THE GHOST OF CONCORDIA; SCHETTINO GOES BACK ABOARD

CNV00058Quietly, and amid all the mayhem surrounding events in black spots such as Syria and the Ukraine, the trail of the hapless Francesco Schettino, former captain of the capsized Costa Concordia, has been proceeding in a courtroom in Grosetto, Italy.

Media boards and forums have been asking for months why there has been ‘no news’ for several months regarding this, and asking why this was the case. Firstly, there was a lawyers’ strike in Italy not so long ago that slowed proceedings to a paltry few knots.

Then, there was a little something known as ‘due process’, the long and often interminable business of gathering, sifting and filtering the evidence, to eventually arrive at what are, hopefully, the right conclusions.

But yesterday, those that were looking did see something quite unique in the whole ghastly, long drawn out process. For yesterday was the day that the wretched Schettino was taken back to the scene of his epic meltdown.

For the first time since that dreadful night in January of 2012, Francesco Schettino was brought back, face to face with the grisly, mutilated carcass of the ship he had once commanded with such casual aplomb. The site where thirty-two people, assigned to his care, died even as he ‘fell’ into a lifeboat, before disregarding emphatic, heated orders to return to his ship from the local coastguard.

And he wept.

For the first time since that dreadful night, the captain finally broke down in public. Until now, he has always managed to keep his head firmly in the sand, rebutting a tidal wave of disparaging evidence and accusation time and time again. A twenty first century Canute, refusing to accept the inevitable, time and time again. Until yesterday.

What broke him? Was it the sad, battered, shabby corpse of his once beautiful, glittering command? It must certainly have been like a punch to the solar plexus to see the actual reality of this once proud ship, reduced to such an irreperable mess.

Was it the knowledge of those thirty-two lost souls that he had abandoned to their fate? He, the man charged with the care of every soul on his command, under God, for the duration of the voyage?

I suspect it was both.

For here, writ large, was the undeniable, devastating star witness for the prosecution; a grisly, gigantic presence whose final reality could not be denied.

And in that quiet, awful moment, I suspect that the unbearable weight of residual guilt, coupled with the desperate need he felt to maintain that implausible facade of a defence, proved just too much. As it would for anyone.

I do not for one moment condone, defend or excuse one thing that Schettino did during the horrific ordeal of the Costa Concordia. Ultimately, he is the man responsible.

But in that one little moment when Francesco Schettino was finally brought face to face with the wreck of his career, his ship, and his life, I found it impossible not to feel just a shred of pity for him.

ROYAL RHAPSODY- BLACK SEA CRUISES FOR 2015

RCI has an eight ship European deployment planned for 2015

RCI has an eight ship European deployment planned for 2015

For the first time since her debut back in the late 1990’s, Royal Caribbean is bringing the Vision class Rhapsody Of The Seas to Europe, to operate a string of cruises around the Greek Islands and the Black Sea. Together with her sister ship, Splendor Of The Seas, the Finnish built Rhapsody Of The Seas will be part of an eight ship Royal Caribbean line up in Europe for the 2015 cruising season.

Ever since her completion in 1997, the 78,000 ton ship has sailed on largely Alaskan and Mexican Riviera itineraries. A few years ago, Rhapsody Of The Seas became the first major Royal Caribbean ship to be regularly deployed in the booming Australian market. Recently modernised and refurbished, Rhapsody Of The Seas remains in Australia at this time.

She will redeploy for her maiden European season from Sydney to Istanbul, making a series of voyages  that takes her from Sydney to Singapore, to the Indian sub continent, through the Suez Canal, with a final scheduled arrival in Istanbul on June 1st.

The Black Sea programme begins in earnest that month, when the Istanbul based Rhapsody will make a trio of ten and eleven night cruises, calling at Burgas in Bulgaria, Odessa, Yalta, Sochi and Sevastopol. Among the highlights of this programme will be a number of overnight stays in three cities; Istanbul, Sochi, and Odessa.

July 2015 sees the Rhapsody Of The Seas move to Rome’s port of Civitavecchia, to begin a series of seven, nine and eleven night cruises to the Greek Islands. These will emphasise stops at some smaller, less visited ports such as Thessaloniki and Bodrum, together with some of the ‘greatest hits’ ports such as Mykonos, Katakolon, and Santorini.

There will then be a cruise through the Mediterranean to Barcelona, from where the Rhapsody Of The Seas will depart on November 19th for a transatlantic crossing to Brazil, and an austral summer season of cruises in South America. All of these cruises are now on sale.

