DREAMING WIDE AWAKE- THE CARIBBEAN

The locals can be a bit rowdy...

The locals can be a bit rowdy…

Oh, the Caribbean. The very word dances on the tip of your tongue like liquid honey. What images it conjures up, and how it makes the adrenaline flow. For neophytes dreaming of that first trip, it can seem like the approach to paradise. For veterans returning to those same hallowed shores, the sense of anticipation is almost electric.

It often seems as if there are two Caribbeans; the brochure images of powder white beaches, calypso and swaying palms is still there to be sure. But there is also another Caribbean; one where thousands of cruise ship passengers flood like a human tidal wave across islands struggling to stay afloat under the weight of this mass disgorging of modern day pirates. One where the differences between mosquitoes and beach hawkers is increasingly difficult to distinguish. A place where the traffic can be every bit as frustrating as in London or Los Angeles.

Broadly speaking, the islands in the west, such as Grand Cayman and Cozumel, have brilliant, blinding white beaches, but not much in the way of outstanding scenery. They are also more susceptible to warm trade winds, which can often kick up quite a bit.

Those to the east, such as Saint Thomas, Tortola and Saint Lucia, tend to be typically more verdant, greener, and much more mountainous. Again, they are blessed with wonderful beaches, and arrayed so closely to each other that they resemble nothing so much as a string of exotic stepping stones, flung at random across the sparkling, azure hue of the ocean.

Those points duly noted, let me try and give you some pointers for cruising round this fabled, idyllic playground.

Winter? Where?

Winter? Where?

In either direction, the busiest season is invariably November through until March. This is when the weather is usually guaranteed to be at its best. With hurricane season gone, the allure of eschewing leaden winter days at home for adventuring around a string of sun splashed islands is irresistible for many Americans and Canadians. Europeans too are drawn here in droves during winter. The entire region acts like some surreal, sublime magnet.

The downside is that, in winter, the Caribbean is almost awash with giant cruise ships that have fled from colder climes to these far more welcoming waters. One memorable December day a few years ago, I watched in disbelief as no less than fifteen cruise ships- average capacity around 2500 passengers each- tried to find their way into Cozumel. They were stacked up like flights over Heathrow.

This makes for a far greater strain on an island’s infrastructure- taxis, tourist coaches and private guides have all got their work cut out for them. Pier space is often limited, so local towns can often find themselves awash with podgy, sun burnt tourists seeking shade, sustenance and the odd margarita, as they try to get to and from their ships. This congestion- both human and mechanical- can be maddening to the unsuspecting, as well as quite bewildering.

Beaches are often overrun by these human tidal waves, making the unspoiled seclusion promised by glossy brochure shots an interesting notion at best.

On the other hand, the duty free shopping scene on some of the islands has mushroomed; often to such an extent that some of them resemble vast, reggae suffused shopping malls. They ingest staggering volumes of revenue into an island’s coffers each and every week during the lucrative winter season.

Kick back on sultry St. Maarten

Kick back on sultry St. Maarten

In the summer months, hurricane season can bring its own, obvious perils. The bulk of the winter fleet sails off to Alaska and Europe, leaving a much reduced rump of ships to sail the week long cruises around the islands.

The result is a calmer, more sedate Caribbean experience, albeit one with much higher humidity. And there is always a chance that a hurricane might whip up. No cruise ship captain would ever dream of ploughing full tilt into such an appalling natural maelstrom; that in turn might result in the cancellation of one or more ports of call in favour of more comfortably achieved alternatives. So, if you are going to the Caribbean to see a specific set of ports, there is always the off chance that, owing to the weather, you might not get there. No cruise line will play Russian roulette with passengers’ lives merely for the sake of it.

So, those are some of the pros and cons. Now, many will tell you that the islands are all the same- identikit pictures of each other. And yes, to some extent they do kind of blur into each other, in a dreamy, smiley kind of way. And, while many of them do have much in common, each one is as individual as a human fingerprint.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the major European powers- England, France, Holland and Spain in particular- embarked on a phase of aggressive colonising in the Caribbean. The Spanish built massive fortifications on occupied islands such as San Juan, mainly to offer shelter and succour to the fleets bringing plundered Aztec and Mayan gold back to Spain. English privateers took an avowed interest in diverting that same gold into the coffers of Good Queen Bess, and thus a slow burning powder keg was lit.

Shell Beach, Saint Barts

Shell Beach, Saint Barts

Saint Lucia, for example, changed hands no less than thirteen times between England and France. Later, pirates such as Blackbeard and Anne Bonney turned these same waters into a devil’s playground of looted, pillaged shipping; a violently bloody slaughter ground enlivened with bouts of rum sodden roistering ashore. Often as not, these ended abruptly on some English or Spanish gallows at dawn.

Not that this deterred the pirates from seeking out the lucrative treasures that had to pass through here, en route back to Europe. To say nothing of the appalling barbarity of the slave trade, imposed by those same, ‘civilised’ European nations, as their owners raised vast plantation houses for themselves, and treated their human cargo to such appalling inhumanity that they died in agonised droves. Many of these plantation houses can still be seen on Barbados and Jamaica to this day.

