DOWN MEMORY LANE: THE SS. AUSONIA

ImageHere’s the thing with the Ausonia; she was already long in the tooth- I’m talking 1957 built long- when the short lived First Choice cruise operation took her on a long term charter, to compete with the rival, low budget ships of Airtours and Thomson. Yet, for purpose, she was perfectly fine.

ImageThe ‘purpose’ was to operate week long, Mediterranean cruises out of Palma, Majorca. Passengers would be flown in from all over the UK and Northern Ireland on First Choice’s own, in-house airline. They had the option of doing a fly/cruise, or adding an additional week’s stay before or after their voyage. Both options became extremely popular.

ImageAs with many ships, the dainty little Ausonia was chartered from the Greek owned Louis Cruises; a trend that continues to this day with Thomson. At 12,000 tons, she was a handsome little thing, quite beautifully styled.

ImageShe was built in Italy, as a kind of mini Cristoforo Colombo. The rakish, streamlined Italian styling was evident from the start, and it remained so until her last days. Despite the passing of the decades, the Ausonia was one of the most completely unchanged vessels still carrying passengers at the turn of the 21st century.

ImageInside, she was quite lovely, with a pair of gorgeous, glass walled promenades done out as enclosed winter gardens, complete with teak decking underfoot, and wicker furniture everywhere. For the intimate scale of the ship, it worked quite magically.

ImageThe other public rooms mainly ran the length of the same deck. There was lots of use of mirrored surfaces and walls, to make the spaces appear bigger than was actually the case. Many of the lounge chairs were upholstered in a shade I can only describe as ‘dusky biscuit’. Most of those rooms ran the full width of the ship, and had floor to ceiling windows running along both sides.

ImageThere was a single main dining room, and a breakfast and lunch buffet option that opened out onto a surprisingly large open lido. The food was decent fare; nothing memorable, but more than good for the price paid to be on board. I would say the same thing was true for the cabins; there were no balconies on the Ausonia, but she was not in any sense a modern, luxury ship Nor did she pretend to be.

ImageShe spent one day in each seven day cruise at sea. The rest of the time, she would be in port, Naples, Rome, Florence and Malta were her staple calls. Like many destination oriented cruises of that kind, it was all about getting out there to see the sights and, hopefully, coming back home with a tan. The ship was just a means to an end; transporting passengers around five destinations in a week, in a way- and at a price point- that no other form of transport could match.

ImageThat outdoor lido was a good size, but it quickly filled up at sea. Space was pretty tight, but it was generally a pretty good natured and accommodating crowd on board. For many, the Ausonia would be their first experience of any kind of cruise ship. Looking back now, I think they got it absolutely right in terms of size and ambiance.

ImageIn the maritime beauty pageant stakes, the Ausonia punched way above her weight. The sharp, proud, curve of  her prow, and the snow white sheer of the hull were graceful, glorious anachronisms. Her single, perfectly proportioned funnel was as right and elegant as a charm bracelet. It sat atop her no-nonsense superstructure like a sumptuous crown.

ImageShe was a spiky, pugnacious little show stopper. Passengers pouring in hordes off the latest floating theme park used to stop dead, staring in disbelief as the doughty little Ausonia nudged up to dock beside them. Though she was often in their shadow- quite literally- she gave no ground, and held her head high.

ImageAnd she was a damned good little sea boat, too. Long and lean, she cut sweetly through sometimes choppy waves, at a time when those big ship passengers would be rolling about with considerably less dignity. Like envy, sea sickness comes in many different shades of green.

ImageOf course, the Ausonia could never hold a candle to those newer ships in terms of facilities, choice of restaurants and modern, luxurious cabins. Like all older ships, she grew more quirky, temperamental and prone to plumbing breakdowns as time and tide passed. Charm alone was not enough to keep her- or First Choice cruises- buoyant in the end.

ImageStill, I am glad that I did get to spend a few days in her company, even so late in the day. The Ausonia had history, heart and soul. Those are things that you cannot manufacture, or hang a price tag on. Like a good wine, she got better with age. Suffused with a fine, unapologetic Italian flair from first to last, the Ausonia was an honest, unpretentious lady. God knows, there are not enough of them left in this day and age.

