SILVERSEA’S GALLEY BRUNCH- A QUESTION OF TASTE?

Piggy in the middle?

Piggy in the middle?

One of the things that Silversea tend to do really well on a sea day is a very extensive and well laid out galley brunch. It combines a kind of self guided tour of the extensive galley spaces with the opportunity to help yourself to a vast, serpentine sprawl of stuff that, in typical Silversea fashion, looks almost too good to eat.

And that’s the flip side of the coin. Because while this gastronomic glut looks too good to touch, it also smells too delicious to leave alone. Good tip? Take a camera with you, and snap before you snack.

It begins with a bartender making Bloody Marys for people wandering inside. Naturally, this being Silversea, there will usually be five different kinds of vodka for you to choose from, plus all the accompanying goodies. Once you’re past this good natured gatekeeper, it’s on and in to where all the creativity really comes into play.

Even for those used to eating in high end establishments on a regular basis, the choices on offer are truly eye boggling; a technicolour torrent of fresh, vibrant salads and a slew of wonderful, fresh baked breads. There is sushi of every shade, texture and taste, and an avalanche of artfully arranged fresh fruit from literally all corners of the globe.

You’ll find huge dishes of pasta and paella, and meats of every kind, cut and texture. The sheer variety of fish could have you snacking for a week; there’s everything from pickled herring to swordfish. Calamari. mussels. Tiger shrimp.

There’s a hog roast- complete with delicious crackling- and a raft of perfectly poised poultry. It’s all artfully lit, and laid out so that people can progress easily from one part to the next. Plates are laid out ready to use at intervals all the way along.

And, naturally enough, no brunch is really ever complete without a side order of seriously mellow jazz. Which explains the presence of the ship’s band in the restaurant as you emerge from your gratuitous, indulgent little galley run.

Sweet tooth? Come on down....

Sweet tooth? Come on down….

You’ll find all the desserts laid out in the centre of the room like some kind of chocoholic funfair. Not that there isn’t more on offer- a lot more in fact. It’s just that the chocolate offerings tend to be so deliciously decadent that resistance is all but impossible.

All things considered, it’s a sea of delightful self indulgence that will take you a good while to wade through. And the seriously determined can always gird themselves and go back in again.

Good luck on that front…..

CHAMPAGNE AND SUNSETS- THE PERFECT PARTNERSHIP

The perfect combination...

The perfect combination…

Just consider this picture; a gracefully setting sun that seems to be falling bit by bit into a glass of champagne. Of all the many thousands of pictures I’ve ever taken on cruises over three decades or so, I don’t think any other one quite captures the elegant, timeless essence of a true luxury cruise quite as deftly as this one. A real freak shot, but a beauty for all that.

It was shot from the terrace outside the Panorama Lounge aboard Silversea’s stunning Silver Whisper. We were sailing between Helsinki and Copenhagen, winding down towards the end of what had already been a truly memorable cruise.

It’s all the more improbable when you consider that it was taken in the notoriously fickle Baltic in August. The sea really was that benign for a whole week; we sailed in and out of a constant, mind blowing conga line of such fierce, fiery floor shows, courtesy of Mother Nature. And that got me thinking….

There has long been an almost symbiotic, truly sybaritic relationship between champagne and sunsets at sea. They are the Rogers and Astaire of  that most mesmerising and poetic of mid ocean combinations. The champagne dances on your tonsils even as the sunset flits across your field of vision like some exquisitely choreographed dance routine.

This kind of strange, magical evening can happen almost anywhere in the world, but the experience is honed to almost exquisite clarity out at sea. With little or no land based pollution to distort the view, the sunsets seem to unfold in magnificent, slow motion cinemascope.

You might consider that such a sight and taste sensation deserves some kind of epic soundtrack. And you’d be right, in part at least. Because here, once again, it is Mother Nature that pulls out all the stops.

