THE AQUITANIA, CUNARD’S ARISTOCRATIC LEGEND

From sea to shining sea....

From sea to shining sea….

Aquitania. A ship whose very name is wrapped in romance, legend and maritime lore. She sailed for thirty six years, establishing a continuous service record only recently bested by another Cunard aristocrat, the Queen Elizabeth 2. Though Aquitania was dishevelled and worn out in her final days, he track record is still one of imperishable glamour.

She was built on the Clyde, to be a bigger running mate for the record breaking sisters, Lusitania and Mauretania. Cunard needed this bigger, far more opulent ‘third wheel’ to run a weekly service from Liverpool to New York.

In terms of scale, design and execution, the Aquitania had far more in common with the rival Olympic than with her smaller siblings. Like the Olympic, Aquitania was meant to emphasise scale, steadiness and sheer, opulent splendour. The Blue Riband was something she never aspired to; she was intended to be a spectacular floating palace, a Palladian bordello writ large. For decades, her proud, four funneled silhouette would be a byword for style and sophistication at sea.

Her initial timing was disastrous. The Aquitania sailed from Liverpool on her maiden voyage only days after the Empress of Ireland had capsized in the Saint Lawrence Seaway, with the loss of over a thousand souls. The lost liner was very much a ‘Liverpool ship’, and the entire city was in mourning when the palatial new Cunarder arrived.

Aquitania managed just three round trips before the Great War decimated the liner trade. Both  Aquitania and Mauretania were requisitioned as the most improbable, fuel guzzling armed merchant cruisers ever, a role quickly terminated when they consumed every last bit of reserve coal in South Eastern England between them. Both ships were quietly laid up until some more practical role could be found for them.

She re- emerged to be used in a more realistic guise as a hospital ship, ferrying thousands of casualties back to the United Kingdom in the wake of the horrific, ill thought through catastrophe of the Dardanelles campaign. Later still, she ferried American troops across the Atlantic to the charnel houses of the western front. Despite frequently sailing through areas known to be infested with German U-boats, the Aquitania emerged from four years of war without any physical combat damage.

But her machinery had been all but worn out, and a massive reconditioning was needed to bring the Aquitania back to her brief, pre war glory. At the same time, Cunard took the opportunity to convert the ship from coal to oil burning and, in this guise, she joined the Mauretania and the giant Berengaria on the newly established, post war express service from Southampton to New York.

Cunard's fabled 'big three' in the 1920's. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

Cunard’s fabled ‘big three’ in the 1920’s. L to R: Mauretania, Berengaria, and Aquitania

This Cunard ‘big three’ service soon settled down to become the most reliable and consistent operation on the Atlantic. Each week, one of the three ships would sail from Southampton on a Saturday, bound for America. A second ship would leave New York each Tuesday. The third ship would be at sea, heading in one direction or the other.

With very little variation, the Aquitania maintained this pattern of sailings through most of the 1920’s, and well into the next decade. The Great Depression of 1929 combined with the advent of new, cutting edge, state of the art French and German liners to put the Aquitania and her pre war, Edwardian ilk on notice. Time for all of these ships was clearly running out.

The Cunard/White Star shotgun marriage of 1934 saw the Aquitania relegated more and more to short cruises, from New York to Bermuda, and even up to Nova Scotia. With two huge new sisters on order- the Queen Mary and the future Queen Elizabeth- it was clear to one and all that the doughty old Aquitania was on borrowed time.

Aquitania even made a cruise in 1938 down to Rio de janeiro for the Carnival, where she shared the harbour with much more modern masterpieces such as the Normandie and the Rex. If anything showed her advancing age and limitations, it was this mutual proximity to these two transatlantic speed queens.

Ironically, the outbreak of a second global conflict saved her. As Hitler’s panzers slammed into Poland, it became evident that the British Empire needed every last single potential troopship, no matter how old or jaded. For the second time in her incredible career, the Aquitania acquiesced to the grey guise of an ocean trooper.

In this second stint, the veteran Aquitania ventured to some amazingly unlikely places. Early in 1940, she formed part of an incredible convoy of liners that included the Queen Mary, Nieuw Amsterdam and Ile De France, ferrying virtually an entire Australian army corps from Sydney to bolster General Wavell’s paper thin forces in North Africa. The likes of it would never be seen again.

Tired and yet priceless, the gallant old liner ended up back on the North Atlantic, ferrying American and Canadian troops to Britain in the build up to Operation Overlord, the invasion of Normandy. Once again, she managed to make her own unique contribution without ever kissing the edge of a U-boat’s cross hairs. All things considered, the Aquitania was, indeed, a very lucky ship.

