! Don’t believe the critics. This show is STUPENDOUS, the equal of Phantom and deserving to run until eternity. 

‘Resting’ also gives opportunities for visits to the tailor, optician, hairdresser - “Sir, the less the hair the more the skill required to style it” was the pained response when I enquired why I was paying the same price for my pathetic few strands as the long haired woolly mammoth in the neighbouring chair - and the annual health check. This latter task I have entrusted to the same doctor – Barry - for many years as, since I’m still alive, he’s clearly doing a good job. Moreover he doesn’t greet his patients with “How are you?” I know this greeting is a polite formality and my reaction may seem pathologically churlish (it probably is) but we use the greeting so automatically – along with its obnoxious twin “Have a nice day” that I’m certain we frequently fail to take notice of the response. Going for a medical and being asked “How are You” I would have to check the instinctive reaction “Isn’t that what I’m paying you to tell me?” which, lets face it, would be a bad start to the proceedings.  

Barry’s office, guarding the southern entrance to Harley Street, provides an excellent vantage point over this legendary thoroughfare where leading specialists from all over the world come to practise their healing skills on all humanity from the ‘newly hatched’ to the ‘soon to be dispatched’. 

Barry’s office, guarding the southern entrance to Harley Street, provides an excellent vantage point over this legendary thoroughfare where leading specialists from all over the world come to practise their healing skills on all humanity from the ‘newly hatched’ to the ‘soon to be dispatched’. 

I’m a nervous patient. I close my eyes at hospital scenes in movies – particularly that which occurs in so many of them where some unfortunate body on a gurney wired to a machine is fighting to stay alive. The machine emits this haunting rhythmic sound:

Beep – Beep - Beep - Beep … The unfortunate body slowly raises a finger – perhaps to utter some crucial last words (Beep – Beep - Beep – Beep)  but before he can move his parched lips … BEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE… Yes, he’s croaked.  With memories like this you will understand dear reader that when in a similar position myself i.e. naked, horizontal and electrodes on my chest – a standard part of the yearly check-up - I tend to feel slightly vulnerable and not in the least talkative, which is why Barry does a monologue – and very illuminating it can be. On this hot August day, having secured yours truly in  this position,  (Beep – Beep - Beep – Beep) Barry, sensing the tension in his patient, and trying to lighten the situation, embarked on a monologue regarding hobbies (Beep – Beep - Beep – Beep) as I became more relaxed (Beep – Beep - Beep – Beep) his voice becoming a distant drone (Beep – Beep - Beep – Beep) I heard the word CHOCOLATE (Bebebebebebebebebebebebebebebebebebebe…Suddenly I was wide awake) I had not misheard. CHOCOLATE.  He was talking about the hobby of his long time PA Hazel who, whilst researching the dark art of chocolate-making, had discovered the secret of producing healthy chocolates! Oh Happy Day. HEALTHY CHOCOLATES - so good for you that Barry recommends his patients chomp on one a day and, more to the point, a leading cardiologist ‘up the road’ (and remember this road is Harley Street) having researched the ingredients, had just placed a substantial order to offer  his patients!!!! ‘Chocolates to die for’  not ‘Chocolates to die from’ and you too can buy Hazel’s  Manuka Angels from this web site:

Thus it was that, guarding my box of Manuka Angels (strictly for medicinal purposes) I boarded the BA flight to Vancouver to join Millennium for the penultimate Music At Sea of this anniversary year. By strange coincidence as I flew out the Pope flew in, guarded by angels of a more celestial kind,  and minus one of his aides who, having ruffled the national ego by proclaiming that ‘landing at Heathrow was akin to arriving in a third world country’ had been forced to remove himself from the papal tour for ‘health reasons’. Recent events at Heathrow have vindicated him!

The cruise was designated a ‘Wine Cruise’ – when you’re tired of smelling roses, smell the grapes – but it could equally have been labelled a ‘movie’ cruise for commencing with rainy Vancouver, aka ‘Brollywood’ the third largest film production centre in North America, many of our ports had movie connections – about which, more later. 

Leaving Vancouver we sailed a brief 36 miles along the coast of BC to drop anchor in Nanaimo, instigator of the International World Championship Bathtub race, but don’t let this put you off visiting for this is an area of great scenic beauty.  The next day we remained in BC with a visit to its capital city, Victoria, the location for the oldest Chinatown in Canada, and rated by Condé Nast one of the top ten cities to visit in the world.

Gate of Harmonius Interest, Chinatown, Victoria

Crossing the border between Canada and the USA, we docked in Seattle, for computer fanatics the breeding ground of Microsoft (its home is in nearby Bellevue) for aviation enthusiasts synonomous with Boeing and, since it is home to Starbucks, the centre of the coffee lovers universe! TV viewers would immediately identify the Seattle landscape as the backdrop to Grey’s Anatomy and as for that Space Needle featured in the credits for Frasier – yes, it’s the most striking piece of architecture on the Seattle skyline.

