PHOTO ALBUM- ABOARD THE NORWEGIAN SPIRIT

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NORWEGIAN SPIRIT- A CRUISE SHIP PERSPECTIVE

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAn opportunity came up last week to make a short, two night run on the Norwegian Spirit between Malaga and Barcelona, and I leaped at the chance to go. With the enormous Norwegian Breakaway literally just over the horizon, this seemed as good a time as any to give the Asian expatriate the once over.

While other former Norwegian tonnage- the Wind, Dream and Sea -have made their way over to Star Cruises, the Spirit is unique in coming the other way. She was built for Star Cruises by Meyer Werft back in 1998. Together with her sister ship, Superstar Virgo, they were the first mega ships ever specifically designed for the Asian market. Their impact was nothing short of sensational.

Cruise ships of their size- over 70,000 tons- had never been imagined in the Far East market. Built with a plethora of exotic, extra charge dining venues that offered open seating at any time, they were instant successes. And, ultimately, they were also the benchmarks for what eventually came to be Norwegian’s groundbreaking ‘Freestyle Dining’, It all began with these two ships.

Parent company, Genting International, acquired a huge stake in Norwegian at around this time, and an inevitable cross pollination of ideas took place between the two cruise lines. Freestyle was the first and most stunning result of this, but events after the apocalyptic shock waves from 9/11 resulted in more material interaction between the two brands.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAWhen the new Pride of America suffered her catastrophic flooding at the builder’s yard in 2004, it was decided to rush the popular Norwegian Sky in as an interim replacement in the Hawaii market. That left Norwegian short of a mega ship; a problem Genting swiftly solved by transferring the Superstar Leo over to Norwegian. Renamed the Norwegian Spirit, the Asian beauty soon found herself cruising in the unlikely waters of the Caribbean.

It was an improbable choice, but it proved to be very popular. Norwegian Spirit is suffused from bow to stern with a rich, oriental palette that makes her totally unlike any other ship in the Norwegian fleet. Rather than trying to gut the ship and ‘Americanise’ her, Norwegian left her more or less as she was, although with some synthetic tweaking to bring her in line with her new passenger demographic.

Then, after a number of successful years, the company sent Norwegian Spirit to Europe, where she has become a welcome, year round addition to the cruise scene. In summer, she makes twelve day Mediterranean cruises between Barcelona and Venice. In winter, the Spirit offers exhilarating, nine night escapes to the best of the Canary Islands. These run round trip from Barcelona and, as of this winter, embarkation will also be offered in Malaga as well. A neat option.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASo, to the ship herself. The first thing that strikes you- and does it ever- is the huge, rectangular atrium lobby. A trio of glass lifts at the rear whisper silently up and down, while an elegant, sweeping staircase flows down from the first level. At the base, ornamental fountains bubble and splash amid a display of petrified statuary.

This is pure Gone With The Wind stuff; a vast, vaulting statement of intent. Descending it, you cross a central space overflowing with deep, rich, oriental carpeting scattered with random, casual groupings of furniture.

This is the central hub of the entire ship. One level above, a champagne terrace overlooks the far end of the atrium, with live music at night, and some beautiful back lighting. It looks over and up to the soaring glass roof, several levels high. The levels fanning out from here are flanked with black, wrought iron filigree balustrades that add a real patina of elegance to the predominantly deep red colouring all around; the ship was planned as a showcase of the best of oriental design and elegance, and it still does so quite magnificently.

All of which makes the expansive, open pool deck something of an aberration. Here, the look is ancient Rome, with faux stone colonnades around the Tivoli pool, as well as tiny fountains. There are a couple of poolside bars that lead onto the large main pool, and a quartet of bubbling hot tubs. The two at the rear are shaded overhead, and raised a level above the main deck.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe whole thing is expansive and it works well, though it does feel a bit Caesar’s Palace. There is also an upper deck beer garden up forward, with real barrels on deck and a fast food bar offering up burgers, hot dogs, etc. It’s quite breezy at this level.

The main pool area leads to the Raffles Buffet. This is much smaller than the vast food courts on the newer Norwegian ships, but this is a ship that was designed for a smaller demographic in the Far East, where buffets are not as much an obsession. There is plenty of seating space, but the actual choices and counter space is not up to that of the newer ships in the fleet.

Leading out of here, there is a series of small, perfectly curved aft facing terraces that are among the most beautiful at sea. Sheltered from the breeze, they feature several high backed chairs just perfect for watching a spring Mediterranean sunset. Add some chilled Zinfandel, and you have the makings of an exquisitely beautiful natural performance right here.

Inside, Norwegian Spirit features many of the same dining venues rolled out across the entire fleet. Time did not allow me to try such favourites as Cagney’s steakhouse, or the elegant French Le Bistro. But there is a Japanese Teppanyaki which is out of this world, as well as a beautifully sited, upper deck sushi bar. The Italian restaurant is an upper deck adjunct of the Raffles buffet.

Another welcome favourite is the funky little Blue Lagoon. This serves fast comfort food around the clock. Try tomato soup and fish and chips at three in the morning; they are among the best at sea. The only negative with this room is that it is long and narrow, and also very popular around midnight. Seating invariably spills over into the adjacent Shanghai Bar, but it’s all pretty good natured fun. Unlike most of the eateries mentioned in the last paragraph, there is no service charge here.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd then there are the two main dining rooms. Windows faces aft over the stern, and is as much a feast for the eyes as anything else. A wall of vaulting glass at the stern floods the ship with light. This is a beautiful, expansive room that gives more than a nod to the classic ocean liners of the 1930’s. I found it spacious, but noisy, with really excellent prime rib on the menu one night that was almost melt in the mouth good.

The other main venue- the Garden Room- has the same menu, but is situated amidships. This room also played host to the superb, one off jazz brunches that Norwegian does so well. Super value at fifteen dollars and worth it just for the music and ambiance, never mind the awesome Chateaubriand. Mimosas at $4.95 a time certainly enhance the feeling of well being on offer here as well. During all main meals- breakfast, lunch and dinner- both of these main dining venues are open seating, with dinner from 5-9.30 each evening; ideal for parents who want to dine early with the little ones, and just as practical for those who want to see an early show, then eat late. As might be imagined, this was popular with the Spanish guests who formed quite a large contingent of the 2200 plus on board the Norwegian Spirit.

Entertainment was well up to the usual razzle and sizzle standard for which Norwegian is rightly known. There was a large, aft facing theatre, and no shortage of intimate, clubby little venues alive with the tinkling of piano ivories, some sublime acoustic guitarist or some soft, late night jazz. The casino is vast, and far more tastefully decorated than some of the zeppelin hangars on larger ships. Just forward of this, this disco was pure Bollywood meets Austin Powers; tremendous fun, with some good drinks specials and a DJ who genuinely tried to satisfy the often diverse musical tastes of the late night crowd that inevitably made this room their own.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASome say that the cabins are small, but I had no problem with my 149 sq. ft standard inside- all that was available when I booked two days before sailing. It was pleasant, with a wonderful bed and a very welcome sliding door in the shower, rather than a cling film curtain.  But if I went for longer than two days, i think that I would need at least an outside room. These looked a little bigger, but not much, though the drawer space was certainly pretty decent. They also come with an in room safe.

Norwegian Spirit has a nice run of balcony cabins and, again, these are not among the biggest. But certainly big enough for a destination intensive cruise and, more importantly, they come in at a price point that makes them an exceptionally good buy. There are some forward and aft facing suites with expansive terraces, and stunning views out over the ocean. I never got the chance to look in one, but their occupants assured me that they were truly stunning., and come with lots of peachy little extra perks.

