NEWS FROM NORWEGIAN; KEVIN SHEEHAN ON THE FUTURE

Norwegian Getaway was the venue for Kevin Sheehan's press conference

Norwegian Getaway was the venue for Kevin Sheehan’s press conference

At a press conference on board the brand new Norwegian Getaway, Norwegian CEO, Kevin Sheehan, ruminated on the future direction of the company in general, and some of the things that might change. What he had to say was worth hearing.

After the early initial setbacks for the Hawaii operation, Sheehan confirmed that the Pride Of America- the sole remaining member of an envisaged inter-island quartet, is doing very well indeed. So much so, in fact, that she is now the single most profitable vessel across the entire Norwegian fleet. Recently refurbished, the Pride Of America also had a number of single studio cabins added.

That single studio idea has been so successful for Norwegian that Sheehan intends to extend it to every single ship in the fleet. Right now, single cabins can be found on the three ships that Sheehan has helmed for Norwegian from the start- Norwegian Epic, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway- and the Pride Of America.

In addition, he confirmed that the popular, 24/7 service O’Sheehans Bar And Grill outlet- already a focal point in the last three ships- will be extended across the rest of the fleet. To make the venue a potentially more appealing evening dinner option, nightly ‘specials’ such as Prime Rib will be introduced to the culinary roster. On the recent press trip of Norwegian Getaway, the venue was packed to the rafters even in the early morning hours.

Sheehan also confirmed that each ship will also be getting its own Moderno Churrascaria. The Brazilian meat restaurants have proved very popular on Epic and Breakaway. Insofar as possible, these will be installed in close proximity to the Cagney’s Steakhouses, with an adjacent bar provided for each pair of venues.

He also confirmed the news that broke earlier in the week; the year round deployment of the 4,200 passenger Norwegian Epic in Europe from April, 2015. Sheehan was bullish about being able to fill the vast ship- one he describes as the one ‘best suited’ to the European market- but would not be drawn on the itineraries that have been planned for her. These will be announced at the forthcoming Seatrade conference in Miami this coming March.

There was no mention- or questions, to be fair- about the future of current Barcelona year round ship, Norwegian Spirit.

Sheehan, however, did confirm that the next two ‘Breakaway Plus ships’- Norwegian Bliss and Norwegian Escape- are on schedule for delivery in autumn 2015 and spring, 2017. And, although he again ruled out any imminent deployment of a Norwegian ship out of the United Kingdom, he made it plain that it might be something he would consider in the future.

P&O’S NEW LIVERY; FROM BUFF TO SHADES OF BLUE

Oriana; every bit a timeless, contemporary beauty

Oriana; every bit a timeless, contemporary beauty

Ever since the unveiling of the new P&O Cruises livery, the cruise media has reverberated with volley after volley of comments, varying from the tepid to the downright thunderous. Everyone, it seems, has an opinion. And, in that frame of mine, this blog is mine.

It must have taken a seismic internal shift in thinking to make P&O– that most conservative and traditional of British sipping institutions- to take such a bold step. For a company that enshrines a whole raft of hallowed, age old traditions, the significance of this rebrand is impossible to overstate.

The ships themselves will lose their traditional, buff coloured funnels in favour of dark blue ones. The famous, snow white hulls will be adorned with long, flowing, Union Jack hull artwork. Artist’s renderings look rather good but, as always, seeing the real thing will be the proof of the pudding.

This is an obvious attempt to emphasize the ‘Britishness’ of the fleet- all of them registered in Hamilton, Bermuda.

That aside, the new livery is a very bold change for what is often perceived to be a solid, if somewhat staid, product. But inevitably, a lot of people do not like it, and are quite vocal on the subject.

And that is fair enough. My opinion is, after all, no more or less valid than theirs. Few fraternities are as resistant to change as ship lovers. And, at times, that is a charge that can fairly be levelled at yours truly. But not this time.

I full well remember the debut of the brand new QE2 in 1969. With her hotel style interiors and her black and white funnel, the ship was an all out attempt at relentless modernity and it, too, provoked howls of outrage at the time.

Not until her post war Falklands refit in 1982 were the traditional Cunard colours added to her funnel, after thirteen years of service. People were glad to see it at the time. She wears those colours still.

However, in the very early days, the P&O ships had uniform black funnels. That was in the days when the company had the mail contract between England and Australia, and it retained those house colours for many years. Not until the 1930’s would the immortal ‘Straths’ usher in the era of white hulls and buff shaded smokestacks.

