I HEAR A SYMPHONY- CRYSTAL CRUISES’ GRAND DAME

CNV00099The great thing about cruising as a holiday is that it offers up so many diverse kinds of ships to tempt a lot of equally diverse people. From the sizzling, sometimes raucous fun palaces of Carnival to the erudite pearls of learning such as Voyages to Antiquity, there truly is something for everyone in cruising’s vast global smorgasbord.

And it is also thrilling to see the new generation of ships as they develop, and incorporate new, novel features that push the boundaries of the cruise experience to infinity (pools) and beyond. The ships continue to evolve, pushing the envelope in terms of new passenger offerings and experiences, at a rate of knots that would have caused nosebleeds in the fondly remembered heyday of the great Atlantic gin palaces.

And yet… sometimes the best experiences lie in the simple pleasures of returning to a well run ship; one that puts the emphasis not on eye popping new fun stuff, but on simple, old word things like exquisite food and service. These are the ships that do not just merely carry you as a passenger; they cocoon you in an absolute, all enveloping sense of calm, familiar ease and comfort. The ships that are as welcoming on the fifth cruise as they were on the first.

CNV00038All of which explains my ongoing love affair with the wonder that is Crystal Symphony.

Symphony is shimmering, beautiful and human in scale. A sublime oasis of calm and unruffled ease. Nothing is too much trouble. In fact, nothing ever seems to be any trouble.

And she’s beautiful on the outside, too. A graceful, flaring bow and a snow white expanse of soaring, flowing hull is topped by a single, elegant funnel. At the stern, a series of perfectly sculpted terraces tumble lethargically downwards. They offer an absolutely sublime view back over of her wake.

Yes, there are newer ships in the luxury market with bigger suites grade for grade, but Symphony has a rare, real magic that money cannot buy. The ship is suffused with a star quality and a sheer charisma that was once only the preserve of those vanished Atlantic leviathans. Just the sheer anticipation of boarding her is the most delicious appetiser I can bring to mind.

CNV00096The world in all it’s glamour and majesty can come and go like a series of stunning drum rolls, but Crystal Symphony remains reassuringly constant; whether in the glorious Greek Islands, or on a languid transatlantic crossing to Barbados. The true voyage lies in rediscovering this beautifully understated gem, and in encountering the staff that make her run as perfectly as a Swiss watch. This is balm for the senses, and true food for the soul.

Although the ship has been sympathetically updated (and at great expense) so much remains reassuringly familiar. The beautiful entrance at Crystal Cove, with its graceful waterfall and gorgeous, sinuously curved spiral staircase. The Cove bar has the best lemon drop martinis afloat, too.

The Bistro up above still has peerless Cappuccino, and the best Creme Brulee anywhere. From the Avenue Saloon, the soft, subtle tinkling of the piano is both instantly familiar and warmly welcoming. The clubby little enclave is, quite possibly, the most fun piano bar of any ship afloat.

I still get goosebumps walking into the plush, sun washed Palm Court at the top of the ship, with its curving wall of floor to ceiling windows that frame some of the most dramatic views that Mother Nature can lay on, from a stunning, blood red Santorini sunset, to the marvellous approach towards the fabled Manhattan skyline. Like everything else about the Crystal Symphony, this beautiful room is a harmonious marriage of space to grace. And, just like everywhere else on board, the furnishings are expansive, inviting, and a definite hazard to any kind of active intent. You have been warned.

CNV00151And yet, more than anything, the Crystal Symphony is a state of mind. It’s the anticipation of being looked after by a crack, attentive crew that personifies hospitality, twenty four hours a day. Coming back feels like being wrapped from head to toe in cashmere; the amount of open space, the lack of constant loudspeaker announcements- I could go on, but….

Alas, it is time for my lunchtime margarita. Then there’s a Jacuzzi session planned and- if I can drag myself out of the hot tub- a quick sortie to grab some of the delicious, free Ben and Jerry’s ice cream from the pool bar. Do I add jelly beans? Sprinkles? Both? This level of indolence is damned hard work.

Another warning; Crystal Symphony is seriously- and I mean seriously- addictive. She will put a smile on your face as wide as the Prairies, but she may leave your bank manager contemplating hara kiri. But you live once.

And that is the point; being on a luxury ship- any luxury ship- really defines the difference between truly living and merely existing. The difference is that the Crystal Symphony does it so easily, completely and flawlessly that you never realise until you leave.

CNV00191See you out there? Nice thought, lovely people. Hold on to that.

