THE KIEL CANAL- THE KAISER’S CUTE LITTLE SHORT CUT

ImageWhen you think of actually transiting a major canal, the names of Panama and Suez come instantly to the forefront. The Kiel Canal, which cuts across the base of modern Germany from the North Sea to the Baltic, probably comes in a poor third.

But in actual fact, the Kiel Canal is the busiest artificial waterway in the world. No less than 43,000 vessels made the sixty-one mile transit in 2007. And, while the canal cannot accommodate the much larger vessels that pass through Panama and Suez, it is a scenic treat in its own right; savvy, in the know passengers booking Baltic cruises actually regard the eight hour, one way transit of the canal as one of the highlights of their voyage. Many actually book on smaller ships that they know can actually make the transit.

ImageThe canal was not envisaged as a scenic joyride for modern day voyeurs. It was originally ordered to be constructed by the first Kaiser Wilhelm. His unstable, sabre rattling son finished the work, intending to use it as a short cut for his growing navy to venture from the Baltic to challenge the Royal Navy in the North Sea. Until 1948, it was known as the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, after his father.

Nine thousand men started construction on the canal in 1887, and it opened on time eight years later, in 1895, Later enlargements widened it. In September 1940, it was just big enough for the brand new Bismarck to pass through.

This tiger shark of a battleship remains the largest vessel to date to transit the canal; her dimensions actually exceeded today’s safe limits of eight hundred feet long, one hundred and five feet wide. Little wonder that her captain and bridge officers were on tenterhooks for the entire fraught transit. She crept through the waterway, with all her anti aircraft guns manned for the entire passage. There are still one or two pictures in existence to this day, showing the Bismarck just clearing the top of the monolithic Rendsburg Bridge.

This is one of some ten road and rail bridges that vault across the flower strewn banks of the canal. There is also an underwater tunnel, and no less than fourteen crossing points for local ferries.

ImageSailing the length of the canal today is a uniquely rewarding experience. Green fields stretch off as far as the eye can see to either side, while the canal front is studded with small, sturdy inns and guest houses. Ships of every size and configuration beetle idly past, saving themselves a journey of something like two hundred and fifty nautical miles (460 km) around the top of neighbouring Denmark.

In winter, a sparkling carpet of ice and snow blankets the landscape, and makes a voyage through the canal into an almost fairy tale experience. Pools of light shimmer on the water as a stunning panorama of stars unfolds across the clear, crisp night sky.

As journeys go, cruising through the Kiel Canal is a unique, quite unforgettable experience. It ranks somewhere in between the scenic smorgasbord of Panama and the fly and sand blown trudge through ancient Suez. if your bucket list is looking a little short on memorable experiences, this might well just be one to add ‘for the road’. Enjoy!

THE LEAVING OF VENICE….

ImageSanta Lucia station, Venice. A seething tidal wave of humanity, disgorged from a conga line of grimy commuter trains and long distance expresses. Families. Old women. Pickpockets and cafes filled to overflowing with the tired, the tense and the plain excited. All human life under one vast canopy, and then some.

Your ears catch the sudden refrain of a string quartet, swinging lushly through some half remembered Strauss waltz, fighting with the pigeons for air space. A mad rush of porters, over stacked luggage carts, and lines outside the left luggage store that resembles a refugee column. The pace is frantic.

And suddenly, there it is. The Orient Express…..

Seventeen gleaming, dark blue carriages, stretching for a full quarter of a mile. A glistening, glamorous rake without equal. The Ritz on wheels. Each carriage adorned with the gold seal of the company. Above the opened windows along each promenade, brilliantly burnished brass lettering bears the same ancient, proud logo.

COMPAGNIE INTERNATIONALE DES WAGON LITS, ET DES GRANDES EXPRESS EUROPEENS

Of course it is instant, dramatic theatre; the curtain raiser to an epic journey across five frontiers, and through nine hundred miles of Europe’s most splendid, alluring scenery. The Dolomites. The Brenner Pass. Innsbruck, Zurich and Paris will pass by like so many stunning drum rolls, until the final procession through the fields of Kent, and the ultimate landfall in London, some thirty-one hours after leaving here.

