BRAVING BARCELONA- TIME OUT IN THE GEM OF CATALONIA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe first thing to know about Barcelona is that it is a fabulous, swaggering brew of the ancient and the modern. It’s a beautiful, breezy slice of life, exhilarating and elegant at the same time. The whole city exudes style, sophistication and sheer class.

The second thing you need to know is to beware the pickpockets that operate along the Ramblas. These are highly skilled and fast on their feet, and the unsuspecting will often pay in more ways than just one. Beware bag snatchers, especially around the area where people board the coaches that go direct to the airport. Being alert will save you a lot of grief.

Also worth bearing in mind is the the locals do not really identify as being native Spaniards. This region of Catalonia has long demanded autonomy from Spain, a process given more momentum by Franco’s brutal treatment of the former nationalist stronghold after his victory in the civil war. The bulk of the people today see themselves as Catalans first and foremost.

So, with those primers in mind, and assuming time is tight. here’s some things you should definitely check out in the Catalan capital of cool.

Sagrada Familia: It’s a church, not a cathedral. Gaudi’s still incomplete masterpiece- he once sideswiped a detractor by pointing to the sky and telling them that his client ‘was in no particular hurry’- dominates the skyline of the city. A magnificently intricate, gingerbread confection, it is topped by a quartet of quirky, spindly spires. The overall impact is quite staggering, and certainly not to be missed.

La Rambla: The broad, pedestrian sweep of the Ramblas is overflowing with flower sellers, mime artists, and open air cafes that mushroom along its entire length. The entire length is a living, vibrant slice of Catalonia life, with a constant procession of all human life striding in both directions. Take time out for some tapas, or a glass of cava. As I mentioned earlier, beware of the pickpockets.

Montjuic: Take a cable car ride over to the hilltop that overlooks the city. The original Olympic Stadium is here, and the views out down over the harbour are Olympic standard, too. The whole area is a kind of genteel green lung; a nice alternative to the teeming, tremendous pace of the city spread out below you. Highly recommended.

Barcelonetta: This is the port area, just past the Columbus Monument at the foot of the Ramblas. Completely reanimated for the 1992 Olympic Games, it now boasts a fantastic yacht marina, a string of open air cafes strung out along a breezy seaside promenade, and a gorgeous, expansive beach of light umber toned sand. The perfect place to simply kick back with a long, lazy lunch, or a zesty margarita.

Whatever you do during your time here, I dare say that one visit will not be enough. Barcelona really is magical, and quite uniquely captivating.

WINTER CRUISES IN THE MED- THE PROS AND CONS

CNV00073One of the major growth areas for sea travel in the past few years has been in the gradually increasing number of winter cruises in the Mediterranean. Originally limited to the warmer waters around Egypt and Israel, the trend has now spread to the western extremes of the region. The famous, seven day ‘Meddy-go-rounds’ of the summer season have now become a permanent, year round fixture.

Companies like MSC and Costa really dominate this trade. In the last few years, Norwegian has also done well by placing a pair of ships in the region year round. Most of these cruises depart from Venice, Rome and Barcelona, and last from between seven to twelve days.

What are the advantages? Well, there are far smaller crowds, which makes sightseeing a lot easier than in the summer heat. Temperatures are a lot milder- indeed, some days verge on the downright chilly- so heat exhaustion is not going to be a big issue.

You’ll usually benefit from cheaper air fares as well over the pre- Christmas/post New Year period. If you’re putting your own package together, you’ll probably find better hotel prices at this time of year, also.

The cons? Back to the weather. It can be rainy and unpredictable. Sudden, high swells might mean that your ship is unable to get into a port that’s on the itinerary. The same conditions might also result in the cancellation of certain tender ports, too.

If you must get your fix of winter sun, consider a Canary Islands cruise from either Barcelona, Malaga or Genoa. Mother sun will almost certainly smile upon you as you amble among those blinding, sun washed little slices of paradise; but be aware that those same islands are out in the Atlantic; an ocean famed for its unpredictable moods and swings. It can turn into a rock and roll themed cruise at any given moment.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe ships of MSC and Costa feature lido pool areas with a sliding glass roof overhead, that still permits you to enjoy the whole Mediterranean vibe of la dolce vita even when the weather is not kind. The ships are often crowded, noisy and endearingly chaotic, with upwards of seven or eight different nationalities on board. By and large, they are good natured melting pots. Just don’t expect English to be always the most spoken language.

If most of this intrigues you rather than irritates, then winter cruising in the Med is definitely the way to go. Perceived ‘cons’ are often a lot less troublesome if you do your homework first. So just get out there, and enjoy yourself.

NEW ENGLAND IDYLLS

CNV00013Something marvellous happens along the length of the St. Lawrence seaway each autumn. As the seasons change, a vast carpet of slowly reddening leaves blankets the pine forests that march silently down to the banks of the river on both sides.  The air becomes cooler, yet somehow sharper and more intense.

Mother Nature reserves one of her most spectacular floor shows for this time of year, and the only way to get a grandstand view- quite literally- is to take a slow, meandering cruise that brings you up close and personal with the small communities, as well as the teeming cities, that line this ancient, much travelled waterway.