And yet… the islands still have the most amazing, vibrant aspect right to this day. Almost perfectly clear. electric blue waters kissing vast carpets of honey coloured sand, fringed by serried tiers of idly waving palm trees, many with hammocks slung between them at crazy angles. The permanent, languid lilt of reggae that is heard almost everywhere. The smell of spicy nutmeg and cooked jerk chicken. Tracts of gorgeous hibiscus and oleander….

Forests full of chattering birds and bright, multi coloured butterflies. An Iguana strutting fearlessly from out behind a red painted, clapboard bar as it saunters back into the undergrowth. Para gliders dotting the sky like exquisite butterflies. Jet skis tearing a thin white trail across a seascape sprinkled with small yachts, scuba divers, pedalos and canoes…

Frosty margaritas, daiquiris and pina coladas. The simple pleasure of sipping an ice cold Carib beer on a beach as the warm water kisses your feet. Soft, sultry sand between your toes…..

Sunrise...

Sunrise…

Sunrises that fill the heart with wonder, and spellbinding sunsets that engender a deep, mellow sense of contentment are also in the mix. Warm nights of dining and dancing under the stars. The anticipation of arrival in the next , exalted landfall. All laid out in one rich, appealing package. Compelling stuff, indeed. Powerful magic.

The Caribbean is not perfect. But then, neither is anywhere else. The overall pace of life- and that lifestyle itself- is as invigorating as it is sporadically relaxing.

If I am certain of one thing, it is that one visit will never be enough. You may, indeed,  leave the islands. But the islands never truly leave you. At times, the urge to return is overwhelming and, oh my, return you surely will.

You might run into me at Magen’s Bay on Saint Thomas. At Stanley’s bar on Cane Garden Bay in Tortola. Or at Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman.

Whatever, wherever- mine is always a margarita. What’s yours?

FIVE GREAT TRAIN JOURNEYS WORTH CONSIDERING…

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Tired of flying? If the thought of one more airport experience makes you start losing the will to live, that’s the time to start considering alternatives.

Rail journeys can be a truly epic adventure, especially so if it’s an itinerary you’ve always longed to go with. You’ll need more time to play with, as well as a willingness to see the journey itself as a huge part of the adventure, and not merely just as a means of getting from A to B.

With those thoughts in mind, here’s a few rail journeys that I hope might just fire the imagination…..

TRAVELLING TO THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

This is an absolute beauty. Start at London’s ornate St. Pancras station with a glass of champagne, before boarding one of the sleek, highly styled Eurostar expresses for a two hour journey through the Channel Tunnel, and straight into the heart of Paris.

If time allows, grab another glass of bubbly and some fine food at Le Train Bleu; it’s an atmospheric, belle epoque restaurant in the Gare du Lyon station that definitely enhances the experience. From here, you can board the TGV that will whisk you through the heart of France, before rolling slowly towards the coast, and eventual landfall in cosmopolitan Marseilles or beautiful, balmy Nice. Altogether a great way to arrive in a quite magical setting.

TORONTO TO NEW YORK

A thirteen hour transit starts at Toronto’s Union Station. Stock up with food and goodies for your journey before you go; the catering on the cross border trains is pretty rudimentary.

The route runs via the border crossing at Niagara, where everyone has to do customs and immigration, down on through the rural heartlands of New York State; Albany and Buffalo are just a couple of the famous names en route.

The scenery is highlighted by huge swathes of lush, rolling greenery, dotted with white clapboard villages that fly past in a dreamy blur. You rumble over vast, winding rivers and through long abandoned industrial heartlands, before a final, magical early evening arrival among the gleaming spires of midtown Manhattan.  Tip; pay a little extra and spring for one of the huge business class seats for extra comfort and personal space. It’s worth it.

Barcelona awaits at journey's end

Barcelona awaits at journey’s end

OVERNIGHT TRAIN TO BARCELONA

You can do this one from London, again taking the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to Paris Gare du Nord. Here, you’ll connect with the special sleeper trains that run overnight through to the Catalan gem of Barcelona.

The trains have couchette berths in a number of configurations, and these also include the cost of an evening meal with wine, as well as breakfast the following day. The journey routes through the heart of France, and then through the Pyrenees into Spain proper, before eventually making the grand entry into one of Europe’s most beautiful and swaggering cities. Quite a way to go, and quite a city to savour at journey’s end as well.

AMERICA COAST TO COAST

Either east or west, try rolling across an entire, unforgettable continent. From L.A. to New York, or vice versa. Take one of the spectacular Amtrak double decker trains, complete with dining cars and separate sleeping cabins, and savour the spectacular hinterlands of mainland America.

Pit stops en route could include a few days in sassy, bohemian New Orleans, cloud scraping Denver, and even Al Capone’s old stamping grounds in classy, cosmopolitan Chicago. Roll into proud, patrician Philadelphia before ending your adventure in the forest of glass, steel and sheer excitement that is New York. Or make up your own route, and just go with the flow.

