ON THIS DAY IN 1985; TITANIC WRECK FOUND….

On September 1st, 1985, a joint US/French search team led by Dr. Robert Ballard found the wreck of RMS Titanic.

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

That simple phrase- just twenty one words in all- conveys none of the profound emotional impact of that moment. Every word, nuance and phrase was hammered home with the same force as those three million rivets that once formed the DNA of Titanic’s hull.

It was the stillness that got to me more than anything. The awesome silence that surrounded the shattered corpse that crouched in all its broken, twisted splendor on the bottom of the ocean. A ruined cathedral, humbled, brought down and blasted apart in places.  She wore that silence, and the darkness that begot it, like a funeral shroud.

The beauty, grace and magnificent bombast of the ‘Floating Ritz’ had vanished as completely as the ship herself did on that cold, April night. The four huge funnels, each one big enough for twin locomotives to pass through at the same time, were gone, riven from their bases like the felled pillars of some ruined, mighty temple. In her silent, shattered immolation, the Titanic resembled nothing so much as one part Pompeii, one part Atlantis. Legendary, overblown, and ruined.

And now, quite suddenly, rediscovered. No longer some elusive, lore draped enigma, Here was the real thing, writ large, with small rivers of rust bleeding away from the hull in both directions.

Of course, the bow retained something of its proud, haughty nobility. Port and starboard, the giant, eight ton anchors hung in their hawsers like a pair of giant tombstones. The mast, complete with the crow’s nest from which Fred Fleet had first spotted the killer berg, sagged back against the bridge, as if admitting final defeat.

On the forecastle, the cargo cranes stood frozen in death, folded like the arms of a deceased pharaoh. Dust and whirling clouds of sand danced in the deathly glow of the harsh lights on the remote observation vehicle, Argo, as it flew cautiously around the petrified, still proud remains of the once pristine liner.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Here and there, the odd lifeboat davit remained, swung outwards in their last positions, as if somehow pleading for a return of their long since vanished contents. Ventilators gaped upwards, seemingly recoiling away instinctively from the deck railings. And in that heavy, reverent silence, the sounds of the past were enhanced to almost pin point clarity.

You could almost hear the squeal of brand new ropes passing through block and tackle as the pitiful handful of boats were swung slowly outboard. The crack, hiss and roar of distress rockets, exploding in showers of futile white sparks as they clawed at the starlit night. The glib reassurances of husbands trying to usher vaguely uneasy wives and daughters into those same boats. And the ragtime; loud, sharp and sassy in the clear night air. Ghosts at the feast; their funeral obsequities suddenly on show again after seventy three years of solitary immolation.

And the debris field resembled nothing so much as the contents of a looted, ransacked resort hotel, flung across the cold, sandy sea bed by some malign, vengeful giant. Mounds of coal. Unopened champagne bottles, intact, with their corks still in place. Mountains of crockery, glassware and china, much of it unbroken. A bench from the deck and the remains of a child’s doll. Gladstone bags. And shoes. Pair after pair of shoes…..

Seeing all this unfold over the course of those strange, spellbinding days was sad, macabre, and yet appallingly addictive. The story of April 14-15th 1912 slowly awoke and replayed itself to a fascinated, awed audience. Not on some cinema screen or on a television, but on the actual spots where it all happened on that starlit night, so long ago. Pathos, sorrow and pity, served up with the morning paper that came with the corn flakes and the breakfast coffee….

But there was also a moment of sober satisfaction, too. For it was now obvious beyond doubt that this broken, mangled, once beautiful ship could never be brought back to the daylight. For decades, some people had fantasised about salvaging the Titanic; almost as if dragging her up for air and returning the ship to the daylight could somehow even the score with Mother Nature.

It isn’t going to happen. Nor should it. September 1st, 1985 revealed finally, conclusively, the the Titanic had reached her final port of call. There’s something about that which is at once sad and apt, both in the same instance.

A deathless ship on an endless voyage?

A deathless ship on an endless voyage?

Of course, she still sails across the fabrics of our imagination. Fuelled by a mixture of horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour, the Titanic charges heedlessly ahead towards her fatal rendezvous near midnight. Ablaze with light from stem to stern, she has become the Marilyn Monroe of ocean liners. A twentieth century Flying Dutchman writ large, with interiors by Cesar Ritz, on an endless voyage.