At wars’ end in 1945, the Aquitania was returned to Cunard White-Star, and it was clear that she was almost totally worn out. But so desperate still was the shortage of tonnage that the liner spent four final years operating what was, in essence, an austerity service, ferrying both troops and a tidal wave of GI brides across the Atlantic to both America and Canada.

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Though her funnels were repainted in Cunard colours, very little else was done to recondition Aquitania. Her days were obviously numbered and, with both Queens back in profitable service on the Atlantic by the summer of 1947, the end was rapidly approaching for the Edwardian wonder ship.

She was an anachronistic sight indeed when she finally sailed off to a Scottish breaker’s yard for demolition in January of 1950. Sailing from Southampton for the last time into a thick fog bank, the Aquitania looked like nothing less than her own ghost.

Yet the Aquitania left behind an unequalled service record, both in terms of her peacetime luxury sailings, and through the course of the two most ghastly and destructive conflagrations on the face of the planet.  As a ship built for ‘comfort first, speed second’, she represented at that time a complete, radical change to the entire ethos of the Cunard Line. 

Unlike Lusitania and Mauretania, the Aquitania was known throughout her long life as a good, solid, steady sea boat, and this also helped to make her hugely popular. In fact, those two words- ‘solid’ and ‘steady’- both work as singularly wonderful descriptive words in recalling the career, the achievements, and the sheer allure of that sumptuous, wonderful ship- the amazing Aquitania.

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A TRIO OF SWELLS; EUROPA 2, SILVER WHISPER AND SEVEN SEAS VOYAGER

Pool area on the Europa 2

Pool area on the Europa 2

2013 has been a bit of a banner year for luxurious, albeit brief opportunities to look at a spectacular, highly styled trio of luxury cruise icons- Europa 2, Silver Whisper and Seven Seas Voyager, in order of encounter. With a bit of time to reflect on this true trio of swells, here’s a few observations I harboured in respect of each.

To my mind, Europa 2 is much more aimed toward those who usually take time out in high end, luxury resorts and hotels, rather than on traditional cruise ships. The ship offers a phenomenal eight dining venues for a maximum of 516 guests, and sublime, beautifully sculpted, modern hotel style interiors. The suites all come with commodious, lavishly furnished balconies and- unlike the other two ladies in this piece- Europa 2 is not a truly all inclusive experience. Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines are adamant that this policy would not change, but so were both Regent and Crystal in the past.

The real change in emphasis is the child friendly nature of this stunning new ship, with interconnecting suites for families, and no less than six nannies on hand to look after the little ones. On our cruise, we saw virtually nothing of the fifty children that we knew to be on board. And, with a smart casual dress code throughout, Europa 2 neatly side steps one of traditional cruisings most oft perceived bugbears.

Silver Whisper is, without doubt, one of the finest ships afloat anywhere, and the service and ambience on board is right up there with the Adlon and the Ritz. As a product, Silversea continues to emphasise it’s Italian heritage and fine, European style of service.

But there are changes; the dress code is no longer quite so formal as it once was, although passengers still dress very smartly for dinner. The entertainment menu has been rethought, with much more intimate performances where the singers and dancers interact, singing, dancing and chatting to the passengers.

On board the Silver Whisper

On board the Silver Whisper

The Italian heritage is most apparent in the evening emphasis towards Mediterranean style dining, and the Hot Rocks alfresco dining venues, where guests can barbecue their own steaks or chops, is a fun, interactive venue unique to Silversea.

Like her fleetmates, Silver Whisper remains a largely all inclusive product. The line still offers stylish, intimate touches, such as welcome mimosas, canapes and live jazz on deck on our recent arrival in Tallinn. Almost a full decade after it’s inception, Silversea remains a paragon, very much a premier exemplar of stylish, seagoing panache.

Now, Voyager. Newly renovated with a sweeping, $25 million eight day dry docking in Marseille, the ship now showcases areas intended to presage the forthcoming Seven Seas Explorer.

Stunning new, eggshell white seating and gorgeous, beautifully etched new light fittings adorn the Observation and Horizon lounges. New carpeting is featured right through the ship, and all teak decking- including that on all of the 350 balcony suites- has been replaced.

Those same balconies now boast funky, commodious new, resort style seating, as do the terrace decks at the stern. New artwork right throughout the ship is outstanding and, in terms of entertainment, no less than eight new production shows are almost ready for ‘curtain up’.

Style wise, Regent has always had a smart casual dress code and, with all shore excursions included right throughout the cruise, it is unquestionably the most all inclusive, value loaded of the three products mentioned here.