The immortal Canberra at Vigo in the Eighties

The immortal Canberra at Vigo in the Eighties

Of course, those colours became synonymous with post war P&O sailings and, inevitably, with mainstream cruising. No ship wore those colours more proudly than the immortal Canberra. For me, the idea of the ‘Great White Whale’ in those new corporate colours would just be so obviously wrong.

But Canberra and her ilk are long since gone. The cruise industry is changing and evolving at a dizzying rate of knots. And in a cut throat market, cruise lines must either adapt or wither and die. And your granny’s P&O is no exception.

The first clue should have been with the new television advert, with its backing track that owes more to Xavier Cugat than Edward Elgar. That was eye opening enough in it’s own right and yes, it was refreshing. If I was meant to sit up and take notice- surely the raison d’etre of any on screen advertising- then that commercial succeeded admirably.

There is new blood coursing right through the Carnival Corporation as a whole, and at P&O in particular. Anyone who thought that there would not be changes as a result was fooling themselves.

Hence, the new hull livery. Love it or hate it, this will get people talking and taking notice. It creates momentum, not all of it necessarily forward. But, in the course of things, such rebranding is usually given at least the benefit of the doubt. This one should be, too.

New colours on any cruise ship are always a matter of personal taste. The look might enhance the sleek, classic Oriana, for instance, or backfire spectacularly on the vast, boxy Ventura. Or, indeed, vice versa. And, because perception is such an individual thing, no two people will look at the ‘new’ P&O in the same way.

But this is a bold move, one coming from a company not renowned for being especially adventurous. I wish the company well with the endeavour.

And- if push comes to shove and the exercise fails- the original colours can always be restored at any future date.

SILVERSEA SUPREME- TWENTY TRIUMPHANT YEARS

The Silver Whisper in Helsinki, August 2013

The Silver Whisper in Helsinki, August 2013

Silversea has become such a platinum chip fixture in the luxury cruising firmament, that it seems miraculous to consider that it is only now, in 2014, that the company celebrates its twentieth anniversary. It seems to have been with us for so much longer.

But it was in 1994 that the then brand new Silver Cloud made the line’s first, tentative foray into the luxury mainstream. She would create waves in the luxury market like no ship before her or, indeed, none since. The bar was not so much raised, as it was sent into orbit.

With all suite accommodations, including around ninety per cent with private balconies, the Silver Cloud was a quantum leap in terms of seagoing spatial largesse. All inclusive, low key and highly styled, she left the opposition floundering.

With Italian officers and deft, European style on board service, the ratio of staff to guests- Silversea discourages the idea that their clientele are mere passengers- is almost one to one. The style is effortlessly elegant, suffused with Italian style and flair, and served up in what was then- as, indeed, it still is now- a sublimely luxurious, almost ethereal cocoon.

The Silver Cloud was followed a year later by a near twin, the superb Silver Wind. The small, intimate style of these two ships enabled them to slip sedately into the smaller, more select harbours around the globe that the bigger, more gimmick orientated cruise ships had to glide past. From the start, Silversea wore its sense of exclusivity like some immaculately polished crown.

Champagne sunset; cruising the Baltic on board the Silver Whisper in August, taken at sea somewhere between Helsinki and Copenhagen.

Champagne sunset; cruising the Baltic on board the Silver Whisper in August, taken at sea somewhere between Helsinki and Copenhagen.

That first pair of trailblazing ships was followed by a duo of slightly larger siblings- Silver Whisper and Silver Shadow- in 2000 and 2001, respectively. These two magnificent ships were scaled up versions of the original pair, but at 28,000 tons half as large again. With the increased size, each grade of suite became just that little bit larger than on the original duo. None the less, the ambiance of quiet, refined  indulgence suffuses these two ships just as surely as it does on the original duo.

The quartet enshrined a cult of open seating, gourmet dining from dawn till dusk and beyond. With beautiful lighting, indulgent menus, discreet service and spectacular, elegant flatware, each Silversea dining venue became a benchmark for the most elegant culinary repasts at sea.

Later came the slightly larger Silver Spirit, at about twice the size of the Silver Cloud, but with the same sense of opulent, uncrowded ease as her quartet of fleet mates. The extra space allowed, once again, for the addition of larger suites, and more dining venues. And it is also worth remembering that all of these (except for the $30 charge at Le Champagne)  come at no extra charge.