SCINTILLATING SINT MAARTEN

CNV00089Half Dutch, half French and totally alluring, St. Maarten (in Dutch) a.k.a St. Martin (French) is one of the most perennially popular mainstays on the Caribbean cruise circuit. Your first view of the place is a pointer as to why. St. Maarten is a stunningly lush smorgasbord of sight, sounds and vibrant colours, and they all combine to give this sun splashed little sliver of paradise a real feel good, funky vibe that is irresistible.

The islands of the Caribbean were coveted and fought over by the big European colonial powers- England, Spain, France, and Holland especially- for centuries. But St. Maarten was almost uniquely spared real violence, as the result of an amicable agreement between France and Holland to share the island. Today, St. Maarten is classed as a part of the French West Indies, along with nearby St. Barts, Mustique and Guadeloupe.

Like many islands in the eastern Caribbean, St. Maarten has a spine of low, rolling hills, carpeted in deep, rich shades of green, that dominate it from most angles. The beaches are the stuff of legend; blinding white expanses of dreamy, spun sugar sand edging gently into the electric blue hue of the Caribbean.

There’s the smell of fresh cooked jerk chicken, and the subtle lilt of reggae. Water taxis and slowly waving, impossibly tall palm trees. Screeching parrots and soaring para gliders. Jet skis and jewellers’ shops.

CNV00100The Dutch side of the 37 mile island is busier, and dominated by its capital, the pretty town of Philipsburg, where most of the big cruise ships dock. The shopping here is among the most comprehensive in the Caribbean now, with great bargains especially on electrical goods, leather and.the aforementioned diamond and tanzanite shops There are scores of restaurants lining the sand here, and numerous bars offering up cold beer and glorious, glacially frosty margaritas.

The most famous of all the island’s chill out spots is still Orient Beach, with its big hotels and separate nudist area. More high octane is Mako Beach, right on the edge of the airport runway. If you like the idea of the landing wheels of an inbound 757 almost kissing your hair, then this is definitely your kind of place.

Over on the French side, the pretty capital of Marigot is quieter, more chic, with lots of elegant little sidewalk cafes and a less frantic vibe. For lovers of good restaurants, the area around Grand Case will offer you the best of what is available locally, and in a quite spectacular setting.

CNV00105If you’re here for the day, it’s worth checking out the famous salt flats, not far from the centre of Phillipsburg. And if you want to try something really different, the chance to crew and sail a real, live America’s Cup yacht is a very definite adrenaline surge, and comes highly recommended.

Of course, you could just chill in a hammock, drink daiquiris, and listen to reggae, too. Peachy….

GRANDEUR OF THE SEAS FIRE PERSPECTIVE- RETURNS TO SERVICE JULY 12TH

CNV00181May 28th, 2013: Royal Caribbean have announced that Grandeur of The Seas will return to Baltimore today after the fire in the three deck mooring compartment at her stern. The line has also stated that all passengers on board will receive a complete refund on the cost of their cruise, plus a one hundred per cent value for a future cruise.  All passengers will be flown back to Baltimore from the Bahamas.

Passengers on the now cancelled May 31st departure will also receive a full refund, plus a fifty per cent cruise credit for any subsequent Royal Caribbean cruise.

It will be interesting to see the media reaction to what has been an almost text book master class in crisis management, both on board the ship herself and in the PR department of the company. CEO Adam Goldstein flew with a  team of specialists to meet the ship and talk to both passengers and crew. Royal’s PR department kept up a constant stream of immediate, almost real time information via Twitter, Facebook and other media outlets that took any guessing- and doubtless much potential for lurid speculation- out of the equation.

The fire itself appears to have been contained fairly quickly, within around two hours.  It was kept well away from any passenger cabins or public areas. The ship lost no motive power or back up support services, unlike the recent Carnival incidents that induced such a rabid media feeding frenzy.

This could play out slightly negatively in the short term; I expect a slew of hysterical headlines over ‘another’ cruise ship accident.

But, on the other side of the coin, the response from Royal Caribbean- at all levels- has been so wide ranging and effective that it should garner the line enhanced credibility. It is also worth noting that the rival Carnival Sensation stood by within hailing distance, ready to go to the aid of Grandeur if required. All credit to Carnival for being ready to assist if required, too.

Grandeur of The Seas is operating a programme of five to nine night Bermuda, Bahamas and Caribbean cruises from Baltimore through the year. The ship received a substantial renovation of her on board facilities in Cadiz in 2012.

There is no doubt that the next voyage- maybe even a few- will have to be cancelled while repairs are made. Having sailed Grandeur of The Seas in the past, I can attest to the fact that she is a very well run ship.