These voyages usually start in the most spectacular way possible, with a night time departure from New York. Clad in its own coat of brilliant, shimmering lights, the fabled skyline never fails to make the adrenaline run faster. Just add some glacially chilled Moet, and you’re off to a stupendous start.

You might amble into amiable, patrician Boston, or sturdy Halifax, with its clapboard houses, fishing fleets, and historic links to the Titanic. Other cruises stop off at breezy, yacht studded Newport. But the real voyage begins once you enter the St. Lawrence proper.

Vast, jagged rock formations loom sharp against a petrol blue sky. The banks nearby are swathed in serried tiers of deep, dark pine trees in a hundred shades of green that slope down to the water’s edge. The water is as still and impassive as the face of a mirror.

The odd whale or two might breast the surface of these same waters when you least expect it. Eagles wheel overhead in the noonday sun. Little fishing boats fuss upstream. The whole scene is like some incredible, random canvas that you project your own moods onto; vibrant, multi-hued, and headily spectacular.

Most cruises end in chic, sassy, French accented Quebec. It’s a spectacular moment as your ship rounds a bend in the river, and the great city sprawls across your entire field of vision. Dominated by the vast Gothic confection of the famous Chateau Frontenac hotel, this is easily the most European accented city on the entire American continent.

Stroll the breezy expanse of the Dufferin Terrace, and savour cool jazz at one of the cosy cafes that line the winding, cobbled lanes of the old town. Enjoy excellent seafood and the fabulous, free wheeling vibe of this charismatic, civilized old world outpostCNV00007.

There’s a lot to be said for cruising New England in the fall. And; best news of the lot is that it’s all good.

ENIGMA- THE PROLOGUE TO DISASTER

CNV00004It was the biggest single building project on the planet since the Great Pyramid at Giza. For three years, more than fifteen thousand sweating, swearing Irishmen laboured to bring it to life from the very mud of Belfast. It grew over freezing winters and through searing hot summers. As it grew, it loomed over the entire city skyline.

Gradually, it took shape; an enormous steel cathedral, twelve storeys high and almost nine hundred feet long, crouching at the edge of the River Lagan. In the offices of the Harland and Wolff shipyard, the monster bore the official number of ‘401’.

The world would come to know her by her true name. Titanic.

Everything about her seemed on a biblical scale. It took a team of sixteen cart horses to drag her twenty ton centre anchor through the streets of Belfast. The four funnels, each seventy feet high, were wide enough for twin locomotives to pass through at the same time. More than three million rivets were hammered home into the gleaming, black and white hull.

On board went one of the first ever squash courts to go to sea. There was a full set of Turkish Baths, and a swimming pool. An upper deck gym and a fifty phone switchboard. Five baby grand pianos and an enormous, seven storey grand staircase. Carved from oak and mahogany, it was topped off with an enormous, glass and wrought iron dome. If that cathedral had an altar, then this was surely it.

The details were just as sublime. One of the musicians was poached from the orchestra of the London Ritz. The name was picked out in simple, three foot high golden letters, etched into the hull. A vast wine cellar was loaded aboard months before her propellers ever turned, in order that it could settle properly.

Each of the four funnels was evenly spaced, and raked at an angle of thirty degrees- the same as the two masts- to create a stunning silhouette, one probably unmatched to this day. The fourth funnel was a dummy; it was there for the sole reason of giving the ship an attractive, balanced profile.

On a fine spring day in April 1912, all of this magnificence came swaggering out of Southampton, bound across the Atlantic for a gala maiden reception in New York. Fire floats and sirens; the full panoply afforded by America to visiting royalty.

On board were people with nothing but the shirts on their backs; a desperate mix of nationalities throwing everything on the gamble of a new life in the new world. In first class, there was the biggest single collection of movers and shakers ever seen in one place at the same time; railroad owners and property tycoons; film stars and the filthy rich. Sports stars, lords and ladies. Even the world tennis champion. Their pet dogs travelled in a style that most people would have gasped at.

This pretty balloon burst with an almighty bang. Just before midnight on Sunday, April 14th, the side of the Titanic glanced against a half submerged iceberg for around thirty seconds or so. The salt water assassin stabbed, punched and gouged open around three hundred feet of the hull.

The steel plates of the Titanic crumpled like so much rice paper. She went from ‘unsinkable’ to un-saveable in less than the blink of an eye.

The rest of the story is shockingly familiar. The pathetic, hopelessly inadequate armada of half filled lifeboats tottered one by one down the floodlit flanks of the Titanic in a series of erratic, convoluted jerks. Up above, a gaggle of pale white distress rockets clawed desperately at a sky packed with literally thousands of stars. They burst in showers of futile white sparks above the brilliantly lit, slowly sagging sea monster as the cold water remorselessly devoured her innards.

On the sloping decks, there was the desperate, jaunty sound of ragtime as Wallace Hartley and his impromptu musical combo sawed gamely away at their own, immortal requiem. In the wireless room, the urgent, spluttering spark of the distress messages flooding the air had a desperate tempo all of their own.

