THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1980’S

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

By 1980, as Ronald Reagan assumed the mantle of President in the USA, only one liner remained in seasonal service on the age old Atlantic crossing between Europe and New York.

That, of course, was the QE2.

QE2's new, 1987 funnel

QE2’s new, 1987 funnel

For the great Cunard flagship, the eighties were to be a truly eventful decade, anchored by two seminal events. One of those was to put her in extreme danger, while the second would guarantee her life extension well into the next century. We’ll come to those in a moment.

But there was, in fact, another liner sailing the Atlantic on the run to Canada during most of the 1980’s; the doughty little Stefan Batory.

Originally built for Holland America Line as the Maasdam in 1952, she was acquired by Poland to operate a one ship, transatlantic service in 1969. She was a stout, feisty little lady, an unpretentious, solid little 15,000 ton vessel. Until 1988, she regularly forged across the Atlantic on a route that took her from her home port in Gdynia to Copenhagen, Rotterdam, London Tilbury and, ultimately, Montreal.

The Stefan Batory was a spiffy little ship, a million miles removed in temperament and styling from the glamourous Cunard flagship. Yet for years she remained enormously popular; decorated in a style that can best be described as rustic Polish. She was an immaculate little confection, and well known for her high standards of on board cleanliness. Famed for her excellent live music, this special little ship really merits a blog of her own and, in due course, she will have one.

The Queens Room, QE2

The Queens Room, QE2

But it was the QE2 that soldiered on alone on the age old run to and from New York. Between April and December each year, the great liner embarked on around a dozen crossings each way per year, between Europe and the USA. Her voyages generally took five days but, as the decade progressed, her increasingly unreliable turbines combined with a frequently capricious ocean to throw her off schedule more and more often. Something had to give, but in 1982, fate intervened in the most dramatic way imaginable.

The story of QE2 and her hectic, heroic dash to South Georgia and back is so well known as to need little repetition, and will be recounted elsewhere here in due course. What is worth remembering is that without QE2- and, indeed, Canberra– the entire operation would have been simply impossible. The war turned our way thanks to the massive trooping capacity of those two great ships.

QE2 post 1994

QE2 post 1994

After a seven million pound, six week refit, the QE2 returned to service in a blaze of publicity in August 1982. For the first time ever, the great lady sported the true Cunard red and black colours on her funnel and, less well received, a smart new, pebble grey hull that soon proved hugely impractical to maintain. She also got a lot of interior refurbishing that helped to bring the thirteen year old ship right up to the latest tastes and styles. Arriving in New York for the first time after the war, the QE2 was given a tremendous welcome back to her second home. 

But her temperamental turbines continued to give trouble. I sailed on her twice in 1986, and she was several hours late arriving on both crossings- one in either direction. But, by then, Cunard had already grasped the most painful nettle of all. Faced with the stark choice of either doing something truly drastic or losing the ship in as little as ten years, the line opted for the most dramatic refit ever seen on an ocean liner; the maritime equivalent of open heart surgery.

This famous bow

This famous bow

During six months, from October 1986 until April of 1987, the QE2 was converted from steam to diesel electric propulsion in the Bremerhaven shipyard of Lloyd Werft. The total cost- in excess of £100 million- was more than three times her original building cost over 1967-69.

Even those staggering figures do little to define this tremendous transformation. All of the steam powered machinery was taken out of the ship, together with all of the Clyde installed boilers. In their place came a dozen new, shiny MAN diesels.

These were designed mainly to slash the fuel consumption by almost half, and this they duly did. They also had the effect of increasing the speed of the QE2 up to around thirty four knots.

With the hew engines came a new funnel; a much more stout, elegant affair that filled out that proud, beautiful silhouette and made her more breathtaking than ever. Inside, years of mish mashed interior changes were almost completely swept away to give the venerable liner an almost totally complete, bow to stern Art Deco look. 

The Chart Room

The Chart Room

Inevitably, not everyone approved, but the overall new look was, quite simply, stunning. I boarded the QE2 in Southampton on April 29th, 1987, for what was billed as her ‘second maiden voyage’ to New York.

That day, QE2 had never looked more magnificent to me. The great new funnel with the familiar, bold Cunard black and red colours loomed over the terminal. And the hull literally gleamed; every last bit of paint accrued over the years had been sand blasted off her, right back down to the bare steel, and a single new coat of pristine charcoal, washed by a tidal wave of vibrant sunlight, now gleamed on the sun dappled expanse of Southampton Water. 

QE2 resurgent, 1987

QE2 resurgent, 1987

The changes were so complete and all embracing that the ship should have been christened QE3. But, despite the fervour of our send off and the euphoria of being the first transatlantic passengers aboard the reborn Queen Elizabeth 2, there were more than a few storm clouds on the horizon.

