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My weekend: Stonehenge, a float on the Queen Mary 2, and a day in Hamburg

After yesterday’s post about the Queen Mary 2 runaround, I figured I’d give you a bit wider look at our long-weekend.  It included a visit to the famous Stonehenge site, a 2+ day voyage on the Queen Mary 2, and then a day in Hamburg (Germany).

We started out our extended weekend early last Thursday morning with a quick flight from Paris Orly airport up to Southampton (well, let’s be honest, it was a multi-week vacation leading up to the weekend…viva la France!).

Stonehenge:

The beautiful thing about the Southampton airport is that it’s nice and small. A handful of gates and a short 50 meter walk to the car rental location.  We only had about 5 hours between the time we landed and the time the ship departed, so we had to be efficient.  We figured the most efficient method would be a car rental, and it was definitely the best option.  Picking up the car took no more than 20-30 seconds of paperwork and we were out the door.

Turned out, they gave us a BMW!  I guess all those compact car rentals I usually get for work trips are paying off!

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It would be about a 45-55 minute drive to the site.  As we neared the site we didn’t quite expect it to basically be right next to the highway.  Here we were stuck in traffic near it, on a highway going from four lanes down to two lanes.

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Once you pass it on the highway you make a bit of a loop around to get back to the site where you go ahead and park your car (for free) in a farm field before making your way to the visitor center/entrance.

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After which you simply follow the crowds up to the stones.

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The site is setup such that nobody gets any closer than about 50 meters from the rocks.  But they’ve got a path in a perfect circle around the site, so you can wander around and see it from all angles.

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Thus, a quick gallery:

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We spent about 30-45 minutes there, just enough time to utilize some of the free little audio tour doohicky they give you (it was quite good actually).  Then it was time to head back down to Southampton to catch our boat.

Overall the site was pretty cool.  But it’s definitely a trip you tie onto something else.  Not a full-day trip, more like a 1, maybe 2 hour trip.  Just in case you were planning a trip to that area.

The Queen Mary 2:

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We dropped off the rental car at the airport and then took a quick 15 minute cab ride down to the pier.  After passing through the main gates were quickly plopped in front of the massive ocean liner.

While it may look like a cruise ship – calling it such is definitely not considered kosher.  These days the differences between traditional cruise ships and ‘ocean liners’ continue to dwindle (along with ocean liners).  But the core difference is that the ocean liners are faster (about 15-20%), and are designed to better handle the rougher weather that transocean crossing throw at it year round.

The Queen Mary 2 isn’t an old ship however, it was built back in 2003 by the Cunard Line (owned by Carnival Cruise Lines).  And, through a twisted set of relatives is a descendent of the Titanic (via the White Star Line, which Cunard acquired the naming/organization in the 50’s).

Within the US there are numerous opportunities this time of year (and in the late spring) to do 1-3 day cruises either to ‘nowhere’ or to a nearby location and back.  These are typically aligned to the weekend, and often cost just a few hundred dollars.  When we found a similar opportunity for the Queen Mary 2 here in Europe, we jumped at it.  The trip was a 2-night voyage from Southampton (UK) to Hamburg.

We thought this might give us an opportunity to see if we’d like to travel in the future on the ship, the cruise line, or across the Atlantic.  We aren’t strangers to cruises, as we did a 14 day cruise last fall from Dubai to Singapore – so long periods of time at sea isn’t a concern.  That said, as you’ll see, we’re glad we tested the waters with the Queen Mary 2 first.

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Getting checked in only took a few minutes and we were quickly on our way onboard.  Upon crossing from gangway to ship we were met by a gaggle of employees lined up.

None of which paid any attention to us, or to anyone else. No ‘Welcome aboard’, ‘Hello’, or ‘Can I help you find your way to your room in this massive floating city?’.  Instead, they stood around chatting to each other as people flowed by.  Ultimately, we’d find this a common thread.

We found our way up to the state room and got situated.  They had placed a bottle of champagne and sugar-coated strawberries there.

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The room was pretty much on-par with other rooms we’ve seen on other cruises. Perhaps a tiny bit wider.  The bathroom was situated however in a way that made the shower area much larger than others.

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Upon dropping our stuff off, we immediately headed back out to explore.  I’d say that the exploration piece was probably the most exciting part of the trip for me.

Except, our plans were slightly interrupted by the muster drill.  So, delay of game on exploration and instead we put our costumes on:

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With that all complete, it was back to exploration.  We’d start off on the top deck, which depending on where you were in the ship was at our level, or one floor above us.

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That pretty much immediately brought us outside onto the vast upper decks.  At this point people were securing their spots for the eventual departure an hour or so later on.

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We worked our way up towards the bow of the ship, in an area that’d be on top of the bridge.  The Lookout is an outdoor but glassed in/protected area to watch the view ahead.

