THE MARCO POLO; TRAGEDY AND MISCONCEPTION

The Marco Polo at Honfleur

The Marco Polo at Honfleur

No one can have heard of the death of a passenger on board the Marco Polo this weekend without anything but intense sadness, and sincere condolences for the family so tragically bereaved. It is truly heartbreaking as accidents go.

And, despite the hype and the storm of criticism currently being hurled at owners Cruise And Maritime, an accident is exactly what this is.

The Marco Polo was only hours from port, sailing up a storm lashed English Channel at the conclusion of a forty-two day Caribbean and Amazon cruise. The unfortunate passenger was sitting in the ship’s Waldorf restaurant, when a huge wave smashed in one of the big floor to ceiling windows, killing him instantly.

Inevitably, the usual raft of armchair critics have been roused from their winter torpor, and the internet is awash with their retrospective pearls of wisdom. Let’s look at some of these, one at a time.

Why didn’t the Marco Polo run for shelter in a Channel Port, given the fierce weather?

Seems reasonable, until you consider that, in order to reach any European port, the Marco Polo would almost certainly have had to alter course, and very likely expose herself to even worse sailing conditions than the ship was already encountering. Shortsighted and foolhardy as a course of action.

Aft terraces on the Marco Polo

Aft terraces on the Marco Polo

In addition, many ports simply don’t have docking facilities to accommodate a ship with such a deep draft as the Marco Polo. Docking a 22,000 ton ocean liner is not as easy as swinging a car into a convenient parking space.

A newer, bigger ship would have weathered these conditions much better….

To which I can only add one word: Titanic.

The ship was old, and badly maintained

Sure, the Marco Polo is a lady of a certain age. Fifty two, to be precise. What does that mean? Absolutely nothing.

Having sailed on the ship three times myself, I know fine well that the Marco Polo is one of the stoutest, most strongly built cruise ships sailing anywhere. With a hull strengthened to withstand Antarctic ice, she is far more capable of overcoming bad weather conditions than most of the new, high sided modern ships now in service.

I went through a pretty nasty storm in the Aegean on the Marco Polo, and she handled the rough seas very well indeed.

Maintenance? There is no point at which you can maintain the windows of any ship against an unstoppable volume of salt water. Much bigger and more modern ships have had their windows punched out in howling gales. The sea will always be the master here.

And, in my experience, I have to add that the Marco Polo is most certainly not a badly maintained ship.Quite the opposite, in fact. I would not hesitate to sail on her again.

Why didn’t the Captain simply stop his engines, and ride out the storm?

This one is the absolute height of stupidity. Only an idiot of the highest order would voluntarily disable his own power plant in any weather conditions, and thus endanger every life on board.

Marco Polo entrance lobby

Marco Polo entrance lobby

This is a hideously tragic accident. The fact is, we are all on borrowed time and, if we shied away from doing things simply on the rare to unfeasible idea that something similar could happen to us, then we might as well be dead anyway. When you stop dreaming and then doing, you die inside, even if you keep on living for decades.

None of which is intended to detract from an awful, heartfelt human tragedy. My sympathies are with the family of the unfortunate gentleman. They are also with the crew of the Marco Polo, who are no doubt very traumatised by such a sad and upsetting event.

CARNIVAL IN THE CARIBBEAN: A NIGHT AT THE RED FROG PUB

Inside the Red Frog

Inside the Red Frog

One of the most enjoyable parts of my recent cruise on the vast Carnival Breeze were the late evenings and early mornings spent in the Red Frog pub on board. As these bars are relatively new to Carnival, I thought I’d go and check it out. Purely in the interests of research, you understand….

It’s not quite your typical English boozer, but more the pub concept, re-imagined for the Caribbean. With it’s own label, popular beer on tap and a cracking roster of engaging Jamaican bar staff, it was one of the best live venues on the ship.

Nights featured a few live, mainly acoustic sets from a trio of very talented guys. That- and the weapons grade Dark and Stormies- drew me back night after night. The place has a simply cracking atmosphere and, just like in any good pub anywhere, a regular clientele soon formed, and became fast friends.

The large, uncluttered room opened out onto the open decks on both sides, one side smoke free. Under the balmy Caribbean nights, we would lounge outside as the guys inside ran through their various, different routines. And, while they were all class acts, it was mainly JJ that we went to listen to.

To give him his full due, JJ Paolino is an engaging, affable son of Newport, Rhode Island, currently busking his way around the much warmer waters of the Caribbean, one gig at a time. With a voice that alternated between pure honey and raw gravel, JJ wielded his acoustic guitar like a light sabre.