We’ll get to those in another, more detailed blog about that infamous voyage. But, one by one, these problems were ironed out to vanish as completely as Atlantic fog. By the time that the QE2 completed her second, full decade in service at the end of 1989, the great lady had never looked better, inside or out.

TWO DOWN, ONE TO GO; QUEEN VICTORIA TO GET SINGLE CABINS

Cunard is serving up more options for singles at sea

Cunard is serving up more options for singles at sea

Next January, Cunard will kill two birds with one stone when it withdraws the the 92,000 ton, 2007 built Queen Victoria from service. In a dry docking that has been brought forward by almost a full year, the line will make repairs to a bearing on an Azipod propulsion unit.

As a result of the new schedule, two cruises have been cancelled; a twelve night, Canary Islands cruises and a subsequent, five night European Cities voyage. Cancelled passengers are being offered the option of a hundred pound on board credit if they subsequently book any cruise within the next two years, while those choosing total cancellation will be given a full refund.

But the big news is that the Queen Victoria will also have nine new, single cabins built into the ship, in part of the space currently occupied by the casino. This will bring her into line with her younger sibling, the Art Deco flavoured Queen Elizabeth, which had a similar block of single cabins installed recently.

That leaves only the company flagship, Queen Mary 2, as a singles light vessel. The iconic vessel- the last true Atlantic liner- has thus far charged prohibitive single supplements on most voyages, typically in the region of 175 per cent.

While no retrospective addition of single cabins has yet been announced for the flagship, it does seem inevitable that the giant QM2 will follow her regal fleet mates at some stage with the installation of single cabins. And, being so much larger at over 150,000 tons, it is to be hoped that she might be able to embrace more than nine new cabins.

In addition to the Azipod repairs and the new single cabins, Queen Victoria will also undergo technical work, and a pair of new sun awnings will be fitted around the Grills Terrace and lido pool. All cabins will be enhanced with the addition of new, larger, flat screen televisions.

The work will be carried out by the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany.

TRAVEL 2014- MY BEST BITS SO FAR

St. Thomas, Caribbean

St. Thomas, Caribbean

2014 has been a banner year for me for sure; more diverse and unpredictable in terms of travel and sights seen than for many a long year past. From Caribbean beaches to Budapest cafe society, 2014 has not been short on adventure so far.

I kicked off at the end of January with a welcome return to the balmy waters of the Caribbean, on an eight night Carnival Breeze cruise out of Miami. After the long, leaden British winter, it was sheer poetry to feel cold beer in my hand, and warm sand between my toes at the same time. Gorgeous stuff.

The spring equinox marked a long overdue return to the Nile, after an absence of fourteen years. Drifting idly in the gilded wakes of Akhenaton and Cleopatra is still like being awake in a living, moving dream. And the monolithic remains of what was once the greatest civilisation in history, strung out along both banks of the surprisingly verdant river, stir the soul and the psyche on some unfathomable, yet undeniable level. if you are tired of Egypt, you may very well be tired of life itself.

Next came my first ever cruise along the mighty Rhine. Heading north from fabled, imperial Cologne, we spent a week sauntering around a string of Dutch and Belgian delights. I found myself overwhelmed by the taut, sturdy, majesty of beautiful Hoorn, and by the cake rich glut of expansive Gothic architecture in stately, patrician Antwerp.

But few things beat arriving in Arnhem, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, and walking over the famous, resurrected ‘Bridge too far’ that was the focus of the entire bloody fiasco. A hair raising, sobering moment that will stay with me as long as I live.

July gave me the opportunity to take a long anticipated, weekend swing out to lively, lavish Budapest; a beautiful, colossal statement of ancient imperial ambition that rolls out along both banks of the Danube like some amazing ceremonial carpet. It was a chance to catch up with old friends, and savour superb local food and wine in this genteel, Art Nouveau suffused city. In the long, light summer nights, it really was love at first sight. I cannot wait to return.

And then, north to Norway. And how! Take a real ocean liner- the legendary Marco Polo – now working as a sedate, Art Deco dream of a cruise ship, one where the numbers on board are measured in hundreds rather than thousands. Throw in the most amazing and versatile big band- all twenty of  ’em- that I have ever heard in my life, and set a course for what is arguably the most stunning scenic smorgasbord on earth.

Bring on the fabled, pine draped fjords of old Norway one after another, like a conga line of classical actors playing out some ancient, incredible theatre. Garnish with amazing, long summer light and the occasional shower. Cue reindeer in the hills, and butterflies in the fauna. Snow on the mountain tops, and strawberry daiquiris in the hot tubs on board. An endless voyage into a land of trolls, witches and uneasy, half glimpsed ghosts. A true epic adventure.

