Few things stunned the maritime community quite like the Lazarus style resurrection of Portuscale Cruises, the nascent niche operator that has risen, Phoenix style, from the ashes of Classic International Cruises, and it’s spectacular collapse a couple of years ago.
Make no bones about it; Portuscale is as far removed from the accepted tenets of mainstream cruising as it is possible to be. While modern ships divert their passengers attention from the elements by showcasing a whole string of eye boggling, constantly evolving new features, the Portuscale experience is resolutely, exquisitely retro.
Here you’ll find much smaller, more intimate ships that still have the personal touch, while keeping the base amenities that made ocean voyages such a compelling way to travel in the first place. You’ll find good restaurants offering traditional, fixed seating for dinner, a show lounge and a piano bar, a few shops, and large, commodious cabins that actually give you room- and reason- to relax in. Though not too many have balconies, there is a really agreeable trade off on these small, beautifully crafted gems.
This comes in the shape of their simple, stunning lines; a clear throwback over more than six decades, to an age when seagoing ships had beautiful, bewitching lines. In short, they possessed camber, sheer and poise; things once deemed to be marketing attractions in and of their own right. Things rescued from the scrap heap by Portuscale. And quite literally at that, too.
Each of the four ships- Funchal, Porto, Lisboa and Azores- represents one of the most elegant and evocative travel experiences available anywhere today- the maritime equivalent of the magnificently resurrected Orient Express luxury train. Vessels that offer two journeys for what amounts to the price of one.
Firstly, each ship will take you on a hopefully compelling voyage of discovery to a string of ports around the globe; the smaller size of the ships also allows them to nip smartly into the smaller, sweeter little port havens that their bigger, glitzier brethren have to glide past. This is a compelling excuse for booking in and of itself.
The second journey? A voyage back in time, to an age when more personalised service actually counted for a lot. To an age when a good steamer chair proved far more preferable to gimmicks like cantilevered walkways and rock climbing walls. An age when you could actually look out at the ocean in all it’s moody, matchless majesty, and feel a real connection with it. A time when ship and sea were unashamedly symbiotic.
The living, breathing proof of this renaissance emerged a few weeks ago, when Funchal emerged from her dusty concrete cocoon like a flower bursting into bloom after three years of darkened lay up. Scrapyards around the worlds had flexed their cheque books and sharpened their knives over the demise of the Classic International fleet; it seems that those gentlemen- so busy and feted of late- are to be disappointed on this front, at least.
God knows, the maritime community needs the diversity that is wrapped up in this quartet of proud, distinctive little hulls. 2013 has seen Sleeping Beauty begin to slowly blink herself awake. It is very much to be hoped that 2014 sees a resurgence of interest in what amounts to a truly largely forgotten form of travel; the small ocean liner.