CRUISING ON CARNIVAL

Anyone with more the three brain cells will be aware that there are many cruise passengers that would rather commit hara kiri than board a Carnival ship. The idea of being afloat with thousands of people in an environment sometimes compared to a floating frat house is anathema to them.

And that, of course, is fair enough. Because the true beauty of cruising lies in the fact that there are types and sizes of ships out there to suit every taste, from the raucous to the reserved.

But it is also a sad fact that many of those who sneer at Carnival have never set foot on a Carnival ship in their lives. My first Carnival cruise was back in 2000 and, for sure, I went with very mixed feelings. But I was also prepared to keep an open mind.

And the truth is that I had a great time. I met some absolutely wonderful people- a recurring theme from all of my dozen or so Carnival voyages to date. Yes, sometimes lines for getting on and off are maddening, as are the buffet lines. But you do not have to be Hercule Poirot to realise that these are the inevitable consequences of putting to sea on what is, in essence, a small town with propellers/azipods.

Sure, there are elements I find unappetising. The on deck games can be banal. So I don’t watch them. The ships have enough space and options to allow you to find your own personal happy space. Don’t like Country and Western? OK, go listen to some Jazz. Not a jazz fan? Fine- go check out some live rock. I’ll stop there because you undoubtedly get the gist.

Food not quite gourmet quality? Think about it in terms of what you pay for your trip. The value is certainly there. It might not be six star, but you’re not paying those kind of prices, either. Carnival’s food in general is pretty damned good, and occasionally outstanding. The dining rooms are as much entertainment venues as any bar or club on the ship, so you’re not going to enjoy the kind of  hushed, hallowed repast as on, say, Seabourn or Silversea. is that really a deal breaker for you?

So, what is it actually like on board? The Carnival ships are stunning, swaggering slices of Vegas-On-Sea, with casinos the size of zeppelin hangars, and all the round the clock fun and frivolity you could ever shake a cocktail stick at. The upper decks are liberally sprinkled with pools, hot tubs and chaises, plus thousands of bodies draped across them. There is live music everywhere.

Too much? Sometimes, yes. But Carnival have clocked on to this, and each ship now has a dedicated, adults-only Serenity area with padded loungers and umbrellas, and sometimes a couple of hot tubs. On my last Carnival cruise, I eschewed the bubonic joys of a day ashore in Ensenada and just hung out here all day instead. Sheer, copper bottomed bliss it was, too.

I’m not mad on their on board discos, but this is more down to the music policy than anything else. And it is understandable that the young and young at heart want to hear the current stuff. Having grown up listening to the Temptations and the Supremes, it’s pretty obvious that the ‘sound’ of One Direction and Girls Aloud is not going to be honey to my ears. But again, it’s a generational thing. I have a theory that the first Caribbean line to have the odd, Motown/Philly/Soul themed cruise would clean up quite nicely at the bank. Food for thought. Soul food. Hold that thought!

But again, there are other options. Each Carnival ship has a bar dedicated solely to good, live jazz, and I love chilling out in them. The young can keep their hip hop and their Budweisers if I can get some cool jazz and a decent martini. And thankfully, Carnival serves up both with some aplomb.

Some shudder at the bright, neon fuelled decorative excess that typifies Carnival interiors. They are mainly the work of the brilliant Joe Farcus, Carnival’s very own Andy Warhol. These actually work perfectly for the famously monickered ‘fun ships’, and contribute immensely to the brash, breezy vibe that permeates those Carnival colossi. Fun is seldom subtle, and Farcus even less. But his ships are always beguiling, in an Alice through the looking glass way. Each is as distinctive as a fingerprint; and they are never, ever boring.

Cabins are fine and roomy, though the suites are not generally as expansive as the competition.The newer, bigger builds flaunt avenues of balconies atop their snow white hulls. Those balconies are not big, but definitely big enough for two. And it also gives you another options to escape the hugger mugger on the noisy upper decks.

Yes, there is a hard sell for extras such as bingo, shore excursions and the rest. The photographers can be annoying, but the truth is that it is no more prevalent on Carnival than on any of its rivals these days. You’ll find a blizzard of flyers for shop sales, both on board and ashore. if this annoys you, that’s what the waste bin is for.

Truth be told, all of these things are options on the whole smorgasbord that is the experience of a Carnival cruise. As with any buffet, you pick the stuff you like, and disregard the rest. This is not rocket science, but it’s amazing- and a bit dispiriting- to realise how many people don’t get that.

And of course, you’ll always find career, professional moaners on any cruise. The sort of people that would probably have more fun at a hanging than a wedding. Nothing will ever be good enough for them but- again- the size of the ships means you can neatly sidestep these miseries intent on raining on your parade.

Like anything else, a smile and a decent attitude will generally sugar your coffee. Just go with the flow, as it were and, chances are good that you’ll have a great time. I have had some of my best times on Carnival ships- the people that I have met, both passengers and crew, have often been a delight- and I fully intend to go again.

Wherever and whenever you go, have fun. It’s a party, not a punishment. See you out there somewhere!

  Carnival’s distinctive funnels are their trademark

This piece was originally written prior to the incidents with the Carnival Triumph and Elation, both of which I have sailed on. I have very happy memories of both ships.

Does anything that has happened change my opinion on cruising Carnival? No. Things go wrong on any ship from time to time. That said, Carnival’s PR department has it’s work cut out for it in reassuring the travelling public that all is well with their ships.

There’s been a very vocal, ill informed barrage of media feeding on what they see as a prime target. That does not mean that there are not issues that need to be resolved- and permanently- in the public eye. Stupidity on one side does not excuse laxity or lack of clarity required from the other one if it is to get back on track.

The great bulk of these breakdowns seem to be happening to the bigger, Italian built hulls. By contrast, the eight ships of the earlier Fantasy class- all built by MASA in Finland- seem to lead largely charmed lives.

All of these now tend to sail on shorter, three to five day circuits and are, in truth, never too far from land anyway. But they are not the problem.

With Carnival upping it’s presence in both Scandinavia and the Mediterranean this summer, the company really needs to get it’s act together if it is going to compete effectively in those arenas with longer, better established rivals such as Norwegian and Royal.

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REGENT IN THE CARIBBEAN

No matter how many cruises you might do over the course of a lifetime, there are always some that stand out like exclamation marks in your life; the ones that always make you grin like an idiot even on a really bad day. They foster memories that are guaranteed to rescue you from your deepest funk.

They can be special because of so many things; it could be the thrill of discovering somewhere new, and utterly seductive. A place- or even places- so spine tingling that the urge to return is almost physically painful.

It could be the people you meet on board. Fun, well travelled, warm, generous souls that turn a cruise into a joyride. People that you instinctively gravitate to. People that you learn from, and share epic adventures with ashore. A cruise as an education. Makes sense to me.

Then of course, there is the ship and the crew. The two truly indispensible ingredients that can either make or break any holiday. When it all works out on board, everything is fine and dandy.