JJ gives it some oomph....

JJ gives it some oomph….

With a repertoire ranging from Neil Diamond to Oasis, via the Eagles, the Moody Blues and even the Monkees, JJ ran the gamut of just about every musical taste, and his banter and sense of humour went a long way to winning over what was, initially, a very diverse crowd. Housewives from Colorado and a gang of friends from Mexico City; snowbirds from Detroit and film makers from LA; all of them came to hear and, ultimately, sing along with JJ. Requests? Never a problem. Just shout ’em out.

Under the subtle influences of rum, reggae and rock and roll, our nights on board the Carnival Breeze morphed into one long, smiley blur. Barriers and inhibitions fell backwards from bar stools as JJ and his compatriots rocked the Red Frog on a nightly basis, through until the early morning hours.

With a canopy of stars and a sound track of a softly strumming guitar, our nights were as long and sweet as those exquisite Dark and Stormies, served up with a smile. And, in the immortal words of the great Mister Diamond, as channelled by JJ, good times really never did seem so good.

Best of times, best of company. Encores all round, methinks.

CARNIVAL BREEZE HIGHLIGHTS

The Carnival Breeze at Grand Turk

The Carnival Breeze at Grand Turk

Eight nights cruising the Caribbean on the stunning new Carnival Breeze gave me ample time for an ‘up close and personal’ look at the evolution of a product that itself revolutionised the cruise industry. But, with a new look, a completely new palette, and a series of fun and culinary enhancements that would have been unthinkable even a decade ago, the Carnival Breeze is anything but just another big ship, and here’s why:

It is not so much the size of the ship-though, at 130,000 tons she’s no baby- so much as the intelligent use of space, that marks this ship as a thing apart. The promenade that encircles Five Deck is especially impressive. With umbrella shaded, outdoor dining and lounging areas, the look is far more Crystal than Carnival old school. And a quartet of expansive hot tubs, cantilevered out over the sides, provide a series of stunning vantage points to take in the sunsets.

This area raises the game for the entire industry, and was a theme so wildly successful that Norwegian subsequently ran with the idea, and expanded the concept over three full decks on their stunning new twins, Norwegian Breakaway and Norwegian Getaway. At any time of the day or night, this area is just a delight to kick back in. Note that as, on the rest of the ship, smoking is allowed on the port side, but not the starboard.

Carnival Breeze atrium

Carnival Breeze atrium

The Red Frog Pub forms a kid of indoor crossover point to this area, together with the raffish, opulent Ocean Plaza. The Red Frog features live nightly, mainly acoustic entertainment that plays to a packed house most nights, while Ocean Plaza rocks, rolls and sizzles to the sounds of sultry samba and platinum chip Motown. This entire area has become the social hub of the ship on so many levels.

Indoors, the ship is simply stunning. The old, Warhol-esque style of famed Carnival chief designer Joe Farcus, has been eschewed in favour of a ship that manages to be more refined, without ever falling over into being simply bland or coma inducing. The neon, brass and marble have given way to subtle, soothing earth tones, reflected in the beautiful furniture groupings in the lower lobby, and mirrored in a succession of dusky beige, brushed walls that frame the ship quite beautifully.

Deck space is dominated by an upper deck, forward facing Serenity Area, an adults only, 21 years plus enclave that spreads to both port and starboard. It comes with its own bar, twin hot tubs, and swathes of padded loungers, double beds and circular pods. With an ambient musical sound track, it gets busy quite early, but it is best in late afternoon, when the crowds thin out, and the ship is sailing head on into some blazing Caribbean sunset. A marvellous chill out spot from the noise and hugger mugger of the lower decks.

Four deck walkway

Four deck walkway

Behind and below this is a vast kiddie’s water  park, a multi layered, many shaded mega mix of numerous water slides, drenching buckets and other such fun. While it is hugely popular, it seems to do little from stopping swarms of kids from populating the aft pool and hot tubs. Maybe this should also be reconfigured as another adults-only area.

The vast real estate of the central pool area features the colourful, beach themed Thirsty Frog and Blue Iguana bars on opposite sides, as well as a Taco Bar, and Guy’s Burger Joint. This latter serves up the most amazing, free form burgers that I have ever sampled in my life. Walking past it without grabbing something to eat became a supreme test of my resolve; one that I frequently failed on a pathetic, regular basis. Addictive hardly covers it.

