Thursday, 26 April 2018

Island hopping with P and O cruises: Madeira

Arrival in Funchal, Madeira

Madeira, from the docks pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

One morning, after several days at sea, I woke to a glittering hillside port, Funchal, the capital of Madeira. My sister is flying out from England to meet me today.

I've always wanted to visit Madeira, a lonely Portuguese island stuck out in the Atlantic, nearer to Africa than Europe. Like the Canary Islands, Madeira had its heyday when it was an important port of call for restocking ships on the way to the Americas.

Madeira has a sublime climate, temperate and sub-tropical. As a result, the flora and fauna, not to mention the extraordinary fruit and vegetables, are exotic.

Madeira, from the docks pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

Funchal is glamorous with gleaming white and black cobbled streets, and municipal flower displays everywhere. Large marble cafes with chandeliers hedge the pedestrianised squares. Waiters look naval in white uniforms. I get my first 'galao', a milky Portuguese coffee. It takes time to make it, rather like a pint of Guinness, with a foamy head and graduated body.


Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

The shops often have 1930s/50s signs, and are painted in ice cream colours, giving a retro feel to Funchal. I check out a spectacular department store, Bazar do Povo, with a grand red carpeted central staircase. I buy pyjamas and knickers, good quality and cheap. 

Nearby, I get a manicure for 10 euros, blue and white stripes with red anchors. There's an ironmongers/hardware store, where I don't buy thick ridged galao glasses, something I later regret.


bazar do povo, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
My strategy on this trip, given that we don't have much time in each port, is to head for the central market. This enables me to check out the local produce and the best cheap restaurants are always around a market place.
nun shopping in bazar do povo, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover


What to eat and drink and buy in Madeira


The food products can be bought in or around the central market. I think prices are slightly cheaper on the second floor. I bought exotic fruits, asking for unripe versions, which will hopefully last for a couple of weeks until I get home. You are given samples to try, a few seeds on the back of your hand. 


Bolo de caco

bolo de caco, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
These are garlic butter rolls, sold everywhere and absolutely delicious. Why isn't garlic bread more of a thing in our street food culture? Yum. 

Poncha

poncha, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Unbelievably strong orange or passion fruit 'punch'. The Madeirans have it even stronger.


Madeira wine

madeira wines, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
There are four kinds of Madeira wine, which is fortified and heated up. Traditionally it came in a wicker case. Ships would buy this wine for long voyages, it withstood the heat and movement and would never go off. Because of this, Madeira wine was very popular in the United States.

  • Sercial, the driest, like a dry sherry.
  • Verdelho, a little sweeter
  • Bual, dark and raisiny.
  • Malvasia or Malmsey, this is more like a Pedro Ximenez sherry, caramel and sweet.


Cheese plant fruit: the pineapple banana

pineapple banana Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
pineapple banana Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
pineapple banana, cheese plant fruit, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
I notice a weird banana-shaped fruit with green scales: a banana pineapple. It's actually the fruit of a cheese plant. It looks like an alien penis but you can eat it like a corn on the cob. Madeira has a vast variety of bananas including the apple banana.


Passion Fruit

passion fruit Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Passion fruit is one of my favourite fruits, but here in Madeira, they have different flavoured passion fruit such as lemon, orange or banana, and even tomato.


Espada fish with banana

Espada with banana. Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Espada, black scabbard fish, with 'platano' is a typical Madeira dish. The sweet yellow banana goes well with battered white fish.


Pitanga

pitanga fruit,  Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
These are sour cherry-like fruit, good for diabetes.


Bay leaves and sticks

bay laurel twigs, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
The Mediterranean used to be covered with Laurel forests (imagine the scent!): Madeira has a trace of these pre-historic wood groves. The word 'Madeira' is Portuguese for 'wood'. You can also buy the branches, large twigs, for BBQ dishes such as Espetada. The bark of the Bay Laurel twig is very fragrant and will flavour any kebab. 


Bolo de miel

bolo de miel, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
This rich cake tastes like Christmas pudding. This isn't what we call Madeira cake, but both cakes go well with Madeira wine.


Sugar cane honey

Sugar Cane is a major crop, the 'honey' or molasses is used on toast, to flavour puddings and drinks.