Space Needle and Seattle Skyline

San Francisco was next on the list. Here, the harbour water is so pure that seals swam around Millennium in her berth. Contrasting that, once ashore I was surprised by the number of beggars on the sidewalk, one of them displaying a sign reading “OK I need a drink”. If ‘honesty is the best policy’ I hope it paid off for him! 

It was on one of my previous visits to San Francisco that I witnessed a rare occurrence onboard a cruise ship – a passenger mutiny! A few years ago, we had closed off an Hawaii cruise in San Diego and with a full ship embarked on a new cruise with an itinerary including several of the US west coast cities before going up to Alaska and then, on the return journey, traversing the inside passage to close the cruise in Vancouver. San Francisco was the first port and after an exciting day ashore many were waiting on the open decks to witness the 6.00pm departure.  6.00pm came, but the distant rumble of the ship’s engines firing up was absent. 7.00pm – no rumble and worse, no sign of any activity on the dockside which might signify the untying of ropes! The excited chatter of the guests, now cold from their outside vigil, turned to angry mutters as, tired of waiting, they drifted inside to warmth and comfort. 8.00pm came and went. Finally at nearly 9.00pm, with no announcement explaining the delay, the ropes were cast off and the ship ventured out of port. Not until the next day, during the Captain’s usual noon-time announcement (weather forecast, ship’s position, depth beneath the keel etc.) did the guests receive an explanation that the delay was due to repairs being attempted on the ship’s propulsion unit, repairs which had not been successful and, as a result, although the ship would continue with the cruise, the reduced speed would mean that we would miss two ports and  leave a  third port 4 hours earlier than planned in order to arrive in Vancouver on schedule.  The Captain went on to tell the guests that as compensation for this inconvenience they would be getting a credit of $50 to their onboard account. This news was received with all the enthusiasm of a bacon sandwich at a Barmitzvah. Sitting two decks ABOVE the Guest Relations office, I became aware of a murmur rising to the sound of anger and crescendoing to a roar as hundreds of people shouted and chanted “Fifty Dollars not enough – Captain, Captain, Captain NOW” and surrounding the Guest Relations desk. Venturing from his nearby office into a hail of abuse, the Hotel Director tried to calm the angry throng, after all, didn’t the Captain have enough on his plate trying to manouvre the crippled ship and look after their safety? No. Apparently not! The mob would have none of it. “Fifty Dollars not enough  - Captain, Captain, Captain NOW” they chorused. From my safe vantage point I reflected how quickly affections change! The night before, many of those below, dressed in their best clothes, had stood in line anxious to shake the Captain’s hand - AND buy the photo.  Now they wanted to shake his throat! The Hotel Director had to make a quick decision – hadn’t the Captain just told him there was no way he would emerge from behind the securely locked door of his Bridge and that he, the newly promoted Hotel Director, should display his leadership qualities? Yes……….But………He surveyed the scene in front of him. Scenes like this had not been in the training manual! Valour gave way to Discretion! 

“Ladies and Gentlemen, the Captain will make an appearance in the Theatre at 2.00pm where he will make a statement and take questions.”

“Hooray” went the mob. First blood to them. I leave you to imagine how the Captain reacted when the Hotel Director broke the news of his imminent theatrical debut, but we can safely assume his worry beads were well fingered that day! 

Now it so happened that, at that moment, the theatre was closed to enable a young trapeze artiste, newly arrived from Eastern Europe, to put the finishing touches to her act which was to be featured in the evening show. She was taking advantage of a lull in her rehearsal, suspended upside down, legs crooked around her trapeze,  gently swinging from side to side whilst contemplating her sudden change of fortune and oblivious to the tsunami of fury about to invade the theatre. WHOOSH!... The theatre doors burst open and the baying crowd spilled down the aisles. One look was enough! She somersaulted off her precious trapeze, tucked it under her arm -  and ran. Now maybe she would have acted differently if she had had more notice. Maybe distant memories of revolution and danger in her Soviet childhood caused her instinctive actions, but unfortunately – and all of us can reflect on some actions we now regret with ‘If Only’  - in her haste to escape she didn’t remove the rope with the noose attached which had been supporting her beloved trapeze! As the mob waited impatiently for the hapless Captain, their eyes surveyed the empty stage, now so different from the vibrant, brightly lit platform that had showcased the production they had cheered the previous evening. Now, illuminated by a single working light it seemed so lifeless, so empty, so…………Wait…... As if in perfect unison all eyes swivelled upwards… Could it be?… No, surely not… But… Yes, it definitely was. There, hanging from the roof, barely distinguishable through the gloom was the unmistakable shape of a solitary cord with a noose dangling below it! This was too good to be true. Their joy knew no bounds. A lynching! With laughter and applause the cry was taken up “Come out Captain.” He, poor man, waiting in the wings (unaware of what was hanging from the roof) and hearing his name mingled with unexpected merriment, decided this was the right moment for his entrance then, giving the order for the stage lights to come on, strode purposefully on stage to be greeted by rapturous applause. The Captain couldn’t believe the change of mood. Greatly relieved, he waited for the applause to subside and drew a deep breath. In that split second of silence came the heckler from Hell. 