Any of these could be salient points in delineating the truly memorable from the very good. But, when all of them come together to create the perfect mix, then you are guaranteed an experience that will stay with you long, long after you actually leave the trip behind.

I have been more than lucky to sample a few such trips. One of the best was, without doubt, a ten day Caribbean circuit from Fort Lauderdale aboard Regent’s magnificent Seven Seas Mariner. The ports of call- St. Thomas, Tortola, Saint Barts and Grand Turk, to name a few- were seductive enough in their own right. So too was the idea of winging it smartly out of a gloomy, rain sodden UK for those balmy, milder climes. I am not a good ‘winter baby’- anyone who knows me would vouch for that. Even the idea of side stepping neatly into such agreeable sunlight is an adrenaline boost that cannot be under-rated.

And I knew that the ship was going to be sublime. I had sampled the line’s hospitality a few times, so pretty much knew what I was getting into. Regent is a line that does not ‘do’ mediocrity at any level. The all outside suites come with balconies, big, marble sheathed bathrooms, and enough in room entertainment to last a millennium.

The food and service are, quite simply, superlative at every level. The staff walk the finely balanced line between being attentive, without ever lapsing into over familiarity. Staff quickly learn, and often anticipate, your most whimsical desires. Coupled with an all inclusive policy, the Mariner has a vast amount of personal space per passenger. This, more than anything, makes for a stand out product.

In truth, the secret of the line’s success lies in what it leaves out. Crowds and tannoy announcements are left to the mega ships. Open seating dining is the norm, where a table for two can just as deftly become one for six. Formal dress codes are thrown overboard, in favour of a country club casual vibe. After all, who, in God’s name, wants to shoe horn themselves into formal wear after a hard day’s indolence on Magen’s Bay beach? These might sound small things- and individually, they are- yet, over the course of ten days they add up to something quite simply superlative. The sheer quality of everything is quite something.

If you want rock climbing walls, casinos the size of California, and brash, braying, bar hopping hordes, then this is not for you. Mood music is subtle, mellow, and fits the moments on board quite perfectly. I’ll never forget the solitary sax player out on deck as we left St. Thomas; his tall silhouette black against a flaring crimson twilight as his music flooded the air like fine wine. It was like being awake in a really vivid, slowly moving dream. The moment seemed as delicate and fragile as eggshells, and yet it is seared into my memory as indelibly as if I have been branded.

The entire cruise unfolded like that. The passengers were a sophisticated, fun group; one that knew how to enjoy itself, yet always remembered to show consideration for others. The whole ship seemed wreathed in a fog of dreamy smiles for the duration. It brought out the best in people, and in a way that no stay at any land based resort could hope to match. The whole adventure seemed shrouded in some kind of deep, indefinable magic.

Of course, the islands played a huge part in it. Flopping back into my favourite, fondly remembered hammock at Tortola’s Cane Garden Beach was just amazing. Palm trees overhead, and just the sound of slowly rolling surf drumming a pristine swathe of dazzling white sand. At home, it was eight degrees centigrade. But the only ice near me was in my Daiquri. And that, my friends, is exactly as it should be.

And anyone who cannot enjoy a day draped across Gustavia’s Shell Beach should really- and I mean really- check their pulses. They might already be dead.

Because man cannot live by bread alone….

I don’t care how many times you go to the Caribbean; it is impossible to be blase about it. Something in the breeze just eats into you and stays with you. And I don’t mean the mosquitos, either. Sure, it can be hellish on days when there are a dozen cruise ships in Saint Maarten. But that is where taking a smaller ship comes in handy. Bypass the crowds and the endless lines, and go do what you need to do!

Those islands- those exalted, white and lush green little glimpses of paradise- came and went like a  succession of drum rolls. Garlanded with tender sunrises and sometimes shrouded in blazing crimson sunsets, they warmed the heart and the soul alike.

And yet it was the Mariner that was the standout island. She was our own little fantasy island. Pristine, always immaculate and familiar, and with a chilled glass of welcome champagne at hand. We flitted in and out of sunsets, and the odd rain shower that always ended in a stunning rainbow.

For ten days, the Seven Seas Mariner was our universe. We could be as sociable or secluded as our moods took us. You could enjoy a nightcap on your balcony with a side order of moonlight, or a zesty margarita at the pool bar with new friends. You could sample food as simple or as sophisticated as the whim of the moment moved you, and it was always superb.

Leaving such a trip is always a bit of a wrench. But, truth be told, I never really left it behind. I’ll always have it, or at least the memories of it. And all those memories are gold plated, smiley little treasures. What more can you ask for than a dream that comes true, and does not disappoint?

SUNSETS AT SEA- A USER’S GUIDE

Sunsets at sea. Even the notion of them is border line seductive. No matter how many you have seen, they still draw out hordes of awestruck passengers like so many moths to a flame. There’s really nothing quite like them, is there?

Some are deep and mellow, others long, languid and intense. In between are all the colours of the rainbow. Sometimes quite literally. And many of them seem to resonate on the human psyche on some deep, totally unfathomable level that defies any kind of rationality.

But the almost hypnotic lure of an ocean sunset should not really be all that surprising. Usually shorn of the pollution that blights the land, they are among Mother Nature’s very best designer couture. But, for maximum enjoyment, there are always props and, sometimes, a soundtrack- or just as often a blissful lack of one- that can take this natural early evening treat and elevate it to almost gourmet standard.

And so, culled from more than thirty years of cruising and crossings, here are some of my most memorable sunsets. Whatever else you do, don’t try to copy this at home……

Firstly, to the Caribbean, and spiffy little Seadream Yacht Club. Fold yourself gently into the bubbling, welcoming hot tub on the fantail of small, perfectly formed Seadream II as the ship skirts past the vast, jagged peaks of Saint Lucia’s soaring Pitons.

Enjoy a smooth, beautifully styled strawberry daiquiri as the shimmering ball of the sun sags into the ocean, turning the entire sky into a magnificent, mesmerising curtain of deep, fiery orange. Watch the slow rolling swell become a burnt umber carpet as those lush, green peaks turn black and massive against the flaring, crimson tinted twilight. The sound of the ocean slapping playfully against the Seadream II’s hull is an audio backdrop without equal.

Spring is when the Mediterranean is truly at its best, before the heat and the crowds of summer conspire to curdle the cream. Winter is shaken off like some damp, dishevelled overcoat as cafes and open air bars mushroom along sun splashed quays like flowers bursting into bloom.

I recommend the upper deck panorama terrace of the sultry, highly styled Silver Wind for your Med masterpiece. For maximum, platinum chip slouch mode perfection. sprawl across one of those freshly varnished wooden steamer chairs that sprinkle the blinding expanse of white teak deck. The blue cloth mattresses all but fold themselves around you.

Often, not a cloud will stir in the sky. The slow, mellow twilight folds from rose coloured to a dozen shades of rich, liquid gold. A dark, sinuously swirling ocean turns a shade of gunmetal. The warm, soft breeze makes the hairs on your neck stand on end. Anything less than a glass or two of glacially chilled Moet at such a moment would verge on the criminal.