Here’s wishing fair seas and smoother sailing soon to a fine ship and her excellent crew.

UPDATE:

Royal Caribbean has just announced that the next six sailings of Grandeur of The Seas are cancelled as a result of the fire damage. The ship is anticipated to return to service on July 12th.

UPDATE II: 

Repairs to the fire damage sustained by Grandeur of The Seas have been completed, and the ship has returned to Baltimore.

She will host an overnight media cruise tonight (July 11th) before resuming normal, year round service from Baltimore, with the first sailing due to leave tomorrow.

The Vision-class Grandeur- extensively refurbished in Cadiz in 2012- has been out of action for six weeks, following a fire in her aft mooring cable compartment that necessitated a visit to the Grand Bahama shipyard for repairs.

MIDNIGHT CROSSING- SAILING FROM NEW YORK IN THE FIFTIES

ACTUAL LIBERTE

The magnificent Liberte setting sail on another Atlantic crossing

It’s near midnight in New York. Manhattan, on a balmy summer night in the mid- 1950’s, to be precise.

The French Line’s SS. Liberte is making ready to sail for Europe from Manhattan’s Pier 88. Fully booked, the ship is a mad rush of scarlet jacketed bellboys, delivering flowers, telegrams and cases of champagne to cabins already overflowing with hundreds of light hearted and laughing passengers. Last minute stores are coming aboard; valuables are being secured in the safes. Throngs of visitors mill around the palatial Art Deco interiors, their eyes as wide as saucers.

On the quay, mountains of baggage are being manhandled into the belly of the beast. Some people think nothing of sailing with sixty pieces of luggage for their extended European tours. A tidal wave of ambitious hacks turn the pier into a blazing neon dawn as each new limo swaggers up to the ship. Rumour has it that both Marilyn Monroe and Clark Gable are sailing tonight.

The quay fairly groans under the combined weight of an assorted fleet of Daimlers, Bentleys and Packards, delivering the stars of stage, screen and sport to the ship. The French Line has a reputation for food, service and sheer fun that is second to none; the Liberte has always been a magnet for the famous, the fussy, and the downright frivolous.

As sailing time, nears, an avalanche of brightly coloured paper streamers rain down from the Liberte’s decks to the crowd on the pier below, trailing an amazing technicolor splash along the length of the great liner’s soaring, floodlit flank. The siren roars out in the night; a deep, gut shaking boom.that reverberates in the humid, muggy air, before it disappears among midtown Manhattan’s steel and glass canyons of skyscrapers.

Then, almost imperceptibly at first, she gets under way, backing out gingerly into the darkened Hudson. Like puppies trying to move a dinosaur, a quintet of feisty Moran tugs push, pull and cajole the nine hundred foot hull, until she swings lazily around into the midstream. The muted throbbing of their engines forms a surreal backdrop to the cheers of the passengers, and the popping of an entire salvo of champagne corks.

Now the Liberte is pointed downstream, and the famed Manhattan skyline is off to port; a million twinkling lights that form an unforgettable backdrop. Cars barrel along Twelfth Avenue at breakneck speed, tooting and honking in salute, or just out of sheer impatience at the idiot in front of them. Clad in all her luminous finery, New York City never looked sweeter or finer than on this warm, summer night.

Row upon row of the Liberte’s deck lights shimmer bewitchingly on the ink black Hudson, so far below. Artfully concealed lighting at their bases makes her two huge, red and black funnels stand out in a glorious show of bravado. Between them, huge electric letters spell out her name for all to see.

LIBERTE

Forward now. Streamers flail skittishly against her flank as she slowly gathers way, like some mythical sea goddess, gliding out of an enchanted fairyland. The siren roars again, sundering the night air as the tugs back off respectfully, like courtiers bowing to a queen.

Pale green and floodlit, the Statue of Liberty bids farewell to the Liberte and her human cargo with sightless eyes as she makes her stately progress downstream. On board, the supper club opens, and Xavier Cugat’s Mambo Kings are laying down some blistering salsa in the Cafe De L’Atlantique.

It’s summer in the city, and another crossing to Europe is under way…

GOOOOOOD MORNING, ALBANIA!!!

CNV00090Travel sometimes throws you a curve ball. When that happens, you either duck the pitch or step up to the plate. At least, that was my take when we called into the port of Durres, Albania, on a cruise a couple of years ago.

Albania. What I know about the entire country could be summed up, in block capitals, on the back of a pygmy’s postage stamp. Enver Hoxha. Norman Wisdom. Erm…. that’s it.

