VISIONS OF VILLEFRANCHE, PARADISE ON THE COTE D’AZUR

ImageAnybody who has travelled in southern Europe has their own idea as to what the most beautiful place is. Some swoon over Sorrento. Others are mad about Mykonos. Some will plead the case for Portofino, while still others will swear by Santorini, Kusadasi, or Taormina.

I have no quarrel with any of those opinions. All rate highly among my personal favourites for beauty, character, and sheer, platinum chip slouch factor.

ImageSlouch factor? It’s a term I use for any place that somehow slows your normal, manic pace of mobility to an indolent saunter, simply by virtue of it’s sheer beauty and magical vibe. It’s a place that makes you feel the need to do nothing more strenuous than relax with a glass of wine or a cold beer, some lunch, with a good side order of languid people watching for dessert.

Of course, southern Europe is slouch factor central. Hedonism here is an art form, sometimes abstract like a Picasso; at other times cake rich, and full of the colour of a Rubens. Whatever. slouch factor is a state of mind; a true art form in it’s own right.

But, while all those peachy places I mentioned above induce a case of severe indolence in me, there is one that tops them all when it comes to living and loving the good life to the maximum. And- because we’re all friends here- I’m going to share it with you.

Villefranche is a small fishing village, mid way between Nice and Monte Carlo, that is used by many cruise ships to disembark passengers for the scenic highlights along the way. It has the advantage of a natural, deep harbour, and excellent road and rail connections along the coast.

ImageIt also just happens to blow spots off any of them for sheer, languid, magnificent beauty. Villefranche is, quite simply, the most perfectly styled, chocolate box pretty place in the entire Mediterranean. A view so good that it was used as one of the backdrops for the James Bond movie, Never Say Never Again.

ImageThe bay forms a perfect, natural theatre-in-the-round, cradled by a sweeping semi circle of gently rolling hills in a dozen shades of vibrant green. Villas, houses and churches peep out from among this wonderful natural crown, offering spectacular views down onto a sparkling, electric blue bay literally studded with idly bobbing yachts, as content as well fed swans.

ImageOn the waterfront, a riot of Italianate houses, bars and shops curve around the base of the bay. There are shades of yellow, white and terracotta. Window shutters in cream, green and electric blue stand open above the winding, cobbled lanes that lead back into the hills. An armada of bars, cafes and restaurants is splashed like so much brightly coloured confetti along the bustling quayside.

Waiters in starched white aprons deliver plates of food and drinks to idly loafing tourists wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country. Their cars sit in leafy side lanes, shielded by a wash of jasmine and oleander. A Rolls Royce Corniche here; a Lamborghini there. The whole vibe is casually spectacular indolence, played out against a matchless natural canvas.

ImageTrains slither like exotic snails along the railway line that hugs the coast, passing over the spectacular, jasmine shrouded viaduct that winds around the bay. A small, honey coloured beach shelves gently into the azure hue of the Mediterranean. Like everything else in Villefranche, it seems almost perfectly in proportion to every other part of the mix. It’s as elegant and coquettish as an exquisite charm bracelet and, truth be told, not that much cheaper.

ImageThat said, it is nowhere near as expensive as, for instance, Monte Carlo just down the coast. A first time arrival by sea in Villefranche is easy to spot; just check the speed with which their jaw hits the top of their shoes when your ship first sails round the headland at Cap Ferrat, and that whole, wonderful bay opens up in front of you like a flower bursting into full bloom.

ImageAs evening falls, pools of light begin to shimmer on the ink black waters of the bay. Table lamps flicker skittishly under cafe awnings as they are ruffled by the ghost of a gentle breeze. The deep, seductive growl of a tenor sax floods the night air with a torrent of warm, sultry soul. Lovers walk hand in hand along the promenade, Down below, an old man tends to the sodden nets in his fishing boat, getting them ready for the next day’s catch.

ImageVillefranche is warm, welcoming, almost other worldly in a way. It has a subtle, electric vibe that will stay in your soul like a quiet storm long, long after you leave it behind. And, just like the magnetism present in any storm, you will be drawn back.

Trust me on that one….

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BEAUTY IN THE BALTIC

ImageThe Baltic is one of the most compelling places on earth to cruise during the summer months, when the ‘white nights’ bathe the whole northern half in a surreal twilight that ensures that it is never really totally dark. Though the night may fall like a guillotine blade on one part of the horizon, you can guarantee that the other will be bathed in a spectral glow of gold, reds, blues and greens until the sun comes up, just scant hours later. It’s an exhilarating thing to see, and it is served up every night in the high summer months.

