COSTA; COMING ON STRONG

Calmer seas ahead for Costa Crociere?

Calmer seas ahead for Costa Crociere?

After a couple of very shaky years, it looks like things are finally moving in the right direction once again for Costa Cruises.

November 1st sees the inauguration of the line’s newest and biggest ever ship, the stunning  Costa Diadema.  The 135,000 ton ship- styled as the ‘Queen of The Mediterranean’- is built on the same platform as the very successful Carnival Dream trio of ships. With interiors designed by the veteran Joe Farcus, the new ship is intended to emphasize the indolent, outdoor lido lifestyle that defines la dolce vita afloat. After her christening, this beautiful new ship will operate seven night cruises in the Mediterranean, with embarkation possible from Barcelona, Rome and Marseilles.

And even bigger may soon be coming. For Costa is reported to be in talks with it’s favoured shipyard, Fincantieri, about a possible, 170,000 ton ship, provisionally slated for delivery in 2019. So far this ship, which would be of an entirely new design, is a stand alone order. She would be the largest purpose built cruise ship ever delivered to any European based line.

Smaller, but auspicious in its own way, is the imminent restyling of the veteran Costa Classica into the Costa NeoClassica. This will take on a similar style and scope to that of her sister ship, the Costa NeoRomantica. The substantially refurbished ship is due to emerge in December, when she will embark on a season of long, languid cruises to the Spice Islands.

Also imminent is the 48,000 ton Costa Celebration, the last of the former Iberocruises fleet now being amalgamated into Costa proper. Extensively refurbished not long ago, this former Carnival veteran will provide the Italian juggernaut with a smaller, more personalised option for passengers who might be averse to the bigger ships.

So is it all music and Moet? Er, not quite. Looking at prices for the two ship Costa deployment in the UAE out of Dubai, weekly rates in November and January 2015 show prices from an unbelievable £199, based on inside cabins on a cruise only fare. Even in the vastly over tonnaged winter Caribbean cruise market, such fares are not seen.

Maybe two ships in the region at the same time is one too many?

In any event, it is to be hoped that better times are, indeed, ahead for Italy’s historic flag bearer in the cruising firmament. Certainly, the Costa Diadema adds a fantastic new, year round option to the traditional, seven day ‘Meddy-Go-Round’ circuit.

For the first time in a few years, it seems that Costa can look ahead with some confidence once more. That’s nice to see.

As always, stay tuned.

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AND NOW- NEWCASTLE TO NEW YORK DIRECT BY AIR

New York's iconic Empire State Building; less than eight hours by direct flight from Newcastle in 2015

New York’s iconic Empire State Building; less than eight hours by direct flight from Newcastle in 2015

In a move sure to be welcomed by both business and leisure travellers alike, United Airlines has today announced the start of a direct, Newcastle to New York service five times a week from May, 2015 to September.

Westbound flights begin on May 23rd through to September 7th, every day of the week except for Wednesday and Thursday. Eastbound flights run from May 22nd through September 6th, with no flights on Tuesday and Wednesday.

United will use a Boeing 757 for the flights, configured with sixteen business class seats, forty five economy plus seats, and one hundred and eight standard economy seats.

Leaving Newcastle International Airport at 0910, flights arrive at Newark International at noon. Return flights depart Newark at 1920, and arrive back into Newcastle at  0730 the next morning.

There are several obvious advantages to this service; first and most obvious is that it means passengers can avoid transiting through the disjointed hell hole that is Heathrow, saving hours in the process. Not to mention keeping your blood pressure somewhere near normal.

Secondly, those flight times are absolutely superb. No more getting up at four in the morning to check in for a domestic flight to London to connect with your transatlantic long haul flight.

Downsides? Some will baulk at crossing the Atlantic in a potentially crowded 757; hardware wise, these are not as up to date or as comfortable as the A330, the new Dreamliner, or even the Boeing 747.

That said, every passenger will have their own, on demand entertainment on a seat back screen, plus free in flight meals and soft drinks. Unlike every other transatlantic US carrier, United still charges for beer, wine and cocktails, unless of course you’re in Business Class. In which case your flight could well be champagne fuelled.

But these are pretty minor gripes in the real scheme of things. On first look, I would say that the potential benefits far, far outweigh any possible drawbacks.

For passengers from the north, this service literally saves hours on your transatlantic journey. It also means that you can connect to hundreds of other destinations in the USA via the United hub at Newark.

And, for ease of access into New York itself, it is well worth remembering that Newark International offers a far easier and more convenient entry point than JFK.