I can’t finish this quick review without mentioning the riot of oriental statuary that is still dotted around this wonderful ship; from ancient Chinese stone warriors to suits of Samurai armour. The simple act of strolling down a stairwell would reveal some beautifully backlit wall mountings, vases and figures. The art collection alone for this ship must have cost a fair whack when originally installed.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThere’s also taste of old England- well, kind of- in the shape of Henry’s Pub, with its draft beer, free juke box, dark wood and leaded glass windows. There are also some tables and chairs on the promenade deck outside for the smoking fraternity.

I loved my time on this ship. There is enough of the familiar Norwegian trademarks aboard the Spirit to make her instantly appealing to the company’s die hard fans while, at the same time, her rich patina of oriental luxe gives her a kind of left field, out of the box sense of distinct elegance and style. It is quite a compelling combination of the comfortable and the quixotic. Mix in a series of compelling ports of call and the timeless pleasure of travelling on a smart, well run ship that is still imbued with a more personal sense of intimacy, and you have a real winner.

It is definitely my intention to sail on this engaging Asian maiden again in the not too distant future. Style, sophistication and subtle elegance still flower on this elegant, delightful ship.

SAGRADA FAMILIA- GAUDI’S UNDYING MASTERPIECE

ImageAntonio Gaudi only came on board as chief architect for the magisterial Sagrada Familia in 1883, a full year after construction had already started. Yet his name is as synonymous with the building as Michelangelo and the Sistine Chapel, or Da Vinci and the Mona Lisa. Separating the two is unthinkable and, in retrospect, that is as it should be.

ImageIncredibly, the magnificent, honey coloured colossus that looms over the brash, swaggering Catalan gem that is Barcelona is not a cathedral at all, but a mere church. Barcelona already boasts one superb Gothic cathedral.

ImageYet Sagrada Familia radiates a kind of awe inspiring sense of wonder fully equal to the Pyramids, or even St. Peter’s in Rome. The shapes, sheer, and sweeping contours that Gaudi folded in to his dream building are truly stunning statements of intent. For my money, it is the most staggering piece of architecture anywhere in southern Europe. A gigantic, gingerbread dream factory, clawing at a pale blue Catalan sky.

ImageThe man himself became obsessed with his creation as it staggered upwards. In his last years, he lived in a hut on the construction site, before being knocked down by a tram in 1926. When chided about the constant delays and the seemingly endless structural changes, the deeply devout Gaudi simply pointed at the sky, and said that his principal client was in no particular hurry.

ImageSagrada Familia has always suffered from the fact that it is funded by private donations, rather than state generosity. Work on it came to a complete halt during the Spanish civil war. Indeed, the church was lucky to survive the bloody and sustained siege of Barcelona that devastated swathes of the city.

ImageThe victorious General Franco did little to help the conquered Catalans during his decades in power. This goes a long way to explaining why the Catalan people are so fiercely set on autonomy from Spain. Throughout the long shadow of Franco’s Fascist experiment, the great towers of Sagrada Familia acted as a rallying point of sorts for the oppressed people of Barcelona; it remained a symbol of such power that even Franco recoiled from tampering with it.

ImageWork stuttered and bumped along through the post war decades, with a variety of fresh architects trying to stay as true as possible to the Gaudi blueprint, while working in some more modern, contemporary touches of their own.

ImageThe result is stupendous; the church has become easily the most famous and visited sight in the city. Every day, it draws hordes of awe struck visitors like moths to a flame, come to gaze upon its gilded, Hansel and Gretel-style, fairy tale facade. And those crowds also draw the pick pockets, for whom the often rapt, forgetful and unsuspecting tourists really must seem like manna from Heaven.

ImageAwarded UNESCO World Heritage status, Sagrada Familia has rightly taken its place in the pantheon of incredible Spanish churches. Had it been financed by the same gold supply as the original Gothic cathedral, it would have been finished decades ago. It’s singular misfortune was to rise several centuries after the Spanish Empire- and its glut of looted Aztec and Mayan gold- had long since disappeared.

ImageProjected completion dates have come and gone with the regularity of the giant cruise ships whose passengers come to worship in droves at the altar of Gaudi’s dream building. The latest estimate for the final completion of the exterior is currently 2026.

ImageThat would coincide neatly with the centenary of the death of Gaudi himself. And whether this date is actually a practical possibility, or simply some whimsical, wishful thinking on the dreamy side of things, it really would be a fitting tribute if, somehow, it could come to pass. But in the current strained economic climate, even educated guesses are potentially bankrupt as soon as they are uttered. Only time will tell.

ImageIt hardly really matters in so many ways. Sagrada Familia always was, and still is, a labour of love. Quite literally. The people who have grown and died in its shadow took comfort and strength from it, and gazed in wonder at its clutch of spindly spires as they slowly ascended skyward. Generations to come will do the same. In the long, turbulent history of this proud, fiery Catalan culture, Sagrada Familia has become a benchmark for the pride, endurance and resilience of a truly remarkable people. Go see it if you possibly can.

EASY ON EASYJET?

ImageEasyjet is one of those Marmite kind of brands, Love or hate it, there seems to be no middle ground.

Horror stories take flight every day about the various unholy joys of flying orange. To read some of them, the entire operation is only one step removed from the Inquisition as a form of extreme European torture.

Those who believe that have obviously never experienced the unique horror that is the Eurovision Song Contest. But I digress…..

My own experiences of Easyjet have always been generally positive. At least, thus far. But, having not flown them for a year or two, it seemed that an upcoming short break would provide an opportunity to check back in with an airline that has given the so called ‘prestige’ industry carriers no end of sleepless nights.

And little wonder.

I live near Newcastle, so any trip to, say, Nice or Barcelona usually would involve two flights, transiting either through London Heathrow or Amsterdam Schipol, with all the attendant, time consuming hassle that entails. Average trip time is anywhere upwards of five hours as a rule, transfers included.

By contrast, I can hop on an Easyjet flight that will take me there, non stop, in half that time, and at usually well less than half the price. It seems like a no brainer.

Ah, I hear you cry. What about all those hidden extra charges? Luggage, speedy boarding, no meals, airport taxes. The part of the iceberg hidden just below the sunny surface. Very fair points.

So, let’s look at them, one by one.

Most of the extra taxes, such as APD (Air Passenger Duty) were introduced by a certain Gordon Brown, and then catapulted skywards by a series of his undead successors. Nothing to do with any airline, I’m afraid. Easyjet included.

Luggage is more of an issue, but the website clearly defines the charges. In the end, it is up to you how much or little you think that you can get away with taking. If the cost is too much, then a scheduled carrier might just work out as a better deal for a family.

Food. You can buy on board all Easyjet flights, but I think that the catering on board is generally quite expensive. For example, a small can of Magner’s Cider is an eye watering four euros. But is food and drink really a deal breaker for you on a two hour flight?

I flew out of Newcastle to Malaga, and back from Barcelona a few days later. Both flights left and arrived on time. They were completely painless experiences, even verging on the pleasant because of some excellent, attentive staff on the flight back.

With only hand luggage to worry about, I breezed through check in at both Newcastle and Barcelona. Easyjet now gives all passengers assigned seats. so the advantages of buying speedy boarding are really up in the air. A waste of money as far as I’m concerned.

For those of you who are Easyjet virgins, speedy boarding is a process where you get to board any flight ahead of the main body of passengers. The idea was, obviously, that you would get first crack to get the best seats. At least it was, back in the days when boarding an Easyjet flight was a free for all, one not far removed from a rugby scrum at times. The per person supplement was around £10 per flight. Assigned seating ended this unseemly rush for the plane once and for all time.

That said, it’s worth noting that I was a single traveller. A young family with kids, for instance, might still find speedy boarding a worthwhile extra.

The flights in both directions were on Airbus A320’s. There were no issues with hand luggage fitting into the over head lockers; the leg room was more than adequate for me, but be aware that I stand only at a towering five foot six inches in height.

