OCEAN COUNTESS IN FLAMES (UPDATED)

CNV00198Majestic International Cruises’ 17,500 ton Ocean Countess is on fire along the length of most of her upper works as she currently lies in layup in the Greek port of Chalkis. Five men working aboard the 1976-built former Cunard Countess have been accounted for, and are all safe.

The ship began life for Cunard as the Danish built Cunard Countess, and spent twenty years with that line. She predominantly sailed on alternating, seven night circuits of the Caribbean out of San Juan alongside her twin sister, Cunard Princess. The two sisters were hugely popular, more casual versions of the typical Cunard product.

She was sold for service in the Far East as the Awani Dream 2 in 1996, but that operation collapsed after two years. She then moved to the now defunct Epirotiki Lines, first as the Olympic Countess, then as the Ocean Countess and, when that operation foundered in 2004, the ship went to Louis Cruises. Under the name of Ruby, the ship was placed on three and four day cruises out of Piraeus, as a replacement for the sunken Sea Diamond.

There was also a reported spell under charter, under the name of Lili Maarlen for a German tour operator.

I sailed on her in her guise as Ruby in the summer of 2007, and found her to be a ship with considerable charm, with a good amount of open outdoor deck space, and a nice variety of stylishly decorated public rooms, including a really sweet indoor/outdoor nightclub that opened out onto the fantail. Some of her original Cunard fittings- such as the famous company Lion logo- could still be seen on board, etched into the glass doors of the observation lounge. The weak point was the small cabins, with their paper thin walls.

Later, in 2010, the ship was chartered to the fledgling Cruise and Maritime Voyages to join the Marco Polo in offering cruises to an older UK passenger market. She was given a two million pound interior refurbishment, and took back the Ocean Countess name once more.

At the end of 2012, Cruise and Maritime decided not to renew their charter, and the Ocean Countess went round from Liverpool into layup in Greece that same autumn. She has been there ever since, totally inactive over the entirety of the 2013 season.

Ironically, she was due to return to service next year, ostensibly for a Russian charter operator. Given the evident- and ongoing- scope of the damage, this seems unlikely at the very best. Her age, and the already visible extent of destruction might well sadly mean that this famous, popular ship will never return to service in any guise.

Questions will inevitably circulate about whether or not this is an insurance job but, until there is a thorough forensic examination of the still burning ship, we will be starved for answers.

Stay tuned for updates.

Update: Tuesday, December 3rd,

The fire aboard Ocean Countess has been extinguished. Photographs and video indicated that the blaze was centered on the midships pool area, and the observation lounge located immediately forward of this.

An investigation into the cause of the fire that ravaged the 37-year old ship is apparently under way, but details on her current condition are scant on the ground. Most media commentators have concluded that this incident will mark the end of the career of the former Cunard Countess.

Ironically, one of the ships that she was built to replace- the 1971 built Cunard Adventurer- will be returning to service next year for Louis Cruises, under the name of Louis Rhea.

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ENJOYING A CARIBBEAN BEACH DAY…..

Eagle Beach, Aruba

Eagle Beach, Aruba

As it’s currently the end of November, and the weather here in Britain is as grim and clammy as a hangman’s handshake, my thoughts have almost inevitably been drifting towards much warmer climes. From the depths of a icy European winter, almost anywhere looks good right now.

Though naturally, some places look so very much better than others.

And, right now, the beaches of the sunny Caribbean are looking especially peachy to me. I know many of the islands in that part of the world quite well and, when I go there these days, I tend to do very little in the way of actual sightseeing. Like thousands of others seduced by the indolent, sun and fun lifestyle of the islands, I just sag with almost pathetic gratitude into a routine of whiling away my hours on what are still some of the best beaches anywhere on the planet.

And the beauty of a winter Caribbean cruise is that it will usually serve up a conga line of stunning new landfalls each day, allowing you to personally drift from one dreamy destination to another. And, though each and every one of those islands is as distinct and individual as a human fingerprint, there’s enough of a glorious, technicolor uniformity across the board to affect you on quite a deep, almost indescribable level.

Find a better office view. If you can.

Find a better office view. If you can.

Whatever your pleasure- whether you’re a snorkeller, a sky jockey or, like me, simply a terminally indolent sun worshipper- you will find more than enough to occupy your day on any Caribbean beach.

I’ve heard scuba diving in the Caribbean described as being akin to frolicking in some fantastic underwater theme park, and I can well believe it, too. Just consider the amazing, engaging riot of rich, gorgeous coral and the vibrant, dazzling, dreamy shoals of fish flitting skittishly in all directions; it must be such a huge adrenaline surge. What a way to start a morning in mid winter!

And, of course, what’s to stop you doing a spot of paragliding, if you’ve got the notion? Kissed by a warm breeze as you are lifted gently above what looks like a sinuous white strip of snow white sand, sprinkled with palm trees, I think the sense of exhilaration and detachment would be almost olympian, and certainly not something easily forgotten, either.

All well and good, too. From my hammock, I love watching those para gliders drifting across the skies like so many languid, brightly coloured butterflies. Even the roar of jet skis that tear up the sparkling azure hue of the sea is like music to my ears. And the sails of those sassy little small boats that skip across the briny are as pretty as postcards.

Life's a beach, and there you fry

Life’s a beach, and there you fry

Ah, but the only ice I want to see is in the frosty finery of a perfectly crafted margarita as my hammock swings idly between a pair of sprawling, spindly date palms, a movement so lethargic as to be borderline comatose. I love the pungent, feisty aroma of freshly cooked jerk chicken, and the  subtle, all pervasive lilt of reggae- surely the ultimate soul food.

And the sight of enormous, plump, pillow white clouds, drifting across a petrol blue canvas backdrop like an endless armada of ghostly galleons, is another feast for the senses. The whole experience is like being awake in some sublime, wonderfully vivid dream.