And that’s where we are now. While there is much more to come- starting with Croatia next week- here’s hoping you enjoy this mix up of where I’ve been so far. The equivalent of an eighties mega mix, if you will.

Above all, enjoy the journey. Because if one thing remains true for me, it is this; it’s not so much always about where you go, as it is about how you get there. Bon voyage!

Magens Bay, St. Thomas

Magens Bay, St. Thomas

El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Winter? What winter?

Winter? What winter?

Carnival Breeze at Grand Turk

Carnival Breeze at Grand Turk

Temple of Luxor, Egypt

Temple of Luxor, Egypt

The Nile is eternal

The Nile is eternal

Close up of one of those amazing, ageless statues

One of those amazing, ageless statues

Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple

Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple

Temple of Philae, Aswan

Temple of Philae, Aswan

Local transport, Antwerp, Belgium

Local transport, Antwerp, Belgium

Sunset over Hoorn hafen

Sunset over Hoorn hafen

'A Bridge Too Far', Arnhem

‘A Bridge Too Far’, Arnhem

Sailing the springtime Rhine

Sailing the springtime Rhine

 

Parliament building, Budapest

Parliament building, Budapest

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

Cafe life, Budapest

Cafe life, Budapest

The  Fishermen's Bastion, Budapest

The Fishermen’s Bastion, Budapest

Marco Polo, Eidfjord, Norway

Marco Polo, Eidfjord, Norway

Live like a local, Norway

Live like a local, Norway

Voringfoss waterfall, Norway

Voringfoss waterfall, Norway

Good morning, Flam

Good morning, Flam

HOMECOMING QUEEN- THE SS. NORWAY 1984 CRUISES IN EUROPE

The SS. Norway in Flam, Norway. Probably 1998 or 1999

The SS. Norway in Flam, Norway. Probably 1998 or 1999

When Knut Kloster completed his amazing ‘Sleeping Beauty’ style resurrection of the SS. Norway in May of 1980, it was with the express intention of sailing her on year round, seven night cruises from Miami to the clear, sunny waters of the sultry Caribbean. When the still not quite complete ship sailed out of Southampton for New York on May 7th, 1980, few ever realistically expected to see her back in Europe again, other than for routine dry docking.

Several factors appeared to back this up; firstly, the deep draft of the SS. Norway- well over thirty feet- would make it difficult for her to access the smaller, more desirable ports in Europe. And, in those days, even many of the bigger ports still did not have the infrastructure to cope with a ship and passenger load like the Norway could deliver. Plus, the immensely profitable, seven night circuits in the Caribbean were enormously popular.

Just how profitable the Norway was in the Caribbean was highlighted by a brief, three month recession that kicked into the Caribbean cruise run over the summer of 1983. For weeks on end, the average, seven days ships- with capacity for around eight hundred passengers each- were going out half full on average.

At the same time, the SS. Norway- with a capacity well in excess of two thousand passengers, was averaging an occupancy rate of some ninety- three per cent, week in and out. That is a stunning figure; proof, if ever it were needed, of Kloster’s brilliance and foresight in resurrecting the giant liner in the first place.

So the 1984 return to Europe of the SS. Norway to operate a short, summer series of seven night cruises came as a real surprise. NCL trumpeted it as ‘the cruise sensation of the year’, and not without good reason. The news had the same shock effect as a brick thrown through a window. In fact, NCL took advantage of the ship’s return to Europe to schedule a three week dry docking for her.

The plan was to sail the giant ship on a series of alternating, seven night cruises from Amsterdam. One run would encompass the ‘greatest hits’ of the Baltic circuit such as Hamburg, Oslo, Stockholm and Copenhagen- but, interestingly, not Saint Petersburg. This was 1984, and the Cold War had not quite yet thawed out.

The other run would take the SS. Norway back to her adopted country; here, the vast, beautiful ship would make a stunningly implausible sight in such ports as Flam, Geiranger and Gudvangen. There would also be one longer, spectacular cruise to the top of the North Cape and back, a truly epic odyssey for the graceful giant. This would presage the shorter, seven night runs.

Kloster had intended for his giant baby to sail from New York to Southampton on a nostalgic Atlantic crossing. However, the Hudson River had silted up so much that it would require extensive dredging to safely accommodate the Norway. The harbour authorities were reluctant to go to such expense for what they not unreasonably expected to be a one off visit.

So, the SS. Norway instead sailed up to Philadelphia. After a two night party cruise to ‘nowhere’, she embarked 1,000 passengers for an eight night, eastbound crossing to Europe. Still, some eight feet of her mainmast had to be removed so that she could pass safely under the Walt Whitman bridge.