There are two levels immediately surrounding this area; the upper, open one is packed with sun loungers, while the lower, enclosed one has plush couch chairs in ochre, complete with foot rests. The entire area is suffused most of the day with the sounds of a DJ, as well as numerous deck games, and open air bingo. This is about as close to the ‘old’ Carnival as this vast new ship comes.

Indoors, the two main dining rooms extend through two levels. Sapphire is midships, while Blush looks out over the stern. Both have identical menus at night, and passengers can choose between early or late seating, or even a more flexible, ‘anytime’ approach.

Aft pool area

Aft pool area

Here too, echoes of the ‘old’ Carnival live on, with fondly remembered favourites such as the famous Chocolate Melting Cake, as well as Flat Iron Steak being available every night. Food and service were consistently good, though the food service is faster than British tastes might like. There is still the tradition of singing and dancing waiters; as always on a Carnival ship, the dining rooms are an extension of the entertainment programme. It’s boisterous, good natured fun, and most of the passengers seem to love it.

For those looking for alternative eateries, the vast Lido Marketplace features everything from traditional roast carvings, a deli counter, right though to a decent Mongolian Wok. There is a tandoori area, and 24 hour pizza and ice cream. This area is as vast as the amount of choices it encompasses for all main meals, including dinner. Despite the size, it is surprisingly easy to navigate, but it gets very crowded just before arrival on most port days.

For evenings, there is also an extra tariff Italian restaurant, and a high end steak house. The former carries a cover charge of $12 per person, the latter comes in at $35.

Cabins are still spacious but, again, the palette has been toned right down. Vibrant burnt pink hues have given way to ochre sofas, and the beds now come with beautiful throw wraps. As for the beds themselves, they remain comfortable enough to present a real hazard to activity of any kind. The showers are still among the best at sea.

Blush restaurant

Blush restaurant

Three wardrobes come with flip up shelves in one- a very clever idea indeed. There’s a plasma screen TV and, if you get the balcony grade, these come furnished with two mesh slung chairs, and a small drinks table. It’s an ideal place to enjoy a last nightcap, with just the sound of the ocean swishing alongside for company.

This is by no means a full, in depth review of the Carnival Breeze, but rather a ‘taster’ of some of the highlights that she showcases. If you want the vast casino and late night disco action of old, all that is still there. But in truth, this ship is the future direction of Carnival.

You can see it in the more restrained, formal interior staircases, and the random groups of casual, comfortable furniture that are scattered around the entire ship that are reminiscent of many an outdoor South Beach resort. Above all else, the Carnival Breeze is supremely comfortable, open and airy; a unique mixture of ‘hang loose’ beach party vibe and sleek, clubby comfort that verges on the louche in places.

Spending her entire year in the sunny Caribbean, the Carnival Breeze operates six to eight night, Western and Eastern Caribbean itineraries, out of Miami. The ship is a particularly great choice for families (there are a good number of five berth cabins), as well as couples and groups of friends.

Ocean Plaza aboard the Carnival Breeze

Ocean Plaza aboard the Carnival Breeze

Outdoor bar on promenade deck

Outdoor bar on promenade deck

Outside the Red Frog Pub

Outside the Red Frog Pub

 

The Carnival Breeze is not a quiet ship but, truth be told, there are more than enough very nice places to get away from all the noise, as and when you want to. There is enough of the old, confident Carnival swagger around to make a cruise aboard her feel like soul food, but also so many new, classy touches to make you realise that the line is evolving, diversifying and expanding its offerings, right across the board.

If this is anything at all, it is the evolution and elevation of fun at sea. Recommended? Oh, my word, yes.

THE WORLD’S MOST BEAUTIFUL BEACH? MAGENS BAY PICTORIAL

A spun sugar strip of sand that curves in an elegant, smiley horse shoe shape over a full three quarters of a mile, Magens Bay has been regularly rated by National Geographic as one of the ten best beaches anywhere in the world. Even in the beach nirvana that is the Eastern Caribbean, Magens Bay is something truly spectacular.

It sprawls across the north west shore of St. Thomas, the largest of the US Virgin Islands, and sits at the head of a deep water bay that was once allegedly used as an anchorage by Sir Francis Drake. Normally blessed with benign weather, the island is one of the mainstays of the Caribbean cruise circuit.

As part of a protected national park, the beach also backs onto an area of natural mangrove swamps. The beach area itself provides a bar and restaurant hut, tables and chairs, beach rentals including kayaks, sailboats and deck chairs, lifeguards on duty, and restrooms at regular intervals.

But it is the sheer scale, sweep, and haunting beauty of the vast, beautiful expanse of beach that gives Magens Bay its unique, almost mystical cachet. Take a look at these photos below, and you’ll see why it remains so perennially alluring.

