I am pretty well traveled. I have been to many places and love the city I live in, Boston. I’ve been to the countries that abut our US borders and have loved both Mexico and Canada but I had never been to Quebec City until recently.
Getting to Quebec City is a bit complicated. There are no non-stop flights from Boston and the drive is long through New Hampshire and Maine. Still, no excuses. I needed to get there as quick as possible as I was only spending a little over 24 hours there. So off Michael, our Canada expert, and I went. We traveled on Porter Airlines over Toronto. I really loved Porter Airlines – plenty of leg room and the facilities in their waiting rooms are brilliant. Landing at Toronto’s Billy Bishop City Airport is one of the greatest landing strips in the world. It feels like you are literally in the parking lot of the Toronto skyline. It was a breathtaking landing! We then went on to Quebec City and colder climates. Quebec here we come!
Awestruck at Arrival
Quebec is a total French experience.
We grabbed a rental car and headed in to the city. The first stop was the small town on the banks of the Saint Lawrence River, Levis. We boarded the car ferry for the 10-minute crossing into Old Quebec. The river was a moving spectacle of floating ice. It looked like a sea of icebergs steadily moving along the rapid tide. The boat crushed through the chunks of ice as if they were not there. In the distance, there was the beautiful Chateau Frontenac; our hotel and main focal point for Old Quebec. We checked in and began our tour of Quebec. My rusty French was about to get a work out.
A Chilly Quebec
Quebec is simply a delightful small town. Its modern history stretches back to the story of the American revolution and the collapse of French colonialism and English domination. It is utterly French. Its language is authentic, old French and the cafes and restaurants boast this proud heritage.
We were visiting in the cold of winter. They estimate they get 16 feet of snow on average each winter here and it stays cold for many months. The snow stays too. But Quebecoise get used to it. There are toboggan runs and ski circuits, skating rinks and dog sleds, ice hotels and maple sugar shacks, and popsicles made from hot maple rolled along a snow tray. Which are delicious! There are even canoe races across the icy Saint Lawrence. Nearby ski resorts do not have the mountain height of the Rockies but they sure get the snow depth. And the snow is light and airy because of the cold. If the town is hunkered down with winter attractions, it is, according to Michael, also one of the great places to visit in its short summer. Music festivals and cafes spilling out onto the narrow cobble streets create a whole new Quebec. Today we would freeze but enjoy the funicular and some welcomed hot chocolate. The feast would come later at one of the great restaurants that occupy the citadel.
Firstly, I love British Airways. I love the familiarity and the staff. From check in to on board service, it’s always excellent. Fact that I fly mostly out of Boston makes it even more intimate. Station managers, Nick and Carol, are simply awesome. In any service industry, staff and friendly recognition are key reasons for customer loyalty. That’s what you get from the Boston team.
They have a new fancy lounge at BA in Logan. It’s nice and offers easier access to the plane but unless you’re desperate to save money, I prefer to stay outside the lounge and grab a bite at Legal Seafoods. A nice addition to Terminal E departures.
The only gripe I have on BA is with the night flight. It’s too damn short. Tonight it logged in at 5 hours and 40 minutes. Let’s forget about food. It means after takeoff and prep for landing you can’t grab more than two hours sleep if you’re lucky. And I use all the tricks. Bose noise cancelling heads sets, eye shades and a sleeping pill. Two months ago I flew Turkish Airlines to Istanbul. 11 hours. Time for dinner, a movie, and six hours of sleep. Maybe that is the way to go to get to London. A little overshooting of the metaphorical runway and a late arrival in London…but sleep! I’ll take the day flight on BA next time.
Routine and familiarity are comforting. I’ve been going to the same hotel, the Hotel Alex, in the Swiss Alps for 15 years. Same room, same friends, same everything. It’s a great place!
There is an order to the week. There are the owners that know us and greet us daily. There is the bar and the dinners all set out every night. It is a fixed menu that is beautifully crafted by a fabulous chef. There are special dinner nights like fish night when there is a fabulous array of smoked delicacies (Eel is my favorite. All of my childhood years of jellied eels created this addiction). Then there is cured meat night – a gourmands dream and as many types of mountain animals that your cholesterol can take! There’s raclette night when the owner of the hotel sweats over a raclette machine and serves grilled Swiss mountain cheese with potatoes and pickled onions. As much as you want. And these are just the appetizers! There’s always salad and always a fabulous dessert. Breakfasts are part of the extravaganza too. Yep, it’s a calorific buster off week. The skiing keeps the damage down but who is counting really?!