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

NORTH YORKSHIRE MOORS RAILWAY, UNITED KINGDOM

Short by comparison with the other options here, but sweet in its own right. Eighteen miles of beautifully meandering scenery between the villages of Grosmont and Pickering, in North Yorkshire. A scenic smorgasbord par excellence, and all savoured from the nostalgic cocoon of a real steam hauled train, to boot.

You’ll see chocolate box pretty stations and bubbling, splashing streams that meander through lush, flower carpeted meadows dotted with idly grazing cows and sheep. Some of the runs even feature evocative old Pullman carriages, and offer some seriously indulgent at seat dining options. A lovely option for a celebration on a warm summer evening.

So; there you go. Five of the best. Or just make up your own railroad adventure, and get out there. Whatever- wherever- enjoy.

MUTINY ON THE FRANCE; DOLLARS, CRUDE OIL AND HARD TIMES….

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

As the 1970’s dawned, passenger numbers continued to plummet. By that year, only four in every hundred travellers were still crossing the Atlantic by sea. The jets were unbeatable.

Even the France had started to suffer so, for the winter season, the French Line had started sending her on cruises. These were mainly to the Caribbean, but there was also a couple of special cruises down to Rio for the Carnival. Each spring, she resumed her place on the five day transatlantic shuttle, sailing between Le Havre, Southampton, and New York.

The France was hugely successful as a cruise ship; a role she had never been designed for or envisaged in. The ship had very little usable outdoor sunbathing space, and both of her swimming pools were covered.

These major shortcomings would be addressed during her conversion into the Norway but, for now, the France was a surprising success in the off season cruising scene.

Still, it was on the North Atlantic that she really came into her own. And, even as the noose tightened, she remained a matchless, elegant ambassador for the French way of life; a magnificent, final burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering airlines.

The French Line always asserted that you were ‘in France itself’ the moment that you crossed her gangway. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, even though the bulk of her passengers were American. Onion soup was always available for breakfast and, as on all her ancestors, table wine aboard the France was always free.

In short, the liner clung to her true sense of national identity. Her crew of 1200 was entirely French, including the scarlet jacketed lift boys that whisked madame or monsieur to whichever deck they desired. God forbid that a passenger on the France should actually have to push their own lift buttons.

But the ship was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. Only a very generous operating subsidy from the French government kept her sailing at all. But, as the old political guard changed back in Paris, some very different thinking began to emerge.

The France made two stunning world cruises in 1973 and 1974, arriving in such unfamiliar locations as Sydney, Singapore and Cape Town. On each cruise, a special supply ship loaded with fresh, clean, high quality linen had to be sent to meet the France at the half way mark; the table cloths, bed sheets and napkins on board were of such a standard, that no foreign workers or machinery could be entrusted to clean them. So the French shipped replacement sets halfway around the planet.

Both cruises were magnificent, headline making epics, but even then, events in the middle east were conspiring to deal a death blow to this floating fairy tale.

In 1973, OPEC increased the price of crude oil sixfold. The France, which guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine, could no longer be immune. On five day crossings, she was burning the equivalent of a million dollars worth a day of crude oil. Crossings were lengthened to six days to conserve fuel and- in a move that really shocked regular French Line passengers to the core- the company started charging for table wine. Many said then that they knew that the end was near.

The government was faced with a stark choice; either to continue funding the joint Anglo-French Concorde project, or keeping the France in service. Doing both was unrealistic. In 1974, it announced the end of the annual, $24 million operating subsidy for the France. What followed was inevitable.

The French Line announced that the SS. France would be withdrawn from service after her October 25th crossing, and put up for sale. One hundred and ten years of unparalleled French excellence on the Atlantic was thus guillotined with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. But all parties concerned reckoned without the liner’s crew.

While many of the deck and engine room staff had the option of transferring to cargo ships and freighters, the hundreds of stewards, cabin attendants and lift boys were left with nowhere to go. Naturally unwilling to see their livelihoods torpedoed thus, they decided to act.

On the evening of September 10th, 1974, the France was approaching her home port of Le Havre, at the end of an eastbound transatlantic crossing. Many of the 1,266 passengers were at dinner. The orchestra was playing in the Restaurant Chambord when, almost apologetically, a steward interrupted them to inform the passengers that the ship had  been taken over by the crew. She would be anchored right across the entrance to the port until further notice. With that, the stunned passengers were served their coffee and, in the best traditions of another moment of desperate shipboard history, the orchestra resumed playing!

On the bridge, Captain Christian Pettre had been confronted by a group of men led by Maurice Roulin, a bedroom steward and former wartime commando. Roulin informed Pettre- nicknamed ‘The Pasha’- that the crew were taking over the ship. Pettre asked him if he was mad, but remained impassive thereafter. No doubt he sympathised with his men and their predicament.

The story made headlines around the world the next day. The France was anchored across the entrance to Le Havre; her huge bulk meant that no other ship could either enter or leave the port. The passengers and their luggage were taken off the next day by ferry. Then both sides settled down to what amounted to a classic Mexican stand off.

The government blustered that they had expected anything but this; the France taken over by her own crew, as if she was some common or garden factory. The crew, in no mood to compromise, proceeded to blow its own slim chances out of the water by demanding the retention of the France in service, plus a whopping great thirty five per cent pay increase.