Anyone who has ever heard that gentle, swishing sound of water against a slowly moving ship’s hull will certainly know exactly what I mean. It’s as low key and exquisite as a superb base line, and not one bit less compelling. It fills the electrified ether between sea and sky with the power of a quiet storm; a sound and a feeling quite impossible to replicate on dry land.

All of these things combine to create something so rare, special and tender that you hardly dare breathe, in case it fractures like some beautiful, broken butterfly. It’s a moment too intense and precious to last forever. Something as fleeting and fragile as it is exquisite and beautiful.

And yet… these memories do last. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll happily drink to that.

Cheers.

TO RUSSIA WITH LOVE?

Charming place, pity about the apparatchiks

Charming place, pity about the apparatchiks

I’ve just returned from a few days in Saint Petersburg, at a time when the old rivalries between east and west seem to be once more butting heads. From Putin’s appalling crackdown on gay rights to the potential disaster that is Syria, it was a strained, strange time to be in the very cradle of the Russian revolution of October 1917.

Now, I’ve been to Saint Petersburg quite a few times since 2000. In those days, you were not allowed off the ship unless you had a Russian visa, or unless you bought tours to see many of the numerous, incredible sights of this fascinating and convoluted city.

Thirteen years later, that still holds true. Not one hint of a crack in the facade has developed.

What makes it even more weird was the  fact that we docked, quite literally, in the heart of the historic old city. Virtually within spitting distance of Saint Isaac’s and the Church of the Spilled Blood.

Not that I would dare to spit in Saint Petersburg, mind you.

But I digress. We were attached to a kind of floating pontoon, that contains the usually unsmiling customs and immigration people that check you in and out of the city. Back in the day, that same pontoon contained a small bar. A nice place, you might think, to go and spend a few roubles, drink a little vodka, and indulge in some old style glasnost with your erstwhile Russian hosts?

Er, no. Nyet. Not possible….

Now I’m not getting at the ordinary people here. They are just as much prisoners of an unflinching, bloodless bureaucracy as ever they were in the days of Stalin or, indeed, the hapless Tsar Nicholas II. I’ve talked before about a residual siege mentality that exists in this marvellous city- a product of its turbulent, tortuous history. And, unlike the ice on the springtime Neva, it shows no signs of thawing out any time soon.

The sunsets are truly phenomenal

The sunsets are truly phenomenal

Methinks this could backfire spectacularly in time. Many passengers from our cruise ship came back on board distinctly unimpressed with the attitude, welcome- or rather the lack of it- from the stony faced scions of Comrade Stalin that scrutinised our papers, passports and personal appearance with all the warmth of a Baltic ice breaker.

What was understandable thirteen years ago is just not so any more. Russia has moved on in so many ways, and yet the officialdom involved in getting ashore has all the warmth and welcome on show at Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow.

Smile, guys. Ladies, you too. It’s later than you think. Please- less of the strutting, and a few less frowns? Thanks so much.

HOUSE OF CARDS- SYRIA AND THE POTENTIAL CRUISE INDUSTRY FALLOUT

Norwegian Cruise Line could be affected by any Syrian conflagration

Norwegian Cruise Line could be affected by any Syrian conflagration

The current situation in Syria- seemingly ratcheted up by the minute by posturing from both the west and east- could have massive ripple effects for the entire cruise industry in the eastern Mediterranean, especially over the coming winter months.

A potential stack of slowly falling dominoes is now firmly in place; one that eerily echoes the situation in Europe back in June of 1914, in the months that ran up to the Great War; the most cataclysmic conflict seen on the planet up to that time.

Syria has uneasy neighbours in the shape of both Turkey and Lebanon; the latter in particular knows to its cost that a desperate and deluded Syrian leadership would have no hesitation in extending the conflict through to Beirut, on the eastern edges of the Med. That potentially makes all of the waters through to the Aegean a probable no go zone for cruise ships, never mind the flights required to bring potential passengers in. And that’s assuming passengers could still be coerced into booking; a long shot in and of itself.