A third ship in the class, the last built, name sake Vision Of The Seas makes a surprise return to Europe in 2015, just two years after leaving to be redeployed on short, year round cruises out of the USA.

The company is also deploying it’s new build, Anthem Of The Seas out of Southampton, as well as the massive Allure Of The Seas from Barcelona (see previous blogs).

Needless to say, these things can also change. Stay tuned for any updates as they become available.

KEEPING FIT ON CRUISE SHIPS- DOING IT LIKE A PRO

Do I LOOK like I know where the gym is?

Do I LOOK like I know where the gym is?

The days when cruise ships had a handful of bar bells and a four times round the pool jogging track as exercise are long since past. Nowadays, the modern, contemporary resorts on the ocean are as full of ways to stay fit as get fat.

It’s quite exhausting sometimes, just watching that lycra clad, headband wearing phalanx of fitness fans as they get into their literal stride. Gyms these days look more like high tech hospital wards. And, of course, there are spa menus and light eating options that suck in their tummies and sneer at all the sumptuous gluttony taking place elsewhere, These days, there truly is something for everyone.

Just consider the items in those modern floating gyms of today; treadmills, bar bells, and all the rest of that infernal stuff, and you’ll realise that it constitutes a longer menu than lunch at the Ritz. For the modern fitness fanatic, there are so many forms of self inflicted torture on offer that it must sometimes seem hard to know where to begin.

These days, health and fitness has even moved outside. On my recent Carnival Breeze cruise, I was astonished to see a battalion of exercise bikes and treadmills outside, on the upper decks. Fortunately, all of the loungers and couches on board face away from these, so your joy ride need not descend into a guilt trip. Good job, too.

But long before that, the jogging and power walking fraternity were a fact of life on ships at sea. No one surpasses me in my admiration for these devoted souls.

The anti-gym

The anti-gym

So often, I have cheered you on from my perch in a hot tub as you clump manically around the decks, clad in lustrous shades of clotted purple lurex. Yours is a pure and noble pursuit; I’m sure the water in your sweat stained plastic bottles tastes as sweet and pure as fine wine. I sit there, mulling fretfully over my second (third?) margarita, and tell myself that I, too, would like to be fit like that one day, as well.

And that is the moment when life usually gifts me a metaphorical slap across the face with an impossibly large, wet haddock, and tells me to snap out of it. Such moments are seminal in our progress through life. In fact, I would recommend that both Justin Bieber and Miley Cyrus undergo a similar, profound bout of haddock slapping at the earliest possible opportunity, and for however long it takes. Yet I digress.

I fear that fitness and I are ships that passed in the night a long time ago. When one has already hit the iceberg, no amount of rearranging the deck chairs will make a difference. And while my body is, indeed, a temple, sadly that temple is the Acropolis. And so it goes.

I will always eschew fitness for the comfortable cocoon of potential fatness. Your feeble cardio-vascular regimes cannot match the rich lustre of my chateaubriand, young Jedi. And, if you really wanted to get me in the gym on a regular basis, it wouldn’t be too difficult.

Simpy install a few decent hammocks, and a small martini bar. Nothing too obvious. But will you? Oh, no….

Oh chocolate, be my guiding star....

Oh chocolate, be my guiding star….

You want to keep your sweaty, steamy temples to the Spanish Inquisition to yourselves, don’t you? That’s cool. Message received. As you were……

Ho hum, back to the hot tub, then. Did someone say ‘Strawberry Daiquiri’?

Ooh. Don’t mind if I do…..

THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1960’S

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

By the dawn of 1960, the writing was on the wall for the transatlantic liner as a viable means of transport. More accurately, it was in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the new Boeing 707 jets of Pan American, TWA and BOAC that had cut the journey time, down from five days to almost as many hours. When that new decade dawned, the jets already had around  seventy per cent of the transatlantic passenger trade. The trend was irreversible, the prognosis terminal.

And yet, incredibly, new liners were still being built.

The first- and without doubt the greatest- of these was the SS. France. The longest passenger ship ever built, she arrived in New York for the first time in February of 1962. Her owners called her ‘The last refuge of the good life’. The American press said that she was an eighty million dollar gamble.

The France was a pure express liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Le Havre, Southampton and New York. There was never any intention that she would be used for cruising. In fact, she had very little open deck space, and her beam made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Built as a one ship replacement for her legendary forebears, the beloved Ile De France and the Liberte, she embodied all the cherished traditions for which the French Line had been renowned for almost a century.