Let’s skip smartly over to Bermuda. It’s never a bad idea. Take in a mellow Atlantic sunset en route to what is arguably the most beautiful island on the planet. Your transport of delight is Regent’s sumptuous Seven Seas Navigator.

I can personally recommend the balcony of suite 705 for your sunset treat here.  Have room service bring up some succulent cold Maine lobster, with a little crab on the side. Enhance with Grey Goose vodka, topped up with cranberry in a highball glass. Don’t forget the lime- it sharpens the taste to perfection.

Lounge on one of your balcony chairs, and load up some vintage Al Green as your soundtrack. It fills the ether like fine perfume. Banks of skittish, slowly darkening clouds drift like ghostly galleons across a blush, lilac brushed canvas of sky. Ideally wear a bathrobe to get the full, fabulous tingle of the breeze as it washes over you. Each bit of this is like a delicious ingredient in an incredible feast for the senses. On a scale of one to ten, this one is a full eighteen.

Summers in the Baltic provide a riotous feast of rich, vibrant sunsets during the high summer months. Here, I recommend the gorgeous Palm Court on the sublime Crystal Symphony for your evening’s visual enhancement.

Vast, floor to ceiling windows curve in a graceful embrace of one of the most perfect public rooms on any ship anywhere. They flood the room with a tremendous, technicolour visual palette perhaps unmatched anywhere. Bands of blue, gold, white and electric green light shimmers at midnight on a horizon as sharply defined as a knife edge. One of Crystal’s tremendous lemon drop martinis is a zesty treat- watch as prisms of light from outside sometimes dance on the rim of the glass. The soft, cool notes of a tinkling baby grand piano float seductively among the cosmos and the conversation. And Crystal does this subtle, under stated kind of mood melding with fabulous flair and panache.

French Polynesia is a world away, and the sunsets are fittingly splendid and surreal. Here, you can lounge on the aft, upper deck terrace of the magical little Paul Gauguin, a fantasy island as gorgeous as anything else in these waters.

You’ll find yourself locked in the embrace of a flaring purple sunset, as banks of huge, fluffy clouds pile up on top of each other, and the reluctant, reddish ball of the sun descends slowly between them like some ageing actor, bowing out after giving the performance of a lifetime. Below you, a five man canoe slices through a sea of blazing straw, leaving a wake that curves back like a feather dropped into the ocean.Sample hors d’oevres- the shrimp ones are incredible- and a matchless chocolate martini as you surrender to the magic. It’s almost perfection.

As a soundtrack, anything by Michael Buble works, but Quando, Quando, Quando is just exquisitely tender; almost ethereal and heartwarming in its beauty. Everything about this kind of evening stays with you long after you physically leave it behind.

So, there we go. Snapshots. Memories. Inspiration? You decide. But above and beyond anything else written here, why not get out there yourself? Find and define your own little jewels of moments. Because, when all is said and done, true leisure is only sweet after work well done. And, at the end of everything else, you’re worth it. Enjoy!

A WEEK’S WINTER BREAK WITH A DIFFERENCE

If, like me, the idea of winter in the UK fills you with about as much joy and anticipation as the prospect of a Celine Dion mega mix, then the quest for some winter sun can become like some kind of holy grail. Time is shorter than your temper, and the ash grey winter skies are grimmer than a hangman’s jockstrap. The need for some sunshine can become almost obsessive at a time when warmth of any sort seems almost a contradiction in terms.

So yep, you’re gonna do it. But where to? What if you’re sawn off with the tried and trusted old favourites like Tenerife and Gran Canaria, or you can’t afford/stand the platinum chip pretensions of Puerto Banal or Monte Carbuncle? Options begin to look shorter than the attention span of a lobotomised dwarf.

Here’s an idea. How about a week in Miami and the Bahamas? That’s right. And no, I’m not mad. Three nights in South Beach, followed by a short cruise to the Bahamas, and back again. Sounds outrageous? Maybe. But it is practical, and it’s deliciously decadent. Throw off your winter clothes and step right this way….

Ten hours after leaving a rain lashed UK runway, you emerge into around thirty degrees of Miami ‘s solar healing balm. That first burst of heat hits you like a blast wave. Two hours later and you’re on South Beach, partying outside around the pool of the legendary Clevelander, with a crowd of around fifteen hundred, bumping and grinding to a blistering soundtrack. That first margarita will taste like the fountain of youth.

The sheer adrenaline surge is almost impossible to articulate, but you’ll feel it as surely as if you had been hit by a truck. Neon garlanded palm trees wave in a warm breeze that wafts in on a purple tinted twilight. Cafes, bars and clubs flaunt their wares along a full two, fun filled miles. Stretch limos the length of cruise liners purr up and down the frenetic, salsa fuelled strip. There are pony tailed hippies on skateboards, and hookers on rest breaks, stopping off to buy the kid’s birthday present at the glut of shops along the beach. All human life is here, and then some.

Miami is not a cheap date, but the quality is pretty damned high. Food portions are simply gigantic, and come served up on plates the size of a small island. The whole city shimmers, sashays and salsas through until the first light of dawn, and sometimes beyond that. Miami is the perma- tanned colossus of the south; she wears a permanent smile on her well nipped and tucked face. She has a lot to smile about.

If all this platinum chip people watching and partying saps your strength, then join he club. This amazing, art deco wonderland has the capacity to simultaneously energise and exhaust you by turns. For all that, Miami is an exhilarating tease of a town, and you’ll dance with her again and again.

But for something radically different, take a side trip out to the Everglades, a sea of sawgrass that stretches out seemingly to infinity. Airboats whoosh through the trails that form the arteries, occasionally bumping their keels on some lethargic alligator lurking just under the surface. Guides will tell you about the numerous species of snakes that inhabit the waterways. There are around ninety different kinds; some of the boa constrictors are the length of two good sized family cars.

People mistakenly think that the Everglades are swamp land; it is in fact, mostly fresh water. Go check out an alligator farm, and watch as a trainer of hugely dubious sanity feeds lumps of raw meat directly to these scaly, scary, reptilian battleships on legs.

So, back to the beach life. You’ll find your own way to your own personal food and drink nirvanas, but some of my own personal favourites include the Eleventh Street Diner, a restored chrome fifties confection that stays open around the clock. Prices are very good, portions huge, and the atmosphere and service are fabulous. I also like Finnegan’s on 17th and Ocean for pretty much the same reasons. For a breakfast without equal, try the News Cafe for fabulous food with a sunny morning sea view.It’s worth doing just for the sausages, and the fruit salads served here are a meal in their own right. Fantastic.

For good Caffe con Leche- and my, how it revives you after a hard night’s partying- try David’s on 20th street. Ocean’s Five does the best chocolate martini on the strip. If diaquiris are more your delight, those at the Crab Shack are to die for.