On other days, I might drag myself out my routine and stroll the beach, with an ice cold beer in my hand, and warm, welcoming swathes of honey hued sand between my toes. And, if you’ve never sat on the edge of a Caribbean beach and let the warm, rolling surf kiss your feet, then you seriously need to try it.

A day spent like this is special, magical and totally life affirming. Intense, in a way that is impossible to calculate, and priceless beyond words. It stays with you too, long after you actually leave it behind.

And then imagine doing it for a week or so, perhaps even more, as you saunter around four or five or more of these sun splashed little strips of nirvana. Days seem to merge into each other in what eventually becomes one long, smiley blur. You find yourself grinning like an idiot, without even realising that you’re doing it. With winter shrugged off like some damp, unwelcome overcoat, you actually do feel lighter, both in the heart and the wardrobe department. And Mother Sun will never, ever, feel so welcome. Just don’t forget your sun block.

Sailing to the sun, Carnival style

Sailing to the sun, Carnival style

And the talismanic power of those same islands should never be underestimated. Just writing this article has made me feel a little warmer, made the winter seem just that little bit shorter, and less cold. Food for thought, indeed.

Best of all is the knowledge that, come January, all of this will be back on my personal menu. Thanks to Carnival Cruises, I’ll be smartly sidestepping the stygian British January gloom for a quartet of benign, peachy beach days, some indolent, Riviera style sun, dazzle and sizzle aboard one of the most commodious and well equipped cruise ships in the world, and some fine, fun fuelled nights under the Caribbean’s canopy of dazzling, dreamy stars.

Oh lord, bring it on….

CRUISE SHIPS TO SOCHI WINTER OLYMPICS 2014

Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

Silver Whisper was used to host Vladimir Putin at the 2003 300th anniversary celebrations in St. Petersburg

One of the last publicised aspects regarding the hugely controversial 22nd Winter Olympics, due to be held in and around the Black Sea  city of Sochi between 7th and 23rd of February next year, is the surprising number of cruise ships and ferries that have been chartered for use as static hotel accommodation.

Of course, there is nothing new in the use of chartered cruise ships as temporary static accommodation. Events such as the Olympic Games of 1992 and 2004 saw the use as accommodation ships of some of the most illustrious names in the cruising firmament- including the then brand new Queen Mary 2. Similarly, the Barcelona Expo ’98 had no less than six cruise ships, including the then world’s longest liner, the SS. Norway, offering accommodation.

Last year’s London 2012 Olympics saw the use of Fred. Olsen’s Braemar and her original sister ship, the now laid up Gemini, as fully functioning, static hotels docked on the River Thames at Tilbury.

What is, of course, different about Sochi 2014 is the hugely controversial nature of these games, with widespread calls for a boycott over Russian president Vladimir Putin’s excessive, increasingly repressive crackdown on gay rights in Russia as a whole.

So, who is going to be there for the duration? Five cruise and ferry operators have thus far confirmed their operation of chartered tonnage.

First off, Russian owned St. Peter Line is sending both of it’s large cruise ferries- Princess Anastasia and Princess Maria- from their regular, year round overnight runs from Tallinn and Stockholm to St. Petersburg. The Princess Anastasia was once well known in the UK as the popular Pride Of Bilbao, a stalwart of the Northern Spain run for many years. Rooms on these two ships are advertised from 63 euros upwards per night.

There is also another ferry, the Italian SNAV Toscana, a 30,000 ton vessel usually operated on overnight runs between Civitavecchia and Palermo, Originally built as the Wasa Star back in 1981, she has accommodation for around 2200 people in normal service.

Seasonal Greek islands operator, Louis Cruises, is sending two ships, the aptly named 38, 000 ton Louis Olympia and the 33,000 ton Thomson Spirit; sensible and gainful employment for two ships that would have otherwise remained laid up in Piraeus until March. Unlike the two ferries mentioned above, these two vessels are full service cruise ships. Rooms priced from 168 euros per night.

Spanish operator, Iberocruises is sending the 46,000 ton Grand Holiday, which originally started life in 1985 as a Carnival ship. Rooms on board this ship start from 158 euros.

Largest of all, Norwegian Cruise Line is sending the 92,000 ton Norwegian Jade, with rooms on board starting at the highest rate of all, at at 208 euros per night. Unlike most of the others, the Norwegian Jade offers the added plus of a large number of balcony cabins.

Between them, these six very different ships can offer in excess of some twelve thousand berths. While the cruise ships of Louis, Norwegian and Iberocruises are usually in the Mediterranean for the spring season anyway, the long voyage to and from the Baltic by the two Russian ferries represents a significant redeployment on the part of their owners, albeit an obviously lucrative one.

BLACK WATCH; BUCKING THE BIG SHIP TREND

Fred. Olsen's Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

At 41 years of age, the Black Watch is one of the oldest and smallest cruise ships in the current UK cruise market. She has no rock climbing wall or ice rink. Dinner is still served in two fixed seatings. Entertainment is low key, end-of-the-pier stuff, and definitely best suited to an older passenger demographic.

In short, she is everything that the new, state of the art, amenity laden ships are not. And yet, despite sailing against a growing armada of these monolithic new floating resorts, the veteran Black Watch is more than holding her own. Since 1996, she has become a much loved, perennial favourite among generations of cruise passengers, many of whom would not even dream of sailing on any other ship.

How has this come to pass, when the ship seems to buck every contemporary trend in existence?

Firstly, there is the uniquely intimate atmosphere that Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has created on board. What was already a classic design was skilfully upgraded to Olsen’s traditional, Scottish accented style and decor. Combined with a warmly welcoming, service oriented Filipino crew, it was a winning formula from the start.

And the intimate scale of the ship actually works for her largely older, less mobile clientele. Black Watch was built long and lean, with a beautiful clipper bow and excellent seakeeping qualities. And the fact that she looks like a throwback to the supposed ‘golden age’ of ocean liners does not hurt. In fact, with her funnel cowl and gracefully stepped aft decks, she resembles nothing so much as a pocket version of the much lamented Queen Elizabeth 2. 