ImageAll is orderly, carefully orchestrated angst. The train manager, in his immaculate coat and tails, distributes cabin assignments and makes dinner reservations for the well heeled throng that tries so hard to look casually unimpressed at the vision in front of them. The first passengers on board lounge casually against the half open promenade windows, looking back at the sea of open mouths pressed against the grimy windows of the commuter train on the opposite platform. There is the subtle pop of a champagne cork, and the sound of a child crying somewhere down the platform. Unfazed, the string quartet swings into The Blue Danube as a woman wrapped in a cloud of Chanel sweeps pasts them, while her husband arranges for bellhops to take their luggage to the baggage car. His wife is carrying a tiny handbag worth the entire national debt of a small third world country.

Gradually, the maelstrom and the madness clears like early morning mist. The chefs in their uniform whites wave away the unwanted fresh produce deemed not good enough. Passengers board the Orient Express, the theatre on wheels that will whisk them effortlessly across the ancient continent. Train doors click smartly shut, one after another. The small, perfectly formed Art Deco fastness of the train is now hermetically sealed from such mundane concerns as pickpockets, pigeons and avaricious porters. Reality has been left locked up in the baggage hold.

There is a moment’s silence that seems to last a lifetime. It hangs as heavy as damask curtains, until the single, strident scream of a guard’s whistle splits the air like a brick thrown through a frosted glass window.

The ghost of another pause. Then the whole length of the great train gives a barely perceptible shudder; it fills the souls of those on board with a sense of delight that runs up from the very toes. 

Then the Orient Express gathers way; a slow, beautifully coiffed colossus, swaggering in a grand, matchless style, out and away from the most stunning sea city the world. Carnevale on wheels. A fantasy island, running just as surely on its own sense of style, history and legend as much as any railway track.

It is summer in Venice, and another northbound run is under way.

WONDERFUL WINDMILLS- A MYKONOS LANDMARK

That famous Mykonos headland

That famous Mykonos headland

Most people would quite probably agree that Mykonos is the most high profile of the Greek Islands. The island was already a world famous centre for summer hedonism and all night parties long before Shirley Valentine transformed it’s fortunes on a global scale. But, truth be told, to those ‘in the know’- from the widowed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy onwards- Mykonos has always had a unique, almost surreal lustre that sets it apart from its neighbours.

And no sight on this most alluring of islands typifies Mykonos more than the range of seven, sixteenth century Venetian windmills that crown the high ground just above the cafe strewn pier. They loom even above the surf kissed bars and restaurants of Little Venice. In fact, this group of ‘seven sisters’ can be seen from anywhere on the entire island.

Painted blinding white like most Greek architecture, they range in a lopsided line along the brow of a hill that offers the best view out over the town. All of them were initially built to mill wheat, and some were in use until the middle of the last century. One of them has now been preserved as a museum, but they all stand still, as perfectly petrified in time and space as the statues on Easter Island. And, it has to be said, they are a lot prettier.

They are all built in the typically round style of the times, with narrow. slit windows and gaunt, skeletal sails that look like the weavings of some giant spider. The thatched, mop top roofs look like an early homage to a Beatles haircut.

This is undoubtedly the best place from which to witness the legendary Mykonos sunsets, an experience in high summer that verges almost on the religious in terms of the crowds it draws out.

The silence is incredible, and the sense of peace and calm is impossible to quantify as the sun sags gently into the slowly rolling embrace of the summertime Aegean. The great, fiery orb casts a pale, dusky pink glow on the sinuous curves of those seven windmills, throwing them into sharp relief against the backdrop of a slowly reddening sky.

Up close and more personal

Up close and more personal

It’s a truly beautiful, spectacular sight; a superb natural floor show that comes at no extra charge. Often as not, it’s the mellow prelude to an evening of late night, early morning carnival madness on the true hot spot of the Greek party circuit.

And more than one or two people have wandered back to their hotels at sunrise, somewhat the worse for wear, only to find themselves entranced again as the slowly rising sun glints with deceptively gentle shyness against those ancient Venetian windmills. Waiters are setting up the cafes on the quayside as the silhouettes of the first inbound cruise ships loom impressively over the horizon. It’s another day, Mykonos style.

For visitors, the days and nights are never long enough. But for the seven slumbering sisters, time stands as still as the gossamer like strands that still frame their faces, just as they have for centuries here.