ImageThis alone would be compelling enough reason to sail these fabled waters. But the entire region is strung out with a series of extraordinary cities, like jewels on a particularly extravagant necklace. Many of them are the founder members of the ancient Hanseatic League, dating back to the thirteenth century. As befitted rich trading posts of the times, they were heavily fortified against attacks by rivals. Many of these walls, castles and ramparts remain stunningly intact to this day. Their sturdy stone facades have not been bleached almost white by centuries of endless sunshine, unlike their counterparts in the Mediterranean. They remain every bit as grimly impressive as when built in many cases.

ImageTallinn, the capital of Estonia, is a classic example. The lower, harbour area of the city has narrow, cobbled streets flanked by rows of vaulting, medieval houses, many now converted to shops, restaurants and bars. There are vast, onion domed churches and cathedrals of the kind seen all over the old USSR. Like the rest of the Baltic capitals, Tallinn was part of the most brutal game of attrition in history, as the Nazis and Soviets played ping pong with it for five years. Tallinn then endured several decades of oppressive Soviet occupation, until 1989. Though the people have since shaken off the yoke of communism, the local architecture has still not changed in centuries.

ImageOn the higher plateau overlooking the harbour, you can see the original walls, turrets and towers of Toompea. Some of these, like the charmingly named ‘Tall Hermann’ and ‘Fat Margaret’, are among the most distinctive landmarks in the region; a series of gaunt, grey edifices, frozen in space and time that still dominate the landscape, just as they did in the 1400’s.

ImageAt the very apex of the Baltic circuit- quite literally- Saint Petersburg is a very different creature indeed. Conceived by Peter the Great as his ‘Window on The West’, it has broad, sweeping boulevards far more reminiscent of Paris, rather than some medieval them park. Hundreds of canals thread through its centre, right up to the River Neva, where most cruise ships come in to dock.

ImageAnother ship lies not far away. An antiquated, steel grey warship, with three spindly funnels that claw at the sky. This is the preserved cruiser, Aurora. Her forward gun fired the signal shot that triggered the Communist revolution of October, 1917. She was preserved by the Communists as a floating shrine to their cause, and she remains there to this day.

ImageThe Communists also preserved- or, more accurately, restored- something else that can induce fevered bouts of head scratching. In this case, we’re talking about Petrodeverts, the Tsar’s former summer palace on the very edge of the Baltic.

ImageIt was built to rival the Sun King’s fabled Versailles and, in many ways, Petrodeverts is even more excessive. The palace itself resembles an overly frosted wedding cake on an epic scale. Inside, room after room is lined with glittering, gilt edged mirrors. Vast, fabulous chandeliers hold sway above acres of rich, thick carpets, Ceilings are rich, magnificent art works in their own right. Old masters line the walls like ranks of the Tsar’s Imperial Guard.

ImageThe whole place is awash in gold, marble and silk brocades, Table settings for sixty are preserved as they would have been in the days of Nicholas and Alexandra.

ImageThe gardens are something else again. A series of vaulting, stepped terraces runs right down to the very edge of the Baltic itself. A waterfall tumbles lethargically downwards, flanked by a phalanx of stunning, stupendous fountains. Gold cherubs stand like guardian angels on every tiered level of this magnificent descent.

ImageWhen you see this incredible place, you understand why the starving Russian peasantry revolted. But the entire complex was destroyed during the war. It was occupied by the Germans. They had to be kicked out, room by room. At the end, all that was left was the blackened, skeletal facade of the palace.

ImageThe entire complex was restored by the Communists, right down to the last detail….

ImageSaint Petersburg has seen more turbulence in its three hundred years than any other city I can think of. Revolution. Siege. Starvation that resulted in a million deaths. Three name changes, and the assassination of Tsar Alexander III. Rasputin’s botched, bloody demise. The Communist revolution was born and buried here, too.  Yet it remains an amazing, culturally overwhelming city; a must see for anyone with a taste for the epic.

ImageMany cruises spend two or three days here. You’ll need at least that just to scrape the surface of this fascinating, multi faceted sea city. From ballet performances to the fabulous artistic glut of the Hermitage, the Winter Palace to the wondrous Saint Basil’s cathedral, Saint Petersburg will seem almost overpowering at every level.

ImageThe good news is; you can always go back there.

SLOW ROLLING DOWN TO SAN DIEGO

ImageThe huge, silver sheathed, double decker Surfliner train lurched out of LA’s Union Station with a deceptively gentle shudder. Sprawled in a huge, business class seat on the upper deck, I savoured the space and comfort, and pondered the advantages of paying a little extra for the upgrade.