Aft pool deck on the Black Watch

Aft pool deck on the Black Watch

Her open decks are solid teak, traditional, and expansive for her 28,000 tons, and they come with a nice smattering of swimming pools, hot tubs, sun loungers and casual, outdoor eateries. The fish and chips served at the upper deck Marquee Bar and Grill are legendary.

In fact, food, and the quality of it, is one of the great strengths of the Black Watch as a ship, as indeed it is right across the Fred. Olsen fleet. Menus are largely geared to British tastes, with some evocative Scandinavian and European twists.  It is hugely enjoyable, well served, and savoured in very pleasant surroundings that are designed to soothe, rather than stun.

Originally built as the Royal Viking Star in 1972, Black Watch was the start up ship for the legendary Royal Viking Line. A mid section was added in 1981 to bring her up to her present configuration. From her inception, she was built to be able to access the smaller, more intimate ports around the world that makes cruising such an appealing holiday choice.

This has enabled Fred. Olsen to compile some very appealing and innovative itineraries for this voluptuous, veteran lady of the seas. And, with itineraries ranging from a weekend Christmas shopping break, right through to complete, three month circumnavigations of the globe, the Black Watch offers a range of options to suit all tastes and styles.

Another factor that appeals to passengers is the fact that the prices- both for the cruise itself, and for services charged on board- are very realistic, and represent excellent value. Fred. Olsen was also very astute in putting a good number of affordable single cabins into both Black Watch, and the rest of her fleet mates. People understand and appreciate value when they see it.

Black Watch can take you just as easily to Antwerp, or across the Atlantic

Black Watch can take you just as easily to Antwerp, or across the Atlantic

Above all, people value what they see as the standards of continuity enshrined in the Fred. Olsen experience; it’s the equivalent of a comfort blanket for many. But the line has actually relaxed some of the old dress codes of late, in a small, but not insignificant nod towards a potentially younger clientele.

Moving both Black Watch and her equally doughty twin sister, Boudicca (the former Royal Viking Sky) around the UK to a number of seasonal home cruise ports, such as Liverpool, Newcastle, Belfast and Rosyth, has also helped in keeping them full. Taking the ships to what amounts to people’s home ports is a move that has been since emulated by others.

It is exactly the success of the Fred. Olsen formula that has led to the establishment of the similarly styled Cruise and Maritime Voyages, a gradually expanding operator that clearly has taken a bead on the Olsen operating model. This is a welcome addition, and also a testament to the continued success of ships like the Black Watch in bucking the trend toward ever larger, less personal ships.

It is to be fervently hoped that cruise passengers- and the travel community in particular- continue to cherish and support ships like the beautiful Black Watch, as well as her fleet mates and her potential rivals. There is room in the market for all of them.

MSC ON THE MOVE; NEWS FROM A MAJOR PLAYER

MSC Orchestra is Australia bound next year

MSC Orchestra is Australia bound next year

After weeks of swirling rumours, news has come from Italian giant, MSC, on the next phase of the line’s direction.

Firstly, the line’s first ever dedicated newbuild, the MSC Lirica of 2003, will be lengthened to accommodate an extra two hundred cabins. The work is intended to be completed before the ship’s projected deployment to South America next winter, as part of a four ship line up which will also include the larger Preziosa, Poesia, and Magnifica.

As things currently stand, MSC Lirica comes in at just over 58,000 tons, and has a length of 830 feet (253 metres in new money). Built by Chantiers of Saint Nazaire, France, she presently accommodates 1,560 passengers in some 780 cabins.

No shipyard has yet been announced for the work, but the timescale almost certainly means the cancellation of at least a significant part of the MSC Lirica’s 2014 cruise schedule.

This also throws up the question of whether her twin sister, MSC Opera, is also slated for eventual similar expansion. With the line’s commitment to ever larger ships and continuing economies of scale, it seems much more likely than not.

In another move, MSC has announced that it will deploy the MSC Orchestra to Australia and the Far East next winter, after a season out of Dubai. Thus, the line emulates the moves of rivals such as Carnival, Celebrity and principally, Costa, in deploying a major ship ‘down under’.

MSC ships are known for their chic, stylish interiors

MSC ships are known for their chic, stylish interiors

And rumours of impending new builds continue to be floated, if not yet confirmed, by the company. Reports are that MSC is looking at building two new ships, with an option for a further pair at a later date. These new vessels would not be longer than the existing ships in the Splendida class; the line has concerns about being able to berth them in certain ports, and have apparently ruled out building longer vessels.

One possibility is that the new ships will be wider; if so, this would follow a trend inaugurated by Norwegian Cruise Line in the design of the Norwegian Epic in 2010, and subsequently emulated by the giant, groundbreaking Oasis and Allure Of The Seas.

One interesting story that surfaced a few years ago was that MSC might actually be contemplating a giant catamaran kind of design. If so, this would be the first since the former Radisson Diamond, a 20,000 ton design from 1992. Much was made at the time of the excellent stability of the Radisson Diamond design, but her main service speed was actually very low, and definitely hurt the itineraries she could offer.

With the benefits of two decades of advances in technology, it is possible that MSC has managed to find a way to solve that speed conundrum. And such a design would certainly be a striking, truly newsworthy coup in PR/publicity terms.

As always, stay tuned for updates.

UPGRADING YOUR FLIGHT- VALUE FOR MONEY?

Inflight BA lunch served in Club Europe, the business class for European flights

Inflight BA lunch served in Club Europe, the business class for European flights

It’s a fact of life that the great volume of air travellers turn right at the cabin door, turning their backs on the ordered luxe of First and Business Class for the enforced intimacy of the Economy Cabin. And oh, how many of us have looked in jealous admiration at those serene, spacious acres of perceived calm as we trudge towards the netherworld of chicken or pasta, twenty film channels, and lockers overflowing with a tsunami of strange shaped carry ons, all overlaid with a soundtrack of inflight safety videos and screaming kids. Little wonder then, that those who can afford it are tempted to consider paying for an upgrade.