Apart from the food there’s this level of anticipation. Everyone looks at the map denoting ski runs open and weather reports from the top of the mountain. “What piste should I take today?” “Is Italy open?” They are always the same conversations. Reassuring. Then there’s the in-between time at the hotel. The spa and a swim before the dinner make it just a perfect week.
The people who work at the hotel are super nice. They get it. We’re all there to have a good time and escape. They smile and become part of the week.
The Hotel Alex is near to the main cog railway that takes you up the mountain and right by the main station that connects everyone to the real world down in the valley. It’s a bit like Brigadoon. For a week at least it works for me. More info on the Alex can be found on their website: Hotel Alex Zermatt. It is a surprisingly great deal and a fabulous four star hotel. Best in town. Best in show.
I am not sure if Harvard Business School has visited them yet, but there are two brothers that have a restaurant on the side of a random ski slope in Zermatt. Restaurant Tufternalp has been there for years. They serve only minestrone soup and slabs of Swiss mountain cheese that the owner slices with a cheese knife that has specific measurements for slicing so as not to give too much or too little. In addition they serve small sausages of local mountain animals if you choose. The owner also has a rotary hand-cranked bread machine that slices bread into perfect slices. That’s it, that’s the deal. Nothing more. The business economics of this kitchen are remarkable. No waste, no excess that can’t be sold the next day, and no adventurism that could affect the profit and loss. Just simple.
But then there is the service. It’s basic- they don’t really care, they are just there and you are there. It’s simple fare. Take it or get back on your skis. There is no, “Hi, how’s everything? Can I help you?” Not even a moment of thanks. No smile or welcome. It’s almost his signature. You go there because there are no surprises. It’s cheese and sausage and soup. He will be gruff and miserable. I work with my brother. I don’t know you. Even though you visit here every year. Take it or leave it.
I think the guy, the miserable one, secretly drives a Ferrari and wears Armani suits and helicopters into the restaurant each morning just to go through his shtick. Maybe he is a comedian at night. I am not sure how it works on a spiritual level but he makes money, he has no extra costs and he sure doesn’t care if you like him or not. Catch him at the slopes at Tuftern. And say I sent you. He really doesn’t care!!
Today was so cold and the temperature at the top of mountain minus 40 Celsius. The cable car stalled every five minutes because of the temperatures. But…the sun was out and with seven layers and a balaclava I was ready.
We were going to ski Italy today.
The amazing thing about Zermatt is that you get two countries, two huge mountains and therefore two cuisines. Two cultures and frankly extreme cultural differences. On the Swiss side, all the lunch places are privately owned. On the Italian side, it’s local government concessions. Even the toilets are terrible on the Italian side because they don’t care to spend the money. They just lease the premises every three years. But, hey, it’s la dolce vita so who can knock that?! It’s rosti versus polenta. Let the games begin.
At nearly 13,000 feet, the Klein Matterhorn is the highest ski station in the Alps. It’s breathtaking. From there we took the one hour ski journey to Valtournenche, a town and commune in the Aosta Valley region of northwestern Italy. What a ride – 16 kilometers of winding ski terrain. It’s something everyone should try once in their life.
Lunch at the top of course would be polenta. The sun stayed on us all day and it was glorious.
In Zermatt there are three choices to climb the Matterhorn mountain: The beautiful Gornergrat Railway, the funicular, and the Matterhorn Express Gondola.
The Gornergrat Railway is walkable from our delightful hotel, Hotel Alex Zermatt. It’s a sightseeing journey all to itself; 20 minutes climbing through spectacular scenery en route to the top. Skiers, hikers, and sightseers all share the train. It is literally, a trip, and worth taking.
Today however, we grabbed an electric taxi to the Matterhorn Express station as the temperatures were super crazy cold. The top of the mountain is minus 15 Fahrenheit. They’re telling parents not to take the kids up. Cloud cover looked grim but we went for it. And then the sun broke through at 9,000 feet. Skiing had near to perfect conditions but so cold at high altitudes.