Perhaps it is the broken, bowed and humbled wreck of Titanic that is the ultimate memorial to human vanity, folly and arrogance. But the opulent, floodlit beauty that sails our dreams and memories to this day refuses to lay down and die. A deathless dream; a ship of light, snuffed out and taken from us in her prime. Still young, still ravishing.

Perhaps not so much Pompeii as the picture of Dorian Grey.

THE SURVIVORS; NORWEGIAN NOMADS STILL AT SEA

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

Balmoral, once the beloved Crown Odyssey

In the mid eighties, in what ultimately proved to be a case of ‘too much, too soon’, NCL went on what amounted to a buying spree straight out of the Carnival play book. Over fourteen years- from 1984 to 1998- the Caribbean cruise line originally founded by Knut Kloster absorbed a trio of famous cruise brands.

After suffering the maritime equivalent of acute indigestion, the restructured company aborted these same brands, and either sold their ships to other lines, or ultimately watched them go for scrap.

But many of those same names are still sailing, often easily recognised as their former selves. For lovers of cruise ships and ocean liners, there are few things more poignant than the sudden sighting of an instantly familiar ship, years later and half a world away. Familiar and wistful at the same time. It’s like seeing an old flame with a new hairstyle, often as not knowing that she’s now with another love. Bittersweet, indeed.

So let’s look at what is still out there these days, and just where they ended up….

ROYAL VIKING LINE

That company originally flaunted a trio of sleek, bridal white show stoppers- the Royal Viking Sea, Star and Sky. They emerged in 1972-73 and, despite each ship being lengthened in 1981, all remained tremendously popular and upmarket; in fact, they were the benchmark for the likes of later, sybaritic show stoppers from Crystal to Silversea.

Marco Polo is Tilbury's 'year round' cruise ship

Marco Polo is Tilbury’s ‘year round’ cruise ship

Happily, all three of these classic ladies are still sailing. The Royal Viking Sea today sails for the German company, Phoenix Seereisen, as the Albatross. The other two sisters were to enjoy a reunion, and are now both running in tandem for the Norwegian owned Fred. Olsen Cruise Line.

For Fred. Olsen, the Royal Viking Star now sails as the Black Watch, while the Royal Viking Sky is now the Boudicca.

In 1989, in an attempt to regain past glories,  Royal Viking Line built a new flagship, the Royal Viking Sun. After a shaky period with Cunard/Seabourn, she also happily still sails on as the Prinsendam of the venerable Holland America Line, the company’s self-styled ‘Elegant Explorer’.

In 1990, the line took delivery of a small, 10,000 ton ultra deluxe cruise ship, the Royal Viking Queen. After a brief spell with Royal Cruise Line in 1996, she was sold to Seabourn Cruise Line, where she rejoined her two original sister ships under her current name of Seabourn Legend. She is currently slated to join the fleet of Windstar Cruises next spring.

ROYAL CRUISE LINE

The first major eighties pre- Kloster new build for this company was the glorious, 1988 built Crown Odyssey, a ship that soon gained a reputation for elegance and on board excellence rivalled by few.  After Royal Cruise Line was wound up, this lovely ship spent four years being employed like a ping pong ball between NCL and its last acquisition, Orient Lines.

Sold to Fred. Olsen in 2008, the ship was taken to Germany, and enhanced with the addition of a new mid section. Now sailing as Balmoral, she is the flagship of the Fred. Olsen fleet, as well as the largest ship. Cruising mainly out of Southampton, she remains a tremendously popular ship to this day.

Some of you will also remember the funky little Golden Odyssey, the diminutive little start up ship for this line. The 1974 built little beauty is still sailing today, though only as a casino ship out of Hong Kong. A far cry from her one time glory days.

ORIENT LINES

Gerry Herrod’s legendary, as -was one ship line was bought by NCL in 1998, but the Orient Lines brand was struck from the company portfolio of offerings in 2008. Happily, the 1965 built Marco Polo continues to sail on for UK company, Cruise and Maritime Voyages. Still popular and beautifully styled, the veteran former transatlantic liner celebrates her fiftieth anniversary in 2015.

Long may all of these great, highly regarded and affectionately remembered ‘ladies of the sea’ continue to grace the oceans they still sail with such proud, singular style. Each and every one of them is an important, intrinsic link to our maritime past. And for the current, massively resurgent Norwegian, these are still the self same ships that proudly ‘flew the flag’ and enabled the brilliant, world class fleet of today to come to fruition.