In the event, it was the strikers- the French were careful not to use the word ‘mutineers’- that blinked first. As the autumn weather worsened, the France was obliged to move to Cherbourg, thus ending the blockade. Supplies of certain foodstuffs began to run out on board. The government simply sat back, and waited.

Finally, in October, the crew voted overwhelmingly in a ballot to bring the France back into port. After a final, touching mass in the ship’s chapel, she arrived back in Le Havre on October 9th. And though the crew continued to picket the ship until December, the SS. France was officially stricken from service that same month.

That should have been that. The liner was taken to a quiet backwater called the Quai D’Oubli- literally the ‘pier of the forgotten’- and laid up. Her furnishings were covered over and, with only a skeleton crew on board, a deathly silence fell over the great, grand France.

It hung over her like poisonous fog for five long, lonely years, As Saigon fell and Britain entered the Common Market, the France lingered in silent despair; lovingly maintained, yet seemingly doomed to the scrapyard. Punk rock came, Elvis left the building, and the darkened ship slipped further from the public memory.

A scheme to sell her as a floating casino fell through, as did a bid from the Chinese government to use her as an accommodation ship, But that vast hull contained thousands of tons of premium grade steel, and it began to receive some very unwelcome attention in certain quarters. Around the world, scrap yard owners flexed their cheque books as they began quietly sharpening their knives.

But these gentlemen were to be disappointed, for the last great French liner was not destined to die after all…..

In early 1979, Knut Kloster, the brilliant pioneer behind Norwegian Caribbean Lines, was desperate to acquire fresh tonnage to bolster his quartet of sold out Caribbean cruise ships. Unwilling to wait years for a new build, he embarked on a radical, far reaching course of action. He decided to convert an already existing ship up to his new cruising standards.

Kloster went for the big top, and decided to buy a laid up Atlantic liner for the job. The premise seemed unbelievable. The experts opined that all four available candidates were far too big for the job. But Kloster pressed ahead.

He first looked at the Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello, and then at the lingering SS. United States.  And then, finally, he came to the SS. France, by a way the biggest of the bunch.

By that time, the France was enduring her fifth, consecutive soul destroying year in limbo. But she was in immaculate condition, lovingly maintained and, as the Norwegians were quick to discover, obviously built to last for decades. The prime candidate. But there was more to it than just that.

Looking up at the still graceful, flaring bow, Kloster said of France: ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for another twenty years….’

Kloster bought the France for $18 million and, in August of 1979, she was renamed the SS. Norway in a simple ceremony in Le Havre. On the 22nd of that month, four tugs towed the former pride of the French Line out of her home port towards Bremerhaven, Germany, and the onset of the biggest conversion project in maritime history.

The atmosphere was tense. The local French unions, flailing desperately around, had threatened to block the seaward channel in a vain attempt to prevent her departure. On the bridge, captain designate Torbjorn Hauge had been assigned a pair of armed guards.

It was all a lot of fuss over nothing. Two days later, the Norway entered the Lloyd Werft dry dock at Bremerhaven, and a miraculous, eight month transformation began to unfold. A rebirth without an equal…

EMPIRE STATE OF MIND; NEW YORK’S ICON

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

The Empire State Building still dominates midtown Manhattan to this day

It towers a full one hundred and two storeys above the midtown Manhattan skyline, and it’s graceful, tapering spire is instantly recognised the whole world over. Sleek, serene, and strikingly simple, it’s hard to believe that the Empire State Building is now entering its ninth decade of life.

It was originally commissioned at the outset of the Great Depression. Standing at the intersection of Fifth Avenue and 34th street, the steel frame was erected in an amazing six month stretch. It was meant to rival the nearby Chrysler Building, the world’s first skyscraper to exceed a thousand feet in height. Both buildings have become icons of both the city and, more specifically, of the Art Deco era that typified both buildings.

Opened in 1931, the building stood a full 1,250 feet in height. An additional, two hundred foot high radio mast is atop this. At one time, it was intended as a mooring mast for passenger airships, but the fiery demise of the Hindenburg at nearby Lakehurst in May of 1937 put an end to any such lofty notions.

Designed by the building form of Starrett and Eken, it was derisively nicknamed the ‘Empty State Building’ in its early years, when there was a glut of vacant office space across Manhattan as a whole. To create the illusion of full occupancy, all its lights were left on at night. This fooled few, but it did illuminate just how beautiful the building was, especially when seen from inbound liners arriving in the Hudson.

3,400 workers toiled to complete the project on time for it’s official opening on May 1st, 1931, when President Herbert Hoover inaugurated it via a button pressed in Washington, D.C. But it was not until 1950 would the giant complex even begin to earn a profit.

In a chilling presage of future events, the Empire State Building was rocked when a lost B25 Mitchell bomber slammed into it in thick fog on the morning of July 28th, 1945. The plane impacted on the north side, between the 79th and 80th floors. Despite the fourteen fatalities, the fire was extinguished within forty minutes, and the damage was subsequently repaired.

Ironically, all the lights on the upper level had been extinguished at the time; pilots approaching Manhattan had been warning about the dangers of just such a possible crash for months.