And now, as they say, for something entirely different. Take a short cab ride to the port of Miami, and board any one of the three Norwegian, Carnival or Royal Caribbean ships that will take you on a giddy little, weekend long waltz around the balmy Bahamas.

Each carries around 2,200 plus passengers, and comes replete with a slew of bars, restaurants and fast food eateries. There are pools, hot tubs, thousands of sun loungers and seemingly endless, incessant partying. This is not about relaxation; far from it. Time is short, and the mission always seems to be to pack in as much as humanly possible. There is very little of the old world finesse once associated with cruising in bygone days. This is not your granny’s love boat for sure.

Passage out of Miami is always exhilarating, as the ship sets off downstream with a band playing on deck. Arms and margaritas wave in the air as the ship passes by lines of traffic racing along the adjacent, palm thronged highway. Car drivers pip their horns in salute; the ships respond with the deep, throaty booms of their sirens. The sun sinks behind you into a sea of liquid gold, glinting against downtown Bayside’s forest of steel and glass skyscrapers as it does. The hordes of sun worshippers that sprinkle the honey hued swathe of South Beach fade astern. And you’re off into the twilight.

All three ships go to Nassau, so time for an upfront disclosure. I’m not a fan of the place. Nassau is possibly the most hideously over rated place on the entire Caribbean circuit.The vastly over hyped straw market is tacky beyond adequate denigration. Nassau was once very chic and exclusive, but that was six or seven decades ago. The former King, Edward VIII, was it’s governor during the second world war. Since then, the place has become jaded almost to the point of jaundice.

Yes, the shopping is great, and there are some fabulous beaches. Many will be unable to resist the lure of the lurid, looming Atlantis Hotel and theme park on Cable Beach. You will find endless pitches for tours to go here but, truth be told, you can walk it comfortably in around twenty five minutes, if you must. For me personally, it’s more hype than style.

Far nicer is the pretty little beach at the Hilton hotel, only yards from where you dock. For around fifteen dollars, you can access this small, pristine little slice of heaven. It’s clean, safe and sweet, but food and drink is not cheap.

If you’re simply continuing the party onshore, you’ll almost certainly end up in the rollicking, anything-goes emporium of Senor Frogs. It is fun, but don’t fall so heavily for their yard margaritas that you forget little things like sailing time. The ship will breeze off onto the briny without you and your friends, however fetchingly attired you are in your multi-coloured, bawdily shaped balloon headwear.

I often don’t get off the ship at all in Nassau. With most people ashore, it can be sheer bliss just to have the ship more or less to yourself. Soaking up the sun in a calmer, more sedate atmosphere has a lot going for it. The change in tempo can feel like liquid balm for the senses.

On board, the party hots up as evening unfolds. There might be a disco out on deck, around the swimming pools, as well as another indoors. Casinos the size of airplane hangars hum, whizz and ring into life with their own neon fuelled cacophony. Glass lifts course silently up and down through multi-storey atrium lobbeys. Other bars offer music ranging from country and western to cool calypso. The options for enjoyment are limited pretty much only by your stamina.

Next day will probably have you fetching up at one of the company’s private islands. The exception is Carnival, which usually overnights in Nassau. On the private islands, a free barbeque will greet the still hung over hordes, together with live music, a slew of palm shaded bars, and all manner of water sports. All, naturally, at a price.

There are broad, sun washed swathes of blinding white sand, sprinkled with sun loungers and chairs. Norwegian’s private island, Great Stirrup Cay, has cabanas for rent, and both islands have a few shops. Hammocks are slung at intervals between silent, slowly waving palm trees.

Royal Caribbean’s private island is called Coco Cay. It’s flat and essentially featureless, and nowhere near as pretty as it’s rival. Still, you’re hardly going to play at being Indiana Jones on either of these. It’s all about having a fun, chilled out day in the sun. You can come and go as you please.

Of the three ships, I personally prefer the Norwegian Sky, mainly because she has far more balcony cabins than the other two, and many more dining options, including a gorgeous French bistro. Royal Caribbean’s Majesty of The Seas has small cabins, but you won’t spend long in them. She’s a beautiful ship, showing her age a bit, but tremendous fun. There’s also a fab, flashy branch of Johnny Rockets, the fifties retro diner, on board. Carnival’s Inspiration is a rollicking resort at sea; freshly refurbished, with large cabins and a brash, swaggering vibe. Truth be told, you’ll have a good time on any of these three ships.

Three night cruises always sail on Friday. There is a longer, four night version that leaves every Monday if you want a bit more time. As bargains go, all three can beat any Miami hotel for price and inclusive value.

After debarking, spend one more night in Miami and get the tan perfected, or do some last minute shopping before contemplating that inevitable, dread inducing flight home. Well, nothing good lasts forever.

Still- look at what you’ve done in a week. Partied like a local, dodged Alligators, shopped on the strip…. that nifty little run to Nassau, and then partying on sands just steps down from paradise. Winter has been shortened by a week. And you’ve got a tan. Come Monday in January, you’ll be the only one in the workplace that’s grinning like an idiot.

Yes, it’s extravagant, but hey, you’re worth it. Life is too short not to, for God’s sake. Also, remember that flying mid week- say, Wednesday for a Friday sailing- is cheaper than flying on a weekend. Enjoy!

COSTA FAVOLOSA- A JUNE JAUNT OUT OF VENICE

ImageCosta is a company in a quandary. After the disastrous loss of the Costa Concordia and a nose dive in profits, the line still  seems to be in a state of flux. Not all of the ripples in the whirlpool have settled yet, and that is putting it mildly.

In the wake of this awful event, I was curious to see the company in action, and to record my impressions. Costa seemed less keen. They were not prepared to entertain the idea of a press trip. I booked anyway, and flew out to Venice to board the 114,000 ton Costa Favolosa, introduced as recently as July 2011.

The Favolosa is the almost identical twin sister of the late Concordia, so no better place to gain a feel for how things are now. As big ships go, she is quite beautiful, with the single, black and yellow stack really making her quite distinctive. But appearances are one thing, and delivery is another.

This brings me neatly to the lifeboat drill, which took place prior to leaving Venice. Costa have come up with the good idea of leaving a red, plastic card in your cabin- not unlike your cruise swipe card- that has to be handed in at the start of the drill. These are checked off, and properly. Those not attending were made to come to a make up drill next day. So far, so good.

All passengers are assembled, with life jackets, at their outside muster stations. All 3,500 of them. And this is where Costa, like many other cruise lines, run up against a brick wall. Or, more accurately, a wall of sound.

ImageOn these multi- lingual ships, every instruction had to be repeated in each of seven languages. Sadly, the passengers around me babbled and clowned about to such an extent that I was unable to hear any of them, in any lingo. They were completely and utterly blase and uninterested in any aspect of the drill.

I was stunned. This was not just any ship, but the TWIN SISTER of the Concordia. It had all only happened only five months ago. Yet here they were, flippant and unfazed. Amazing.