Meanwhile, both Iran and Iraq continue to back the horrific Assad regime, and Israel- the crucible of the entire region- remains jittery, tigger happy, and ready to do whatever it takes to defend its own interests, come what may. Any overt action on the part of either of the first two countries would almost certainly trigger a potentially lethal response from the third.

It goes without saying that this would shut down the rump of what is left of an already seriously denuded eastern Mediterranean cruise circuit. With Egypt still a flaring conflagration, the last six lines offering cruises to that country have now unilaterally cancelled all calls there, and for the foreseeable future as well (See my previous blogs for details). Remove the highlights of the Israeli circuit- Ashdod and Haifa- and the entire eastern Med effectively becomes a no go area.

MSC would also feel the effects of such a breakdown

MSC would also feel the effects of such a breakdown

Who will be most affected? The obvious candidates are the perennial winter visitors, such as Costa and MSC. But Norwegian also have the Norwegian Jade in this area for most of the shoulder season winter months, based out of Civitavecchia.

No doubt all of these lines are looking nervously at the potential ramifications of a meltdown in these waters. Sudden redeployments, and even possible winter layups, could be on the menu. Already, a glut of cruise tonnage, about to be expelled from the seasonal winter Red Sea market, will soon be surging west towards the warm, soon to be serially over saturated cruising grounds around the Canary Islands.

Future abrupt redeployments would be a logistical nightmare, and certainly difficult to operate at a profit. But that is potentially not the worst of it.

You only have to think back to 1985, and how the murder of American tourist Leon Klinghoffer aboard the Achille Lauro plunged the entire Mediterranean cruise market into freefall for well over a year. The difference is that nowadays, there are five or six times as many berths to fill.

Add to that the still prohibitive air fares from America to Europe- the very thing that has done such damage to the Med cruise industry this season- and you have the makings of a perfect storm, with potentially awful ramifications. Plus, the increasing volatility in Libya makes the entire north African coastline look and feel like a slowly smouldering brush fire.

Of course, none of this might come to pass. Common sense and mutual self preservation could yet prevail over the jingoistic, often self serving sabre rattling of the political classes in all the countries concerned. But, given the past record of politicians in dealing with the Middle East- more than a dozen centuries of abject failure, appreciation and complete lack of understanding- it seems that we are all looking at what amounts at the very least to a winter of discontent.

Let’s all hope and pray that’s truly the maximum extent of it.

THE TWILIGHT ZONE: NEWCASTLE AIRPORT, 01.05a.m….

Airports. Gotta love 'em. Right?

Airports. Gotta love ’em. Right?

You might be vaguely curious as to why I’m writing this blog at five minutes past one on a Monday morning, in an almost totally deserted airport. Let me count the ways…..

I have a fairly imminent (6.15) flight down from Newcastle to Heathrow, to connect with a flight out to Stockholm to board the very alluring Silver Whisper. The one downside is the waiting here; and that’s mainly down to the logistics of being located in the north east of England.

Direct flights to the continent are almost non existent; both KLM and Air France have a far better network of European connections than BA- at least in theory. But trying to get decent connections to tie in with a ship sailing from Stockholm, or even Athens? Sorry, but no.

Of course, i could have tried getting a few hours’ sleep at home, and set my alarm for some god awful, inhuman hour. Truth be told, I have an inherent dread of not waking up on time. And- miss that first flight, and the rest of the itinerary is toast, of course. Not a realistic option.

Hence, here I am. Transported by my wonderful niece a few hours since, and moderately refreshed, courtesy of some seriously decent- and decently priced- white wine, courtesy of the Doubletree Hilton hotel, just across the road. Nice bar, nice music, and some seriously knowledgeable staff who know their business. Thank you, lovely people.

Right now? Well, the airport is bereft of almost any human cargo, but the air conditioning is making a noise that would give Niagara Falls a run for its money. Quite obviously, it’s amplified by that lack of any kind of human commotion. At this moment, it is positively thunderous.