The Norway arrived in Southampton on July 26th, joining the Queen Elizabeth 2 and the Royal Viking Sky in the Hampshire port. That evening, she left on a two day party cruise to Amsterdam, arriving on the 28th. From here, her season of seven night cruises began.

Prices for the seven night cruises began at $1,140 per person, while the fourteen night North Cape fiesta had fares beginning at $2,190. The seven night cruises were also able to be combined to create one amazing, fourteen night, back to back trip.

That short, high summer season of European cruises was a tremendous success; in fact, it was a sell out. Following her three weeks in dry dock in Hamburg, the Norway returned to Miami via the ‘sunny southern’ route, on an eleven night transatlantic crossing. Leaving Southampton on September 24th and sailing via Bermuda and Nassau, the Norway arrived back ‘home’ in Miami on October 5th, ready to resume her Caribbean circuit.

Despite the success of her short summer season, it would be 1998 before the SS. Norway would return to offer another full season of European cruises. By then, time and new builds had passed her by, and she was no longer the totally dominant force that she had once been. None the less, the fabled ship remained a hugely popular draw. Unable to compete effectively in the Caribbean with newer, more fuel efficient and amenity laden ships, she spent the next few summers in Europe, where her history, heritage and elegance would make her a constantly popular choice for starry eyed nostalgia buffs from  all over the world.

DAY THREE ON THE MARCO POLO; FLAM, NORWAY

Good morning, Flam

Good morning, Flam

By now embraced amidst the stunning scenic sprawl of the Norwegian fjords, the Marco Polo sailed slowly through the night toward our next rendezvous with Mother Nature. Sometime in the early hours, while most of us were still sleeping, the anchor went down just off the small town of Flam, located deep in a branch of Aurlandfjord.

Brilliant sunshine greeted me as I padded up on deck for an alfresco breakfast with a side order of sublime visual splendour on all sides. Plump, fluffy clouds hung like becalmed, ghostly galleons in a powder blue sky. Ranks of pine tress marched down to the still, silent edge of the fjord like ranks of Grenadier guards. Ashore, coaches sat at the edge of a vast, rolling meadow carpeted with a riot of multi coloured fauna, waiting to take the passengers on their day’s adventure.

I have always considered Flam to be one of the true highlights of any Norway cruise. It has an air of surreal, unhurried calm that seems to affect everything and everyone around it; a Norwegian Brigadoon, writ large in glowering granite, gushing waterfalls, and a dozen different shades of dazzling greenery. It never fails to grab the heart like a vice.

But if Flam has one highlight- quite literally- then it is unquestionably the amazing, twelve and a half mile scenic railway. Ironically, this was inaugurated by the occupying German army in 1940, after years of construction.

Twelve and a half miles of railway runs from the small station at Flam, up to the peak of Myrdal station, some 2,845 feet above the glassy expanse of the fjord. No less than twenty tunnels were hewn out of the unforgiving local granite for a full third of its length. The upward gradient climb ratio is one in eighteen.

The Flam railway. All aboard...

The Flam railway. All aboard…

Yet these statistics are mere drum rolls. The train journey you can embark on these days is one of the most enduring scenic rail journeys anywhere on earth, and little wonder. At the height of the tourist season, ten trains a day will make the journey in either direction between Flam and Myrdal. The track is only a single stretch for most of the ride, so the passage of north and southbound trains has to be carefully staggered.

Going upwards, the journey takes around forty minutes. Descending, you can add another ten or so minutes to that- the train needs to break at several places. But, statistics aside, the cumulative sights of the journey are, quite simply, magnificent.

The train- an immaculate, deep green conga line of steel carriages and polished wood interiors, rattles, groans and shudders through a hinterland of rolling meadows dotted with bales of harvested hay, before beginning the sharp, exhilarating haul up toward Myrdal.

Framed by huge picture windows, a vast, visual smorgasbord of gushing streams and vaulting bridges runs parallel to the track. Small houses by railway cuttings are flanked by vast, jagged pine forests that disappear in a flash as the train thunders through some darkened tunnel, only to emerge into a skittish rain squall that splatters the windows like shrapnel.

Low, rolling grey clouds hang literally at window level, almost close enough to touch. A vast granite edifice looms above you, bisected by streams that look like the strands of a spider’s web. Rain thumps in vengeful torrents on one of the platforms en route. A gaggle of commuters rush the train as it shudders to a brief halt. Seconds later, the sun comes out again.