Seating is three across, in two rows for the whole length of the plane. Seats are upholstered in slate gray, and I find them more than comfortable enough for a short flight.

Hard sell? Hardly. Food and drink announced of course, and two such runs were made during each of my flights. There was one push for sales of in flight goodies, and another towards the end for scratch cards. And that was it.

Service was cheerful, friendly and courteous, But the airline falls down by not offering UK landing cards any more on flights coming inbound from Europe. This used to be standard, and now no longer seems to be. Hardly a deal breaker, but something that the airline should re-think as a matter of common convenience.

Both flights boarded and debarked via outside stairways. And, after the shocking, frigid British winter, the sheer joy of stepping out into twenty-three degrees of magical Malaga sunshine is impossible to overstate. Mind you, arriving back in Newcastle it had the opposite effect. It was like being stabbed with a thousand needles.

Easyjet is, indeed, cheap and cheerful. But it is not tacky, nor is it without a certain cheeky charm. It does not pretend to be something that it is not, unlike some of its would be competitors. And, as long as they keep giving me the convenience of routes that I like, and the level of service and surroundings that I budget for, then I will be quite happy to go right on using them. Easyjet is a generally sound choice at the right price.

IT’S ALL UP IN THE AIR-FLYING IN THE 21ST CENTURY

ImageAir travel. For those not fortunate enough to turn left at the cabin door, it is often the bane of our existences. A form of finely honed, teeth grating torment that sits somewhere between the Spanish Inquisition and a Jedward mega mix in the human torture stakes.

Everything about it seems designed to dehumanise; the seats are usually the width of an anorexic chocolate bourbon, and certainly no larger than the average pygmy’s postage stamp. The amount of legroom would often leave even the smallest of Snow White’s best friends in a series of agonised, pitiful contortions.

If you have my luck, you will invariably find yourself bracketed by families with young children. Before each such take off, I tell myself that not all children really are satanic, snot sucking little savages of the highest order. I should resist chanelling my inner Victor Meldrew, and stop being so damned judgemental. Hey, wasn’t I a kid once?

And then the kicks start coming to the back of the chair, landing like artillery shells on the first day of the Somme. I grit my teeth and curse under my breath in a tidal wave of devoutly unpleasant expletives, only to be outdone for real- and in all too vocal tones- by the drunken, cackling coven of Vicky Pollard look-a-likes returning from their highly styled ‘girls weekend’ away. Oh dear. Madam has clearly over indulged on the pre- departure Lambrini, mais non?

The other person I dread being in proximity to is what I call the professional fidgeter. You can bet your bottom dollar that they will want to be out of the seat next to you the first moment that you get comfortable. Off they go to the bathroom. OK….. Then, two minutes after getting settled back in, they remember that there’s something they need out of their overhead carry on, up in the locker. Above your head. And then, of course, they will need to put it back. Repeat as necessary.

So, instead of chilling out with a nice, cool drink and some decent music on tap, you instead find yourself up and down with the depressing regularity of a hooker’s drawers at the start of Fleet Week. Sleep? No chance, sunshine. And when the demonic hell spawn in the seat behind you drops  his thirteenth toy soldier over the top, and into your drink- again- you begin to dimly comprehend that the Gods really were telling you not to travel today.

Some light relief comes in the form of on board sustenance. The food tumbril rattles down the aisle like an asthmatic Dalek on crack. Chicken or Pasta?

By the time your knees have been battered by this calamitous, clattering cart, you can bet that your choice of food will no longer be available. The protocol droid in charge of said tumbril makes it clear that you must like it or lump it. As you contemplate the mangled remains of your shins, you might consider the notion that ‘lump’ seems to be the theme of this flight.

The coffee alone tastes only marginally more attractive than the fuel powering you to wherever. And it has a remarkably similar black, goo like consistency. The food has all the heightened, inspired taste of an Atomic Kitten reunion concert. That thing that you think is cheese- the one with the illegible lettering in seventh century Cyrillic- it’s actually butter. The sugar? It’s always woefully insufficient to put even the ghost of some sweetness into that industrial strength bilge that masquerades as coffee.

The bread rolls are harder than a battleship’s armour, and much less likely to yield to the assault of a plastic knife that is about as much use as a Swiss aircraft carrier. The tray in front of you- and it’s just as often on you- is covered with more debris than the streets of Berlin in 1945. Needless to say, this is the exact time that useless of seat next to you decides that he/she/it really does need the bathroom again. Sorry…

And those bathrooms. Gawd. Talk about weapons of mass destruction. I shudder to think of some of the god awful chemical concoctions that could be bred in these after a few hours of in flight use. It sure as hell puts a whole new definition on chemical warfare.

OK. Stop. Time out. Just to let you know that this review was written by ‘bad’ Anthony. There will soon be another, more considered piece on the ups and downs of air travel from ‘good’ Anthony.

Just as soon as he gets some sleep, eats something decent, and slowly- slowly- loses the urge to stop howling uncontrollably at the Moon…

SAINT BARTS- THE SAINT TROPEZ OF THE CARIBBEAN

CNV00003Like an emerald that is somehow incredibly afloat in a sea of turquoise, tiny, beautifully styled Saint Barts has long been my favourite of all the fun, sun fuelled island paradises that make up the Caribbean. But even by the languid, laid back standards of ‘the islands’, St. Barts is a very classy act indeed, and totally unique. Only eight miles long and two wide, the main airstrip is about the size of a postage stamp. Nothing larger than small, twin prop passenger planes can get on the ground here.

The relatively shallow waters around the island also make it a no-no for the bigger cruise ships that today dominate the Caribbean circuit. The closest that most of them can get is Phillipsburg, the main port of Sint Maarten, some twenty five miles away across the briny. Only the smaller luxury ships can get in, and even they have to anchor offshore. This inevitably lessens the numbers pouring ashore by a thousand, or even four. And it makes the whole experience just…. dreamy.

Each of the islands in the Caribbean is as individual as a fingerprint. Most were colonised in the middle ages by the British, French, Spanish, the Dutch, and even the Swedes. And, today, each retains more than a little of the DNA of the occupying powers of old. In the case of St. Barts that was originally Sweden and, despite the fact that the island was amicably ceded to France, many of the original Swedish street names remain to this day.

CNV00004Today the vibe is unmistakably French; think Saint Tropez, but with bigger yachts in the harbour. Throw in an all year round summer climate, and some incredible French and creole cooking wizardry, and you’ve got a place to chill par excellence. Not cheap, of course, but you would hardly expect it to be.

The beauty of the place is the stuff of legends. Like most of the islands in the eastern Caribbean, St. Barts is draped with long, slow rolling hills dressed in a thousand shades of green. They form it’s backbone, and also frame and embrace the chocolate box pretty little haven that is Gustavia itself.

Beautifully manicured lawns are draped with serried ranks of giant date palms. Stout little wooden jetties point like random exclamation marks out into the sparkling briny. Giant old anchors, left behind from long gone sailing ships are scattered around the waterfront, as if flung there by some petulant deity in a bad mood.

CNV00006There are small, highly styled designer shops straight from the boulevards of Paris, with eye watering prices to match, and also the best cheeseburgers anywhere in the Caribbean. The whole waterfront is as small, glittering and exquisitely proportioned as a charm bracelet. The pace is more laid back than on some of the more touristy, traffic strewn neighbours, not so far away over the horizon.

Winding lanes in the back streets are swathed in brilliant bursts of jasmine, hibiscus and oleander. The odd motor scooter splutters lethargically into life, threading its way past little groups of schoolkids as they head home for the day. Above, ranks of marshmallow clouds drift silently across a petrol blue sky, looking like giant, ghostly galleons under full sail. The air is alive with the sounds of hummingbirds.