NORWEGIAN EPIC- A BRIEF RETROSPECTIVE

ImageOh, how they hated her. The traditionalists. The vocally indignant. The verbally flatulent. Norwegian Epic raised hackles- and eyebrows- like no other ship I can ever remember when she first debuted in the summer of 2010. Seems a long time ago now.

ImageHer genesis was long, troubled and controversial. It included an almost complete tearing up and redrawing of the building plans when the ship was already under construction, swiftly followed by the cancellation of a planned sister ship. The occasional dockyard fire- suspected sabotage, but never proven- was often the only thing warming the often chilly relationship between Norwegian and the French shipbuilders, STX.

ImageOf course, she was meant to elicit controversy. And boy, did she ever. Especial wrath was reserved for what became known as the ‘Top Hat’; the private area atop the superstructure for the top end penthouses, and their attached restaurants and bars. It looms over the top of the ship. The design has not been replicated in the imminent Norwegian Breakaway.

ImageThen, there were the cabins with the famous curved walls, outside sinks, and separate bathroom/toilet configurations. These also remain unique to the Norwegian Epic and, I suspect, that will continue to remain the case. Some loved them, but many did not.

ImageBut it was strange how those same critics were, and in some cases still are, reluctant to give her credit for some startlingly successful innovations. The block of small, funky interior studios that she previewed have been runaway successes, and great kudos should go to the line for making cruising far more affordable to singles. These cabins- ‘mini me’ hotel rooms- have proved so popular, that they will be repeated in the next three new Norwegian ships. I hope more of them are retro-fitted across the fleet.

ImageSo successful have they been, in fact, that the likes of P&O and- whisper it- Royal Caribbean- have even been shoe horning in small handfuls of single cabins on some of their ships during annual refits. Shipping lines, take note; it’s a start, but not nearly anything like enough.

ImageBut the first thing that struck me about the Norwegian Epic -both at a pre- launch shipyard visit, and on her inaugural press cruise- was her extraordinary breadth. It allowed Frederik Johansson, chief architect for Tillberg in Sweden, to create a run of vast, vaulting public rooms on a series of arrow straight lines that run almost from bow to stern. It also allowed the creation of many more side venues, in the shape of numerous restaurants and bars, that are sleek, tasteful adjuncts to these main thoroughfares.

ImageJohansson also toned down the interiors in comparison to the playful, exuberant palette of the earlier Norwegian Gem and her predecessors. The ship feels far richer and, in places, much more like the transatlantic liners of old. This look is especially true of the Manhattan Room, a vast, New York styled restaurant cum dance venue, with a floor to ceiling glass wall overlooking the stern. You almost expect to hear Xavier Cugat (google him, kids) and his white- jacketed dance band start blaring out salsa at a moment’s notice. It is a singularly lovely room, and will also be reappearing on both the upcoming Breakaway and her sister, Norwegian Getaway, due to debut in January, 2014.

ImageOf course, the new ship unveiled an unheard of string of restaurants. More than twenty of them, with most attracting a not exactly earth shattering fifteen to twenty dollar surcharge to eat there. Understandably, many traditionalists railed at this but, truth be told, the passengers seem to love them. As a trend, extra fee dining is here to stay.

ImageThere were the old favourites, such as French accented Le Bistro and the fabulous Cagney’s Steakhouse, as well as a much enlarged version of the wildly popular Japanese Teppanyaki. But Norwegian took full advantage of the ship’s unprecedented interior handle to try some very new, cutting edge venues unheard of at sea before.

ImageThere was an ingenious, Spiegel style circus tent, with a bite menu and at-table magic demonstrations. The aforementioned Manhattan Room (no fee here, by the way) has dinner dances, and ‘legends’ tributes to the likes of Elton John, Tina Turner and Elvis Presley. There is a fantastic Brazilian steakhouse, Moderno Chrurassica, which has been such a success that it, too, will be rolled out onto the new ships.