The approach from the parking lot

The approach from the parking lot

Centre of the beach
Centre of the beach

The main sweep, looking to the right

The main sweep, looking to the right

The colours are intoxicating...

The colours are intoxicating…

Looking towards the less crowded, quieter end

Looking towards the less crowded, quieter end

The waters are gorgeous

The waters are gorgeous

Another view of the quiet end, later in the day. See how the play of light has changed the colours

Another view of the quiet end, later in the day. See how the play of light has changed the colours

Beautiful....

Beautiful….

Big, big, sky......

Big, big, sky……

Rock formations dominate both edges of the bay

Rock formations dominate both edges of the bay

Part of the mangrove area that backs onto the quiet part of the beach

Part of the mangrove area that backs onto the quiet part of the beach

You can really see the entire graceful sweep of Magens Bay in this shot

You can really see the entire graceful sweep of Magens Bay in this shot

Rocks, shadow and sand

Rocks, shadow and sand

Another 'big blue' shot....

Another ‘big blue’ shot….

Early afternoon, and the light has changed again....

Early afternoon, and the light has changed again….

The rocky area at the top of the bay

The rocky area at the top of the bay

Wow. Just wow.

Wow. Just wow.

One last, lingering glance....

One last, lingering glance….

FORT SAN CRISTOBAL- SAN JUAN’S ANCIENT GUARDIAN

The stone ramparts of San Cristobal

The stone ramparts of San Cristobal

Looming above the entrance to the feisty, salsa fuelled firecracker of a city that is San Juan, the ancient fortress of San Cristobal seems to have almost nothing in common with the lively, teeming metropolis that draws legions of holiday makers each year. It sits on a headland, a gaunt grey, battle scarred colossus that seems somehow adrift in its own time and space. Even the surging ocean rollers that drum the beaches far below it seem to recoil from its stony scowl.

Yet the vast complex has history in droves. It was originally built by the occupying Spaniards to repel any potential foreign attackers. In the Caribbean of that time, there were plenty of those, from the English, to the Dutch and a small armada of local privateers. For the fleets of Spanish galleons, wallowing across the treacherous Atlantic back to Europe loaded with the spoils of looted Aztec and Mayan temples, San Juan was a place of potential shelter and resupply. San Cristobal was the gatehouse to the southern approaches to that same harbour.

The first, small part of the fortress was built in 1634, after abortive attacks by Sir Francis Drake on the neighbouring El Morro castle on the opposite headland. It was greatly expanded between 1765 and it’s eventual completion in 1783. In all, the massive stone walls originally occupied around twenty seven acres and, over the years, it survived numerous attacks by both the British and the Dutch.

The courtyard

The courtyard

It last saw active military use during the Spanish-American War of 1898, although some of it’s fortifications were reactivated by the US Army during World War Two. Today, the fortress and its battlements are a registered historical national park, and it attracts literally hundreds of thousands of awed visitors each year.

The fortress itself has a menacing stance even in broad daylight, when the mid day sun throws long shadows along its ancient, weathered battlements. The centuries old stone ramparts seem to rise straight up from the sea itself in places, an optical illusion caused by height and stance.

A central plaza is flanked by ancient, colonnaded passageways and vast, hexagonal water towers that have been dry for centuries. In days of old, this would have been the parade ground for both Spanish and American garrisons. The true scale of this vast arena can only be really appreciated from the next level up.

On the upper level, the ancient ramparts loom like serried ranks of jagged, stony molars against a petrol blue sky. Far below, the surging ocean rollers that once carried British and Dutch invaders ashore now flail endlessly against the beaches and rocks far below. At intervals, a series of small, one man archery (later musket) posts stand frozen in time, offering views far out over the ocean. Many an initial alarm was sounded from one of these petrified stone perches that stand frozen in time.

One of the indoor tunnels

One of the indoor tunnels

It is all too easy to see the serried ranks of gaping, open mouthed cannon spewing smoke, flame and steel death across the sea. A stack of frozen, long since silent cannon balls stands in a pile here, arrayed as it once might have been in battle order. Lovers now stroll the long, grassy ramparts below where supply trains and walking wounded would once have made their way in and out of the fortress.

Back inside, long, steep tunnels hewn into the rock provided cover for moving troops and supplies safely throughout San Cristobal. They are every bit as eerie and evocative as they must have been even back then. For the beleagured Spanish troops under bombardment from the sea, these claustrophobic warrens must have seemed like mouse traps.

