When we think of the Atlantic crossing of fame and legend, minds most often concentrate on the famous, five to six day ‘shuttle’ service that sailed between ports such as Southampton, Liverpool, Rotterdam and Le Havre, to New York. And, almost inevitably, the names of Cunard, Hapag- Lloyd, Holland America and the French Line, are invoked and cherished like some holy mantra by starry eyed students of those classic old liners.

Perhaps that is partly why the Italian Line gets such relatively little recognition. It was a shotgun marriage, presided over by Mussolini, that forced three rival Italian shipping lines to merge into one large, state subsidised entity. Having supposedly made the trains run on time, the egotistical duce was now determined that the Italian flag would have a prime place on the greatest commercial trade route in the world- the Atlantic crossing to and from New York.

First out of the blocks came two of the greatest and most graceful ocean liners ever to cut salt water. The Rex and the Conte Di Savoia were near sisters of just over 50,000 tons each. With sharp, gracefully raked prows and a pair of staunch, no nonsense funnels, they were the first serious Italian challengers in the platinum chip status stakes.

With incredible interiors modelled on a variety of styles, the two vessels were tagged as ‘the Riviera afloat’ by their owners. But it was in their exterior layout that they were truly different from their cousins from the north.

As most of their voyages sailed from Genoa through the Mediterranean, past Gibraltar and then out into the Atlantic, those marvellous Italian maidens spent most of their time sailing in warmer, sunnier climes. And, to cater to the idea of la dolce vita afloat that these ships were meant to exemplify, both the Rex and the Conte Di Savoia boasted on deck swimming pools for each class, surrounded by swathes of open teak sprinkled with table and umbrellas, sun loungers, and served with that quintessentially Italian sense of flair and style. Some of the pools were even surrounded by real sand on deck.

They were a sensational, tragically short lived pair. Briefly, the Rex even took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic. They added a raffish, exotic splash of colour, style and sheer, indolent fun to the idea of what crossing the Atlantic actually meant. Until the outbreak of the war that would ultimately claim both of them, they were a consistently popular choice.

Following Italy’s defeat as part of the Axis powers during World War two, the Italian Line returned to the fray in 1953, with a pair of 29,000 ton twin sisters, the Cristoforo Colombo and the Andrea Doria.

Moderately sized and sumptuously elegant, the two new ships were like sleek, sultry Fiats when compared to the likes of the doughty Cunard Queens, or the restored, heavily powdered ‘ladies of a certain age’ being offered by the French Line. Among other things, they introduced the idea of stepped, exterior lido decks for each class, again featuring outdoor pools and cafes, that would later become a hugely influential model on the first generation of purpose built, full time cruise ships. Each featured a proud, gracefully arced prow and a single, beautifully proportioned funnel that gave them a space age, startlingly modern stance. Those two Italian thoroughbreds were as perfectly elegant as twin charm bracelets and, for a few years, they were hugely popular, often being sold out for months on end in the high summer season.

The tragic loss of the Andrea Doria after a controversial, fog shrouded collision off the coast of Nantucket in July, 1956, left the Italian Line in something of a quandary. Eventually, they decided to replace her with a ship that would be slightly bigger, but externally very similar.

That new ship was the 33,000 ton Leonardo Da Vinci. She arrived in the port of New York for the first time in July of 1960, to an enthusiastic fireboat and helicopter welcome. But even as this latest and loveliest example of Italian flair and taste arrived, passenger numbers on the Atlantic route between northern Europe and the USA were already in free fall, thanks to the speedy fleets of jet airliners that now dominated the commercial trade.

Still, the Italians refused to give up. Travellers from the Mediterranean area tended to be far more sea minded than the people to the north, and thus in 1965- to the sheer incredulity of the maritime industry- there emerged from Genoa not one, but two new identical sister ships, designed exclusively for the Atlantic crossing.

At 45,000 tons each, the Michelangelo and the Raffaello represented the last, triumphant burst of Italian style on the ocean. Painted in bridal white, with gracefully raked prows, terraced lido decks and a  pair of cowled, latticed smoke stacks that crowned their superstructures, these two great sister ships were initially very popular indeed, bucking the overall trend of the contracting passenger trade, and often arriving in New York fully booked, even through the mid Sixties.