New outdoor terrace furniture on the Seven Seas Voyager

New outdoor terrace furniture on the Seven Seas Voyager

All things considered, these three ships represent some of the most fabulous and self indulgent travel experiences afloat anywhere today. It is safe to say that any of these ships will offer you an incredible travel adventure, long before you even consider the idea of stepping ashore.

Such differences as there are lie in terms of some of the things noted above. All have space, grace, and are suffused by a sense of calm, casual ease. For lovers on the luxury cruising lifestyle, the industry as a whole has never been so deliciously diverse.

RMS OLYMPIC- THE OLD RELIABLE EVALUATED

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

If ever the long and successful career of an outstanding ship was overshadowed by the ghastly demise of a younger sibling, then that ship was surely the Olympic. She made a triumphant debut in the summer of 1911, a full ten months before the disaster to her sister ship, Titanic, that changed sea travel forever.

It was the Olympic that was, in fact, the giant leap forward in terms of sea travel. She was half as large again as her nearest rivals, the record breaking rival Cunard twins, Lusitania and Mauretania. She was also graceful, sleek and- in first class at least- fabulously opulent. Her arrival created a media sensation across the world at the time, one only overshadowed by the tragic events of the following year.

On the night of April 14-15th, 1912, the eastbound Olympic made a desperate, always doomed attempt to reach her sinking sister, some five hundred miles away to the north.  The two ships kept in close touch throughout the disaster- there was a genuinely strong bond between Olympic and Titanic- and it was her powerful radio transmitter that helped to marshall the rescue operation. In an appalling irony, it was also the wireless on the Olympic that first told the world officially about the loss of her sister, the Titanic.

Following an almost complete rebuild over the winter of 1912-13, the Olympic was well on her way to regaining her former star role on the Atlantic when the Great War erupted. In October 1914, she took the crippled battleship HMS Audacious in tow. The battleship eventually sank, but even the Admiralty was forced to admit the heroic role played by the Olympic. It was merely the start of her long and eventful war career.

Her enormous size and carrying capacity made her a natural troopship. It would also lead to a pair of encounters with the Kaiser’s navy.

On the first of these, German torpedoes literally bounced off her hull. And on another occasion in 1918, it was Olympic that caught and rammed a German U-boat on the surface. The horror on the faces of the surprised German sailors can only be imagined as they saw that huge bow bearing unstoppably down on them. One of the liner’s propellers also slashed clean through the sub; it sank like a stone.

Launching of the Titanic; the Olympic, just out of sight here, was handed over to White Star on the same day

Launching of the Titanic; the Olympic, just out of sight here, was handed over to White Star on the same day

The war record of the Olympic was exemplary; the thousands of troops that she carried to the battlefields of Western Europe shortened the war by several months. And, in honour of her heroics, she was nicknamed ‘Old Reliable’ by the scores of Canadian soldiers that she carried there and, eventually, back as well.

Following the war, the Olympic went back to her builders for a complete reconstruction over the winter of 1919-20, when she was also converted to oil burning. She emerged as virtually a new ship in the summer of 1920. Following this, the Olympic settled into several years of long, profitable service on the Atlantic crossing.

It was an incredible time; an age of steamships, flapper girls, baseball, prohibition, and jazz. The Olympic was one of the great ‘stars’ of the ocean, carrying such famous passengers as Charlie Chaplin, Marie Curie, Dame Nellie Melba and Edward, Prince of Wales. With the ghost of the Titanic at last fading away, the ship was very popular and successful.

An intimation of her mortality came in 1924, when she suffered minor damage in a collision in New York harbour with the liner Fort St. George. But, even before the Titanic disaster, the Olympic had been rammed by a Royal Navy cruiser, the HMS Hawke, An eighty foot gash had been torn in her hull. Ironically, her survival of this damage went a long way towards affirming the so called ‘unsinkability’ of the Titanic- with disastrous results the following year.

Advancing age combined with the Great Depression of 1929 to put the pre war generation of Atlantic liners on borrowed time, and the Olympic was no exception to this. In the summer of 1934, she proceeded to sign her own death warrant when she rammed and sank the Nantucket lightship in thick fog off the coast of America. Seven men were lost on the lightship. The Olympic was only slightly damaged, but the negative publicity from the incident doubtless accelerated her inevitable demise.

Only months before, White Star had merged with its great rival, Cunard. The new company was a fragile operation, one hoping profoundly that the imminent debut of the new Queen Mary would restore its fortunes and prestige. Instead, as a result of the Nantucket lightship sinking, it found itself slapped with a half a million dollar lawsuit.  For the proud old Olympic, it was the final straw.

She was sold for scrap in October of 1935, and arrived in Jarrow, on the River Tyne, for demolition. Two years later, what remained of the hull was towed up to Inverkeithing, Scotland, for final scrapping. It was a singularly sad end for such a fabled and illustrious ship.