The end was apocalyptic. Titanic plunged under the ocean at 2.20 on the morning of Monday, April 15th 1912. She left behind sixteen hundred souls, upended into the freezing  ocean, thrashing and gasping desperately as they flailed for their lives. And, no more than a mile or so away, the armada of half filled boats sat back and did mostly nothing, perhaps justifiably afraid that they would be swamped. Wives in those boats shut their eyes and ears, as their husbands expired within screaming distance. Between them, those lifeboats had almost five hundred empty seats.

These are just some of the reasons why the story of the Titanic continues to clutch at the human heart like a vice. Her sinking was the first major news story of the media age, and it hit home with all the force of a hydrogen bomb.

The shock effect was seismic. Combine 9/11, the Concorde crash and the death of Princess Diana, and you get some idea of the impact of the Titanic disaster. It was not just the ship herself, but the idea of everything she represented; the notion that the correct appplication of wealth and technology could somehow achieve anything. And she took most of her platinum chip, A-list passengers to the bottom with her; people who were known the world over.

The stock market plunged to the bottom straight after her. But it was not simply a matter of wiping out wealth. In the country of her birth, the sinking of the Titanic induced something close to a kind of national nervous breakdown; one which it is only really emerging from now, after all these years. The shadow of the Titanic looms over Belfast to this day, just as it did through all the years of violence, bigotry and hatred.

it is a story so unlikely and implausible that it still defies belief even now. The combined talents of Steven King, Jules Verne, George Lucas and Hans Christian Andersen could never have conjured up a story as unbelievable as the all too real truth about the Titanic. She sails on in our minds to this day. Fuelled by a mixture of horror, fascination and sheer, fatal glamour, she charges heedlessly across our minds towards her chilling rendezvous near midnight; a spellbinding beauty, ablaze with light from end to end.

Her story was one of the great landmark events that defined the last century. It is right up there with the assassination of JFK, and the deaths of Marilyn Monroe and James Dean. In the doomed icon stakes, the Titanic is every inch their equal; a kind of twentieth century Flying Dutchman, with interiors by Cesar Ritz.

Just over a hundred years on, it is little wonder that this endless, deathless voyage still lacks only an ending. An ending it can never truly have. The maiden voyage of this sumptuous, self destructive diva shows no signs of running out of steam.

In the articles to come, we’ll look at a raft of different aspects of this tremendous corner stone of modern history. Ladies and Gentlemen- welcome to Titanic…

A TYPICAL DAY ABOARD TITANIC; A FIRST CLASS TRIP ACROSS THE ATLANTIC

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When building the Olympic and Titanic, the White Star Line and Harland and Wolff went out of their way to create ships that provided a vast amount of space and comfort, far more than any rival then afloat. As might be expected, this showed up nowhere more so than in first class.

The two sisters were half as large again as their nearest rivals, the Cunard liners Lusitania and Mauretania. Those record breaking legends could cross the Atlantic in five days, but they were known as snappy rollers in any kind of bad weather. The Atlantic had bad weather in spades.

With Olympic and Titanic, White Star opted for slower, steadier ships that could make the crossing in six days. In effect, they eschewed speed for comfort and steadiness. And the sheer scale of the new ships allowed them to create unparalleled passenger spaces, both indoors and out.

A full two thirds of their vast interior spaces were given over to the 750 first class passengers. This included suites, cabins, and the most luxurious range of public rooms that had ever gone to sea. First class had the sole use of a salt water indoor swimming pool and an adjacent set of Turkish Baths, complete with masseuse. There was also a racket ball court nearby and, on the upper deck, a fully equipped gymnasium, facing out over the ocean.

There was a library, a smoking room and a barber’s shop. In an age where phones were still a relative novelty, the Titanic had a fifty phone switchboard. For those personal valuables too big for the purser’s room, there was an enormous, bank sized vault down on G-Deck, with walls of Belfast steel fully a foot thick. It is still down there.

There was a small garage and, irony of ironies, a huge ice making machine. Stenographers were available; there was even a florists.

The main dining room was joined by a separate, a la carte option, and a pair of veranda cafes that looked out over the ocean. Unique to the Titanic was the Cafe Parisien, the first real night club at sea. Full of wicker furnishings and climbing wall plants, it was a definite attempt to put a little bit of Europe into the heart of a British liner. One would be added to the Olympic in her massive, post Titanic disaster refit.

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

Inside, the ships tended to have lighter, less heavily panelled spaces than the Cunarders. Combined with the sheer scale of these rooms, it gave Olympic and Titanic a feeling of almost endless, spectacular space. Casual luxury was very much the order of the day. Of the four elevators, the three forward ones were exclusively for the use of first class passengers.

The single remaining elevator was the preserve of second class; the first time on any ships that such a facility had been provided. As for third class, they were simply expected to walk to where they needed to go. Needless to say, their quarters were mere shades of the sumptuous show pieces up top.

Titanic left Southampton on schedule at noon on Wednesday, April 10th, and called in for passengers and mail at Cherbourg that same evening. The next day found her briefly at anchor off Queenstown in Southern Ireland, where her last passengers came on board. While she was there, some local traders were allowed on board to set up a temporary market. Two hours later, the big liner was skirting the coast of Southern Ireland. As twilight fell, she stood out into the reddening Atlantic, and the voyage proper could really begin.