THE HINDENBURG: FLYING HIGH BEFORE THE FALL ON THE ‘RITZ OF THE SKIES’

ImageThe thunderous, climactic fireball that marked the death of the Hindenburg, seen here, became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. If ever there was a real life bonfire of the vanities, it was surely the death of the Hindenburg. Her blazing, charred hulk was the funeral pyre of the entire airship industry. And yet, it could all have been so very different.

By the time of her immolation, the Hindenburg was into her second year of service. Indeed, her comings and goings in America had become so routine by May, 1937 that they attracted scant media attention. For fifteen months, the great, silver grey dream ship had ghosted passengers across the Atlantic between Germany and America, as well as making headlining flights down to South America.

Hindenburg, or LZ-129 to use her official designation, was an enormous craft; almost as long as the Titanic. With her public rooms and cabins arranged in the great silver belly of the beast, she brought comfortable, stylish air travel to the Atlantic run for the first time. Some would also say it was the last, too.

There was a hermetically sealed smoking room, and two promenades with views down over the scenery below that were lined with ocean liner style deck chairs. There was a small lounge with a grand piano, and an excellent restaurant, staffed by former waiters from the Hamburg-Amerika line. It came complete with crockery that was specially commissioned for the giant airship.

Twenty-four small, Pullman type cabins were functional, with beds one above the other. Incredibly, there was even a shower available. For her passengers at least, the Hindenburg was intended to be a joyride on more than one level.

The Germans had to fill her with hydrogen, after the American government refused to allow the export of helium to Germany, supposedly on the personal orders of President Roosevelt. Helium was much safer, although five times more expensive than hydrogen.

But helium also had military uses, and Roosevelt- way ahead of the curve when it came to recognising the ambitions of Hitler and the Nazis- was not about to invite charges of fuelling both the Hindenburg and the German war machine. So the great, graceful giant kept using the hydrogen that was available. And, of course, that ultimately would lead to her destruction.

In her first season in 1936, the Hindenburg was a stunning success; so much so that she was often wait listed for cabins in both directions. She could make the flight from Germany to America in two days- a speed which made her more than twice as fast as the record breaking transatlantic liners, Normandie and Queen Mary.

The airship would usually maintain an altitude of around six hundred feet, and was known for being remarkably steady in the air. In fact, she proved so popular in service that another set of cabins were shoe horned into the hull during her refit over the winter of 1936-7.

It became normal for the Hindenburg to descend low enough to show her passengers drifting Atlantic icebergs. Approaching her berth, the Hindenburg would fly along the length of Broadway, before eventually coming to alight at her Lakehurst, New Jersey tower.

All things considered, it was the ultimate way to fly. So successful was the Hindenburg that a sister airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, was under construction in Germany by this time.

The premature, controversial final demise of this great sky goddess- the airborne equivalent of the Ritz- put paid to the notion of airship travel. Had it happened at any other time than in the hysteria fuelled run up to the Second World War, it might not have been a fatal blow. But in the war of words and ideas between competing world views, the loss of the Hindenburg became a political statement on both sides.

It was, without question, an apocalyptic end to an incredible vision. The Hindenburg was, in the end, as much a victim of Nazi megalomania as she was of freak weather conditions on that fatal night.

SMALL SOLUTIONS- ALTERNATIVES TO THE MEGA SHIPS

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect 'mini liner'

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect ‘mini liner’

The debut of new behemoths such as Royal Princess and Norwegian Breakaway has yet again served to affirm the universal supremacy of the mega cruise ship as the prime source of most seagoing travels. But if you don’t like the idea of whooping it up in a small city with more than three thousand fellow revellers, the alternative options at first appear pretty thin on the ground.

There are small, very highly styled ships out there, of course. Companies such as Silversea, Regent and Seabourn offer sublimely beautiful, incredibly lavish and human scaled products that go to some of the most inviting places on earth.

The problem here for many comes with the size of the price tag.

Because while all of those lines represent outstanding value, the fact remains that we live in straitened and uncertain times. Every penny counts these days. And the price tags attached to these lines are simply a bridge too far for many people.

There’s also a definite high end factor, too. Some people find these ships simply too overwhelming as a travel experience. That’s not to degrade either product or potential passenger; it’s just restating an old truth. Incredible as it seems, some people simply find these ships too luxurious.