The scenery wasn’t one of them. At least not for the first hour. The train rumbled ominously through a vast hinterland of scrub, burnt out cars, ragged, random graffiti and urban decay. Huge chimneys reared against the sky, blighting the sunny January day with belching clouds of smoke that clawed at the heavens like poisonous, grubby fingers.

ImageAnd then, it changed. As completely and dramatically as if someone had switched channels without me seeing it. Suddenly, there were long, rolling swathes of sand drummed by the steely blue rollers of the Pacific. Spanish style towns; villages and haciendas wreathed in swathes of gorgeous, vibrant hibiscus. Date palms and small knots of tiny people, draped across the promenades and walkways as the Surfliner rolled south.

ImageThere was no finer time or place to enjoy the complimentary mini bottle of Sutter Creek Zinfandel that comes with being in business class. It somehow never tastes better than in California. There was also free coffee, tea and pastries laid out at the end of the coach.

Three hours on a train have never passed so pleasurably, or seemingly so quickly. But journey’s end found me breaking into an unstoppable grin, as the Surfliner shuddered to a halt at Santa Fe station, in downtown San Diego.

ImageSan Diego flaunts around seventy miles of sun kissed beaches, all of them garnished with the best, year round temperatures anywhere on the mainland USA. Situated just eight miles from the Mexican border at infamous Tijuana, it is also the southernmost city on the continent. Yet these are just a few of San Diego’s prime bragging points.

ImageThe city is very Spanish accented, open and lush. Balboa Park alone can occupy you for a full day. Here you’ll find a dazzling, ornately sculpted array of incredible, colonial style buildings, churches and museums. There are vast, lush botanical gardens almost awash with flora, fauna and cacti or every kind, colour and texture imaginable. Birds of every species, size and colour screech and caw in the mid day sun.The whole place is a magnificent, sublimely mellow, audio visual assault on the senses.

ImageGiant Koi carp cruise impassively through deep, dimly lit, lily draped pools and lakes. In fact, it’s hardly an exaggeration to say that it is worth visiting San Diego simply to see Balboa alone..

ImageBut the city is far more than just it’s gorgeous green lung. The Gaslight District has a whole series of restored blocks of Victorian style architecture, gentrified and converted into shops, restaurants and some fabulous sidewalk bars and cafes, in an area easily reached on foot from both the railway station and Balboa Park. It’s a cool, mellow place to chill out and make the fun, dreamy transition from late afternoon to early evening. I cannot think of anything similar anywhere in the continental USA. It has a magical, unique vibe all it’s own.

ImageBut sunset is a magical, almost mystical time in this jewel on the Pacific coast. I had been advised to check out the show from a bar called Lahaina, located on the dusky sprawl of Pacific Beach.

ImageI fell in love with ‘PB’ at first sight. It seems to go on forever, curving north and south in what could be called a kind of slow, dreamy smile. Surfers breasted the surging, gunmetal tinted rollers, their outlines black against a slowly reddening sky. The sand itself, brushed by the same gently falling sun, had a kind of sharp caramel hue. Lovers walked their dogs along it as the greedy sea lunged towards their feet. From somewhere behind me, a busker was rasping out old Creedence Clearwater Revival stuff for all he was worth.

ImageI made my way to Lahaina, grabbed a Longboard beer (another recommendation from a friendly local), and drank in a fabulous, slowly fading sunset as if it were the finest wine. It unfolded like a series of stunning drum rolls before finally giving up the ghost, and sagging into the waiting arms of the Pacific.

These are just a few snapshots of a city that I have come to love very much. San Diego is hugely under rated, yet it has wonderful people, fabulous architecture and a simple, friendly feel good factor that elevates it way above many far more pretentious places.

ImageBut don’t take my word for it. Go see for yourself. Happy travelling!

SWEET TREATS- CRUISING DOWN TO CATALINA ISLAND

ImageIf you’re on a package tour or fly drive to California, you might be in blissful ignorance of an added opportunity to put a bit of added zing into your trip. Why not add on a short, three or four day cruise out of Long Beach down to Ensenada and the gorgeous, chocolate box time capsule that is Catalina Island. I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.

It was an adventure made better by an overnight, pre- cruise stay on the Queen Mary; that proud, petrified one time monarch of the North Atlantic ocean. My stay was a wonderful experience; but that’s a story for another day.

ImageThe three day Carnival cruise leaves on the Friday, visits Ensenada, and returns on Monday morning. The four day Monday departures follow the same route, but add in Catalina as a first port of call.

Here’s the thing; I think Ensenada is unrelentingly grim. There’s little to see here of merit, and the appalling poverty of many of the locals is simply heartbreaking to experience. Yes, you can shop, and drink margaritas, too. But the flies are the size of stealth bombers, and twice as fast.

