INTRODUCING BRITANNIA, AND A NEW NATIONAL ANTHEM

Southampton's legendary Bargate

Southampton’s legendary Bargate

It was the announcement that surprised almost no one in the end, but it still managed to excite a vast flotilla of cruise fans. Royal Caribbean International will homeport Anthem of the Seas, the second of it’s new Project Sunshine series, in Southampton from 2015.

The arrival of this fabulous ship sets up an interesting potential duel with the rival P&O Cruises, with the 2015 advent of that company’s own Britannia, a very slightly smaller vessel. Built on the same platform as Royal Princess, she will be the largest purpose built ship ever introduced to the UK cruise market.

Anthem of the Seas will replace the longstanding UK stalwart, Independence of the Seas, after near on five years of sailing from the Hampshire port. Britannia, by contrast, merely augments the already formidable P&O line up currently homeported there.

With her new facilities such as the already hotly anticipated North Star capsule, her dodgem cars and virtual balcony cabins, Anthem continues the Royal Caribbean trend for incorporating dazzling, state of the art new amenities into each successive class of newbuild. By contrast, Britannia will be evolutionary, rather than revolutionary; a continuation of a popular, easily embraced product and palette enshrined on all of her fleetmates still in service. While the Anthem will scream about her superlative new style and facilities, Britannia will not be screaming at all, thank you very much.

Is there room for both? Well, both lines will be naturally bullish about their new builds, and Royal Caribbean are also retaining the popular Adventure of the Seas on the Southampton roster as well. But in a revealing little insight not so long ago, Norwegian head honcho, Kevin Sheehan, said categorically that the company thought it impractical to dedicate a ship to a permanent UK homeport in the near future.

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

The port is no stranger to famous past residents

Now, whether this is a totally financial decision, or whether it simply reflects the hard fact that Norwegian currently has less tonnage to shuffle around than Royal Caribbean, I honestly do not know. But I do know that, once both Anthem of the Seas and Britannia enter service, it is going to give Southampton a year round roster of superships, unseen even at the highlight of the ocean liner era in the late 1950’s.

What is for sure is that there will never be a better time to embark on a big ship, sailing from what is still the premier UK passenger port. The choice is nothing short of monumental, with the Cunard trio on hand to augment their P&O fleet mates, plus seasonal summer deployments from the likes of Princess and MSC. That company is also debuting the mighty MSC Magnifica in Southampton for a few cruises next year. How long before one of these newer, bigger vessels replaces the current, stalwart MSC Opera on a permanent basis?

Fred. Olsen also maintains a presence with Balmoral, practically the only mid sized ship sailing regularly from Southampton. So far as we know, no one else has plans to homeport smaller ships there, save for the already present, graceful swans of P&O.

The next few seasons should be interesting. Will the new ships result in overkill in a market that has still vastly depressed prices? Will Sheehans’ side swerve look like sound business? Remember that Norwegian had a ship based in Dover each summer for twelve seasons, before withdrawing altogether in 2011. And, of course, Southampton has infrastructure challenges- rail, road and hotel accommodation- to address as well.

For sure, it is a time of giants, one unseen in any British port before. Almost all of these mega ships can accommodate half as many passengers again as such Southampton legends as the Queens, the United States, or even the venerable, beloved old Canberra. A unique convocation of cruising hardware, wrapped in different shades of style and substance.

WINTER WARMERS FROM NORWEGIAN- EUROPE AND THE CARIBBEAN 2013/14 CRUISES

Sunset from the Norwegian Spirit

Sunset from the Norwegian Spirit

If, like me, the idea of the coming winter in the UK fills you will all the deep, unfettered joy of a Jedward megamix playing on an endless loop, then the idea of a winter cruise escape might just be the thing to banish those icy winter blues. And, over the next few months, one of the best programmes on offer comes from Norwegian Cruise Line. Having been on most of their ships myself- some of them more than once- I can honestly say that they make for a wonderful winter filip if you have the luxury of time, and the money to do it.

So, what is out there? Let’s look at Europe first.

Norwegian have two ships in Southern Europe this winter season; the colourful, contemporary, Norwegian Jade, and the slightly smaller, more oriental themed Norwegian Spirit. The latter ship home ports in Barcelona during the winter, and offers sixteen nine night sailings to the Canary Islands and North Africa, between December and April. All of these cruises can also be booked as round trip options from Malaga.