The Titanic was less than half full in first class. As was normal, each of the 322 first class passengers was given a booklet, explaining the ship’s routine, and the services available to them on board the ‘Floating Ritz’. They were also given a first class passenger list to browse; in this case, it was some twenty-eight pages in all.

The bars aboard Titanic opened at half eight in the morning, and closed- in theory- at eleven thirty at night.They had two sets of musicians to entertain them; a five man band led by the soon to be immortal Wallace Hartley, and a separate trio that played mainly in the reception room before dinner, and later in the Cafe Parisien.

They could use the new fangled Marconi wireless to send telegrams to anywhere in America, via the great transmitting station at Cape Cod. Ten words for 8s 4d, extra words sixpence each, address and signature for free. Up on the broad sweep of the promenade deck or outside on the boat deck, a deck chair could be hired, at four shillings for the entire crossing.

Downstairs, the racket ball court could be rented for two shillings per half hour session; this included the services of the resident professional, Fred Wright. He did not survive the sinking.

CNV00004Somewhere in that booklet, White Star took the precaution of intimating to it’s clients that certain professional card sharps were in the habit of crossing the Atlantic, hoping to make a killing. On that score at least, the Titanic would not disappoint.

On the back of the same booklet was a map of the Atlantic, and the information that the Titanic was expected to make thirteen round trip voyages to New York in 1912. Her first eastbound crossing, scheduled to sail from Manhattan on April 20th, was booked solid.

On the Atlantic crossing, successive days at sea tend to blend into each other. There was none of the round the clock entertainment that passengers expect now as their right. But on the maiden voyage of Titanic, many of the passengers were entertainment enough in their own right.

Fifty-eight millionaires were booked in the gilded glamour of first class. There were railroad owners and newspaper barons, movie stars and sporting icons; presidential aides and society matrons. Decorated military men and the simply obscenely rich of two continents. There were fashion house owners, steel barons, and a smattering of lords and ladies (though the British aristocracy continued to favour the Lusitania and Mauretania) as well as the odd art collector.

There was also an extraordinary menagerie of seven pampered pooches, housed in seriously swanky kennels. All things considered, it was a high rolling, demanding lot, and the crew would certainly have had their work cut out to keep them happy.

Maybe that is why Captain Smith cancelled the normal lifeboat drill. It was due to be held on that fateful Sunday morning but, for reasons we’ll never know, he decided not to go ahead with it.

By this time, a pretty agreeable vibe permeated the entire ship. The Titanic was two thirds of the way to America, and performing quite beautifully. The sea was incredibly calm. It had been like a millpond since the ship sailed. Surviving crew veterans later said that they had never seen such a continuous, calm sea on any crossing.

The sun shone continually, but the ship’s progress across the ocean generated a breeze that made it too cold to sit outside for very long. Inside, stewards patrolled the indoor promenades with carts of hot soup, and wrapped blankets around anybody who wanted them.

CNV00006Under this kind of subtle daily conditioning, a kind of pampered stupor overwhelmed the passengers on board the Titanic like some kind of sleeping sickness. When combined with the breezy complacency of the Captain and his officers- not to forget the owner- it created a fatal cocktail that went a long way towards numbing those same passengers to any sense of danger. So, when mortal peril came knocking that April night, the initial reaction was a mixture of confusion, disbelief and, in some cases, simple denial.

And that explains a huge amount of what happened as the ghastly black comedy- the sinking of the Titanic- unfolded. Anything-anything at all- seemed more likely and believable than the simple, fatal truth.

SWINGING TOWARDS SINGLES- A SEA CHANGE IN ATTITUDES (Updated)

CNV00002For years, most cruise lines have treated single passengers like pariahs, subjecting them to exorbitant extra occupancy supplements, and often pigeon holing them into the least desirable areas of real estate on board ship. But, at last, it looks like things are starting to slowly change…..

Recently, P&O’s Ventura emerged from a dry dock that shoe horned some eighteen inside cabins into the ship, bringing her neatly up to scratch with her sister ship, Azura. Not so long ago, the veteran Oriana had a small number of single cabins added, in a similar refit.

While the number of single passengers has been steadily growing, the mainstream lines traditionally reacted by simply hiking up their single supplements. To the great surprise of nobody with a surplus of brain cells, these would be travellers simply voted wit their feet.

The real game changer came in 2010, when the heavily revamped Norwegian Epic finally arrived on the scene. Chief among the ship’s controversial raft of new features was an entire complex of tiny, inside solo rooms- or studios as the company calls them. Fitted out with funky lighting and their own, dedicated lounge, this studio complex was a huge hit from the start.

Many in the industry were taken aback to find just how well these small rooms- around a hundred square feet each- actually sold. Demand was such that a similar, smaller complex was installed in the brand new Norwegian Breakaway. The 2014 debut of sister ship, Norwegian Getaway will also showcase a similar complex, bringing affordable single living spaces to the Miami run for the first time ever.

Norwegian have also just installed some studio cabins into the refurbished Pride Of America, though whether the trend will be across the rest of the fleet is unclear. However, what is clear is that the success of the concept has caught on with the opposition.