NORWEGIAN TO PURCHASE OCEANIA AND REGENT?

Will Regent and Oceania soon join the Norwegian fold?

Will Regent and Oceania soon join the Norwegian fold?

Reports began to surface last night that Norwegian Cruise Line has submitted a three billion dollar bid to buy Prestige Cruises International. Prestige is a very upscale operator, having both upper premium Oceania Cruises and ultra deluxe Regent Seven Seas Cruises in its current portfolio. The talks are stated to be at an ‘advanced stage’.

The hugely ambitious move comes at a time when both of the Prestige flag bearers were on the cusp of far reaching changes in any event. Oceania is said to be on the verge of confirming an order for a second pair of sister ships for its first, highly successful dedicated new builds, Marina and Riviera. Meanwhile, Regent is eagerly awaiting the arrival in 2016 of the new, 700 guest all suite Seven Seas Explorer, its first dedicated new ship since the Seven Seas Voyager back in 2003.

As things stand, the eight ships that comprise the joint Oceania/Regent portfolio will complement the current, thirteen ships (with four more on order) in the Norwegian fleet. This combination will give the seagoing operation an extensive presence right across the mainstream, premium and deluxe cruise brands.

Cynics will no doubt recall how NCL  (as Norwegian then was) underwent a similar, massive expansion in the mid to late 1980’s. Then, the line absorbed both the very upscale Royal Viking Line, immediately followed by the premium grade Royal Cruise Line. 

 

That was soon followed by the acquisition of Orient Lines in 1998.

Then, the company hoped that many mainstream passengers might be persuaded to move up to the more elegant, patrician brands. It ultimately failed, and almost took NCL down with it. The company was on the maritime equivalent of life support for years afterwards.

However, following a hugely successful IPO in January of 2013, Norwegian is in a far better position than it was back in the late eighties. The two newest ships in the fleet- Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway- have been hugely successful, and the recipients of much critical acclaim.

Likely future consort, Oceania, is doing so well that it looks to expand to a seven ship operation within a couple of years, as mentioned above. Meanwhile, Regent Seven Seas continues to be one of the most consistently fully booked of the deluxe cruise lines, partly as a result of having the most truly all inclusive fares in the luxury segment of the market. And Regent is also the only line anywhere that can field a pair of all balcony accommodation sister ships- Seven Seas Mariner and Seven Seas Voyager. Over the last year or so, both of these ships underwent extensive, multi million pound enhancements that put them at a pinnacle of the cruising firmament.

For sure, interesting days are ahead for all of the protagonists in this menage a trois. As ever, stay tuned.

 

FLYING MALAYSIAN AIRLINES; WOULD YOU?

Soaring above the Alps

Soaring above the Alps

Today’s Daily Mirror has pondered the question of whether readers would fly on Malaysian Airlines.

Quite obviously, it’s a question that the paper is posing in light of the two terrible tragedies that the legacy Asian carrier has suffered since January this year. Both were heart breaking events for everybody concerned; passengers, crew and relatives of the victims, plus prospective travellers who have, in consequence, seemingly abandoned the airline in droves.

Indeed, all reports are that the airline is in deep financial trouble, with its finances in free fall. Massive, radical surgery seems necessary simply to give Malaysian Airlines even a fighting chance of staying aloft. Time alone will tell how successful- or otherwise- those efforts ultimately are.

But, to get back to the question posed by the Mirror, my simple answer is ‘yes’.

I would have no problem in flying Malaysian Airlines any time, anywhere.

Because the simple truth is that no international travel is ever one hundred per cent guaranteed safe. The world that we live in since the catastrophic events of 9/11 has altered the way that we travel forever. It has become a far more anxiety laden, hassle intensive experience than in the illusory, carefree days before those fanatical lunatics slammed into the Word Trade Centre.

Yet, for all the horror of those events, and the terrible events of this year, the fact remains that air travel as a whole is still the safest means of mass transportation across the globe. Indeed, it is the only one. There is no other game in town.

There is far more real chance of me being knocked down by a car outside my own front door than there is of me being a casualty of any plane accident, anywhere, ever. Fact.

And, on another level- a different plane, as it were- if you give up on doing what you want to do, give up traveling to see the things and the people that you really need to see- well, then, you die inside, anyway. Do that, and the bad guys win without expending any further effort. No thanks; I don’t think so.