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Olympic's 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Olympic’s 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

Despite those three collisions over the course of her career, the Olympic was seen as a uniquely lucky and successful ship. She was the template for the modern, state of the art ocean liner and, but for the tragedy that befell the Titanic, she would have been much more remembered than was the case. Her war record was nothing less than incredible and, over many years of peace, she carried literally tens of thousands of happy passengers between Europe and New York in style, safety and comfort.

The Olympic did everything ever asked of her and, indeed, far more. She was the absolute epitome of style, beauty and grace, and became the benchmark for all rival lines to aspire to, both before and after the Great War. With her four great black and buff smoke stacks, graceful prow and gently curved counter stern, the Olympic was the very apogee of the classic western ocean steamship.

BOAT DRILL- A NECESSARY EVIL?

Boat drill. No fun, but necessary

Boat drill. No fun, but necessary

There are few really negative things about the cruise experience, other than the fact that it has to end, I guess. Sure, you might cite unpleasant passengers, and some of the shows might not be to your taste. The same could be true about the food, or even elements of the service.

But these are individual things and, for every hater, another ninety nine fellow voyagers are probably very happy with those self same things. Yet if there’s one thing that gets up the back of just about every passenger on any cruise, it’s the mandatory lifeboat drill held before sailing.

The drill is, without doubt, the boil on cruising’s otherwise beautifully sculpted backside. A dentist’s drill would probably elicit less in the way of agonised groans. Passengers loathe it and, truth be told, so do the crew. They know that the passengers would rather be anywhere than there, and that they need an inordinate amount of goading, chiding and coaxing just to get many just to participate at all. For the crew, boat drill is no fun whatsoever.

I have no credibility to lose here, because I have to admit to finding the drill as monumental a pain as anybody else. Yet I always make myself go because, better than most, I know just how and why it came to be so damned necessary. There is no excuse for anyone to miss boat drill and, as a maritime historian, I have fewer excuses than anybody.

Of course, over it all there still hangs the long, ghastly shadow of the Titanic.

When that ship had to be abandoned in mid Atlantic, the evacuation- carried through with a kind of ruthless, desperate haste- was so badly botched that there were almost five hundred empty seats in the boats that did get away. Most of those employed as boat crews did not even know how to hold an oar, much less row with one.

The sinking of the Titanic hit home like a hydrogen bomb, and resulted in a whole raft of new legislation that followed in its wake. One of the first was an across the board diktat of boats for all on board, and a mandatory boat drill at the start of each voyage, so that passengers and crew alike know exactly where to head in the event of an emergency. This was the genesis of the lifeboat drill that we love to hate to this day.

if you’re wondering why the drill emphasises that you should use the stairs, and not the lifts in the events of an emergency, that goes back to the 1915 sinking of the Lusitania, when screaming passengers were trapped in lifts stalled between decks as the water overwhelmed them. Sobering stuff, for sure.

Costa ships now hold one of the most rigorous boat drills of any cruise line

Costa ships now hold one of the most rigorous boat drills of any cruise line

No towels to be left on balconies? This one is down to a fire that started on a passenger balcony aboard the Star Princess a few years ago that did quite horrific damage to that ship.

And if ever you needed to be reminded just how important the drill still is, you only have to remember the ghastly charade of the Costa Concordia last year. Only calm weather and the ship’s (very) close proximity to land prevented a far more horrific loss of life.  Thirty-two was more than enough.

So, next time you- like me- stop and think that there’s no good reason to endure yet another lifeboat drill, just remind yourself that there are, in fact, at least thirty-two. Truth.

AMTRAK ACROSS AMERICA- LETTING THE TRAIN TAKE THE STRAIN

Comfort with a capital 'C' is standard on Amtrak

Comfort with a capital ‘C’ is standard on Amtrak

America is possibly the most scenically diverse country in the world. From the stunning national parks of Yosemite and the still, silent, pine clad fjords of Alaska, to the forest of steel and glass that is Manhattan, the landscape is as eclectic and engaging as it is magnificent and monumental.

Trying to see it all is about as practicaL as trying to stuff a cloud into a suitcase. But if you really do want to get up close and personal with this constantly unravelling landscape, then it makes sense to do it by train.

Amtrak is America’s national rail network and, like those of many other countries, it has its share of problems. Big investment is needed in the infrastructure- the rail tracks, bridges and stations- that are it’s backbone. And no, it’s record for punctuality is not the greatest. Key to enjoying the Amtrak experience is time and some flexibility.