From here, Shell Beach is an idle, delightful fifteen minute saunter. Nobody rushes to go anywhere in St. Barts, period. What’s the hurry, when your every step is surrounded by such beauty and vibrant colour? Even the simple act of walking becomes a stroll that you’ll almost certainly savour for the rest of your life.

CNV00007Like many of the islands in the Caribbean, slavery left it’s dark stain in these parts. The wall scene here, from nearby Virgin Gorda, is a poignant, timely reminder of just why so many countries colonised these islands in the first place, and how badly some of them behaved. Like many bright and often sunny places, parts of the Caribbean have a distinctly shady past.

Wars and rampant piracy also left their mark on the region. Great, walled cities like San Juan and pirate free-for-alls such as Jamaica’s Port Royal were as much a part of the landscape then as modern, high rise, beachfront hotels are now.

It was a violent, volatile era, fuelled by the mutual greed of those ransacking Central America for it’s gold, and the pirates and privateers intent on relieving the original thieves of the fruits of their gilt edged gluttony. Murder, treachery and gibbeted felons were the order of the day back in those far more turbulent times.

CNV00008Thankfully, it’s a lot more sedate today. The most aggressive thing you’ll find on most of the islands is a tidal wave of suntanned, often frazzled dollar crusaders, pouring ashore from the big cruise ships, but armed with nothing more lethal than a few credit cards.

At least you will in most islands. But not here on St. Barts.

The island really does somehow exude a kind of kindred, laissez-faire kind of feel that is very close indeed to the south of France, in spirit if not in actual travelling miles. The island is actually a department of France. With Saint Martin, Guadeloupe, Martinique and the Ile Des Saintes, it forms the French West Indies. The official currency is the Euro (though dollars are widely accepted) and, despite their remote stance, the islands are still answerable to Paris. At least, that’s the theory.

St. Barts has never gone the way of it’s bigger, glitzier neighbours in terms of the high rise hotel industry. This is mainly down to the island’s petite size and limited infrastructure. But what might seem as ‘less’ to many truly translates to ‘more’ in terms of a genuine, old style, Caribbean island experience here.

CNV00010Pretty little pastel shaded houses peep out from among the greenery all along the coastline, with their gently sloping roofs, and porches festooned with sun loungers, looking out over an indolent, sparkling ocean. Cats and dogs snooze uncaring in the mid day heat, under the handy shade of some spindly, sagging palm fronds. The scent of hibiscus and the subtle, seductive lilt of reggae floods the hot, humid air everywhere.

In the bay, tenders from one of the smaller cruise ships bumble back and forth like tiny, exotic water beetles. Each one carries a repository of awe struck human cargo, jaws scraping their shoes, eyes as wide as saucers at the incredible, audio visual assault on their senses that unfolds like a 3-D panorama all around them.

Ashore, they pause for lunch at some sun splashed waterfront restaurant, their podgy, sun burnt fingers clutching uncertainly at deceptively innocuous margaritas and strawberry daiquiris, as a rising tide of shopping bags threatens to overwhelm them. Yacht skippers in sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country stroll by, studiously ignoring the new arrivals.

CNV00011But keep on walking up along that route out of town, and you’ll find yourself on one of the most perfect beaches anywhere in the entire Caribbean. The French name is Anse Galet, but most of the locals simply refer to it as Shell Beach.

For my money, this gorgeous little slice of heaven is the most idyllic small beach anywhere in the Caribbean, period. Flanked on three sides by jagged, serried tiers of slate grey rocks, Shell Beach is a blinding white sweep of pristine, powder soft sand that shelves almost reluctantly into the deep, electric blue hue of the ocean just beyond.

Off shore, the odd jet ski or two might tear across the briny like some maddened kind of water beast. Above, para gliders drift across the endless canvas of the sky like random, exotic butterflies.

Smaller, more discreet spots among the rocks are a natural haven for topless bathers. Well, this is France in the Caribbean, after all.

CNV00015There is a small bar/restaurant called Do Brasil (?) that is set neatly into the rocks above that beach like a small, precious gemstone. It has an upper level bar cum restaurant, open to the breeze, that allows for heart stopping views right out over the whole soft, spun sugar expanse of sand.  The view is almost to good to believe; like being awake in a particularly vivid dream.

Ceiling fans hum overhead, and the ice cold Carib beers taste like the very nectar of the gods themselves. You can stay and savour one inside, with a side order of warm Caribbean breeze coming in off the sea. It’s all good, for sure.

But me, I prefer to take mine outside. Just walk to the water’s edge, sag down onto the sand, and let the warm water just kiss your feet before it washes over you. Cold beer plus warm sea equals sheer, platinum chip bliss. I would not lie about something like that.

This is sweet and surreal enough, either on your own, or with friends. But there are other options, too.

CNV00016Consider a glacially cold bottle of Moet et Chandon, a few glasses on the beach, and how fine the world can seem. And still, there’s that subtle, seductive sound track of the ocean rollers, drumming like fingers on that wondrous, warm swathe of sand. It’s not cheap, but as one of the best experiences of your life, the memory will be, quite literally, priceless.

There are chairs and tables sprinkled on the sand, making this small, beautifully proportioned beach one of the most perfect spots anywhere in the world to perfect the very fine art of platinum chip lounging.

And, even as you slouch over your Moet, the thought drifts through your mind that nothing this good can last forever. Yet that is only partly true. Memories of days like this are the stuff of pure magic. They sear themselves into the soul and the psyche, just as surely as if they had been emblazoned there with a branding iron. Make no bones; this is strong, magical stuff, and it stays with you long, long after you think you’ve left the actual place itself far behind.

CNV00013If and when you can tear yourself away from all of this-and at some stage, you will have to- then there is still time for another stroll along the gorgeous waterfront of Gustavia itself. Many of the de-luxe cruise ships actually stay at anchor here until around midnight, allowing those passengers that want to dine ashore the option to do exactly that.

But the one thing that I know from personal experience is that St. Barts leaves you with a palpable, almost painful longing to return. Because even in that fabulous, rum and reggae fired playground that people call the Caribbean, St. Barts is truly unique, adrift in it’s own time and space.

I have to warn you. Once the St. Barts bug has bitten, then you will in all probability find that you, too, have become forever smitten. The good news is, its far from being the worst kind of compulsive addiction you could fall prey to. Enjoy!

THE INCREDIBLE IMPERATOR; A CENTURY ON

ImageThe Imperator was a ship of many firsts; the first to weigh in at over 50,000 tons; the first to exceed more than nine hundred feet in length. The first of a world beating trio that was intended to dominate the lucrative Atlantic passenger trade like nothing ever had before. Even  one hundred years later, the sheer, spectacular scale of the towering, Teutonic three stacker is impossible to deny.

She was laid down for the Hamburg-Amerika Line (now known as Hapag-Lloyd) as a direct, dramatic response to rival British liners such as Olympic, Titanic, and the upcoming Cunarder,  Aquitania. She was the brainchild of the brilliant Albert Ballin, a man of uncompromising taste and style. Ballin had an eye for detail and a grasp of the truly sybaritic, perhaps equalled only by that of Cesar Ritz himself. Ballin was way ahead of his time.

That is probably why he hired the London Ritz architects, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, to create the fairy tale interiors of the Imperator. Ballin was determined to outclass all opposition, at every level. One example of this materialised just weeks before the ship’s maiden voyage.

News had somehow leaked out that the new Aquitania would actually be a few feet longer than the Imperator on her forthcoming 1914 debut. Within days, a huge crate arrived at the German liner’s fitting out dock.

It contained a monstrous, gilt trimmed, giant golden eagle, clutching a globe of the world in it’s talons. It was bolted like a figurehead of old onto the prow of the Imperator. And it did, indeed, have the desired effect of making her longer than her British rival.

The bird did not last. A howling Atlantic storm literally clipped the eagle’s wings within a few weeks of the Imperator’s entry into service. The rest of the largely unloved, scowling brute was discreetly removed soon afterwards.