“Dead Man Walking,” He shouted. The theatre erupted with laughter.  The Captain looked bemusedly at the audience and then followed their gaze upwards to the dangling noose with impotent fury. Oh San Francisco – whatever happened to the city of brotherly love?

But back to our cruise! Thankfully, no problems with Millennium’s engines and we arrived in our next port bang on schedule. Monterey – the birthplace of California’s Constitution, signed here in 1849. Still with history, but musical history, Monterey was the location of the first modern rock festival, pre-dating Woodstock and staged here in 1967 with a dream team of artistes including: Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, The Byrds, The Who,  The Mamas and the Papas, Ravi Shankar, Jefferson Airplane and Otis Redding. For book lovers, the Monterey Penisula is ‘Grapes of Wrath’ country thanks to its famous ex-resident John Steinbeck and as for the films made in Monterey County where do I start? There have been over 200 including such blockbusters as:

The Candidate, Mutiny on the Bounty, East of Eden, Play Misty for Me, Star Trek IV, Anna Karenina, “Rebecca,” and “Basic Instinct,” and “From Here To Eternity”.

“Wrong” I hear you cry. “’From Here To Eternity’ was shot in Hawaii.” Well,  yes,  most of it was, but the famous beach scene and kiss between Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr was filmed right here in Monterey County. Who said “The camera cannot lie?”

Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster on the beach in Monterey County!

And so to Catalina Island – indelibly associated with William Wrigley Jr. (of chewing gum fame) who bought 99% of the island in 1919 and invested heavily in making it a playground suitable for the rich and famous. He succeeded: Charlie Chaplin, Joan Crawford, Clark Gable, James Cagney, Betty Grable, Norma Shearer, Irving Thalberg and Johnny Weismuller were frequent visitors. Natalie Wood was tragically killed here and Cecil B. De Mille, having used the location for three of his movies, remarked that Catalina was “the only place where I can get away to work amid real inspiration.”

Needless to write, but our guests had a wonderful time ashore and I was worried that, given the plethora of magnificent ports, our final attraction – two days in San Diego – might be an anti-climax. I shouldn’t have worried although the omens were not good. The day before arrival, California had sweltered through the hottest day on record, 113 degrees, but mercifully the heat was less intense when we arrived. Our first day was spent ‘at leisure’ but every MAS guest was presented with a ticket for the San Diego trolley tour (with which two of of our treasured allumnii ‘have a connection’ – thank you Moe and Marina) and the reponse from the MAS guests was that this was a really relaxing and entertaining way to get an overview of this historic city. 

The next day John and Rosemary opened the doors of their  beautiful home to us. 

The Music At Sea Group gather in the courtyard of John and Rosemary’s home. September 28 2010.

They have created their ‘dream house’ nestling in the hills of Ramona, high above San Diego, a place of breathtaking views and the epicentre of a host of boutique wineries. Paradise. Without John and Rosemary’s enthusiasm and expertise, I doubt if Music at Sea would have survived babyhood, so it was fitting that our tenth anniversary party and concert was to be held at their home. Rosemary and Mui (their daughter-in-law) had planned the festivities with military-like precision and we were joined by several local MAS alumnii, plus, and this was a lovely surprise, Lori Goldspiel (representing Royal Caribbean/Azamara Club Cruises) and Cindee Crain (representing Celebrity Cruises). Cindee and Lori have ‘flown the flag’ for Music At Sea with determination, skill and passion. We have a lot to thank them for, not least, the warm welcome and meticulous attention Music At Sea guests receive when onboard Celebrity/Azamara ships. Our party was a great success. A magnificent buffet lunch, then a brief but highly entertaining talk on Ramona wines by John York, a local oenophile, followed by your humble correspondent doing his day job, i.e. playing a concert. Was this the highlight of the day? No. There is an old show business adage: Never share the stage with children or animals. The undoubted star of the day was Calvin, John and Rosemary’s 2 year old grandson who, sporting a new tuxedo and bow tie, greeted us at the front door with all the style and aplomb of the Maitre D’i at the Ritz!

Calvin Roberts

Completing this account in London and having just read through my words, I realise that, although this was described as a wine cruise, there has been little mention of wine. A dreadful omission! Dear reader, do I  hear you ask?

“What about the Wine Cruise?” 

OK. Let me reassure you.

“It was shtunning. Abshootely Fabulosh!”

With warmest thoughts