The climb begins

The climb begins

From my seat, I can see the gravity defying series of twenty one hairpin bends of the road built back in 1896, with the sun casting long, spectral shadows across the hinterland beyond it. There is a a brief, photographic stop at the vast, thunderous Kjollfossen waterfall; a vista made even more improbable by the sudden appearance from behind a rock of a local singer, dressed as a legendary maiden, who then serenades the stunned passengers from behind the cover of a cluster of rain sodden rocks.

The run back down allows me to capture some- but by no means all- of the sights I have missed on that giddy, mercurial ascent. As the train shudders and slows to a halt back in the flower carpeted fastness of Flam valley, I scrape my jaw up from the top of my shoe. In a state of awed, stunned disbelief, I contemplate the sight of tiny, tidy Flam, and the rest of our day ahead.

By now the rain is back; splattering the platform and the pretty little railway museum that adjoins it. So the idea of a beer tasting in a local pub- a kind of disney-esque recreation of an ancient Norwegian dwelling- seems like a great idea. Wet outside, it is high time for the inner man to get wet as well.

The building is called the Aegir Brewery- it’s all reindeer rugs and carved, implausibly high wooden seats. It might not be original, but the six different beer samples, each served on a wooden platter, are wonderfully authentic stuff; fantastic micro brews, crafted on site. The provenance of each is explained to us in turn, allowing each to be sampled and enjoyed. And, make no mistake, enjoy them I most certainly did.

The might of Kjollfossen

The might of Kjollfossen

The outdoor drizzle did nothing to dampen my enthusiasm for Flam itself; small, and as perfectly crafted as a charm bracelet, it is almost chocolate box pretty. Even through a curtain of grey, misty drizzle, the whole place looks just too good to be true.

As our tender bumbled back across the inscrutable calm of the fjord, the rain stopped as abruptly as it started. A wave of sunlight bathed the whole, surreal spread of looming mountains and waterfront cafes in a clean, vibrant light. Ragged, black ranks of pine forests suddenly assumed a gorgeous, deep green patina as the sun flitted through the trees to glint on the cool blue surface of the fjord.

It turned warm, too. The skies cleared completely as the late afternoon turned gloriously bright, showcasing the staggering natural beauty surrounding us to perfection. Back on the teak lined terrace of Scott’s, I nursed a tequila sunrise as the Marco Polo swung idly at anchor in this surreal summer playground. It was all nothing less than five star soul food.

What a place. What a day. What’s next?

Check in later to find out!

Awesome. Up close and personal

Awesome. Up close and personal

And calm is restored...

And calm is restored…

CUNARD TO OFFER COMMEMORATIVE LUSITANIA VOYAGE IN 2015

The Lusitania

The Lusitania

In an apt and respectful nod to the most tragic incident in its commercial history, Cunard will offer a seven night, commemorative voyage to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania back on May 7th, 1915.

The giant 92,000 ton Queen Victoria will offer a seven night round trip from Southampton, calling at St. Peter Port (Guernsey), Le Havre, Dublin and, most pointedly, Cobh on May 7th itself. There will be a series of commemorative services on board, as well as a special, temporary display of Lusitania artifacts curated by renowned maritime author, Eric Sauder. The voyage will also mark the launch of a new book on Lusitania by Eric Sauder, who has himself been down to the mangled wreckage of the former Cunard speed queen, just off the coast of Southern Ireland.

Cobh is sure to be an emotional lightning rod for all on board; the Lusitania went down just ten miles off the coast, on a brilliantly sunny day, after being hit by a single torpedo fired by the U20, then under the command of Kapitanleutenant Walter Schweiger. The giant, 31,000 ton liner capsized and went down in eighteen minutes, taking 1,201 passengers and crew with her.

The desperate, improvised rescue effort was mounted from Cobh. A total of 764 survivors were brought to safety here in the aftermath of the sinking. Some 124 victims were buried in a series of heartbreaking interments in the local Clonmel cemetery, where they remain to this day. The dead were still being washed ashore on the beaches here a full three weeks later.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Lusitania and her twin sister, the Mauretania, had been the unchallenged speed queens on the Atlantic crossing. On her debut in September 1907, the Lusitania- then the largest and most opulent vessel afloat- had retaken the speed record, held for ten consecutive years by a succession of German liners. With their sharp, graceful lines, quartet of tall, raked smokestacks and sumptuous interiors, the two sisters played ping pong with the Blue Ribband for a full seven years. Sailing between Liverpool and New York, the two sisters continued to beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot.