The ports of call are: Barcelona/Casablanca/Funchal/Lanzarote/Malaga/Barcelona/Four sea days.

There is also a handful of ‘taster’ options, two nighters that allow you to embark in Malaga and leave in Barcelona. A nice little break at a good price.

Norwegian Spirit main lobby

Norwegian Spirit main lobby

Norwegian Jade offers seven, eleven night, Western Mediterranean cruises from Rome, December through April. Here’s the skinny;

Sailing from Rome/Florence or Pisa/Monte Carlo/Toulon/Barcelona/Valencia/Cagliari/Carthage/Palermo/Naples/Rome/One sea day.

There’s also a series of seven, ten night Eastern Mediterranean sailings on Norwegian Jade, as listed below:

Rome/Katakolon/Piraeus/Izmir/Istanbul (two days)/Naples/Rome/Three sea days

The sailings on Norwegian Spirit offer a nice blend of port calls and sea days, but be aware that the Atlantic can be a bit rocky at that time of the year. And, while all of the Norwegian Jade sailings offer the option of seeing a lot of popular places at a time of year when the crowds are largely gone, there is very little real time for relaxing on board on the Western Mediterranean run. This might suit some better than others.

Not warm enough or just a little too familiar? How about swapping Europe’s leaden grey skies for the sun, reggae and wonderful beaches of the sparkling Caribbean? Out among the palm splayed paradise of the islands, Norwegian offers a string of tremendous, tempting options that showcase the newest and most innovative ships in the current fleet.

Norwegian Epic interior

Norwegian Epic interior

Four ships are highlighted- Norwegian Sun, Norwegian Epic, this year’s brilliant new Norwegian Breakaway and her soon to debut sister, Norwegian Getaway. Most of these cruises sail round trip to the Caribbean from Miami, and run from between seven to eleven nights, but there’s also a seven night option from New York down to Florida and the Bahamas. These are listed below;

From New York, Norwegian Breakaway sails seventeen, seven night Bahamas cruises from December through April;

New York/Port Canaveral/Great Stirrup Cay/Nassau/New York/Three sea days

Meanwhile, brand new sister ship, Norwegian Getaway, offers  a series of twelve seven night, Eastern Caribbean cruises from Miami, beginning on January 31st.

Miami/St. Maarten/St. Thomas/Nassau/Miami/Three sea days.

At the same time, Norwegian Epic switches to seven night, round trip Western Caribbean sailings from Miami. There are twelve of these, beginning on February 1st.

Miami/Ocho Rios/Costa Maya/Cozumel/Miami/Three sea days.

Pool deck on the Norwegian Sun

Pool deck on the Norwegian Sun

If you’re looking for something longer, the more intimate, beautifully styled Norwegian Sun is offering some wonderful ten and eleven night round trips from Miami to the Southern Caribbean, details are here:

Six ten night sailings, between December and April;

Miami/St. Thomas/Dominica/Barbados/St. Lucia/St.Maarten/Miami/Four sea days

Six eleven night sailings, between December and April;

Miami/Cartagena/Aruba/Curacao/St. Maarten/St. Thomas/Miami/Five sea days

All three of the newer ships- Norwegian Breakaway, Norwegian Getaway and Norwegian Epic- offer what is arguably the best entertainment anywhere at sea, a vast number of alternative restaurants and boardwalk style, open air eateries and, for single passengers, large numbers of compact, solo studio cabins at good price points.

By contrast, the itineraries on the smaller Norwegian Sun are the most in depth and sophisticated by a long way. They do feel like real escapes, with each sailing offering a minimum of four full sea days to soak up that lovely Caribbean winter sun. And, while the ship is smaller, she offers no shortage of fun spots to eat, drink and play. And, naturally, she carries fewer passengers, just over 2,000 in total on most sailings.

All of these sailings, both in Europe and the Caribbean, are offered for sale as round trip fly cruises, or on a cruise only basis. Sailings from New York and Miami also offer a free, pre cruise overnight hotel room stay, plus all transfers. This is in addition to the number of days quoted in these itineraries, which is the total spent on the cruise alone. And remember to factor in an additional night, spent on your return flights home from Miami and New York.

Whichever one you choose, remember that there’s only one golden rule- enjoy!