The Empire State Building remained the ‘queen’ of the famous Manhattan skyline until  the 1973 debut of the twin towers of the World Trade Centre at the bottom of Battery Park. The destruction of 9/11 gave the building back it’s number one position by default; one it maintained until the new Freedom Tower came on the scene.

Today, the Empire State Building remains a must see in New York, and the views from the observation deck on the 84th floor are arguably the best across midtown Manhattan. It has become as much a symbol of New York as the Statue of Liberty, or even Broadway.

COSTA CONCORDIA SALVAGE- PARALLELS WITH THE PAST (UPDATED)

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

As the attempt to finally right the enormous Costa Concordia begins off the Italian island of Giglio, all sorts of superlatives are being bandied around to describe the operation. The general consensus is that there has never been a salvage operation on this scale.

That consensus is wrong.

In February of 1942, the giant French luxury liner, Normandie, caught fire and capsized at her berth in the middle of New York harbour, at the foot of her berth at Manhattan’s 48th street. The big liner was in the final stages of conversion into a troop ship- the USS Lafayette- when she was ruined in a set of circumstances every bit as farcical, needless and incompetent as those that were to wreck the Concordia, almost exactly seventy years later to the day.

Statistics are interesting to compare here; Concordia was 114,000 tons, with a length of 952 feet. Normandie was smaller in terms of gross tonnage- 83,000- but was a full 1,029 feet long. In terms of bulk, she was every bit as impressive as her Italian counterpart.

It took a full eighteen months to raise the Normandie; without the benefit of today’s cutting edge technology, the capsized French leviathan was first lightened by cutting away all her upper works, her masts, and her three huge funnels. The hull, flooded by a catastrophic ingress of water from forty three fire engines and her subsequent partial immersion in the Hudson river, took months to make sound and pump dry.

However, it was fully intended that the Normandie would not only be salvaged, but repaired and returned to service as a troopship. But the liner capsized on her port side and, as she did so, part of her keel was twisted on a rock ledge near the pier. In addition, her port side engines were ruined beyond any economic repair and, by the time of her amazing resurrection in November of 1943, the need for troopships in general had began to recede in any event. So, instead of returning to service, the Normandie was eventually towed to a New Jersey shipyard and scrapped.

Yet despite the apparent waste of time, effort and resources, the raising of the Normandie was an unparalleled, Herculean effort. Nothing like it had ever been attempted before; and valuable lessons were learned that have  often been applied in similar situations since. That includes the current efforts to raise the Costa Concordia.

Of course, the Costa Concordia capsized in partially open waters off the coast of western Italy, whereas the Normandie went over in the middle of New York’s Hudson river. The need for haste in the case of the Italian ship is heightened by the looming inevitability of another Mediterranean winter; storms could finish off the seriously weakened hulk of the Concordia if she is not raised in the next few days.

Sadly, there is no hope that she will ever sail again. Like the Normandie, she has already been shorn of her funnel and masts; her last destination is not in doubt.

The raising of the Concordia also coincides with the curtain opening on the trial of her former master, the hapless, wretched Francesco Schettino.  And you don’t have to be an expert to form the idea that both are ultimately bound for the scrap heap.

UPDATE: JANUARY  11TH, 2014

Costa is currently considering bids for the final disposal of the remains of the Costa Concordia. Some twelve shipyards have bid for the work, including Middlesbrough in the UK. A decision on the favoured contractor is slated for announcement at the end of February/early March. The wreck is expected to be removed from it’s current location off the island of Giglio in June, either by tow, or by heavy lift ship. Demolition is expected to commence in September.

Currently, the wreck has been stabilised and secured to protect it from the worst of the winter weather. The environmental impact of the sinking has been apparently- and thankfully- negligent.

Meanwhile, the ongoing trial of the former captain, Francesco Schettino, has ground to a halt at Grosetto as the result of a nationwide strike by Italian lawyers. No definite resumption date has been announced.

Some thirty-two people were lost as a result of the sinking in January, 2012. All the missing bodies have now been recovered.

VISITING HMS BELFAST IN LONDON

HMS Belfast, looking back at the forward gun turrets

HMS Belfast, looking back at the forward gun turrets

Of all the hundreds of Royal Navy capital ships that fought in World War Two, the sole survivor is the light cruiser HMS Belfast. Since 1971, the 12,000 ton old warrior has sat in a petrified state of preservation on the River Thames, across the river from the Tower of London, and within walking distance of Tower Bridge.

It costs around eighteen pounds to board the ship today. You can tour the lower crew mess decks, and see first hand the cramped, utilitarian life of a major warship, but without enduring the endless yawing, pitching and rolling that the ship would have experienced as an escort for the Arctic convoys in the depths of a pitiless winter.

You can see all four of the triple six inch gun turrets, frozen in both time and space.  The barrels of the two forward ones are still raised as if ready to hurl steel death across the city skyline at any moment. At certain times, you can even go inside.