There’s a hermetically sealed, faux Mexican village at the cruise terminal. It is off limits to the ordinary locals, and painted in an eye boggling shade of bubonic yellow. For me, that’s pretty much it.

ImageBut Catalina is a creature of a completely different kind.

It sits not far off shore from Los Angeles, but about five decades behind in terms of appearance and ambiance. The stance of the place is breathtaking, and the clapboard houses, fishing fleets and bustling quaysides of the tiny capital, Avalon, will put you straight in mind of New England. You come ashore by tender, and even the short ride across the water is an exhilarating jaunt.

ImageThe coastline unwinds in a series of sinuous, serpentine curves. At the end of Avalon’s waterfront sprawl is a circular, charming theatre from the thirties. It resembles nothing so much as a grand, slightly faded wedding cake; like most of the island, it seems slightly lost in the mists that can blanket the place in a heartbeat.

ImageBut take a slow, gentle walk along to that theatre, and you’ll pass benches framed by beautiful, coloured tile work that looks as if lifted intact from a Lisbon side street. Oleander and hibiscus fringe the edges of a small, dusky bronze beach that shelves almost reluctantly into the sparkling, early morning sweep of the Pacific. Canoes and kayaks are piled up like so much driftwood. This was January, after all.

ImageThe town centre is full of quirky little shops,bars and restaurants set along the main drag. They spill down into the side streets of this pocket sized town. On the opposite side of the road, a gaggle of seagull draped piers jut out into the mostly placid Pacific.

Catalina Island will always be associated with the unfortunate, still controversial death of Natalie Wood on a stormy night on this same, still water. But the town was defined by its past long before that tragic night in 1981.

ImageBecause Catalina feels very like a slice of what I imagine mainland California must have been like in the fifties. People in loud shirts, drinking sunset martinis and dining on fresh caught local fish. Lounge singers  crooning in crowded, smoke suffused waterfront bars in an age before discos. Yachts and fishing smacks bobbing like contented swans in the moonlight…

ImageLos Angeles is just twenty four miles away, yet it feels like an entirely different planet. Catalina seems to be almost unfeasible, adrift in its own time and space. A surf kissed Brigadoon, more apparent than real. And there lies the charm.

ImageLunch was spent in a fantastic, rustic fish restaurant on one of the piers. A forest of eclectic, amazing bric a brac climbed the walls all around me as the noon sun ghosted in through huge, louvered windows. The fish- fresh caught and landed that day- was stupendous, especially washed down with a cold Heineken. The whole thing was a feast for the senses as well as the palate.

ImageBack aboard, I realised that a couple of days in Catalina would probably be a great idea, especially in the summer. Any longer would probably be too much. Not a lot seems to happen. I suspect that the sense of languid charm would wear off after a few days.

ImageSo then we proceeded on down to Ensenada. I took the most sensible option open to someone who has been here before, and stayed on board. Sheer bliss ensued.

ImageAs the ship emptied and the on board vibe slowed to something quite pleasantly agreeable, I simply sagged down into the wonderful little Serenity area that all Carnival ships have. I enjoyed the solace and the sunshine, a lazily thrown together lunch, and some quality hot tub time. By the time our frazzled, sometimes slightly sozzled Mexican adventurers returned on board, my bathrobe and I had bonded quite wonderfully. And yes, I still got some sun.

Recommended? Oh yes. Absolutely.

ANOTHER MONARCH BOWS OUT….

CNV00179The next few weeks will mark the final voyages of Royal Caribbean’s Monarch of the Seas before her transfer to Pullmantur, the Spanish subsidiary of RCCL. Once there, she will rejoin her sister Sovereign, best remembered as the groundbreaking, 1988 built Sovereign of the Seas.

That will leave only the third of the original trio- Majesty of the Seas- still in service with Royal Caribbean, but for how much longer? The company sensibly delegated the ‘Majesty’ to three and four day short cruises out of Miami some years ago, where her tiny inside and outside cabins would not be such an issue for passengers more interested in hard partying than in stateroom parameters.

The Majesty of the Seas now stands alone as the last of that pioneering generation of mega ships that propelled Royal Caribbean to stratospheric levels of success. All three ships in the trio boasted a cabins forward/public rooms aft configuration that was briefly in vogue at the time. There were no balcony cabins at all in the original design, although all three ships were retrofitted with a single deck of balconies later in their careers.

CNV00085Each featured a vast, expansive atrium which still stands as a benchmark for maritime elegance. Cool, airy and undeniably classy, these became the forebears for the legions of imitators that followed in their wake.