GOING, GOING, GONE- CRUISE SHIPS ON BORROWED TIME

The pool of small, stylish cruise ships is getting steadily smaller

The pool of small, stylish cruise ships is getting steadily smaller

With yesterday’s announcement that the pioneer Royal Caribbean ship, the 1970-built former Song Of Norway has been sold for scrap in China, a harsh light has been shone once more on the fate of the first real generation of small, purpose built cruise ships. With a still depressed financial outlook and the continuing public love affair with amenity laden mega ships, the real surprise is perhaps that many of these ships have lasted for so long.

There were ominous straws in the wind, principally with the long drawn out end of the Pacific, the former Pacific Princess. Nothing brought home the mortality of these ships like the sight of the shabby carcass of the world famous Love Boat, hauled up to be butchered at a Turkish waterfront breakers. And she was preceded to the block by the Atlantic, a ship built as recently as 1984.

So, with the maritime equivalent of death row looking like it might soon be full to capacity, what other ships are there in the background that look as if their days might be numbered? The actual roster is as illustrious as it is worrying.

The beautiful, 1973 built Saga Ruby ends her final stint of service with Saga Cruises next year and, with no future buyer yet in evidence, the smart money is on this gorgeous, iconic ship following her sister ship, Saga Rose, to some wrecking beach somewhere. I hope I’m wrong, because this wonderful ship would make a good fit for Fred. Olsen or, indeed, the rival Cruise and Maritime.

The excellent Aegean Odyssey is happily still sailing

The excellent Aegean Odyssey is happily still sailing

Speaking of Cruise and Maritime, they were the last company to operate the now laid up Ocean Countess, better known as the famous Cunard Countess of 1976. The ship has been laid up in Greece since her final sailing in October of 2012 and, barring a sale to a company like Louis Cruises (who did actually own her at one time) the pretty little ship has got to be looking at the distinct possibility of one final, one way trip.

I hope this is not the case, having been lucky enough to enjoy a sunny, fun filled weekend around the Greek Islands on this lovely ship a few years ago. Sadly, sentiment does not impact the steely resolve of scrappers, and their almost limitless lust for fresh blood.

Also looking more than a bit dodgy is the MSC Melody, the former Atlantic of 1982. Laid up in Naples and offered for sale since January 2013, the former Home Lines matriach has yet to find any gainful future employment.

This is a ship that would be a much better fit for Louis, with a decent passenger capacity that would allow relative economies of scale, especially on short, destination intensive cruises. The fact that she also has a sliding glass roof over her central lido pool would also mean that the company could consider operating her year round, perhaps in the Mediterranean, or even further afield. The one downside to this is that she has no balcony cabins, but this is less of an issue on short Greek Islands cruises.

P&O's original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

P&O’s original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

Sadly, the truth is that the future for these ships- and many others of their size, style and heritage- is not looking particularly bright. Owners want bigger, more fuel efficient and less labour intensive ships, while passengers- long since conditioned to ever larger, more diverse mega ships- want bigger, shiny new toys.

This dovetailing of owner/passenger desires and expectations, combined with what still amounts to a depressed market in the Eastern Mediterranean, sadly amounts to a perfect storm for those vintage vessels still in a state of limbo. With the warm weather, short cruise season at an end for 2013, it might well be that some lines will keep their powder dry and attempt to snap up a bargain or two at the start of the new year.

Let’s hope so and, if they are indeed playing Russian roulette, let’s also hope that at least a few of these storied, sophisticated ladies manage to dodge the proverbial bullet.

As always, stay tuned.

GRAND ARRIVALS- DOING IT IN STYLE

MSC is Miami bound, year round

MSC is Miami bound, year round

Spectators in Miami have just been treated to a fantastic, flamboyant first arrival of the gigantic MSC Divina. Preceded by fireboats and an incredible brace of waterborne Fiat cars that kept pace with her, the enormous new ship made a sensational splash for her North American debut; one that emphasised her unique, Italian heritage and the playful, indolent promise of la dolce vita gone South Beach. It was a singularly stunning debut, intended to garner as much publicity as possible for the latest entrant in the Miami based seven day cruise market. First impressions are that the company has succeeded admirably.

Of course, the sensational size and stance of the ocean liner and it’s natural successor, the modern cruise ship, has always been conducive to creating a sensational first impact. For while jet aircraft are certainly often very beautiful, only Concorde could really command the same style, gravitas and sheer stage presence as a great passenger ship. They remain things apart, often close enough to touch and yet seemingly a million miles away. Enduring, inbound icons whose indifference to our awe and admiration is every bit as maddening as a cat’s.