She was also fast- very fast indeed. Only the United States was faster. But with the jets whispering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, the French Line directors decided that any attempt to run for the Atlantic speed record would be archaic. They preferred to let the style, service and cuisine of the new ship speak for itself.

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

This was a wise decision. The France guzzled fuel oil like so much cheap table wine and, like the Normandie before her, she was kept in service only by a very generous operating subsidy from the French government.

When she emerged, the France joined the rump of a transatlantic trade still dominated by the ageing, increasingly expensive to operate Cunard Queens, the Mary and Elizabeth, and by the record holder, the legendary SS. United States. All three of these ships were already running winter cruises; something to which they were wholly unsuited, in a Canute-like attempt to halt the rising tide of red accountant’s ink that threatened to swamp them. It was a temporary palliative at the very best.

The France was, however, very popular from the start. Incredibly, she would average an occupancy rate of some eighty per cent through the decade; a quite astonishing achievement. But even that was not enough to save her from being sidelined to winter cruising; either to the Caribbean, or even sometimes down to Rio.  Ironically, she was also very successful in this role but, even so, she was still on borrowed time as well.

Three years later, it was the turn of Italy to stun the industry with the introduction of not one, but two beautiful sister ships, also designed for the transatlantic run. At 46,000 tons each, both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged in the first half of 1965.

A view largely gone from the Atlantic...

A view largely gone from the Atlantic…

The sisters were typical Italian beauties, graceful as swans and both sheathed in bridal white. Their twin, latticed funnels and beautifully flared bows made them unmistakable from day one. The Italian Line had high hopes for them and, on the face of it, not without some reason.

The twins operated on the age old ‘Sunny Southern’ route between Genoa, Cannes, Gibraltar and New York. While their British and French rivals had to battle across the stormy northern ocean, the Italian ships spent much of their time on sunnier, calmer seas. They had outdoor pools for each class, and expansive, open lidos. Above all, they boasted the indolent, raffish, Fellini-esque vibe of la dolce vita afloat. They had style and panache by the boat load.

The Michelangelo and Raffaello also benefited in their early years from a residual, sea minded mentality that existed in southern Europe at that time. People as a whole in Italy and Spain were reluctant to switch to the jets, however much faster they were. The Italian Line was thus able to buck the trend of the airborne assault on their coffers for quite some time and, for a good few years, both ships sailed with very healthy passenger loads.

With their outdoor lidos, they should also have been much better set up for a cruising career in the winter seasons. But they were actually hamstrung by the large number of inner cabins on each ship, little more than shoe boxes with upper and lower berths. These compared poorly with the far nicer counterparts aboard the even earlier France.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Later, the two ships would suffer from falling passenger numbers, random crew strikes, and a resultant, fatal inability to keep to a reliable schedule. But, for the sixties at least, these two magnificent ships were the new Italian standard bearers on the Atlantic crossing, and they were sailed with great style and pride.

Last of all there came the oft delayed, problem plagued Queen Elizabeth 2, forever more to be immortalised as the QE2. Months overdue, she finally made her debut on the Southampton to New York run in May of 1969.

The QE2 was intended not so much to replace the illustrious Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as she was to completely reinvent the Cunard brand. More than anyone, that pioneer of transatlantic steamship travel had seen the writing on the wall. And, from this most cautious, inherently conservative of steamship companies, there emerged the boldest, most strikingly different modern ship of them all.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

For the QE2 was to be a dual purpose ship from the start, spending summer seasons crossing the Atlantic between Europe and America, and whiling away her winters in warmer cruising climes. She had broad, stepped lido terraces with outdoor pools at the stern, air conditioning right throughout the ship, and every cabin on board came with shower and toilet.

Her interiors were totally modern, like a very smart Hilton hotel afloat. Originally intended to be a three class ship, wiser heads prevailed, and she was- in theory, at least- a two class vessel on crossings.

Her exterior was strikingly beautiful. A graceful, tapered bow opened onto a gloriously proportioned charcoal hull, topped with a gleaming white superstructure. There was a single staunch, graceful funnel two thirds of the way aft, painted at the time in black and white. Not until 1982, after her legendary Falklands adventure, would the famous, ‘traditional’ Cunard colours be added.

Traditional, die hard Cunard passengers reviled her for the lack of a traditional, interior ‘liner’ promenade. Instead, her public rooms were built right out to the sides of the hull, with huge, floor to ceiling windows on both sides. Posterity would vindicate this design over some four decades of unparalleled success.