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Around it are the mini-tennis courts:

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We worked our way back along the ship towards the stern (end).  As you make your way back you cross past multiple wide open spaces.  While they look really pretty and majestic, they do seem like a bit of a waste of space – as they weren’t used for much (and aren’t sheltered from the wind much).

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As we hit up the cascading levels of the rear of the ship it was in full-on party mode.  We were beginning our sail-away, which is when you depart the pier and head out to sea.

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They were handing out little British flags as well:

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Looking back up towards the ship, you can see people lined up on all the balconies:

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We hung around this area for a bit of time before heading on to check out the rest of the ship.

We soon started making our way along the lower deck towards the front.  I LOVED the little wooden chairs on the wooden deck.  All the way around.  So perfectly appropriate.

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At the front we found massive propellers placed as monuments of sorts.

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Heading on inside, there’s plenty of spaces to explore.  Though, unlike a cruise ship, they tended not to be as easily found – nor as activity oriented.  In fact, there were very few activity-oriented spaces in the ship.  They tended to be more ‘rooms’ to hang out in, rather than places to go do things.

Perhaps one of our favorite parts of the ships though was the historical boards put up everywhere describing all aspects of ocean liner history from 100+ years ago.  It was really cool.  Like one giant tactfully done museum throughout the ship.

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Additionally, there were endless paintings of various ocean liners, including the Queen Mary 2:

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Additionally, as the ship would arrive at various ports around the world for the first time, the ports would provide placques, plates, certificates and all sorts of things commemorating the occasion.  Below, one from LA, and one from Corner Brook, Newfoundland.  The hallways were full of them. Really cool.

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One area that definitely differed from a traditional cruise ship was the library.  The one here was absolutely massive.  Row after row of books on all sorts of topics.

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Finally, I’ll wrap-up this tour with the bell and the main dining room.

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The dining room is a good place to segue into perhaps the most pertinent part of our journey.

When folks think of the Queen Mary 2, they naturally think of the pinnacle of the cruising experience (or ‘ocean liner experience’ if you must).  But we found that simply wasn’t the case.  In fact, it was far from it.  While the ship itself is stunning, and the interior spaces equally as impressive (though, with a decidedly different slant towards segmented reclusiveness) – the food, food service, and general service fell so far from the apple tree it should probably be called a pear.

The first night we ate at their Todd English restaurant, which is their premier surcharge establishment onboard.  The service was OK (not bad, not good, just OK), and some courses were great, while others horribly overcooked (the table next to us actually returned the same dishes we got – and they had been on the ship since NYC).  We were too kind that night and just let it be.

The next day we spent time checking out the buffet option (well, we did that the first day too).  When you think of passenger ships (cruise ships), you tend to think of glorious buffets with plenty of options at nearly all hours of the day.  This was definitely not the case.  The ship was arranged in a multipod buffet design, which meant that only one of such pods was typically open at a time, but yet not with full daylight hour coverage.  For example – they fully closed at 3PM.  At the same time, all other places to eat closed.  So if you were lounging around the pool and wanted a midafternoon snack – no love.  The pods were scattered about 50-75m apart around the ship on a single level – separated by walls and ship structure.  It was like playing buffet peekaboo.  Really, I don’t like to play peekaboo with my food.

Ignoring the hours, the buffet food was simply not-so-great.  I would have happily eaten at McDonald’s over the options presented (extremely limited options – perhaps 15-20 dishes in total).  Most languishing around for hours becoming overcooked, and those that weren’t overcooked were designed to be in a perpetual mush state.  The ‘service’ there was rarely friendly.  Even those very McDonald’s here in France would have been much friendlier.

But all of that pales in comparison to our final dinner night (we only had two dinners mind you), where we arrived about 10-15 minutes prior to the end of seating (we could arrive anytime we wanted) and found ourselves up against the most angry man I’ve ever encountered in a restaurant.  No, Chef Ramsay wasn’t there.  Apparently his apprentice waiter was.

We had been seated at a two-person table, but not our original table.  The place was empty, so the host put us there instead.  The problem was that he apparently wanted to be done for the night. We didn’t get a hello, good evening, or anything else. We got our menu’s mostly chucked at the table.  He then huffed off to complain to coworkers about the situation?

How do we know he complained? Well, despite the rest of the crowd being 60+ years old with less than stellar hearing, our hearing is quite good at half that age.  So since he was only 8 feet away, we could hear the entire conversation rather clearly.

It continued with further banging down of plates onto our table and all sorts of unnecessary drama.  Eventually we asked for a manager and asked to be reseated elsewhere (that was a very one-way conversation on our part).

From that point forward that night – the service was excellent.  The servers were top-notch and just as good as we’d seen on other top cruise lines.  And the majority of the dishes we got from then on were good.