So yes, if Malaysian Airlines was the carrier that best suited my flight plans, then for sure I would go. The airline has a stellar reputation for in flight hospitality and service that few, if any, of its western counterparts can quite match.

Yes, the recent disasters are disturbing and scary. Just like modern life in general as a whole. But that to me is no excuse to turn off the lights and pull up the drawbridge.

In the immortal words of the song; ‘Trains and boats and planes are passing by..’.

Don’t let life pass you by, though. Get out there.

 

 

TAKING A CRUISE FROM TILBURY? WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Marco Polo is Tilbury's 'year round' cruise ship

Marco Polo is Tilbury’s ‘year round’ cruise ship

In terms of actual cruise business, Tilbury certainly comes well down the listings from both Southampton and Dover, the unchallenged ‘big boys’ of the UK cruising market. Yet, slowly but steadily, the Essex port is gaining it’s own, distinctive niche as a place of embarkation.

And it is not as if the place lacks maritime history. It was at Tilbury that Elizabeth I made her magnificent, inspiring speech- one of the greatest orations in history- even as the Spanish Armada loomed in the English Channel.

The port has immediate, convenient access to central London, which we’ll look at shortly. That access made Tilbury a natural port of embarkation for the post war, P&O liners heading out to the Far East and Australia, with their huddled masses of ‘Ten Pound Poms’ looking for a new life down under.

And it was also Tilbury that saw the first, post war shipload of Caribbean emigrants arrive in the UK, disembarking from the Empire Windrush. It was a seminal step in making the capital the vast, amazingly multi- cultural environment that it is today.

The advent of cruising largely left the port behind, but in recent years that trend has been reversed. Part of the reason is, as stated above, the relative proximity to the capital. Leaving Fenchurch Street Station near Tower Hill, one of the many regular trains will deposit you smartly into Tilbury Town in around forty minutes.

From here, a taxi- they are lined up outside the station- will take you to the cruise terminal in just five minutes. It really is that easy.

Alternately, there is a dedicated National Express coach service that leaves London Victoria to connect directly with each sailing. If you are likely to be struggling with luggage, this is more likely to be an easier, more convenient option, though slightly longer a journey at around an hour each way.

So, who sails from Tilbury these days?

From the Tower to Tilbury is just forty minutes.....

From the Tower to Tilbury is just forty minutes…..

The only year round sailings are made by Cruise and Maritime Voyages. The intimate, classically styled Marco Polo operates from the Essex port on a year round basis, offering everything from overnight cruises to a marathon, forty- two day Amazon odyssey.

Next year, she will be joined for a series of first ever sailings by the veteran Azores, which will also be sailing from the port over the summer.

Some summer and autumn sailings are also being offered by Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, with the ever popular Black Watch.

With its smaller, more intimate set up and ease of access from London, Tilbury has a lot going for it as an embarkation port. The larger ships are unable to come this far upstream, and that helps to keep the scale more human, less hassled. On embarkation day, that can count for quite a lot.

I’ll be keeping an eye on any future developments in Tilbury, passenger wise.

As always, stay tuned.

CRYSTAL CRUISES FOOD PICTORIAL FEST

If you knew sushi like Crystal does

If you knew sushi like Crystal does

Ever since it fist set sail with the much missed Crystal Harmony back in 1990, Crystal Cruises has established an elegant, pre- eminent reputation for the fine, unhurried finesse that it exudes at every turn. The two current vessels, Crystal Symphony and Crystal Serenity, continue to garner truck loads of awards for the superlative standards of food and fine service that both maintain on board, year in and out. To be sure, they are quite a pair.

And while attention to detail, unobtrusive elegance and ample space to indulge, relax and experience the best of everything are all vital ingredients in the subtle brew of what makes any Crystal Cruises adventure so utterly compelling, perhaps nothing so marks the Crystal experience as a thing apart as much as the dining.

Whether you are feasting on genuine Kobe Beef or sumptuous Wagyu in the on board Nobu, or lingering over sumptuous, exotic fresh fruit and piping hot coffee alfresco for breakfast, both the Crystal ships offer a magnificent series of feasts, from early morning till past midnight. The sheer scale and quality can be overwhelming to the novice.

Picking at cold crab and succulent shrimp on your balcony as you enjoy a late afternoon Cape Cod, or a delicious custard tart and cappuccino in the bistro as you peruse the morning paper? Crystal has you covered, and then some. From the simple to the sublime, it’s all good.