They also incorporated the vast Viking Crown lounges, cantilevered around the funnel like some predatory mother ship from a fifties sci-fi flick. These ones are on a much bigger scale than the far more intimate venues on previous ‘Royal’ tonnage, Even now, they remain some of the most spectacular vantage points of any ships at sea.

CNV00091This class was ultimately seconded because of the lack of alternative dining options, as well as the dearth of time killing facilities gifted onto their more expansive, shiny new successors. Nobody liked those small cabins very much either, despite the fact that they are perfectly functional and fit for purpose.

I did a couple of three night cruises on the Majesty a few years ago. I liked the ship immensely; a modern classic with a beautiful, flared bow, a graceful counter stern, and a quite remarkable stance when seen from the shore. She was crowded and, at times, some areas were downright rowdy.

CNV00124But the value was extraordinary, and they had shoehorned a branch of Johnny Rockets, the famous retro fifties diner chain, into her upper deck. It didn’t much matter that the ‘sit up and beg’ barrel chairs in the main show lounge were obviously dated nineties relics.

More importantly than anything, Majesty remained a happy ship; a hard working, honest lady still making scores of often first time cruisers happy. There was a pianist who sounded like a cross between Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder on both cruises. His nightly shows were always packed.

CNV00132I hope these great ships are remembered and valued properly; they became ‘also rans’ in Royal’s meteoric ascent all too quickly, though understandably so.

The excitement that they generated at their launch all seems a long time ago now. But if you are in Florida for the weekend, you really could do a lot worse than take a quick, giddy spin on a ship that has become a true modern classic; a staple of the cruise industry that has charisma by the boatload. I doubt you’ll regret the experience.

DEUTSCHLAND- 21ST CENTURY TIME TRAVEL

ImageClive Palmer is a man with a mission. The ebullient antipodean has made headlines with his decision to gift the world his Titanic II project. He intends her to be a faithful as possible recreation, encapsulating all the glamour, opulence and style of turn of the 20th century ocean liner travel. There’s just one small fly circling above the brilliantine.

It’s already been done…

ImageAnd here is the proof. Her name is Deutschland. Internally, she’s an almost perfect tribute to such famous, pre-WW1 flyers as the Kaiser Wilhelm Der Grosse and the legendary Kronprinz Wilhelm. Small, highly styled and wonderfully anachronistic, Deutschland is possibly the most under rated passenger ship afloat today anywhere.

ImageShe was conceived by the late Peter Deilmann to be a tribute to that hallowed age of German ocean liners. But the ship herself is strictly first class, with just over 500 passengers carried in small but supremely comfortable cabins that echo the sumptuous, magnificent spread of public rooms on board.

Deutschland is wonderfully dramatic. Vast chandeliers hold sway above a sea of rich, thick red carpeting in the gold accented Kaisersaal ballroom. There are exquisite stained glass ceilings and deep leather sofas that look as if they were lifted intact from the Adlon or the Ritz. Potted palms are dotted around the public areas like random exclamation marks.

ImageGold cherubs and gilded balustrades predominate, while huge, cake rich paintings of ancient sailing ships and ocean liners loom above formal seating groups. Banks of floor to ceiling windows flood this wonderful little ship with light; this helps her to feel elegant, even coquettish. More Louis Quinze than stolid Prussian matriach.

ImageThe food and service is simply amazing. A 20.000 ton ship that boasts four separate dining venues- all included in the fare- is quite something. And where else would you expect to find boar and ostrich on the menu, if not here? The pleasures of the table are one of the main forms of entertainment aboard Deutschland.

ImageThe ship is a perfect, compact little jewel. Her outer decks are immaculate; lined with rows of teak steamer chairs, each one with its own, embroidered dark blue mattress. Lines of them are as perfectly presented as a parade of the Prussian Guard. She is without doubt one of the most immaculate ships that I have ever sailed on. or, for that matter, ever will.

It should go without saying that this is a ship with a genteel kind of patina; a wondrous, subtle vibe that puts the emphasis on enjoying the ship herself for what she is. If you can’t live without bingo, rock climbing walls or fur and feather floor shows, then Deutschland is definitely not for you.

ImageBut if you appreciate cool, classy jazz, wonderful food and service, and a level of charm, style and panache that simply cannot be fabricated (C.Palmer, I’m talking to you), then it may very well be that your ship has, indeed, come in. I wish this stunning, spirited little gem of a ship many more years of happy sailing.ImageImageImage

GREECE? IT’S STILL THE WORD….