Next year, Royal Caribbean will debut the much anticipated Quantum Of The Seas. For the first time, Royal will incorporate single cabins into the design. But the company is going one further; for the first time, a mega ship will showcase single cabins with balconies. A wonderful idea, but not quite as original as it in fact seems.

CNV00002Long the preferred UK carrier of older, single passengers, Fred. Olsen retrofitted most of their ships with at least a clutch of single balcony cabins a few years back. Almost uniquely, the line has always offered a decent number of single cabins on most cruises, albeit mostly insides.

Next year, the line will go one better, with a series of cruises where twin cabins can be booked at no single supplement. In the main, these tend to be on longer cruises, but there are some astonishing bargains to be had.

Rival company. Cruise and Maritime aslo offers some dedicated single cabins, but the supplements for these come in at around a hundred per cent in any event. A rethink here might yield more positive passenger numbers.

Kudos should also go to Costa, who pegged single supplements at a pretty reasonable thirty per cent a few years back. In a similar vein. MSC have also offered- and continue to offer- some excellent single bargains for those travelling solo.

Typically, the solo supplement for a double cabin is around fifty per cent for insides, graduating to a full hundred per cent for the best suites. No one could realistically complain about the latter, in all fairness. But single supplements on some lines are still way too high.

Worst offender is, unquestionably, Cunard. They ask an eye watering seventy five per cent extra, even for inside cabins. This is both bad publicity for the line and, ultimately counter productive when the opposition charges a lot less. Why pay that much extra for what is, effectively, a three class ship, when you can pay a lot less for more egalitarian lines such as Celebrity? It makes no sense to me.

CNV00085It’s doubly ironic still, when you consider that the veteran QE2 had a number of small single cabins. In the current financial climate, my guess is that the single supplement as it is, is ultimately unsustainable, and will probably go the way of the old dress codes.

Of course, the true solution is to follow those lines now building, or retrofitting their ships with single cabins. They take up little enough space, respond positively to an obviously growing market, and more or less guarantee a solid, constant revenue stream. Accountants need to listen more to passengers, and liaise better with designers.

The end result would, I’m sure, work for pretty much everybody.

Update:

Since this post was first written, Cunard has installed a small group of eight, inside and outside cabins aboard the Queen Elizabeth. It’s a small start, but still a welcome one.

VENICE THE MENACE; TAKING THE STING OUT OF LA SERENISSIMA

ImageThere’s no question that Venice ranks as one of the must see cities of the world. It is beautiful, intoxicating, crowded, smelly and, in parts, hideously expensive, The entire city is Renaissance overkill on a massive scale.

And the locals know their turf, too. Machiavelli himself would have beamed with pride at some of the tactics and double-speak used by modern Venetian pirates to separate the humble tourist from his or her hard earned dollars/pounds/euros. And, despite rumours to the contrary, not all of these modern day pirates are in command of gondolas, either.

With that in mind, here’s some tips aimed at making life just a bit easier for those staying, or even simply transiting through this beautiful, sumptuous sea city.

Landing at Marco Polo airport, and travelling into central Venice? A water taxi is an expensive gig, unless there are a few of you travelling together. For a lot less, you can take one of the water buses- also known as vaporetto- into the city centre.

The journey takes over an hour, but there is no more thrilling introduction to the epic, sweeping grandeur of the city as it opens out along both banks of the sinuous, winding waterway. It’s more expensive- and, frankly, often less convenient- than taking a direct airport bus to Piazzale Roma but, if you’re only ever going to be in Venice once, then this is the grand, spectacular entry that will always stay in your memory.

If you’re finishing a cruise in Venice, book an extra night’s post cruise hotel. Venice is the busiest turn around port in Europe and, on arrival day, thousands of passengers find themselves flung into the maelstrom of the city, often with hours to kill before their departure flights, which are usually mid to late afternoon, or early evening in some cases.

Be aware; Marco Polo airport does not allow check in until two or three hours prior to flight departure. The airport is hopelessly small for the thousands that will be left milling around there for several hours. There is nowhere to sit comfortably, and certainly nowhere to check your luggage. If at all possible, you will want to avoid this like the plague. Or indeed, the Black Death.

There are various ways of doing this; some cruise lines, notably Norwegian, arrange excursions in Venice that show you the highlights of the city after you disembark, and then transfer you and your bags safely to the airport at a much kinder hour. It’s cost over convenience here, but it has to be said that many people like this option.

After debarkation, there are left luggage lockers at the cruise terminal, but you will have to be mighty quick on your feet to get in here. The demand far outweighs the supply.

The luggage lockers at nearby Santa Lucia railway station, at Ferrovia, might be a better bet. But just remember that there are also hordes of passengers arriving and leaving by train from here; there’s no guarantee that you’ll find room to store your bags for the day. And, at either port or railway station, lining up to check luggage in really eats into whatever remaining downtime you have in Venice. It’s not a good way to spend your last day.

These are all reasons why I recommend pre-booking a hotel for your last day. It might not be cheap, but it certainly takes all the stress out of your departure. And- with the glut of cruise ships setting back out on their next seven day Meddy-Go-Rounds, your journey to the airport next day should be an easier, altogether more hassle free experience.