Sugar Cane juice

sugar cane juice man, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
sugar cane juice, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
For all the demonisation of sugar, ultimately it's just a plant (either sugar cane or beet). Try a freshly pressed sugar cane juice, with added lemon juice, for a refreshing drink. 


Candied fruit

candied hibiscus flower, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Stalls sell unusual candied fruit such as green grapefruit rinds or hibiscus flowers.


Galao

galao coffee, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
As a Portuguese island, Madeira serves much of the same food and drink as in Portugal. Galao is a milky coffee that goes perfectly with a pastel de nata, custard tart. 


Caldo Verde

Portuguese kale for caldo verde, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Portuguese kale for caldo verde, sold shredded in bags at the market, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
A 'green soup' popular in Portugal, made from kale which can be bought in the market, ready-shredded, by weight. The kale seems a bit different to British kale.


Oregano

dried oregano bouquets, Funchal market, Madeira, Portuguese kale for caldo verde, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Dried bouquets of fragrant oregano are sold in the market and in the surrounding streets.


Camomile flowers

camomile,  Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
These bouquets of bright yellow dried flowers are sold on the streets around the market. I love camomile tea.


Fish at the fish market

espada, fish market,  Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelovermussel sauce, fish market, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
The fish market, behind the fruit and vegetable market, is fascinating but not for the faint hearted. Great bleeding hunks of tuna, dripping long black scabbard fish, bottles of mussel sauce. The Portuguese do know their fish.


Flowers and Plants

flower seller, traditional dress, market,Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
It's legal to bring back plants from Madeira. The climate means they have some exotic examples. I even brought back a banana plant. Let's see how it does here, fingers crossed. Above, a Madeiran lady wearing traditional dress is selling bright flowers.


Haberdashery

haberdashers shop,, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

As well as heading straight to the central market, I always check out haberdashers and hardware stores when I visit a country. I find a haberdashers where I purchase frilly gingham borders, which I will use for my kitchen shelves.


Cork

cork shop,, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
I prefer my cork stoppering wine bottles but it's a popular material in Portugal and Madeira. More or less anything can be made in cork, it's natural, lightweight, waterproof and breathable. Apart from the usual table mats, you can buy cork furniture and even see dresses made of cork. 


Ronaldo 

Cristiano Ronaldo statue,, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Madeira is very proud that the world's most famous footballer, Cristiano Ronaldo, is Madeiran. There is a statue of him at the docks.


bananas and chillies,, Funchal, Madeira,  pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

I visited Madeira while on a P and O cruise

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Tuesday, 24 April 2018

P and O cruise tips: life and death at sea.


Off on a cruise! Msmarmitelover. Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

 Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

It's perhaps a myth that the word 'posh' comes from having a cabin Port Out, Starboard Home (meaning you are always on the shady side, a plus when going to India) but I'm feeling very spoilt on this P and O culinary cruise. My cabin is on A deck, level 15 at the top of the ship and it has a balcony.

Britannia is the largest ship in the fleet with nearly 4,000 passengers and 1,300 staff. The average age of people on this ship is 75, most are couples. Being with older people has the positive effect of making you feel very youthful. During the summer and school holidays, there are more families.


The ship itself is beautiful, gleaming white, its prow slashed with the blue and red of the Union Jack.  You feel a swell of British pride when emerging from it at ports. 

lifeboats.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
On the first day, some of the crew were showing passengers how sailors used to navigate, using the stars, maps and sextants. Today they use computers but in case of an emergency they still need to know the old fashioned way. 

I saw the emergency supplies in case the ship sunk: around 250ml of water in plastic bubble packs of 5oml and a dense tasteless shortbread, for each passenger.

The passenger lifeboats have a hard shell roof, they can turn over in rough seas and are self-righting. 
'I bet that leads to quite a bit of vomiting,' I suggested to the seaman. 
'We give everyone a sea sickness pill as they enter,' he chuckled.
The crew use a normal open rubber dingy. 

On my cruise, eight people were removed for reasons of ill health. I think some of them died, although this was kept hush-hush. Every cruise ship has a morgue for this reason and seeing the age of the passengers, this makes sense. There is also a mini-hospital on board with an X Ray machine, doctors and nurses.