ImageI make no apologies for being a fan of sailing around the Greek islands. Nowhere else on earth serves up such a beguiling blend of history and hedonism in such compelling mutual proximity. The pleasures and sensations of cruising these waters run everything from the simple to the truly spellbinding

While many of the islands have similarities, no two are ever the same. Each- from the largest to the smallest- is as distinctive and individual as a human fingerprint.

ImageBut there are also some wonderful common touches, too. Like that little table with the checked cloth and the four wooden chairs- painted bright blue, red, or yellow- that stands in the shade of a taverna that sprawls across a sun splashed Greek quayside. Like me, you’ll probably always end up sitting on the rickety, lop sided one. No matter. After a few glasses of vino, some delicious, lemon drenched souvlaki and some platinum chip people watching, your grin will probably be quite lop sided, too. Sheer, languid bliss,

ImageAnd the sights… spellbinding stuff. Sailing into Mykonos and seeing those iconic, blinding white windmills that crown the low rolling hills is an unfailing adrenaline rush. Or Santorini, where the view down from Thira into the caldera of an imploded volcano leaves you feeling exalted and detached. It’s akin to being awake in a particularly vibrant dream.

ImageRhodes old town is like the world’s greatest medieval theme park. Here, the ancient stone walls, castles and turrets are bleached almost a shade of dusky white after centuries of exposure to a pitiless Aegean sun. The streets and cobbled squares where the Knights Templar once made their doomed final stand are filled with shops, restaurants, and bars selling ice cold beer in boot shaped glasses. Dogs curl up in the heat in the shade of ancient water fountains, oblivious to everything.

And what sunsets… long, slow and languid. Turning the sea into what looks like a field of burning straw. The subtle, seductive aroma of freshly grilled fish, and the melancholy twang of bouzouki as the first of the evening crowds throng the streets. The chirping of thousands of crickets and the kiss of a warm, soft breeze that hangs in the air like fine perfume. Ouzo, prawns and amazing ice cream.

Greece. Still very much the word.

GOLDEN AGE OF SEA TRAVEL? YEAH, RIGHT….

ImageEver since Saint Clive of Palmer launched his fondly envisaged Titanic II project, we’ve had to endure a tidal wave of pious platitudes and rosy burbling about the so called ‘golden age’ of sea travel. Those great, gilded ocean palaces of the past have been flaunted ad infinitum as the absolute apogee of seagoing style and splendour. Often by people who have never even set foot in a puddle, never mind crossing the North Atlantic in a Force Ten.

Seriously?

Let’s inject a little realism here. The shades of those great, beautiful old ships- and they were that- would surely have looked with wry amusement at the rock climbing walls, ice rinks and water parks enjoyed by the voyagers of today on their successors. Not the sort of thing that they would have wanted on board, or needed.

These were a few other modern fripperies that the old ships conspicuously lacked. Stabilisers. Air conditioning. Modern standards of food hygiene, storage and refrigeration. For sure, passengers undoubtedly dressed more elegantly in those days. Fat lot of good if you were being elegantly seasick in a Tuxedo aboard some ocean liner, as it rolled like a drunken duchess in a howler of a winter storm. Stylish indeed.

And while nothing for me will ever match the vast, lustrous beauty of the Normandie- both inside and out- that most mourned and lauded of all ocean liners was known as a notoriously snappy roller. It used to be deadpanned among ocean travellers that she smashed quantities of on board lalique as casually as if it came from Woolworths.

It is infinitely more comfortable to cross these days on the Queen Mary 2, with all the state of the art luxury, comfort and entertainment that you could ever want  laid on for you. So why this obsessive worship and veneration of these long gone, old ocean liners, especially when it is obvious that they do not come close to today’s modern ships in terms of actual comfort and well being?

Those old ships had style, class and individuality; qualities largely absent today among a flotilla of mass produced hulls almost indistinguishable from one another. Time and distance adds to the magical aura of those effortlessly elegant seagoing icons. The past always looks better. I dare bet passengers on the Mauretania or the Olympic looked back on the age of sail through similar rose coloured glasses.

Simple idea how to combine the best of old and new? Take a trans-ocean voyage on one of the ultra luxury lines, and grab one of Maxtone-Graham or Bill Miller’s elegant, evocative volumes on the history of ocean travel. Old meets new, and you can put both into a blissful, realistic kind of context. Voyaging? It has never been more fun or comfortable than it is right now. Fact.

TITANIC: DRAGGED UP FOR AIR?

CNV00004Like a Celine Dion mega mix, Clive Palmer’s Olympian attempt to revive the most notorious name in maritime history goes on and on. Yesterday marked the first in a series of events designed to unveil the supposed genesis of his controversial Titanic II project, now slated for a debut in the fall of 2016.