Sure, Club/Business and even First Class will give you far more space to play and relax in, with vastly upgraded food and drink service. Fillet steaks and fine wines, served up on snowy white table cloths, Bose headphones and a seat that often converts to a fully flat bed are just some of the perks. There’s designer toiletries and, often as not, even an in-flight sleeper suit. But the real advantages are often in the pre and post flight experiences.

Those wanting to sleep on overnight flights can often dine quite well- and for free- in the exclusive departure lounges accessed with one of those magical, upper class tickets. There’s a dedicated Fast Track through security, as well as separate check in desks, and an enhanced luggage allowance. If time and privacy are of the essence, these can be real deal breakers in deciding whether to splash out on an upgrade.

The downside is that you are not going to get there any faster than the huddled masses in steerage, and there is no guarantee that you will escape from screaming kids, though a better class of headphone will certainly drown them out. And many will simply decide that the difference in price to upgrade from Economy to Business is simply not worth the while.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

The most expensive upgrades are usually on the Transatlantic routes where the demand is greatest, typically to and from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Here, the premiums are relatively highest in direct proportion to the actual flight time. By contrast, flights out to the Far East tend to be better value in the upgrade stakes, with cheaper prices and longer flight times. This is an option that clearly gives you the most bang for the proverbial buck.

If you can only go to the expense of upgrading on one leg, I would personally make it the outward one. It’s an auspicious way to start that trip of a lifetime, and worth doing at least once for the sheer excellent exclusivity of the whole gig. If travelling to America, you’re pretty certain to be flying in daylight hours as well, whereas the flight home tends to be overnight, and so not as conducive to enjoying the whole range of extras on offer.

That is a statement that obviously applies to leisure travellers. Business travellers, sybarites and the simply filthy rich will fly Business and/or First Class routinely, no matter when or where.

The nice seats are up front

The nice seats are up front

There is also a kind of netherland offered by some airlines, known as Premium Economy. These seats usually have five or six inches more leg space than in Economy, and they are also wider, so offering more than a modicum of ease and space, if not excessive luxury. The throwback here is that the food and drink service is the same as offered in the (relatively) cheap seats at the back, but the premium is a lot less than that charged for Club, Business or First Class.

If you’re part of an airline loyalty programme, you can often use accumulated miles to upgrade your ticket; a sweet little treat that is really the cream on the cake. And, after all, what else are you hanging on to all those miles for, if not to treat yourself?

Upgrading is ultimately a value call. If you think the price point offers good value in terms of convenience, comfort and exclusivity, then it’s a no brainer. It can make the difference between a good trip and a truly great one.

And, while spatial largesse and upgraded service are a common factor of all left hand turns at the plane doorway, it is also true to say that not all Business Classes are created equal. Mind you, prices for upgrades can vary widely as well. The best thing to do is check the individual airline websites in advance, to get an overall idea of the product. You could also check some inflight passenger reviews online to gain a picture of sorts of what’s on offer.

There’s no question that upgrading puts the fun back into flying. The real question is, whether you think the expense of moving up a level, or even two, can be justified. And, at the end of the day, that’s a value call that only you can truly make. Enjoy.

THE FLY CRUISE; WHAT IT IS, AND HOW IT WORKS

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

It might seem like a no brainer even defining what a fly cruise is. As a staple of the travel industry since at least the late 1970’s, literally hundreds of thousands of people from the UK have taken fly cruises, whether in Europe, the Caribbean or, indeed, further abroad. On the whole, this article will have little enough to enlighten these people for sure. Fair enough, but please consider the following.

Of a current UK population of around sixty four million, approximately one point seven million take a cruise or fly cruise on a yearly basis, although those numbers are forecast to increase to around two million in a couple of years. That total- itself an all time record high- still represents less than one person out of every thirty-five. The potential for expansion is, indeed, incredible.

But a number of factors mitigate against a fly cruise to the potential new cruise passengers out there. Firstly, the infamous hassle endemic in airports and airport security and, secondly, the often cramped, bordering on unpleasant inflight experience itself, is off putting. Factor into that the always subliminal worry about that first ever arrival in a foreign country, and you have a trio of potential obstacles to overcome when trying to woo passengers to the storied pleasures of, say, the Caribbean or the Far East.

Here, education is key. I sometimes wonder whether some lines go far enough in explaining just exactly what the actual process of a fly cruise encompasses. This article is written in that spirit.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM THE USA:

Flying should ideally be a breeze

Flying should ideally be a breeze

If you’re going on a fly cruise that sails from an American port- typically, but not exclusively, from Florida- you will be flown from the airport nearest you to America. Often as not for those living outside London, this will involve a very early start, and a change of flight via Heathrow or, sometimes, via Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Some passengers can find this relatively simple process quite intimidating.

How to make the flight easier? You can try setting your watch to the actual time in your arrival destination before you leave. The common consensus is to drink lots of water, and very little alcohol inflight (though, God knows, the inflight standards of some airlines would drive the most dedicated teetotaller to drink). Exercises tend to help to improve the circulation.

Once you get to the other side of the Atlantic, there will be a dedicated transfer to take you to your overnight hotel.Usually, a representative of the cruise line will meet you and direct you on your way. Often as not, this will be via the hotel’s own local, complimentary shuttle. You’ll need to on the ball in finding where the shuttles pick up, usually at a specially designated ramp just outside of departures.

In general, evening meals and/or drinks will not be included in the price of your overnight stay. It will be literally room only, plus transfers. Some hotels do include a breakfast buffet in with the price, but it is certainly best to check beforehand with your agent.