Elsewhere, I find myself surrounded by literally acres of bare, polished floor, lit to almost feverish intensity by lighting of a strength akin to that I envisage once found in a condemned cell of old. In front of me, a trio of ghastly, illuminated bandits trill out a shrill, unyielding message to any ghosts in the vicinity to feed them. It’s about as alluring as front row seats to an Atomic Kitten reunion concert, and only slightly less of a hideous, cackling cacophony.

There’s an empty coffee bar that looks half open, and the sound of mechanical floor scrubbers doing the rounds, like third division panzers getting high on the lack of opposition. A hundred or so yards away from me, there’s a guy writhing in agonised contortions as he attempts vainly to sleep across a trio of seats only marginally narrower than a UKIP viewpoint.

The check in desks are all, naturally, deserted. Each one emptier than Paris Hilton’s head. Any footsteps- anywhere- echo with epic clarity right through the lower departures level. It’s like something straight from a haunted mansion.

And yet, all of this will change quite soon. Thank God.

Tired, barely awake check in staff will shuffle through the doors. Shutters on closed shops will ascend skywards with a sound like a train rumbling through a tunnel. More lights. And the smell of real, fresh brewed coffee, wafting through the pre dawn, fluorescent floor show like fine perfume.

People will come. Like in that great scene from the end of Field of Dreams, when the conga line of car headlights suddenly sears the darkness.  People going on holiday. Or business. The airport will stir, shrug itself awake, and brace itself for another busy summertime day.

As for me, I’ll rise above the urge to nap, grab a coffee, and check my emails. I’ll try desperately- and so far unsuccessfully- to ignore the perennially annoying trio of bandits. Time is marching on. I will, too.

The Silver Whisper awaits, just scant hours away. I can wait.

It’s just that my first night on board might well be an early night, that’s all. Or maybe not.

Stay tuned…

WHEN DOES A VOYAGE REALLY START?

Stealing out of Monte Carlo at midnight....

Stealing out of Monte Carlo at midnight….

When does a voyage actually start?

That might seem like a strange question, but please bear with me here. A little background information is quite clearly in order.

I’m off to Fort Lauderdale in a couple of weeks to board HAL’s stunning Eurodam, for a long anticipated week around the sun splashed highlights of the balmy Western Caribbean..

It’s a fabulous itinerary on a supremely stylish and well run ship, and I have been anticipating it keenly for a while now. And that’s what led me to wonder; when does the voyage- or, indeed, any voyage- actually begin?

I think you build the pleasure and anticipation of a voyage in a way that mirrors the construction of any ship. From the keel up. Over time, the sense of anticipation and the details of the cruise as a whole take shape in your mind. They fill out and become something almost tangible enough to touch. That anticipation is the stuff of dreams.

It’s the kind of thing that gets us through bad days and hard times; the knowledge that something (hopefully) great and good is just beyond the horizon, and approaching slowly but surely with each passing day.

Just kick back....

Just kick back….

So I’d argue that the actual voyage begins the moment that the idea begins to take shape in your mind. When we pick up the brochures and browse through them. And there, suddenly, like some fantastic exclamation mark, the trip is waving back at you. Wearing a smile you can’t resist. Welcome aboard….

It’s like clambering aboard a slowly stirring carousel on a fairground. We do our research into the ports of call and, as we decide what to do-or what to avoid- the anticipation steps up a gear. We read online reviews of our chosen ship and route. We fret about flight times, and fuss pointlessly over connecting times at remote foreign airports. We sigh and sigh over what currency to take. And packing the right wardrobe becomes almost a holy grail. After all, looking good is feeling good too, right?

And when the tickets arrive… it’s like being a kid on Christmas Day again. You want- no, need- to see what cabin number you’ve been allocated, and exactly where it is situated. We pore like addicts through pages in the information booklets, with their almost impossibly tiny print. And we stare longingly at our shiny baggage labels as if they were the keys to the kingdom of Heaven itself.

