“So”, said Suzie, halfway through a run one evening, “Cunard have been in touch to ask me to be a celebrity speaker on one of their boats. I can pick any boat and any cruise and bring a guest. Fancy it?”
Conversations with Suzie never start as you would expect them to, but even by normal standards this was a pretty far out opening sentence, and hard to respond to adequately whilst trying to keep up with her on a run. I tried to convey excitement and enthusiasm with my eyes whilst simultaneously gasping for breath, but she just thought I was about to collapse and gave me an encouraging shove up the hill. Back at base later Suzie popped open her computer and eagerly scrolled through the list of possible cruises. “Look” she cried, “We could go to New York, we could do the Panama Canal – WE COULD GO ROUND THE WORLD!!!”
We drooled over the list for a while, tempering excitement with realism, and then Suzie went back to Cunard with some ideas and that was it – it was really happening, we were heading for the Norwegian Fjords, in August 2018, on the Queen Victoria, the baby boat of the three big liners owned by Cunard, who are at the very top of the pinnacle as far as luxury cruises go.
There were a number of warnings from Pixie about icebergs, including some cheerful links regarding the Titanic. My ancestors, my mother pointed out indignantly, included sailors on the Lusitania, Olympic, and Titanic and therefore would clearly have inherited a genetic affinity with the sea. The fact that all three boats sank was dismissed as irrelevant.
At that precise point, however, I was less concerned about the possibility of the boat sinking than the email Suzie had received, which featured such words as “exclusive access”, “premier”, “black tie” and “evening wear”. It transpired that, as a celebrity speaker, Suzie was entitled to a luxury suite, with access to the elite dining area and exclusive upper decks. We were going to have to dress for dinner! There was a black and white gala ball!! We weren’t allowed out of our cabin after 6pm unless we were in evening dress!!! Clearly some shopping was required as my usual holiday evening wear of the same sweaty chalky clothes I had worn all day was not going to cut it. Cue panicked internet shopping and some in depth homework on the instructional blogs and videos Cunard provide to help their passengers to learn how to behave properly. I was very amused to find one comment that explained that a Cunard cruise was not like other cruises. For example, you would not find anything as tacky as a climbing wall on one of their boats. I began to wonder if they would even let me on board. I turned to Yvonne for reassurance, as she is always ready with sage advice. “Don’t worry” she responded comfortably, “ as long as you don’t eat your dinner sitting crossed legged on the floor, swigging from the bottle with your spare hand like you normally do, you’ll be okay”.This was going to be even more of a challenge than I had thought.
My mother, meanwhile, had been reflecting, which is always dangerous. “Do you know what”, she said “This is a Significant And Important Event In Your Life and I think it is important that you acknowledge your sea-faring ancestors whilst you are on board. I am going to give you money to buy a nice bottle of champagne to toast them with. Is that ok with you and Suzie?” I went straight to Waitrose without a wasted second, and texted my champagne guru from the wine aisle. “Loz!” I said “I need to buy champagne, what should I get?” “Pol Roger” he responded. “They have Bollinger as well?” “Pol Roger”. “What about Veuve?” “Pol Roger” he replied testily. “OK – just checking though – they have Lanson?” “POL ROGER!!!” I bought the Pol Roger. It had the prettiest box, anyway.
The big day finally arrived and a chauffeur driven car arrived to take us to Southampton port. Having spent a good portion of my childhood around Southampton docks (which is not quite as exciting or nefarious as it sounds) it was quite moving to see one of the great ocean liners in port and know I was about to board her. Trying to blend in, we headed towards the waiting room, but there was one issue. Despite the fact that Suzie is capable of dealing with the challenges of unsupported high altitude mountaineering, and I can pack five people and all their kit into a Fiat Panda for a weekend away, both of us had turned out to be unable to pack evening clothes into our main bags, and had been forced to keep armfuls of long dresses with us in our hand luggage. Trying to look sophisticated and cool is hard with acres of satin and velvet slithering in all directions and stray shoes popping out all over the place. Strangely, no-one else was carrying anything more than a minute designer handbag. And that was just the boys. The looks of disdain were eloquent.
We were expecting a reasonably nice cabin from what we had read. Due to Suzie’s status as celebrity speaker, they felt it necessary to provide a place where she could hide from her adoring fans and had mentioned that this would be one of their top end cabins. We hadn’t expected a corner cabin with a balcony on two sides, outdoor furniture, an office, bar area, jacuzzi bath and lounge which, when we were shown to it, already had a bottle of champagne on ice waiting for us. Being aware of the Pol Roger secreted in my luggage and of the fact that Suzie had just confessed she had also brought bubbles with her, I started to feel slightly stressed. We now had three bottles. Suzie doesn’t even drink – well not more than a glass every six months, anyway. A small bead of sweat popped out on my forehead.