You’ll transfer to the ship at around eleven thirty to noon the next morning. There will usually be a letter placed in your room when you arrive on the previous night, detailing the transfer times and meeting place- usually the hotel lobby. Typically, there will also be some representative of the cruise line on site on the morning of departure, to answer any questions you may have. If there is a big group to move, you will almost certainly taken by coach to the ship, and your luggage will go on ahead. You won’t see it again until it turns up outside your cabin an hour or so after boarding, or sometimes later.

From inflight food....

From inflight food….

So, in the event that you have any vital medicines of any kind, best to put them in a small carry on bag that you keep on your person. Also, remember to keep your passport and your cruise documents in here, too. It will make the check in process a lot simpler and more hassle free.

Hopefully, you will now be able to kick back, relax, and enjoy what is, for many, the holiday of a lifetime. But as surely as night follows day, the time will come when you have to think about the return journey. Here’s how that works in general.

Your luggage should be placed outside your cabin on the last night before you go to bed, and it is offloaded once the ship docks. After breakfast, you’ll be disembarked as part of a group, usually designated by coloured baggage tags and staggered at certain times. Once through American customs in the terminal downstairs, you’ll find your luggage standing under coloured, overhead signs that correspond to your baggage labels. A porter will then take these to a coach that will be waiting to take you to the airport to check in for your flight home.

This is where the day can get long, and downright angsty. Cruise lines in general no longer offer the complimentary day rooms at a nearby airport hotel that they once did. The result is that you can often be left at the airport with seven or eight hours of time to kill. Most Europe bound flights- especially from the east coast of the USA- tend not to depart until the late afternoon, or early evening. You should be aware of this. All of these arrangements should be explained to you in a special debarkation talk, held the day before you arrive back in port.

There are ways around this end of cruise annoyance. You could ask your cruise line if they can give you a rate for a hotel day room. This will give you a comfortable base to rest up, shower and change before the flight, or perhaps catch a few last rays of sun. At a time more to your liking, you and your luggage can then take the hotel’s complimentary shuttle to the airport. Be sure to check with hotel reception about the timing and availability of hotel-airport shuttles when you first get to the hotel.

To cruise food....

To cruise food….

Another option is to pay extra for an included city tour, run by the cruise line itself. Typically, this will take you on an excursion to somewhere like, say, the Everglades in Florida, and it may or may not include lunch. Then, in late afternoon, you’ll be transferred to the airport. This option includes the knowledge that your luggage travels safely with you on the coach. For peace of mind, this one is a pretty good option. It also keeps the ‘holiday’ vibe alive until the last possible moment.

Once you’re on the flight, I’d set your watch back on UK time and, as far as possible, try to sleep after the evening meal. Better still, eat something a good deal more substantial in one of the airport restaurants before you board, and opt for an attempt at sleep as soon as you’re airborne.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM EUROPE:

You might think that, because of the relatively much shorter flying distances between the UK and continental Europe, the time needed to join a ship in Barcelona, Rome or Venice will be much shorter than boarding one sailing from the USA?

Um, not necessarily….

If you’re flying from London or Manchester direct then sure, you’ll find that it’s a short, one flight hop, of no more than a couple of hours’ duration. But if you’re up in Scotland, Ireland, Wales or in the North East of England, it’s almost a given that you will be taking two flights, routing over airports such as Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

The problem here is not so much the actual flight times, so much as the fact that you might be laid up in one of these airports for a few hours. Again, I would recommend you keeping any necessary medication, plus your travel documents, on your own person.

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

It’s also a fact that most European fly cruises do not include a pre cruise, overnight hotel stay. Once you’ve picked up your luggage, you’ll be transferred- again probably by coach- straight to the ship. Again, there will be a representative of the cruise line to meet you when you arrive, and he or she will direct you to your waiting transfer coach. And the same will be true at the end of your cruise, too. In Italian airports especially, these return arrangements can cause some hassle.

Here, the check in desks seldom open less than three hours prior to your flight home so, if you’ve got an early evening departure from, say, Venice, you’ll be left in an airport that has very little comfortable seating- with your luggage to boot. It’s not a great way to end an otherwise marvellous adventure.

Again, most cruise lines offer an added, half day city tour in cities such as Venice, complete with a later transfer time to the airport. This is better, but personally I’d recommend booking an overnight, post cruise hotel stay for the night. This allows you to unwind without the crowds or the hassle, although you might have to arrange your own taxi transfers the next day. Still, this is the least painful option and, often as not, the cruise line can also arrange your hotel- and possibly the transfers- at a supplement.

Taking a fly cruise does not have to translate to a frightening, unfamiliar adventure into the unknown. Properly explained, easier understood.

It’s actually a pretty seamless process on the whole, one honed and practised down over a number of decades now. And another great advantage of buying a complete fly cruise package via a cruise line, is that they have total responsibility to get you to and from the ship at the start and finish.

CRUISE SHIP FOOD- EVOLUTION OR REVOLUTION

Kobe beef table art in Prime 7 on Regent Seven Seas

Kobe beef table art in Prime 7 on Regent Seven Seas

Cruise ship food. More lionised than Spartacus, more colourful than a Carmen Miranda lookalike convention. Praised to the skies at times, ridiculously over hyped at others, it remains the single issue vested with the highest expectations of any cruise experience, even today.

The legacy of gourmet food at sea comes largely from the era of the great transatlantic liners, when the floating palaces of Cunard, Italia and the French Line competed with each other to attract the cream of the available trade. It was a time when the movers, shakers and opinion makers of the modern world had no option but to travel by sea, and the lines fought tooth and nail to gain their high profile, high spending patronage.

A few factors need to be borne in mind here; firstly, those gargantuan feasts so lavishly created and fondly remembered were almost exclusively for the benefit of the first class passengers. It’s a largely unspoken truth that the bulk of the passengers travelling in second class and/or tourist never got to savour those culinary Olympian heights, never mind the crew. From the start, the best food afloat was reserved for the privileged few hundred in first, travelling in what amounted to a gated, segregated community.