So, where does that leave those people- and there are a lot more than you might think- that want to try and find some happy medium? High and dry, you might assume. No medium size, mainstream cruise ship has been debuted in the standard market since the early 1990’s, two decades ago. At first glance, the horizon looks foggy indeed.

And yet, look closer, and there are far more options than you might think. Allow me to introduce you to some very personable ‘ladies of the sea’…

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

The gorgeous Art Deco terraces of the elegant Marco Polo

If you want small scale ships with a real, retro look, you could consider Cruise and Maritime. The flagship is the elegant, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo, joined for this year by the Discovery. This is nothing less than the former Island Princess of Princess Cruises. The trio is rounded out by the Astor, which will be undertaking some quite wonderful cruises ‘down under’ for the Australian market this coming winter. All of these ships are in the 22,000 ton range- a truly sweet size.

Smaller and distinctly cerebral, VTA’s lovely Aegean Odyssey and Swan Hellenic’s cute, deft Minerva serve up history and harmony in equal doses. You might think the price tag is steep, but when you look at the actual, sheer inclusive nature of both lines, the value is undeniable. It’s also worth noting that VTA has a number of single cabins, and very reasonable solo occupancy supplements in addition on most sailings.

Of course, most UK passengers know all about Fred.Olsen. Our American friends might remember the beautiful, seaworthy Black Watch and Boudicca better as the legendary Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky, respectively. These beautiful twins tip the scales at a svelte 28,000 tons each, and each retains the contours, character and sheer charisma of such platinum chip, vintage tonnage.

Rounding out Olsen’s popular quartet of British accented perennials is the 24,000 ton Braemar, and the still elegant, 43,000 ton flagship, Balmoral. The latter ship is still fondly remembered as the legendary Crown Odyssey, the last purpose built ship for the now long defunct Royal Cruise Line.

Common to all of the Olsen ships is a large number of single cabins, very good service, and excellent food. They do tend to attract an older age group if that’s an issue for you, but the itineraries are well thought out, and the ships themselves offer some of the best value of any line afloat.

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Louis Cristal is typical of the intimate Louis brand of ships

Looking for something quick, cheap and really cheerful? Louis Cruises offer three and four night cruises out of Athens and Cyprus this summer on the venerable Orient Queen, once the pioneering Skyward of Norwegian Caribbean Lines, as it then was. These are intense, high density itineraries on a 16,000 ton ship that has no balcony cabins, if that’s a deal breaker for you. As an exhilarating weekend break, these short cruises are very hard to beat.

Portuscale Cruises has emerged from the ashes of Classic International Cruises, and four of the original quintet of rebuilt classics should be back in harness next year. The 16,000 ton Athena becomes the Azores, while the 15,000 ton Princess Danae becomes the Lisboa, and the veteran, 6,000 ton Arion is already back in service as the Porto. The legendary, 9,000 ton Funchal is also due back in service this year.

These ships are real floating time capsules; authentic mini liners offering the closest experience to the true classic liner voyage experience available anywhere today. They are often, but not exclusively, put out to charter. Any opportunity to sail one of them should be grabbed with both hands. They cannot last forever.

And you might be surprised to learn that the mega ship colossus that is Costa is hiding a little secret, in the shape of the foxy little 28,000 ton Costa Voyager. She spends winters cruising the Red Sea, and with her intimate size and styling, she is sure to evoke memories of the string of similar sized Costa beauties that once existed, now long since vanished.

At sea on Portuscale...

At sea on Portuscale…

So, hopefully, there’s some food for thought here. Even writing this blog has been a revelation. Some of these ships had slipped from my memory as completely as if swallowed up by Atlantic fog. Finding them again has been a voyage of discovery in its own right. Happy sailing.

GOING FORWARD- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY IN 2014

The Aegean Odyssey

The Aegean Odyssey

There’s a reassuring mix of the familiar and the fascinating in the newly announced Voyages to Antiquity programme for 2014, aboard the line’s small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey.

Familiar in the sense that all the creature comforts that have made the ship such an outstanding and appealing travel option are still there; things such as all shore excursions included, as well as beer and wine at dinner, plus a series of intriguing pre and post hotel stays in landmark cities such as Istanbul and Athens.