But the highlight for many is, undoubtedly, the stunning display of gluttony inducing goodness that washes across the Crystal Atrium once on each trip. With chilled champagne on tap and cool jazz to tap your foot to, a conga line of classic, beautifully presented appetisers, soups, meats, seafood, breads and beguiling desserts virtually surrounds you.

The only rule here is to indulge in as much- or as little- as you wish. This is more than just a buffet; this is a feast for the eyes and the senses at the same time. True soul food, and then some.

So, without further ado, here’s a selection of platinum chip Crystal dining treats to feast your eyes on. Feel free to enjoy,,,,,

Cold crab and Cape Cods....

Cold crab and Cape Cods….

Terrace of the Lido Buffet

Terrace of the Lido Buffet

Trident Grill on Crystal Serenity

Trident Grill on Crystal Serenity

Crystal Cove food extravaganza

Crystal Cove food extravaganza

Sheer aesthetic perfection

Sheer aesthetic perfection

Too good to resist

Too good to resist

Simply, sublimely gorgeous..

Simply, sublimely gorgeous..

Fresh and fantastic presentation

Fresh and fantastic presentation

The crowd speaks for itself

The crowd speaks for itself

CRUISE SHIP FOOD; A PICTORIAL MENU….

Your table awaits....

Your table awaits….

Ah, cruise ship food. Still the number one topic of discussion, dissection and, indeed, digestion, on any vessel at sea. Whether we’re talking about the three star ships or the sublime, six star exclusive resorts, the on board obsession with food- from dawn till dusk and beyond- continues to dominate our voyages.

Of course, it’s never simply about actual taste. Presentation, service and room ambiance are just as much ingredients of any shipboard meal as the food itself. Each is an ingredient in what is- hopefully- a series of elegant repasts on an ocean, where sea air naturally sharpens the appetite to perfection.

Bountiful breakfasts. Languid lunches. Delicious dinners, even mouth watering midnight snacks. All are potential high points in cruising’s global pantheon of taste.  But it is always that sensational first sight of your meal order that really sets the anticipation running like tap water.

With that in mind, here’s some foodie photographs from on board different ships. Stuff that looked so good, it begged to be immortalised in film. Stuff that looked too good to be eaten until it had been snapped.

Well, thanks to that wonderful invention called the digital camera, now you can have your cake and eat it, too.

Bon Apetit!

Ice cream treat, Regent style

Ice cream treat, Regent style

Dessert, Carnival steak house style

Dessert, Carnival steak house style

Snacking on Regent

Snacking on Regent

How about a little dessert? Or a lot...

How about a little dessert? Or a lot…

Culinary excellence is standard on Silversea

Culinary excellence is standard on Silversea

Piggy was appreciated by all.

Piggy was appreciated by all.

Silversea version of continental breakfast

Silversea version of continental breakfast

Breakfast starter. Lamb chops to follow

Breakfast starter. Lamb chops to follow

Fabulous Russian lunchtime feast

Fabulous Russian lunchtime feast

A=Rosa Flora lunch buffet

A=Rosa Flora lunch buffet

All the bread was fresh baked daily

All the bread was fresh baked daily

Yum-tastic buffet on the Rhine

Yum-tastic buffet on the Rhine

Outdoor lunch buffet goodies

Outdoor lunch buffet goodies

Crepes and cakes. Peachy, no?

Crepes and cakes. Peachy, no?

Exquisite presentation on Europa 2

Exquisite presentation on Europa 2

Caviar starter to a stunning alfresco dinner

Caviar starter to a stunning alfresco dinner

Oh chocolate, be my guiding star....

Oh chocolate, be my guiding star….

Kobe Beef nirvana on Regent

Kobe Beef nirvana on Regent

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki......

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki……

 

THE VIKINGS ARE COMING- NEW LIGHT ON VIKING STAR

Viking Star will expand the horizons of modern cruise travel

Viking Star will expand the horizons of modern cruise travel

As autumn approaches, attention begins to focus on the new ships scheduled to debut in 2015. And perhaps none of these are as anticipated as that of the new, ‘back to the future’ concept enshrined in the nascent Viking Star.

With her ocean going debut now less than a year away, a few more facts have begun to surface about the on board hardware and offerings. And it’s all looking rather special, in a very understated kind of way.

Viking Cruises is cross decking some of the more popular and inclusive features from its hugely successful river fleet to their first ocean going vessel, including free shore excursions in all ports of call, and inclusive lunch and wine served with dinner. This puts the line firmly on a competitive basis with rivals such as Voyages To Antiquity.