Secondly, standards of food handling, storage, preparation and hygiene back in those days were a lot less stringent or regulated than would be acceptable now. Those old ships did not have the sophisticated cold storage and freezer equipment of modern ships.

Got waffles? Breakfast, Silversea style

Got waffles? Breakfast, Silversea style

Nor did they have the stabilisers, a vital prerequisite to providing a stable platform for food preparation, service and, indeed, consumption. Even back  in the thirties, it was a standing joke that the enormous Queen Mary could roll the milk out of a cup of tea in bad weather. Meanwhile, her great rival, the Normandie, offered no less than three hundred and twenty five separate items on her first class dinner menu each evening. It must have taken all four days of an Atlantic crossing just to read the damned thing.

So the dining experience was the highlight of the day, but even then- as now- the food itself, however wonderful, was just one ingredient in the consummate dining adventure. Things such as a beautifully decorated and lit dining room, immaculately laid tables and deft, attentive wait staff, were just as vital parts of the overall menu as the food. And, in those days, passengers invariably dressed in their finery for dinner most evenings.

The result is a nostalgically cherished, glamourous repast that has been passed down over the decades, enshrined in legend, and accepted as the norm. And, as Atlantic crossings gave way to cruising, woe betide the line that did not adhere with limpet like fanaticism to the treasured tenets of Atlantic liner dining, both real and imagined.

And so, the cruise ships stayed faithful to the tried and tested old meal formulas. Eight course dinners would routinely be followed within an hour or two by a midnight buffet the size of Manhattan; one every bit as colourful and diverse. The amount of wasted stuff thrown overboard each night gave every cruise ship it’s own following of devoted, discerning sharks.

This little piggy tasted gorgoeus

This little piggy tasted gorgoeus

But as the ships grew bigger and began to rival even the most outrageous of Las Vegas resorts, a whole new generation of passengers began expecting more in the way of dining options and flexibility.

And more there would be.

Mainstream cruising has always thrown up a curious dichotomy; the desire to appear as lavish and indulgent to passengers as possible while, at the same time, attempting to operate to economies of scale that constantly pare down actual per person food costs as far as possible. And, while modern technology does make this illusion appear real, these two diverse factors will always collide, like duelling tectonic plates

And the cruise lines’ desire to siphon additional revenue from every passenger pocket led to what is now a virtual tsunami of extra tariff, speciality restaurants, offering individually prepared options such as French, Italian and Japanese, in a more intimate environment, for a nominal extra charge. These usually also come with significantly upgraded service.

Hand in hand with this came the provision of an almost round the clock buffet service, including at dinner time. This was in response to passengers who did not want to dress up in the evening to enjoy the still more formal, sit down, largely similar fare enjoyed in the main dining room (s) down below.

The flood of new passengers that cruising has attracted are largely appreciative of these new venues. Next was a logical freeing up of the set dining times, a charge led by Norwegian Cruise Line, with it’s Freestyle Dining.

Signature dessert on Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines

Signature dessert on Hapag Lloyd Cruise Lines

This allowed passengers to turn up at the main dining room at a time of their choice between the standard evening hours of 5.30- 9.30. Other lines were initially sceptical, but Freestyle was such a runaway success that most of the mainstream big lines now offer a version of it. Like it or loathe it,  flexible dining is here to stay.

And, of course, not everybody does like it.

Some passengers complain that the food quality and service in the main dining rooms is often dumbed down, in an attempt to get passengers to upgrade to the extra charge speciality venues. If so, this is an incredibly short sighted approach that will ultimately deter increasing numbers of passengers. But there is no question that all mainstream lines have been instigating cutbacks in almost every area practicable since the watershed of 9/11. What will determine future passenger loyalty is how far those changes are perceived to have gone and, as in so many other things, that perception will vary with each individual.

The new, flexible dining times, plus the plethora of potential new venues, also marked the end for the nightly midnight buffet, now far more sensibly- and cost effectively- replaced with late night snacks, such as pizza and hot chicken wings, brought around the late night venues such as the disco, piano bar, and the casino. Colourful but impractical, the buffet was quietly lowered over the side and cast adrift.

So, what about the on board food quality itself? For years, the cruise lines created hugely unrealistic expectations about their onboard product via their advertising literature, raising it to the heroic levels of the old ocean liners. Creative to be sure, but nowhere near being consistently deliverable.

The Mermaid Restaurant on the Louis Aura

The Mermaid Restaurant on the Louis Aura

Even with the best will in the world, the most creative of chefs cannot provide gourmet food for the more than three thousand passengers on a modern cruise ship each week. The budgetary constraints already mentioned lead to the bulk purpose of everything from eggs to escargot. And, humanity and its whims being what they are, it is impossible within the time constraints on offer to sculpture each individual dish with true, one to one, lavish care and affection. You will never please all of the people a hundred per cent, one hundred per cent of the time.

Yet the food that is on offer is, in general, so varied, plentiful and easily accessible that it still makes the modern mainstream cruise experience truly the best value of all holidays, with a quality, quantity and diversity of taste that is truly mind boggling. No land based resort comes anywhere near to offering the vast, bountiful largesse of a modern cruise ship.

If gourmet food is your goal, then you can upgrade to one of the smaller, more service oriented ultra luxury ships, where the standards, cuisine and service rise hand in hand with the prices charged for the product. With numbers to cater for in the hundreds rather than the thousands, several of these ships really do offer an overall experience that could be called ‘gourmet’ dining.

One thing is for sure; no one ever starves on any cruise. Period.

THE WILHELM GUSTLOFF- HISTORY’S WORST EVER MARITIME DISASTER

CNV00198In the history of ocean liner disasters, the same three names are constantly chanted like some ghastly, undead mantra; Titanic. Lusitania. Empress of Ireland. All lost within three years of each other; each with a death toll well over a thousand.