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But ultimately as we’d make our way around the ship we’d find lackluster friendliness (well, generally none at all). Perhaps only 50% of the crew would even bother to greet you in the hallway.  Again, in theory the White Star Service is such an integral part of crew training at Cunard.  Yet being ‘blah’ seemed to be such a key part of our two-day journey.  I can accept that every company has a few bad apples – it happens.  But when you see time and again poor service, it’s hard to want to go return.

And that’s what this comes down to.  Cunard has to realize that those 2-day cruises are ultimately ‘test runs’ for people interested in a longer traditional transatlantic journey with the company.  As was exactly the case with us.  Thus they should have been at the absolute pinnacle of what service they could provide.  While I wouldn’t by any means describe our experience as ‘horrible’, it certainly wasn’t ‘great’ either.  It was just ‘blah’.  And if I’m going to sit on a boat for a week with no land in sight, the experience better be fantastic.  How is it that we can have far better service when paying $61 a night for a no-name motel in a small town in the middle of nowhere, and have better food at a fast food chain for under $15 a meal/person?

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Thus, while I found the ship impressive to be on, you won’t find us on another Queen Mary 2 journey, nor the Cunard Line anytime soon.  We’ve enjoyed other cruise lines (such as our honeymoon), and can’t wait to go back in that direction.

Hamburg:

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Upon arrival in Hamburg we left the ship in our rear view mirror – ready to enjoy a full day in the port city.  We ended up exiting the customs hall and literally walked straight into a little peddle-cab.

We would pay about $10 to have him take us and our two little bags over to the train station.  From there we could put our bags in lockers for the day until our flight home later that night.

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With our quick bike-ride over, we boarded an open-top bus for a 90 minute tour of the city.  This seemed like the perfect way to get as much of Hamburg in as possible.

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The tour guide ended up being quite funny actually – though many of the jokes appeared to be in German (it was delivered in both English and German), still pretty fun and way better than I expected.

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After the ride around town we wandered down through the start and finish area of a large cycling event that was occurring the following day.  They were just finishing setting everything up.

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Along the way we got distracted though:

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But soon we were back on course, entering the massive multi-block outdoor expo area:

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All the major bike brands were here from Cervelo to a slew of European brands.  There were also bike shops selling goods.  I found the waterbottle + nutrition pack idea interesting (seen below).  I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like that in the US (well, except packaged fireworks).

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We’d end up buying a number of things in this store, since it was well priced.  In fact, so well priced I almost picked up this bike (600 Euros!).  I’ve been tempted to get a low-end road bike lately, as I’m finding a number of times I need a road bike to complete product review aspects that don’t work well on a triathlon bike due to handlebar configuration (I don’t have a road bike currently in Paris).  I realistically won’t ride it a ton, so it doesn’t really need to be top of the line.  Looking clean and seamless in product review shots is actually a higher priority in this instance.

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I’m still tempted…

Speaking of vendors – ROTOR was there as well.  Though, I figured I’d save my chatting for Wednesday at Eurobike.

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With our bike shop wanderings complete we headed over to the Miniature World museum.  This place was incredible.  Like the little railroads I’d build as a kid – but taking up an entire building.  It was a 45 minute wait to get in, and they’ve had over 10 million folks stream through since opening.

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There’s different aspects of Hamburg, as well as other cities around the world modeled.  Some models – like the airport, are fully functional.

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Planes actually take off and land, and taxi to the gate.  The gate then pulls up next to it and vehicles service it.  Seriously.

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There’s an entire video you can watch of the whole thing here.  It’s astounding.

With that, it was time to head to the airport ourselves.  We walked back to the train station, and then took the 20 minute train straight out to the airport.  Quick and easy.

From there it was an hour flight back to home in Paris – thus ending our summer vacation.

Thanks for reading!

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19 Comments

  1. A question… They probably automatically xx% or xx USD per day to your total bill as a tip? If you are unsatisfied with a service on a cruise ship, what happens to the tips? Can you argue that amount? Or did you get any other apology or …?

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      They do indeed, I think it was $13/day/person for tips. We didn’t fight the automatic tips.

      We did individually tip the dinner team that followed the bad waiter. We got a short apology from the manager that night (the same one we escalated to), but nobody else came by.

      Reply
  2. jpb

    You certainly seem to have had a disappointing cruise experience. There is no excuse for the rudeness of your waiter and the (lack of) quality of the food.

    But I wonder is some of the lack of friendliness is a cultural thing. I’m a Brit and though I’ve no desire to go on a cruise I imagine that if I did I’d probably not want to be greeted every I passed a member of staff whilst moving about the ship. It is like in shops – in the US if you go into a shop you’re immediately greeted/accosted (depending on your view point) by an assistant who asks you how you are etc whilst in the UK they generally wait until you’re looking a bit puzzled before asking if you want any assistance (or annoyingly hide from sight when you really do want to buy something!)