Their finest hour was on December 26th 1943, at the Battle of North Cape, Scharnhorst, the last of Adolf Hitler’s combat ready battleships and the so called ‘lucky ship’ of the German navy, set sail on Christmas Day to make a desperate lunge at a vital Arctic convoy. She was actually sailing into the jaws of a trap.

HMS Belfast

HMS Belfast

Belfast was the flagship of Admiral Bob Burnett and, along with sister cruisers Norfolk and Sheffield, it was she that first encountered and checked the advancing Scharnhorst in the teeth of a howling gale. In complete darkness, they lost contact with the German ship. But Scharnhorst came back for another try. It sealed her fate.

Belfast and her sisters again parried the raider. By the time Scharnhorst broke off and headed for home, it was too late. Caught in the jaws of a gigantic vice, she was battered to a standstill, lanced with torpedoes, and then hammered into a flaming wreck that blew up in total darkness. It was the last major action between battleships north of the equator.

Belfast went on to serve during the D-Day landings, providing gunfire support for the ground forces earmarked for Operation Overlord. She also served with distinction during the Korean war, before being finally decommissioned in 1967. Plans for her preservation were by then already well in hand.

Today the proud, pristine cruiser is a much loved and familiar sight on the London skyline, with her pair of sprightly grey smokestacks and a phalanx of spiky anti aircraft guns that still quarter the horizon to this day, as if expecting the Luftwaffe to appear overhead at any moment.

You’ll also have the opportunity to tour the bridge, including Admiral Burnett’s cabin. There’s also a food and drink outlet on board, as well as a small souvenir shop. If you’re intent on seeing this unique piece of English maritime history properly, then I recommend that you allow yourself at least a full hour and a half.

Close up of the bow of HMS Belfast

Close up of the bow of HMS Belfast

Getting there:

The nearest underground stations to HMS Belfast are Tower Hill and London Bridge

Opening times: 10am-6pm  March to November (Last admission 5pm) 10am-5pm December to February (Last admission 4pm) Closed 24, 25 and 26th of December.

Disabled: Wheelchairs are available on loan aboard the ship. However, the layout and original construction of the ship makes access to lower decks difficult for disabled visitors.

SHIP REVIEW; MS PAUL GAUGUIN

The route to paradise

The route to paradise

The Paul Gauguin is one of the most unique and distinctive cruise ships afloat anywhere today. In the first instance, she is a strictly one off build. There are no siblings, or indeed even cousins, to this charming, one of a kind little gem.

Secondly, she cruises almost exclusively around the storybook islands of French Polynesia, and has done so exclusively since her debut in 1998. As a result, she has become an integral part of the tourism out there, and to such an extent that she has come to be regarded as a small, pretty, Polynesian island in her own right. This is nothing less than the truth.

At 19,000 tons and carrying just 336 guests, the Paul Gauguin manages to pull off the perfect double of appearing both spacious and intimate You’ll always find your own space and place on board, but there is ample scope for socialising when the mood suits you as well.

The decor throughout is cool and restful, with lots of pastel shades and wood accents, and a complete absence of any kind of glitz anywhere. There are no surf parks or rock climbing walls here; the amazing scenic smorgasbord that is French Polynesia will provide all the on board diversion that you can handle, and then some.

All cabins are outside, and the great majority have private balconies. My seven deck balcony room was just below the pool, and contained a bed so soft that it felt like falling into a giant marshmallow at the end of every night. There is a TV and a DVD player, and a mini bar stocked with free beer plus soft drinks, replenished as and when required. There was no expected welcome champagne on ice but, as the ship is fully inclusive throughout, this was not exactly a hardship.

Paul Gauguin brings Polynesia up close and personal

Paul Gauguin brings Polynesia up close and personal

The sitting area in this room was small but beautifully styled, with cherry wood door frames and cabinetry. The bathrooms all have bath, shower and toilet, but are pretty functional in comparison to the marble clad enclaves of Crystal and Silversea. But they do come with top end L’Occitaine products, deep, fluffy towels, slippers, and a terry robe.

The room also has a walk in wardrobe that allows for ample storage space but, truth be told, the Paul Gauguin is not a ‘dressy’ ship. The atmosphere on board is pretty informal, and matches the languid vibe of Polynesia itself quite seamlessly. Apart from the ship’s officers, I never saw anybody wearing a tie for the whole week on board.

The balcony was more of a large ledge, with room for two chairs and a small occasional table. You can’t recline on the balcony in any comfort, but it was still the perfect spot for breakfast coffee, or a nightcap. The sunrises I saw from mine were almost heartbreaking in their sheer, lustrous beauty and intensity.

Food from the restaurant menus can be served in your room, course by course. There’s also an additional, very extensive room service menu available, again at no charge, And what food it is. But I’ll get to that in a minute…

There are three main dining rooms; quite a handle for such a small ship. L’Etoile is the main dining venue, and has windows facing out over both port and starboard, as well as across the stern. Midships, Le Grill offers up buffet breakfasts and lunches, as does La Veranda on the rear of the next deck done.