The story of the last voyage of the Lusitania has been replayed often, and will no doubt be dragged up for air again next year by a whole conga line of armchair theorists. The bare facts are that the liner sailed from New York on May 1st, 1915, bound once more for Liverpool,  after German warnings had appeared in the press. These advised prospective passengers not to travel on ships said to be illegally carrying munitions to aid the British war effort on the Western Front. Based on this belief, Schweiger slammed his torpedo into the starboard side of the Lusitania on the early afternoon of May 7th, 1915, and sank the ship.

This still buoyant controversy in  no way negates the impact of the tragic deaths of 1,201 people, passengers and crew alike. Nor does it tarnish the tremendous achievement and seven years of largely forgotten success that the Lusitania still represents. One hundred years after her ghastly demise off the Old Head of Kinsale, it is entirely right and fitting that the maritime community in general- and Cunard in particular- pays due respect to this lost, enduring legend.

DAY TWO- MARCO POLO IN EIDFJORD, NORWAY

Eidfjord overture

Eidfjord overture

After a sunny, fun filled day at sea, the sudden stillness that greeted our arrival in Eidfjord was one hell of a stunning contrast. Low, rolling hills stood against the backdrop of an ominously leaden sky. Nearby, the German cruise ship Aida Luna- which I had last seen in Bermuda three years earlier- ghosted past us to the one available pier in town. The Marco Polo would be tendering passengers ashore today.

Stopped at anchor, and with her tenders slowly being winched down to water level, the sheer, implacable vastness of Norway seemed to surround the Marco Polo in a kind of uneasy embrace.

Eidfjord is actually part of the vastly larger series of inlets, small harbours and waterways collectively known as Hardangerfjord. One of the ‘greatest hits’ fjords on the Norwegian cruise circuit, the Hardangerfjord unwinds in a seventy five mile long, serpentine sprawl. In places, it has a depth of almost 2,700 feet; an almost unimaginable body of enclosed water.

Soon we were bumbling ashore across this glassy, inland expanse by tender. From sea level, the Marco Polo appeared vast, a colossus out of all proportion to her true scale. The royal blue hull, with its two blue bands and window studded, loooming white upper works, seemed every bit as towering and monumental as the glut of granite nature that grew with every second as we chugged toward it.

The constantly changing weather makes the shores of Hardangerfjord an ideal environment for fruit to grow and ripen. The low ranging meadows play home to vast fruit orchards, brimming with cherries and apples. Those apples are brewed and fermented as part of the potent local cider. Something like eighty per cent of Norway’s natural fruit is produced along the shores of these long, ranging estates.

Stunning Voringfoss

Stunning Voringfoss

That said, we were not here simply to look at apples, of course. Our tour coach took us first to the Hardangervidda Nature Centre, where the grass that grows on the roof is kept short by a duo of permanently grazing goats. Inside, an amazing, surround sound display ‘flew’ us over this stunning natural smorgasbord for around twenty minutes or so. I was totally awed, and more than a little disorientated at the end.

Then, the scenic highlight.  First contact with the tremendous, thundering mass of Voringfoss Waterfall. A spectacular natural theatre of granite stage and roiling, grey, white flecked mountain water free falls some six hundred feet below, down into the mist shrouded Mabo valley.

The whole background sound is like low rolling thunder, with a backdrop of icy spray that occasionally splatters visitors like so many random shrapnel bursts. The sum total is uniquely thrilling, and guaranteed to clear away any mental cobwebs you might have. Elevated and exhilarating, Voringfoss is an absolute must see if you’re in the area.

Mist rises from the water level here like a succession of angry wraiths, hanging in the ether in brooding silence. Numerous paths and steep trails allow for a series of stunning photo opportunities, but be careful when walking along those damp, often steep passes. Also remember that the granite rocks are wet, and take care accordingly.

Back down in the pretty little hamlet of Eidfjord itself, we enjoyed an almost ethereal piano and vocal recital in a local museum. There’s a stout, doughty old church that traces its origins back to 1309, and the usual collection of small tourist shops and waterfront cafes.

Live like a local?

Live like a local?

By the time we got back to the fjord, the sun had begun to peep shyly out from among the slowly brightening mountain tops. A sudden wash of brilliant, welcoming light washed across the water, highlighting a couple of kayaks as they scurried across the still waters.

That same sun caught the port side flank of the Marco Polo as she lay out in the bay, waiting for us. At that stage, our transport of delight was a truly welcome sight. For, while the grace, sweep and beauty of Eidfjord had been a feast for the senses, I was now implausibly more than ready for the lunch that I knew was awaiting on board.

A DAY AT SEA ON THE MARCO POLO

Deck. Ship. At sea.

Deck. Ship. At sea.

The first full day of our Norway adventure aboard the Marco Polo dawned sunny and calm, with a gently rolling gunmetal swell kissed by fitful whitecaps. The early morning sun sparkled on the royal blue hull plating and washed across the serried tiers of teak decks at the stern. The coffee was hot, and the whole day sparkled with benign possibilities.