Zermatt is a paradise of choice where everything is connected. It’s huge and connects to Cervinia in Italy. The Matterhorn follows us everywhere we go. The sun stayed out all day. We skied all day. Old friends. Fun times!
The drive from Venice along the highway to Milan is fairly dull. After Milan is where the sights get interesting.
We took the highway above Lake Maggiore which was super fast and delightful. Mountains beyond the lake and the Borromean islands in the background provided for a great backdrop to our car ride. Pushing through, we started our ascent to Simplon. What a lovely day it was with blue sky and more snow than I have seen for years.
The Simplon Pass is very unique. An ancient hospice still maintained by a religious order offers basic accommodation to the devoted and dedicated skiers and kite boarders who ply their tricks on this unique snow playground. There is a great place for lunch at the top as well. Views of the boarders and surroundings provide entertainment. The descent is hair raising though!
Journeys end along the valley following the Glacier Express. We end up in a giant car park where we dump the car and hop on the train. Täsch in Switzerland is our last stop with our car. The cog train takes us the rest of the way into a dead end in the mighty valley. It’s snowing hard.
The London to Venice flight on BA is always a treat. Once you clear the cloud cover of England, you have the beautiful Alps to greet you. No matter how many times I cross the snow capped peaks, it never ceases to amaze. This year has seen tons of snow. Still, the beauty was way up high. Below it was cloud and rain and down into another gray day. But it was Venice!
I love the slow descent into the airport here. The shape of the island, the clock tower, the canals clearly visible…It’s such a strange place. Such a trip. It’s the only place where everyone on the plane looks out of the window. It’s a wow. You want it to last forever.
Venice Upon Arrival
And then the bubble burst. Immigration was a mess. There were two people for hundreds of arrivals so it took a while. It was pure Italian theater. Nobody had a clue. The immigration officers looked in no rush at all. People were getting frustrated. It was one hour before we got to our bags!
Then there was the slightly complicated journey to the motor boats. The Venice Marco Polo Airport has recently had renovations so getting to the motor boats that bring you to the center of Venice is a new experience. It’s quite complex and not obvious to the newly arrived passengers. You have to go up the escalator to departures. Ugh. What?! And then you lose the sign. It just disappears. So, use your instincts, look for a sign, do anything. But then it pops back into view! There is a long walk along a moving escalator and down into the speedboat taxi area.
There is the usual confusion here (something’s never change!) but it is worth the wait because now it’s the greatest ride in the world. Across the lagoon and through a narrow canal and then it hits you. The grand canal. The Santa Maria della Salute, the Doges Palace, and the Piazza San Marco.
Venice in Winter
There is plenty of rain in the winter and the boards are stacked high for the Acqua Alta. In the distance the Alps beckon with snow painted across the horizon. San Marco is busy with tourists and umbrellas which always reminds me of a Prendergast painting.
I wandered back to the hotel across a couple of delightful bridges. Watched the gondola guys organizing their business and took a moment to study their technique. I tried being a gondolier once. It’s impossible! The oar, the movement, the control. It amazes and mesmerizes. Dinner later would add the final touch. Black ink squid with spaghetti.
The dreaded overnight flight dropped me into the gray skies of London too early. It was freezing. I grabbed the Heathrow Express and rushed across town from Paddington to Soho for a lunch with a business associate. We arranged to meet at the Duck and Rice on Berwick Street. Great Chinese in Soho. The dim sum are out of this world. I followed that with a quick pub visit to see a dear friend around the corner at the Lamb and Flag pub on Perry Street. I had to keep moving despite the jet lag kicking in. Then I had a fab evening with a whole bunch of university friends over in Fitzrovia.
Got to say, London is the greatest. Stick to the areas of Fitzrovia, Soho, or Covent Garden and you can’t go wrong. They are stocked with restaurants and pubs and people. It is just such an easy place to sort out a venue for getting together.
I left Soho House, the brand new one on Greek Street, super cool and beautifully redesigned, far too late for an early morning flight to Venice. Sleep could wait.
What on earth possessed me to take a transatlantic crossing?!
