Down after Downton. But for how long?

Down after Downton. But for how long?

It was Barry Norman who once famously said that the Titanic had sailed more miles on film than ever she did in real life.  The famously acerbic television host had a point, and that was many years before James Cameron’s swaggering, Oscar laden ship fest began its own, epic maiden voyage. We all know what followed from that.

But the Titanic first steamed onto the small screen on the first ever episode of the cult television series, The Time Tunnel. This pioneering show opened with the two heroes being transported back in time, landing on the decks of the doomed, westbound liner. The plot mainly centered around their desperate attempts to convince a blithe, contemptuous Captain Smith of the looming danger awaiting his ship.

And, when ITV created the fabulous period drama that was Upstairs, Downstairs, with it’s dramatic evocation of life right across the rigidly divided social strata of Edwardian Britain. it became almost inevitable that the Titanic would loom across the script at some stage. The disaster was used as an epic way of disposing of Lady Marjorie Bellamy, one of the principal characters. Quite odd, considering that the great bulk of the first class female passengers were the first ones into the lifeboats. But it was, of course, dramatic and glamorous. Rather like the Titanic herself, in fact.

The same device was resurrected almost half a century later, when Downton Abbey first hove into view on Britain’s televisions screens. A fictitious, unseen character was bumped off by the simple expedient of drowning them on the Titanic. But that was to be far from the end of Downton creator Julian Fellowes’ connection with the ship.

With the stunning success of Downton an established fact, and the centenary of the disaster itself looming, Fellowes seemed the obvious choice to mastermind an epic, four part mini series about the ship and her voyage to oblivion. His approach raised more than a few eyebrows.

Each of the first three parts introduced us to a series of characters- passengers in all three classes, as well as crew, from officers to stokers and stewards, Each episode ended just after the initial impact with the iceberg.

All the strands were tied together in a cataclysmic finale that really did tug at the heart strings. It was a one off, sweeping story that some found anti climactic, but many others loved. And, unlike the peripheral appearances and references to her in previous televisions series, in this one there is no doubt that the Titanic herself was the true star.

Whether we are talking about the small screen, future movies or, indeed, the stage, the one thing that’s absolutely certain is that the maiden voyage of the most infamous and spectacularly dramatised disaster in maritime history is anything but over…


Queen Elizabeth 2 in cruising mode at Lisbon, 2008

Queen Elizabeth 2 in cruising mode at Lisbon, 2008

Somebody the other day asked me what the funniest thing was that I had ever seen in all my travels. And, while there have been some screamingly funny moments and encounters in all corners of the globe, there is one that does, indeed, stand head and shoulders above all others. It involves a peer of the realm, a Queen, and some really bad karaoke. Quite a combination, no?

The peer in question was ‘Lord’ Jeffrey Archer. He was travelling aboard the Queen Elizabeth 2 as a lecturer, regaling rapt passengers with vivid accounts of his time spent as a guest of Her Majesty’s prison service. Being a salesman of the first order, His Lardship also took the opportunity to do a book signing. I am told that reams of his not at all lurid, fulsome and self serving memoirs were flying off the tables like flocks of bats out of a haunted mansion on Halloween.

But I digress. For Archer was to play out a most unexpected vignette that proved to be the single most entertaining moment on the cruise. What follows is not a second hand account. I was not more than ten feet from the centre of what follows.

Archer and his family deigned to mix with the hugger mugger of regular passengers in the intimate, packed Golden Lion bar for the last karaoke of the cruise. They swept in like a set of wannabe Romanovs, and ensconced themselves in the equivalent of the royal box, front and centre stage. By this stage of the evening, the karaoke was in full swing.

To my surprise- and probably that of everyone else in the room- the ever fragrant Mary Archer got up to sing a song. And what a great job she made of it. She stood and sang the Beatles’ classic In My Life to her husband. Her eyes never left him as she sang every word.

It really was a virtuoso performance; she nailed it quite beautifully. The room gave her a well deserved round of applause. As she gazed down at her man, I mused idly that, while love is often blind, it can on occasion be both deaf and dumb as well.

But more excitement was to come…..

The compere picked up the next request form. The next words were epic:

“And now, Lord Jeffrey is going to sing us a song. And the song is…. Jailhouse Rock….”

The entire room erupted in a torrent of laughter. More than one or two people almost choked on their drinks. But, as the smiling emcee took the mike over to Archer, he encountered a sudden cold front.