The new? That comes in the shape of new ports of call at Bodrum, and gorgeous Greek gems such as Syros and Kos. Owing to demand, the company is stepping up the number of its popular Black Sea itineraries to four in the 2014 season. One of these will also encompass the best of the Greek islands at the same time.

All told, the Aegean Odyssey will offer something like seventeen cruises from March through November, beginning with a sweeping, twenty eight day progress from Athens through to Istanbul, by way of the history and highlights of ancient Egypt. This should provide one of the most comprehensive exposes of both the Greek and Roman empires ever offered on such an inclusive basis.

These tie in with a pair of diverse itineraries that will put the focus firmly on both Athens and Istanbul. Like many options in the itinerary, these can be combined to make one outstanding long voyage.

Voyages to Antiquity is also offering some very attractive, low priced single supplements for the season. All cruises will feature the line’s usual high standard of in depth, on board lectures with experts in the fields of the history of the visited region. Coupled with the largely inclusive nature of the experience, and the sheer quality of the on board product, these cruises represent an outstanding return on the cost.

The entire Voyages to Antiquity operation is the brainchild of Gerry Herrod, fondly remembered in the cruise and leisure industry as the creator of both Ocean Cruise Lines and the legendary Orient Lines.

Aegean Odyssey is a low key, extremely comfortable ship, more than a bit akin to a floating country club. With a smart casual dress code and open seating dining either indoors or outside, she can access a great many smaller, more intriguing ports that bigger ships cannot enter. With a capacity of just 330 passengers, this is intimate, informed cruising for people more interested in feeding their minds than partying until daybreak.

QUEBEC; CANADA’S CLIFF TOP GEM

ImageQuebec enjoys one of the most amazing settings of any city, sitting on the heights of Cape Diamond, on a bend of the meandering Saint Lawrence seaway, several hundred miles inland from the Atlantic. Quebec is the oldest and last completely walled city on the North American continent, and as such was awarded World Heritage Site status by UNESCO in 1985.

ImageIt is a city overlaid with a distinctly Gallic vibe; hardly surprising, since the original colony here was founded by the French explorer, Samuel de Champlain, as far back as 1608. And though the city was taken by the English General Wolfe during the famous battle on the Plains of Abraham, that French undercurrent has always remained here.

ImageYou see it in the old town of today, where ancient stone houses and shops stand on cobbled streets, awash with flowers; some still have the tricolore flying aloft to this day. 

The city’s main landmark is the vast, looming Chateau Frontenac, a massive Gothic confection of a hotel that stands like a sentinel on top of the cliffs. Now owned by Fairmont Hotels, it witnessed history as the site of a historic meeting between Churchill and Roosevelt in September 1944, when they drew up the occupation zones for a soon to be defeated and demilitarised Germany.

ImageChateau Frontenac stands on the broad, breezy promenade of the Dufferin Terasse, with its statue of Champlain staring out over the Saint Lawrence, far below. Like many Canadian cities, Quebec was once the site of a huge timber industry, and the waterway was alive with freighters at all times of the day and night. Today, it is much more likely to see the giant cruise ships docking in its shadow, during the increasingly busy summer season and throughout most of the long, languid fall season, when the whole area often bathes in the last rays of a long Indian summer.

ImageDufferin Terrasse is alive with the sounds of cool, sultry jazz during the day. There are mime artists, portrait painters, and every other genre of street theatre you can imagine here. You can walk the walls of the Old Town, just as the French general Montcalm did as he watched the approach of Wolfe’s invading fleet. The area is a warren of narrow, winding streets full of cozy little bars, clubs, and of course, some wonderful, mouth watering restaurants.

ImageQuebec feels vastly different even to neighbouring cities like Montreal, just a hundred and forty-odd miles downstream. The combination of its matchless location, staggering natural beauty, and uniquely preserved old walls makes it a hugely appealing place to visit. Brim full of style and sophisticated charm, it is in many ways one of the most alluring destinations you can visit on any cruise in this region.

