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Voyage in the wake of pioneers

August 23, 2018

A voyage is better than a cruise, where you actually go somewhere rather than sign on for a seagoing hop on – hop off version of If It’s Tuesday This Must Be Belgium. It’s a journey with an end, such as crossing the Atlantic.

I did this a while back on Cunard’s QE2, a Clyde-built express that once crossed Southampton to New York in three days, 20 hours at an average speed of 30 knots, but in its second life as a cruise ship took six days, in my case New York to Southampton, getting me to London for one of the first Eurostar runs under the vnewly-opened Channel Tunnel to Paris, and then Concorde back to New York.

{$filename} It was indeed, as they say, the only way to go, and then some.

But what was on my mind on a return to Southampton on a mild September day was not only the satisfaction of adding the return journey to my logbook, it was the thought of sailing west across the Atlantic in the wake of Columbus, the Pilgrim
Fathers, waves of migrants, Atlantic convoys battling on amid U-boats, and of course the Titanic.

Here was food for thought, and with four sea days ahead, time for a book or two, and as it happened, a good read acquired at our first port.

There was also the very important matter of the vessel, the Silver Muse, that departed Southampton in the evening. It was the newest ship in the Silversea fleet, a marvel of design and comfort for 600 lucky people. When it comes to getting afloat, they don’t come any better than this.

The next morning, just 165 nautical miles to the west, we were at Falmouth in Cornwall. Some passengers went off to visit Land’s End while others strolled the town’s long shopping street, which in days gone by would have seen the homes of ship captains and inns where migrants heading for the new world waited for passage.

Falmouth became a busy place in 1688 when appointed England’s Royal Mail packet station, from where mail, goods and bullion (all in “packets”) as well as passengers left on fast, lightly-armed ships to faraway possessions. Hence the term packet ships.

It all changed in1850 when steamships were able to get to London in almost any weather, leaving Falmouth to become a sleepy town on a beautiful coast with, here and there, the homes of writers and artists. David Cornwell, better known as John le Carré, is one of them, which probably explains why I was able to buy a signed copy of his novel, A Legacy of Spies, in Falmouth.

Silver Muse then headed for Waterford in Ireland, where a blue plaque on a town informed us that Thomas Meaghar was born here in 1823, transported to Tasmania in 1849, then made his way to America and came across the Civil War. He became a general in the U.S. Fighting 69th and Irish Brigade and then Governor of Montana, and along the way created the Irish national tricolor, first flown in Waterford.

The next day we were at Cork, a kiss away from the Blarney Stone, and delightful Kinsale, home to the the Old Head golf course. The city’s port of Cobh was formerly known as Queenstown, and this is where Titanic made its last call on April 11, 1912. Seven passengers got off here – a good move that – while seven boarded in second class and 113 in steerage. When the Titanic sank four days later, only 25 per cent of steerage passengers, mostly men, survived, while 97 per cent of women in first class made it into lifeboats.

After that we had a quick visit to Galway, noting that it was near here that Charles Lindbergh made landfall after his perilous crossing of the Atlantic in 1927, and also where French aviators Nungesser and Coli, trying to get to New York the other way, were last seen. 

As Silver Muse’s captain set course for Newfoundland, 1714 nautical miles and four days west, the butler came to our cabin with canapés and asked if he could pour the Champagne. Being where we were, and as Champagne comes with the rations on Silversea, it seemed like the right thing to do.

Sea days allow a ship to get into its stride, free of gangway announcements, crew drills, and the like. Passengers get into a routine with visits to the relaxing spa, library, coffee in the agreeable Arts Cafe, maybe a comfy seat in the Venetian lounge to hear cruise raconteur Bill Miller, then lunch.

Midnight buffets are a thing of the past, although on Silversea there is a pizza place which serves till late, 24-hour room service with a superb menu (including an epic fillet steak) and you can even order from it at a restaurant.

What’s more skilled sommeliers are always around and invariably have a selection or wines so good that there is never a need to stray into the connoisseurs’ collection, unless in La Dame, perhaps, where the elegant setting and ambiance, not to mention the caviar and lobster, can induce the desire for a fine Bordeaux. But even then, prices are not over the top; around $70 buys something worthwhile.

I liked Indochine for its Asian food, teppanyaki time at Kaiseki, and the deck Grill where more good steaks come on hot rocks. The late bunch found their way to Silver Note, a cozy nightspot with a jazz singer, and pianist, with the style of a Chicago speakeasy. You simply don’t get this on big ships, at least not without mums and nocturnal children on the dance floor at midnight.

Surprisingly, there was no main dining room, rather eight restaurants each of which had to be booked, two of them requiring formal dress every night. It was a new concept and has since been changed, with two of the restaurants having open seating, with dress codes operating ship-wide on a daily basis. 

The crossing was a piece of cake. Seas were mostly calm and dolphins occasionally gave us an escort. With one day to go kittiwakes flew out from Newfoundland to bid welcome, and Captain Alessandro Zanello gave me a bridge tour. He is an engaging character with excellent English and likes to dress up his noon talk from the bridge with stories of sea lore, such as superstitions. 

There are no paper charts on the bridge but a radar search by the navigator found the Titanic position in seconds, about 600 miles due south. Ships do go there, but apparently often have problems such as engine failures. Add that to seamen’s superstitions.

Along the way we had good wifi. Silversea gives one hour a day free of charge which I found ample. Downloading a newspaper and an email check took less than 10 minutes.