ImageThe vast, traditional dining rooms of old, with their two settings, have been thrown overboard. In keeping with the company’s Freestlye Dining philosophy, there are smaller venues such as the chic, uptempo Tastes in the lobby, as well as 24/7 comfort food and a typical, pub-style atmosphere in O’Sheehans, with it’s snooker tables, bowling lanes, and the best fish and chips anywhere at sea. Like the enormous, forward facing Garden Cafe, these are all fee-free venues.

ImageDining as entertainment in itself has become an evolving theme at Norwegian, and one it does very well. But the real coup for Norwegian Epic has been in the concept and creation of an entertainment handle unequalled at sea; one every bit as sensational and groundbreaking as that pioneered aboard the Norway herself, back in 1980.

ImageWhere else but in Vegas could you see performances from the world famous Blue Man Group, and without the cover charge? The Epic also has the Moroccan-themed Bliss Ultra club disco, one of the true decorative aberrations in the overall, on board style.

ImageAnother hugely successful idea has been to take the night life outdoors, with the creation of Spice H20. This huge outdoor club looks like a terraced Roman theatre, and looks out over the stern of the ship. it has proved very popular with the late night crowd and, again, it is set to be replicated in the new ships.

ImageBack inside, there is a genuine Ice Bar, complete with freezing shots and fur coats, and a genuinely elegant Martini bar called Shakers, a popular reprise familiar from the previous Jewel Class sisters. On Epic, the planners have done a largely deft, wonderful job of keeping the sedate, sybaritic watering holes away from the more full on, late night venues. All things considered, it is quite an inviting mix in and of itself.

ImageThe huge outer decks are awash with pools, hot tubs, boardwalks and water slides on a stunning scale. Think Coney Island in it’s heyday, but with an up to date, irresistible vibe that majors on fun living out in the sun. Like many other ships of her ilk in this day and age, the Norwegian Epic is not a sedate, leisurely experience during the daylight hours.

ImageThe ship still has her detractors, and she always will. But she has been a tremendous success, spending her winters cruising the eastern and western Caribbean on alternating, seven day circuits out of Miami. Each spring, she crosses the Atlantic to Barcelona to operate a popular, if pedestrian, seven day round trip cruise to Italy and the French Riviera, before returning to Miami in mid autumn.

ImageAnd, though the ship will indeed remain very much a one off, there is a lot to be said for distinctiveness in the often uniform palette of contemporary cruising. Norwegian took some huge risks in building the Norwegian Epic. Some worked brilliantly, while others did not. But the ship has certainly been an inspired leap of faith. Twenty years down the line, it will be very interesting to see just how cruise commentators evaluate this massive, often thoughtlessly maligned ship.

OLD EUROPE PICTORIAL…

Honfleur, France

Honfleur, France

Stradun main street, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Stradun main street, Dubrovnik, Croatia

Taverna, Katakolon, Greece

Taverna, Katakolon, Greece

Croatian coastline at Lapad

Croatian coastline at Lapad

Stave church, Olden, Norway,

Stave church, Olden, Norway,

Far out in Farsund. Norway's true hidden beauty

Far out in Farsund. Norway’s true hidden beauty

Knight#s Templar castle in Rhodes Town dates back to the fourteenth century. Taken in September 2012.

Knight#s Templar castle in Rhodes Town dates back to the fourteenth century. Taken in September 2012.

Waterfront at Symi, Greek Dodecanese islands

Waterfront at Symi, Greek Dodecanese islands

Magnificent Durham Castle, Durham, UK

Magnificent Durham Castle, Durham, UK

Iconic windmills of Mykonos, Greece

Iconic windmills of Mykonos, Greece

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Harbour of Villefranche-Sur-Mer, Cote D'Azur

Harbour of Villefranche-Sur-Mer, Cote D’Azur

Alexander III cathedral, St. Petersburg

Alexander III cathedral, St. Petersburg

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

Looking down from Sorrento to the lidos near Marina Piccolo…

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Bay of Kotor, Montenegro

Austrian Tyrol, photographed from on board the Orient Express

Austrian Tyrol, photographed from on board the Orient Express

Castle Keep, Durham, UK

Castle Keep, Durham, UK

Guggenheim museum, Bilbao, Spain

Guggenheim museum, Bilbao, Spain

Side street, Villefranche-Sur-Mer

Side street, Villefranche-Sur-Mer

Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Alfama district, Lisbon, Portugal