But that same, extensive network permits the creation and completion of some truly epic itineraries. You could combine New York with Miami, via an overnight rail journey, or take the short, three hour Surfliner run from Los Angeles to San Diego (see previous blogs). You could enjoy an overnight run from Chicago to New York, or even swagger on into sultry New Orleans. 

So what is the Amtrak experience like, then?

The overnight trains are vast, double deck leviathans several carriages long; the first impression is of a gunmetal coloured conga line of ponderous rolling stock that seems to stretch into infinity. Once on board, you have two options in terms of accommodation.

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Coach class seats are wide, roomy and come complete with leg rests. If you want more privacy and comfort, small and compact roomettes sleep up to two people each. These come complete with twin reclining seats that converts into a lower bed, with a second, pullman berth that pulls down at night. Showers and toilets are located in the same carriage, and the roomette option also includes all meals in the price.

Bigger still are the bedrooms, which also sleep two people. Two of these rooms can can interconnect to accommodate families of up to four. Each comes complete with a large picture window, armchair, and has its own shower and toilet. Again, all meals are included in the cost. If you can go to the expense of one of these, this is definitely the way to go.

Food wise, the dining cars serve breakfast between 6.30 and 10.00. Lunch (reservations required) runs from 11.30 to 15.00, and dinner (again, reservations required) is served up between 17.00- 21.30.  Long distance trains also usually have a lounge car that sells drinks, snacks, and offers panoramic windows for watching the scenery unfold all around you.

All things considered, Amtrak is a very comfortable and evocative way of letting America come to you through a series of amazing vistas. The coaches are also set up for wi-fi, and that naturally increases the options available for diversions on even the longest journeys.

It’s also a unique way to meet and interact with the locals in a relaxed, casual environment that no air travel could ever replicate. And the hassles of flying and airports in general are done away with in a single stroke.

But it’s the sheer, exalted notion of ‘rolling on the rails’ that really pushes all the buttons for anyone possessed of even an ounce of nostalgia. Consider crossing the entire continent. Los Angeles to New York. From sea to shining sea.  This is America, up close and personal, as generations of travellers once discovered her. Close enough to touch, and still vast enough to awe, amaze and enchant.

Nice, eh? Well, go on- get out there!

LOUIS CRUISES- NEW FOUR NIGHT CRUISES FOR 2014

Lido pool on the Louis Cristal

Lido deck on the Louis Cristal

Greek specialist operator Louis Cruises has introduced an alternative, quite appealing itinerary in the shape of a new, four day cruise for summer 2014.

Sailing from Athens’ port of Lavrion, these four night voyages will be operated by the 24,000 ton Louis Cristal after her return from a winter charter offering Cuba cruises.

Departing at 1430 in the afternoon- a complete change to the normal 1100 departures- the Louis Cristal arrives in Syros at 1900 for a four hour run ashore. Next day, the ship arrives at the Turkish resort of Cesme at 0700 for a six hour stay, before sailing on to the popular resort of Bodrum that same evening for an overnight stay, departing at five the following morning.

An 0700 arrival in Kos gives a full day on the island, with departure at 1800. Next day features a morning call on Ios, and a final afternoon call at Santorini before arriving back in Athens the next morning.

All things considered, this is a great little run to some of the lesser known gems of the Greek Islands, combined with an opportunity to sample the overnight nightlife ashore in the party capital of the summertime Turkish riviera.  And, with Santorini as a stunning finale, it packs in a huge amount into a short space of time indeed.

Santorini is a fabulous finale

Santorini is a fabulous finale

The Louis Cristal is a good choice for a short cruise; compact enough to get into the smaller, more appealing yacht harbours in the islands, she offers an intimate, comfortable ambience with good sized cabins- a handful of them have small balconies- and the warm hospitality that typifies the Louis product.

The ship has a small central pool, covered by a sliding glass roof, that also showcases a bar and buffet area. There are several other bars featuring live entertainment, and a forward facing show lounge for evening entertainment. The ship also features a casino, internet centre, and a shop for souvenirs and essential sundries.

A series of terraced aft decks offer fantastic views out over the wake, as well as a sublime, aft facing hot tub ideal for lounging in and watching the horizon.

Most impressive of all the facilities on board the Louis Cristal is a spectacular, glass walled disco cantilevered around the funnel. inward sloping, floor to ceiling glass affords spellbinding views out over the sea in three directions. It works just as well as a cool, shady observation lounge during the day, and as a vibrant, late night focal point for partying late into the night.

Combining several small, enchanting little islands with the style, warmth and intimacy of the Louis Cristal makes for an invigorating little break. It neatly side steps the often overcrowded ‘greatest hits’ ports of the Greek Islands, and offers an appealing new take on what has always been a classic, affordable mini cruise. Definitely recommended.