Secretly, I think it was on my bucket list and curiosity got the better of me because I had never in my life even taken a cruise. But I wanted to try it out. Early January probably was not the best time of the year to do the crossing but this was the last crossing for quite a few months. Unfortunately, it happened to coincide with the blizzard of blizzards that possessed New York and ended up holding the boat up for 12 hours.
The Queen Mary 2 is an impressive sight. Approaching it as we did through the Brooklyn Navy Yard, it suggests a time that has passed. Transatlantic travel aboard one of the great ocean liners of the world. The boarding was a piece of cake. Warning – hold on to your bags. Imagine you are wheeling your bag onto an airplane. This is no different. If you give your bag up to the porterage system, you won’t get it for a while and it will cost you a hefty tip at the end of its journey. We wheeled our bags through immigration control, the check-in counter, and we boarded the boat. We were sitting in our “stateroom” in no time at all. This modest but ample room with a balcony (not great in a blizzard) was to be our home for the next eight days.
It took me pretty much three days to figure out where everything was on the ship but for full time cruisers, this ship is not even that big. It holds 2,700 passengers, 1,200 crew members, has 14 decks, has 12 lounges, restaurants, and bars, and the kitchen makes 5,500 meals per day. For me it was an incredible site to behold. Walking through the labyrinth of decks and walking out onto the promenade was something I could have not imagined. The evening in New York was balmy and beautiful.
Then the blizzard hit.
Two days of stormy seas and blizzard conditions meant that we were on lockdown inside of the boat before we even left the harbor. Not to worry, there were things to do. Even though I suffered some sea sickness, I pushed ahead. I joined the health spa, I had acupuncture and a massage, I went to several wonderful cabaret shows, I ate decent food, and eventually we steered our way across the Atlantic storm and into calmer waters. Once we left behind the raging sea, the decks were open, the promenade was full of runners, and it was surprisingly temperate in the middle of the ocean.
Of course, there was nothing to see – no whale, no boat, no perilous iceberg lurking on the horizon, and not even stars at night because of the cloud cover. But the boat had its own rhythm. We visited the art gallery, took in more shows, hung out in the Commodore’s Bar which was a very cool bar, and each day I gradually slipped into a transatlantic crossing rhythm that became almost intoxicating. It is amazing what you do with your time when there is nothing to see and nowhere to go. It was a surprisingly fit holiday – I walked around the promenade three miles per day, went to the gym two hours per day, and enjoyed the steam and sauna rooms at the Canyon Ranch Spa in between intermittent naps along with everybody else whose books had fallen to their side during their tea breaks. It is an older crew on the crossing for sure.
Frankly, it is a nice way to travel if your schedule permits and you simply cannot take those cramped economy seats on a transatlantic flight. The ease of boarding and deboarding were a pleasure compared to the tension and stress of airline security and check in. Time does not really fly…it is the sea after all…but if you travel from west to east, after day three, the captain announces an hour a day will be added to your time clock. It is a fun way to deal with jetlag. The price is not particularly crazy – around $2,000 per person for all meals, inclusions, and a hotel room for seven nights is not that bad.
So, what’s the downside?
First of all, the internet was a joke and extremely expensive. It cost me $500 to maintain bad internet coverage for the entire duration of the cruise. More often than not, the internet dropped out, and the only way I could really work was through WhatsApp. When I talked to crew members about this, they told me the same story. It seems like an easy thing to fix but it was shocking how bad it was.
Second, the movies on board were dreadful. We were a captive audience. How come two bad movies per day are all we get when we have all day and all night? Why in God’s name can we not have the same kind of movie selection that you now get on planes? On a plane you are stuck for seven hours, here we were stuck for 192 hours. The TV scene piped into our rooms was awful too. It had a distinct English bent which would not have been bad had we seen a variety of great Brit shows. But this was terrible. In the end, I watched the QM2 channel because it was more exciting than the regular TV! Here is a solution – if we know the TV is bad and the movies are going to be duds, at least warn us ahead of time. This way we can download video content from Amazon or Netflix so that we have something on our iPads. Given the lack of streaming potential, this would be a smart piece of advice. I am not sure who is responsible for movie and TV selection, but honestly it was simply laughable.