The Imperator was launched in 1912, just six weeks after the apocalyptic sinking of the Titanic. The original, intended name was Europa but, with an entire continent now increasingly on edge at the sabre rattling in the royal houses of Europe, Ballin opted to name the ship Imperator, after his friend and mentor, the erratic, unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II. It was jingoistic sleight of hand of the first order.

The first swing of the champagne bottle somehow failed to connect with the prow of the biggest man made object on the planet. The inbound bottle was deftly caught by the Kaiser himself, who smashed it neatly against the ship that now bore his name. Amid much pomp and ceremony, the huge hull slid sedately into the waters of the Elbe.

The inquiries into the Titanic disaster in both England and America resulted in a whole raft of new maritime legislation; none of which had been in force when the Imperator had first taken shape on a drawing board. The most obvious of these was a mushrooming of literally dozens of extra lifeboats, many of them stowed in impromptu bays, carved out of the lower superstructure. These unplanned, yet necessary changes upset her original centre of stability quite a lot.

Ballin sheathed her incredible, unmatched interiors in a byzantine brew of marble, gilt, and deep, rich carpeting. Potted palms flanked her vast, vaulting staircases in a series of triumphant cascades. Those sublime interiors were a cake rich confection of stunning old masters, over the top statuary, and vast chandeliers that held sway above a sea of deep, clubby sofas and chairs. It was, indeed, the ambiance of the Ritz afloat, and the overall look was quite simply stunning.

And it all conspired to make her hugely unstable. On her maiden arrival in New York, she leaned ominously to port as thousands of passengers rushed the railings to get a first glimpse of the Statue Of Liberty. New York harbour pilots promptly nicknamed her the ‘Limperator’. The tug boat captains there said that she never came in on an even keel.

What Ballin could do with her, he did. Thousands of tons of pig iron were added to her as ballast; some nine foot was cut from the top of each of her trio of towering smoke stacks. Inside, a token reduction was made in the opera house style, overblown splendour. It all helped but, to the very end of her days, both she and her two sisters would remain ‘tender’ ships at sea.

But the Imperator was an instant, immediate success. In her first year of service, she was one of the most popular and profitable liners on the Atlantic. The outbreak of the Great War found her safely at home in Hamburg, where she would remain for the duration of the conflict.

Her brand new sister was not so lucky. The Vaterland, second of the Ballin trio, was in New York, in the middle of her third round trip, when the war descended. Ordered to remain put, she was seized as a war prize by the Americans in 1917, outfitted as a troopship, and renamed the Leviathan. She never sailed under the German flag again.

And neither did the poor, proud Imperator. The 1918 armistice surrendered the entire German merchant marine- the largest in the world- to it’s former enemies. And, as the largest ships in the world, the Ballin trio were by far the biggest prizes of all. The only question was; who would get them?

Leviathan stayed with the United States Lines, who put her into passenger service in 1922. Prohibition crippled her from the start. Wet outside and largely dry on the inside, she never had a chance. She was withdrawn from service in 1934, and finally scrapped in 1938.

Third of the class, Bismarck was launched just weeks before the war broke out, and all work was stopped on her for the duration. She was completed for the White Star Line in 1922. Renamed the Majestic, White Star marketed her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. She was the largest ship in the world until the debut of the Normandie in 1935. Ultimately converted into the cadet ship Caledonia, she burned and sank at her pier just prior to the outbreak of another global conflict in September, 1939.

The Imperator went to Cunard, as a replacement for the torpedoed Lusitania. She was converted to oil burning, painted in Cunard colours and renamed the Berengaria, before being put back into service on the Atlantic ferry from Southampton to New York.

The Berengaria was, in fact, the first Cunard liner to be actually named after an English queen; the lady in question had been the wife of Richard the Lionheart.

Cunard had the good sense to leave her plush interiors pretty much as they were, apart from some subtle rearranging of the first class public rooms. Her vast, beautiful Pompeiian swimming pool had been modelled after one that can still be seen at the Royal Automobile Club in London. Even today, it is still considered by many to be the most beautiful ever crafted on any ship.

The Berengaria sailed the gilded Atlantic run with her former rivals and new fleet mates, Mauretania and Aquitania. She became the Cunard line flagship and, by some inexplicable whim, she also became the most popular ship on the crossing. For several years, she was very much the ship to be seen on. In that incredible age of steamships, baseball, flapper girls and prohibition, the Berengaria was the brightest jewel in the company’s crown. As such, she was immensely profitable to boot.

That all changed with the 1927 debut of the splendid new Ile De France. Swathed in a stunning new Art Deco look, the swanky new French liner was an instant, spectacular success. Next to her, all the older, pre war liners suddenly looked dowdy, outdated, and hopelessly behind the times. And worse was to come.

The 1929 stock market crash, and the Great Depression that followed, decimated the liner trade on the Atlantic by almost half within four years. At the same time, a string of new, government subsidised, Italian and-ironically, German- ships began to appear on the run. State of the art and sleek, they were soon snapping at the heels of the doughty old timers still being operated by both Cunard and White Star. Soon, both premier British shipping lines were in deep trouble.

The Berengaria and her ilk survived by offering five and six day ‘booze’ cruises from New York, up to Halifax, and down to Bermuda. With her bars open around the clock, the iconic Cunarder earned the nickname of the ‘Dead and Bury’er’. It was the equivalent of expecting  Audrey Hepburn to appear in pantomime. Cruising eked out her life, at the expense of her soul and reputation. But time was still running out.

On Clydebank, the incomplete, rust shrouded hulk that would one day be the Queen Mary sat, deserted by everyone save the birds that nested in her. As a condition for lending the money to finally complete her, the British government forced the shotgun wedding of those age old rivals, Cunard and White Star.

With Cunard holding a 62-38 per cent majority shareholding in the new amalgam, the inevitable disposal of suddenly redundant, surplus tonnage hit White Star especially hard. It also largely explains why the Majestic  went to the block, while the Berengaria earned a reprieve.

By 1936, the ageing diva was still making the Atlantic crossing, but now in company with the brand new Queen Mary. Hopelessly outclassed by flash, new foreign tonnage like the Rex, the Normandie and-irony of ironies- the new Europa, her end was hastened by a rash of small, electrical fires that started to break out all over through the summer of 1938. She was finally sold for scrap that same December. Her eventual replacement would be the second Mauretania of 1939.

Her story had many ups and downs, but ultimately, Ballin’s dream ship endured for almost a quarter of a century. Her triumphs, style, and sheer splendour are undeniable; the stuff of true ocean going legends. One hundred years after her launch, the Imperator has truly earned her berth in the Valhalla of vanished North Atlantic nobility.

THE FRENCH LINE- UNSURPASSED OCEAN ROYALTY

ImagePainting of the Normandie by James Flood, maritime artist extraordinaire

In the world of travel, no people are as nostalgic as fans of the vanished ocean liners. I know. I am one. An incurable case, with zero chance of remission.

Yet of all those long vanished icons of ocean travel, none for me exerts the regret or sense of loss that the French Line does. Because if ever a line could be said to embody the real panache and elegance of ocean liner travel, then the French Line is surely it.

Why? For me, there are a number of factors. Where lines such as Cunard and White Star built ships in pairs to operate as running mates, the French Line never did. Each one was a true individual, as finely crafted a statement of intent as it was possible to produce.

There’s also no doubt that the French Line offered the best food and service afloat of any of the great lines. The dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less then 275 different items each evening. ‘Bon Voyage is always French’ was the line’s mantra. It was something the line lived up to in deed as well as the spoken word.

For instance, the wine cellar on the Normandie was stocked on board a full six months before her maiden voyage, in order to give the wine time to settle. What is more, it was loaded in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, the motion would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an unavoidable hazard of Atlantic travel, but bad wine was a mortal sin.