We quickly posted a video of the grand tour of our apartment and balcony, drawing the dry comment from Railton that it was bigger than his house and then, already overexcited, we ran out of the cabin to explore. There was a cinema! A library! A dance floor! Pubs and bars and restaurants and an art gallery, and an auditorium where Suzie would give her talks. And that was just the middle deck! We started to wonder if we were dreaming and nipped back to the cabin to check it was real. Complimentary chocolates and a bowl of fresh fruit had arrived while we were gone! We ate the chocolates and ran off again to check out the on board gym. Yep – it’s definitely there, that’s all we needed to know – quick let’s go back via the spa area and one of the swimming pools and see if that balcony is really that big… and there, sitting on our coffee table was a newly arrived spare bottle of complimentary champagne. We now had four bottles. I could feel the headache coming already.
We hadn’t left port yet, so we made another excursion to the top deck, which was exclusive to the class of passenger in which we had found ourselves. There, 11 decks up, was another swimming pool, a bar and hot tubs. Remember those hot tubs. They feature later. We also spotted the exclusive restaurant, 10 decks up, where we would eat each night (unless we chose room service from the extensive menu we’d found in our cabin).
My mother texted me to point out it was now getting close to the time when we would “slip our moorings”. I wasn’t sure if she was referring to the boat leaving the port or to the quantity of alcohol we appeared to be acquiring, but it was lucky someone was paying attention. We hurried back to the cabin again. Once again we had had a mystery visitor.Who was this person?! This time they had left a tray of canapes shaped like little ocean liners and a wine list with a note to say we could choose a complimentary bottle of wine and another one of spirits. By now deeply worried I sat Suzie down and explained I was going to need help. She agreed she would, in a tone of voice that implied she might drink a couple of glasses across the week, but after that I was on my own. Still, you can’t pass up on free booze if you are a Bowliner, so we added a bottle of rose and some Tia Maria to the list. Our friends, observing the events unfolding from messenger, started to refer to our trip as a booze cruise.
To deal with some of the surplus we retrieved the bottle of bubbles that had been on ice and sat on the balcony as we set sail down the Solent past all the insalubrious places I used to play as a child. “Look” I exclaimed to Suzie as we passed a muddy beach flanked by high rise 1960’s tower blocks, “that’s Western Shore, I used to look for shells there!” “Hmm” she replied, justifiably unimpressed. “And there, that’s Netley! Did you know that the military hospital there had the first specialised facilities in the country to treat those who came back from WWI with shell shock?” I could see in her eyes that she was beginning to think it would be a long trip.
We nipped up to the compulsory safety briefing, although we were beginning to think that one of us should stay in the cabin in case the mystery visitor brought any more alcohol, but when we returned all was as we had left it and we relaxed a little. Then there was a tap at the door. A smartly dressed gentleman stood there with a faint look of exasperation. “I am CLaudio, your butler” he stated. “Where have you been?! I have been backwards and forwards trying to speak with you all afternoon, and you have never been here. I need to take your wine order”. We tried to look cool and pretend we hadn’t been running round the ship like over excited children, but I think he had already got our measure….
Our first day at sea saw calm weather and many, many distant oil rigs. Even if we did sink we wouldn’t bob around for long without knocking into something. Suzie’s first on board lecture was was well received and inspirational as always and saw the start of an eager fan club that we were to bump into on many occasions. Our bottle of rose arrived, and I wasn’t able to resist opening it and drinking a glass or two before popping it back in the fridge. On our return from dinner that night it had been joined by a fresh bottle.
We woke the following morning as we arrived in Bergen, our first stop. We ate breakfast at top speed and leapt off the boat (well, casually walked down the gang plank). There is no passport control if you are on a cruise ship, as you can just flash your cruise card, so we were free to roam straight away. In the distance there were hills, so we made a beeline for them, but were soon slowed down considerably by an abundance of wild raspberries. I’d managed to download a Norgeskarte app, so we had the equivalent of OS mapping and route finding was easy up to the telecabin at Floyen and onto the escarpments beyond. “Ooh, I said brightly to Suzie “it was near here they found the body of the famous Isdal woman. She was never identified, but was later found to have travelled extensively in Norway in the months before her death, using eight fake passports. They think she may have had connections to the Cold War”. Suzie replied with a long and complicated equation, which I think meant “shut up or I am never travelling anywhere with you again”. At least my cheerful recounting of local history took her mind off the fact that we had just lost the path and walked into a bog. Our feet were now very wet.”Shall we head down?” I suggested, “There is an Ice Bar in the town which I am keen to visit. I have never been to an ice bar before”.