So this move by United is very much to be welcomed. Of course, the trick will be to keep the fares competitive but, on the whole, the future for this service looks bright.

Here’s wishing United Airlines much success for this welcome, long overdue service.

TIMESLIP: QE2 ON TYNESIDE, SEPTEMBER 17TH, 2007

The Mauretania.

The Mauretania.

The sky was leaden grey as the svelte, storied bulk of the QE2 slipped proudly past the headlands of north east England. The sea donned similar dress, topped with long, rolling whitecaps that rose and fell like so many angry wraiths. A cold wind whipped across the decks that Sunday afternoon. Bundled up against the cold, I silently mused that our bruited, imminent arrival on the fabled River Tyne might be in some danger.

On the second full day of her historic fortieth anniversary cruise, the QE2 had a long overdue rendezvous with a massive part of Cunard’s fabled history. For this same day- September 17th- marked the centenary of the delivery by Swan Hunter shipyard of the legendary Mauretania to Cunard. The rest of that particular success story needs little embellishment here.

I had thought about it many times already on this voyage, especially as I gazed at the huge painting of that self same event that had graced QE2 herself for many years. It shows the brand new Mauretania, pristine and so full of promise, making her way down that same River Tyne on September 17th, 1907, escorted by a flotilla of tugs and excursion boats. As a Tyneside native, that picture always filled me with a deep, real sense of pride.

And, of course, it was so apt that QE2 of all ships should honour that anniversary. For the first time, the giant Cunard flagship would grace the steel grey expanse of the Tyne. That was, if we could get in at all in the prevailing weather conditions. And, despite this being her first actual visit, QE2 herself and the Tyne did have a brief, fleeting history.

She was scheduled to call there back in August of 1995 and, bang on schedule, QE2 duly arrived off the river. But our ever mercurial weather kicked up yet again, making it impossible for her to tender passengers in on that day. After several hours of hoping for a break in the weather, the ship and her frustrated human cargo upped anchor and headed off in search of more benign climes.

QE2 was a welcome sight on the Tyne

QE2 was a welcome sight on the Tyne

That memory played on a loop in my head as the QE2 surged north on the forenoon of September 17th, still intent on making the Tyne for an overnight stay. Of course, for Captain Ian McNaught up on the bridge, it was far more problematical. As a ‘local lad’ from North Shields, it was so right that he was on the bridge of the ship he loved so much to- hopefully- take her into home waters. But would the weather play ball this time?

The estimated half a million people that already blackened the long, winding banks of the Tyne certainly hoped so. For them, the bruited arrival of the QE2 was a huge event; the advent of something fabulous. magical and, of course, timelessly majestic. They braved the cold in their thousands. Old, young, families and ship lovers, drawn to the edges of the river as if by some incredible, unseen siren.

Thousands gathered to witness the slow, stately procession of the great ship as she sailed within close proximity of the headlands of Blackhall, Horden and Seaham that day. Among them were my sister and my nephew. They stared with jaws scraping their shoes as the giant Cunarder sailed past at almost touching distance, bucking through the whitecaps with her usual, poised majesty. I guarantee that many of those spectators will never forget the sight until their dying day.

Inside the Tyne, the howling wind whipped up to thirty knots, making the approach a hazardous process. The entrance to the Tyne is perilous enough in such conditions for a trawler, never mind a 70,000 ton, 963 foot long liner. Things were beginning to look a little hairy.

The QE2 made three successive, abortive attempts to thread her way into the mouth of the river, but the adverse weather made her break off on each occasion. Rain came and went in angry little flurries that stung the skin; the wind continued to lash at us, and the sky showed no signs of clearing. On board, a rumour began to surface that we would stay offshore for the night. and wait for the weather to hopefully clear next day. Some ventured that we might even go straight on to Edinburgh instead. My heart sank as I shivered under my blanket. Would the weather cheat us of our moment of history?

And then, suddenly, we were surging through the breakwater…

The Queens Room, QE2

The Queens Room, QE2

A brief, almost biblical wave of sunshine danced skittishly across the scene, and the waves inside the Tyne receded for just long enough. And then that proud, graceful bow surged past the pier as one vast, ragged cheer went up from the crowds dotting the beach.

It found an echo in the shouts, cheers and yells from half a million hardy souls that surged to the edges of the river as the QE2 loomed into the Tyne. On cue, a staggering firework display crackled, roared and erupted against the setting sun as we came on. Sirens on small boats screeched, car horns tooted. Somewhere, I could hear a dog barking.