ENCORE FOR EXPLORER OF THE SEAS

Caribbean winters are pretty inviting

Caribbean winters are pretty inviting

After eight consecutive seasons as a dedicated ‘New York ship’,Royal Caribbean International stalwart, Explorer of the Seas is being deployed for a season of cruises originating in Port Canaveral, Florida, over the winter of 2014/15.

The 140,000 ton Voyager class megaship is the only one of the five ship class not to be sent to Europe since her completion. Owners Royal Caribbean international have instead largely ran her on nine night spring and summer Caribbean cruises from their New Jersey base at Cape Liberty, augmented by five night Bermuda cruises in the summer, and on a series of longer, twelve night ‘Deep Caribbean’ itineraries through the winter seasons. In this role, the Explorer of the Seas has become a popular and familiar staple on the North American cruise circuit.

Eight cruises to the Caribbean and the Bahamas have been announced for the ship from Port Canaveral so far. These commence on November 15th, following her fourteen night repositioning cruise from New Jersey to Florida, via the Eastern and Southern Caribbean. The itineraries are as follows:

Nine night Southern Caribbean: Two departures to Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao in the Southern Caribbean. Sails on November 15th and December 4th, 2014.

Five night Caribbean and Bahamas: Three departures to Cozumel and Nassau. Sailing on November 24th, November 29th and January 4th, 2015.

Five night Bahamas cruise: This one off cruise visits Nassau and Royal Caribbean’s private island at Coco Cay. Sails December 18th.

Four night Christmas cruise: Another one off, arriving at Royal Caribbean’s private island of Labadee, Haiti, for Christmas Day. Sails on December 23rd.

Eight night Eastern Caribbean cruise: Ports visited include Labadee, St. Croix, St. Maarten, and San Juan, Puerto Rico. Sails on December 27th.

Make winter history with Royal Caribbean

Make winter history with Royal Caribbean

The redeployment of Explorer of the Seas from Cape Liberty to Port Canaveral will give Royal Caribbean a three ship presence in the Florida port, along with ‘short cruise’ ship Enchantment of the Seas, and the larger Freedom of the Seas.

For UK passengers, these cruises are ideal combinations with a stay in Walt Disney World, or even with a beach holiday in Miami, Fort Lauderdale, Clearwater or Tampa. A Port Canaveral departure means convenient flights from the UK into Orlando, and also offers the scope to visit such attractions as the space centre at Cape Canaveral, with its huge display of rocketry, space capsules and lunar memorabilia.

This is a good selection of cruises from a European perspective, as it cuts out the often cold and stormy first day or so encountered in winter time sailings from New York. Definitely worth taking a look at next winter.

OVERNIGHT STAYS IN PORT- THE PROS AND THE CONS

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

There was a time when the idea of keeping cruise ships in port overnight was absolute anathema to cruise ship owners. It meant the payment of more excessive docking fees to the local authorities, and there was always the potential revenue loss involved in passengers dining and partying ashore at nights. It was a double whammy that some lines fight tooth and nail to avoid for decades.

But there were some ports that offer such a wealth of attractions that a simple day time visit was nowhere near enough time to really see all the sights. Saint Petersburg, Hong Kong and Singapore were among an initial handful of ‘trophy ports’ where the lines were obliged to simply bite the bullet, and stay overnight. In the case of Saint Petersburg, the more deluxe lines can stay for up to three nights in succession.

As time has moved on and more new ships have come online, cruise lines have been looking to diversify right across the board. And some of the feedback indicated quite strongly that more and more passengers were in favour of more overnight stays on a cruise, especially in regions like the Mediterranean. Following the potential money trail, the lines had little choice but to play ball.

But as time went on, those same lines came to realise that certain economies of scale accrue from overnight stays. Port fees were often countered by the amount of fuel saved in being tied up at dock, and some shore excursions could even be run and sold  during the evening. And the chance of a welcome run ashore at the end of a busy working day was also a valuable morale booster for ship crews as well.  As long as a reasonable balance could be struck between these pros and cons, overnight stays could be made to work for all concerned.

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

A classic example has just been seen in the dropping by the Bermuda government of its age old ban on cruise ship casinos being open in ports. These are obviously a big source of revenue for the cruise lines, and Bermuda’s insistence that they remain closed certainly hurt the island’s cruise trade.

In the Far East, more erudite operations such as Voyages to Antiquity offer many overnight stays, including up to three nights in such fabled ports as Yangon. Saigon has evolved into a very popular overnight destination while, back in the Mediterranean, companies such as Azamara and Crystal now offer overnight stays in such idyllic spots as Sorrento. Kusadasi, Barcelona and even Monte Carlo.