Sealed from the west for decades since the Second World War, Albania sits looking out at the shores of Italy, a scant few hours away by ferry, as if it was some sun splashed version of North Korea, gazing sullenly out at the folks partying just across the street. It was originally occupied by Mussolini, as part of his ham fisted attempt at playing at being a modern Caesar. Once Il Duce lost his grip, the Germans moved in.

When the Germans retreated in October of 1944, the tidal wave of communism that swept the Balkans reached the sea here, at the Albanian coast. As a consequence, Albania became stuck in the stone age for decades to come.

Enver Hoxha ruled with complete autonomy, and poor Albania enjoyed neither the relative liberalism of Tito’s Yugoslavia, or the benefits of the fall of the Berlin Wall- and communism in general- at the end of the 1980’s. The entire country seemed to be stuck in a peculiar place, both in time and space.

CNV00089To be sure, I had only six hours’ ashore in the port of Durres, on Albania’s southern coast. So what follows is, of necessity, a snap shot. A hurried take. Yet such is Albania’s continued state of incubation from the west, and the travel market as a whole, that some of you may be quite surprised at the conclusions I drew.

Durres was chosen as a stop for the nearby UNESCO World Heritage site at Butrint. It was pouring down with rain and, coward that I am, I wasn’t going anywhere until it stopped. But I can report that those who made the journey to Butrint were suitably awed and impressed by what they saw.

So. Durres,,, an ugly industrial port of the finest kind. It was all rain lashed quaysides, festooned with mountainous piles of heavily sodden sand. The buildings had not seen paint since the late dear leader, Kim-Il Sung, had last seen sense. On the far side of the bay, an ancient destroyer sat tethered to a dock wall. I briefly toyed with the idea of taking a walk and getting a better look at this vintage ship, but I was unsure about how the twitchy local authorities might view such a sortie. I ducked back inside, and grabbed a cappuccino as the rain continued to drum the sodden wooden decks of the Athena,

Noon saw another furtive sortie on deck and, lo and behold, the rain had stopped. Perhaps my silent prayers to Mister Grimsdale had borne fruit after all.

CNV00095I walked off the ship, heading in the direction of the red and white mosque, with its spindly minarets that stabbed up at the gunmetal sky. It was Saturday afternoon, and the traffic was sporadic. And here came the first real shock.

First came a brace of asthmatic Skodas, put-putting furiously as they attempted one last run along a perfectly straight street. Dull red paint flapped around the wheel rims of one of them as it scuttled half heartedly along the road.

Next came a tuk-tuk that could have been lifted intact from any street in Bangkok, with its open box overflowing with sodden fruit that looked strangely unappetising right at that moment.

And then, to my amazement, a snow white Lamborghini cruised serenely past, looking like a supermodel strutting down Broadway. The immaculate white paint was almost dazzling. Purring like a contented baby cougar, it swished past the other troika of mobile near death experiences, before disappearing out of sight around the next bend,

And this, in so many ways, was what Durres was like. The ancient, the rambling, and the downright shambolic would suddenly be sidelined by some stunning, cutting edge piece of architecture. Nowhere was this more obvious than on the seafront promenade.

CNV00108The first impression was of a broad, sweeping seafront walkway; one that would not have been out of place anywhere on mainland Europe. Only closer inspection revealed that the dilapidated, deserted fairground rides were throwbacks to the sixties, with screaming, bright red astro cars that looked as if they had been lifted intact from an episode of The Jetsons.

Nearby was a public toilet of such indescribable filth that bombing it would probably have unleashed toxic pestilence across half of Europe. I don’t suppose the absence of any kind of roof helped very much, either.

And yet, the landward side revealed some beautifully manicured, obviously well cared for gardens, as well as some very chic waterfront bars and bistros, now closed against the onset of the coming autumn season (this was late September). Not many people were about, but those strolling about were smartly clad. I even got the occasional smile. These did not seem like sullen, downtrodden, or unfriendly people at all.

Albania’s history goes back to Roman times, and so did some of the cars by the looks of things. In the fifteenth century, the country found itself part of the empire of Venice. Both these ancient Italian colossi left their mark on Durres.

CNV00096There are stunted Roman columns that give off an eerie glow in the pale sunlight of an autumn afternoon, and ancient stone Venetian ramparts near the harbour that still jut aggressively out to sea. Walking around was a bit like peeling the layers from an onion; the things you saw just made you wonder how much more lay just under that grimy, beguiling facade. And yes, I found it fascinating…

By now, the autumn Adriatic swell was beginning to pound the walls of the promenade. Proof, as if proof were needed, that summer in Europe was truly at an end, and that it was time to batten down the hatches as winter approached these almost uncharted shores.