DEVIL’S ISLAND-REVISITING FRANCE’S ALCATRAZ ON THE OCEAN

The waterfront at Devil's Island

The waterfront at Devil’s Island

At first sight, Devil’s island looks benign and innocuous. With it’s surf kissed waterfront and ranging, impossibly tall palm trees, it could be the gateway to any tropical paradise. The whole place has more than a little of the lethargic, languid vibe and feel of the South Pacific; it brings images of Tahiti and Moorea straight to mind. Though the island sits only some ten miles from the coast of French Guiana, it feels as if it is somehow completely cut off from the rest of civilisation. But, for many, any vestige of civilisation was in short supply here.

Most former visitors arriving here would have been under very few illusions. For this is the former leper colony, turned into a penal institution, that became a byword for terror. Ile Du Diable- Devil’s Island- would acquire a reputation for stark, inhuman brutality that made Alactraz look like the Adlon by comparison.

The combination of sharp, rocky shores and vicious cross currents made any attempt at escape inadvisable, as did the fact that the waters all around are shark infested. Over the years, more than eighty thousand reluctant guests endured this dreadful place; few returned to tell the tale.

One of three small islands that form the territory of the Iles Du Salut, the island itself is relatively small; a mere twelve hundred yards long, and four hundred across. But that small space is awash with towering palms, and the shores of Guiana are full of old mangrove swamps that were such fertile breeding grounds for a whole raft of noxious diseases, such as dysentery and malaria. Scores died from exposure to the pitiless humidity.

A prisoner's eye view as old as time....

A prisoner’s eye view as old as time….

The colony was in use for over a hundred years, from 1852 onward. The French dispatched their most feared and reviled state enemies here; spies, political prisoners and the like. But none was more famous than Alfred Dreyfus, the former army officer framed on trumped up charges. He arrived here in 1895, and over his four year stay he wrote more than a thousand letters, detailing the ghastly regime of this nineteenth century Guantanamo in chilling detail.

It was also the setting for Papillon, the fictional masterpiece that managed to recreate much of the fear, horror and misery so inherent in the real thing. Escape was almost impossible, and recapture meant the dawn walk to the guilllotine. Fear, casual brutality and rampant malaria did the rest.

Part of the old penal colony of Devil's Island

Part of the old penal colony of Devil’s Island

Today, what remains of the old penal colony is a series of gaunt husks of buildings, many of them bleached a shade of bone white by more than a century’s exposure to a constant, pitiless sun. The gaunt, unyielding old hospital where so many gasped out their last moments is grimly stark; it still feels like somewhere that pity was as thinly rationed as water and any other kind of humanity. A place of tense, uneasy ghosts.

In fact, all three of the islands had prison facilities, but Devil’s Island was mainly reserved for political scapegoats such as Dreyfus. In 1938, a book about the island called Dry Guillotine was published, outlining in stark detail the brutish regime on these islands. It caused such a wave of revulsion across France that the entire complex was slated for closure in that same year; only the advent of the Second World war prevented it from happening. The last prisoners were quietly evacuated in 1953.

Today, there’s a serene patina of isolated beauty to the place. But it is a very thin veil indeed, and the memories of former times are seared into those stone walls. If buildings could, indeed, talk, then the sound emanating from those pitiless pieces of brickwork would be one loud, continuous wail of terror.

AMAZING AMAZON ADVENTURES…..

The unique 'wedding of the waters' at Tapajo, Brazil

The unique ‘wedding of the waters’ at Tapajo, Brazil

The Amazon. A staggering, serpentine waterway that snakes for thousands of miles from the Atlantic, right up into the hinterlands of South America. It’s unlike any conventional cruise you’ll ever make, and that accounts for a huge part of its appeal.

You can sail more than nine hundred miles upstream to Manaus, a jungle shrouded, rustic gem of a city that looks like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. En route, you’ll encounter sights, sounds and scents that will sear themselves into your memory forever.

Vast tracts of rich, dense foliage that tumble down to the banks of the muddy river. Canoes attempting to keep pace with your ship as she glides silently upstream. Cows and oxen grazing near the banks of the river, while gimlet eyed Caimans watch from the water for a first, slight slip. Thatched houses on rickety stilts that seem to cling to the riverbank for comfort.

You’ll be surprised by beautiful, pristine beaches far upstream at Alter do Chao, and maybe experience some vibrant, frenetic displays of samba at one of the local displays in Parintins. You’ll certainly be blown away by the unique, unreal ‘wedding of the waters’ at Tapajo, where currents of brown and white water flow literally right alongside each other. You might even catch sight of some of the local pink dolphins that frolic in these same waters.