Odd, then, to consider how the creators of liner posters used to exaggerate the size of their subjects, with pygmy like tugs cowering in the shadow of some stately ocean dinosaur, with smoke from its quartet of smoke stacks rising straight upwards.

And yet no amount of hyperbole could have exaggerated the amazing, dramatic impact of what remains the most stunning arrival of them all; the sensational debut of the stupendous Normandie in June of 1935, a dramatic pageant played out on land, sea and sky that has never truly been equalled.

It started at the moment that the Normandie surged past the Ambrose Lightship, the finish line for the westbound Blue Riband. Having shattered the record in a style never seen before, a thirty metre blue pennant was run up the new champion’s mast, and her siren boomed out in triumph. At the same time, every passenger was presented with a commemorative, engraved medallion. Like the pennant, these just ‘happened’ to be on board in the event of a record run.

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

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

At about the same time, a small aircraft took off and began to circle low over Manhattan. This two man outfit was a for-hire operation called The Voice Of The Sky and, as it climbed, the loudspeaker in the second seat began repeating a simple message to the commuters of mid town Manhattan: 

“Go to the river. The Normandie is coming in….”

It was as if the voice of God had uttered an order. Shops, factories and businesses began to empty at warp speed as a vast human tidal wave surged down to the banks of the Hudson. In one place, the crowds were so dense that the National Guard had to be called out to hold them back. By the time the Normandie began her ceremonial entry into Manhattan, escorted by everything that could toot, honk or howl, the crowd was estimated at well over a quarter of a million strong.

It was a stunning spectacle. This mass of humanity blackened every half feasible vantage point along the shoreline. Meanwhile, more than a hundred tugs, yachts and excursion boats had formed a guard of honour around the great French liner. Fireboats hurled vast, silvery plumes of water skywards in graceful arcs as the Normandie approached the Battery.  Bells, whistles and sirens whooped, howled and screamed out a welcome in a stunning cacophony of sound almost thick enough to cut.

Overhead, a squadron of navy planes zoomed above her in salute, while a ponderous blimp floated serenely above the liner’s wake, filming the entire event for posterity. By the time the soaring flank of the Normandie finally kissed the brand new Pier 88, she had already garnered headlines that would only be finally equalled by the first Moon landing, some thirty four years in the future.  One daily newspaper alone put out no less than eight editions that day, covering every stage of the new speed queen’s stately progress. There has never been a maiden arrival quite like it since.

Even now, New York remains an electrifying landfall from any ship

Even now, New York remains an electrifying landfall from any ship

In a sense, today’s Miami landfall of the wonderful new MSC Divina echoes some of the style, elegance, and sheer fun of that most auspicious of arrivals. And if it does anything, that sensational, waterborne ceremonial entry into Miami points up the ageless potency of the giant passenger ship to still awe, thrill and amaze huge throngs of people, even after all these years.

Good luck and bon voyage to the MSC Divina, and all those that will sail in her.

TWO BECOME ONE; AMERICAN AIRLINES AND US AIRWAYS TIE THE KNOT

Up in the clouds? Is the AA/USAir merger pie in the sky?

Up in the clouds? Is the AA/USAir merger pie in the sky?

So, after long months of ‘will they. won’t they’ musings and no shortage of subtle, subversive wooing, the merger of American Airlines and US Airways is finally a done deal. Some think it not so much a marriage as a shotgun wedding; both of these gargantuan airlines have filed for bankruptcy in the past. But what does it mean for commercial air travel and, principally, for the average passenger? Here’s my take on what I think will transpire.

I’m talking mainly in a transatlantic sense here, rather than a domestic one. Other, more knowledgeable experts on the airline industry have a far shrewder grasp of that scenario that I do. And my comments are, invariably, flavoured by my previous experiences of both these carriers as independent entities.

There’s bound to be consolidation on the transatlantic routes. At present, US Airways operates direct services from Manchester, Gatwick and Heathrow to American hubs in Philadelphia and Charlotte, North Carolina, with connections across the US and the rest of the world from there. It has traditionally flown A330’s on this route, operating in a two class- business and economy- configuration.

American Airlines, by contrast, has always majored out of Heathrow, with some subsidiary services from Gatwick and Manchester, It uses hubs in Raleigh, Dallas Fort Worth and New York’s JFK. In the main, it flies the Boeing 777 in three classes- first, business and economy- and sometimes older 767’s on the Manchester-New York route.