One thing the Albanians are big on is monuments. Hoxha seemed to think that ‘his’ people preferred concrete Stalinist monstrosities to bread. Tributes to local heroes echo the kind of brutal statuary that sprang up all over the tranche of Europe swallowed up in the Soviet yoke. But, even so, many have an immediacy, and a poignancy that made them all but impossible to ignore. Mussolini’s army had to fight hard for this country, and a nasty little guerilla war sprung up. The Italians behaved with great brutality, shooting many hostages. These are the heroes most often commemorated in this way.

And then, the tiled main street was yet another jarring contrast. Smart bars and cafes abounded, with outdoor patio furniture that would not have disgraced South Beach. Though I should add that the beer prices were a LOT cheaper than those in Miami.

Shops seemed reasonably well stocked, and anything but austere. Even when the rain returned with a vengeance just as dusk began to fall on the town, I found myself in no hurry to return to the welcoming warmth and light of the nearby Athena.

CNV00117Sure, you’ll find parts of Durres that look as if they have been bombed. But that’s also true of many port towns in far more developed countries than Albania. I think of Albania as a patient that is slowly coming out of a long, deep coma; it is scarred, shell shocked, and more than just a little insular and unyielding.

None of these facts should put you off visiting. The people are no more or less rude than anywhere else and, in general, are very kind and helpful. As with anywhere, go with an open mind, and perhaps a carefully concealed wallet or purse in some parts.

For sure, get there before the big cruise ships start calling on a regular basis. That will definitely come to pass. In fact, I give it ten years before that same, spectacular catastrophe of a promenade is indistinguishable from any other in the Adriatic.

Albania is not the Garden of Eden. But nor is it the Chamber of Horrors. Go see for yourself.

SHAPES OF SHIPS- FORM OVER FUNCTION?

CNV00013The argument is constant and ongoing. Why are modern cruise ships almost always unfailingly ugly, especially when compared to the classic liners that so many of us knew and loved? Do advances in technology go hand in hand with a general retreat into so many bland, soul-less stereotypes, breaking out over the oceans of the world like some incurable rash?

Well, yes. And you can put that down to a number of factors. One is the travelling public’s obsession with having balcony rooms at sea- something I am as guilty of as the next person- and the inevitable fact that the form of every ship is uniquely dictated by it’s function.

New hulls are jam packed with so many dazzling features these days. Many of them come across as a pastiche of a fantastic theme park, crossed with a shopping mall, that just happens to go to sea. A host of features, unheard of ten years ago, are now accepted as standard. Rock climbing walls, five storey high theatres, water parks; ice rinks and incredible themed bars are only some of the things that today’s cruise passengers just cannot seem to exist without.

No wonder Disney got into the game; they could see which way the tide was flowing.

CNV00181Ironically, their ships are some of the best looking afloat; classic modern interpretations of a timeless style. Add the demand for balcony cabins- artfully fanned by the cruise lines- and it is little real surprise that something had to give.

That ‘something’ was the beautiful and distinctive hull shapes that made those old liners such a joy to behold. Norway, QE2, Canberra and a handful of smaller, sylph-like sea goddesses set a standard for interior and exterior elegance that these modern ships could never dream to aspire to. Yet, timeless beauties that they were, each of these became increasingly outdated, as the travelling public lapped up a conga line of shiny new hulls, chock full of state of the art goodies and time killing diversions. Inevitably, stage presence and sheer charisma alone were just not enough to satisfy this new wave of cruising neophytes.

it is not so difficult to understand. The modern cruise passenger, cocooned in state of the art luxury and with every modern convenience to hand, is blissfully incapable of viewing the often ugly, hulking exterior in which those facilities are packaged. And nobody who has sampled a balcony cabin needs to be sold on the sheer delight of watching an amazing sunset from your own private bit of deck space, champagne at hand, or the simple pleasure of a sunny balcony breakfast, with perhaps a view of St. Maarten as a side order.

CNV00031However, there are some modern ships which seem to get it just about right. As well as the Disney ships, Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Sky are both big, amenity laden and- whisper it- extraordinarily beautiful.The stunning Crystal Symphony is arguably the most beautiful ship afloat anywhere, both inside and out. And not a rock wall to be found, either.