Of course, all of this will be familiar to most passengers embarking on mega ships anywhere in the world. Quite what can be done about such attitudes is difficult to tell. Far as I could see, Costa made the best job of it that they possibly could.

ImageThen, a little bit of karma. As the Favolosa got under way and loomed out of Guidecca, the ship tilted briefly as thousands of passengers thronged to rubber neck at Piazza San Marco. There seemed to be one sharp, nervous intake of breath for a moment. It served to concentrate minds quite wonderfully, if only for a few seconds. Then we were passing the Doge’s Palace, and moving towards the open sea.

What followed can aptly be described as ‘twenty thousand sales pitches above the sea’. Costa filled the Favolosa by offering rock bottom prices, and then hanging price tags on everything on board. The low point had to be a ‘display’ of massages, complete with models draped across massage tables ,held in the atrium lobby during cocktail hour. The usual, excellent cocktail musicians were shooed aside for this grub-a-thon, while the cruise director shrieked for ‘applausa!’ from the stunned throng standing around.

I don’t know what this did for spa sales, but I do know that it emptied the very full bar quicker than a Justin Bieber tribute act would have done. I have never seen anything so puerile in more than thirty years at sea.

ImageCruise wise, we had wonderful weather, and the ship was always big enough that you could find somewhere quiet. Food was average to good at best, with poor quality cuts of meat and- incredibly for an Italian ship- lack lustre fruit.

Service was all over the place, from some exemplary South American bar and waiting staff, to plain sloppy. Drinks would arrive not properly dressed, and sometimes without place mats. When these did arrive, they were small, thin and useless- an obvious, and totally self defeating, cost cut.

On the other hand, there was more than enough entertainment to keep everybody diverted and amused; a key consideration on a week long trip.

ImagePhysically, the Costa Favolosa is fantastic; a floating theme park full of enough whimsical charm to leave you wide eyed with wonder. And that’s all well and fine. But when you are falling down on product delivery in other crucial key areas, it is only a matter of time before some tipping point is reached- pun wholly unintentional- and you decide that the glitter can no longer outshine the grime.

ImageSo yes, on the whole I enjoyed my week. But if Costa is to regain it’s pre-eminence as a product, it needs to look long and hard at just what is a practical economy, and what will cost them far more than it ultimately saves. Time alone will tell.

This article is reposted in view of the charges outlined against Francesco Schettino and his officers in relation to the tragic loss of the Costa Concordia.

CRUISING THE GREEK ISLANDS ON THE ORIENT QUEEN

ImageThere are times in the world of cruising when ‘less’ can most definitely be ‘more’. While the big, brimming new ships can entertain you like never before, they are often pretty restricted when it comes to the places where they can actually dock, especially in a limited amount of time. This is not such a big deal if you are doing the ‘greatest hits’ of the region such as Barcelona, Florence and Rome. But if you are looking to see the smaller, more intimate yacht harbours that make the region so truly darned compelling, then the truth is that you have to go down several layers in terms of size.

That’s largely why I picked the venerable Orient Queen for my recent short cruise from Cyprus to Rhodes and Symi. At just over 15,000 tons, she is a baby beside the modern behemoths, at least in terms of size. Yet in terms of age, she is from an entirely different era completely.

She was originally built as the MS. Starward in 1968, the first brand new ship for the fledgling Norwegian Caribbean Lines (NCL). With her, the company pioneered the concept of the fly /cruise that we now take for granted. For almost three decades, she enjoyed remarkable success, cruising from Miami to the sun splashed Caribbean islands.

As times and tastes changed and ships grew bigger, NCL dispensed with the veteran trooper. She went to the now defunct Festival cruises as the Bolero, and spent a few years with them before going over to Louis Cruises in 2005 to operate short cruises in the Greek Islands, where she gained worldwide fame evacuating civilians from Beirut during the war of 2006.

Now, the Orient Queen cruises more peaceful waters, and a legion of former fans will recognise her instantly. The unchanged silhouette with the central glass dome and the twin, swept back funnels is like something from another age and time. The sharply raked bow and snow white hull are a complete anachronism in terms of modern cruise ship architecture.

Inside, there is one main deck full of public rooms, beginning with the Stars Lounge right forward, the cabaret venue on the ship. This leads aft into the Reflections Lounge, with it’s boulevard effect of floor to ceiling windows. Behind here, the two-sitting Mermaid Restaurant spans the full width of the ship, with a lovely sweep of glass windows overlooking the ship’s wake, an aquarium full of idle, moon eyed fish, and glass ports that look into the illuminated tank of a swimming pool.

Food has a Greek emphasis, and is generally very good for the size and star rating of the ship. Breads in particular were very good, as was fish and pork. The other dining option- at least for breakfast and lunch- is the Horizon Buffet, located one deck above. This indoor/outdoor venue opens out onto the stern deck, and is set around the aft pool.

There is no alternative evening buffet here, although fast food such as pizzas and BLTs can be ordered at extra cost, around the clock. Ditto for cabin service breakfast, a continental affair that comes in at around four euros.

Cabins are small and compact, with toilet and shower, a/c and limited storage space. That said, on destination oriented cruises like these, you’re unlikely to spend much time in them. None come with balconies, but the small and intimate nature of the Orient Queen means the entire ship is your own private balcony in effect. The dress code is pretty casual- you can safely leave the ballgowns and tuxedos at home.

There are good deals on inclusive drinks packages on board, but prices in general are not expensive.Tips run at about four euros a day for a crew composed largely of Filipino and Eastern European service staff. While there might be the odd communication problem, the crew as a whole is happy to help passengers in any way they can.

The whole ship is suffused with a happy, cheerful vibe. The Orient Queen has no pretensions to be a luxury ship. Instead, she is an honest, workmanlike lady that remains extremely comfortable and- just as important in these waters- nimble enough to scoot into the sweet little spots that the bigger vessels have to pass by at a distance.

The signature venue on the Queen is the three level, steel and glass disco, the Venus Lounge, that opens out onto the centre pool. The centre level contains a rectangular, sit up bar surrounded by table groupings that flank the large, floor to ceiling windows. For the brave, a spiral staircase leads to a kind of VIP level that offers fabulous views down to the pool, as well as out over the bow. This almost unique little venue was the late night heart of the ship, and hugely popular with the mostly young local Cypriot crowd on board to enjoy a well known local rock band. Be aware that they smoke a lot, and everywhere at that.

There was also a small, bi level casino indoors, amidships, that did a good trade, and a small, charming little upper deck health spa that offered various treatments at extra cost. These include a sublime, Balinese themed indoor Jacuzzi area that feels like a different world entirely. It was pure bliss wallowing in the tub after a hard day drinking wine ashore, while the rest of the world outside got up to whatever craziness was currently taking its fancy.

The Orient Queen sauntered out into the late afternoon Limassol sunshine with around 680 passengers aboard, just over 100 short of a full load. Though the sun was fierce, a conga line of whitecaps soon began rocking and rolling us to such an extent that our call in Santorini was, wisely, abandoned. Putting tender boats into the sea in such conditions would have been rash indeed.