By the time she emerged in the spring of 1969, the QE2 shared what was left of the Atlantic passenger trade with the France and the United States, as well as with the two Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello. But by this time, the United States was also suffering badly.

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

The big American liner, still the holder of the Blue Riband, had been sold on her speed. With the jets thundering overhead at ten times her best pace, that advantage had gone. Lacking a reliable running mate, the United States was approaching mid age by the end of the sixties, and her once cutting edge interiors looked pale and antiseptic in the new era. And, with the France still winning all the plaudits for food and service, it became hard filling her at all.

This was partially alleviated by sending the big liner on cruises. The United States appeared in such unlikely places as Cape Town, and even Tenerife but, like the old Cunard Queens before her, the deep draft necessary for a fast ocean liner acted as a drag on her cruising viability. She usually had to anchor far offshore, and transfer her passengers in by tender.

Labour disputes with her all American crew became increasingly common- a foreshadow of the fate that would also befall her French and Italian competitors. In November of 1969, the fabled ocean greyhound entered dry dock in Newport News, Virginia, for her annual overhaul.

She never sailed again.

By the end of 1969, the decline in passenger numbers was catastrophic. Only four in every hundred people making the journey between Europe and America still did so by sea.

The collapse had been massive, and it shattered whatever ostrich mentality might still have existed in the boardrooms of the ocean liner companies. Even as late as 1964, the Queen Elizabeth, the France and the United States had still often been booked pretty much to capacity on summertime crossings. Now, even that certainty had sunk.

By the dawn of the seventies, the end was plainly in sight for the transatlantic liner. Even for such celebrated stalwarts as the still hugely lauded France, the only real question was not so much if, as when.

RAISING THE GAME; NEW CRUISE SHIPS IN EUROPE FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Princess Cruises has announced that their new Royal Princess- launched just last year- will return to Europe for a full season of cruises over the summer. Her arrival- the latest in a slew of announcements from the major lines- points up just how much all the big players see Europe as seminal in filling- and for displaying- their prime movers and shakers. Just look at what else will be here next year.

Royal Caribbean’s new, second of class ship, Anthem Of The Seas will also be based in Southampton and, to no one’s great surprise, so will P&O’s new Britannia, a vessel being built on the same hull platform as Royal Princess.

The deployments by Princess and Royal Caribbean, in particular, represent a quite extraordinary statement of intent. Two of the world’s newest mega ships, with a capacity of well over 4,000 passengers each, will be based in the Hampshire port. It should be great news for the local business in Southampton for sure and, for the canny cruising purchaser, there should also be some great bargains available as well.

Nor is it simply Northern Europe that will be the recipient of state of the art mega ships. After four consecutive summer seasons in the Med, the game changing, 2010 built Norwegian Epic will be permanently home ported in Barcelona for 2015 onward. The one off mega ship significantly ups the ante for year round cruising from the Catalan port, though her itineraries will not be announced until next month, at the Seatrade Conference in Miami.

Larger still, Royal Caribbean took some people by surprise when it announced a full, summer season of 2015 Barcelona sailings on the jaw dropping Allure Of The Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships ever built. The gargantuan vessel will offer a series of seven night round trips from May through October. She will be by far the biggest ship to offer an extended cruise season in these waters and, with a passenger capacity in excess of 6,000, she will also offer roughly half as many berths again as her nearest rival. Should be interesting.

Pompeii's remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Pompeii’s remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Plus, next year will also mark the inaugural Med season for the new Costa flagship, the Costa Diadema. Due to debut this autumn, the ship is the biggest ever built by Carnival for the Italian franchise.

And, it has to be added, a few other players will stay their hands as regards dramatic new announcements until Seatrade. Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, is on record as saying that the line might possibly return to Europe in 2015. Given that the newest Carnival ship- Carnival Vista- will not emerge from her Italian builders yard until 2016, the smart money would be on one of the Dream class trio coming back to the Mediterranean, though probably not the Baltic.

Though the numbers of ships being deployed are not really up on the 2012 figures, it is pretty obvious that nearly all of the major lines still see Europe as the prime arena for showcasing their new ships. Beside the big ticket, first time deployments in Southampton, Princess Cruises are also bringing over the huge Caribbean Princess and, for the first time ever, the line is offering an all inclusive drinks package in the fare.

So the European catwalk (cruisewalk?) season of 2015 looks like being quite a floor show, with each of the entrants bearing all the traits and positive selling points- both real and imagined- of their respective sponsors. One thing there will be no shortage of is choice.