From the shore, QE2 was a magnificent sight; proud, imperious and elegant. The last rays of the sun glanced against her charcoal hull and sparkling white superstructure. High overhead, her siren boomed out a deep, sonorous salute to the crowd; one acknowledged with another series of huge, ragged cheers.

Slowly, the gap between hull and quay diminished from a steel grey sliver into nothingness. One hundred years to the day after proud, elegant old Mauretania sailed down these self same waters, the soaring flank of the QE2 kissed the quayside of North Shields. Gangways were rigged, and we could go ashore.

The liner that had taken me away on so many adventures over the years, had finally delivered me back to where it all began.

Standing there, trying in vain to take in the enormity of the event, I cursed silently at the rain that was once again beginning to dance on my face. It shook me out of my reverie, and I moved under cover.

But there was no rain.

And it was then that I realised that my own tears were trickling slowly down my face.

Homecoming.

 

QUEEN MARY 2- NOT YOUR GRANDMOTHER’S CUNARD?

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

If I’ve heard it once, I’ve heard it a thousand times.

“Oh, we loved QE2, but the QM2 is different. She’s just not our idea of what Cunard is…..”

It’s a throwaway remark, although one usually made in honest good faith. But how true is it? Here’s my take on it:

Cunard represents to many people an idea of what a transatlantic shipping line is (although the company itself has always been about far more than the Atlantic crossing) and they have very definite, heavily entrenched, ideas of what that experience should be. A nostalgic experience, where old world civility, values and dress codes rule. And those values should be enshrined, like the Ten Commandments, on every ship that flies the Cunard flag.

Berengaria was the first Cunard liner to be named after a Queen

Berengaria was the first Cunard liner to be named after a Queen

In short, even if times change, Cunard most assuredly should not.

And yet the line, like any successful shipping business, has constantly changed. How else do you suppose it has survived the better part of 175 years that encompassed terrible depressions and two global conflicts?

Of course, the line’s evolution is expressed front of house in the form of each successive generation of new Cunarder. And that is where the ‘old guard’ tend to recoil in horror over their tea and cucumber sandwiches. That is where QM2, like QE2 and yes, every new generation of Cunarder that came before her, become such potent lightning rods for those against changing a cosy, charmed universe that has become their utopia over the course of several decades. The shock of the new can be hugely unsettling. At least, to begin with,

Queen Mary Observation Lounnge

Queen Mary Observation Lounnge

I can only begin to imagine the disdain that many veterans of the Mauretania, Aquitania and Berengaria must have felt when first confronted with the Odeon/Art Deco modernity of the brand new Queen Mary back in 1936. Gone was the Edwardian opulence and overblown swimming pools of old, replaced by a ship swathed in linoleum flooring, a hundred different wooden veneers, and starkly modern lighting and statuary. Yet few, if any, ships came to so typify the Cunard brand- and embellish it’s already formidable legend- than that same Queen Mary and her later sibling, the proud Queen Elizabeth.

Such was the pre-eminence of those two liners, and so great was the esteem in which they were held, that over time they became the exemplars of ‘what Cunard is’, writ large in a pair of illustrious, 80,000 ton ocean matriachs. They were adored and deferred to- the Mary especially- as if they were the seagoing equivalents of St. Paul’s, or even St. Peter’s itself. Twin cathedrals of the sea; the living embodiment of something timeless and intangible.

QE2; the shock of the new

QE2; the shock of the new

So imagine the shock when QE2 in turn made her much delayed maiden debut in 1969. ‘Ships have been boring for long enough!’,shrieked one of the pamphlets that accompanied this ground breaking paragon; a vessel that so completely eschewed the styling and designs of her predecessors that it was a full thirteen years before the traditional Cunard funnel colours appeared on her. It must have been like throwing a brick through the cathedral window.

And- initially at least, the ‘old guard’ that had grown up with the previous Queens recoiled from this startling newcomer. And yet, over time and tide, QE2 would become the longest serving and most beloved of all the Cunard lineage; a diva of epic proportions, the Audrey Hepburn of ocean liners. A timelessly beautiful vessel that exhibited a chameleon- like ability to adapt to change, internally at least. Fires, storms, bomb scares, groundings, and even a war- the old girl sailed through them all with head held high. And she, in her turn, became the quintessential Cunarder.

For many, QE2 was Cunard. Like so many others, I was bound in hopeless, illogical thrall to her. She was my high water mark; the repository of fulfilled dreams and cherished memories alike.