Fortifications at Saint-Malo, France

Fortifications at Saint-Malo, France

Sidewalk cafe, Brittany, France

Sidewalk cafe, Brittany, France

Railway viaduct, Crimdon Dene, UK

Railway viaduct, Crimdon Dene, UK

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

Library of Celsus, Ephesus, Turkey

Roman amphitheatre, Ephesus, Turkey

Roman amphitheatre, Ephesus, Turkey

Fortress walls, Cadiz, Spain

Fortress walls, Cadiz, Spain

Town Square, Cadiz

Town Square, Cadiz

Houses of Cartagena, Spain

Houses of Cartagena, Spain

Sunrise over the White Cliffs of Dover, UK

Sunrise over the White Cliffs of Dover, UK

Waterfront at Nynshavn, Sweden

Waterfront at Nynshavn, Sweden

Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia

Cathedral, Tallinn, Estonia

Town walls, Tallinn

Town walls, Tallinn

Gondolieri, VeniceGondolieri, Venice

Old Istanbul street

Old Istanbul street

French chateau on the banks of the River SeineFrench chateau on the banks of the River Seine

NYNSHAVN- A SWEDISH COASTAL SYMPHONY

ImageA million miles removed from even the cool, stately chic of Stockholm, the small port of Nynshavn is actually only a few minutes away by train. I really did have it in mind to go up to Sweden’s gorgeous capital-one of my favourite cities in the world. But then I saw- this…

ImageIf you want chocolate box pretty, rural Sweden, then Nynshavn is it. Of course, we lucked out in that we were blessed with a picture perfect day to be there. The sun really brought out the colours; the texture and the sheer, beautiful vibrancy of the place.

ImageI would have been quite happy to spend a few days in these gorgeous surroundings; they look almost too good to be true. That was the mood and the mindset that stayed with me throughout these pleasant few hours. I would go back here in a heartbeat…ImageImageImageImageiImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

WHITE NIGHTS PICTORIAL- ENDLESS SUMMER IN THE BEAUTIFUL BALTIC

ImageThe Baltic in high summer never, ever gets completely dark. This is the season of the fabled ‘White Nights’, where total darkness on one side of your ship is offset by an amazing, spectral, gleaming wall of light on the other.

ImageWith vibrant shades of red, gold, blue and electric green, this magical display shimmers on the waters of those far northern latitudes until the sun comes creeping back up over the horizon, back into full view.

ImageThe sheer sense of calm and serenity that nights like this engender cannot adequately be quantified, or even translated into really effective prose. Nights like this speak to you on a profoundly different level. Just feel it and enjoy….ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

THE NORWEGIAN SUN- A MASTER CLASS IN MODERN ELEGANCE

CNV00002How many times have you heard that old cliche that modern big ships have given up trying to look good? Like all the best cliches it does, of course, have an element of truth. But, like Frankenstein’s monster, it acquired a life of it’s own. It’s a conceit that is rarely challenged these days at all.

CNV00077I’d argue- and quite forcefully- that the 2001 built Norwegian Sun is easily one of the most beautiful and elegant ships to be built anywhere. Both inside and out, this ship is a stunning, salutary reminder that ‘big’ does not have to be bland, or banal. She is, quite simply, a wonderful confection of style, grace and scale. Three crucial elements in creating a modern maritime paragon.

CNV00083She also happens to be a very well run ship. I’ve sailed her three times- twice in the Caribbean, and also on a Baltic itinerary from Dover, which is where these photos come from. And, as much as I enjoy all the Norwegian ships (and I first cruised on them way back in 1981) I have to say that the Sun has become my favourite in the Norwegian fleet.

CNV00084Like her two near sisters, Norwegian Sky and Costa Victoria, she was built in Germany by the Lloyd Werft shipyard. The Sun actually features an extra deck of balcony cabins compared to the 1999 built Sky, but they are otherwise almost identical, at least externally.