On the subject of wine, vin du table was always free aboard the French Line; the company considered it a vital part of the ambiance of ‘France afloat’. The French Line insisted that you were actually in France the moment that you boarded one of their ships. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, despite the fact that most of the passengers were, invariably, American.

They had style in spades. When the Ile De France first made her stunning debut in 1927, a churlish passenger remarked to her captain that she was smaller than many rivals. His reply? ‘She may not be the biggest, madame; but then, neither is the Ritz’…

Of course, the Ile De France became a legend. She introduced Art Deco to the Atlantic crossing, and her striking, modern interiors at once made every other liner afloat look dowdy and old fashioned. So sensational was her impact, that many veteran travellers were prepared to wait for a week, just to cross on her. For years, she carried more first class passengers than any other Atlantic liner. Even Noel Coward immortalised her in song.

And, even after the war, she was regarded with awe and reverence; a place where you could have onion soup for breakfast, even in tourist class.

The post war Liberte became the most popular ticket on the Atlantic. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger,  and the United States faster. And she became a movie star three times over. When Marilyn Monroe tells Jane Russell that she is off to Europe, Russell asks; “On the Liberte?” Marilyn’s reply; “How else?”

Those grand, French Line public rooms had scale to match their splendour as well. When the company introduced it’s first, stunning SS. France in 1912, she featured a magnificent, two story first class dining room. The reason? ‘Low ceilings do not aid the appetite’, said the line. In fact, this was nothing less than a dig at the single story, first class dining room aboard the rival White Star line’s Olympic and Titanic.

But the impact of the Normandie was nothing short of seismic. No ship, either before or since, has made such a sensational, stunning debut as the immortal French Line flagship. Even now, the superlatives flow like fine wine.

The first ocean liner over a thousand feet in length, and the first of the eighty-thousand ton monsters; the first to be the largest, fastest and most luxurious on her maiden crossing. That crossing itself was the most epochal in maritime history.

In terms of beauty, style and chic, she was unapproachable. When she and Queen Mary were playing ping pong with the Blue Riband in the 1930’s, it took the similarly sized British ship an extra forty thousand horsepower just to reach the same speed as the Normandie. The French masterpiece was space age, sumptuous and spectacular. The world would never see the likes of her again.

But that did not stop the French from trying…

‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ With that fatuous burst of egotism on his lips, General De Gaulle watched as his wife, Yvonne, set her successor afloat on May 11th, 1960. Two hundred thousand people cheered as the second France slid serenely into the River Loire, launched from the same slipway as her elegant predecessor.

France was lithe, fabulous, and way too late. By the time she arrived in New York for the first time, the jets already had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade. The writing was truly in the sky.

Everyone knew it, too. The American press described her as an eighty million dollar gamble. The French Line called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

Yet, to the end, the last great flagship embodied all that was special, elegant and stylish about her country. Audrey Hepburn fell in love with her. The France even carried the marginally less beautiful Mona Lisa to New York for the 1964 World Fair. Salvador Dali liked to walk his pet Ocelots on deck. Burt Lancaster would show passengers his hand spring skills.

The dining rooms were still double height and, naturally, Camembert cheese would only be offered to passengers on the fourth day out from Le Havre, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. A French Line Maitre d’ would have chosen suicide over slightly over ripe cheese. It was the French Line way.

Her layup in 1974 brought down the guillotine blade on 110 years of French Line excellence and style. But the great France, magically resurrected as the fabulous, Art Deco suffused Norway, would go on to become a legend for the second time in her magnificent career.

Something of her grand, French Line past always lingered like fine perfume within that sumptuous hull. And those great, winged stacks made her unmistakable. For that, and for the memories that she embodied, I for one will always be grateful.

MAGNIFICENT MSC- SOMETHING VERY DIFFERENT…

CNV00017The rise of MSC  cruises over the past decade has been nothing short of breathtaking. Within ten years, the company had commissioned a stunning quintet of five massive, 92,000 ton Poesia class sisters and, even more impressively, the even bigger Fantasia class quartet, coming in at a block busting 133,000 tons each.

Add to that the now well known ‘work horses’ such as Opera, Sinfonia and Lirica, and you have a fleet whose growth has been the most dramatic so far this century. Yet the genesis of this maritime monolith could hardly have been more low key.

MSC had it’s beginnings in the freight division of the famous Italian Lauro line. When the company morphed into MSC- Mediterranean Shipping Company- it was primarily a cargo concern; a part of the business that still has a high priority in the head offices at Genoa.

All the same, the company began operating a quirky trio of second hand tonnage on cruises in the 1990’s; the Rhapsody (former Cunard Princess) Monterey, and Melody, formerly the Home Lines flagship, Atlantic.

CNV00004All of these ships were relatively small and intimate, and the cruising division remained very much an experiment; a kind of side order on the company’s global platter of products. That all changed with the collapse of First European cruises in 2003.

When that promising company’s fleet went into liquidation, MSC surprised everybody when they purchased several of the ships. At the same time, the line began planning the next generation of ships for what would be it’s sudden, spectacular expansion. Initially at least, the core product was concentrated in and around the Mediterranean region. The exception was the venerable Melody, which was packed off to operate winter cruises from South Africa for four months each year.

The new ships came like a series of stunning drum rolls. Huge, expansive and sheathed in gorgeous marble, etched glass and shining brass, they are a million miles removed in style and execution from their prime rivals over at Costa. Huge, sweeping staircases studded with lights flow beautifully through giant, uncluttered atria. The lines are sweet, simple, and meant to emphasize the spatial splendour of this new generation of ocean goddesses; each one suffused with an unmistakably Italian flair.

The MSC ships have taken the whole subtle, indolent vibe of la dolce vita and pretty much made it their mantra. Each of their ships reflects the art and elegance of the Italian way of life. They are often noisy, crowded and yes, sometimes quite maddening experiences for more genteel, less quixotic souls. They appeal very much to multi-generational families. And this has proved to be one of MSC’s main revenue streams over the last decade.

Daytime lifestyles echo that of the lidos of Sorrento or even Venice. There are vast, double height lido areas with sliding glass roofs, a large pool and waterfall, and bubbling hot tubs. This being Italy afloat, there is a handy ice cream bar serving lashings of mouth watering gelati, and a nearby buffet. On the big ships, these are the size of a small railway station.

CNV00041And they can feel just as crowded and chaotic, too.  That said, it is all pretty good natured. Standing in line is an alien concept to the majority of Italian passengers; they weave in and out like dragonflies to whatever part of the buffet takes their fancy. Rather than be offended- and they don’t mean you to be- the trick is to do exactly the same yourself. Do it with a smile, and the apparent carnage becomes less of a chore.

At night, families keep their children up much later than we’re accustomed to in the UK. It is not unusual for the very young to be still running off all that surplus energy at eleven in the evening, but you can guarantee that the parents will be keeping a very watchful eye on the bambini.

As with all contemporary lines, the MSC ships are massive, balcony strewn monoliths that bear little resemblance to such past Italian legends as Raffaello or Rex. But their distinctive, deep blue, swept back funnels are every bit as architecturally distinctive- and unmistakable- as those of Carnival or, indeed, the rival Costa ships.

Food on MSC was very good indeed, with much creative play resulting from the locally sourced fruit, vegetables and meats on board. As on many lines, the main dining rooms have evolved into theatre and entertainment venues. During the evening, each operates as a two seating venue. But there are no shortage of alternatives.

CNV00001While MSC has not embraced the alternative dining venue concept as fully as Norwegian and, lately, Royal Caribbean, the line does feature some very finely styled, minimal chic, extra tariff options, mainly in the form of Asian themed venues. The aforementioned buffet also offers an evening dinner service, and tends to be less chaotic at that time of the day. It is also quite beautifully lit as well.