Airport buses arrive and depart from Piazzale Roma. It’s an easy, twenty five minute stroll from San Marco if you’re not encumbered with a mountain of luggage. Buses from here go to both Marco Polo airport, and the much smaller Treviso, about an hour away. This smaller airport is used by Ryanair for budget flights. Rival Easyjet uses Marco Polo, as do the bulk of the scheduled, so called ‘legacy carriers’.

Arriving into either airport, you buy your bus tickets at booths at the airport exit. It’s about a euro cheaper to buy a return ticket. In any event, the journey is pretty much hassle free in both directions.

If you’re embarking in Venice and travelling light, take the People Mover from Piazzale Roma to the cruise terminal. Cost is one euro either way and, though you’ll still have some walking to do at the end (around 5-10 minutes) it’s a lot cheaper than taking a cab. The same applies on disembarkation, but it will probably resemble much more of a rugby scrum.

Things to do on your last day? Here’s some personal recommendations:

1) Take a water bus to Venice Lido. The beach will amaze you. The feeling of disconnect from sultry, teeming Venice is total. And it’s beautiful, too.

2) Enjoy a glass of Prosecco outside the Carlton Hotel, on the Grand Canal. The roof top terrace offers stunning views, but street level is perfect for people watching at its finest.

3) Just wander between Piazza San Marco and Piazzale Roma on foot, and go with the flow. It’s the real way to discover Venice. Just jump in (though best not into the canals).

4) Minutes to kill before heading for the airport? There’s a fabulous ice cream place straight opposite the bus station at Piazzale Roma, with numerous flavours of flawless gelato- perfect for that last fix of Bella Italia.

Well folks- I hope this helps. Venice is, indeed, a teeming, tremendous place, totally thrilling, and a tiny bit scary for the uninitiated. Enjoy, and don’t try to do everything. You can’t.

The trick is to enjoy what you do. Happy travelling!

REMEMBERING CANBERRA- SOME PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS

ImageI doubt that few cruise ships are as loved or mourned as the late, great SS. Canberra. She had a following that verged from loyal to fanatical and, indeed, she still does. Her game changing role in the Falklands War earned her the nickname of the ‘Great White Whale’, What follows are just a handful of recollections from sailing aboard her.

I did two cruises aboard the Canberra; the first was a seven night run down to Madeira and Vigo in the summer of 1985. Her paintwork was an absolute disgrace at the time. It looked as if she had just come back from the Falklands. To call her exterior ‘shabby’ is by no means an understatement.

The second trip was ten years later; a short, three day cruise over to Le Havre and Cherbourg in an unfeasible, balmy October 1995. This time, the proud old girl was immaculate; bridal white from stem to stern, and draped in welcoming signal flags. She was definitely quite a sight.

I remember the marble staircase that wound up to the Crow’s Nest Bar. On our first cruise, the Canberra rolled and pitched her way through Biscay like a demented dive bomber for hours on end. Just walking up that damned staircase could make people seasick in slow motion. In fact, it did. But the views out over from that fabulous room were incredible.

I remember watching the sun set in the same waters on our way back. Biscay was as still as a millpond that time. Falling into what looked like a sea of burning straw, the setting sun threw her two staunch, graceful funnels into sharp relief; they flared up like twin ramparts, proud and inviolate against the summer sky. It remains one of my most cherished shipboard memories to this day.

She was almost relentlessly British in temperament, much more so than the rival, highly American accented Queen Elizabeth 2. Many P&O loyalists would not have dreamed of touching the legendary Cunarder, and said so vociferously. On Canberra, you could always get a decent cup of tea, and the currency was always sterling, rather than dollars. For decades, those loyalists were the fuel that kept the ship running.

The Canberra had inside, four berth cabins down on G Deck without private facilities. Showers were down the hall. You could buy individual shared berths in those cabins at incredibly cheap rates. Most people today would shudder at the notion of such accommodation. It was, in fact, this lack of private in cabin facilities that ultimately doomed her. New SOLAS 1997 statutes made it seemingly uneconomical to update her. But back in the day, no-one seemed to mind the showers being just ‘down the hall’.

And the deck space seemed vast to me. There was never a problem with finding somewhere to lay down. Up forward, the steel promenade deck was coated in green paint, and it had the most exquisite upward sheer. It merely accentuated the incredibly fine lines of one of the most beautiful ships ever to cut salt water.

Of course, sometimes she didn’t ‘cut’ so much as hack her way through the sea. In bad weather, the Canberra had a level of stability roughly comparable to that of the late Colonel Gaddafi. if ever a ship could have rolled the milk out of your morning cuppa, it was surely her.

Yet anyone with even a shred of human empathy would forgive her these little foibles. First and foremost, the Canberra was a lady and, like many ladies, she was fickle, quirky, and prone to sudden mood swings. To be honest, it was a huge part of her charm. I smile thinking about it even now.

And what emotions she aroused! The Southampton send offs were amazing affairs, with a quayside band thumping gamely away at everything from ‘Rule Britannia’ to ‘Copacabana’ as the side of the ship vanished beneath a technicolor torrent of paper streamers. The whole vast, soaring flank of the Canberra seemed to be wreathed in a rainbow. There’s no doubt that the people of Southampton absolutely adored her.