There are small, gaunt dungeons that were the last living abodes of many captured pirates; some of them carved initials and even emblems into the pitiless stone walls that were the antechamber to the gallows. Stark and silent, the very stones seem to be soaked in lore, grief and sheer, uncontrollable terror.

The scope and scale of San Cristobal is as grand, ageless and arrogant as that of the mentality that conceived it.  A magnificent piece of engineering by any standards, it was intended to cement and maintain the iron grip of the occupying Spaniards on an island that they rightly saw as a vital link in a chain, designed to protect their pillaged conquests from both Atlantic and Pacific coasts.

The view down over the ocean from the battlements of San Cristobal

The view down over the ocean from the battlements of San Cristobal

It is an absolute must see if you’re in Puerto Rico during the day. But nothing- and I mean nothing- would compel me to spend the night in that place alone.

FLIGHT REVIEW: AMERICAN AIRLINES AA38 MIAMI TO LONDON

Plane type: Boeing 777

Class: Economy

Date taken: 9th February 2014

Flying can't always be a joy ride.....

Flying can’t always be a joy ride…..

I was looking forward to this return flight on AA like a hole in the head. On two occasions in the past, the airline has managed to misplace my luggage in transit. It’s reputation as a long haul carrier is somewhat lower than an insect’s dangly bits. And, to cap it all, I was flying from Miami, an airport synonymous with all the warmth and efficiency of a Dalek convention.

All in all, the omens were not good. Which made what followed a very pleasant surprise.

I arrived hours early at MIA and, unlike at many European airports, I was able to check in my luggage way in advance, leaving me free to head off to South Beach for a Sunday brunch, blissfully unburdened of all my travelling tat. And the AA staff- both in the lines and at the check in desk- could not have been more courteous, pleasant or helpful.

Needless to say, the security line was a forty five minute nightmare, but this is nothing to do with any airline. And, in all fairness, this time I found the TSA people on duty to be pleasant, efficient, and determined to make the process as painless as possible. Credit where credit is due here.

Embarkation was on time, prompt, and once again enabled by a personable gate staff. The welcome on board was pleasant, and not at all like some of the more brusque previous encounters with AA personnel.

This 777 had seating in a 2/5/2 configuration in economy, and the plane seemed to be in pretty good shape. I had pre booked  seat 41B, an aisle seat on the left hand ‘2’ side.  While the seat was a little hard, it had more than enough legroom for someone of my frame (5′ 6″). The recline was also more generous than anything I’ve experienced for some while, and I soon settled into it.

This flight encountered the most severe and sustained turbulence that I can ever recall in its early stages, lasting a full two and a half hours. Throughout all this, the staff on board were the height of care, concern, and professionalism. I was truly impressed with them, and their bearing in what was a far from comfortable or easy environment.

Drink runs were somehow made during this maelstrom; American Airlines now offers free beer and wine in economy, as well as soft drinks, plus tea and coffee. The fact that my wine was almost jolted into the ceiling says a lot about just how rough this portion of the flight was.

Food of a sort followed, with the usual choice of either chicken or pasta as a main course. The chicken was partly concealed in some kind of simmering, bubbling gloop that looked more than a little sinister, but that chicken itself was actually quite tasty. The carrots that came with this were crunchy, in a teeth clenching sort of way.

The bread roll that accompanied this was hard enough to hole a pocket battleship at twenty miles. It must have been easier cutting through the Siegfried Line than it was to wrestle with this brute. But this, in all fairness, is typical of most international airlines across all classes. We should just remain forever grateful that the late Adolf Hitler never got his hands on a stash of the damned things.

Being tired beyond any reason, I did not avail myself of the seat back entertainment, but there was certainly no shortage of films, television channels or music entertainment on offer. as well as games that could be played. And, once the turbulence abated, the plane settled down with lights out for the night and, to my surprise, I grabbed a good four hours’ sleep.

This cost me a light continental breakfast, but it was a worthwhile trade off to arrive at an unfeasibly sunny Heathrow a few minutes early. Disembarkation was quick and easy and, once again, the crew carried through what needed to be done with quiet, pleasant efficiency. And, to make it even better, both my luggage and myself enjoyed a highly emotional reunion.

I cannot commend the crew of this flight highly enough. We were kept constantly updated from the cockpit about the flight situation at all times. That, combined with the pleasant, ‘can do’ attitude I encountered at all levels across the American Airlines ground staff at Miami, has gone a long, long way to restoring my faith in an airline that I was previously very reluctant to touch at all. And yes, I would consider using them in the future, at least as a long haul option. Pleasantly surprised and impressed all round.