Stay tuned.

SEADREAM IN THE SUMMERTIME MED; THE GOOD LIFE JUST GOT BETTER…..

What a day for a Seadream....

What a day for a Seadream….

Harbours full of idly bobbing yachts. Cobble stone streets and quaysides awash with waterfront bars and cafes, brimming with life well into the small hours. Porsches and Lamborghinis sitting idly under a canopy of gently waving oleander. People wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country, discreetly checking out the milling throngs strolling past their lunch tables. For sure, it could only be the summertime Mediterranean.

If there is a region more dedicated to la dolce vita, or one more perfectly sculpted to deliver it in spades, then I have yet to find it. There is something so utterly seductive and compelling about those platinum chip, people watching playgrounds that sparkle along the summertime coasts of Italy, France and Spain. They draw people back year after year, like moths to a flame that bursts back into life again with the dawn of each new spring.

And, for sure, there are no shortage of huge, glitzy cruise ships that will show you the ‘greatest hits’ of the Mediterranean. Rome, Florence and Naples. Monaco and Barcelona. All places worthy of your attention and indulgence. All fabled and legendary. And, in summer, all crowded beyond all belief.

If you’ve ‘been there and done that’, then you don’t need to be told that these port intensive, week long ‘Meddy-Go-Rounds’ are great fun, yet anything but relaxing. Especially in the heat of mid summer, they can actually be damned hard work, as you try to absorb whirlwind encounters with a conga line of mind blowing cathedrals, castles, piazzas and shopping plazas. Fabulous and enjoyable it is, but relaxing it most certainly is not.

And that’s where Seadream Yacht Club comes in……

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening...

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening…

Imagine a small, 4,200 tons, all inclusive yacht, carrying a maximum of 115 guests, served by a hand picked crew of 90. Now make that yacht all inclusive from dawn till dusk, with free flowing champagne and fabulous, round the clock food that truly is ‘gourmet’, and a casual dress code that is perfectly suited to those balmy Mediterranean climes.

Imagine voyaging along and to all the small, smart resort havens that the bigger ships have to sail past. Tying up literally in the middle of town, just steps from the action. And a schedule that allows for long, lingering stays in those same ports, often overnight.

Sounds dreamlike for sure. But Seadream II is no dream. She is very, very real.

Each summer, Seadream II meanders among those peachy little splashes of paradise along the length of the Riviera and the Adriatic on a series of indolent, hugely inclusive adventures. A small marina at the stern allows her to carry such ‘toys’ as kayaks, sail boats and jet skis. In the more enclosed harbours, these are available to all passengers free of charge. It adds a whole new dimension to your idea of personal indulgence.

A unique outdoor set up means that all guests can dine alfresco- at any time of the day or night- on extraordinary, elegant fare. Imagine breakfasting on lamb chops as you sail into the stunning bay of Dubrovnik, or savour a long, lazy dinner in the fantastic, floodlit bay of Portofino. Peachy, non?

The aft pool

The aft pool

Life on board is totally informal and unstructured. Evenings tend to revolve around cocktails at the sumptuous Top Of The Yacht bar, open to sea breezes on both sides. It’s a causally spectacular little enclave, perfectly proportioned, and just as perfectly served. You’ll find it hard to tear yourself away at any hour of the day or night.

The aft lido deck features a small pool, and a hot tub just perfect for midnight cocktails, after you wander back to the yacht after a few hours strolling the bar and restaurant scene in Saint Tropez. This is one of several ports where Seadream II offers a number of overnight stops and, unlike certain other ports, it really does live up to the hype; a fabulous, fun place just to ‘stroll and roll’ and take it all in.

While the staterooms do not have balconies, all are outside, and come with marvellous, mulit jet showers in a marble lined bathroom, together with top end toiletries by Bulgari. Panelled in gorgeous cherry wood, each one features a sublime double bed, mini bar, plasma screen TV, and a separate living area.

I thought at first that I would miss having my own balcony but, truth be told, Seadream II is so small, elegant and intimate that the entire yacht feels like your own private terrace. And a slew of Balinese Dream Beds on the upper deck can be reserved-again, free of charge- so that you can sleep outside, underneath the stars. in perfectly secluded privacy. At a time of your choosing, a Seadream steward will wake you with orange juice, coffee, champagne or, indeed, all three. It’s a perfect spot from which to catch the first tender, blush pink flush of an early Sorrento sunrise, and a simply wonderful experience in and of itself.