Archer sat there with his arms folded implacably across his chest. His serried tiers of chins and flabby jowls wobbled with indignant affront. Nasal hairs bristled like the tentacles of Portuguese jellyfish. Twice, the mike was proffered to His Lardship; twice, it was refused. After a minutes’ stunned silence, the host composed himself, and spoke again;

“I think this is somebody’s idea of a bad joke……”

Bad? The whole room shook with laughter from rooftop to floorboard for minutes on end.

It was clearly too much for Archer, who swept out of the room at warp speed with his family in tow, his dignity- or what passed for it- trailing somewhere behind him like so many discarded party streamers.

Had Archer actually gone with the joke and sang even a few bars- and let’s face it, Archer has plenty of experience of bars- then the entire room would have applauded him for being a good sport. His petulant umbrage spoke volumes.

The man had been more than happy to regale and reap profit from recounting his prison experiences, but the moment that some quick witted reveller instigated a laugh at his expense, he spat out his dummy like a petulant brat and exited, stage right.

And at this stage, I would like to nail a rumour of my own. It was not me that put in the faux request slip for Jailhouse Rock, as one or two naughty people have since alluded. But my God, how I wish it had been me. I would have been more than happy enough to have taken the credit for getting a laugh at the expense of this ludicrous, strutting circus show on legs. Alas, I cannot.

None the less, I have to truly thank Jeffrey Archer for the most hilarious little vignette I have ever seen at sea. The memory still makes me chuckle now. And, should you wish to avail yourselves of His Lardship’s learned tomes, any British Heart Foundation ship will be able to keep you liberally supplied. Just look between the Cheryl Cole and Katie Price autobiographies, and there he’ll be.

And at a bargain price, guv’nor. Ker-ching!


Historic Fort Sumter still dominates the approaches to Charleston

Historic Fort Sumter still dominates the approaches to Charleston

When you consider an east coast cruise from America, your attention almost certainly focuses on the busy ports in Florida, or perhaps New York. But, as the desire for homeland cruising continues to rise, there is now a new, year round contender for Caribbean sailings, in the unlikely shape of Charleston.

South Carolina’s legendary centre of charm has a huge amount going for it. As home port to a single, year round mega ship- the Carnival Fantasy- it has none of the congestion of the southern ports on sailing day. And, if Miami is a sizzling, salsa fuelled, perma tanned colossus, then Charleston is the very epitome of demure, elegant warmth and welcome. Very much a well mannered lady, Charleston makes for a fantastic, two centre holiday with any Carnival Fantasy cruise.

Here, the crucible of America’s still divisive civil war can be seen in all of its petrified, stubborn splendour. Fort Sumter still looms across the entrance to the port, its stunted walls and windswept terraces still pock marked with the scars from scores of cannon balls and incalculable rounds of rifle fire. Charleston is also home to the resurrected wreckage of the Hunley, the first American submarine to sink an enemy vessel in action. Her story is one of the single most epic in maritime history, a titanic tale in stark contrast to the diminutive, doomed reality of the real thing.

But Charleston is far more than just a melting pot of half unseen, uneasy memories. The city has a sublime park front setting, and row upon row of antebellum masterpieces, best typified in the colourful cascade of architecture known as Rainbow Row. And the city’s legendary hospitality to strangers is no exaggeration. It truly is a city that everybody should see- and savour- at least once in a lifetime.

Carnival Fantasy serves up some sizzling cruise options from Charleston

Carnival Fantasy serves up some sizzling cruise options from Charleston

Carnival now offers year round cruises from the city aboard the recently refurbished, 70,000 ton Carnival Fantasy, the namesake of the eight ship Fantasy class. Though no longer among the very biggest or most amenity laden ships, the popular, well maintained Fantasy still offers a mind boggling array of sizzling, sassy bars and lounges that features the line’s renowned, late night party atmosphere right through until the wee small hours. There is a huge casino, and  a vast show lounge for the typically lavish floor shows that Carnival is known for,

Carnival Fantasy has two main dining rooms, an alternative lido buffet, and a slew of other dining and snacking options on board, as well as two pools, a quartet of hot tubs, and ample deck space. Even the inside cabins are of a generous size, and the recent refurbishment grafted a slew of balcony cabins onto the ship where none existed before. The ship also boasts a piano bar, a small, upper deck golf course, and a shaded, aft situated, adults-only Serenity Deck, complete with hot tubs and padded sun loungers.

Carnival Fantasy offers two different, five day options and one seven day cruise itinerary from Charleston to the Bahamas and the Caribbean. Here’s how they break down:

FIVE DAY CRUISES TO NASSAU AND FREEPORT: Forty four departures in 2014, running from January through to December.