The brace of Seadream yachts are low slung, seagoing paradigms. They are the swans of the ocean; as expansive and luxurious as they are easy on the eye. The five original Silversea new builds are all true beauties, marred only for some by their squared off sterns. A look that makes them resemble supermodels burdened with backsides as large as the late Luciano Pavarotti.

But even here, it is function that dictates. Those same, squared off sterns allow for the expansive terrace restaurant so beloved of Silversea devotees. Including yours truly. There are few finer spots anywhere at sea to enjoy a beautiful outdoor breakfast, or a mellow martini at sunset.

And therein lies the truth. The fact that we simply cannot have it both ways. No one appreciates the lines of a beautiful ship more than I do and, while it remains perfectly true that I can live comfortably without a balcony cabin, the fact is that I prefer not to. A happy medium is hard to find here, and harder still to alchemise on the drawing board of the modern maritime architect.

CNV00036Owners want to shoe horn as much revenue generating space into these new hulls as possible. Combine that with the new safety and hygiene standards demanded of modern ships- standards undreamed of in the old days of the Mauretania, the Normandie and the Queen Mary- and you have, for want of a better phrase, a near perfect aesthetic storm.

Nostalgia intensifies this retrospective yearning. The current outwardly bland, uniform designs of modern ships do not endear themselves to those who love the traditional liners. Yet it is those self same ships that are attracting people to put to sea in numbers unheard of before.

It is a seagoing Catch-22 that many of us can ponder as we enjoy a last, lazy night cap on our balcony, with the peaceful, rolling ocean and a sky packed with stars for company. That kind of ageless, sea going beauty has never been open to debate.

And, traditionalists, remember this; when QE2 – rightly acknowledged by most as the very epitome of seagoing grace and elegance first made her debut, many regular Atlantic passengers loathed her boldness and modernity. She was not ‘their’ idea of what Cunard represented in their eyes. This argument gained renewed momentum, when QE2 lovers looked down at the new Queen Mary 2. Not quite ‘their’ kind of ship, either. And so it goes.

Yet still, we sail. And, in the end, we are still all wrapped up in the thrall of being at sea, just like legions of our forebears in the past. Endless voyages on a succession of constantly evolving hulls. Racing towards a horizon, a nirvana, that none of us can ever reach.

I think that we can, perhaps, all unite on that premise, and be thankful for it, too.

LOUIS CRUISES- LOOKING AHEAD

CNV00158Louis Cruises has settled into 2013 with an upgraded programme of three, four and seven day cruises in their home waters around the Greek islands and Turkey. But it is the itineraries for next winter that really mark out a different strategy for the Hellenic mainstay line.

The main programme of three and four day cruises operates out of Athens until November, with the Louis Olympia and Orient Queen taking pride of place. Each Friday, both ships set out on a mid morning departure that takes them to Mykonos that same evening, before arriving in Kusadasi on Saturday. The next morning finds them in Heraklion, Crete, during the morning, with a late afternoon, five hour stay over in Santorini. Both ships return to Athens on the Monday morning,; for these cruises, embarkation is also possible in Kusadasi as well.

The four day cruises depart on Monday morning, and again call in at Mykonos that same evening. Tuesday morning is spent in Kusadasi, and the afternoon and early evening showcases a call at Patmos.

Wednesday allows for a full day in Rhodes, and Thursday once again features a morning in Heraklion, and the evening in Santorini, before returning to Athens early on Friday morning. Once again, embarkation is possible in Kusadasi, as well as in Rhodes.

CNV00018Louis is also offering a few seven night cruises on the Orient Queen next month, also from Athens. These basically extend the four night trip by adding a welcome overnight stay in Mykonos, and a call in to sultry Istanbul. These itineraries can also be booked as round trips  from Istanbul as well.

Orient Queen then moves over to Cyprus, from where she will operate a series of two to five day cruises around the Greek Islands from Limassol.

But the really big splash comes this winter when, in association with Canada-based Cuba Cruises, Louis will send the Louis Cristal out to Cuba, to begin a series of seven night, round trip Caribbean fly cruises from December through April. Embarkation will be possible both in Havana, and in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Though the cruises are chartered, and mainly for the Canadian market, Louis will also be selling cabin space on board.

Even more surprising is the news that Orient Queen- soon to be renamed Louis Aura- will be sent to South America over the winter, to operate a series of cruises there. This represents a welcome contrast in a cruising arena that has been the sole preserve of the mega ships up until now. Having sailed on the ship last year, I can vouch for the fact that she is a perfect size for getting into the smaller, more secluded ports that the big ‘floating resorts’ have to bypass because of their size.