And the line has continued to refurbish and refresh each of these five ladies, intent on keeping them at the forefront of the luxury firmament. Now joined by a trio of sublimely refurbished, deep ocean expedition ships- Silver Discoverer, Silver Explorer and Silver Galapagos- the Silversea brand continues to define the ultimate, small ship luxury experience afloat.

Sunset martinis in the springtime Med, on board the Silver Wind

Sunset martinis in the springtime Med, on board the Silver Wind

Twenty years on from it’s inaugural voyage, Silversea continues to garner rave reviews from a worldwide clientele. To celebrate the anniversary, the pioneer, much beloved Silver Cloud recently underwent a massive, multi million dollar refreshment that has her looking as chic, proud and highly styled as on her debut, back in 1994.

There will be a number of commemorative, anniversary voyages across the Silversea fleet this year, but that is pretty much it as far as it goes. Because this is not a line that likes to shout about what it has achieved; that kind of crass, shrill banality is the very antithesis of everything that Silversea represents.

Instead, the ships of the Silversea fleet will just go about their business in their usual spectacular, casually understated style. You can be sure that there will still be cool jazz and ice cold champagne on the terraces at sunset, from Helsinki to Hanoi, Copenhagen to Cairns. The personalised, platinum chip service that has always been the standard bearer of the Silversea ethos will be as unchanging as the spectacular panoramas showcased by these beautiful ships.

Those who know the line do not need to be sold on the epic, effortless lure of the Silversea experience. And, for all those who wonder, all I can say is- get out there.

THE LAUNDRY QUANDARY: ONE MAJOR CRUISE BUGBEAR

First night dress is seldom this uniform

First night dress is seldom this uniform

I don’t know about you, but there are few things I dread as much as unpacking when I first board any ship. Partly, because I am encumbered with a serial compunction to over pack in just about every category, but mainly because, however carefully I fold and pack my stuff, it always comes out bearing more wrinkles than a Zsa Zsa Gabor look a like convention.

And, without fail, that invokes a sense of mild panic in me. Oh God, please spare me from the eternal curse of the infernal crease. Inevitaby, these prayers go unanswered, save for the sound of what I presume to be muted, celestial snickering.

How often have you flown halfway across the world, embarked on a ship, and found that your first choice of clothes is unwearable? And, because embarkation day is the busiest of the entire cruise for the hard working hotel staff on board, your chances of getting stuff pressed at short notice are not the best.

The old days of self service laundry and ironing rooms are largely gone, and everything revolves around a dedicated, on board cleaning and ironing service that generally picks up stuff from your rooms in the morning and returns it, gloriously crease free, by late afternoon. It’s convenient, the prices are generally not excessive, and of course it is hassle free. For most of the cruise, that is.

Of course, the luxury lines are a very different creature. With more personalised service and numbers in the low hundreds, it is usually no problem to get any items of clothing properly ironed, and quite quickly. But on the mega ships, with the numbers in the thousands, many of us simply don’t like to impose on what we know to be a very busy crew.

That’s especially true of the Brits, of course. We’re simply too polite about such things, really. We don’t like to impose. We would rather suffer in silence.

In the absence of the universally banned travel irons, often our only hope is to resort to the age old option of hanging the offending garments in the bathroom, and praying to God that the steam from the shower will make those creases drop out like sixties hippies from a California campus. It is anything but ideal.

Please, please, dear cruise lines, take pity on us feckless foreign travellers, who cannot pack tidily to save their lives, let alone the lines of our favourite shirts and pants. And ladies, by all means, if you have any constructive hints to pass on, please do so. We need all the help that we can get.

ENDLESS EPIC- PERMANANTLY IN EUROPE FROM 2015

Norwegian Epic will be based year round in Barcelona from April of 2015

Norwegian Epic will be based year round in Barcelona from April of 2015

Norwegian CEO, Kevin Sheehan, has announced that the Norwegian Epic will be permanently based in Europe as of April 2015. Speaking at a press conference aboard the brand new Norwegian Getaway, Sheehan cited the ship’s continuing popularity in the European market as key to his decision.

Currently, the 154,000 ton Epic- the biggest ship in the Norwegian fleet- spends fall and winter in the Caribbean, before crossing to Barcelona every spring to operate a series of seven night cruises, based on Barcelona, with secondary embarkations in Marseilles and Civitavecchia.