Those are just a few of my memories; an affectionate take on a ship that inspired great affection in all who were lucky enough to know her. I’ll always remember those two graceful funnels, proud against the falling sun, until the day I die. And for that, I will always be grateful,

THE FRANTIC ATLANTIC- CUNARD IN THE 1920’S

CNV00015Like most of the major shipping lines, Cunard emerged from the Great War as a very much truncated version of it’s former self. Losses had been appalling right across the fleet, and the sinking of the Lusitania deprived the company of one third of it’s express service to New York at one fell swoop.

That meant that Cunard was right at the top of the pecking order when it came to making claims on surrendered German prizes of war. The company was gifted the proud, lumbering Imperator- a ship half as big again as the lost Lusitania- as compensation. Like all of the surviving post war Cunarders, she was converted from coal to oil burning.

Oil was not cheaper than coal as such; but it did permit a mass cull of the numbers needed to feed fuel to these monster liners. The legendary ‘black gangs’ of old were consigned to history, along with the tea clippers. Oil was also cleaner to use and load, and permitted quicker turn around times in both New York and Southampton.

Cunard moved it’s first string of express liners from Liverpool to Southampton after the war, to compete directly with their great rivals, the White Star Line. By 1922, each had a first rate trio once more working on the famous old New York run. The Imperator was renamed Berengaria and, by one of those inexplicable, random quirks of fate, she became the most popular and fashionable liner on the Atlantic, until the arrival of the French Line’s stunning new Ile De France in June,1927.

CNV00014She was joined by the proud, stately Aquitania and the the immortal Mauretania, still the holder of the Blue Riband. One of the three would leave Southampton each Saturday, bound for New York. A second ship would then leave Manhattan every Tuesday, heading for Europe. The third ship would always be at sea, heading in one direction or the other. In this way, Cunard could manage a smart, well balanced weekly service across the Atlantic. It was a pattern that continued more or less right up until the Second World War.

White Star ran a variation on the theme, with sailings from Southampton on Wednesdays, and New York sailings each Saturday, Their flagship service was maintained by the Olympic, the twin sister ship of the Titanic, which proved tremendously popular post war. She was joined by another war prize; a staunch, graceful twin stacker that the line named Homeric. The third ship was the Majestic, another ex-German that was the largest liner in the world for thirteen years. She was another proud three stacker- the sister ship of the Berengaria, in fact. The White Star Line advertised her as ‘The Queen of the Western Ocean’. She was the flagship of the line and, as such, she carried enormous prestige.

These two services were in more or less direct competition. But the Homeric found it hard work keeping pace with her faster sisters, and the White Star service never had the same smooth, even balance as that offered by their Cunard rivals. But as the twenties boomed, all these huge steamers prospered in a brave new world. Each line offered a call at Cherbourg in both directions, so that passengers could embark directly from mainland Europe if it suited their travel plans better. For both, it was a popular move.

The rebound in passenger numbers was really surprising, considering that the Volstead Act of the early twenties choked off the vast westbound flow of immigrants that had filled steamer company coffers for decades. Luckily for the lines, the same era coincided with a phenomenal rise in tourism, Americans now wanted to see the old continent that so many of them had fought and died for. And come to see it they did. In droves. Within a year or two, the Atlantic liners were fuller than ever before.

CNV00013It was an incredible time; an era of flapper girls, baseball, steamships and jazz. The new, adventurous American tourist class were dazzled by the bright lights of Paris, the historic lore of London, and the indolent lifestyles of the French and Italian rivieras. With Prohibition kicking in back at home, thirsty young Americans soon found that the Atlantic was wet in more ways than one; Atlantic crossings became five and six day marathon house parties. The good times seemed set to roll forever.

This dual hegemony was rudely interrupted in June of 1927, when the dazzling new Ile De France made her debut. She was the first large, purpose built liner to emerge since the Great War. Rather than copy the old Edwardian decor so prevalent on the competition, the ‘Ile’ was swathed from bow to stern in the bold, new Art Deco style that was all the rage. With fabulous food and service, she suddenly made every other ship at sea look completely outdated. Neither Cunard or White Star had anything quite like her. But worse was soon to come.

Rebounding with incredible zeal from the post war loss of her merchant marine, Germany had begun construction of a pair of streamlined new giants, designed with the express purpose of recapturing the Blue Riband of the Atlantic for the Fatherland. They, too, were fast, streamlined and bold. Their designer said that they gleamed ‘like new planets’,

The second of these ships- Europa- was delayed for a full nine months by a dockyard fire that nearly destroyed her. But the Bremen emerged on time in the summer of 1929 to throw down the gauntlet to Cunard.

CNV00023Twenty years of steady advances in marine technology could not be ignored, and the Bremen did exactly what she had been built to do, taking the Blue Riband at the first attempt, and finally ending the amazing reign of the ageing Mauretania as the speed queen of the Atlantic crossing.

But even worse was still to come. Cunard and White Star would soon find themselves confronting a far worse storm than anything their big ships had ever ridden out at sea. The first signs of the Great Depression were already stirring, like some long dormant Kraaken. Soon, all of the great liners would be fighting for their very survival.