    Reply
  3. Joe Price

    For 600 Euro, that Trek 1.2 was priced about average. I picked my new one up a couple of months ago and I love it. Feels like a few higher end bikes that I’ve ridden. Of course… I have manipulated mine quite a bit.

    The Trek 1.2 would be great for Road Bike tests… plus that would benefit my side of your reviews as I can directly relate =)

    Stonehenge has always been a bucket lister for me… Does it live up to the hype?

    Great post. Fun to read as usual.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Stonehendge is cool, and worth a trip if you tie it onto something else.

      I kinda like that they’ve kept folks away from the stones – as well as the fact that the site wasn’t super-built up with all sorts of touristy junk. Just sorta out there in a field.

      Reply
    • Sam replied

      I used to live on the base the other side of the trees in the pictures, Stonehenge featured on most of my running routes and even 100 run pasts it was always cool to see.

      Reply
  4. Guillaume

    It’s considered a sin here to put sugar on strawberries. I would have known right there something was amiss! ;)

    Great read! That Miniature World museum looks awesome…

    Reply
  5. Matt

    Sorry to hear you had that grouchy waiter. That’s some incredibly bad behavior. The ship is beautiful.

    Reply
  6. Mark

    It’s too bad you didn’t have a great experience with the QM2 or Cunard. I was lucky enough to get a tour of the QM2 when it docked in FL on it’s maiden voyage. It is definitely a great looking ship. In 2001, I was on the Queen Elizabeth 2 and had a great experience. Though I wasn’t greeted constantly by staff, the ones that I interacted with on a semi-regular basis were helpful, friendly, and added to the overall experience.

    Reply
  7. Matt

    i just spent about 90 minutes going from one link mini Frankfort airport clip to another…that is probably the coolest thing i have ever seen…or watched.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      Yes, it’s addicting! And there’s so many well put together clips as well.

      Reply
  8. BillM

    Wow, the detail in that mini airport is amazing. Even the electronic billboards work. I wonder what happens when it becomes dated, do they update it just like a modern airport or do they keep it as a potential museum piece for the future. Also wondered if the curtain that moves to allow planes to take off ever has a mishap and what happens then. Great review of the Stonehenge experience, just as I recall it from my own visit in past.

    Reply
  9. Tim

    Give me a note when you will visit Hamburg again. I will give you a closer look to the triathlon city Hamburg.
    Regards

    Reply
  10. Pete Thomas

    So now DCRainmaker has expanded into the travel and tourism business, I like it!

    Shame that your Ocean Liner experience wasn’t great, but it’s only Cunar that are missing out on your custom!

    I bet those Peddle Cab drivers (riders?) are fit guys, lugging passengers and luggage about all day every day!

    How apt is it that you arrive in a city just when they’ve got an expo on! It’s like you’d planned it…

    Reply
  11. The Hamburg Miniatur Wunderland has been on my list of places to visit for a couple of years, but every time I find an excuse to visit Germany something comes up and I have to cancel. One day-one day.

    I have stayed on the Queen Mary, obviously didn’t go anywhere, and despite being very well worn it was a memorable experience. The rooms are about 1/2 that size and it smells a bit musty. Hopefully, they have fixed it up since I was last there, but it would be fun to do a side-by-side comparison.

    As serial traveler, I am curious if you invest in nice luggage or just get what I call the Ross special (basically go down to Ross or a similar place, get something there and replace it when it breaks). I tried the Tumi route, once and it didn’t last any longer than the Ricardo Beverly Hills or whatever the stuff is I usually pick up at the discount store.

    Reply
  12. Mark in MD

    Hey Ray, I took the transatlantic last June (NYC -> Southampton) and would echo many of your sentiments. We had a horrible table in the middle of the dining room (loud), an extremely indifferent waiter and overall sub-par food courses. I finally hit on the idea to eat at the secondary options, as at least the food is cooked when you order it (Jade or whatever the asian theme was imho the best).

    I was in the middle of training for a 50k race and did more laps outside than I care to remember. The walkway turns are semi-blind, more than once I almost plowed into some walkers.

    All in all, the experience was below my expectations. I will say this, it is a much more civilized way to cross the pond, losing an hour each day means you can hit the ground running in England with no jet lag.

    namaste

    Reply
  13. John S.

    Hopefully the Trek you almost bought doesn’t have the same derailluer hanger attachment as the Speed Concept.

    Reply
    • Rainmaker replied

      I don’t believe so, and with aluminum frames it’s not as much an issue as carbon.

      Reply
  14. Excellent review. The blog contains detailed succession of events about your cruise ship experience which is great so that people will have a glimpse of what it is like to ride on the Queen Mary 2. Looks like you guys really had fun considering all the activities you did and the places you visited. I wonder though how much it costs to have an adventure like that.

    Reply

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