A redeployment for the one off Epic- the only one of the eleven new ships built for the line since 2001 not to be constructed by Meyer Werft in Papenburg- has been rumoured for some time, with some sources suggesting that the giant ship might even go out to Australia. The Europe decision is, to be honest, a bit of a surprise, and it raises a couple of conundrums.

Firstly, what of Norwegian Spirit? The former Superstar Leo was acquired from Star Cruises back in 2003, and has spent the last several years home ported in Barcelona year round. It seems unlikely that Norwegian will also keep her in Europe, once Epic takes up permanent residence.

One possibility is that she could be sent back to Miami, to operate the once popular programme of five night cruises to Cozumel and Grand Cayman that the line abandoned a few years back. This would seem like sensible employment for a still popular and very distinctive ship. Or she could also be put onto short Bahamas cruises, perhaps as a potential replacement for the Norwegian Sky.

The other question revolves around Norwegian Jade, which is currently based in Rome through the winter season, with sailings out of Venice throughout the summer season. Will she stay in Europe, or could Norwegian possibly be considering sending her back to Hawaii, to join the Pride Of America?

After being burdened with far too many ships when it first launched, the Norwegian operation around the Hawaiian islands is now very profitable. Norwegian Jade was originally completed as the Pride Of Hawaii, and was intended for Hawaii inter island cruising from the start.

Whatever, the arrival of the game changing Epic as a permanent addition in Europe is a very welcome development. With more than twenty different eateries and a whole raft of affordable, single studio cabins, the Epic will be the most diverse cruise vessel available year round for European cruises.

DISASTER IN THE ST. LAWRENCE- THE EMPRESS OF IRELAND, 1914

Crossing the ageless Atlantic...

Crossing the ageless Atlantic…

The years preceding the Great War saw a pair of maritime disasters to British ocean liners that made headlines at the time. One shook the civilised world to it’s very core; yet the second caused nary a ripple.

Each took more than a thousand passengers and crew to the bottom. The first happened in the middle of the Atlantic, the second took place in the sheltered waters of the Saint Lawrence seaway, literally within screaming distance of land.

Of course, the first ship was the Titanic. With boats for just over half the people on board, she foundered in mid ocean, with the nearest rescue ships unable to reach her in time. Horrific as it was, the loss of life is at least understandable in the context of her lonely, isolated death.

The second ship was the Empress Of Ireland. In the early morning hours of May 29th, 1914, she capsized in the Saint Lawrence after being rammed in thick fog by a Norwegian collier, the Storstad. The 14,400 ton Canadian Pacific liner was close to shore, and carried far more than enough lifeboats for every soul on board. Despite this, she was gone in fourteen minutes, with a death toll in excess of 1,000. In the words of one contemporary commentator, the Empress Of Ireland rolled over ‘like a hog in a ditch.’

In many ways, the sinking of the Empress was even more ghastly than the loss of the Titanic, numbers lost notwithstanding. Inquiries in both Britain and America in the wake of the Titanic disaster mandated lifeboats for all, compulsory safety drills, and the creation of an international ice patrol (later to become the US Coastguard)

To be clear, this is not the story of that sinking, but more of an attempt to put her awful, near forgotten tragedy in context. The loss of the Empress occurred only months before the outbreak of the Great War, which saw another huge loss, in the sinking of the Lusitania. She, too, took more than a thousand passengers and crew to the bottom with her. But that is rather getting ahead of the story in hand.

The Empress Of Ireland was one of a pair of twin sister ships- the other one was the Empress Of Britain- built in Glasgow between 1905 and 1906. They were intended for the secondary, transatlantic liner service between Liverpool and Quebec City, from where passengers could join a Canadian Pacific train that could take them all the way to Vancouver. Ship and train were seen- and sold- as complementary parts of a through service; the greatest in the world at that time.

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec City

The two sister ships were steady and comfortable, rather than spectacular. Both were graceful twin stackers, with knife edge bows and cruiser sterns. They could make the one way trip from England to Canada in a week, and offered good, solid comfort for around 1500 passengers, in three classes. The Saint Lawrence route certainly lacked the glamour of the more famous and popular New York run, but many people preferred this more economical journey. As a result, the twin ‘Empresses’ were popular and successful ships from the start.

The Empress Of Ireland was under the command of Captain Henry Kendall when she pulled away from the pier at Quebec on the afternoon of May 28th, 1914. Kendall had become famous a few years earlier, when he recognised the fugitive Doctor Crippen as a passenger on board his ship, the liner Montrose. The message he sent to Scotland Yard led to Crippen’s appointment with a Pentonville hangman just months later, and Kendall became a minor national figure as a result.