To sum it up, Seadream II is a small, perfectly formed lady, one every bit as elegant as an exquisite charm bracelet. Yet she is big on style, hospitality, and things to do- or indeed, not to do.

The beauty of the Seadream Riviera...

The beauty of the Seadream Riviera…

You can hang out in a hammock with a glass of ice cold champers, or tear up the sparkling briny on an exhilarating jet ski ride. Be as sociable or as reclusive as you wish, and when it suits you. The kind of people typically drawn to the Seadream experience tend to be affable, pretty easy going types that are very well travelled. For the most part, they share a common aversion to the crowds carried on the big ships.

Come the autumn, Seadream II crosses the Atlantic, and relocates to the balmier, more welcoming climes of the Caribbean. From here, she saunters around the smaller, more secluded yacht havens that were once the playgrounds of seventeenth century privateers such as Bluebeard and Ann Bonney.

Whatever, whenever, the same casual elegance is a constant. But I offer you one well meant word of warning; if you once get to savour the Seadream experience, it will quite likely spoil you for just about anything else.

Other than that, enjoy. It’s all good.

OCEAN COUNTESS FOR THE SCRAPYARD

And another one sails off into the pages of history...

And another one sails off into the pages of history…

And another one bites the dust….

In a move that will probably sadden many and yet surprise few, the fire damaged Ocean Countess is listed as being ready for an imminent final journey to a Turkish scrapyard at Aliaga.

She follows hard on the heels of the Pacific Princess and, ironically, her former fleet mate Louis Rhea, originally the 1971-built Cunard Adventurer.

The ship was originally built in Denmark as the Cunard Countess, back in 1975. Together with her almost identical (and still intact) sibling, Cunard Princess, she spent several decades in Caribbean cruise service for Cunard, mainly from San Juan. Not until 1996 was she sold for a brief lived, soon ended Asian cruise service, before passing on to Epirotiki Cruises in 2001.

It was that now defunct company that renamed her as Ocean Countess, employing her on short, destination intensive Greek Island cruises from Piraeus. Her intimate size and large amount of open deck space made her perfect for just such a role.

She was taken over by Louis Cruises in 2007 after a brief lived German charter. That company was in need of tonnage to replace the recently lost Sea Diamond, and she was put back on her old Greek Islands run, under the name of Ruby.

It was in this guise that I spent a short but memorable weekend aboard her. Even then, the Ocean Countess still had many little reminders of her Cunard heritage dotted around the public areas. She was a feisty, funky little ship with a lot of soul; I liked her a lot.

Her subsequent 2010 charter to Cruise And Maritime for ex-UK cruising seemed encouraging, especially as the ship was given some three million pounds’ worth of cosmetic updating, prior to entering their service. Sadly, the charter was ended in September 2012, and the Ocean Countess came round to lay up in the port of Chalkis, Greece.

She spent all of 2013 laid up here, but was actually in the course of being refurbished, ready for a 2014 Russian charter,when fire engulfed her on the afternoon of Saturday, November 30th.

Five workmen on board were safely rescued from the flames, which seemed to engulf the forward observation lounge, as well as part of the adjacent pool deck. Though the ship burned and smouldered overnight, the flames were actually extinguished by the next day, and the ship remained on an even keel.

What followed was a wall of deathly silence, and the inevitable tidal wave of media speculation.

Today’s sad, yet expected news puts an end to all that as, sadly, another classic lady slips away from our sight.

RIP Cunard/Ocean Countess, 1976- 2013

LOOKING AHEAD; SOME SNIPPETS, AND A FEW QUESTIONS

Is HAL downsizing?

Is HAL downsizing?

February has broken with some possible welcome news in the cruise industry, an unfortunate accident, and a few question marks that have been hanging around for some time. Let’s take a look at some of them

Following the fire that ravaged part of her lido deck and forward superstructure at the end of November, 2013, there is still no word on whether or not the veteran Ocean Countess might possibly see a return to service. Indeed, the pall of silence that has enveloped the blackened, but seemingly only superficially damaged ship, is far thicker- and potentially more noxious- than the smoke that shrouded the burning ship.

I’ve already touched on the Marco Polo accident in a previous blog, but owners Cruise And Maritime now also have to contend with the second punch of an awful double whammy; the news that partner company, All Leisure Cruises, is putting the chartered MV Discovery up for sale.

This puts CMV- who only recently dipped a first tentative toe into European river cruising- in a bit of a bind. Do they buy the Discovery outright themselves, or perhaps look elsewhere to charter? Ironically, the Ocean Countess, mentioned above, was at one time also chartered by CMV.