FIVE DAY CRUISES TO LITTLE STIRRUP CAY AND NASSAU: Eleven departures between May and December inclusive.

SEVEN DAY EASTERN CARIBBEAN CRUISES TO NASSAU, GRAND TURK AND HALF MOON CAY: Nine cruises from January to December. Note that no departures are scheduled in February, June or September.

Atrium, Carnival Fantasy

Atrium, Carnival Fantasy

Combined with the natural warmth and charm of Charleston, these cruises are a real, very viable alternative to the options offered from ports both to the north and south. And, with a capacity of around 2500 passengers, the Carnival Fantasy offers a relatively more personalised cruise experience, without sacrificing anything in the way of facilities or fun things to do.


Atrium lobby on the Norwegian Spirit

Atrium lobby on the Norwegian Spirit

If you’re a UK resident and you feel the feel the need for a short break, then Norwegian Cruise Line has introduced something that’s a little bit off the wall, and just a little bit different from the mainstream.

During the autumn, winter and spring, the elegant, oriental themed Norwegian Spirit is offering several eight and nine day cruises, sold as a round trip from Barcelona. But the line is now also allowing the option of booking a tasty little two night ‘sampler’ cruise, sailing between Malaga and Barcelona, and at some very agreeable prices, too.

The day between the two ports is spent at sea; an ideal opportunity to experience the considerable charm and style of this very distinctive ship, with her gorgeous, Roman styled pool on the upper decks, and a central, rectangular atrium lobby that is easily one of the most beautiful of any ships afloat anywhere.

In terms of decor, the Norwegian Spirit is very different to her fleet mates, being suffused with a rich, deep, oriental style- a hangover from her early days as the Superstar Leo. That point made, she boasts many of the signature Norwegian amenities, such as Le Bistro and Teppanyaki. The showroom is a lovely space that faces aft.

Cabins are not the biggest, but they are more than adequate, and come equipped with all the normal facilities. With the prices being so reasonable, you might want to consider springing for  a balcony room. These are slightly larger, and they also give you your own small, private, window on the world.

Terrace sunset on the Norwegian Spirit

Terrace sunset on the Norwegian Spirit

The ship is distinguished by some wonderfully curved, stepped terrace decks at the stern, that cascade down towards the children’s play area. And, at 78,000 tons, she feels more intimate. The layout of the ship is actually pretty easy to find your way around.

Other facilities include an open air, upper deck bier keller, an extensive, opulently indulgent spa, and a beautifully atmospheric main restaurant- Windows on The World– that flaunts a full wall of floor to ceiling glass windows across the stern. The ship’s disco looks like nothing less than a Maharajah’s harem, while the casino is possibly the most opulent I have ever seen on a ship.

And, of course, if you have a latent curiosity about the ship, this is an ideal way to sample her without breaking the bank. Equally, if you have never cruised Norwegian before, and are curious to see if the whole Freestyle concept works for you, then this is also worth a look.

Of course you’ll have to arrange your own flights and transfers, but this is hardly rocket science. Easyjet offers good, competitive fares to both Malaga and Barcelona from a range of UK airports, while British Airways also offers a fairly comprehensive, reasonably priced series of connections via a string of regional hubs.

From Malaga Airport, you can take the metro into the city centre, and then grab a cab (around ten euros) to the ship. In Barcelona, the metro again runs to the airport, and there are cheap airport buses that take you from the city centre as well. Or you can take a taxi from port to airport for around twenty five euros. Be aware; if flying Easyjet out of Barcelona, the terminal is set a little way away from the main terminals. Actually, this can work out for the best. Barcelona Airport is a well renowned rugby scrum at best.

The oriental vibe is obvious in this picture

The oriental vibe is obvious in this picture

I did this trip in April of 2013, and it was an absolute treat. Especially when book ended with a pre and post cruise overnight hotel stay in both Malaga and Barcelona; each of these is worthy of the extra day and night for sure.

For something with a bit of style, distinction and delightful indulgence, these sweet little breaks are worth a look. Enjoy!


Fairytale spires of Visby

Fairytale spires of Visby

Visby is a small, walled seaside city on the gorgeous Swedish island of Gotland. It has the most amazing series of intact, walled fortifications anywhere in the Baltic, with the possible exception of Tallinn.

The difference here is that these amazing, ramparts flank a string of beautiful beaches, thronged with bars and waterfront cafes, and enclose a stunning, wondrous swathe of glorious botanical gardens. The ghosts of the past stand guards on the battlements, while brightly coloured butterflies flit skittishly through the ramparts once designed to accommodate archers of old. The place has a stance and a serenity that make it quite unlike anywhere else in the region.