There is bound to be some culling of services here, and I’m guessing the casualties will be the AA services out of Manchester and Gatwick. That said, the airline will want to remain fully competitive with the new Delta/Virgin tie in that gives them access to the affiliated KLM/Air France network.

Of course, American Airlines is part of the Oneworld Alliance, a strategic tie in that sees the American giant locked into codeshare agreements with both British Airways and Iberia.  Word is that all US Airways passenger benefits, such as elite status and air miles, will be transferable to the new conglomerate. Let’s hope so.

What’s interesting here is the fact that BA in particular operates as a four class airline. Will the former US Airways fleet be upgraded with premium economy products, or even a first class? Not necessarily, because direct rival Virgin offers no dedicated first class, something that has always marked it apart from British Airways in particular.

In terms of style and service, I think there will be very little change in terms of what is on offer, with a uniform standard of product offer rolled out across both airlines. Pricewise, anyone expecting to see any benefits is probably deluding themselves. Consolidation will bring more advantages to shareholders than to potential travellers.

This in large part in the UK is down to the catastrophic level of APD (Air Passenger Duty), a series of prohibitive, government prescribed taxes that have rocketed skywards since around 2007. Transatlantic airline ticket prices are anything between forty and sixty per cent higher now than they were then. The shotgun marriage of the two airlines is intended to try and negate the worst effects of this, together with the rising cost- and potentially uncertain availability- of aviation fuel in the future.

This set of circumstances is not unique to the AA/USAir marriage of convenience, of course. All of the airlines are up against it, and consolidation is seemingly the only way forward. With the market volatile and uncertain, there seems little material prospect of an improving level of service- especially across the grey ranks of economy style cabin seating- any time soon.

No matter what shape and direction this lumbering new bird takes, it’s hard to escape the conclusion that both airline and passengers alike are stuck between a rock and a hard place, at least for the foreseeable future.

CRUISING SOMEWHERE DIFFERENT- OPTIONS OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Chase the sun. Or just the change

Chase the sun. Or just the change

Let’s face it, there are times when the lure of even the most famous of cruising venues begins to fade when you’ve done it time after time. So, if you’re beginning to fall a little out of love with the dolce vita lifestyle of the usual Meddy-Go-Rounds, or feeling blase about the sun splashed Bahamas, what are the options if you still want to enjoy the seductive cruising lifestyle?

Well, fear not. Here’s an idea or two that will hopefully rekindle your interest in the world at large.

One option you might like to look at is the Black Sea. Cruises tend to be on offer here traditionally in late summer and early autumn. You’ve still got the advantage of hopefully good weather, linked in with a chance to see ports such as Odessa, Yalta, with it’s famous Swallow’s Nest castle perched high up on a cliff above the sea, or even Sevastopol, from where you can see the killing field that once witnessed the futile, heroic charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

If the Canary Islands just don’t cut if for you any more, consider going even further south to the islands of the Azores, for a more up close and personal, less tourist driven flavour of what those islands once were. Beautiful, remote and bathed in more or less year round sunshine, the Azores attracts a small, select handful of sailings each year. It’s not by any means a big market but, if the object is to avoid the crowds, then this is pretty much a perfect choice.

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

The Amazon is also an amazing, unforgettable foray. Sailing nine hundred miles upstream to Manaus is a fantastic experience; the city emerges from it’s jungle cover like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. En route you’ll see amazing beaches, samba displays, and streams of black and white water literally flowing side by side.

You’ll also see bugs and insects of every size, shape and colour imaginable, as well as gimlet eyed caimans. And where else could you go fishing for piranha if you’re so inclined?

Something not so steamy and in your face? Consider an expedition cruise to the remote, pristine fastness of Antarctica, an austral winter wonderland where the sun never sets at all during the main season, from November through February each year.

See vast ice floes, tinted rose pink by the glow of the endless sun, as flocks of cawing penguins skitter across them. You might see giant whales breaching the surface, leaving plumes of icy spray against a backdrop of cold, clear blue sky. There are giant, jagged icebergs as large as cathedrals, parading past you in slow motion like so many ghostly galleons. For something completely different, this is as good as it gets.

Bermuda is a famous beauty

Bermuda is a famous beauty

And, if you want some seductive, sunny island life without the crowds, traffic and beach hawkers, you could do a lot worse than consider a summertime cruise to Bermuda. Most of the voyages run between April and October, and typically sail from both Boston and New York. The short distance- just 700 miles sailing in either direction- allows ships to spend a minimum of three days/two nights docked at his beautiful island.