CNV00145Other welcome news is that next year will see the return of the popular Coral, under the new name of Louis Rhea. At present, she is expected to sail alongside the much larger Louis Olympia on the three and four day ‘greatest hits’ cruises of the Greek islands and Turkey.

I’ll be providing a more detailed look at the experience of cruising with Louis in the near future.

TIME OUT IN TORONTO

CNV00015There’s a popular old adage that sums up Toronto as ‘like New York run by the Swiss’. I’m not sure how that came about, but after two visits to Canada’s capital of cool, I’d actually say that it has much more in common with Boston than New York City.

Toronto is a fun place, with lots of good stuff going on. But it is not the dynamic, 24/7 metropolis that New York is. This is no criticism; far from it. From my point of view, it’s just simply putting the city in its proper perspective.

Obviously, the CN Tower is a must do. Even for someone who gets vertigo sitting on the edge of a kerb (yup, yours truly) the views from the top of the slowly revolving restaurant, some twelve hundred feet up, were absolutely thrilling.

CNV00003I wasn’t overly impressed by the food, but of course the real feast was being able to sit there, wining and dining, and watching the city far below your feet come alive in a neon blaze that flooded the horizon as far as you could see. Incredibly, there’s a wine cellar at that same level that contains no less than nine thousand bottles.

You can also go and stand on the glass floor (I declined, obviously), and the ascent and descent via the seemingly rocket propelled glass lifts on the outside of the tower is not for the faint of heart, either. But as an overall experience, it was still hugely enjoyable.

I also loved the shopping on Yonge Street- the exchange rate was decent at the time- and I also loved the fact that there are so many lakes actually flanking the edges of the city itself. Toronto is cool, clean and civilised but, inevitably, it’s greatest claim to fame means you have to leave the city behind.

CNV00062The journey out to Niagara Falls means passing through the genteel, chocolate box pretty region of Niagara on The Lake. It’s all kitschy, clapboard houses, with horse drawn carriages clopping past sturdy front porches, and window boxes overflowing with spectacularly vibrant blooms. The region even brews it’s own, totally individual ice wine. This is truly an acquired taste and, sorry to say, I didn’t acquire it.

But I did enjoy my helicopter foray out over the Falls, and hugely at that. This was even more surprising as I had to steel myself to make the ascent- that whole ‘heights’ thing again- and, of course, the entire front canopy of the ‘copter is constructed completely of perspex. But, once we got airborne, I was so enraptured of the staggering views of the Horseshoe Falls in particular, that I forgot my fears, and just snapped happily away.

CNV00106The entire flight lasted around six minutes, but it actually felt a whole lot longer. There was a lunch break in Niagara itself, a town so monumentally tacky and characterless that no words are truly derisory enough to do it justice. The best view of the town is when it is covered in the mist that often blankets this region. A Godsend in more ways than just one.

From there, it was time to see the Falls close up. Clad in a very fetching waterproof poncho, I took one of the fleet of Maid of The Mist boats that bumble out to the edges of the Falls themselves.

CNV00088At water level, the noise is indescribable. It’s a dull, muffled, continuous roar as a torrent of swirling grey water, flecked white with foam, thunders out over the precipice, and into the teeming maelstrom that we were bobbing along on. A fine, drizzly mist hung in the humid air like a damp blanket that slowly overwhelmed everything in its path. It’s a spellbinding little foray-completely safe- and it takes you over and also shows you the American side of the Falls. I was gobsmacked to see people actually walking along a path alongside the waterfront. They must have been drenched.

Later, back up on the green fields of the ever lovely Niagara, I watched like an awestruck kid as a gorgeous, graceful rainbow arced over the thundering miasma down below. I think it just took me by surprise, but it was just such a warm, uniquely wonderful moment. As if the Gods were smiling on this day of stunning sights and high adventure.

CNV00120I flew home after a couple of more days in Toronto, safe in the knowledge that I would surely have to return again, though obviously not in the winter. Oh, no. I’m strictly a patio season boy, I am….

MUSIC AT SEA- THEME CRUISES FOR ALL TASTES

CNV00018One of the big growth areas in cruising over recent seasons has been in the selling of themed musical cruises, aimed at specific genres and tastes. Some of these are runaway successes, others not quite so much.

Not so long ago, Carnival had a runaway success with their first themed cruise, featuring the reformed line up of New Kids on The Block. This was judged to be such a success that the line intends to repeat the exercise next year.

Not to be outdone, rivals Royal Caribbean have hosted several short, themed musical cruises to the Bahamas, featuring acts such as the Dave Matthews band. Closer to home, and further back in time, Cruise and Maritime recently hosted a cruise featuring the full Syd Lawrence orchestra.