But Viking Star will also up the ante, by including free wi-fi right throughout the ship, plus complimentary- albeit self service- laundry facilities. There will also be no charge for room service.

Though the ship herself is understated and low key, there are elements of showmanship in her main dining room. Located on the promenade deck, this will feature floor to ceiling windows on both sides. Mounted on tracks, it will be possible to open these in fine weather. This should make for some side orders of stunning sunsets, especially when the ship is in summertime northern waters.

Every single cabin aboard the Viking Star will have a balcony. Even the smallest of these will measure a generous 270 square feet, while the fourteen penthouse suites will range from between 757 and 1,163 square feet. In line with the ships’ pared down, elegant simplicity, just five grades of accommodation will be offered on board.

While the ship- the first of a projected quartet- will be focused on destination intensive cruises with many overnight stays in port, the leisure side is certainly not being skimped on. A full service spa will feature it’s own sauna, complete with gently falling ‘snowflakes’, plus an infinity pool overlooking the stern and a second, more central pool that will come complete with its own sliding glass roof.

The company has clearly put its finger on a beating pulse with the conception and construction of Viking Star, and the on board ambiance and philosophy she intends to showcases. Due to launch early next spring, the entire first season of the 47,000 ton ship is completely sold out already.

2016 will see the arrival of a pair of similarly accented sister ships, named Viking Sea and Viking Sky. A fourth, as yet nameless sibling will round out this stunning quartet in early 2017.

As ever, stay tuned for further details.

FRENCH LINE CUISINE; THE FINEST AFLOAT

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

‘Bon voyage is always French’ was the motto of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, better known as the French Line. The line asserted confidently that you were actually ‘in France’ the moment that you crossed the gangways of any of their fabled liners, no matter where in the world you actually happened to be.

Competition for the creme de la creme of the North Atlantic trade was always fierce, even at the height of the Depression. Steamship lines inherited and showcased all the values- both real and imagined- of their respective mother countries. Every transatlantic liner was an ambassador of sorts for the nation whose flag she flew, and all were sailed with a sense of fierce, patriotic pride.

But none quite reached the level of elegance, service and panache that typified the French Line; even today, most knowledgeable travellers regard it as the height of ocean liner style and glamour. And a huge amount of that appeal came from the almost relentlessly French ambiance created aboard those fabled liners.

For instance, announcements on board were only ever made in French, even though something like eighty per cent of the passengers on any given crossing would be American. Table wine on board was always free in all classes; the French believed that wine was an integral part of any meal. Even the bell boys had scarlet coloured jackets that matched the funnel colours to almost cosmetic perfection.

In first class especially, their ships were staffed- and ran- like the Paris Ritz, or the Negresco. But nowhere did the French sense of art de vivre resound so thoroughly as in the dining experience on board.

It is no exaggeration to say that the first class dining rooms were nothing less than sea going cathedrals, raised to the religion of haute cuisine. They were stunning, theatrical spaces at least two levels high; the idea that ‘low ceilings do not aid the appetite’ was a company mantra.

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

And the food was, naturally, prepared, served, and devoured with theatrical relish and attention to detail. For example, the ground breaking Ile De France of 1927 listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items on her first class dinner menu. Twenty two years later, when she emerged as a two stacker at the end of her post war rebuild, the Ile De France still offered French onion soup as an option on the breakfast menu, even in tourist class.

Of course, the Normandie raised things to another level again; that of the truly stratospheric.

Her wine cellar was loaded aboard a full nine months prior to her barnstorming maiden voyage in May of 1935, in order that it should settle properly. It was also placed in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, that the rolling would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an occupational hazard for the French Line on any trip, but the idea that the wine should be compromised was, naturally, unthinkable.

The Normandie routinely carried no less than ninety three different kinds of champagne. Her first class dining room was three decks high, more than a hundred yards long. and lined with floor to ceiling hammered glass, back lit by enormous, lalique light fountains that hugged the edges of the room. Above it all, a gigantic gold, gilt and coffered ceiling held a powerful, imperious sway.

With typical modesty, the French Line remarked that this astonishing chamber- still the most beautiful public room ever to go to sea on any ship- was ‘slightly longer’ than the famous Hall Of Mirrors in Versailles.  It was more than big enough to contain all three of Christopher Columbus’ ships at the same time.