The fortifications date from the thirteenth century, when the island was a member of the ancient Hanseatic League. Visby was walled in, garrisoned and gifted with a series of gaunt, great grey watch towers from where any marauding pirates could hopefully be seen.

In the event, no attack ever materialised. Hence, all dressed up and with nowhere to go, the fortifications survived, tried and tested by nothing more pressing than time. The remarkable state and scale of their preservation led to the whole complex being designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Maiden Tower, Visby

Maiden Tower, Visby

These walls, turrets and towers seemed to preserve everything within them, too. There’s a wonderful church in wedding cake white, with twin, gracefully tapering spires in black wrought iron that loom against the sky. Houses, shops and restaurants have a cookie cutter, gingerbread look and feel. Set amongst bubbling streams and dark, silent lakes, it all looks like a theme park designed by the Brothers Grimm. if the makes of Kodak film had ever designed a perfect stage setting for their products, I think it would have looked a lot like Visby.

The gardens themselves are lush, tranquil and expansive. A technicolor tour de force that showcases a tidal wave of amazing colours, sights and scents within an easily traversed, difficult to forget few kilometres. Bars, cafes and open air tea houses dot the rolling expanse of vibrant, multi coloured rose beds- the island is famous for its roses-to create a singular, distinctive environment that is quite unlike anything you might expect to find in the region. Though only three hours’ sailing by ferry from the Swedish coast,  Visby enjoys a surreal sense of detachment that makes it seem a million miles removed from anywhere else on earth.

Best of all, the island is relatively small, and inaccessible to larger cruise ships. That obviously means smaller crowds, which in turn equates to a more intimate, personalised experience. The locals are friendly and welcoming and, while the island is not cheap, it is an experience that you are never likely to forget.

Gardens and stone guardians, Visby

Gardens and stone guardians, Visby

Of course, these perceptions of Visby are ones formed in the long, warm nights of a stunning Baltic summer. Winter would make the island a very different proposition;  with the early nights and the eerie mists of that season, it would probably look like something more out of the pages of Hamlet.

But, walls and all, Visby is an enchanting, endearing little proposition. if you’re lucky enough to be on a cruise or shore itinerary that stops here, then do yourself a favour, and enjoy every possible moment of it.


STX were responsible for such legendary ships as the France, seen here as the SS. Norway

STX were responsible for such legendary ships as the France, seen here as the SS. Norway

In what can only be described as a ‘back to the future’ move, a new start up company is finalising ambitious plans to construct a pair of 70,000 ton ocean liners, with the avowed intention of running the ships on month long liner style voyages from Britain to Australia and back.

Codenamed Project Orient, and working with the experienced STX Saint Nazaire shipyard in France, the two sisters are the brainchild of a group of British businessmen, said to have extensive experience of the cruise industry. Director of sales and planning is the experienced and well respected Nigel Lingard, who fulfilled a similar role with Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines for many years.

First artist’s renderings reveal a design with a long, flaring hull and a traditional curved prow. A single, centrally sited funnel gives the design a profile not unlike the Marco Polo on steroids. Initial figures call for a passenger capacity of 1,600 on each ship, looked after by a crew of 800 Each should be capable of making the voyage from Britain to Australia in just under a month.

It is envisaged that the two ships will operate via the Far East, as well as South Africa. Sector voyages will be offered, with the option of allowing passengers to tie in one way airfare.

Each of the two ships is conservatively costed at around $450 million, and the operation is now actively sourcing the finance to get the project moving.

Nothing like this has been seen since the demise of the joint P&O/Orient Lines service operated by Canberra and Oriana through until the mid- 1970’s. The new ships can take advantage of far greater fuel and technical efficiencies than their predecessors ever could, and also have the additional advantage of being able to configure these entirely new designs to modern tastes and styles.

Fares for the month long passage to or from Australia will be fully competitive with business class air fares and, for families migrating to or from the Antipodes, there is also the huge advantage of being able to bring all the luggage and personal effects you need.

All things considered, Project Orient is a brilliant, brave piece of bravado. Add in the technical nous and expertise of STX- the builders of such iconic ocean legends as Normandie, France and, more recently, Queen Mary 2, and you have a proven pedigree that is hard to argue with.

It’s a fascinating premise; one that I will be watching with great interest over the next few months. As details become available and the steel begins to grow around the skeleton of this remarkable ocean renaissance, I will be providing you with updates as practical.