The bare bones of a strategy have been sketched out. Titanic II will be built in a Chinese shipyard. Although complying to every modern safety standard (where have I heard that before?) the new ship will be ’98 per cent’ faithful in recreating the original, fabled opulence of the ill fated juggernaut.

This is no mean feat. For starters, the hull will be welded, rather than held together by the three million rivets hammered into the original Titanic. There will be azipods to power and steer the ship, and an extra deck complete with helicopter pad. The historically astute will be relieved to learn that there will be more than enough lifeboats for everyone. Good thinking. Because the first lifeboat drill held aboard Titanic II will without doubt be the best attended in maritime history.

Passengers- 2400 of them- will have the opportunity to experience two days’ accommodation in each of three classes on scheduled, six day transatlantic crossings, with period costumes available in all three. And here’s where I have to ask…

How, exactly, are they going to accommodate the mass transfer of 2400 passengers (plus, presumably, all their luggage and personal effects) three times during a six day transatlantic crossing? The logistics alone are enough to bring on a nose bleed. They are going to need a purser’s staff way in excess of any other ship just to collate the paperwork. And just imagine those panelled corridors, hopelessly cluttered in mid ocean with a tidal wave of baffled, irate passengers, hopelessly overworked crew and cases. Then multiply that confusion by three….

The extra deck will allow Titanic Ii to incorporate a casino; a feature lacking on the original ship. Apparently, people over a ‘certain age’ will not be allowed in here. Wow. So if you are, indeed, of a certain age, you get to be treated like a second class human being, even if you happen to have booked one of those amazing parlour suites? Harsh.

Some unkind souls have expressed the opinion that the entire project is a few rivets short of being a watertight hull. At least the long delivery voyage from China to the UK will allow ample time for speed and handling trials. Weeks, in fact. A distinct improvement on the eight hours allocated to the same trials for the 1912 original. For reasons best known to himself, Mister Palmer has expressed a hope that the Chinese Navy will escort Titanic II from builder’s yard to Southampton berth. Still, perhaps better safe than sorry, I guess.

In similar vein, Palmer has also asked for the Royal Navy to escort the ship on her maiden crossing from Southampton to New York. If I were a passenger on that trip, I’d be very glad to see another ship within hailing distance at all times. Though I would also require proof that said ship (s) had fully functioning wireless sets. Well, you don’t want to tempt fate, do you? And that’s assuming we still have anything that can pass for a navy by 2016.

Most cruise lines are now charging for on board extras, such as bottled water and photography shoots. I wonder how Mister Palmer intends to boost revenue on board his newly wrought ship of schemes?

Perhaps there will be a special ‘Jack and Rose’ perch on the prow, where star struck passengers can adopt ‘that’ pose and have a souvenir photo taken? Or how about a photographic canvas backdrop of an iceberg, or maybe a half full lifeboat?

Maybe those period costumes will allow you to ‘dress up’ as one of those poor, peerless musicians who went down with the ship. Just lift that violin a little higher, sir, and- smile….

There are some who will doubtless find those last two paragraphs to be somewhat in poor taste. I understand that. But where is the good taste in dragging up the ghastly memory of this appalling disaster for air, and then turning it into some glorified theme park ride that crosses over the actual grave site of the real thing?

When all is said and done, Clive Palmer could have called this ship the Olympic, after the prototype of the two sister ships. Olympic was every bit as luxurious as the Titanic, had a sterling wartime career- including actually sinking a U-boat that tried to attack her- not to mention almost a quarter of a century of buoyant success as a passenger liner par excellence. Olympic was the first of the pair; she was the ship that truly ushered in the age of the modern, ultra luxury passenger steamer. If ever a ship was worthy of modern interpretation, she surely is.

But, of course, she never up ended in the North Atlantic on a freezing cold April night, killing two thirds of her passengers and crew in the process. Close, but no cigar.

Still, all of this might never come to pass. The Blue Star Line circus has proved adept at staging a number of media ‘events’ all around the world that have so far promised much, but delivered very little. Personally, I will believe in the reality of Titanic II when Blue Star get round to laying keel plates in a shipyard, instead of dinner plates garnished with nebulous, indigestible soundbites in a succession of swanky venues around the world.

In terms of size, the Titanic II will be a relative minnow in comparison to the gigantic floating theme parks carousing around tropical waters. She will not have all the mod cons such as balcony cabins, water slides, rock climbing walls, etc. Which is all well and fine, because- as the White Star Line could have told you- the biggest ships don’t always turn out to be the best from a passenger’s point of view. The whole point of Titanic II is to immerse you in the style and essence of a bygone experience. Let’s hope that’s the extent of any actual passenger immersion.