If travelling on a ship you’ve never sailed on before, there’s a sense of anticipation; an excitement that builds like a gathering storm. If you’re going back to a ship that you know well, there’s excitement tempered by a kind of calm certainty that borders on smugness; you know exactly what you’re going back to and, if anything, that simply heightens the sense of anticipation even more.

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral is a staple of the summertime Baltic cruise

Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral is a staple of the summertime Baltic cruise

And so, with just a few weeks to go, my voyage towards the sublime anticipation of another great Holland America experience is already well under way.  There is so much of the wonderfully familiar that I am looking forward to just diving straight back into. I love the wicker furniture on the cabin balconies, the classically elegant works that are everywhere, and the fact that the bathroom towels are big enough to get lost in. And soft enough to make the idea an agreeable one, too.

I’m looking forward to time out in those sunny, shaded cabanas near the pool, and my first, pre dinner chocolate martini at sunset. To just soaking in the hot tub, and picking at grapes while I lounge on my balcony, with a side order of glacially chilled champagne.

I’m looking forward to a calm, unhurried run of lazy, enticing breakfasts out on deck, with fresh fruit, wonderful waffles and piping hot coffee. To hearing subtle, sultry late night jazz. To time out just chilling in the room, with warm breezes and that wonderful sense of detachment from reality that you only truly get at sea.

All of which serves to make the point, I think. The voyage begins the moment that the seed is actually planted in your head. And, because of the incredible sights and scenes that a cruise delivers to you, and the people that you meet and encounter over the course of it, the memories will stay with you long, long after you leave the actual voyage behind. Close your eyes, and you can replay the whole giddy adventure on a loop in your head.  Time and time again.

So, there you have it. The appetisers have been served, and- thanks to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines- I have brilliant flight times, both outward and return.

The essence of Silversea. Quite literally...

The essence of Silversea. Quite literally…

As for the main course…. the mighty, majestic Eurodam will be waiting in Fort Lauderdale on October 25th. Beautiful, chic and totally compelling. And yes, I’m hungry to get out there, too. But anticipation is all part of the fun here.

And, my friends, wherever you sail off to this particular year, I’m pretty sure that the same holds true for all of you as well. Bon voyage!

AKERSHUS FORTRESS-OSLO’S BLOODY TOWER

Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

Akershus dominates the approaches to Oslo

The sixty mile passage upstream to Norway’s capital of Oslo is a fantastic procession. You glide past fussing little steamboats and rolling, patchwork meadows studded with grass roofed houses, many of them proudly flying the Norwegian flag. There are cows grazing nonchalantly by the water’s edge, and streams that resemble the strands of a spider’s web as they thread through deep, lush valleys down to the still, silent fjord below.

It is almost chocolate box pretty; a fable set in stone, water and sky. And, at the end of the journey, most ships tie up beneath the brooding, gothic ramparts of what looks like a vast, fairy tale castle straight out of the pages of Sleeping Beauty.

Akershus Fortress.

Akershus is Oslo’s equivalent to the Tower of London, and in certain light it is every bit as gaunt, awe inspiring, and forbidding. A vast expanse of grim grey battlements, it is festooned with towers sporting red tiled roofs. It looms above the entrance to the old town like some petrified, old stone guard dog. Huge and forbidding, it has cast a long shadow across the sparkling waters of the fjord since it was first built in the late thirteenth century.

The whole reason for its construction was to protect the city of Oslo from attack, primarily from neighbouring Sweden. In those days, Norway and Sweden were often at war, and the city of Oslo was the strategic lynch pin to the whole of Norway. And, to capture Oslo, you first had to nullify it’s grim gatekeeper, Akershus.

It was besieged several times between 1308 and 1716; but no one ever actually succeeded in conquering the fortress. In the seventeenth century, Akershus was remodelled extensively, giving it the scale, scope and stance of a gigantic renaissance castle. The attached Royal Mausoleum is also the burial site of several of Norway’s former kings and queens.