There were a total of 1,477 passengers and crew on board the Empress Of Ireland as she groped her way down river from Quebec, through an increasingly thick fog. In the early hours of May 29th, as she passed the small town of Rimouski, she briefly sighted the flickering lights of another ship in the murk.

Without the benefit of radar, and in appalling visibility, the two ships tried to pirouette past each other. But a series of hideous miscalculations resulted in a horrific collision.

The ice reinforced bow of the Norwegian collier, Storstad, sliced into the starboard side of the liner as neatly as a stiletto blade. She was fully laden with coal, and the impact was catastrophic.

What followed was ghastly beyond adequate description. As the damaged collier slid back into the murk with her bow crumpled like so much wet cardboard, the Empress Of Ireland rolled over onto her starboard side. Most of the passengers and crew were asleep below decks. They literally never had a chance. Most drowned in their beds.

The Canadian Pacific liners used to sail from this spot in Quebec; it looks much the same today

The Canadian Pacific liners used to sail from this spot in Quebec; it looks much the same today

Within fourteen minutes, the Empress Of Ireland was engulfed by the freezing, fog shrouded expanse of the Saint Lawrence seaway.

There was no time to close the watertight doors, or the serried ranks of open portholes that admitted torrents of freezing cold water as the Empress heeled over. There was no time for any kind of organised evacuation; all those extra lifeboats proved as ultimately useless as the bureaucrats that belatedly decreed them in the first place.

Something like 1,012 people- passengers and crew alike- went to the bottom with the Empress Of Ireland. The disaster was an eight minute wonder; it made huge headlines at the time, and yet it also faded with obscene, almost indecent haste.

Why was that?

Mainly, because most eyes were focused on Europe, and the sabre rattling antics of the increasingly unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II and his royal cousins, installed as the rulers of empires right across Europe and Russia. But it went deeper than even that.

The Empress Of Ireland was a solid, workmanlike ship, built to carry ordinary, hardworking people and hopeful emigrants. For the media, her loss had none of the ghastly fascination of the events of 1912, when the sinking of the Titanic wiped out half the entire New York social register at a stroke, and took  a huge chunk of the stock market down with her.

The Titanic also sank slowly that night, and she foundered on a glass calm sea. There was time that night for legends to be made, and stories to be remembered and recounted to a thrilled and horrified public. Time, in short, for a whole industry of burnished, barely credible stories to take hold, and be accepted as the true record. It was as fantastic and dramatic as it was unbelievable.

The Empress Of Ireland and her doomed human cargo had none of that. Her end was sudden, shocking initially, but ultimately soon overwhelmed by events on the ground in Sarajevo. It was thus the precursor to a horror without parallel, the appetiser for a particularly ghastly banquet.

All the same, there is something more than a little shameful and shocking in just how quickly and completely this horrific accident has been allowed to slip below the horizon. As the centenary approaches in May, it is to be hoped that, at last,. the story of the Empress Of Ireland is brought to light.

Those lost on that awful night back in May, 1914 deserve nothing less than that.

AN AGONY OF COINCIDENCE; NORMANDIE, FRANCE AND QUEEN ELIZABETH

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Sometimes, history seems to repeat itself in the long, glamorous story of ocean travel, but not always in the best ways. For there are few things as littered with coincidence, or as laden with irony, as the destinies of successive generations of ocean liners.

Here I’m going to look at just one such link; a tenuous, yet all too true timeline that binds three of the greatest passenger ships ever built- Normandie, Queen Elizabeth, and the SS. France. Take from it what you will.

FEBRUARY 9 1942

The enormous French luxury liner, Normandie, catches fire at her Manhattan berth of Pier 88. The Normandie is in the last stages of being converted to a troop ship- the USS Lafayette. While the fire is ultimately contained, a catastrophic ingress of water applied from forty-three fire engines and numerous fireboats fails to drain, turns to ice, and then ultimately causes the Normandie to capsize. Raised some eighteen months later, the most brilliant and beautiful ocean liner ever built is found to be beyond economic repair. She is towed away and scrapped.

During her first six months in limbo, Normandie shared the waterfront with the only other thousand foot long liners in the world, the Cunard siblings, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. New York dockyard workers nickname them ‘The Monsters’ for the duration of their stay.