Keen to ramp up their presence in the American market, MSC Cruises recently hosted a five day run to Cozumel and Grand Cayman, and thoughtfully brought along the Moody Blues for the ride.

But, truth be told, few lines do this kind of thing better than suave, sassy Crystal. Their transatlantic crossings usually have a big band and/or swing theme. One this March- aboard Crystal Serenity- featured the entire Glenn Miller orchestra. Smaller sibling, Crystal Symphony, usually offers one or two jazz-themed round trip cruises per year, from Los Angeles to the Mexican Riviera, or northwards to San Francisco and breezy Santa Barbara.

But the daddy of all big band cruises used to be offered by Norwegian, back in the mid eighties. Each October, the enormous Norway would embark a whole retinue of jazz greats, including the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, for a week long, floating jazz festival that acquired almost cult status. This is much missed, and sorely overdue for a revival.

CNV00093I don’t know about you, but personally I’d like to see a Soul and Motown themed cruise, with the disco given over entirely to the sounds that defined two decades; the sixties and the seventies. I think that any line that organised such a cruise would have a sell out trip on their hands, especially over in the USA. Just humour us for one week a year, and then the disco can go back to it’s normal, lethargic clunk-boom sound track….

P&O manages to show some real panache by snagging the likes of Russell Watson for the odd short cruise. Alas, most of the ‘named’ entertainers hired by many lines are so far over the hill that you couldn’t lift them back up without a crane.

Still, different strokes for different folks. And it remains true that one man’s Celine Dion is another man’s Cruella de Ville.

OK. Maybe more than one…..

UK MINI CRUISES- TASTY LITTLE BITES

CNV00002If time is tight and you want a short break that won’t break the bank, why not consider a short mini cruise? Sailing from a host of UK ports on pretty much a year round basis, you can get a much needed fix of fun and luxury that can last from anything between two and five days. There are some truly amazing options out there, with prices to match.

Fred. Olsen’s more traditional, intimate ships offer a series of short jaunts over to ports such as pretty Honfleur, where their smaller size makes it easier to get alongside. The ships have excellent food and service, and a human scale that makes getting around relatively quick and easy. And, for a touch of real class, the flagship Balmoral has two beautiful, upper deck restaurants- Avon and Spey- that are among the nicest afloat. They also have a large number of single cabins at no supplement.

Similar sized ships are run by relative newcomers Cruise and Maritime, who organize a number of short, themed cruises through the year, plus the occasional, one night repo trip between, say, Edinburgh and Tilbury. These are an ideal way of getting a feel for a new ship. The elegant, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo is a long standing favourite, with her gorgeous, sweeping curved terraces and trim, traditional lines. She also boasts a trio of upper deck Jacuzzis that look out over the stern; ideal for afternoon cocktails, or just as good as a vantage spot for sail away from scenic masterpieces like Antwerp.

Long standing and immaculately styled, P&O have cottoned on to the concept of the short cruise break. Some of their sailings offer overnight stays in Amsterdam, and showcase some excellent entertainment, with artists such as Russell Watson on board. The ships are a lot bigger, with a greater range of facilities, and some sumptuous, first rate spas, as well as a number of alternative dining venues. Needless to say, you’ll find a much higher ratio of balcony cabins on these ships, if that’s something you can’t live without. Other typical ports of call might include Guernsey and Le Havre.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven Cunard have gotten in on the act. Both Queen Victoria and the new, nattily attired Queen Elizabeth offer two to five day breaks, over to Zeebrugge and back, or further afield to Hamburg. These are ideal sampler cruises, either to get the feel of a very different kind of cruising, or simply as a welcome top up for those already enamoured of the Cunard style. And, several times a year, even the celebrated flagship Queen Mary 2 makes a number of one way, two night runs between Southampton and Hamburg, or vice versa. It’s an ideal way to get the feel of what is a truly iconic ship. Tip; book cruise only, and fly out or back on one of the budget carriers like Easyjet. You’ll usually save quite a bit over the air/sea prices offered by Cunard itself.

Whichever line you travel with, you’ll find a style, value and price point that no equivalent land based hotel could ever hope to match. Add in the convenience of a sealed, safe environment, and the allure of seeing one or two different ports of call, and the attraction is pretty self evident. The lines all know that today’s short haul guest might be tomorrow’s much longer stay passenger, so you can expect some serious pampering. And, let’s face it, you’re so worth it.

So, there you go. What’s not to love?