Courtyard memorial wall at Akershus

Courtyard memorial wall at Akershus

Akershus surrendered to the Germans without a fight on April 9th, 1940, after their sudden, stunning invasion of Norway. The occupying power behaved with unyielding brutality; during the war, several members of the Norwegian Resistance were shot by German firing squads in the courtyard of the fortress. The exact spot is marked today by a silent, hugely poignant memorial.

The Norwegians neither forgave, nor forgot.

On May 11th, 1945, the Germans surrendered Akershus to members of the Norwegian Resistance. After his trial, Vidkun Quisling, the former Nazi collaborator in chief, and several of his associates, were brought back to Akershus, and shot on the same spot as the executed resistance members.

A museum within the fortress walls commemorates the war years. Opened in 1970, it makes for sombre, compelling viewing.

Today, Akershus is still a military base. The fortress is also the focal point for state occasions, and a central point for entertaining any visiting foreign dignitaries. As well as the Resistance Museum, Akershus also houses the museum of the Norwegian armed forces.

The grim, unyielding fortress

The grim, unyielding fortress

Today, the old stone walls and ramparts of Akershus offer scintillating summertime views of the breathtakingly beautiful fjord that it commands so completely. But, while life and the world all around it has evolved with each new decade, Akershus itself remains like something frozen in time. A tangible link down through the centuries that is worth a few hours of anybody’s time.

Akershus is open to visitors until 21.00 daily.

AURORA- THE DAWN OF THE RUSSIAN REVOLUTION

The gun that fired that first, fateful shot...

The gun that fired that first, fateful shot…

It was the original shot that was heard around the world. At 21.45 on the bleak evening of October 25th, 1917, the forward gun of the Russian navy cruiser, Aurora, fired a single blank shot into the Saint Petersburg gloom.

It was nothing less than the starting pistol for the Communist revolution; a stain that would spread and engulf Russia for literally decades. Once that shot was fired, nothing would ever be the same again.

It signalled the beginning of the assault on the Winter Palace; an attack aided by a number of sailors from the Aurora herself. And it culminated in the bloody butchery of the Tsar, the Tsarina and their helpless children in a basement cellar in Ekaterinburg less than two years later.

The Soviets decided to preserve the totemic cruiser- a veteran of the disastrous Russian naval debacle of Tsushima- as the symbol of the revolution. And the petrified, gaunt grey cruiser still squats at anchor in the heart of the city to this day, her trio of tall, spindly funnels still clawing at the city skyline. She really does look and feel like something from another time and place; and that is exactly what she is.

The Aurora herself was nothing especially remarkable. One of three sister ships, and the only one to survive Russia’s humiliation at the hands of the nascent Japanese navy, she was launched in 1900, right there in Saint Petersburg itself. With a tonnage of around 7,000 and a main armament of eight six inch guns, the 416 foot long, coal powered cruiser had a maximum speed of around nineteen knots. She was already outclassed by newer foreign ships by the time she entered service in 1903.

Aurora was lucky to escape the near annihilation of the flower of the Tsar’s navy at the battle of Tsushima, in 1905. She made her way back to the Baltic more by luck than anything else.

Aurora photographed in 2004

Aurora photographed in 2004

In 1917, her main armament was almost doubled to a total of fourteen six inch guns. Beyond her brief starring role in the October 1917 revolution, the Aurora achieved little of note, save for her own survival. She spent long periods being used as a training ship. But her one starring role in 1917 had already garnered her the status of a national icon.

She was already long in the tooth when German bombers sank her in the harbour of Saint Petersburg on September 30th, 1941. Raised after the war, she was repaired over 1945 through 1947, awarded a raft of battle honours, and readied for permanent immolation as a museum to the triumphant cause of Communism.