Inside, the ships are beautiful examples of modern styling. Deep, comfortable armchairs in shades of terracotta flank the passageways that meander through the main public areas. As a venue for people watching, few things are better set up than an MSC ship.

The show lounges are huge, multi level confections, alive with sound and colour productions that try impressively to cater to the company’s multi lingual passenger make up. Inevitably, some are more successful than others. But you cannot fault the enthusiasm and, because of their massive entertainment handle, the bigger ships especially are suffused with a wealth of alternative entertainment venues and options; from a huge, glass walled disco than spans the entire stern of the upper deck, to a cozy little hideaway with a live acoustic guitarist. You’ll always find something that makes you want to linger just that little bit later. And many do exactly that.

With a plethora of new, platinum chip tonnage on stream, MSC has been able to diversify way beyond it’s Mediterranean cradle. Each year, their ships operate a scintillating series of cruises to South America. A ship is almost always positioned in the Dubai market, with another in the Red Sea. For next season, the winter deployment to South Africa is up to two ships; testament to the growing success and visibility of the brand.

CNV00044There are ships deployed to northern Europe and, in the summer, even one that is home ported in Southampton for a lucrative season. While remaining more or less true to its quintessential Italian style, the line has tweaked the on board product to appeal to other national sensibilities.

But the big game changer has been the placing of a ship in the winter Caribbean market. Next season sees the arrival of the gigantic MSC Divina to begin year round Caribbean cruises out of Miami.

It has taken a while to get a definitive presence established in the States. American passengers are far more used to the familiar, US-influenced styles of the major cruise lines, and many Americans still find MSC a little quirky for their tastes. But the line is constantly fine tuning it’s product, and the arrival of a dedicated, year round ship- and quite a stunning one at that- should allow MSC to finally ‘bed in’ to the lucrative USA market. Expect definite expansion in that direction.

CNV00057MSC has also been very assiduous in building up a year round presence in the Mediterranean and Canary Islands, sailing ships from both Venice and Barcelona right through the winter seasons. This is actually  a very good time to see the ‘Med’, with lower temperatures but generally bright, clear days. Shorn of the summer tourist hordes, it is also that much easier to see the sights. Many Eastern Mediterranean cruises allowed for overnights in both Israel and Egypt. Like all companies, MSC watches the complex, tortured political situation in the region. It can amend itineraries for safety’s sake and, indeed, it sometimes does.

Cabins on MSC are comparable to other main stream cruise lines in terms of size, location and facilities, and run the usual ranges. from insides to outsides, to balcony. I got very little use from my balcony during my February cruise (it was usually overcast) but you can put that down to my decision. I should imagine those same balconies are quite idyllic little window boxes during the long, languid summer days and nights.

CNV00108Of course, the newer ships also operate the MSC Yacht Club; a kind of gated ‘ship-within-a-ship’ community that has upgraded accommodation, private lounge, dining and pool areas, and lots of peachy little touches, such as private butlers and priority embarkation. I have not yet sampled these sumptuous little havens, but I am told on good authority that they are some of the most decadent, desirable digs anywhere on the seven seas, and well worth the cost of the upgrade.

I really do enjoy the bubbly, feel good vibe and sense of fun that is to be found aboard these ships. They are not perfect, but no ship ever is. And, it has to be said, they do represent outstandingly good value for money.

You’ll be with a lot of other people of course, and that invariably means that getting on and off the ship can be more time consuming. A bit of patience and a certain amount of tact will go a long way here, as will a smile. Practice your indolent shoulder shrugging; you’ll see a lot of it here.

I should also mention that MSC has very good singles prices, sometimes with no supplement at all on certain sailings. Outstanding bargains are to be had on ocean cruises, when the ships transit between cruising grounds each spring and autumn (see my previous article on crossings) and also on some of the excellent Red Sea itineraries on the smaller, more intimate Sinfonia and Lirica.

CNV00136For lovers of the good life and those seeking a change of cruising style, with more than a hint of subtle Italian elegance, this line will deliver the goods nicely. MSC is as bubbly as prosecco, and every bit as authentically native Italian. Enjoy!

EUROPA 2- THE COMING OF THE NEW

CNV00001When Europa 2 debuts in May, the cruise community will gain far more than just another luxury ship. More than any other significant new build, this is the ship that will very much define the standards and encompass all the modern, high tech style that savvy travellers will come to expect as their birthright. In that respect, she truly is very much the ship of 2013.

Her debut will give the cruise industry only it’s third ever, all balcony suite cruise ship. At 42,000 tons and a maximum capacity of just 516 passengers, Europa 2 will outclass any other ship afloat in terms of the amount of personal space on board. And even her minimum grade balconies come in at a generous seventy five square feet; the largest regulars in the all balcony club by a good way.

CNV00009The ship is obviously meant to build on the style and reputation of her fleet mate, the current, highly styled Europa. That ship is regularly lauded in many quarters as being the best in the world. And, rather than rock the boat, Hapag-Lloyd Cruises have set out to try and enhance on the obviously successful. The difference is, that with a ship one third as big again, the company has more space and options to roll out some unique, signature venues for the nCNV00007ew ship.

The new spa, shown here, will cover something like 620 square metres of prime territory on deck five. With numerous treatment rooms, an expansive whirlpool and views out over the sea, it reflects the light, open palette that will be a trademark of the new ship. Her lines are very clean and cool throughout; whether in the arrangements of the suite furnishings; to the sleek, wedge shaped, external styling of her hull. Perhaps more than any other new build, Europa 2 is a ship that seems to both embrace and celebrate her environment.

The classic example is, without doubt, the mid ship pool area. Located in an expansive sun bowl, it comes complete with the first ever, sliding glass magrodome roof for a ship of this class. Together with the windows on both levels of this complex, it bathes the Europa 2 in natural sunlight, potentially protecting passengers from the elements, while ensuring that they are still in contact with them.

CNV00003Unlike past Hapag-Lloyd Cruises product, there will be a determined and on going attempt to make the Europa 2 more of an international product, rather than one that appeals solely to the German market. All crew members will be both English and German speaking.  With that in mind, she offers an unparalleled range of dining options for a ship of this size; the new ship will feature no less than eight restaurants, all open seating, and showcasing a whole raft of sublime culinary options. The restaurant Weltmeere is the main dining room and, like all Europa 2 venues, the food here will be created under the direction of Executive Chef, Stefan Wilke. Herr Wilke learned from the best; in his case from Harald Wohlfahrt, the only three star chef in Germany. His nous, plus his previous experience aboard the older Europa, should make the offerings aboard Europa 2 a sumptuous voyage of discovery in their own right.

CNV00004Among the raft of other dining options aboard this wonderful new ship is the French accented Tarragon restaurant, with an emphasis on both the simple and sophisticated as far as cuisine goes. The flavour of the room itself is distinctly modern, full of light and accented by elements of dark wood framing around doors and ceiling edges.

There is also a casual, upper deck Yacht Club restaurant for alfresco breakfast, lunches and dinners. Requested food items are freshly grilled to order here, and served with a side order of spectacular outdoor scenery and some of the best wines in any floating cellar anywhere.  There is also Sakura, a sumptuous sushi haven for those with a love of all things raw. Here you’ll find such epicurean delights as nigiri, maki and uramaki. 

CNV00005Throughout all of Europa 2, the emphasis is on creating a ship with a smart casual vibe. The notion of over- dressing for dinner has been deftly consigned to history here. The illustrations show a ship suffused with an aura of quite spectacular, casual luxury; expansive and inviting, not overpowering and intimidating. Europa 2 is a ship that will appeal to sybarites who, in the past, have only ever holidayed at high end vacation resorts. So the creation of Elements, an Asian themed restaurant that  tips it’s hat to a whole raft of imaginative Thai. Chinese and Indian specialities, is an obvious smart move.