QE2

QE2

And then, of course, came Queen Mary 2. Twice as large as her fleet mate. The largest liner ever built for the Atlantic, in fact. The same fine, deep hull, adorned with thousands of balconies and a shorter, less noble funnel. Huge, broad walkways and interior boulevards inside. And yes, for some of the veterans of QE2, not quite their idea of what Cunard is.

But times and tastes have changed, and the new ship- like every generation of her forebears before her- has to bow to that unstoppable tide. Now into her tenth anniversary, the proud and beautiful QM2 has matured like fine wine to become a legend in her own right. Smart and contemporary for sure, but also full of the old Cunard traditions.

The ship gives more than a very respectful nod to the string of illustrious legends that predated her, but adds her own, unique touches. A planetarium? Unthinkable on the Aquitania, but somehow just right for a modern, state of the art ocean liner that spends a week crossing the same ocean. How magical.

And if the ships change and evolve, the Atlantic remains as timeless and mercurial as ever. The sheer magic of crossing it by sea remains as spellbinding as ever. Something ageless that never gets old.

So, no; Queen Mary 2 is not ‘your Grandmother’s Cunard’. Why should she be? This is the only truly glamorous way to cross the Atlantic in any sense of style or splendour. So lose the jet lag and opt for a Jacuzzi across the Atlantic instead.

And, best of all, at journey’s end, as the great ship makes her early morning, ceremonial procession up the Hudson River past the Statue Of Liberty and the famous skyline, the adrenaline will flow like tap water. If you have an ounce of romance in your soul, the hairs on the back of your neck will stand on end, and you’ll feel something as amazing as it is intangible; something that the millions who arrive in New York by plane could never get near in a million flights.

Don’t worry; it’s nothing infectious, but it is unforgettable. And your grandmother? Well, she would have recognised that feeling at once.

LAVRION: THE NEW ALTERNATIVE PORT FOR ATHENS

Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion

Temple of Poseidon, Cape Sounion

Piraeus is one very busy cruise port during the main Aegean cruising season; so much so, in fact, that the port authority is extending it considerably. But one company- Louis Cruises- has started exploring and utilising an alternative that the Greek government is keen to promote.

The town of Lavrion (Lavrio) lies some seventy kilometres south of Athens, in the area near historic Cape Sounion, with its magnificent, cliff top Temple of Poseidon. This alone is worth the journey south from the often crowded capital.

In terms of geography, Lavrion is actually closer to Athens International Airport than is Piraeus, and it provides a calmer, more sedate option for a pre cruise rest up than does the crowded, always frantic capital.

The Louis Cristal docked at Lavrion

The Louis Cristal docked at Lavrion

Louis Cruises has created a tidy little, state of the art terminal in the town of Lavrion itself. Throughout the summer season, the company based it’s popular, spiffy little Louis Cristal down there for a series of seven night cruises to the Greek Islands and Turkey.

I boarded her there a couple of weeks ago, and the speed and ease of the boarding process was breathtaking; from pier to cabin in literally ten minutes. One week later, debarkation was a similar breeze. From first to last, it is a simple, seamless procedure that completely lances the boil of pre embarkation stress. It is well worth considering.

We stayed the night prior to cruising at the four star Aegeon Beach Hotel, located on the waterfront at Sounion, and quite literally in the shadow of the Temple of Poseidon itself. For those determined to make the hike to the temple summit- and it’s well worth it for the views- the walk uphill is a steep, exhilarating ten to fifteen minute climb.

Santorini is on the Louis Cristal itineraries from Lavrion

Santorini is on the Louis Cristal itineraries from Lavrion

With just forty five rooms, the hotel itself is comfortable, and the rooms have generous balconies overlooking the small beach. There is a pair of tavernas set just a short walk along the same beach. It’s a quiet, soothing little venue; a perfect panacea for the hassle of a long international flight. From here, a taxi to the port on embarkation day takes just ten minutes.

The only downside is that some might consider it too far from the attractions of central Athens. The Greek capital remains, of course, a ‘must see’ for many, but that in itself does nothing to detract from the ease and convenience of Lavrion as a port of embarkation.

Anticipating this, Louis Cruises runs a dedicated coach service to and from Lavrion from the main port of Piraeus on each sailing day. At twenty euros each way, it’s an efficient and cost effective way to make the two hour journey without having to worry about your luggage.

Lavrion definitely has a bright future as a port of embarkation, though it would certainly benefit from one or two more luxury class hotels in the town itself. Certainly, Louis Cruises is bringing the Cristal back for a second season of ex-Lavrion sailings in 2015, so something is obviously working well here.