With her deep draft and relatively broad hull, the Marco Polo rode out the often capricious North Sea swell with an almost effortless ease. From time to time, she rolled gently to port and starboard, as if attempting to shrug off some imaginary seabirds that tried to cling to the rails. On the lido deck at the stern of the ship, breakfast was being served. The tables around the aft pool were soon full.

If you’re looking for a day full of sensational, show stopping diversions and a whole conga line of time consuming, money eroding gimmicks, then the Marco Polo is not for you. Instead, you’ll find the library is open, arts and crafts classes are taking place in the various lounges, and the first lectures on the upcoming ports of call are taking place.

Too cerebral, or just plain boring?  Fine. Take a dip in the pool, work out in the upper deck gym, or just sag lethargically into one of the trio of upper deck hot tubs, with their matchless views out over the roiling, white wake of the ship as it carves a dreamy furrow all the way back to Tilbury. Or relive the classic days of the transatlantic liners, with a stroll around a real teak boat deck, with a canopy of protective lifeboats overhead. Lovely stuff.

A pool with a view. Or five.

A pool with a view. Or five.

A relatively small ship fosters an air of intimate affability as rare and rewarding as fine wine. Conversations with complete strangers strike up over shared breakfast tables, and on the tiers of stepped lido decks that tumble down towards the stern of the Marco Polo. And there is something about the calming, benign influence of the sea that seems to soothe people, making them drop their normal shore side guard. They open up- sometimes to the amazement of their lifelong partners- in a way that would never happen at some anonymous, anodyne resort. In this charmed universe, less is most definitely more.

The onset of lunch serves up a trio of options. Out in the sun, the lido buffet is hugely popular- nothing sharpens the appetite like a side order of sea air- and the tables are soon crowded. Best to wait for the inevitable lines to wind down (maybe grab a lunchtime beer or a Mojito at the pool bar in the meantime?) or, perhaps, head down to the cool, welcoming beauty of the Waldorf Restaurant for a full, waiter service lunch. It is a treat that so many people miss- perhaps that English, lemming like obsession with the sun is overpowering. I know, because the truth is that I’m as guilty as most.

The third option is to grab something from the port side deli, which also has free, all day tea and coffee on tap. Chef Alok will serve you up with a variety of tasty sandwiches and pizza on different days, complete with french fries, and all the garnishes. I went for the hot roast beef on rye bread. Frequently, as it turns out.

View over the rim

View over the rim

Lunch done, the ship takes on a kind of benign, snoozy character, as hundreds succumb to that age old, seductive special act of fine food, comfortable surroundings, and a gently rolling ship furrowing proudly over a sparkling briny. A warm wind ruffles the handful of sleeping blankets that cover a few. Up top, some furious table tennis tournaments assume the tension of the overture to Waterloo.

The sun shifts effortlessly across the afternoon sky, showering light and shade across different parts of the ship, throwing her beautiful lines and architecture into sharp, sometimes breathtaking relief. With her fifty year old hull looking like something from a Fellini movie, the Marco Polo has more than just a touch of the raffish, indolent feel of the Riviera afloat.

Afternoon tea, served down in the Waldorf Restaurant, arouses the passengers from their self induced, happy stupour. Tea, scones and cakes in air conditioned comfort. Elsewhere, bottles of wine and different, brightly coloured cocktails sprinkle the outdoor tables like beautiful, pungent blooms. Things become slightly more animated; up top, the hot tubs are now all full.

There is the tinkle of tea cups and the delightful, gentle shudder of the ship underfoot, as the Marco Polo stands out across the sparkling briny. Some just lose themselves for hours in the spectacle of watching the sharp, graceful prow as it chases a horizon it can never, ever reach. Others hope for the sight of dolphins, leaping in and out of the bow wave. And sometimes, their vigil is rewarded with a display that puts smiles on faces. Kids on Christmas Day syndrome all over again.

Some take delight in simply strolling, stopping to chat to strangers, and so laying the building blocks of friendships that will bloom over the course of the cruise. Others prefer some languid, platinum chip people watching from over the rim of a wine glass (I’m taking to you, Anthony Nicholas), or just a gentle game of cards indoors.

Curves to lurve

Curves to lurve

You’ll still hear the gentle clack of the shuffleboard sticks upstairs, a sound as time honoured on ocean liners as the chimes of Big Ben back ashore. Sudden bursts of laughter rise on the breeze and subside again just as quickly. The click and closing of doors and the subtle sizzling of another rye beef toastie. For eight days, these would become the subliminal background soundtrack to our fjord foray. After a while, they became so ingrained that we literally no longer noticed them. At least, not until they were gone.