For passengers, overnight calls allow for the possibility to see a destination in greater depth, and at a far more leisurely pace than that allowed by a typical ‘nine to five’ daylight stay. The possibility of being able to dine ashore at night builds in far more options- and therefore value- for potential passengers. Managed and promoted properly, cruise lines will, in future, find overnight stays to be far more of a positive benefit than an awkward accommodation. I expect to see many more in the future.

WINTER ON THE FRENCH RIVIERA

Monte Carlo at midnight

Monte Carlo at midnight

The South of France is an amazingly easy short winter break from the UK, and a truly invigorating one as well. Even a few days spent strolling along the sun splashed waterfronts and outdoor cafes of the French Riviera is a great way to shatter the grim, rolling grey rigor mortis of the English winter. And you’ll find none of the maddening throngs that flood these same resorts like a human tidal wave in the heady days of the Mediterranean summer, either.

The British love affair with the Riviera goes back to the end of the nineteenth century, when Queen Victoria used to visit regularly in the cold winter months. With an average December/January temperature of between twelve and fourteen degrees centigrade and many sunny days, the climate was a definite tonic to the long, leaden gloom of winter London.

Almost inevitably, the cream of British society followed her, as did her son, the lecherous, corpulent future king, Edward VII. English money flowed into the string of opulent Italianate villas that sprouted up in the hillsides around coastal cities such as Nice.

Grand, Edwardian styled belle epoque hotels such as the fabled Negresco, offered a home away from home for those accustomed to whiling away their time in the Ritz, or the Savoy. Even today, the Negresco still remains a fabulous, vaulting vision of the past, with its gilt. gold leaf and almost impossible chandeliers. If you happen to be in Nice, it’s well worth checking out for a drink, a meal, or even a stay.

There is no shortage of budget flights into Nice Cote D’Azur airport on airlines such as Easyjet. And, while you can no longer take the fabled Blue Train to the South of France, there is still the option of combining the Eurostar service to Paris, with a run down into Nice or Marseille on the TGV. It’s a pretty special, ever so slightly decadent way to swagger into the sweet spots along the coast.

So, what to see?

Monte Carlo by day

Monte Carlo by day

I guess you’ll have to check out Monte Carlo at least once, if only to realise just how hideously over rated it actually is. Yes, the belle epoque casino and it’s gardens are gorgeous, but the tower blocks along the waterfront look like they were designed by the same architect responsible for Stalingrad. The prices are as stratospheric as the conceit of some of the residents. Not for nothing was it described as ‘a sunny place for shady people’. Here, platinum chip pretension overflows from the top of every Gucci shopping bag. It has brittle glamour at very best.

By contrast, Cannes is cool, classy and brimming with casual, spectacular style and elegance.  The old town is stunningly pretty, with its winding, cobbled lanes that lead up to the old fort that overlooks the modern, yacht studded harbour. Just strolling the famous Croisette Boulevard is a treat in itself.  Maybe stop off and enjoy a glass of pastis on the terrace of the legendary Hotel Carlton, overlooking the shingle beaches, lidos and languid date palms. Cannes is a beautiful city that is the very essence of Riviera chic and class.

Nice is the self styled ‘Queen of The Riviera’, and with very good reason. A city built along the edge of thirteen shingle beaches that shelve into the ocean, the city is backed by a soaring mass of lush, rolling greenery studded with gorgeous, Italianate villas in shades of ochre, cream and terracotta. The breezy, meandering sprawl of the Promenade Des Anglais is a palm shaded parade of open air cafes, bars and bistros that runs all the way along the waterfront.

Place Massena has live music set against a backdrop of strollers, mime artists and spectacular, theatrical fountains. The shopping is world class, though it has to be said that Nice is obviously not a cheap date.

The beauty of Nice

The beauty of Nice

It’s worth checking out in February, when the annual Carnival turns the city into a riot of fun, colour and amazing displays of fauna.There are carnival floats, fiestas and parades aplenty, and the partying often goes on far into the night. And, with the temperatures being reasonably pleasant through the days, the city is a fun, easily manageable alternative to the samba fuelled fleshpots of Rio and New Orleans.

Cannes old town

Cannes old town

Ah. Did I mention how good the food is?

Dining out anywhere on the French Riviera is an experience; here, world class gastronomy meets casual gluttony, and is cooked up to the level of an art form. The local bouillabaise soup is legendary; it’s much more of a deep, rich fish stew than an actual soup. Also right up there is the local seafood.  Lamb is probably the best meat, and always succulent. Somehow, lingering for two or three hours over a meal in such beautiful surroundings seems like no problem at all.