Today the squat, stumpy little cruiser remains the oldest commissioned vessel in the Russian Navy, although in any actual combat she would last only fractionally longer than a snowflake in Hell. The commission, though purely symbolic, is taken very seriously; Aurora is commanded by a captain of the first rank. And she has an active service crew. As such, she is also regarded as a living, interactive museum. Incredibly, she still flies the same ensign that was hoisted aboard her when the ship was originally commissioned, way back in 1903.

Aurora has hosted an incredible estimated twenty-eight million visitors since 1956, up to the present. Though all of her hull below the waterline has been replaced with an all welded new skin, the ship above water remains a trim, grey talking point; a time machine that is actually more akin to some kind of unreal exclamation mark, solid and uncompromising against a series of summer and winter backdrops.

A trio of stark, spindly smokestacks...

A trio of stark, spindly smokestacks…

The Aurora might not have the fantastic war record of HMS Belfast, her near English equivalent that sits on the Thames. And she certainly has none of the still bristling, powerful swagger of the mighty USS Missouri out at Pearl Harbour. Yet in many ways, the Aurora is one of the most significant ships ever built; almost as much so as, say, the Titanic. And ultimately much longer lived.

If Moscow has Lenin’s embalmed, waxy corpse, then Saint Petersburg- the true cradle of the revolution- has the grim, grey, petrified carcass of the Aurora. Even if you only gaze up at her for a moment as you drive or walk past, it is like looking into the very antechamber of history itself.

BRAEMAR RETURNS TO THE CARIBBEAN-UPDATED

Braemar at anchor off St. Barts

Braemar at anchor off St. Barts

In what looks like being a very popular move, Fred. Olsen’s gorgeous little Braemar is returning to the Caribbean in 2015 for a fourteen night fly cruise.

The ship was a regular Caribbean winter staple for ten years, from 2002 through till 2012, until rising flight prices and prohibitive APD costs forced the line to curtail the programme. Based on Barbados, the Braemar sailed the Caribbean on fourteen night itineraries from November through each April. At least one of these voyages was an Amazon itinerary that took the 20,000 ton ship all the way to Manaus, some nine hundred miles upstream (see previous blogs).

The happy return- very much an exploratory trip to see if the market will support a renewed series of such sailings- departs from Barbados on January 12th, 2015. It’s very much a ‘greatest hits’ tour of the eastern and southern Caribbean, with calls at Grenada, Curacao, Aruba, Turks and Caicos, Tortola, St. Kitts, and Antigua. There is also an overnight stay in Santiago do Cuba, which should prove popular with both passengers and off duty crew.

Prices are from £1779 for a complete fly cruise package, and offered from London and Manchester, based on two people sharing an inside cabin. The new itinerary goes on sale this coming August 17th.

Shell Beach, St. Barts

Shell Beach, St. Barts

I did a few Caribbean cruises on the Braemar, and they remain some of the most memorable of all my voyages. The ship is an ideal size; she was able to snuggle up into the sweet little harbours, such as Saint Barts, that the bigger ships had to bypass. Her cascading outdoor terrace decks were especially popular at night; the usual quite formal Fred. Olsen dress codes were deliberately relaxed especially for these warmer climes.

All cruises (with the exception of the once yearly Amazon run) included a first night, overnight stay in Barbados and, late in her Caribbean runs, one at Montego Bay as an alternative. This was a great way to settle in and kick back after a long day’s travel.

The whole package was seamlessly organised; Olsen chartered their own flights, with upgraded meal service and free drinks included. On arrival, luggage was sent ahead, and usually waiting for passengers in their cabins when they embarked. Coaches brought arriving passengers to the ship, where they did their check in on board.

Each fourteen night round trip circuit of the Caribbean would take in an average of eleven different ports of call.

On the return journey, flight check in was done on board Braemar the day before arrival, and luggage again sent on ahead to the airport. This allowed for a relatively stress free last day; passengers left the ship and went direct to departures at Barbados airport in the mid to late afternoon.

All of these things combined to make the Braemar a very popular and attractive draw in the Caribbean. Factor in the great food and the service from the fabulous, Filipino crew- very much the heart and soul of the Braemar– and it is not too difficult to see why.