It took some finding, tucked away down a side street and our journey took us past the lively and bustling quay, some knit-bombed trees and a quick sandwich lunch before we finally located it. “My feet are still soaking wet from that bog you got us into” remarked Suzie. “Oh” I replied “that’s a shame. I brought dry shoes in my bag. For me”. We gained admittance and were issued with huge fur lined parkas to help us withstand the -5 temperatures and headed in. Munsch, the famous artist, is originally from Bergen, and lurking within the clear blocks of ice that made up the walls were some of his works of art as well as others by Klimt. Changing light colours made the area glow blue, red and gold, and all the tables, chairs and even the glasses were made of ice. The drink we were given was heavenly – cloudberry liqueur, topped up with sweet white wine. “I can’t feel my toes!” hissed Suzie.
Having had too much fun, we were running late for the boat, and didn’t want to see it sailing off down the fjord, so we hurried back and got on board with just enough time to relax on our balcony as we cast off and headed off overnight towards Sognefjord and Flam. Sognefjord is the deepest fjord in Norway, up to 1308m at its deepest point. We marked our departure with another glass or two of the rose, which took us into the second bottle. On our return from dinner I peered in the fridge with a sinking sensation. Yep – there was a fresh bottle. With a sinking sensation I realised that it was complimentary for the whole week. I was going to have my work cut out, but I would not surrender! My liver made a little moaning sound.
We awoke already in port at Flam and once again hurried breakfast and jumped ashore, Norgeskart clutched excitedly in freshly charged phones. “There is a 17th Century wooden church we must look at” I exclaimed. Suzie looked longingly at the mountains all around us. The wooden church (built in 1670) was quickly despatched, as was a conversation about outer space with Suzie’s fan club, and we headed off up the into the hills. As we came around a corner we found a large herd of goats barring our way. They took one look at Suzie and fell in love with her, climbing all over her as she sat in the middle of the path. One particular little beige goatlet was very enamoured and kept nuzzling at her. She was finally persuaded to move on and we continued our journey a short distance, but it was as though an elastic band had attached Suzie to the goats and we soon returned. The beige one scampered over straight away and rested its head on her shoulder. “I’m going to call him Biscuit” she announced. I genuinely thought she was going to try to smuggle him back onto the boat, but I managed to distract her at last with talk of afternoon tea on board and we set off again. On the way I was adopted by a tiny little cat which persisted in following us. Eventually we had to turn round and carry her all the way back to where we had found her. Norwegian animals are very friendly.
Back on board we took full advantage of the promised afternoon tea – a lavish affair of sandwiches and cakes on a proper stand, which we only made just in time, still dressed in our sweaty hiking leggings and t-shirts, still trailing our rucksacks behind us – the boat took us overnight to Geiranger, where we walked up to Storsaeterfossen, a big (and busy) waterfall that you can walk behind, bumped into Suzie’s fan club, discussed outer space and then carried on, leaving the crowds behind, into the hanging valley of Vesterasdalen. We came round a corner and lying across the path in front of us was a giant sheep. It wasn’t moving. It continued not to move as we approached. It was clearly dead. Suzie gave a little whimper as she drew level with it. It looked up, and pushed its head towards her. Not dead, just chilling. I prepared myself for another long wait as Suzie sat down on the path and started cuddling it.
Travelling back down Geirangerfjord that night was a beautiful experience, narrow, with sheer sides, waterfalls tumbling straight into the waters of the fjord and tiny summer dwellings clinging to the cliffs and accessible only by water. Definitely the most atmospheric and my favourite of the fjords.