Approached via a pair of enormous, bronze doors, this was the first air conditioned room on any ship. Some one hundred and fifty tables allowed every first class passenger on board to dine at the same time. By now, that same menu listed some three hundred and twenty five different items on every crossing.

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

But the Normandie also had the more informal Cafe Grill right aft, a kind of supper club with live dancing .With steel and leather chairs and tables, and walls of varnished pig skin, it never really got into its swing until after midnight. You could dance until daybreak, and still savour a perfectly prepared chilli con carne at two o’clock in the morning. Many did just that.

Post war saw the eventual creation of the France, the last true year round transatlantic liner built for the northern route. The French Line described her as ‘the last refuge of the good life’ after her 1962 maiden voyage. In her, all the cherished traditions enshrined on the Normandie, the Ile De France and the Liberte lived again in one final, fantastic display of bravado.

Awed by the France, the American food critic, Craig Clairborne, described her first class dining room as ‘the finest French restaurant anywhere in the world’, and with very good reason. The old standards were adhered to with an almost religious zeal; to the end of her days, the France remained the greatest and best fed of all the Atlantic liners.

For example, Camembert was only offered on the menu on the fourth day of a westbound crossing to New York, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. It was available to order off menu at any time, of course. But tradition demanded that it only be openly advertised when at its absolute best.

The extent of this fierce dedication to the good life was pointed up in the early seventies. Cunard, wanting an impartial opinion on how the French ship compared to their brand new QE2, paid for Lord Linley to cross the Atlantic one way on each ship. On his return, this card carrying member of the British establishment shocked his Cunard hosts by telling them that the food and service on the France was superior in every respect to that of their new flagship.

With her withdrawal in 1974, one hundred and ten years of French Line excellence and urbanity was guillotined in a single stroke. Of course, the great France herself would be miraculously resurrected as the show stopping Norway, but the magic of the dining experience had gone. It was a different time, and a different world.

And, truth be told, there has never been anything like it since. Au Revior.

C’EST CELESTYAL- LOUIS AIMS FOR THE STARS

See gorgeous Santorini on a Louis cruise

See gorgeous Santorini on a Louis cruise

Louis Cruises will expand its cultural and culinary horizons next month with the launch of a new brand called Celstyal Cruises. The new line will put the emphasis firmly on Greek culture and local cuisine, as well as local wine, history, and music. Full details are expected to be rolled out in September.

The core product will be built around the two ships currently sailing out of Piraeus and Lavrion respectively, namely the Louis Olympia and Louis Cristal. The two ships will lose the ‘Louis’ prefix from their name, sailing simply as Olympia and Cristal.

At present, Louis Olympia is sailing the line’s very popular programme of three and four night cruises from Piraeus, while the smaller Louis Cristal is sailing a more all embracing series of seven night, round trip cruises from Lavrion, just south of Athens near Cape Sounion. I’ll be on the Louis Cristal next month, and there will be a full report from on board posted here soon after.

There is no word yet how the smaller, veteran Louis Aura of 1968 will fit into the Louis schedule for 2015. The ship operated a successful French charter earlier this year, and is currently sailing short cruises out of Limassol. The French charter has apparently been renewed for next year.

In related news, Louis Cruises is also said to be close to completing a deal for another ship for it’s fleet. The line is said to be considering both the laid up Gemini and the slightly larger Aegean Paradise. The latter has a fair number of balcony cabins, which would be a first for the company if they do take that option.

The central fountain in Rhode old town

The central fountain in Rhode old town

For the 2014 season that runs through until November, Louis added a series of new destinations to the Aegean portfolio, including Bodrum and Cesme in Turkey, and smaller, less visited Greek islands such as Chios and tiny, picture perfect Symi.

For those travelling from the USA and perhaps further, it is worth knowing that Louis Cruises has a tie in with several luxury hotels across Greece and the islands, as part of the larger Louis Group portfolio.

Many will remember the Louis Olympia as the former Song Of America, the first mid sized new build for Royal Caribbean back in 1982. The Louis Cristal will be familiar to many as the angular, popular Leeward of Norwegian Cruise Line.

Over this winter, the Louis Cristal will head for a second season of popular, round Cuba sailings for a Canadian charter company. Embarkation is possible from both Havana and Montego Bay, Jamaica. Though primarily aimed at the Canadian market, the cruises are also on sail to Europeans, via Louis.

As ever, stay tuned.