CULTURE

Helbi cruises around Norway’s fjords on the Queen Mary II

“Cruise» is one of those tired but magical words left to us by the 20th century. In 1936, Cunard’s ocean liner the Queen Mary, christened by Queen Mary herself, plied the route between New York and Europe with the bluebloods and movie stars of the age. Dinner guests in the Britannia restaurant were decked out in tuxedos, evening gowns and gems. Since then, much has changed. The first Queen Mary was withdrawn from service, transatlantic sea travel was replaced by overseas flights. The line’s policy was reoriented to the cruise market and the holiday spirit. Now, in 2004, the Queen Mary II, built at the Alstom shipyards in France, belongs to Cunard’s subsidiary Carnival, based in Miami and owned by Micky Arison, who has put his personal mark on the liner’s luxury hotel image – that of profit, profit and more profit! The QM, as it is known, is truly the «biggest, longest, tallest, widest and most luxurious ship ever built,» as the advertisement proclaims, a floating, multinational «country» where the passport is the plastic boarding card with the passenger’s photograph and code, to which all purchases made on board are charged. For $5 it buys a bottle of water for your cabin – where the refrigerator has only a bottle of champagne and two fluted glasses. The card also buys you a massage in the Grand Canyon Spa, or chips for the casino and the one-armed bandit. The card is your passport to everything, whether the jazz club, snack bars, photo shop, the boutiques or the souvenir shops. Or perhaps the Queens dance hall, with an American 1950s-style live orchestra and singer. Pairs of professional dancers circle the floor, alternating with the gentlemen who give dance lessons in the morning, and who now take grandmothers for a turn around the dance floor. After boarding in Southampton, passengers are on Deck 1, where all baggage is checked and boarding cards issued. From then on, the climate changes. Thick carpets such as those found at the Plaza in New York or the Dorchester in London, chandeliers, mirrors and works of art lead to the Grand Lobby, decorated in gilt with the Four Seasons. On each deck there are four elevators, important when most of the passengers are elderly. The Americans from Florida seek out the cool of the Norwegian fjords in summer, the British want to dress up and forget about Tony Blair, the Japanese want to play at being Europeans and appear to enjoy the cruise most of all, as well as the tours on shore. As for the Greeks, there was a group of six of us, led by Constantine and Geli Angelopoulos. Even on the Queen Mary there were classes of passengers – those in the suites with an ocean view, cabins with balconies on the side of the ship and the interior cabins at more reasonable prices but with artificial lighting, while outside, the midnight sun continued to shine, through the Helleslyt, the Gieranger and Alesund fjords and then Bergen. We got out our winter clothes as Athens melted in a heat wave. The Queen Mary slid smoothly through the narrow fjords like the speedboats that came out to meet it and lead it to the head of the fjord where it either docked or anchored. In the latter case, passengers were taken ashore in tenders to go on local tours to waterfalls, glaciers, the Stryn lakes, the peak of Blue Mountain. Souvenir shops sold wooden boxes and troll dolls, but the reindeer we saw from afar at Stryn were real. Our guide, Carolina, spoke not only about the ecosystem, and the landscape generally, which in Norway is unspoiled, but the education system that teaches the children three languages from primary school. Bergen is more cosmopolitan, with its museum and festival dedicated to the national composer Edvard Grieg, and the lively fish market, small squares and stores. At night, we saw from afar the lights of the oil wells in the North Sea that have made the country rich and its shipping fleet second only to that of Greece. Our Greek group disembarked at Bergen, although the cruise was paid for through to Hamburg, Rotterdam and Southampton. «The Van Gogh museum and the canals of Amsterdam need a trip in themselves,» decided Constantine, and he was right. So the Queen Mary II sailed away onto the horizon. We’ll see it again in when it enters the port of Piraeus at dawn on August 12, where it will be home to heads of state during the Olympic Games. The cruise in the fjords was lovely, but the rest of the summer is ahead of us and is very Greek.