Wednesday saw us in Haugesund, which, as I informed Suzie whilst we were getting ready for breakfast, lies very close to where Harald Fairhair, first king of Norway, had his home. In fact, Harald Fairhair was buried at Haraldshaugen, which, if we got a move on, we would be able to visit. From there we headed up into the hills again and stopped in some woods by a reservoir to eat some lunch. A flock of ducklings paddled over and the mum led them straight to Suzie The Wildlife Charmer. They all climbed onto her lap and ate her lunch. I can only attribute what happened next to light headedness due to hunger, because as we walked back down through the town, Suzie suddenly stopped, a light of panic in her eyes. “Off license!” she cried “We need an off license!” “Are you mad?!” I cried “How can we need more alcohol?! Also, I have never known you buy any type of booze!” I am not leaving Norway without some of that cloudberry liqueur we had in the Ice Bar” she replied. Fortunately, as it was about an hour before the boat left port, she had thought of this with some kind of finely honed instinct and we were only two minutes walk from a mall that housed a large Vinmopolet, where we both bought cloudberry liqueur as a souvenir.
We left port heading for home with a full day at sea again. Suzie gave another talk and a question and answer session and had another chat about outer space with her fan club and then we were free to roam, so we went up to the hot tubs on the eleventh deck and, as the weather had worsened, had a wonderful time soaking in hot bubbly water with ice cold rain falling on our heads. Wonderful that is until the gigantic Russian Oligarch who had been relaxing in the covered bar chose to come and get in the same tub as us. As we shrank closer together he extended both arms along the sides of the tub and placed his feet, complete with yellowing fungal toenails, next to Suzie’s head before introducing himself and striking up a conversation…..Once we had extricated ourselves from this situation we needed to deal with the trauma in our own ways, so Suzie headed off for a spin class whilst I elected to have a bath and use up the last of the rose. I may have already over indulged, because I don’t know what made me think that using shower gel in place of bubble bath and then turning on the jacuzzi jets at full blast was a good idea. I popped to get something and when I returned, the bubbles were above head height and took over an hour to disappear.
We had decided we had to toast my ancestors during our full day at sea, it seemed appropriate, so it was Pol Roger night. The list of names my mother had given me ranged from my maternal grandfather, a member of the Royal Navy, who had sailed for Norway himself just two days after his wedding, a maternal great grandfather, who was torpedoed in both WWI and WWII, a great uncle who met his end on the Titanic and some Essex dudes who infiltrated Devon in the early 1800’s and went on to crew trans Atlantic racing yachts, in one case for the Kaiser! My favourite however was one who served only five days on a merchant ship before being put back on shore and dismissed as incompetent…. “Suzie,” I said “there are fourteen people on this list and it’s raining outside and blowing a hooly. I don’t mind if you sit inside while I do this….” “No way!” she responded and so, in full evening dress we stood on the balcony in the storm and shouted out their names, toasting each one. Then we came back in and dried our hair and did our make up all over again and went up to dinner.
For the whole voyage, the wonderful sommelier assigned to our table had become used to coming over at the start of the meal and offering us a glass of wine, which we would turn down. It wasn’t liked we weren’t already pickled from the contents of our cabin. We had promised we would have a glass of wine on our final evening, but we could tell he didn’t believe us. He looked absolutely delighted that night when we said “Yes please!” and requested a glass each of pudding wine. “Perfect” he said, “I have just the thing – I will choose for you. It is from a vineyard in South Africa that has been in existence since the 1700’s”. I had visions of him opening a dusty vintage barrel, hidden deep in his on board cellar for us but the glass of Gran COnstance he returned with was well worth the week’s wait and was thoroughly enjoyable. As we gurgled our appreciation it has to be said he looked a little smug.
There was live music that night from The Rewind Project, led by one of the lead singers from 10cc, and the drummer from the Moody Blues, who played classics such as Nights in White Satin, Forever Autumn and Dreadlock Holiday. Denouncing it as unsuitable for pogoing Suzie went back to the cabin.
The final treat in store for us was when we came back up Southampton Water early the following morning in convoy with the other two Cunard boats, the QE2 and the Queen Mary . They aren’t often seen in port together so to have the experience of seeing it whilst on one of the boats ourselves was very special.
After that, it was back to earth with a bump, with no sommeliers, no butlers and no amazing Norwegian Fjords. It took a while to adjust! After all the alcohol we drank it was 2020 before we could face tasting the cloudberry liqueur, but when we did it was every bit as good as we remembered, though it has to be said we drank it with drier feet and next to a roaring log fire. Our main take away was how easy it was to get up into the hills from the ports, using our Norgeskarte app, and we are both very keen to head back, in slightly more rough and ready transport, to do some proper walking. Well, I am keen to do some walking, I think Suzie just wants to go back and find Biscuit again. They write often.
A big thank you to Suzie for allowing me to share in this unforgettable experience and for being the kind of friend that will stand in the middle of a storm in an evening dress drinking champagne with me!