The room itself is darker, more elongated, with beautifully back lit panels, and what appear at first glance to be giant pineapples, suspended from the ceiling. The carpet is a rich shade of burgundy.

Europa 2 also features the Spiesszimmer; a special venue available for private dinner gatherings, and ideal for special occasions. It is also planned to use the room as a venue for officer-hosted parties during certain cruises.

As far as crew goes, no less than 370 will look after a maximum of 516 passengers. The smooth running of the hotel side of the Europa 2 will be under the direction of the very well regarded Johann Schrempf, formerly of the original Europa. As on all Hapag-Lloyd Cruises ships, I would expect service on the Europa 2 to be subtle, astounding, and totally consistent.  A ship such as this lives or dies by the quality of the on board product delivery, and it is highly unlikely that the company would drop the ball here. I will be on board the ship at the end of July, and a more up to date report will be online soon after that.

On such a spectacular ship, you would rightly expect a stunning range of suites. All feature Nespresso coffee makers as standard. The main types are shown in the photographs on display below.

CNV00016The Owner’s Suite is a jaw dropping, 1227 square foot apartment, including it’s own, 161 foot veranda. Naturally, it has its own separate whirlpool bath, looking out over the ocean through a quartet of windows.  There’s a shower with a separate steam sauna, a separate bedroom, and a vast amount of personal living space here, too.

This beautiful apartment also offers butler service, full sized, walk in wardrobe, and a bathroom that comes complete with its own TV and day bed. There’s a fully stocked, complimentary mini bar that includes beer and soft drinks. Each also come complete with an in suite set up of complimentary spirits. Europa 2 has two of these apartments.

CNV00019There are two slightly smaller, but no less opulent  Grand Penthouses. These come in at a sumptuous 948 square feet, inclusive of a 108 square foot, fully furnished veranda.

Again, you have the additional services of a butler here, and the same bathroom and sauna set up as in the Owner’s Suite. If you can’t live without your private whirlpool, the good news here is that you don’t have to. And it also enjoys the same stunning views out over the ocean. The bar set up is exactly the same as in the Owner’s Suite, too. In fact, all that is really different is that the living area here is slightly smaller. Something that still does not preclude it from including a full dining table and in suite entertainment set up.

CNV00012With Europa 2 putting the emphasis on families on board, there are a number of commodious, interconnecting rooms that offer both community and privacy. 580 square feet of real estate is divided neatly into two rooms, including the balconies here.

The furnishings are identical throughout both, with loungers on each balcony. Like all Europa 2 rooms, they feature a flat screen TV, a tablet PC, and a portable phone. All rooms on the ship are Wi-Fi enabled.

Both rooms feature separate, full bathrooms and toilets.

All Europa 2 suites feature welcome champagne to capture the exhilaration of being on board.

Living and sleeping areas are artfully separated. Wall to floor glass sliding doors allow easy access to the furnished balcony.

Room service is available 24/7 from a special, in suite menu for all passengers.

And, once again, you have the mini bar option, with complimentary beer and soft drinks. The alcohol can obviously be removed if the parents decide to go down that particular road. Europa 2 offers seven of these interconnecting family apartments.

CNV00018Veranda and Ocean Suites both come in at a lavish 376 square feet, inclusive of the 75 square foot balcony. Each features the same light, easy sense of style and space as the larger accommodations, outlined above. The principal difference is that the Ocean Suites have a bathroom with a sea view.

The ship has 59 ocean suites, and a total of 141 of the standard verandas.

Not shown in this brief intro are the sixteen Spa Suites, which come in at a healthy 560 square feet, and the twenty-four, mid range Grand Suites- very similar to the spa suites. These also come in at a more than welcoming 560 square feet.

CNV00021Night life aboard Europa 2 will be subtle, but highly styled. Live jazz and piano music, plus the occasional disco, will be the main options for passengers wanting to stay out and about after a splendid dinner to make the most out of their evenings on board the ship.

The Jazz Club offers a subtle, sultry vibe that will be instantly appealing to the night owls. Soft, soulful tunes in an intimate, tastefully understated environment creates just the kind of atmosphere that stays with you long after you go home.

Europa 2 will also feature an indoor/outdoor version of Zanzibar, the famous German beach resort on the edge of the Baltic. With a beat that goes on until the early hours, this is one of only two of these fabled venues afloat. Unsurprisingly, you’ll find the other one aboard the original Europa.

For lovers of cognac and cigars, there’s a beautifully evocative Herrenzimmer, located straight across from the Jazz Club on deck four.

And, for those who like their sunsets to come with a little soft piano music and some matchless views, there is the vast, sweeping Belvedere Lounge, offering fabulous views out over the ship’s bow. Savour a mesmerising sunset here with a perfectly crafted cocktail; little else so perfectly captures the subtle magic of being at sea.

CNV00022If big show entertainment is something you like to take in now and again, you’ll find an expansive, full scale theatre all the way forward on deck four. Featuring both a lower and a balcony level, this is still intimate enough for lectures and live recitals.

This beautiful, expansive venue will also play host to a series of scintillating new shows, especially devised for the new ship.

You’ll even find an astonishing cookery school on board, where you can hone your culinary skills with insights from some of the most renowned and savvy professionals on the cookery circuit.

Europa 2 will also host evening deck parties around the swimming pool on certain nights, perhaps under the cover of the magrodome on chillier evenings.

CNV00011Come to think of it, there are only two things really missing on this marvellous new ship. Mediocrity. And you.

The maiden season for Europa 2 encompasses the best of the Mediterranean, on a series of seven night cruises to the very best of the culture, colour and fun spots in the region. Barcelona, Malta. Ibiza and Limassol are just a few of the ports on offer during a very busy inaugural season.

In the autumn, Europa 2 will head out to the magnificent, exotic masterpieces of the Far East, working her way there via Dubai, the UAE and the Suez Canal, before returning to Europe the following spring.

THE FAMOUS ANCESTOR-IMPERATOR

CNV00013Appropriately, Europa 2 will debut in May 2013, on the centenary of the inauguration by Hapag-Lloyd of the monumental, ground breaking Imperator. The first ship in the world to exceed 50,000 tons, Imperator was the line’s stunning response to the Olympic and Titanic.

She was originally to have been named Europa, but Hapag-Lloyd chairman, Albert Ballin, decided that she should be named for his friend, the Emperor Kaiser Wilhelm II. She was launched just six weeks after the sinking of the Titanic. The first aim of the champagne bottle missed; only for it to be deftly caught by the Kaiser, who smashed it nicely against the ship that now carried his name.

The Imperator was a stupendous brew of marble, wood panelling and deep, rich carpeting. Albert Ballin possessed an eye for detail and a taste for the spectacular, perhaps matched only by that of Cesar Ritz. The Imperator was his dream ship; the first of a stunning trio that would have given Hapag- Lloyd dominance of the North Atlantic, but for the Great War.

Imperator was followed by two equally stupendous sisters. Of these, the 1914-built Vaterland was in New York when the war broke out. Seized by America in 1917, she became the Leviathan. After trooping duties, she sailed for the United States Lines until 1934.

The third ship was Bismarck. Launched just before the war, she was incomplete at the end of hostilities. She was completed instead for the White Star Line, who renamed her the Majestic. From 1922 through to 1935, the Majestic was the largest ship in the world. White Star advertised her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. Ironically, she ran in competition with her two sister ships.

After the war, the Imperator herself was given to Cunard as a replacement for the sunken Lusitania. Renamed the Berengaria, she became the most popular ship on the North Atlantic for almost two decades. In her last years, she even ran in company with the brand new Queen Mary, before being finally sold for scrap in 1938.

NOTE: All photographs and images featured in this article are courtesy of, and remain the copyright of, Hapag Lloyd Cruises.