Then there was the shopping. Why can I not buy anything useful when I am stuck on board for 192 hours? We don’t land anywhere and I’ve probably forgotten some important thing that I would love to buy and probably wouldn’t mind paying twice as much for. I’m older and we forget things! The shops were pure tacky Duty-Free shops tragically lined up around the beautiful ornate double staircase. Gaudy colored clothes, bottles of alcohol, perfume, all of the things that are the absolutely useless. Forgot your swimming costume? Too bad. Need a pair of tights? Not going to happen. How about a pair of running shoes for the onboard gym? No way. Absolutely shocking that they did not cater for the needs of someone like me or most people who might need to buy something functional or something they had forgotten at home.
The gym was like a bad gym at the Holiday Inn. Why have a gym where four machines do not work? The gym should be state-of-the-art. For $100 you could use the Canyon Ranch Spa though which offered steam, sauna, and had a huge jacuzzi pool. It was definitely worth it. It was free if you took a massage but then you could only use it for that day. The space for the gym could have been absolutely put to more efficient use. There was also a tiny, paddling pool and an unappealing jacuzzi on the 12th floor. I stuck to the Canyon Ranch alternative. And here is a gripe. Why do they not make a swimming pool for swimmers on board when they have the room? A 17-meter pool would be fine!
But still there were a lot of good things on board. The wine selection was top notch and not expensive. The bars were fun, the food was pretty good, and the service throughout the boat was fabulous.
When we arrived in Southampton, I was distinctly not jetlagged and it was a breeze to take the train from the Southampton station to London. Would it have been fun to hit an iceberg? Maybe. It would have broken up the trip a little, as it were. But I can now say that I have joined the club of transatlantic crossers. While I will never be a cruise addict, with some adjustments on QM2’s part, I might be tempted to go back again. But certainly not in the winter.
I came over to the USA in the late 70’s. I am an American citizen and I love this country.
I love Boston and I love travel. We have had our fair share of hiccups during our company’s journey. We have seen terrorism, war, a major financial crisis, and still, people travel overseas because it is important, it teaches tolerance and cultural understanding, and it makes our young people better citizens. I am proud of all of the things that we have accomplished in partnership with our incredible educators across the USA. So how disheartening is it to watch an event like the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting take place this week. A place where children should feel safe, where teachers teach to make better citizens, how can this be?
Forgive me for thinking that the events in Parkland, Florida seem to remind me of a film called ‘Groundhog Day.’ A perfectly serene day, a school where we have conducted business, a teacher that we know, and absolute mayhem and horror takes place.
We’ve seen it all before.
It is probably because I live in Massachusetts where there are strict gun laws, it is probably because I am English where we don’t have guns and where even the cops don’t carry guns, and it is probably because I do not believe in the Second Amendment. But I am sick and tired of listening to people talk about the need to provide guns for people to defend themselves against people who have guns! I am sick and tired of seeing headlines where young lives are taken; wonderful lives that have not even begun. I am sick and tired of all of those people who actually believe that having a gun in the house is a secure and safe investment for their children and for their families.
How many more times do we have to see these tragedies unfold? It almost deadens the spirits and numbs the mind when I see these incidents come through on my alerts. How can that be? How can 17 people being killed in a school be just another event on my alerts? How many times do we hear the cry for gun reform gradually quieten and disappear as the weeks go by until the next tragic incident takes place?
If this horrible tragedy is the start of real reform, then maybe I would start to believe that our country is moving towards sanity. But I fear not. Even though when we look at the statistics for gun deaths in the USA versus every other country in the civilized world, it is staggering, frightening, and embarrassing. Let this be a call to arm people with a voice that says that any organization that supports laws that protect and nurture the carrying of guns should be ashamed of themselves. Look at the statistics, look at the facts, this is not about mental illness, it is just simply about guns. Guns are bad and nothing good ever comes out of them.
I just discovered a fabulous wallet and it is perfect for travel.
Here’s the thing. When you travel a lot, you tend to rely upon two wallets – a mothership wallet where you store pretty much all of your main paraphernalia and receipts, and a small wallet which is for your daily fix. I’ve tried the orthodox wallets (the bifold, the trifold) and the super slim credit card holders with the money clip on the side, but it just gets complicated. The bifolds and trifolds end up stuffed with business cards, plastic cards, random notes and receipts. Before you know it, you’re walking around with a miniature book in your pocket. The tiny backup ones, are often missing the right cards – did the license get left in the mothership wallet? – and there is no room for money so you have to carry a money clip. It’s a bit messy. And the money clip is not brilliant in general. Where do you put the hotel card, the subway card, and so on?!