St John’s has a fine big harbour protected by a narrow channel and cliffs sporting cannon, not to mention a handsome town where the friendly locals speak with a bit of Irish, for indeed they were the backbone of Newfoundland’s huge cod fishing and curing industry. There is a lot of see here, including the menu at the Blue on Water restaurant for fresh cod and oysters, but my main interest was the Crow’s Nest Officers’ Club which has a U-boat periscope in the bar. The periscope also goes through the ceiling and the roof, as you would expect.

It came from U-190, which surrendered off Newfoundland at the end of the war. It was the same vessel that had torpedoed a Canadian Navy minesweeper, the Esquimalt, and after a brief period of service as a training vessel with the Canadian Navy, U-190 was sunk for target practice at the same place as the Esquimalt.

Captain Cook was based here in the 18th century and mapped the entire island. His skill was so remarkable that his charts are identical to current satellite-enabled versions. Such prowess resulted in Captain Cook being sent to Tahiti, after which he sailed south and found Australia.

Silver Muse left port amid a prolonged symphony of whistles from many vessels in the harbour, a great experience organized by local port authorities displaying a glorious maritime tradition.  

At the next port, St Pierre, which along with Miquelon, is a French possession, we got a Gallic shrug from the locals who shut up shop from noon to 2.30pm, much of the time we were there. An overnight in St John’s would have been a better idea.

Then Sydney, as Scottish as a bluebell, and with it a fine statue of an immigrant Highlander and his daughter near the dock. Sydney had smiles and markets everywhere with locals keen to make a few bawbees from the Silver Muse passengers. Here the place to go was the Governor’s Pub for oysters and fiddle music. The dockside Big Fiddle Market did a roaring trade, while tour buses swept many to Baddeck on Cape Breton for the Alexander Graham Bell museum and Louisbourg, a perfectly restored French fortress reputed to be the place where lobster was first eaten by soldiers during the 1758 siege by the British.

Not a few passengers on board had read Anne of Green Gables, the novel written in Prince Edward Island, and who was in Charlottetown to meet us by a smiling young lady playing the part perfectly. 

Charlottetown is where 150 years ago Canadian leaders from across the country agreed on confederation. It also has the finest oysters, and lobsters, the latter so plentiful, locals told me, that in days gone by poor children took lobster sandwiches to school for their lunches.

Nevertheless, restaurants charge an arm and a leg for them. They must have learned their pricing from OPEC.

By now passengers on the Silver Muse could talk of nothing but their delight at all things Canadian. They mentioned no litter, polite children, low house prices (other than Toronto and Vancouver), and no wealth and inheritance taxes. I could have added the oysters.

Then into the mighty St Lawrence River and up the Saguenay fjord where we docked to a welcome that blew everyone away. Locals in period costumes danced and sang in the style that has won them awards for best cruise ship welcome. Helicopters and Beaver floatplanes were on hire for sightseeing and whale watching along the fjord, whose sides soar to 350 metres. We were now in Quebec, where stop signs read Arret – whereas in France they say Stop. This is testament to the independence streak that is never far from many Quebecers’ dreams.

Quebec City is special. Remarkable to think it took the British just 20 minutes to win the battle in 1759 that dislodged France here and indeed all of Canada. But 100 years later the remaining French won language and other civil rights when the Americans tried to get them to join the US. Quebec City is the beating heart of the French in Canada and it shows. Chateau Frontenac, said to be the most photographed hotel in the world, is always worth a visit but so busy. We took a carriage round the city then enjoyed lunch at Chez Jules.

Finally, Montreal, to find that a big cruise ship had nicked the only dock at the cruise terminal. As a result it was murder trying to get a taxi, a scenario we had seen before in Sydney, Australia. Because big ships can’t get under the bridge, they have priority at the dock opposite the Opera House. Smaller ships like Silversea have to go under the bridge and dock at White Bay, where we have waited, and waited, for taxis.

However we had a reservation at the Sofitel, and called the concierge who sent us a taxi. Then the fun started. As we checked in to the hotel we felt energized, ready to explore this charming, vibrant city, maybe more. Voyages do that to you.

MONTREAL 

Sofitel has a great location on the Golden Square Mile named after the many mansions belonging to the men who built Canada. There were just 23 families who between 1830 and 1930 ran the railways, shipping, banking and insurance, and of these 19 were Scottish.

Many started in humble circumstances such as George Stephen, a bare-footed stableboy from the whisky town of Dufftown who became president of the Bank of Montreal, was the genius behind the Canadian Pacific Railway which united Canada, and ended up as Lord Mount Stephen. His magnificent home is now a hotel.

Another was Donald Smith, who went from humble Hudson’s Bay Company clerk to become Lord Strathcona and the man who drove the “last spike” to complete the CPR.

Then there was James McGill, a Glasgow merchant who came to Canada as a fur trader and went  to make a fortune which founded McGill University.

Perhaps the finest house is the Italian Renaissance Ravenscrag built by Hugh Allan, who built the world’s largest privately-owned shipping line. This and many other mansions became part of McGill University.

If you go, spend a day in Old Montreal. It was here in 1605 that Champlain started a fur trading post, the Catholic church arrived, and French settlers had an average of 22 children per family. However the British prevailed and the biggest statue here is of Nelson. There is another of Robert Burns in front of the Sun Life building, in whose vaults the British crown jewels were stored during the war.

The Golden Square Mile is worth a good look, and I had the good fortune to have as a guide Peggy Wilson, who is contactable at peggy.wilson132@gmail.com.

Tourism Montreal is at info@mtl.org.

www.siversea.com

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