As ever- stay tuned.


Carnival is moving forward once again

Carnival is moving forward once again

In a move that has come as a surprise to many, Carnival has slashed single supplements for UK travellers in what amounts to an obvious bid to woo solo passengers.

The move has also partly been a response to the success of the studio cabins introduced by Norwegian in recent years and, to a much lesser extent, the handful of single cabins offered in a few of the Royal Caribbean ships. Nonetheless, the halving of the single supplement by Carnival is pretty substantial indeed.

Under the new rates- which cover an as yet unspecified range of cruises- new lead in fares are now as low as £159 on a four days Bahamas cruise, and that’s based on an ocean view cabin. A six day Mexican Riviera cruise under the same rules comes in at a cost of £369.

The value here is self explanatory, especially when viewed with the recent on board, fleet wide enhancements made to the Carnival fleet in the Funship 2.0 programme. New features such as Guy’s Burger Joint and the Blue Iguana Cantina have been generally well received by both regular passengers and industry experts alike.

The line has been going through a period of retrenchment right across the board following a string of damaging incidents. Recently, veteran Carnival head honcho Bob Dickinson returned to the line in an advisory capacity, with a mandate to restore the line’s reputation and financial viability. This single supplement reduction may well be a by product of this new thinking, and it’s a very welcome one.

It will be interesting to see whether this reduction applies simply to Carnival, or whether it will also be rolled out in due course across subsidiary brands such as Cunard, Princess and Holland America. P&O already offers a handful of single cabins aboard Azura, Ventura, and now also Oriana.

Single supplements aboard Cunard remain fixed at an eye watering seventy five per cent. Holland America does offer a singles share programme that allows passengers of the same sex to share certain stateroom grades- both inner and outer- at no extra supplement.

More to the point, Carnival has really thrown down the gauntlet to Royal Caribbean, which has made at best baby steps in accommodating single passengers on most of their sailings. And, while Norwegian has single cabins in just under half its fleet, most of the others have none. Their typical single supplement comes in at around fifty per cent for basic inside and outside rooms at the moment.

As developments go, this one has the ability to gather speed and sweep the mainstream market from top to bottom. In firing this first shot, Carnival has once again stolen a march on the competition. An indication of welcome forward momentum once again in an organisation that has seemed to be on the back foot for far too long.

Stay tuned.


Such a familar sight....

Such a familar sight….

A ship. An ocean. A state of mind. Queen Elizabeth 2 on the North Atlantic. Nothing else mattered…..

The sea is a rolling grey mess, flecked with viciously flailing whitecaps. Looking down from the windows of the Golden Lion (or the Theatre Bar if your memory goes that far back) there is a broad swathe of boiling white, foam streaked ocean stretching back as far as the eye can see. Venture outside, and the cold slaps you with an icy swipe as you stand out by the pool, watching the wake stretching back to infinity.

There’s the gentle shudder of the decks under your feet, and the subtle pitch and roll of a real ship on a purposeful voyage; a true crossing. In other words, pure magic.

In the post war era, Cunard maintained a two ship service on the New York express run with the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary. The advent of jet aircraft from the late fifties onwards effectively put that service to the sword. The result was that Cunard decided that one ship in future would service the Atlantic crossing, as well as working as a hopefully lucrative cruise ship in the off season.

That ship, of course, was QE2. She was built partly as a floating resort, capable of offering worldwide luxury cruises through the autumn and winter. But, every year from April through December, she would eschew that, and return to the five day shuttle runs between Europe and America that were her true heritage. For many, the Atlantic was where the Queen really came into her own.

Her hull was very strongly built; a necessity when coping with the most notorious and unpredictable stretch of water in the world. And she had to be fast- far faster than on languid Caribbean cruises. On crossings, QE2 could- and frequently did- hit thirty-two knots without killing herself.

That might not sound like much, but let’s put it in context. Nobody would blink twice at the sight of a cab passing the Empire State Building at thirty miles an hour. But imagine the Empire State Building itself, somehow uprooted from its base and barrelling along at the same speed, and you get some idea of the scope and power of the QE2. She was built to be fast and strong, and she needed both of those attributes in dealing with the Atlantic.

She was an extraordinary lady, and she certainly knew it. A diva, draped in epic moods and capable of equally epic mood swings. For so many years she was out there alone, maintaining the famous Cunard standards on that ancient route as, one by one, her competitors fell by the wayside, or were diverted to full time cruise service.