Bermuda is clean, safe, uncrowded, and features some of the most singular and stunning beaches anywhere in the world, a string of blush pink beauties drummed by surging Atlantic rollers. It’s perfect for families, too, as well as honeymooners. It really is a little floating piece of paradise.

So, there you go. These are just a handful of ideas that will hopefully whet the appetite at the very least. Wherever you go out there- enjoy.

MIAMI’S NEW PAIR OF SWELLS-MSC DIVINA AND NORWEGIAN GETAWAY, COMING SOON

MSC is Miami bound, year round

MSC is Miami bound, year round

For the last few years, it’s been Fort Lauderdale that has been making most of the running as Florida’s premier passenger port. The stunning dual coup of securing both Oasis of the Seas and her sister ship, Allure of the Seas, put a real spring in the step of the centrally sited Florida stalwart.

But, after a few years of playing understudy, Miami is finally reasserting its role as the world’s number one passenger port. And a couple of stunning new arrivals in the next few weeks will really up the ante in terms of both options and, naturally, the numbers passing through that port.

MSC’s stunning new MSC Divina launched last year in Europe, and is now about to make her first ever American landfall. Following a very successful season with the slightly smaller MSC Poesia last year, the Italian company decided to send the newer, larger, state of the art Divina to the American market. She will home port in Miami all year round, operating  a series of mainly seven night cruises to the Eastern and Western Caribbean, though there will also be occasional, three night Bahamas jaunts as well.

It is inevitable that the vast, European accented Divina will receive some cosmetic ‘tweaking’ for the benefit of the American passengers that MSC is hoping to attract. I also hope that the changes are not so all encompassing that they smother the chic, highly styled essence of this beautiful ship. One of her biggest selling points is, surely, that she is just a little ‘different’ to the glut of mega cruise ships sailing out of Miami. I suppose that time alone will tell, but I think that MSC Divina will be a smash in the Caribbean year round market.

The second entrant in the new Miami beauty stakes needs no adaption; she has been designed and outfitted from the start to be a ‘Miami’ ship. Norwegian Cruise Lines’ new Norwegian Getaway will be in the South Florida port in late January, to begin week long Eastern and Western Caribbean cruises. As a younger sibling to the wildly successful, New York accented Norwegian Breakaway, the new ship has been designed and decorated to reflect a chic, very local, South Beach kind of vibe.

Miami is an electrifying place to sail from

Miami is an electrifying place to sail from

Norwegian has a long and very deep connection to Miami. Unlike rivals Carnival and Royal Caribbean, it has always homeported it’s ships there, rather than in Fort Lauderdale, or even Port Canaveral. It was Norwegian that inaugurated Caribbean fly cruising from Miami in the late sixties, and it has maintained a presence ever since. As such, it is perhaps more indelibly intertwined with Miami than any of it’s rivals.

Both of these vast new ships come in at around the 140,000 ton mark. As such, they represent huge new additions to Miami’s potential revenue stream. While not as large or capacious the pair of Royal Caribbean leviathans just up the road in Fort Lauderdale, these two sparkling new ships nonetheless offer a pair of totally new, fun packed and diverse holiday options.

Good luck to both these great new ladies as they embark on their maiden sailings from Miami.

COSTA’S 2014 COMEBACK- A PIVOTAL YEAR?

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

After the ghastly tragedy of 2012’s Costa Concordia disaster and a less than inspiring 2013, Costa Cruises must be hoping that 2014 will represent a favourable turning point in its fortunes. However, the line isn’t simply wishing on a dream. it has taken a series of admittedly tentative steps towards recovering its former status, and these are looking encouraging.

Firstly, the sodden, solemn remains of the Concordia herself should literally disappear from view at last, as the wreck of the raised ship is finally towed away and scrapped at an as yet undisclosed location. This in itself should be a huge psychological lift, though the ongoing trial of the cringeworthy Francesco Schettino continues somewhere in the background.

New up is the November 2014 debut of the new flagship, Costa Diadema. This 130,000 ton ship- a variant on the Carnival Dream design- is so far the only one of the class on order. She was recently floated out, and is slated to operate seven night Western Mediterranean cruises year round. The Costa Diadema is the largest passenger ship ever built for any Italian line, and an enormous amount hangs on her success. She is by far the biggest and most visible example of renewed forward momentum from the Italian cruise juggernaut, but by no means the only one.