Polynesia sunrise from the Paul Gauguin

Polynesia sunrise from the Paul Gauguin

La Veranda was my personal favourite; somehow, lamb chops or minute steak for breakfast, followed by crepes with chocolate sauce and steaming hot coffee, just seemed to become second nature, and not remotely serial self indulgence. There was a clutch of small tables that looked out over the stern, where you could always eat alfresco if the mood suited you. Most passengers seemed to take a few days to discover it, which was just fine by me.

But regardless of where you ate, the food was simply magnificent, both in terms of taste and presentation. The attention to detail is right up there with the six star ships, and the fruit- especially the melon- was serially addictive. The logistics of supplying a ship of this size with the quality of onboard catering we experienced cannot be overestimated. That it works so spectacularly well testifies to the working relationship that the Paul Gauguin people have established with victuallers ashore.

There are a handful of idyllic, cosy little venues that form the nucleus of social life on board. La Palette is at the rear of the topmost deck, and functions both as a daytime lounge and a late night disco. Its back wall slides open onto an expansive outdoor terrace, where people gather for cocktails both before and after dinner. The room itself is decorated in honey and biscuit coloured tones, and has floor to ceiling windows along both sides.

While that open terrace was bliss at night, the daytime heat made it all but unusable. It has no awning but, to be fair, most people would be ashore exploring during those hours in any event.

Moving forward past Le Grill you find a small, open air pool. There were no hot tubs, but some were due to be added in a later refit. There is ample space to sunbathe without feeling crowded; the nearby bar has nicely shaded areas, and gorgeous, after breakfast mimosas to go. Like everything else on board the Paul Gauguin, these are delivered with a smile, and without a bill.

Inside, the main run of public rooms begins with the show lounge on five deck. You can forget the fur and feathers style Vegas revues in here; instead, we had the gorgeous Gauguines.

Really up close and personal....

Really up close and personal….

These lovely Polynesian ladies live on board, and give guests a rare, real insight into the arts, crafts and traditions of the islands. There are displays of typical local dances, storytelling sessions, and lessons on how to dress, Polynesian style.

But the Gauguines are far more than mere local window dressing. Walk around the upper decks and you might come across one of them just strumming an acoustic guitar. Wade ashore at the paradise island of Motu Mahana and you’ll likely find them singing and dancing on the beach. Return to the ship after a hard day’s exploring, and one of the girls will be waiting with cool face towels, and always a welcoming smile. More than anything, they are wonderful ambassadors for the area they know and love so well. After all, this is home for them.

Moving along, you’ll find a small, beautifully styled piano bar, at a right angle to the window walled interior boulevard that leads to the main indoor restaurant, L’Etoile. On one night, this whole deck was used to stage a magnificent music, arts and crafts fair that was like some wonderful, audio visual assault on the senses. The Paul Gauguin blends into the landscape around her so seamlessly that it is sometimes hard to see where reality actually begins and ends. The line is certainly very finely blurred, but in a dreamy, smiley kind of way.

At the stern, a marina lowers right down to the water’s edge to allow scuba diving right off the edge, as well as use of the free sail boats and kayaks carried on board. For lovers of coral reefs at their rarest and most beautiful, this ship is a fabulous natural platform in a region that is famously remote and inaccessible.

Don’t expect rollicking, late night nightlife here. Many of the passengers are honeymooners and, not surprisingly, they prefer to arrange their own entertainment in private. But the ship is sublime on every level; beautifully run, and never less than warm and welcoming at any hour of the day or night.

Room for two? Only in French Polynesia...

Room for two? Only in French Polynesia…

The Paul Gauguin overnights at many ports, but this does not mean that you can go ashore at all hours of the night at tender ports. Typically, the launches to and from shore usually stop running at around eleven thirty each evening. Because of the relative proximity of the islands to each other- just thirty-seven miles between Moorea and Tahiti, for example- very little time is actually spent under way. That may well be because, for all of her undoubted style and charm, the Paul Gauguin is a bit of a snappy roller out on the open ocean.

But if you want to try something that is utterly out of this world and boasts true, real originality, then the Paul Gauguin is definitely something for the bucket list. She is almost chocolate box pretty, with fantastic, unfailingly good service, and a welcome as warm as the most sublime Polynesian sunrise. Everything about this precious little jewel of a ship will charm and enchant you.

One thing I know for sure; the experience of sailing on this pretty little lady will stay with you long after you return home. And the memories will certainly always make you smile. Bon voyage!

NEW ANTIQUES- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY’S WINTER 2014-15 CRUISE PROGRAMME

The Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2104

The Aegean Odyssey returns to the Far East in 2014

Following on from the cancellation of this year’s scheduled programme of winter cruises, Voyages to Antiquity unveiled a carefully rethought season for next winter on September 9th.

A series of twelve cruise tours are scheduled between November 2014 and March 2015, and these will once again be carried out by the refurbished, highly styled Aegean Odyssey. The ship has recently benefited from the addition of some twenty six single cabins, making her a more affordable option for solo travelers interested in long range expedition voyages.

The cruises showcase a string of inaugural calls along east Africa, and each features an included three day, two night tour that takes in both Tsavo and Ambroseli national parks to savour the diverse array of wildlife this region is famed for.