FEBRUARY 8 1962

The brand new SS. France arrives in Manhattan on her maiden voyage. She ties up at the same Pier 88 spot where, twenty years minus one day earlier, the Normandie had capsized. At her launch two years earlier, President De Gaulle declared ‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ to the 100,000 strong crowd.

The France had endured a stormy maiden crossing that delayed her by several hours, but she poured on speed to arrive on time. Was the French Line desperate to get her into New York- and docked at that self same Pier 88- and perhaps take attention away from a particularly ghastly anniversary?

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

JANUARY 9 1972

Fires break out in six places aboard the Seawise University, the ex Queen Elizabeth, as she is in the final stages of fitting out as a floating university cum cruise ship in Hong Kong harbour. The gutted ship capsizes, and is declared a constructive total loss. It is exactly thirty years minus one month since the Normandie suffered an identical fate in Manhattan.

C.Y. Tung was, in effect, on the verge of creating what was actually the world’s first mega cruise ship, a full seven years before Knut Kloster would relaunch the laid up SS France as the SS Norway, the ship that changed cruising forever.

In her last years as a Cunard ship, that company had tried to convert the Queen Elizabeth for a partial cruising role by adding a large lido pool right aft. They had hoped to keep her in service at least until the mid seventies. On acquiring the France, Kloster did almost exactly the same thing for the resurrected Norway. 

Queen Elizabeth, like Normandie before her, was in the final stages of a massive conversion when she was engulfed. The France underwent an even bigger conversion into the Norway; one that prolonged her life by almost a quarter of a century, and made her a legend for the second time.

All coincidences of course, but ones that verge on both the exquisite and the agonising. Irony, elegance, tragedy and ignominy. The four nautical horsemen of the apocalypse?

GEARING UP FOR GETAWAY- NORWEGIAN AND IT’S OPTIONS

The awesome bulk of the Norwegian Epic

The awesome bulk of the Norwegian Epic

With next week’s debut of the hugely anticipated Norwegian Getaway bang on schedule, and two new, further enhanced ships in the same class now firm orders with Meyer Werft at Papenburg, Norwegian can begin contemplating possible expansion into other areas. The question is; where, and with what?

It might be first best to look at the current Norwegian fleet as it stands right now. The fleet comprises the near sisters, Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Sky, as well as the Papenburg built sextet of Star, Dawn, Jewel, Jade, Pearl and Gem.

The Norwegian Spirit is unique in the fleet, having transferred over from Star Cruises, instead of vice versa, as was the norm.

The stand alone Norwegian Epic and the Hawaii- based Pride Of America rounded out the roster, until the debut last spring of the spectacularly successful Norwegian Breakaway. With the imminent addition of Getaway next week, that brings the total number of ships under the company colours to thirteen in all.

Currently, Sky is deployed year round on three and four night cruises from Miami. Sister ship, Norwegian Sun, spends summers in Alaska, and winters in the Caribbean.

Norwegian Spirit spends the year in Europe

Norwegian Spirit spends the year in Europe

In Europe, the company has a spring through fall annual deployment of the Epic, which returns to the Caribbean each winter; there is also a year round Mediterranean ship- Norwegian Jade- while the beautiful, oriental themed Spirit spends summer in the Med, and winters cruising to the Canary Islands.

Seasonal Scandinavia sailings are currently handled out of Copenhagen by the Norwegian Star. In the fall season, she relocates to Los Angeles for cruises down to the Mexican Riviera. As previously cited, the one off Pride Of America operates year round sailings around the Hawaiian Islands.

The new Norwegian Breakaway sails year round from New York; to Bermuda in the summer, and the Bahamas through the winter. The remainder of the Norwegian fleet- Jewel and Pearl- spend summers in Alaska, and winters in the Caribbean. Norwegian Dawn spends summers sailing to Bermuda from Boston, and winters in the Caribbean as well.

The addition of Norwegian Getaway- scheduled to operate year round, seven day cruises out of Miami- gives the line some limited options to expand into other markets. We’re not talking about the far reaching, large global redeployments of Carnival and Royal Caribbean- yet- but a new ship does allow a little flexibility in the Norwegian fleet as it stands.

So, what form might such deployments take?

Pool deck on the Norwegian Sun

Pool deck on the Norwegian Sun

Certainly not a year round ship in the UK in the immediate future. Norwegian CEO Kevin Sheehan told me himself that he has no plans to base a ship permanently in the British market.