And it's a welcome return to gorgeous Grand Turk....

And it’s a welcome return to gorgeous Grand Turk….

However, it has to be said that some things have changed since then.

Braemar herself has put on weight. The addition of a mid section to the ship added a second pool, several popular balcony cabins, and a much needed forward observation lounge. Inevitably, it also made her thicker around the waist. But after several years of sampling superlative cruise ship food, I should maybe keep quiet on that subject…

That said, this truly lovely little ship is still far, far smaller and more nimble than any other British flavoured ship on the Caribbean circuit. And, if anything, the extra balcony cabins should make her even more of an attractive choice, especially for first time cruisers.  If all goes well, then an extended season could be a realistic opportunity. Very much a case of ‘bringing on back the good times’ for many people who remember the earlier days with great affection.

Personally, I wish her the very best of luck. Smooth sailing and a fair breeze to pretty little Braemar.

NB: Owing to overwhelming demand for this cruise, a second, fifteen day round trip fly cruise on Braemar in the Caribbean has now been added for January 26th, 2015. Prices from £1779 also.

PARADE TO THE BLOCK: SAVED OR SCRAPPED?

Heading for a new life next year....

Heading for a new life next year….

With the recent arrival of the former Pacific Princess at the Aliaga scrapyards, it seems to be open season on all currently redundant seventies tonnage, and even for some eighties stalwarts, for that matter. Nothing better illustrates the rise of the mega ships- and the demand for more and more balconies- than the sudden fall from grace of several once storied names in the maritime firmament.

Currently languishing without comment or interest for several months are the MSC Melody of 1982, and the Ocean Countess, late of Cruise and Maritime, and best remembered as the original Cunard Countess of 1976. While there is no doubt that both ships would make ideal acquisitions for short, destination intensive cruises- such as those operated by Louis, for example- the lack of apparent buyer interest has to be worrying. Both of these ships surely have a few years left in them at least.

What really brought home the true state of play was the tragic scrapping of the 1984-built Atlantic. Here was a beautiful ship, doomed and dragged to her death simply because she was built as a steam turbine ship. Five or six years ago, some enterprising company would have thought little of buying and re-engining this smart, stylish vessel. Instead, she is being recycled to make razor blades.

It’s a worrying trend. After her 2008 sale to Louis fell through, the former Norwegian Dream endured almost five years of warm layup, before being finally revitalised this year by sister company, Star Cruises, as their Superstar Gemini. We’re not talking about some antiquated old dowager here; the ship was built in 1992, lengthened in 1998, and has at least a few dozen desirable balcony cabins.  Yet still, she has endured five wasted years.

Also currently in limbo- and of the same vintage- is the pretty little ship that was the original Superstar Gemini, now known as the Gemini. Also built in 1992, this ship- the twin sister of Fred. Olsen Lines Braemar- was last heard of being used as an accommodation ship for the 2012 Olympic games, based in Tilbury, where I saw her last October. Again, she would be an ideal choice for Louis.

Classic styling on the Orient Queen

Classic styling on the Orient Queen

But it’s not all doom and gloom. To the amazement of just about everybody in the maritime community, the former Classic International Cruises fleet has made the most amazing comeback since Lazarus, or even Take That. Against all the odds, the oldest quartet in maritime history- the seagoing equivalent of the Rolling Stones- is being lovingly restored and prepared to sail again, under the hopefully benevolent banner of Portuscale cruises. The oldest of the quartet- the 1948 built Azores- predates the legendary SS. United States by a full four years.

Few things in the cruise industry are as sublimely contradictory as the way that these ships have gestated, while vessels thirty years their junior are being run onto Turkish beaches like so many gutted carcasses.

In the industry’s headlong pursuit of the newest, biggest and the glitziest, some perfectly good ships are meeting the chop long before anyone might expect. Sadly, this is one trend that I see continuing over the next few years. I hope and pray that I’m wrong on this one.