The light hangs in the sky for a long time, even as first sitting passengers begin to discreetly leave their posts to get ready for that other ageless ritual; the pre dinner cocktail. The Marco Polo seems to give out a long, drawn out sigh, The first deck lights begin to glint gently on the overhead ceilings outside, and the first note of a lilting piano kisses the cool, evening air. It is as if the old girl is getting herself primped for the second act of this seagoing theatrical. And, though we all know the plot- and, of course- how the show always ends- still, the audience is rapt, and as far removed from every day reality as it is possible to be.

What have I done all day? Absolutely nothing, of course. But my word, it has taken me all day to do it. Damn it, I am exhausted.

No one said indolence and enjoyment would be easy, of course. Just imagine if I had to take in flow riders, crowds, constant loudspeaker announcements and on board hard sells as well. It is enough to make the head spin, really.

Too much, in fact. But there is healing balm in the utterly unique magic of the slowly sagging sun as it burnishes the ocean rollers an amazing shade of burnt orange. Sit down, young Jedi. Take comfort from a tall, cool, Tequila Sunrise. And- breathe……

That’s better. Now- what’s for dinner?

THE MARCO POLO- MAGIC BY NORTHERN MOONLIGHT

Marco Polo

Marco Polo

It was a surreal, brilliant cruise. The storied, veteran Marco Polo and an eight night sweep through the Norwegian fjords at the height of the summer season. A serene venue and a sensational ship. What more could anyone ask for?

Well, how about a twenty piece big band that laid down a blistering sound track of everything from Duke Ellington to platinum chip disco? Big band, big ship. A combination as natural as Rogers and Astaire, or Goffin and King. A perfect fit, almost symbiotic. Yet to experience it out there, as the Marco Polo surged through a conga line of implausible, incredible northern nights, was something else.

Don’t get me wrong. I have been to Norway many times, and always enjoyed the experience immensely. But this cruise had something else. For, with her unique outdoor cascade of tiered, semi circular decks, the Marco Polo offered a string of amazing vantage points from which to drink in the sights, sounds and smells of this wonderful country.

And what scenes they were. Twelve thousand miles of rugged, indented coastline showcase the whole, sweeping expanse of Mother Nature like some massive visual smorgasbord. Vast, jagged peaks. their caps still dusted with snow, plunge down to still, silent fjords, where the ice blue water is as still as glass.

Cattle graze nonchalantly at the edge of pine carpeted meadows, as vast, thunderous streams roar and splash down into the fjords nearby. Clapboard houses with bright coloured window shutters and grass roofs cluster for protection around a sturdy old stave church here and there. Cars looking like beetles dart in and out of vast, road side tunnels hewn out of the granite that soars toward the heavens in all directions.

Voringfoss waterfall, Norway

Voringfoss waterfall, Norway

All of this is reflected with almost perfect clarity in the still, silent waters of the fjords themselves. Ferries, fishing boats and tugs bustle purposefully through this surreal, splendid hinterland. Other boats sit tethered to the rocky, moss dappled shoreline like so many flies, frozen in aspic.

The silence here is as deafening as it is majestic. Stillness hangs like a shroud. And, this being Norway, the weather is as mercurial as a supermodel in a strop.

Somber sheets of low, drizzly cloud part like opening theatre curtains to reveal magnificent, sun dappled vistas of lush green pine forests, tumbling down almost to sea level. Light dances and flickers across the faces of vast, granite cliffs and valleys, showing up sudden, amazing shades of red, gold and silver in the ancient stone crevices. The old adage remains true; if you don’t like the weather here, wait ten minutes and, likely as not, it will change.

And the Marco Polo affords a unique vantage spot; at the same time both integral to the scenery, and somewhat detached. Small enough to get close enough to the places where the big ships can never go, and yet, somehow, afloat in her own sense of time and space.

The sheer of that stunning hull and sharp, graceful prow has no equal afloat today. Inside, the Balinese Art Deco statuary and gorgeous, stained glass lighting gives the ship a rich, sumptuous air of space and grace. Small and perfectly formed, boarding the Marco Polo is like putting on that favourite pair of comfortable slippers that only you truly love.

Norway at water level

Norway at water level

The food and service remain things to savour; intimate and more personal in style and scope, both promote a sense of well being. A kind of feast for the soul and senses, if you will.

On this glorious, implausible ship, we voyaged through a magical, misty land of half glimpsed witches, galloping reindeer and, of course, surly, carefully watching trolls. Over the next series of blogs, you’re invited to share the sights and sounds of this magical adventure…..