Out in the Far East, Costa Victoria- the original Costa megaship- has just had a generally well received, $18 million renovation of her interior spaces. She has now been joined in year round service in the region by a second large ship, the Costa Atlantica. And, despite initial denials to the contrary, Costa is, indeed, ridding itself of the delightful, diminutive Costa Voyager after the collapse of her winter 2013/14 Red Sea programme. The line is also set to lay up or sell a second,as yet unnamed ship in the not too distant future. The smart money would be on this being the unreconstructed Costa Classica.

Her sister ship, the massively reconstructed Costa NeoRomantica, has not been the success that the company hoped, at least in the short term. For 2014, she will be joined by the newly acquired Costa NeoRiviera, the former Grand Mistral of Iberocruises. With these two ships, Costa is diverging off the beaten track and into a new, very interesting direction.

Typically vibrant, Farcus style Costa interiors. This is the Costa Favolosa

Typically vibrant, Farcus style Costa interiors. This is the Costa Favolosa

Here we have a brace of much smaller ships than the rest of the Costa alumni; the idea is to sail them in the Baltic and Mediterranean next summer, on longer twelve to fourteen night itineraries. These will feature a high number of overnight stays in popular, flagship ports- not something Costa has previously been known to do in the past.

The emphasis will also be on creating a more intimate experience, with upgraded service and shore excursions. In a way, it’s a kind of return to the sort of voyages that the line was once famous for in the sixties and seventies, and it should be very interesting to see if what amounts to Costa 2.0 can pull off this ‘back to the future’ kind of volte face after so many years of successive mega ship birthings. For sure, a lot is riding on it.

My advice? Stay tuned….

CRUISE AND MARITIME- SMALL BUT SWEET

Cruise and Maritime can show you the beauty of Ibiza

Cruise and Maritime can show you the beauty of Ibiza

Cruise and Maritime is a relative newcomer to the UK cruising scene, but in a few short years it has managed to acquire a trio of smaller, extremely comfortable ‘ladies of the sea’ of a certain vintage, Marketed successfully to a clientele that is naturally averse to the current generation of glittering, Vegas- style mega ships, it also offers a summertime series of sailing from different home ports around the country. As with their rival, Fred. Olsen, this has proved to be a winning formula.

There is a lot of flexibility in the company schedules, from overnight repositioning cruises to gargantuan, thirty two night round trip cruises to the Caribbean and back. And, with this winter season’s charter of the small, beautifully styled Astor, Cruise and Maritime now offers the welcome option to sail to and from Australia and South Africa over the winter months; a real boon for those averse to airports and flying in general.

The company’s trio of swells consists of the aforementioned Astor, a stylish lady of 21,000 tons with a graceful, swept back funnel and some gorgeous tiered decks at the stern. Discovery is the former Island Princess, also around 20,000 tons. With light, airy interiors and a sliding glass roof over her central lido pool, she is ideal for cruises in northern waters in the long summer nights.

Perhaps best known is the Marco Polo, a wonderful, typically styled liner, suffused in bow to stern art deco, and blessed with a wonderful series of cascading, upper deck terraces at the stern. A similar size to her fleetmates, her capacity of around 800 passengers is also on a par with the other two ships. And, like them, she offers a uniformity of product across the board.

Visit Honfleur on a Cruise and Maritime city break

Visit Honfleur on a Cruise and Maritime city break

Common to all three of the Cruise and Maritime ships is a warm, intimate atmosphere, and food, service and entertainment geared towards a predominantly older, UK market. There are very few balcony cabins on any of the ships, and extra tariff restaurants are a complete no-no here.

What you do get is a good value, solid product that will take you to some fascinating places, at a genuinely good price point. The exception is the single cabins, which are typically twice the rate of a double, and something the company needs to address in light of aggressive discounting by rivals.

Both Discovery and Marco Polo shift bases around the country during the summer, sailing from ports such as Bristol, Edinburgh, Harwich and Newcastle, as well as the main, year round base of Tilbury. The Essex port has a dedicated coach connection from London Victoria for all sailings, and is also easily reached  by rail from anywhere in the UK via London’s Fenchurch Street station.

Cruise and Maritime is a real alternative to the mega ships of Cunard and P&O. The ships are charming and evocative, well run, and offer a whole raft of optional itineraries. You can even spend the evening on board Marco Polo pierside in Tilbury, and enjoy drinks, dinner and a floorshow on board. This is a great way to get the ‘feel’ of the ship without going overboard on the finances.