I thought I had solved everything when I discovered an Italian wallet with a money clip inside of it and room for a bunch of credit cards but not enough space to tempt you to dump your Costco card, your Global Entry card, and a wad of business cards. All great, except in true Italian style, the wallet started to give too much. One day, while I was paying for something, everything slid out onto the floor. Cash, credit cards, you name it. It was one of those great examples of an Italian invention where everything looked great but nothing really worked. How I love Italy!
So I was recounting this to an Italian friend of mine and he told me he had solved my problem. He recommended a wallet system called Secrid. This wallet has changed my life. It has a money clip inside, a compartment for your driver’s license, and it is small and compact. But most importantly, it has a magic lever on the bottom that fires the credit cards into a fan like display while the wallet is closed. Almost like dealing a deck of cards. I have not come across anything quite so creative and brilliant as this.
Secrid is a Dutch company that was founded over 20 years ago and the wallet piece of the company was almost a secondary part of their business. During the financial collapse in 2008, they decided to focus on what they call a “card dispenser wallet.” It was a brilliant moment. A young Dutch couple, who happen to be designers, started an incredible journey. What they had spotted was that people’s wallet behavior was changing – less cash, more credit cards, and the idea that smaller is better. Being able to dispense a credit card without opening the wallet was more secure.
So I bought one – actually I bought two – and I started telling my friends about them and using the wallet daily. When I travel in London, I put my Oyster Card in there so I can just fire the button and scan the card. I just want to say thanks to the Secrid team. Anybody who has not looked at this product should give it a shot. Follow this link and your life will be changed. Happy spending!!
Today was our last day at sea. Our day started with an early morning breakfast and then off to a lecture by Maria Friedman and to look at art at the delightful gallery. In the afternoon the weather broke and we finally saw sun and wispy clouds. Took a walk around the promenade four times and then had some wonderful English tea sandwiches (cucumber and cheese and tomato) followed by a visit to the spa and gym.
I preordered duck for dinner tonight which was wonderful. Tonight it’s entertainment night on board with entertainment by the Cunard dancers. Fit and talented male and female dancers strutting their stuff in front of a wide variety of very unfit and elderly looking male and females. Both sets were all dressed to the nines. As usual we darted to the side front. Great seats and nobody ever sits there. Thankfully, tonight it was a short show.
Had a nightcap at the Commodore Bar and then went off to bed. Everyone here had their suitcase outside the door at 6 pm. No idea why. Check out remains a mystery to me! There were some pamphlets about it but that all looked like a nightmare. It said to assemble downstairs at 8 am in your designated space etc. We are going casual though. They have my credit card. We have our bags. We will see what happens tomorrow but I am approaching this a bit like checking into a flight. Late and relaxed. Always board last and never hand someone your luggage. If they need you they will contact you and in meantime I’m going to get up early to watch landfall as we sail through the English Channel. Docking at 8 they say. They caught up blizzard delay. And how long ago was that, wow. Time actually did fly. As it were.
We started off the day with a morning breakfast disaster. They had run out of brown sauce! Now, to most people outside of the UK and Ireland, this means nothing, but to a Brit it is a major problem with an English or Irish breakfast., They said that the blizzard disrupted the supply in New York. The blizzard wreaks havoc again…
Today I went to an acupuncture session with a really nice lady, Ana, from Portugal. She was very spiritual, very cool, and stuck lots of needles in me. I️ felt great after! She was amazing. Went to the promenade for a circuit and the English tea sandwiches before I️ headed to gym. After the gym, I went to spa and then headed to a beautiful exhibition in the art gallery. Delightful.
Then to formal dinner where I got dressed up in bow tie and white shirt. The food and service has been pretty good all the way through but tonight it was exceptional. Tonight was the walk of the chefs as well. There are 236 chefs on board and they serve 15,000 meals a day. Bloody hell!
After dinner we walked to a concert where there was an amazing pianist with a band performing classical and show tunes. Afterwards, we stopped at the very cool art deco Commodore Bar for a nightcap. What a way to spend the day.