Now the nifty size of the ship really came into play. We were diverted instead to an early, overnight call in Rhodes, and a short but sweet visit to the delightful little idyll called Symi. As it turned out, this deftly amended short trip turned out to be a real winner.

We were the only cruise ship in Rhodes, with its massive, brooding turrets, towers and walls bleached almost blond by decades of exposure to a pitiless Aegean sun. Here, in the winding, cobbled streets where the Knights Templar once made their doomed last stand, modern tourists sit at over priced cafes that throng the central fountain. These days, their feet are surrounded by nothing more deadly than a rising tide of shopping bags ,their podgy fingers gingerly grasping glasses of the deadly, deceptive local ouzo.

Night time brought out the bright lights, the milling crowds, and the chance to sample some gorgeous local wine while savouring some platinum chip people watching, with just the ghost of a warm breeze rippling in from the ink black Aegean. The sounds of bouzouki and thumping base from nearby bars was overlaid with the constant, rhythmic chirruping of hundreds of tree frogs. The result was the most bizarre and delightful soundtrack I can ever remember. It was not a bad way to spend Saturday night at all.

Back aboard the relative calm of the Orient Queen, there was time to enjoy one last strawberry margarita in the VIP level of the Venus Lounge, looking back over the lights of old Rhodes Town. While I was calling it a night, the Orient Queen stole silently away into the darkness, destination Symi.

I woke in what I thought was the middle of an amazingly vivid dream. Serried tiers of whitewashed houses and restaurants stood almost close enough to touch from the deck, brilliant against an early morning, petrol blue sky studded with almost ethereal wisps of cloud. A gently curving stone pier lay below, with early morning wanderers sauntering in and out of a line of cafes that had been splashed across the quayside, with gently flapping umbrellas in reds, blues and vivid greens. From the windows above, coloured shutters were tethered to stone walls in shades of canary yellow, blue and rich terracotta. The whole place was like an incredible audio visual assault on the senses.

The hills surrounding the port were low, rolling and arid, scattered with random clusters of gaunt, spindly pine trees that stood out sharp against the blue sky. Yachts and trawlers bobbed lethargically at anchor, like an armada of snoozing swans. And yet this dream was very, very real.

Winding alleyways led to small tavernas, with checker cloth topped tables surrounded by rickety, electric blue wooden chairs, suffused with the smell and taste of melt-in-the mouth souvlaki, and fabulous, freshly pressed orange juice. A few hours here was more than enough to make me want to come back for much, much longer.

Back aboard the Queen, the memories of a glorious long weekend drifted idly through my mind as we cantered back to Limassol on a sea of liquid glass. There was fresh fruit and red wine on the table in front of me, shaded from the glare of the sun. Overhead, the famous, angled twin funnels stood like sentinels. I felt quite wonderfully free, totally chilled out. All things considered, it was not a bad way to spend a weekend.

ENDLESS SAILINGS ON A STARLIT SEA PART TWO- WAR AND OTHER HAZARDS

ImageIn September of 1939, Adolf Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, igniting the time bomb that mushroomed into the most destructive war in history. By its end six years later, millions would be dead, and the ranks of famous Atlantic liners would be decimated.

The outbreak of war found both the Normandie and Queen Mary in New York, shackled to their piers. They would be joined the following March by the brand new Queen Elizabeth, after the incomplete new Cunarder made a spine tingling dash across the Atlantic. Converted for trooping duties, both Queens would go on to make an indelible contribution to human history.

The Normandie was not so lucky. A catastrophic fire, started in the last phase of outfitting her as a trooper, would be compounded by a disastrous ingress of slowly freezing water that eventually capsized her in the middle of New York harbour like a beached whale. Her scarred, gutted remains were refloated in 1943, but by then she was useless. The most brilliant and original ocean liner of all time could have shaved another six months from the end of World War Two. Instead, her carcass was butchered in a New Jersey shipyard. For all her magnificence, she never earned a penny in profit.

Of the German liners, the Bremen escaped the Royal Navy by the skin of her teeth at war’s outset, only to be burned to waterline level by a disgruntled crew member in 1941. The two Italian beauties, Rex and Conte Di Savoia, both succumbed to bomb and rocket attacks in shallow home waters. Only the Europa survived to become a prize of war, awarded to France as a makeshift replacement of sorts for the fallen Normandie.

But it was the two Queens, Mary and Elizabeth, that were the real game changers. Sailing alone, at high speed and painted grey, they often wafted up to fifteen thousand troops each across the Atlantic to swell the ranks of the D-Day invasion force. Between them they carried more than 1.2 million men, without the loss of a single life. It was the greatest single troop lift in history, and it ultimately decided the outcome of the war in Europe.

No less a person than Winston Churchill recorded that the two ships between them shortened the European war by at least a year. Adolf Hitler was no less aware of their potential; he offered a quarter of a million reichsmarks to the U-boat commander that sank either of them. None even came close.

After the war, the two proud but grimy Queens were completely refurbished. By 1947 they were offering the most spectacular and successful two-ship service ever seen on the Atlantic. Despite their size, both were sold out more than six months in advance. Anyone who was anyone travelled on them, and Cunard was profiting as never before.

Stunned by the loss of Normandie, the French Line resumed service with the sassy, legendary Ile De France. Just over a year later, she was joined by the Liberte. This was nothing less than the heavily powdered, art deco suffused Europa. She arrived in New York to a grand welcome in August 1950 as virtually a new ship. With fabulous food and service, she quickly, quite inexplicably. became the most popular ship on the Atlantic.

Up above, commercial air travel across the Atlantic had now begun. Fledgling airlines like TWA, Pan Am and BOAC used propeller driven planes that were usually derivatives of heavy, four engined, World War Two Allied bombers, converted for passenger service. The flights were noisy, often shaky affairs. And they were also very expensive. A one way flight from Europe to America typically took around twelve hours, and often necessitated a fuelling stop on some barren Canadian airfield en route.

But, while the vast majority of the travelling public continued to prefer the fun and frivolity of crossing by sea, those flights were still a warning shot that the shipping companies closed their ears to. It would prove to be a fatal mistake.

Meanwhile, the old Atlantic run boomed like never before. When America got in on the act and introduced the brilliant, barnstorming SS United States in 1952, more than 1.2 million people were crossing the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. In high summer, even the biggest and most prestigious ships- the Queens, the Liberte and the Ile De France- were sold out many months in advance.

The United States was built for rapid conversion into a trooper, and outfitted with engines designed for fast aircraft carriers in the Pacific war. It was a power plant without equal; one displayed to dazzling effect in her July 1952 debut, when she swept the board in the Atlantic speed stakes. For some years, the ‘Big U’ carried the cream of American society, though the Brits continued to favour the clubby Queens, and more cosmopolitan types swore by the French Line.