That fabulous bow

That fabulous bow

Time always seemed to be against her. ‘How long can she last?’ was an almost constant refrain, even in the early eighties. And yet, twenty six years later, the Yacht Club on QE2 was still serving up the best chocolate martinis afloat. The old girl was a real fighter; a true daughter of the Clyde. There was real steel beneath that subtle, sophisticated exterior.

And if ever a ship had heart and soul, it was surely the QE2. You sensed it when you walked into the Midships Lobby as you boarded her. There was something that hung in the air like static electricity; a sensation as intangible as it was undeniable. Only the Norway- her soul mate in so many ways- had anything remotely like it.

The old girl seemed to truly relish being out on the Atlantic, where she could pitch, shudder and roll to her heart’s content. And boy, did she ever.

Don’t get me wrong; the QE2 was wonderful as a cruise ship, pretty much regardless of where she went to. But out on the Atlantic, it was as if her true essence was totally unleashed. That was where those great engines really got into their stride. No one who ever crossed on her will forget the sensation of sitting by a window and watching the grey, foam flecked Atlantic boling along, while the gentle vibration made the ice in your drink tinkle subtly in the glass. Of such memories are legends made.

In the eighties, there would always be a full band on the Southampton quayside to serenade her and her passengers away. To my dying day, I will always remember the band of the Royal Marines, playing christmas carols on the pier as we swung loose, bound for New York on a bitterly cold December night. The sounds floating across that widening gap between ship and shore were so poignant, echoing in that sharp, clear air, that most of the huddled masses on deck that night simply forgot the cold. Our collective breath hung like Channel fog in the freezing night air.

Swinging out into the channel, speed increased. First and last nights were always classed as ‘informal’ dress nights which, for men, meant jackets and ties, with smart trouser suits or skirts for the ladies. The first night of any crossing always crackled with anticipation of the adventure ahead.

Many came to cherish this view

Many came to cherish this view

For the rest of the voyage, it was invariably black tie for the men, and cocktail dresses for the ladies. And in no other setting was the dress code so rigorously adhered to, or just so absolutely damned right. Seeing everyone in their evening finery set a tone that everything that followed merely enhanced, from the subtle lighting to the pre dinner cocktail music. The tinkling baby grand and, of course, the fabulous, formal dining experience itself.

And that food was sublime, from first to last. It was delivered silver service, as it should be, and it fed both the man and his sense of inner contentment at the same time. While no two people ever have the same take on food- and there were always at least a handful of professional, platinum chip moaners on every crossing- I remember the QE2 dining experience as one of the greatest celebrations of food and, indeed, life, that I am ever likely to experience. It made for a longer, more languid and involved experience but, being out on the Atlantic, it wasn’t as if we had to be in a hurry to get off and go somewhere the next day.

It was an epic adventure. You had time to get to know people. The library was vast, and many comfy hours were spent there, sprawled out on a sofa. Lost both in a book, and on an ocean. There was time to enjoy afternoon tea, and a pre dinner cocktail. There were enrichment lectures, dance classes, and a vast, expansive spa complex, located on the lower decks of the ship. And, like millions of Atlantic passengers before us, we amused ourselves with each others’ company, and had enormous fun in doing so.

You could effectively forget about time outdoors, unless you hit a lucky summertime crossing. Atlantic storms tend to travel in four day cycles, and you were almost guaranteed to hit one. In spring and early summer, icebergs still loom across the waters of the Grand Banks off Newfoundland. Fortunately, radar and ample lifeboats make these potential ship killers- the true ‘Great Whites’ of the ocean- that much less of an occupational hazard.

The Queens Room

The Queens Room

The Atlantic is no respecter of egos; the Titanic found that out. It can make a ship perform that kind of gymnastics that Olga Korbut could only have dreamed of. It took a particular form of psychopath to enjoy the crossing, and yet we came back, year after year. It was like being a member of a secretive, elusive kind of sect.

For this was our ocean, and our ship. 99.999 per cent of the travelling public flew across the Atlantic. Pah. We few, in turn, remained in helpless, eternal thrall to our great lady and she, in turn, returned the compliment. When you boarded the old girl in either Southampton or New York, it always felt as if she smiled at you. It was a totally symbiotic relationship, that’s for sure. She knew her own, and you felt it everywhere on board.

The nights passed by in a whirl. We had after dinner floorshows, piano players, and live bands. There was a popular, full scale casino, and a disco that could, with the right crowd, rock through until the early morning hours, and very often did. With everyone still in evening wear, those nights had a sense of fine style and fun that I still cherish even now. I miss them so much.

