It looked like a health and safely nightmare. There were small boats, big boats, clippers, navy ships, tourist ships and, with little hope of assuming control, a little police launch. The waters of the River Elbe in Hamburg were churned to a frenzy as vessels twisted and turned as part of one of the world’s greatest maritime celebrations.
We’d watched from the riverbank as the heart of the city was turned into a non-stop party of bratwurst and beer, gingerbread and family jollity, for the Port Birthday Festival, an annual celebration of the birth of one of Europe’s most important ports.
During a lull in proceedings we went down the Elbe Tunnel, a 1911s engineering marvel. Chunky lifts that car hold a horse and carriage (these days a small bus) drop beneath a glass dome down to a twin-bore road to the other side. Here we watched the finale, a parade of dozens, probably hundreds, of ships leaving for home. The finale of the finale is Queen Mary 2, a ship on a completely different scale to anything that’s gone before. Only that morning we’d arrived on board the world’s most magnificent ocean liner, sailing to fanfare and flags, to a point where she does a dainty 180-degree pirouette before docking. We’d transferred from one stately giant to another to another, the city’s Fairmont Vier Jahreszeiten hotel, an ornate palace on the Inner Alster Lake.
Short cruises are the big new thing, giving folk the chance to see whether they’re cut out for the ocean life. Cunard, more normally associated with transatlantic crossings and world voyages, is at the forefront, with a number of short trips across the Channel – and this is the best of the best.
Two nights of luxury aboard, then a night of luxury in Hamburg, then a flight home. It might be a short cruise across the North Sea but it is fascinating nonetheless – sailing from Southampton and passing through the Solent, Portsmouth’s Spinaker Tower on one side, Queen Victoria’s holiday home, Osborne House on the Isle of Wight on the other. There’s also a several hour dawn journey up the wide Elbe, past charming towns with little beaches then giant shipyards before reaching the elegant city itself, the tower of St Michael’s Church piercing the sky and Metro trains rattling by on iron trestles.
In between there’s a whole day at sea, allowing one to enjoy Queen Mary 2 to the full, the stylish cuisine (all included), the near half-mile walk around the deck, diversions such as the Canyon Ranch spa, and the extravagant evening entertainment.
Delivered to our hotel, with the feel of a Germanic country house, we walked past the lake then disappeared into the narrow streets that follow the city’s many canals then emerged at the riverfront. Something like half a million people flood the city for the Port Birthday, several days of shipshape fun, some just watching from open-air bars and restaurants, some taking boat rides, others taking advantage of the rare chance to board historic vessels.
The final procession must have gone on for two hours, just when you thought there couldn’t possibly be any more ships another batch coming along, before QM2 emerged from behind the city’s under construction opera house and all but blotted out any city view.
As she faded into the distance one knew that was the end. And yet we still had time for more. We dined at Coast By East, a hip fusion restaurant, in the revitalised waterfront warehouse district and the following morning (after breakfast in the hotel’s charming lakefront restaurant) I still found time for a good walk that took in smart shops, the Reeperbahn district (where the Beatles used to play so long ago) and even the stadium of the St Pauli football club. The city is a place of many sights – but perhaps nothing to match that of Queen Mary 2 passing by.