It was an incredible time. It became common for the liners to sail from their New York piers at midnight, wreathed in technicolor showers of streamers and ablaze with light from bow to stern. On board farewell parties would continue until the last possible minute, and sometimes beyond. It seemed that the good times were here to stay.

There were occasional salutary reminders of who was really the boss. In July 1956, the sumptuous, state of the art Andrea Doria sank off Nantucket, after being rammed in thick fog by the small Swedish liner, Stockholm. This was despite both ships being radar equipped. Some fifty-six passengers and crew lost their lives.

Then, in October 1958, the first Pan Am jet airliner flew from New York to Paris in just six hours, and the death knell of the ocean liner screamed overhead at thirty thousand feet. Within two years, the jets had seventy per cent of the travelling public on board. Soon, the once crowded Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. An irreversible decline had begun. Even the United States was suffering, and badly at that.

There were attempts to use all these ships for warm weather cruises, especially in the quieter winter months. But the Queens, especially, were woefully ill suited to this kind of a role. One somewhat akin to expecting a professional footballer to adapt to playing top level, championship rugby. The attempt eked out their careers for a while, but often at the expense of their fading dignity. The United States fared better, but her deep draft meant that she could dock at very few of the more attractive cruise ports. She, too, was on borrowed time.

ImageSo it was with bemused amazement that thousands lined the banks of the Hudson in February, 1962, to witness the maiden arrival of the brand new SS. France. Built to be a ‘second Normandie’, she embodied all the style, grace and panache that the French Line had proudly excelled at for almost a century. Food and service aboard her were as impeccable as ever. Her owners called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

She was the longest passenger ship ever built. The American press called her an eighty million dollar gamble yet, for years, she averaged more than eighty per cent occupancy. She was joined in 1969 by the new Queen Elizabeth 2, a radically modern replacement for the venerable Queens. For the Elizabeth, that retirement ended with her destruction by fire in Hong Kong in 1972. The more beloved Queen Mary remains a proud, petrified relic of sorts in Long Beach to this day.

From Italy, a pair of lithe, white swans called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello were briefly able to buck the airborne assault. Highly styled and snappily served, they were ultimately to fall prey to the jets. Ironically, both were destroyed by bombers while serving as static Iranian garrison ships in the 1980’s.

ImageThe United States fell by the way in 1969, leaving the France and the QE2 to struggle on. Then, in 1974, the French government finally guillotined the $24 million operating subsidy for the France. Unwanted and abandoned, the great French liner was laid up to await an uncertain fate. The QE2 was alone,

ImageA scheme to convert the France into a floating casino sank without trace. For five dark and silent years she sat alone and unloved. And then, even as scrapyard owners around the world opened their cheque books and sharpened their knives, there came a sudden, fantastically implausible reprieve….

Against all the odds, the beloved liner France was converted over eight months into the Norway, the largest, most staggering and revolutionary cruise ship ever created. Her new Norwegian owner, Knut Kloster, envisaged a bright future for her as a Caribbean cruise ship; one three times larger than her nearest rival.

His rivals thought the idea mad, and not without reason. But Kloster had the last laugh. The first thing he did was close down the forward of her two engine rooms, reducing her speed to a level more suited to leisurely cruises than fast ocean crossings. In her French Line days, the France had guzzled fuel like so much cheap table wine. At one stroke, Kloster slashed her fuel bill by a full two thirds.

With a vast amount of open deck space superimposed on board and a pair of new swimming pools added, the Norway went ‘back to the future’ with a total art deco refurbishment from bow to stern. Two vast, 400 passenger tenders were shipped on board for ferrying duties in the Caribbean. On board came the first television station ever to go to sea, an indoor promenade with eleven different shops set along a pair of window walled boulevards, and the first Broadway style shows ever to go to sea.

It went on and on. The Norway loaded aboard a fifteen piece big band, embarked a thousand passengers, and then set off on a nostalgic crossing to New York and her new home port of Miami. She became a resounding success, paving the way for every modern cruise ship that would follow her. She would dominate the Caribbean for years.

ImageLeaving New York, she passed the incoming QE2, and the air reverberated with their whistles as the two great ships saluted each other for the first time in six years. A massive mural of that meeting was displayed on the walls of New York’s Grand Central Station for years.

And here, with that moment and those two ships, is where the story of my sea travels truly begins…….

ENDLESS SAILINGS ON A STARLIT SEA

, SAILING BY STARLIGHT- THE EVOLUTION OF TRAVEL AT SEA

The German liner Europa, for many years one of the great ‘ships of state’ on the Atlantic crossing. Post WW2, she would go on to a second, stellar career as the French Line’s much-loved SS. Liberte.

Imagine, if you can, a world without commercial air travel. It was not until a full decade after World War Two that the first jet airliners began whispering across the skies. In their vapour trails was written a simple message; it was nothing less than the death warrant of the transatlantic liner as a way of moving between continents.

For a full century, ocean liners were the only way of travelling the Atlantic with any degree of reliability. Only three years elapsed between Louis Bleriot’s first brave, stuttering flight across the English Channel in 1909 and the apocalyptic shock and numbness that followed the sinking of the Titanic. By the time that ship- the ultimate technical pinnacle of her day- had foundered, liners had already been traversing the most relentless stretch of ocean in the world for more than seven decades.

Immigration fulled the era. It fattened the profits of the shipping lines. Between 1890 and 1914, the most desperate mass exodus in the history of humanity poured forth in a human tidal wave. More than twenty million people, of at least twice as many nationalities, fled wars, pestilence, religious persecution and famine- sometimes all four- in an unstoppable flood towards the open, welcoming arms of America, the land of opportunity.  Many literally had nothing but the shirts on their backs.

Final twilight of the Titanic. As she races into the sunset and the passengers savour fine food and wine, the iceberg lies in wait…

The vast profits earned by the steamship lines resulted in a series of ever larger ships. Their first class interiors evolved into palatial spaces, resplendent with ornate wooden panelling,  glittering chandeliers that held sway above swathes of deep, rich carpeting, and random scatterings of plush, upholstered furniture. Palm courts full of wicker seating appeared almost everywhere. Cuisine and service came to resemble levels enjoyed at the Ritz, the Adlon or the Negresco. At least, it did in first class.

The First World War blew all of this out of the water. Quite literally in the case of the Lusitania, the famed Cunard liner that had been one of the ‘Queens’ of the Atlantic in the boom years.

America’s post war imposition of the Volstead Act limited incoming migration to just three per cent of the pre-war levels. Owners suddenly found themselves top heavy with fleets of ageing tonnage, and fewer people to fill them. Necessity led to the invention of tourism.

Former immigrant cabins were spruced up with fancy bed covers and linoleum floors, and the food quality was improved over time. Most ships were converted to oil burning, allowing for massive economies over the old coal burning days. Engine room crew numbers were scythed, and the amount of time needed to turn a ship around was halved.