Meanwhile, seemingly reliable (that is to say, non official) sources in Dubai are saying that all of the engines aboard QE2 are  now back on line, and that her whistle has been heard, bellowing around the bay. The same sources have intimated that former Cunard staff are on board the veteran ship; all straws in the wind that indicate that her much hyped voyage to China via Singapore, originally scheduled for October 2013, may indeed finally be on.

Is QE2 finally about to move?

Is QE2 finally about to move?

Though her future is still shrouded in uncertainty, my feeling is that any sign of regeneration right now must be viewed as a positive. Past experiences tell us all too well that official pronouncements must be taken with a ton of salt. And even so, we can only watch, wait, and hope.

Still on the veteran ship front, seemingly great news comes from Oman, where the former Kungsholm is still moored. A return for the 1966 built Swedish American veteran to either Stockholm or Gothenburg seems on the cards, together with the restoration of her mutilated forward funnel. With her interiors already adapted for hotel use during her stay in Oman, the only real obstacle to returning the beloved liner to her home country seems to be the securing of a permanent berth for her. Negotiations for that are, apparently, ongoing right now.

It also appears that the 1992 built Statendam is up for sale. The ship, the first of a ‘new’, five ship series, built for the Holland America Line, would perhaps make an ideal fit for Fred. Olsen, long known to be interested in acquiring her smaller fleet mate, Prinsendam.

Also welcome news from Star Cruises, who have now ordered a second new giant ship from Meyer Werft of Papenburg, Germany. My guess is that these two ships will be modified versions of the hugely successful Breakaway class, now sailing for sister company, Norwegian Cruise Line.

That’s it for now. As ever, stay tuned.

UPDATE: 

Ocean Countess is scheduled for scrapping at Aliaga, Turkey, this month according to a report on merseyshipping.blogspot.com

My grateful thanks go to Chris Thompson for pointing me in this direction.

OCEAN VS. RIVER CRUISING- THE PROS AND CONS….

A river cruise can take you right into the heart of cities such as historic Antwerp

A river cruise can take you right into the heart of cities such as historic Antwerp

The rise of river cruising over the past few years has been nothing short of stratospheric. And, as river cruisers become more expansive and luxurious, so the appeal continues to grow. The result? More and more people are flocking to this new generation of river boats than at any other time before; a trend that shows every sign of continuing over the next few years.

So, what if you’re a devoted, deep blue ocean cruiser, considering dipping a toe in the much shallower waters of exotic river cruising? Is it possible to ‘cross deck’ between the two different kinds of adventure? And what are the potential pros and cons out there?

OK, let’s take a look at a few of these….

DOES SIZE MATTER?

Naturally, even the biggest and most elaborate river boat is going to be much tighter in terms of mutual proximity than most cruise ships. So…. should you encounter that certain someone that sets your teeth on edge just by walking into the room, is escape so easy an option?

Well, most lounges on river boats are quite large, and most restaurants are open sitting, so there will usually be just enough clear water between you and your very own Marie Celeste. Also, many of the new ships have large cabins, often featuring French balconies. If you want, you can retire to your own personal, comfy bolt hole, without losing anything of the scenic parade passing by. At least on one side of the boat.

NEAR, MY DEAR…..

Porto's hilltop location is absolutely stunning. Approaching it by river cruiser is increidble.

Porto’s hilltop location is absolutely stunning. Approaching it by river cruiser is incredible.

Another great advantage of river cruising is that most vessels rock up to a quayside right in the centre of town, usually meaning that you can forget long coach rides to see the local sights and highlights. Many will, indeed, find this to be a blessing.

ROCK AND ROLL, OR SMOOTH AS SILK?

River sailing is most always calm to the point of soporific. There’s a strange, dual sense of being almost close enough to the passing landscape to touch it, while at the same time feeling a sense of quite splendid isolation. A strange dichotomy, but not without its charm.

ACTION PACKED OR ACTIVITY LACKED?

Again, size precludes a river cruiser from offering the facilities of a deep sea ship. If you can’t live without a rock climbing wall, flow rider, 24 hour popcorn and thirty alternative restaurants, then river cruising might not be for you.

And yes, the boats are much more low key in terms of nightlife. Think ‘country house’ rather than Studio 54 with azipods.

Then again, many river ships spend overnight moored in the middle of city centres, from Porto to Prague. This gives you the opportunity to dip in and out of the local restaurant and social scenes just as much or as little as you like, and without the worry of having to find a hotel afterwards. Which can be rather nice.