In addition, there will be Indian Ocean cruises, intended to showcase such gems as Zanzibar, Mayotte, and the Seychelles and Maldive Islands,

There will also be a special India cruise, highlighting the showpieces of the fabled subcontinent, including the Taj Mahal, as well as an inclusive, five day land tour that takes in the highlights of Jaipur, Agra and Delhi.

Aegean Odyssey offers old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

Aegean Odyssey offers old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

After the success of her 2012 season, the Aegean Odyssey also makes a welcome return to the mystical lands of Burma, Cambodia, Vietnam and Malaysia. Here, the small size of the ship comes into its own, allowing her to dock right in the heart of such historic cities as Saigon and Yangon for overnight stays.

Most intriguing for me personally is an evocative adventure that takes in Indonesia and the Phillippines, allowing for the chance to get up close and personal to the legendary Komodo dragon, if you’re feeling particularly brave.

All things considered, this is a broad and sweeping schedule that allows passengers to take in such fabled sights as Angkor Wat, the imperious Taj Mahal and the glories of Shweydaggon, while also allowing some potentially idyllic downtime on the gorgeous blond beaches of the Maldives and the secluded, splendid Seychelles.

Aegean Odyssey operates as a comfortable, floating ‘home from home’ in the style of a casually informal country club, with a smart casual dress code. With a maximum of around 379 passengers, she offers open seating dining both indoors and alfresco, with complimentary beers and wines included at dinner.

The ship offers top rate guest lecturers on each itinerary, and all tours are included in the price of the package, as well as flights, pre or post cruise hotel stays, and all transfers. This is cerebral, in depth educational cruising, carried out in very fine style indeed.

Savour the majesty of beautiful Burma

Savour the majesty of beautiful Burma

It is also worth mentioning that all tours are carried out in small groups, and all passengers are supplied with ‘quiet boxes’ in their cabins. These allow you to hear your tour guides quite clearly at all times when you are off the ship exploring.

Brochure prices start at £3,150 for an eighteen day cruise tour for the season, based on inside cabins. These are fine but, if you can spring for it, I definitely recommend upgrading to one of the lovely, cove balcony cabins in the aft part of the ship. These are definitely worth the extra.

NOT NOW, VOYAGER… updated 12/2/14

Sunset on the horizon for Costa Voyager

12 February 2014 update: It now appears as if the Costa Voyager has been sold to Chinese interests, as part of a new start up cruise line.

17 November 2013 update: Costa Cruises has now confirmed that the Costa Voyager is, indeed, for sale, and the Costa NeoRiviera will operate week long cruises from Dubai. The sale or lay up of the bruited second ship has not been elaborated upon at present.

Update: Costa cruises have officially denied the impending sale of the Costa Voyager. The current website lists cruises for the ship, under the Costa banner, through until April of 2015. Stay tuned.

It seems very much like a case of not now, Voyager.

After only a couple of seasons, Costa is bidding arrivederci to it’s sole baby cub, the 28.000 ton Costa Voyager. The line has just announced that the ship will leave the Costa fleet next year, and will be sent to Singapore to ‘await a buyer’- a euphemistic phrase if ever there was one.

The abrupt demise of this beautiful little ship can be traced directly to the implosion of the winter Red Sea cruise market. In common with almost everybody else, Costa scuttled the programme of seven night Red Sea cruises due to be operated by Voyager as a direct result of flaring, unpredictable tensions surging through the entire Middle Eastern region.

Costa cancelled the programme a month or two ago now, and said that an alternative series of deployments for the 2000-built ship would be announced in due course. These, of course, never materialised.

Instead, Costa is taking possession of the larger Grand Mistral from fellow Carnival cohort, Iberocruceros. Ironically, this vessel is the twin sister of the MSC Lirica, the ship that the other big Italian company had positioned in the Red Sea up against Voyager. Now Lirica has been repositioned to the Canaries after her own Red Sea cruises were scuppered. I fully expected Costa Voyager to follow her westward. Clearly, Carnival had other ideas.

Grand Mistral will be renamed as Costa Neoriviera- itself a nice nod to one of the great Costa success stories, prior to the Carnival buyout. Even so, she is almost twice the tonnage of the ship she is replacing.

Costa Voyager was originally built as the Olympic Voyager for long since defunct Greek cruise line, Epirotiki. With a capacity for 836 passengers, she and her twin sister ship, Olympic Explorer, were famed for their very fast top speed of around twenty eight knots, which allowed them to offer very comprehensive, week long itineraries from Piraeus.

The Voyager will hopefully find profitable future employment; at only twelve years of age, she still has plenty of mileage but- on the other hand- this is hardly the size of ship that people are looking at these days. Constructed by Blohm and Voss in Hamburg, she was ironically part of the Iberocruceros fleet herself for a few years,

Still, her demise leaves Costa once again woefully bereft of a more personalised, appealing alternative to the mega ships which have become increasingly the mainstay of the Italian juggernaut.

PORTUSCALE CRUISES; BACK FROM THE ASHES

The classics are back

The classics are back

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.

Liners like Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria once represented the height of seagoing elegance and style

Liners like Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria once represented the height of seagoing elegance and style

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.

Old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

Old style pleasures; steamer chairs and parasols

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.