This all went hand in hand with a burning desire among Americans to ‘see’ Europe. Now no longer the exclusive preserve of the moneyed first class, a whole new generation of young, professional Americans wanted to see the continent so many of them had fought and died for.

The bright lights of Paris were irresistible, as was London, then the capital of the greatest empire in the world. Further afield, the indolent lidos of Sorrento and the spires of Istanbul exerted an almost magnetic pull. Tourism took off like a rocket, and suddenly the liners were full again. Fuller, in fact, than ever.

It was an incredible age; a time of steamships, flapper girls, baseball, prohibition and jazz. Thirsty Americans, travelling abroad by liner, soon discovered that the ocean was wet in more ways than one. It rolled on and on until the Great Depression ushered in the greatest fiscal hangover of modern times.

The crash of 1929 was disastrous for the steamship lines. Passenger numbers plummeted by over fifty per cent in four short years, just as a string of new liners began to emerge to replace the dusty old survivors of the Edwardian era. First out of the blocks came the Germans.

The Bremen and her twin, the Europa, were designed from the start to be world beaters. New, streamlined and gleaming, the two Germans had modern, sterile interiors, and cabin service second to none. For three years, they played ping pong with the Blue Riband of the Atlantic.

The depression hit both of them hard and later, when the Nazis came to power, they suffered again from association with the Hitler regime. And soon they had competition,

The advent of those German giants was a real slap in Britannia’s imperial face, and she picked up the gauntlet with a snarl. In the Clydebank yards of John Brown, work began on a thousand foot long monster, one so vast that she blotted out parts of the skyline. Known as number 534, she was intended to seize back the initiative on the Atlantic. She would be the biggest ship the world had ever seen. But across the channel there lay a slight problem.

The Normandie.

Conceived at the same time as the ship that would become immortal as Queen Mary, Normandie was every bit as huge and impressive, almost as fast and, ultimately, much more brilliant and original. They would be rivals from the day they were laid down in Scotland and France respectively. They were both extravagant to the maximum, and both were sailed with great style and panache. But as a result of financial snarl ups in Britain, the French ship arrived first.

Normandie emerged in the summer of 1935, and thundered across to New York in what remains the single most auspicious maiden crossing in maritime history. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the Hudson river to witness her triumphal entry into port, surrounded by tugs and fire boats, and flying a thirty metre blue pennant to symbolize her record breaking debut.

A flotilla of biplanes flew over her in salute, as the whole scene was filmed from a blimp that hovered over Manhattan. One of the New York papers put out no less than eight editions that day, covering her progress. Normandie earned media coverage fully equal to that of the first moon landing, some thirty-four years in the future. It remains the most sensational (successful) debut in the history of sea travel.

Inside, she was exquisite, like a Hollywood movie set brought to life. Huge, double height public rooms were lined with exquisite lacquered panels, vast ‘light towers’, and wonderfully obscene amounts of glittering lalique. Those superb, sumptuous interiors would mark out the Normandie as the most beautiful, singularly brilliant ship ever to cut salt water. Even today, she remains very much the ocean liner.

Queen Mary made her debut almost exactly a year later. She was a much more conservative ship; evolutionary rather than revolutionary; a scaled up version of her illustrious predecessors. But she had great style, and a warmth many found lacking amid the glittering, almost overpowering style salons of the Normandie. On her sixth voyage, she took the record from the French ship. For the next two years, they would beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot, engaging in what remains quite simply the greatest speed race of all time.

From time to time, crews on both ships would glance nervously up at a gleaming, silver grey vision in the sky that ghosted effortlessly past them at a height of several hundred feet. The Hindenburg brought snappy, elegant travel to the skies for the first time. Carrying seventy or more passengers, she could fly to New York in just two days. She had fabulous food and service, and was often wait listed weeks in advance.

Bonfire of the vanities; the Hindenburg bursts into flame at Lakehurst, New Jersey, in May 1937

Only her fiery, still controversial demise at Lakehurst in the spring of 1937 put an end to a string of passenger airships that would have given the liners their first serious challenge. But by then, all of Europe was already twitching nervously at the increasing sabre rattling of Hitler and his Italian lackey, Benito Mussolini. A second global conflagration hung in the skies, one as ominous as the funeral pall of the Hindenburg herself….

Even the sinking of the Titanic did nothing to deter the food of migrants to America in the years prior to the Great War

Hello, world. Let’s do this in style…

Pool deck of the Balmoral, at anchor in beautiful Flam, Norway.

Pool deck of the Balmoral, at anchor in beautiful Flam, Norway.

Sunrise over Papeete

Sunrise over Papeete

Travel means a lot of different things to many different people. From derring-do back packers to unashamed sybarites, city break fans to nature lovers, nostalgia buffs to armchair wanderers. But the thing we all have in common is that we want to be taken out of the ordinary; moved, amazed, enlightened, engaged…

That’s what this blog is about. I’ll take you to the most beautiful places on earth in the most fabulous of styles. Cruises and voyages to suit every taste and mood. Train journeys that tantalise. But it’s about far more than that…

The enduring legend; Queen Elizabeth 2

The enduring legend; Queen Elizabeth 2

We’ll go back in time, as well. Revisit the heyday of the great ocean liners. Expect some nostalgic musings and, hopefully, a bit of insight that makes you want to look deeper at things for yourself. The beginning of another journey of discovery? Absolutely.

I’d like to share spectacular sunrises and sublime, mellow sunsets with you. From the Norwegian fjords out to French Polynesia, via places too electrifying to ignore. We’ll do springtime in the magnificent Greek Islands, and summer jaunts to Bermuda.

Looking down from Sorrento to the lidos near Marina Piccolo...

Looking down from Sorrento to the lidos near Marina Piccolo…

Come aboard, and enjoy some mellow autumn wine on the amazing lidos of Sorrento. We’ll see the spires of Istanbul, the awe inspiring pagodas of Burma, and the dazzling gem that is the Manhattan skyline.

We’ll go skinny dipping on a surf kissed San Diego beach, and take a languid cruise along the Nile. We’ll drink good beer in wonderful Copenhagen, and margaritas in the sun kissed playgrounds of the Caribbean.

And another thing to bear in mind is that, often as much, it’s not so much about where you go, as how you get there.

If it’s legendary, elegant, beautiful and fun, then we’re all for it. Don’t bring mundane, bland or banal into the mix. Leave that stuff packed away with the bags in the hold. We don’t want that kind of stuff on this fantastic voyage…

Train ride, anyone?

Train ride, anyone?

Most importantly, we’ll do it in style. Because travel can be an art form, too. Quirky and eclectic as a Picasso, or as cake rich as a centuries-old Rubens. The world is a canvas, and these words and pictures are my brush strokes.

Room for two? Only in French Polynesia...

Room for two? Only in French Polynesia…

OK, who ordered the Palace special?

OK, who ordered the Palace special?

Beautiful, beguiling Burma...

Beautiful, beguiling Burma…

Feel free to interpret them as you will. Welcome aboard. It’s going to be one hell of an adventure….