Nor does Asia seem especially likely; sister company, Star Cruises, has that area pretty well covered and, with its own massive new build coming in a year or two, there seems little incentive for Norwegian to go in that direction, either.

Instead, Norwegian might go for an Australian deployment. The company briefly flirted with the Antipodes in the late nineties, with the short lived Norwegian Capricorn Line. It was an idea before it’s time, but that time could have finally come around.

Possibly the Norwegian Pearl, or even the Jewel, could make the switch to Australian sailings. Rumours have centered around the Norwegian Epic going south of the Equator, but she would be too big an act to follow up with in Europe for now, at least. I think one of the smaller ships might get a revamp, and then go to Australia.

Less adventurous, Norwegian could also reintroduce a ship on the five day circuit out of Miami, to Grand Cayman and Cozumel. It did this for a number of seasons (I sailed on a couple of them) but, in the last few years, these cruises have been left entirely to their rivals. It should be a realistic goal over the winter, at the very least.

And with two more ships coming over the next few years- Norwegian Escape and Norwegian Bliss- the company will be replete with more new tonnage to utilize. A return to South America cruising (Norwegian used to specialize in long cruises along and through the Chilean Fjords at one time) could be on the cards, or even a possible entry into the South African cruise season might be on the cards.

In any event, next week’s debut of the Norwegian Getaway certainly moves Norwegian up a gear as a company. I’ll be on board next week for her inaugural celebrations, with a review to follow.

As always, stay tuned.

CATALINA ISLAND- OUT ON IT’S OWN

Catalina's waterfront

Catalina’s waterfront

Catalina Island is not huge; some twenty two miles long and eight miles wide at the most, it is only slightly larger than Bermuda. But, unlike that famous island, it sits snugly near the shore, just twenty-two miles away from the massive urban sprawl of Los Angeles. From its waterfront, the twinkling coastal lights of California are plainly visible at night.

Yet beyond that mutual proximity, mainland and island seem to have very little in common. For Catalina Island feels a million miles removed from Los Angeles in terms of tone, style and substance. The island’s capital, Avalon, hosts around ninety per cent of Catalina Island’s total of around 4,100 inhabitants. With its stout, brightly coloured trawlers chugging gamely out into the Pacific each day and it’s squadrons of wheeling, screeching sea birds, it feels more like a part of New England than Surf City.

For sure, it also has a kind of smiley, slightly soporific vibe. The island is chocolate box pretty, with Avalon itself clustered around the fringes of a sultry, sinuous bay backed up by tracts of lush, languid greenery. A long promenade, studded with beautiful, tile framed benches, meanders down to the big, circular theatre cum casino that was built here in the thirties, and which is still the island’s most outstanding architectural highlight to this day.

Pier at Avalon, Catalina Island

Pier at Avalon, Catalina Island

Houses in winding lines are framed by tracts of oleander as they tumble down towards a slim, dusky sliver of a beach, and a series of rickety piers thronged by clapboard bars, shops and restaurants, with huge, louvered shutters that allow marvellous views of the matchless Pacific sunsets. As you’d expect, the local seafood is sublime. Washed down with a cold beer, it is reason enough to head out there on it’s own.

At night, the cocktail bars are low key, with piano players and martinis at sunset, just as it has been here for decades. For Avalon is a bit like a Californian Brigadoon, frozen in time and legend. Here, the lines between past and present seem to be blurred in a way I have never seen anywhere else. It is twenty two miles from shore, and a million more from contemporary California reality.

The harbour is studded with fleets of yachts, especially in the summertime. Just off the northern coast of Catalina, the actress Natalie Wood fell overboard from a yacht while staying with her partner, Robert Wagner, in hugely controversial circumstances that have never been fully explained. Sadly, this remains Catalina Island’s sole true claim to fame.

Catalina is a wonderful, enchanting place to visit for two or three days, to savour and appreciate the almost total disconnect from the hustle and bustle of modern living. But those two or three days will probably be enough for most non residents. After that, I suspect many will be fighting the urge to swim back to the mainland.

Tiled benches on the Avalon waterfront

Tiled benches on the Avalon waterfront

Especially if you are going to be in Los Angeles for any amount of time, then a couple of days spent on Catalina would make for a nice change of pace with the pretension, pollution and hideously overcrowded highways of the City Of Angels. For, while Catalina itself may not be quite Heaven, there is certainly something compelling, charming and surreal about it.

Definitely worth a visit.