Everybody knows the stories of at least two of them. The Empress of Ireland is not so widely remembered; perhaps because the bulk of her victims were mainly ordinary, blue collar people, as opposed to the top ten per cent of the New York social register. And yet, incredibly enough, there is another disaster, almost unknown outside of Germany, that claimed more lives than the three ships named above put together.

The Wilhelm Gustloff.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was one of two ships built by the Nazis as dual flagships of a movement called ‘Strength Through Joy’. Having crushed their trade unions in the same style that he would later crush most of Europe, Adolf Hitler realised that he would have to provide some kind of incentive for ordinary German workers to retain faith in both himself, and his public works programme.

The result was the first two true, one class cruise ships ever built; the Wilhelm Gustloff and the slightly larger Robert Ley. They were relatively modest affairs when compared to transatlantic icons like the Bremen and Europa, at around 28,000 tons each. Uniquely, they featured a uniform standard of accommodation for both passengers and crew alike. Prices were kept deliberately low, and subsidised by the Nazi government.

From 1938 onwards, both ships were sent on cruises to the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, carrying thousands of budget German tourists on trips that they might otherwise never have taken. They were seen as the more egalitarian, benevolent face of the Third Reich. But with the invasion of Poland in 1939, that mask slipped irrevocably in full view of the entire world.

For the first year of the war, the Wilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship. But, with the Baltic a virtual German lake after 1940, that role became redundant.

Painted slate grey, the Wilhelm Gustloff was then sent to the port of Gdynia in occupied Poland, which the Germans renamed ‘Gotenhafen’ for the duration of the conflict. There, she served as a static base and recreation centre for U-boat crews, engaged in working up exercises in the Baltic. She remained pretty much tied up at the same pier, albeit in full working order, until January of 1945.

By that time, the war had turned irretrievably against Germany. The Red Army had sliced right through to the edge of the Baltic, a vengeful, unstoppable host, fully intent on paying the Germans back in full for the atrocities they had committed all over the Motherland. Fully aware of what the arrival of the Red Army would mean, millions of terrified Germans and their helpers prepared to begin the biggest mass exodus in European history.

A frozen, fear fuelled trek to freedom began as far back as October of 1944 but, as the Russian noose tightened, the land routes were cut off, one by one. A tidal wave of terrified humanity now began to descend like storm clouds on the handful of Baltic ports still in Wehrmacht hands. And every single ship that could float or move- from warships to fishing smacks- was commandeered into service to evacuate this human mass.

After years of being shackled to her pier, the Wilhelm Gustloff was pressed into service, too. A minimum estimate of seven thousand civilians, redundant naval personnel, and around a thousand wounded soldiers were shoe horned into every last inch of the ship; even the indoor pool was emptied, and filled with makeshift cots. Hopelessly overloaded, and with only one torpedo boat to escort her, the Wilhelm Gustloff put to sea for the first time in five years, and lumbered straight into the teeth of a howling winter gale.

And the Baltic was no longer a German lake. Once the siege of Leningrad had been finally lifted a year earlier, Russian submarines of the Red Banner Fleet had begun to move into these formerly uncontested sea lanes. Now, at the end of January 1945, there were more of them on station than ever.

One of these was the S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. On the evening of January 30th, 1945, the wallowing Wilhelm Gustloff sailed right across the cross hairs of his periscope. By now, she had lost her escort in the foul, freezing weather. Marinesko promptly slammed three torpedoes into what was an all too easy target.

What followed was entirely predictable. There had been no lifeboat drill of any sort, and the hopelessly crowded liner fell gradually onto her side like a slaughtered animal. A panic too hideous and complete to adequately quantify erupted on board, with thousands trapped in a desperate, heaving throng of humanity on the promenade decks. People trampled each other underfoot in desperate attempts to reach the lifeboats, only to find that most could not be launched because of the ship’s abrupt list to port.

The Wilhelm Gustloff sank in less than an hour, leaving thousands that had survived the torpedo impacts and the horrific crush on board to freeze to death in icy water less than -18 centigrade. Thrashing and gasping for life in stormy seas dotted with ice floes, they died in their thousands.

German escort ships that raced to the area managed to pluck a total of 1,232 people from the scene of the attack. As the Wilhelm Gustloff had been carrying anti aircraft guns, the Germans had not classified her as a hospital ship, despite the large numbers of wounded she was carrying. In any event, such distinctions would probably have been academic; both sides had routinely been shooting holes in the Red Cross flag since 1941. For the Russians, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was a legitimate act of retribution, nothing more or less.

The true death toll will never be exactly known. In the desperate haste to get the Wilhelm Gustloff out to sea, no accurate passenger manifest was taken. The pre departure quayside was a scene of heartbreak and indescribable horror; mothers trapped ashore literally threw their babies to relatives on the ship. Estimates of those lost on board run from as relatively low as 6,000, right up to half as many again.

Because she was a casualty of the war against the Russians, the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is largely unknown in the west. All told, the German navy and merchant marine lifted more than two million people to safety in those last few months of the war, in what amounted to nothing so much as a German Dunkirk.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was the greatest and biggest casualty of that massive movement of people. Almost as tragically, she has been every bit as much a casualty of maritime and wartime history, too.

SONGS AND SWANS- THE WHITE CARIBBEAN RIVALS

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

Louis Aura, the former Starward of Norwegian Cruise Line

With the impending loss of Royal Caribbean’s pioneer Song Of Norway, now seems a good time to recall that first generation of ‘white ships’ in the Caribbean; the duelling first builds of Norwegian Caribbean Line (as it then was) and it’s rival, Royal Caribbean.

Both companies had their origins in Norway; Norwegian Caribbean was almost an accident; a company founded to provide some gainful employment for the Sunward, a small ship originally intended to be operated on an ultimately failed ferry service between Britain and Spain.