THE PRICE IS RIGHT, RIGHT?

Cruising past the banks of the River Douro in Northern Portugal.

Cruising past the banks of the River Douro in Northern Portugal.

Alas, river cruising is not a cheap gig, especially in Europe. That said, many operators include a huge amount in the fares, such as most, if not all shore excursions, and free beer and wine with lunch and dinner. Specialist operators such as Titan UK even include door to door transfers, and even overnight hotels as and where necessary.

And, to be completely fair, even big ship cruising in Europe is typically quite expensive, especially in the high summer season. You pay your money, and you make your choice.

THE BOTTOM LINE

Both ocean and river cruises offer hugely inclusive, tempting, quality options for the soft adventurer, either as a solo traveller, part of a couple, or as part of an extended family group. And while nothing will ever replace the thrill of sailing into New York, or enchant me like those sun kissed, indolent Greek Islands, I am becoming more and more addicted to river cruising as well.

Does it have to be either/or? I don’t think so. If there’s an itch to scratch, I respectfully suggest you get out there, and give it a try.

Either way, I suspect that you will be pleasantly surprised. Enjoy!

SOMETHING REALLY DIFFERENT; CRUISING NORWAY

Flam, Norway

Flam, Norway

Something quite miraculous happened up near the Arctic Circle on the third week in January. For the first time in months, the tip of the sun peeped shyly once more over the line of the horizon. After a long and soul destroying winter, daylight is beginning to return to these fabled northern lands. From now on, the days will lengthen dramatically, and soon the nights will vanish altogether.

From the end of May onward, a sublime, permanent daylight will bathe those same waters for months on end. With it comes an explosion of flora and fauna that mushrooms across the quilted patchwork fields of Norway like some unstoppable, Technicolour stain. You might see butterflies flitting skittishly around, even as herds of reindeer thunder across the tundra in the distance, looking for scrub to feed on.

Draped in summertime finery, the twelve thousand miles of fjords that form the stunning Norwegian coastline take on a truly amazing stance. Jagged ranges of slate grey mountains, their peaks still dusted with snow, are reflected to absolute perfection in deep blue water so still and pure that it seems to resemble the surface of a mirror. Streams that look as fine as spider’s webs from a distance evolve into thunderous waterfalls that tumble and roar into the fjords.

Stave church, Olden, Norway,

Stave church, Olden, Norway,

Nearby, random groups of cattle graze among a backdrop of brightly painted clapboard houses with grass roofs, usually clustered around some doughty stave church many centuries old. On the water, swans and small boats glide and fuss upstream past a constant procession of local ferries and looming cruise ships, chock full of passengers in total thrall to the amazing panorama unfolding all around them.

Of course, the great unknown is always the weather. The locals joke that if you don’t like it, just wait ten minutes and it will change. There’s a lot of truth in this; sun can turn to fog in minutes, and vice versa.

Yet even through a veil of mist, Norway is a heart stopping experience. Wreathed in fog, this legendary land of ghosts, witches and trolls assumes a guise that even the Brothers Grimm would have been hard pressed to describe. And the sight of a pine shrouded mountainside, emerging from it’s misty shroud, is almost impossible to take in, still less to forget.

Of course, Norway is not a cheap date. Prices ashore are high, but the overall return on a visit to this stunning, natural scenic smorgasbord approaches the stratospheric. Norway truly is one of nature’s most priceless, peerless gifts to humanity. And all of this is before you start to factor in the almost chocolate box pretty cities such as Bergen and Oslo.

Stunning Norwegian scenery

Stunning Norwegian scenery

Brimming with life, fabulous seafood, bustling waterfront bars and fantastic, almost fairy tale Hanseatic architecture, these fabled cities dot that fantastic coastline like a series of random, eclectic exclamation marks. In fact, they are entire destinations in their own right, especially when seen against the matchless, almost endless glow of a languid Norwegian summer night.

And, of course, the best way to see the highlights of this Scandinavian show stopper is by sea. Only a ship allows you to meander in and out of the sweet spots, past and along the most dramatic scenery on earth, while enjoying the convenience of packing and unpacking only once.

Only a ship can shift so seamlessly through this vast, mesmeric panorama of light, beauty and sheer, heart stopping grandeur. And it should go without saying that no land based tour or hotel can offer anything like the inclusive food, accommodation and facilities of a cruise ship.

Norway. Awe all the way. Get out there and enjoy!