You could have breakfast in bed, while you read the news digest that was delivered with it. You could drag out lunch over two hours, or enjoy live jazz with your fish and chips. On westbound crossings, days were always twenty five hours long, to compensate for the time difference between Europe and America. It meant that you arrived in New York without jet lag, but with your baggage.

Those were languid, lazy days, and yet paradoxically, they passed at a truly blistering pace. And at journey’s end, as the fabulous Manhattan skyline splintered the early morning dawn, you knew beyond a shred of doubt that you had completed a truly epic journey.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Unmissable. Unmistakable. Unforgettable.

Regret hung in the air at the end of every crossing like lingering Atlantic fog. The carnival was over. But all that did was to fire you up all over again, and make you more determined to get back on that giddy, rock and rolling fairground ride that we called ‘the crossing’. Once QE2 got her silken claws into you, she never let you go.

But, let’s face it. It’s not as if you really wanted to, anyway….


Braemar is part of the 2014 D-Day remembrance flotilla

Braemar is part of the 2014 D-Day remembrance flotilla

June 6th, 2014 marks the 70th anniversary of the massed, all out assault by American, British, Canadian, French and Polish troops on the outer bulwarks of Adolf Hitler’s much vaunted ‘Fortress Europe’. The D-Day landings were achieved in appalling weather conditions; they were quite simply the biggest combination of shipping and military might ever seen. And, though the fighting in and for Normandy that raged for weeks afterwards was savage, merciless and brutal, there is no question that the actions instigated in the early hours of June 6th, 1944, marked the beginning of the death throes of the Third Reich.

Next year, a quartet of interesting and quite diverse cruises will visit the sights and highlights of the D-Day anniversary celebrations. Some of them are quite different in emphasis than others, though all quite rightly put an emphasis on acknowledging the sacrifices made by those who never returned from the campaign. Here’s who goes there for those who might be interested, and just how those itineraries break down.

HOLLAND AMERICA LINE is offering a twelve night cruise aboard the large, luxurious Eurodam. To use a somewhat unfortunate phrase, this one jumps the gun a bit, sailing from Rome on April 29th. You’ll call in at Portland and Cherbourg, from where you’ll have an opportunity to see the landing beaches. Leaving Rome, the cruise also calls at Cartagena, Gibraltar, Cadiz, Lisbon and Vigo, as well as Zeebrugge, before finally ending in Copenhagen.

My verdict: Really nothing more than a repositioning cruise, albeit aboard a very luxurious and well run ship. Not really an in depth D-Day experience as such, but certainly a nice cruise in its own right. Fares from £1,348 based on an inside stateroom.

FRED.OLSEN CRUISE LINES are offering an excellent, seven night round UK cruise aboard the small, beautifully styled Braemar that takes in many of the most prominent D-Day sites, including Cherbourg and an overnight stay in Le Havre. This really allows you time to see the invasion beaches, plus the museums. It also features a call at Dunkirk, with its memories of the 1940 ‘miracle’, as well as Portsmouth, the nerve centre of the entire planning for the operation. There’s also a call at Zeebrugge on this cruise, too.

My verdict: Sailing on June 1st, this one puts you right in the centre of the commemorations and, just as importantly, in the proper time frame. The cruise sails round trip from Harwich.  Prices for the sailing, based on an inside cabin, start from £699.

German U-boat memorial

German U-boat memorial

CRUISE AND MARITIME offers another seven night sailing from the UK, beginning in Bristol (Avonmouth) and finishing in Liverpool, aboard the elegant, intimate DiscoveryThis cruise also departs on June 1st, and offers calls to see the German fortifications on Guernsey- the only part of the UK to be occupied by the Nazis- as well as Honfleur, a perfect jumping off point to see the paratroop landing zones, including the recreated Pegasus Bridge.

There’s also a Cherbourg call, and the ship spends the actual anniversary cruising off the beaches themselves- a very different perspective indeed.

My verdict: A concise itinerary indeed over the course of a week. And with inside cabins from £649 per person, tremendous value as well.

SWAN HELLENIC is offering a superb, twelve night itinerary from Portsmouth aboard the intimate, highly styled Minerva.The cruise sails on June 4th. This one also overnights in Le Havre and visits Cherbourg, but there is also a call in at Caen, literally the crucible of the Normandy campaign. This literally puts you right in the middle of the entire combat zone, with the attractions all around you. Dunkirk is also on the agenda, as is the headquarters for the D-Day campaign at Portsmouth.