There’s an excellent, incredibly scenic coastal rail route that takes you to jaw dropping, spectacularly pretty villages such as Antibes, Beaulieu, Juan Les Pins and Villefranche. The latter has quite probably the most singularly beautiful bay in the entire Mediterranean, and boasts one of the few truly sandy beaches in the region. If ever a place was designed simply for a few hours of languid people watching and genuine, platinum chip self indulgence, then Villefranche is surely it. I recommend the John Dory at Le Calypso, and the margaritas are pretty damned good, too. You can take the train to here from either Nice or Monaco-Ville in around ten to fifteen minutes, and it’s truly worth the journey.

Of course, the region as a whole is not cheap. But the quality is invariably superb, the surroundings never less than exhilarating, and the sheer fabulous, feel good factor is undeniable. It is a part of the world that (mostly) understands the difference between hype and style. And, as any dedicated lotus eater will tell you, it is impossible to hang a true price tag on real style.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

So, all things considered, the French Riviera has a lot going for it, even in the off season. Even two or three days is enough to really invigorate you in the depths of a long winter. Enjoy.

THE NEW LOOK SEVEN SEAS VOYAGER

New look Observation Lounge, Seven Seas Voyager

New look Observation Lounge, Seven Seas Voyager

Regent Seven Seas unveiled the exquisitely refurbished Seven Seas Voyager to media from several European countries on the opening leg of her first post dry dock cruise last week. Following an eight day, $25 million makeover in Marseille, the 42,000 ton Voyager dead headed overnight to Rome’s port of Civitavecchia to embark a capacity load of seven hundred passengers for a ten night cruise to Venice.

Prior to sailing, Regent/Oceania CEO Frank Del Rio invited a small group of UK media to an informal Q and A to discuss the refurbishment, as well as the forthcoming new build- Seven Seas Explorer- due to debut in 2016. While remaining deliberately coy about many of the features of the new ship, Del Rio did venture the information that the ship would have an additional restaurant compared to fleet mates Voyager and Mariner. The as yet nameless venue will be Asian themed and- like all Regent dining options- will be reservations only, but at no surcharge,

Elsewhere, the new ship will feature a single exclusive signature suite. the work of an as yet unannounced top designer. And Del Rio also noted that many of the new furnishings, decor and artwork showcased aboard Voyager will be a precursor for the new ship, as well as a blueprint for Mariner, due for an overhaul in March, 2014.

New outdoor terrace furniture

New outdoor terrace furniture

As for Voyager herself, a thousand workmen laboured for eight days and nights to totally transform the Observation and Horizon lounges with new lighting, much more commodious soft furnishings, fresh carpeting, and brand new bar installations. New carpeting was laid right throughout all the public areas on Seven Seas Voyager, and a whole new range of artwork is now showcased throughout.

Plush, new resort style furnishings were added to the outer deck terraces, and all teak decking- including that on all 350 suite balconies- was replaced. And all of those balconies received plush, funky new balcony furnishings that can safely be described as a real hazard to activity of any sort.

While the new work has revitalised and energised this beautiful ship no end, it was also reassuring to find that many much familiar, fondly remembered highlights remain intact. The eight storey atrium lobby, with its sweeping staircases accented in brass, glass and marble highlights, is still one of the most glorious public spaces of any ship afloat. And the aft terrace of La Veranda still remains of of the most exalted indoor and outdoor dining experiences afloat.

On board dining was well up to the Escoffier style levels of old. A ten ounce tranche of kobe beef I sampled in the Prime 7 Steakhouse was so tender that it literally crumbled on contact with the cutlery. And there are few other places where you can enjoy steak and champagne for an outdoor breakfast, with the stunning Monaco skyline as a backdrop.

Kobe beef table art in Prime 7

Kobe beef table art in Prime 7

Elsewhere, legendary producer and entertainment guru Jean Ann Ryan was on board to exclusively reveal the details of no less than eight new shows in production, exclusively for Regent. The obvious aim here is to give the already extensive entertainment roster across the fleet a whole new level of creative momentum and scope.

Sister ship, Seven Seas Mariner is due to receive the same upgrades next spring, following her South America season of cruises this coming winter. In an all too rare moment, Voyager and Mariner were both in Monte Carlo together on October 24th; Mariner was at the dock while Voyager tendered people back and forth to the same quay all day.

Overall impressions? This is elegance refreshed, excellence redefined. I’m still not sure about the new blue stripe along the hull, but there’s no questioning the imagination, care, quality and craftsmanship that has gone in to revitalising the Seven Seas Voyager for her tenth anniversary. Very highly recommended for sure.