One night I was woken by the sound of a helicopter, a 'medivac' on the roof. For one thrilling but dreadful moment, I thought somebody had gone overboard. Search lights were scanning the waves. Several times the ship had to change course to deliver sick passengers to the nearest port.


Painting the ship when it's docked.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

Tips

This is an all-inclusive holiday, and prices are very reasonable, between £700 and £1,000 per person for 14 days. However you do have to pay extra for alcohol, spa, excursions, internet access, the special restaurants, soft drink, coffee and ice cream packages.
  • Bring small magnets. Your cabin is made of metal, so you can use the magnets to hang up notices and the daily 'newspaper'.
  • Pack for all weathers. My cruise ranged from windy, wet and rocky, necessitating sweaters and raincoats to bikini weather.
  • Bring sparkly formal wear. There were four 'Black Tie' evenings and people really make an effort.
  • Bring books, kindle, HDMI cord for the TV. There is a library and a variety of films in your cabin however.
  • If tasty food is important to you, bring your own condiments such as hot sauce, Malden's salt.
  • In the cabin there are tea bags, but if you have a particular favourite, bring it. Likewise good coffee; I bought my own in Madeira, our first stop, plus a portable coffee filter and saved the milk from breakfast.
  • You are allowed to bring one litre of alcohol or a bottle of wine on board at the beginning. After that, if you buy alcohol on stops, it will be taken from you and stored on board till the last day of your trip.
  • Bring mineral water with you on board and at stops. You can buy water on the boat too.
  • Breakfast in bed is free. There's nothing nicer than eating croissants on your balcony. (I also saved the orange juice from my breakfast in the cabin fridge for an aperitif.)
  • Take a lanyard for your cruise card, which will get constantly lost. Also don't put it next to your phone, it will stop working.
  • People also bought large plastic clothes pegs for their deckchair towels. If it's good weather, you need to do like the Germans and save your place with your towel.

Cabin and Staterooms


The twin cabin is the size of a large caravan, with a powerful shower and incredibly comfortable beds, a kettle and a fridge. Best of all is the balcony. There's nothing like sipping on coffee while sat in the sunshine, watching the ocean. 
When leaving Madeira, we saw dolphins skipping in the waves.

Down on deck 5, there is the Atrium which has a crystal waterfall chandelier, stretching up three decks. Below the Captain is addressing everyone on Black Tie Night.
The Captain speaking. The Atrium.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

Food


Every cruise is terrified of the dreaded Norovirus. You are encouraged to wash your hands frequently and use a paper towel to open toilet doors.

To cook on a ship this size for this many people is no easy task. There are no open flames, containers are metal as they aren't breakable and jugs, saucepans, fryers aren't overfilled - imagine if it's a rough crossing! (They even empty the swimming pools on the top deck when the sea is stormy. Otherwise the water just sloshes out.)


Out of almost 200 chefs on board, there are only 3 or 4 women, and they are in the pastry section. 
'It's too rough for them,' explained a chef. 'It's really long hours, hot, cramped and you have to lift heavy pans.'
The last night of the cruise, all the chefs and waiters did a kind of victory parade, while the diners applauded, it was very sweet.

Parade of chefs. Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
Britannia has two restaurants on lower decks with silver service sittings at 6.30 and 8.30pm and the open-all-hours buffet on the top deck. I choose 'freedom dining' option, which means I don't have a fixed sitting and can dine where I want.

You have to control yourself at the buffet. I tried to prevent myself from doing the typical, try a little bit of everything, but mostly failed. In the end I just ate huge piles of salad and compensated with a carb offload of pudding. I'd generally eat around five desserts a day. 

Meals and the buffet are often themed: Italian night, Asian flavours, etc. 



One chef explained that the food is cooked for the average British (and elderly) palate, so not too much salt or spice. In the Indian restaurant, Sindhu, you can request more authentic spicing. 
'The customers may want more spicy food,' opined the wise Maitre d', 'but their stomachs think differently.'
The menu, designed by executive chef Atul Kochar, was a nice change from the usual restaurants on board.
Another paying restaurant, The Epicurean, recreates the glamorous cruising years of the 1930s; cream furnishings, white linens, fine glassware and crockery, with attentive service. The food here is of a gourmet standard, with a wine list chosen by TV wine guru Olly Smith. Definitely worth booking here for an occasion. We also had afternoon tea, designed by Eric Lanlard.