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

And there are always lots of options on offer in this spectacular natural wonderland. You could go on a night hunt for Caimans with a torch, or take up piranha fishing from a small tourist boat. And anyone fascinated by insects will find literally thousands of diverse, brightly coloured bugs competing for their attention. The air is alive with the screeching of brilliantly hued and plumed parrots, as well as thousands of other colourful, chattering birds.

There are incredible, lush tracts of fauna and flowers, and enormous floating lily pads that look big enough to crash land a helicopter on.Vast swathes of gnarled, twisted tree stumps and roots form a myriad of  dank, impenetrable mangroves that suddenly give way to patches of pristine, cultivated farmland. The heat and the humidity can be overpowering at times.

But nothing prepares you for Manaus.

The capital of Amazonia was established by Jesuit priests, and later greatly expanded thanks to Henry Ford, and his use of the rubber plantations here. Ferries chug up to the beach here and literally run aground on the sand under the promenade wall. A glut of goods- everything from printers to live pigs- is carried ashore here.

The locals

The locals

There’s an adjacent walk that takes you right past the heart of this teeming, jungle shrouded juggernaut of a city. For an elegant contrast, check out the elegant Teatro Amazonas Opera House, with its stucco facade. It looks as if it has been lifted intact from a Parisian boulevard. Topped by a graceful cupola draped in the Brazilian national colours, it is the focal point of the entire city.

Yes, the Amazon is a different kind of adventure. It’s thrilling, spellbinding, and more than a little bit raw in places. But it is totally distinctive as cruise destinations go, and it is never, ever boring.

PULLMANTUR THINKS BRITISH…

In a move to attract more British passengers to it’s all inclusive cruise product, Spanish operator Pullmantur has appointed London-based Major Travel as it’s first ever UK GSA.

Major has produced a short, glossy brochure outlining European sailings on five ships, processedOLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA for the first time as complete fly/cruise packages. These range from a handful of three night cruises from Marseilles on Horizon, to week long circuits of the western Mediterranean on Sovereign and Empress.

Highlights include:

*  A series of seven night western Mediterranean sailings running through to November, on both Sovereign and Empress, with embarkation at ports such as Palma De Mallorca, Rome and Barcelona (The Pullmantur website also offers Genoa as an embarkation port for Sovereign)

* Greek Islands cruises aboard Zenith, sailing round trip from Athens on seven night Aegean itineraries though until the late autumn.

* Three and four night mini cruises on Horizon, sailing to the Balearic Islands from Marseilles through to November.

The Pullmantur product is all inclusive, with pricing that makes it among the best buys in the travel industry. The Spanish operator is an offshoot of Royal Caribbean International.

It’s ships are all ex- RCI/Celebrity tonnage. Horizon and Zenith were the fondly remembered, initial new builds for Celebrity. At around 45,000 tons each, they are a nice size for the kind of port intensive, destination based cruises that Pullmantur promotes.

Empress is around 42,000 tons, and was originally built as the Nordic Empress for short cruises to Bermuda. Her spectacular, aft facing main dining room is still one of the most beautiful rooms of any ship at sea.

Sovereign is the pioneering, former Sovereign of The Seas, the first RCI mega ship. With a gross tonnage of 73,000, she has a larger entertainment handle than the other ships. She is slated to cruise from Brazil during the winter season.

Pullmantur recently also acquired the 73,000 ton Monarch, the twin sister of Sovereign. While not featured in the short initial brochure from Major, she will operate year round southern Caribbean cruises, embarking in Aruba. These will also be all inclusive.

Pullmantur’s new brochure is aimed at families, groups and seniors, but mentions no single supplements. All ships offer two sittings for dinner, and run as multi lingual vessels.

Though these ships do not have the facilities or stacks of balcony cabins typical of Costa and MSC, the price point makes for a very attractive product indeed. Now showcased with flight packages and transfers, it will be interesting to see what momentum the company can make in the over tonnaged Mediterranean market.

It is also worth noting that Major Travel packages some of these cruises with a range of attractive, pre-cruise hotel packages in key cities such as Barcelona.

Methinks this is one to watch.