CNV00085Her timing could hardly have been worse. She was delivered just before the attacks on America on 9/11, and a planned, maiden 2002 Mediterranean season for the ship had to be abandoned. I was in Miami the day that she was christened, in a joint ceremony with the brand new Norwegian Star. The two ships were bow to bow. Even from a distance, it was quite a sight.

CNV00087Still, she quickly settled into the seven day, western Caribbean run out of Miami, calling at Roatan, Belize, Cozumel and Grand Cayman. I fell in love with her on my first cruise that same year. The vast amount of open space amidships, with two pools and a quartet of hot tubs, was the most impressive I had ever seen. It still remains one of my favourites to this day.

CNV00088The elegant, window walled centrum lobby was much more restrained than on later ships. with much use of brass, etched glass and sheet marble. Those huge windows flooded the area with light, and never to more dazzling effect than on that Baltic cruise, when the surreal twilight of the ‘White Nights’ ensured that it never really got dark at all. There is an elegant champagne terrace here, and the nightly live jazz helps make it one of the most sublime lounging spots afloat.

CNV00089Norwegian Sun was also the first ship to fully showcase Norwegian’s shift to ‘Freestyle Dining’ to full effect. With a string of alternative dining venues offering French, Italian and Mexican cuisine, as well as classic international fayre, she raised the stakes for the entire cruise industry. More importantly for her owners, she became an almost perfect proving ground for the roll out of the subsequent Jewel class.

CNV00093To my mind, a great part of her charm rests in the fact that she is pretty much a one off ship within the company. Her interiors are far more European styled, and much more classical, than the conga line of funky, fun infused, Jewel class siblings that complement her. She is as different in tone and execution from them as it is possible to imagine.

CNV00096The forward facing Observation Lounge on the upper deck offers an almost 270 degree view of the horizon, Vast, expansive and filled with wonderful wicker furniture, it is simply one of the most sublime public rooms on any ship at sea anywhere; a calm oasis on what can be an otherwise quite lively party boat.

CNV00097Accommodation runs the gamut, from snug, fully equipped insides to some wonderful suites overlooking the bow. A couple of these even have hot tubs on their balconies; a truly sweet option for those who can afford to savour them. It took me a while to get used to the vertical bars on the balcony cabin railings, but the tea and coffee making facilities were a pleasant surprise. These rooms are especially pleasant, though the bathrooms are more conventional than on the Jewel class. No sliding doors here at all.

CNV00098Downstairs, there is a lot of imitation dark wood panelling at promenade deck level, which is where most of the public rooms are. The disco is huge; one of the biggest afloat. The nearby shopping gallery is quietly elegant. Like many areas of the ship, it is considerably enhanced by stained glass ceilings in a myriad of lovely colours.

Since her inauguration, the Sun has become one of the best travelled ships in the Norwegian fleet. There have been summer seasons in Alaska- a route she will revive this year- and, before that, two seasons sailing round trip from Dover to the Baltic capitals. She has even made cruises down to Mexico from San Francisco.

CNV00100However, in the last two years she has been cruising the eastern Caribbean on exotic long, ten and eleven day jaunts. These were initially from Port Canaveral, but last year she returned to her original home port of Miami after a considerable absence. Her size, style and sense of elegance combines with some truly alluring options to make her one of the best winter picks available to winter sun seekers.

CNV00102Norwegian Sun comes in at around 77,000 tons, and has a passenger capacity of just over two thousand. While big enough to offer every kind of diversion you could want on a cruise, she is still a lot smaller than many of her own fleet mates. That means that embarking and disembarking at ports is less time consuming, and she is a pretty easy ship to find your way around.

CNV00104She is a beautiful ship, with a gorgeous flared bow and staunch, graceful flanks. But, above all, there is a genuine sense of pride displayed by a very hard working crew- one of the best afloat- that suffuses this lovely ship from bow to stern. It’s a ‘can-do’ attitude that gives Norwegian Sun a really genuine, feel good vibe. The ship is a delight from bow to stern, top deck to keel.

All things considered, if you want a smart, elegant ship with more than a little class, some really beautifully styled rooms and some very good service, you could do much worse than the Sun. Stir in a whole lot of soul, and you have got what amounts to an excellent choice for cruising, no matter where she goes in the world. Enjoy.