BATTLEFIELDS TOURS IN EUROPE FOR 2014

Rome was declared an 'open city' by Kesselring, against Hitler's direct orders

Rome was declared an ‘open city’ by Kesselring, against Hitler’s direct orders

As far as remembrance of past conflicts go, 2014 constitutes one of the most poignant, anniversary laden years that it is possible to imagine. From the onset of the mindless brutality of the Great War to the cataclysmic battles fought in Italy and Northern Europe during 1944, right through the escalation of the senseless Vietnam conflict from 1964 onward, there is ample reason- and scope- to reflect on the sheer stupidity of what ‘civilisation’ has actually achieved these past hundred or so years.

For many surviving veterans of World War Two, and/or their descendants, sometimes visiting these places brings a kind of closure. In addition, fans of military history often find it enthralling to get ‘up close and personal’ to such blood soaked touchstones as the Normandy Beaches, the Hurtgern Forest, or the famous Nijmegen bridge.

The problem for many potential visitors lies in the sheer logistics involved in getting around and, indeed, to, the main sites. Especially in the European campaign of 1944-45, the big commercial hubs of most nations were seldom the scenes of apocalyptic battles. Paris was spared massive bloodshed, and Amsterdam and Brussels were eventually liberated more or less intact. Rome was declared an open city. And, while Berlin went down in flames, the capital of Hitler’s Third Reich was the exception, rather than the rule.

For our American friends, the huge cost of air fare is another contributing factor to consider in coming to see the landmark battlefields of Europe.

Honfleur, Normandy, scene of some vicious fighting in 1944

Honfleur, Normandy, scene of some vicious fighting in 1944

Happily, a few specialist operators have been working on organising and creating battlefield tours for several years now. And, although I have not sampled their product for myself, I would certainly flag up the UK operator, Leger Travel, as being worthy of consideration if you are planning a pilgrimage to any of the famous sights of those major battles.

Typically the company books hotels and coach travel, as well as ensuring that each trip is accompanied by an experienced historian, there to bring the sobering, salient points of a battle into sharp relief, usually at the very sites themselves.

Because travelling long distance by coach in Europe is not something to be undertaken lightly, Leger ensures that all of its vehicles has more than average leg room, leather head rests, WC and refreshments. Some coaches even allow you to watch DVDs en route- a good primer for some of the upcoming highlights of your tour.

Hotels used en route vary from comfortable two to four star properties; again, proximity to the sites you are visiting will play a big part in determining the style and facilities of the hotels available to your tour group.

The company also arranges the porterage at most hotels, to and from the coaches, as well as cross channel ferry travel and, for those who would prefer it, the option of air travel to and from the continent.

Antwerp was Hitler's objective in the 1944 Battle Of The Bulge

Antwerp was Hitler’s objective in the 1944 Battle Of The Bulge

Some of their offerings for 2014 include:

D-Day 70th Anniversary is a four day tour, running from June 5-9 inclusive. Among the highlights it covers are major ceremonies, scheduled to take place at Arromanches and Bayeux, as well as visits to Sword, Juno and Gold Beaches, as well as the famous Pegasus Bridge.

Arnhem 70th Anniversary Tour is another four day foray back into the territory of A Bridge Too Far, running from September 19th through 22nd. Among the sights you will visit en route are the original parachute drop zones, the Oosterbeek Cemetery, the Hartenstein Museum and, of course, the famous Arnhem Bridge itself.

There are also several departures to take in the highlights of what came to be known as the Battle Of The Bulge, which also celebrates it’s 70th Anniversary this year. This was the last desperate lunge of the German army in December 1944, when Hitler’s Wehrmacht attempted to force a ‘second Dunkirk’ on the Allied armies.

Four and five day tours of the battlefields showcase the remnants of the Siegfried Line, La Gleize, and the bloody route march of Kampfgruppe Peiper, as well as the scene of the US 101st Airborne Division’s legendary stand at Bastogne. The five day tour also adds in the Battle Of The Bulge Museum, and also highlights the previously unsung British contribution to what was, in essence, a mainly American combat arena.

Another- and often unsung factor- is that many actual combat veterans take part in these tours. Their personal recollections have got to be worth hearing- assuming that they wish to share them. They would provide an added sense of poignancy and perspective that no dry military history text could ever equate to.

All things considered, Leger Travel does seem to incorporate a good mix of comfortable travel and accommodation, convenient travel options, insightful, experienced historians, and an attitude of respectful remembrance. Whatever your area of interest, the company would seem to have most bases covered.