TRIUMPH OF THE MEDIA?

ImageThere’s been no shortage of commentary from all sorts of strange quarters on the Carnival Triumph breakdown. Some of it has been interesting, while much of it seems to have been equivalent to the fevered burbling of a petulant two year old. So, here’s my input from the point of view of a regular traveller on cruise ships of all kinds over the past thirty-odd years.

I know the Carnival Triumph, having enjoyed a mad, hectic week on her. It was some five years ago to the Eastern Caribbean, out of Miami. It was a typical Carnival experience; all sizzle, swagger and crowds everywhere, having a great time. While there were some things about it that I did not like, there were far, far more that I enjoyed.

I’ve also sailed on seven of her more or less identical clones. No, this is not a ‘greatest hits’ brag-a-thon on my part. I’m just painting in the background here.

Firstly, you can’t ignore the seriousness of what happened here. The ship was adrift without adequate electrical supply, air conditioning or functioning facilities for days on end. Thousands of passengers were literally stranded on board what amounted to a slowly drifting ghost town. Fair enough. I’ll come back to that.

But what HAS been ignored is the fact that the initial fire- the one that proved so calamitous- was isolated and extinguished by the on board crew with breathtaking speed and efficiency. This ensured the safety of every man, woman and child aboard the Carnival Triumph. I’m not reading or hearing a lot about that. And neither are you.

Yes, the passengers have had what all would agree is an uncomfortable, ingnominous and thoroughly unpleasant experience. Questions need to be answered- and publicly- about how all the hotel functions on the ship that are so integral to the daily life of a cruise ship- could be so completely disabled. And it needs to be put right, all across the fleet.

The Carnival Triumph is, in essence, a small town that happens to travel from place to place; a sun, fun and reggae fuelled theme park devoted to hedonism and indolence. When all is well (which is 99.99 per cent of the time) ships like her never merit a headline anywhere. Until something like this comes along.

People are still individuals, even in crowds numbering over three thousand. No two are the same. No two have the same tolerance level for discomfort. Not everyone is a stalwart, and not all of us are cut out to be heroes, either.

So it is hardly surprising that so many different versions have been made public in various different passenger accounts. Alt these people are fuelled by those same tolerance levels. What is ‘unbearable’ for some can be shrugged off by others. All of which has been reflected in the on board story. But the focus of the media has, overwhelmingly, been on the lurid and the sensational.

One constant question is; why has it taken so long for tugs to get to the scene? As if deep water, ocean going tugs grow on trees. They don’t. And, once assembled, those available proceeded at their best, not very great, speed. They are tug boats. Not speed boats.

When they eventually reached the stricken Triumph, they had to begin the awkward ballet of trying to tow a 100,000 tons plus cruise ship to safe port. This is, quite simply, the longest deep sea tow of it’s kind ever attempted. It is in fact without parallel. For all concerned, the whole sorry business was a huge learning curve. Things were bound to fall behind any coherent schedule.More so, when the weather turned for the worse. Tip for the media; you cannot make weather. Truth.

While the passengers on board the Triumph suffered enough, the idea of evacuating them to a fleet of rescue ships would have been beyond mad. The people were safest concentrated on the still seaworthy Triumph. Any attempt at evacuation would have been the height of irresponsibility.

It is to the credit of those stranded passengers that so many of them have gone overboard-pun wholly intentional- in praising the crew of the Triumph. From most accounts, it is obvious that the crew have performed out of their skins, truly to a quite extraordinary level.

They have by and large kept a shipload of anxious, mentally frazzled passengers as comfortable, sheltered and informed as possible. They did not create this accident, but they were left with the debris to clear up.

The press seems to have forgotten how much greater the discomfort of the crew has been during all of this. Most of their cabins are interiors, and it’s a safe bet that hardly any were even vaguely inhabitable through all this. These men and women have worked around the clock selflessly, trying to do what they could for the passengers while enduring worse conditions themselves. Every last one of them should get a substantial extra bonus from the company they have served with such exemplary selflessness.

So now the ship is docked, and passengers and crew alike are no doubt thankful to be back on dry land. The next fourteen cruises for Carnival Triumph have been cancelled to allow for for repairs. The media circus, having extracted it’s pound of flesh, will move on.

I just hope that everyone concerned with this sorry tale learns the right lessons. Far more importantly, I hope that they act on them. What happened here would not deter me for one moment from setting foot on a Carnival ship.

But the rest of the travelling public? That might be a harder call to make….