But Minerva also ventures to the French west coast for an overnight stay in L’Orient; the main U-boat base for the Kriegsmarine in France during most of World War Two. Many of the original, giant concrete submarine pens are still in existence, and can be seen to this day. The cruise also visits the island of Belle Ile,

Also on offer is a call at the Isles of Scilly, as well as one at Dartmouth.

My verdict: 

Visit the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of D-Day

Visit the Normandy beaches on the 70th anniversary of D-Day

This is the priciest option of the lot, with inside cabins going at £2,135 per person. However, Swan Hellenic also include all excursions in the fare, and these are of a genuinely high and personalised standard. The twelve night itinerary offers more of everything, albeit at a much higher price point.

All of these cruises are quite likely to sell out quite quickly. If doing one of these cruises is on your personal horizon, my advice is to get in there quite quickly.


Myanmar marvels

Myanmar marvels

Myanmar. Burma. Two names, one state of mind. It’s like a country emerging slowly from a decades long coma. A very fragile flower, blinking itself uneasily awake in the first pale glow of the spring.

It’s a country years behind the west in terms of technology and infrastructure. Ancient British colonial buildings still line the waterfront streets of the old capital of Rangoon, now known as Yangon. Cell phone and internet reception is, at best, rudimentary.

The local buses are incredible; they remind you of nothing more than open sided trucks, full on the inside, with six or seven people sitting on the roof, and three times as many more hanging expressionless to the sides and the back. They thump along potholed roads and splutter around corners flanked by pavements that have lacked any kind of maintenance for decades.

Passage upriver to this mesmerising, magnificent city is an adventure in itself. A procession of sixty miles upstream, along the muddy, serpentine sprawl of the ancient Irrawaddy. Your ship ghosts silently past oxen grazing on river banks, while others pull carts overflowing with fresh fruit for the local markets. Fishing boats and open canoes dot the ancient waterway; some come bumbling past you, almost swamped with the catch of the day. The masts of trim, grey warships protrude skywards from their covered bases, competing with the first glittering pagodas for top dog in the viewing stakes.

Temples as far as the eye can see

Temples as far as the eye can see

There are ranks of thatched roof houses on rickety stilts that rear up out of the muddy morass of the river, and lethargic, bumbling ferry boats that traverse the river at all hours of the day and night. And then, from the shimmering mid afternoon haze, the broad outlines of a city begins to materialise, like something from an Indiana Jones movie, set against a cloudless, petrol blue sky.

Old Rangoon. Modern Yangon.  Any dividing line between the two is impossible to divine. But one thread runs through both ancient and modern; the abiding influence of Buddhism.

You see it at it’s most potent in the incredible, 2,500 year old temple complex at Shweydaggon. If ever there was a kind of religious theme park, this stupendous place is surely it.

There is row upon row of glittering gold stupas, illuminated by scented candles, that shimmer almost shyly against the flaring purple twilight. Shaven headed monks in saffron coloured robes pray silently at the feet of massive, painted Buddahs. The scent of incense drifts like long deceased shades through the crowds.

Broad staircases lead to temples lined with rows of gold sheathed, praying deities a dozen or more feet high. There are beautiful, fragile lanterns, strung across the streets above your head. The jagged spires of temples and the subtle, sultry sound of gongs, calling the faithful to prayer.

Stupefying spectacles.....

Stupefying spectacles…..

The air of serenity and unhurried calm is almost impossible to quantify, much less explain. Burma feels like a kind of Alice in Wonderland country with rough edges; there is definitely an element of having fallen through the looking glass and landing somewhere fifty years back in the past.

Nightlife is almost non existent in terms of what we understand in the west, though no doubt that will change as outside influences slowly seep into the country’s infrastructure to tempt the locals with all the ‘benefits’ of modern society.

Nothing summed up the country more for me than the constant procession of overnight, open topped ferries that chugged past us at all hours of the night. They literally run right ashore on the banks of the river in old Rangoon. From there, a veritable tidal wave of humans, animals and perishable goods poured into the graceful, groaning city waterfront, just steps from our berth in the middle of the city.

Burma is as far off centre and different as you are likely to encounter. I definitely recommend that you see it now, before it changes forever.

I got there via a fourteen night fly cruise on the small, highly styled Aegean Odyssey, operated by Voyages to Antiquity. During the course of a twelve night, round trip sailing from Singapore in December 2012, we spent three full days and two nights tied up in the centre of Yangon. An extensive, included series of organised tours showed us the highlights of this beautiful, bewitching land. For your information, the Aegean Odyssey will be returning to these same waters in the winter of 2014-15.

Definitely one for the bucket list, this one.