Staff


Most of the ship crew is Indian or Philipino: the Indians are soft-spoken while the Philippinos are smiley and almost overly attentive. In the dining room, you have the choice of eating alone or sharing a table with others, a bit like a supper club. Staff frequently expressed surprise that I was on my own (apart from the few days I spent with my sister who joined in Madeira and left from Lisbon). I preferred to be on my own, eating while reading a book, which I love. I like some solitude when I'm travelling. Waiters would whisper the title of my book as they passed, I'd hear snatches like:

'Jon Ronson.' 
Then, approaching me: 'This book, what is it about?' 
'It's a book by Jon Ronson, a book of short stories.' 
'Ah yes I've heard of him,' the waiter said.
I sort of didn't believe him. Is Ronson big in India?

You are expected to tip the cabin steward and this is added to your bill. There is no cash on board, you have a 'cruise card', which is logged with your credit card. 

Our cabin steward or butler, Sujit, appeared to live in the corridor. Every time we emerged from the cabin, he'd spring from behind his trolley, waving hello. Mind, at the end of the trip, when I asked him to help me with my voluminous baggage, 50 yards to the lifts, he snapped 'Sorry madam, I'm very busy'. Oh well.
Black Tie Night..  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

Dress

I packed a nautical wardrobe. I soon realised, so did everyone else. Stripes everywhere.
A Facebook friend advised, when she found out I was going on a cruise:
'Take sequins. Lots of sequins.'
I saw what she meant on the first Black Tie Night. Those oldsters certainly know how to put on a show: the men looked so handsome in crisp white shirts with pleated fronts, bow ties, dinner jackets, all elderly James Bonds. The women had their hair blow dried, folded into chignons, teased and flicked; the jewels were out on display, earrings, rings, necklaces even armbands of diamonds; satin heels and glinting dresses, silk clutch bags. Pashminas came into their own. I felt underdressed.


Entertainment

Deck quoits.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmiteloverQuoits.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover
All of landlubbing life is recreated on board: nightly theatre, pubs, casinos, quizzes, workshops 'make your own corsage', talks 'nutritional eating', gym and stretch classes. 

Cruise ship entertainment often doesn't have a very good reputation but the point is, there is lots of it. We saw the ventriloquist who, I'll be frank, I didn't quite 'get'. But the audience were literally pissing themselves.

I missed Sam Bailey, X Factor winner, which I regret. It's the sort of thing I'd never pay for on land so I should have made the effort. I heard good things about the 'Barry from Eastenders' set. 


I ended up not attending 11am line dancing but went to watch the nightly ballroom dancing. Very impressive, a whole culture by itself.

I'm more of a quiz person and participated most nights in the syndicate quiz, which got quite heated at some points. Ferocious players all.

Deck 'quoits' is a traditional game on long cruises, in which players throw coils of rope. I also enjoyed hanging out in the library wing-tipped armchairs on rainy days. This lies next to the 'crow's nest' bar at the fore of the ship, where people would spend all day looking at the horizon, the hynoptic lure of the sea. 

I also joined the choir, pictured below, at their final performance.
The blue bar.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

storm across the Bay of Biscay.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover


The Ocean

sunrise.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

The best thing during this cruise was of course the ocean itself, which I could see from my cabin balcony. I'd even get up frequently in the night just to see what was happening past the balcony: was the sea rough? Did it have creamy meringue peaks? Was it turquoise and shiny flat? Was it foggy and choppy? 

And of course the pleasurable but relentless succession of sunrises and sunsets, each as individual as a person's face. I slept with the door open, rocking in my bed, breathing in the mineral air, the salt, the smell of the Atlantic.

It's never boring: the sea, a liquid epidermis wrapped around this knobbly rock, the Earth, held in place by gravity.

sunset.  Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

I was invited by P and O cruises for a 14 night cruise to Madeira, the Canary Islands, Lisbon, from Southampton. 


telescope in the crows nest.   Britannia, P and O cruise ship. pic: Kerstin Rodgers/msmarmitelover

In my next posts, I will discuss each island stop and my day with Eric Lanlard.