In an inspired move that changed cruising forever, owner Knut Kloster moved the Sunward to Miami, and set her to work on Caribbean cruises from what was, in those days, very much a backwater port. She was an immediate, resounding success. So much so that, in 1968, Kloster introduced the Starward, a purpose built, 16,000 ton cruise ship constructed in Germany.

The fledgling line attracted so many passengers that the Starward- originally built with a car deck for future possible conversion to a cruise ferry- was joined by a twin sister, the Skyward. At the same time, Norwegian introduced the concept of the Caribbean fly cruise, whereby passengers could be whisked across the Atlantic by air, taken on a Caribbean cruise, and then flown home again. It took off spectacularly; nothing would ever be the same again.

On an obvious roll, Norwegian then bought the Southward, originally intended for P&O Cruises, and also the Cunard Adventurer, as a replacement for the first Sunward, which the company renamed as the Sunward II. With these four ships, Norwegian Caribbean Line dominated this new, nascent market. For a while, at least.

Of course, none of this went unseen and, in 1969, a Norwegian trio, headed by Anders Wilhelmsen, inked a deal for a stunning, identical trio of sister ships, aimed squarely at the same market so dominated by Kloster. This was the genesis of what was then Royal Caribbean Line. All three of their new ships would be built in Finland.

Classic styling of the original Norwegian Caribbean Line

Classic styling of the original Norwegian Caribbean Line

The first of these three ships was the Song of Norway in 1970, soon followed by the Nordic Prince and then, in 1972, by the Sun Viking. They were astonishingly lean and graceful ships, with long clipper bows and unique, glass walled observation lounges, cantilevered halfway up the aft part of their funnels. These became instant, iconic recognition marks, and larger variations have typified every subsequent Royal Caribbean ship to this day.

All of this first generation of ships shared a number of uniform characteristics; small, shoe box sized cabins, none of them with balconies; a tonnage of around 16,000, and a passenger capacity of about 800. They featured centrally located lido pools, indoor and outdoor bars and buffets, and a hugely relaxed, indolent lifestyle. All painted white, the ships of Norwegian and Royal were immediate, obvious competitors. And all were based in Miami, starting a cruise boom for that Florida port that has yet to end. And, in those days, they were all staffed by Norwegian captains, deck officers and chief engineers.

All of these ships followed a regular pattern, sailing from Miami on Saturdays and Sundays to the highlights of the Eastern and Western Caribbean. In those days, banner ports such as Cozumel, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman were much more unspoiled than now.

They sailed on week long circuits of the Caribbean, alternating the routes each week. This allowed passengers to combine two cruises back to back, affording them the chance to see up to ten different islands in a fortnight. And both lines also tied in the option for adding a week long, pre or post cruise stay at Walt Disney World, or in Miami itself. Cumulatively, all of these options proved to be massively successful.

The one exception to this scheduling was the Sunward II, which sailed on three and four night runs from Miami to Nassau, in the Bahamas, and to the Caribbean’s first ‘private island’ at Little San Salvador, at that time a pioneering NCL exclusive. These short, funky little ‘runs for the sun’ also became massively popular, as indeed they still are today.

So popular was the Caribbean cruise circuit that it attracted a third major entrant early in 1972; a new, start up operation called Carnival Cruise Lines. Carnival started operations with a converted Canadian Pacific ocean liner, renamed the Mardi Gras. She was later joined in 1975 by a second ex- CP ship, the Carnivale.

The two Norwegian companies looked down at this new upstart, with it’s cheap and cheerful take on entertainment and decor. In decades to come, that derisory attitude would change dramatically.

The lido pool on the Starward, largely unchanged to this day

The lido pool on the Starward, largely unchanged to this day

The market continued to surge during the mid to late seventies, and both Royal and NCL were in desperate need of more berths. Unwilling yet to commit to the expense and time scale required for new builds, each company took a radically different tack.

In a dazzling dual coup, Royal Caribbean sent both the Nordic Prince and the Song of Norway back across the Atlantic, to their Finnish builders. There, each was cut in half, and a specially built mid section was added to lengthen each ship. This increased the number of passengers they could carry to around 1,000 each, and also allowed more deck space and leisure facilities to be added. It also increased the gross tonnage of each ship to around 23,000.

At that time, this kind of maritime surgery was hugely innovative and groundbreaking, and the two ‘stretched ‘sisters were very popular and well received. Surprising, then, that the third ship- Sun Viking- was never altered, for reasons that have never really been made clear.

Kloster opted for another course. No doubt influenced by the successful conversion by Carnival of a third former liner- the Festivale of 1978- he stunned the maritime world and bought the laid up, legendary transatlantic liner, the SS. France.

That same maritime community looked on in stunned amazement as he converted her into the SS. Norway, the first true mega cruise ship. Boasting a string of industry firsts, the stunning, blue and white Norway steamed into Miami in June of 1980, and changed cruising forever.

The ultimate game changer; the giant, graceful SS, Norway

The ultimate game changer; the giant, graceful SS. Norway

She was almost as big as the other four of her NCL fleet mates combined; in fact, the first true megaship. Huge, sleek, and swathed in beautifully rendered Art Deco, the Norway went on to become the most successful cruise ship of all time. After her, nothing would be the same again. Her success triggered the massive building programme for ever larger cruise ships that is still with us today.

That, combined with advancing age and diminishing appeal, went a long way to condemning that same, first string of pioneering Caribbean stalwarts to service with a series of smaller, sometimes less patrician owners. Over the last couple of years or so, they began to fall one by one to the scrapper’s axe.

Well, most of them….

Incredibly, both Starward and Sunward II continue in service for Louis Cruises in the Greek Islands, as the Louis Aura and the Louis Rhea, respectively. Here, their intimate size, retro style and large passenger capacity has given them a whole new lease of life.

How long can these last survivors carry on? I honestly have no idea. If you are at all interested in these classic, stately ladies, it is perhaps best to sail them while you still can.