CAPTIVATING CANNES- THE QUEEN OF THE COTE D’AZUR

CNV00053Few cities have a more exalted setting than Cannes. It curves like an elegant charm bracelet along the sinuous sweep of the Mediterranean coast, garlanded by a series of gently shelving, honey colored beaches that slip almost reluctantly into the sparkling waters of the Med itself.

The backdrop is just as beguiling; the fabled Croisette Boulevard is lined with belle epoque hotels like the legendary Carlton, looming like an overly fussed white wedding cake above the conga lines of slowly waving palm trees that march along the waterfront. Stretch limos the length of cruise liners purr silently past serried lines of umbrella shaded street cafes, packed with tourists enjoying the balmy weather. Some might idly wonder who is inside- Madonna? Tarantino? Could be anybody. Then, as always, it’s back to the serious business of croissants and cafe au lait.

CNV00037This kind of casual, people watching lifestyle defines Cannes, as it also defines nearby Nice and, to a lesser extent, Monte Carlo. But- whisper it- Cannes is far classier than the latter, with its waterfront of high rise hotels and mantra that nothing speaks like money. And, while no one could seriously claim that Cannes is cheap, it often feels a lot better value than that preening, pretentious hell hole devoted solely to the God of Mammon

. Of course, the city is centre stage for the world famous Film Festival in May, when hotels like the Carlton and Martinez are overflowing with the great, the good, and the vacuous non entities of the film industry. Yachts the size of Yalta come looming into the sheltered bay, hosting parties until the early dawn, and sometimes even later. It does have a brittle glamour but- as it also coincides with the Monte Carlo Grand Prix- it can make travelling anywhere a nightmare on the roads. Also, expect the hotel prices to be stratospheric, right along the entire Cote D’Azur.

CNV00031If you are thinking of going, I definitely recommend either spring or autumn as the ideal times. Temperatures are fine but, truth be told, Cannes is an exhilarating break even in the winter, when the crowds have gone, the hotel prices have dropped, and the weather is still relatively benign.

CNV00017if you can drag yourself away from the swish sidewalks and beaches of Croisette, it is definitely worth taking a walk into the back streets of Cannes, and around the old town that looks down over the port. It’s a serene vantage point from which to catch your breath, and then take stock of the glitzy sprawl that hums and buzzes down below you. Those vast, vaulting old stone walls embrace the entire upper reaches of the town, and their ancient, solid ramparts look over a scintillating spread of red topped houses, flooding back in a tidal wave towards the sparkling Mediterranean. The odd languid date palm pops up here and there, too. In the background, a sea of masts from an armada of moored yachts splinters the springtime skyline. There’s a warm, welcoming breeze, marvellous ice cream and, above it all, a magnificent clock tower, frozen in time, that seems to watch over the whole scenic smorgasbord like some kind of benevolent deity.

The narrow, winding lanes leading back to the waterfront are full of old, Italianate shops, bars and cafes, with colourful awnings flapping lethargically in the breeze. Rickety chairs and impossibly small tables spill out across these winding, cobbled lanes. From wrought iron window boxes above you, the smell of jasmine and hibiscus floods the air, even as motor scooters do an awkward ballet with aloof, insolent felines that strut across the cobbles as if the city belongs to them. And in many ways, it does.

CNV00023CNV00020Strolling back towards the sea, there are beautifully proportioned open squares, with exuberant fountains, swathed in marble as centre pieces. Traffic barrels along the meandering sprawl of the waterfront. Lovers walk hand in hand under the splaying, splendid palms. They pass by dog walkers, clutches of excited school children, and hookers on lunch breaks, stopping in at the local tabac to pick up a paper and catch up on the latest world news. All human life is here in this fantastic bouillabaise of a town. In a city noted for it’s sumptuous and diverse cuisine, the only thing not on the menu is sheer boredom.

CNV00043Cannes is not a city that has to shout and scream about it’s virtues, real or imagined. They are there for all to see; as evident as the aroma of Chanel, or the chilled perfection of Moet et Chandon  And- over the top travel tip- if you really want to push the boat out (as it were) treat yourself to a glass or two of bubbly on the impossibly glamorous terrace of the Carlton Hotel, with its matchless views out over the sun kissed briny. The bill may induce a coronary in your bank manager but hey- you’re like L’Oreal. You’re worth it. It truly is one of those heady, once in a lifetime experiences you’ll never forget. And if you’d prefer a sweet, simple ice cold beer, they will serve you just as happily, and at a much cheaper price. Either is Heaven on a beautiful spring day, or in the last, mellow flush of the autumn sun.

Getting there? For Cannes, the nearest airport is Nice, about an hour away. Most of the major airlines fly here but, in most cases, you will need to change planes, either in Paris, Amsterdam, Frankfurt or Heathrow. Or you could do it old style, and relive memories of the legendary Blue Train, and travel across France by rail on the Eurostar/TGV connection. This runs from the UK and Belgium.

CNV00061Cannes is one cool, classy act; smartly dressed and effortlessly chic, she still has a flirtatious, freewheeling vibe that makes her a compelling date for a few days. Come with an open mind, and don’t forget to pack your humour and your sense of wonder. Both of those will enjoy the stay as well. Bon Voyage!