Shell Beach, Saint Barts. Go there with Cruise and Maritime's winter escape

Shell Beach, Saint Barts. Go there with Cruise and Maritime’s winter escape

I particularly recommend some of the short, two to five day short cruises offered by Marco Polo, many of which are ideal for visiting some of Northern Europe’s more appealing Christmas markets, such as Antwerp and Ghent. These are also ideal pick me ups, and they also offer the opportunity to see and discover some new and very attractive cities at a good price point. Add in the attractions of a secure, largely all inclusive environment, and the value becomes obvious.

Best of all, there’s also no worries on the amount of personal luggage you can bring back with you, so you can shop to your heart’s- and your wallet’s- content. Enjoy.

TRACING TITANIC- WHAT YOU CAN SEE IN THE UK TODAY…

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

Though the ship herself has been homeported for more than a century in the dark, silent murk at the bottom of the Atlantic, there are still tangible links between the Titanic and the country and people that gave birth to her. Whether you’re talking in terms of the numerous memorials to the disaster, or the actual hardware used to build her in the first place, a surprising amount remains scattered around the fringes of the United Kingdom to this day. The trick is to know where to look, and also to know what you’re looking for.

Starting at the very beginning, in Belfast there is a huge amount to see. Titanic and her identical earlier twin sister, Olympic, took shape here over four years, from 1908 to 1912. You can still see the vast sloping concrete ramp that the two ships were built on, side by side. Today, their outlines are etched into the slip on the exact spot where each ship grew up and was launched from.

In fact, most of the former Harland and Wolff shipyard has mutated into a kind of theme park (Titanicland?) devoted to the story of the ship’s construction. Even more monolithic is the vast, new Titanic Belfast museum, a five story, interactive masterpiece that tells the story of the Titanic from the unique standpoint of her birthplace.

Here is where you’ll also find the petrified, preserved, pretty little Nomadic, the tender originally built for ferrying first class passengers out to the Olympic and Titanic at Cherbourg. Nomadic is worth the journey to Belfast on her own; an evocative little time capsule. Stand on the same spot where the Astors and the Strausses stood, as they stared at the floodlit bulk of the Titanic, waiting for them in the bay of Cherbourg, and feel the hairs on your neck stand on end. Very highly recommended.

Memorial to the Titanic engineers. Southampton

Memorial to the Titanic engineers. Southampton

If Belfast was the birthplace of Titanic, then Southampton was very much her home port. The famous Ocean Dock was originally known as the White Star Dock, and was especially built for Olympic and Titanic. The bollards that Titanic was tied to are still there to this day, and very easy to visit.

More than two thirds of the crew were Southampton men and women, and the disaster hit home here like a hydrogen bomb. On one street alone, thirty families lost a male relative on the Titanic. The massive Engineer’s Memorial, dedicated in East Park in 1914, is one of the most poignant and evocative Titanic memorials anywhere, and it’s right in the heart of the city.

Newly opened is the Southampton Sea City maritime museum, a two story complex given over to the city’s heyday as Europe’s main ocean liner port. Inevitably, the story of the Titanic occupies a full floor. It’s told in a very personal style from the point of view of the locals who crewed, survived or died in the disaster, and the reminiscences of the relatives that were left behind. Hugely evocative, it is very much Titanic central. You can’t get any closer or more intimate to their story than here.

Over in Southern Ireland, the town of Cobh was the last port of call for the westbound Titanic. She anchored here for a couple of hours just before noon on Thursday, Aprll 11th 1912, to embark just over a hundred Irish emigrants, bound for America. The wooden pier where they boarded the tenders that took them out to the Titanic is still there to this day. There’s also a town centre memorial to the victims, and also another to those lost on the Lusitania, the famous Cunarder torpedoed just outside the harbour during the Great War.

The Nomadic at Cherbourg

The Nomadic at Cherbourg

In 1935, the Olympic arrived on Tyneside for scrapping, and many of her original, elegant first class features found their way into the local White Swan Hotel, in Alnwick. These included a portion of the famous Grand Staircase. as well as the panelling from the smoking room, a ceiling, some mirrors, and a number of leaded glass windows. These have been installed into a so called ‘Olympic Suite’ and, taken as a whole, they offer a unique insight into just how ornate the identical Titanic was internally.

The hotel is around half an hour’s drive from Newcastle and, if you happen to be in the region, it is definitely well worth a visit.