It could not last. Gradually, the two sisters augmented their falling passenger revenue by offering warm weather cruises. But a lack of private facilities in many of their inner cabins created a huge problem that only a massive rebuilding could remedy.

As they limped into the seventies, the Michelangelo and Raffaello suffered more and more from sudden, wildcat strikes- both on the ships and among the shore side staff- that resulted in them no longer being able to offer anything like a reliable service. This, combined with a catastrophic increase in the price of crude oil in 1974, ultimately doomed them. In their last years, both of the sister ships guzzled Bunker C crude oil as if it was so much cheap chianti.

When the Michelangelo rounded out the final Italian Line sailing in 1975, she was effectively pulling down the shades on what had once been one of the most highly styled, expertly served passenger lines of all time. Among the passengers disembarking on that last crossing was the aged Duchess of Windsor, making a somehow painfully symbolic comment on the sunset falling on the ocean voyage as the world knew it.

The end of the Italian Line, while inevitable in the context of the 1974 OPEC fuel crisis, was also a cause for great sadness, and a large amount of retrospective nostalgia for anyone lucky enough to sail on one of those vanished palazzos on the ocean. As an operator, as an innovator, and as an actual way of travelling life for many over some five decades, the Italian Line deserves the historical courtesy of being remembered.

The sun finally set o the 'dolce vita' style of the Italian Line in 1975.

The sun finally set on the ‘dolce vita’ style of the Italian Line in 1975.


Despite the hail of horror stories raining in and around Athens, there has probably never been a better time to visit the region, especially on a short cruise and stay holiday. And, for those of you that think I’ve taken definite leave of my senses, I’m going to outline the reasons why in this piece.


Since the high noon standoff between Tsipras, Merkel, and the rest of the EU, flight prices from Europe to Greece have gone into something of a tail spin- pun wholly intentional. And, with airlines such as KLM serving Athens via Amsterdam from no less than twenty-one different regional airports in the UK, you can add a healthy dollop of convenience into the mix for good measure. And, with flight times from Amsterdam to Athens of around four hours, you get cheap, fast and convenient all packaged up and served in a goody bag.


Taking one of the short, three or four night cruises offered by Celestyal Cruises out of Piraeus, the port for Athens, will serve up snapshots of anything up to six different ports of call. No other Aegean cruise can pack in so much on such a short itinerary.

Three night cruises sail from Piraeus at 1100 every Friday morning. By five that same evening, you’re in Mykonos for a few hours of fun and frivolity ashore.

Next morning will find you in the stunning Turkish seaside town of Kusadasi, leaving around noon, and by mid afternoon you’ll be in Patmos for long enough to enjoy dinner and drinks ashore. Back aboard, and you’re on your way again about 2200 that evening.

The last full day finds you in Heraklion first thing, before an afternoon arrival in Santorini, with time enough to ascend the caldera to Thira, and a chance to check out the most stunning single vista anywhere in the Aegean.

Next morning, you’re back in Piraeus.


The Greek mainland and islands offer endless scope for both history lovers and sun worshippers. Just consider the itinerary above, and look at what you can actually see in a mere four days;

In Athens itself, there is time to check out the Acropolis, with it’s stunningly majestic Parthenon. On Mykonos, there’s time to take in the fabled sunset- the best such show east of Key West- from the waterfront at Chora, before an evening in the nightlife capital of the Aegean.

In Kusadasi, you can check out the stunted, sprawling ruins of magnificent Ephesus, and then savour a long, lazy evening of dining and people watching on the waterfront in pretty little Patmos.

From Heraklion, there is time to see the stunning palace of Knossos, a platinum chip rated UNESCO World Heritage site. And an afternoon in Santorini, spent chilling out on the Olympian heights of Thira, is one of the most unforgettable travel experiences in the world.

It’s worth mentioning that the four day cruises, which sail on a Monday morning, also throw in a full day’s visit to the amazing medieval theme park known as Rhodes. The old town has history in spades, yet the nearby beaches are a sun seeker’s utopia. This one island alone really does have it all.


The smaller, comfortable ships operated by Celestyal cruises offer a far more intimate, ‘up close and personal’ view of the islands. In fact, these ships are sailing their own home waters, and their captains know the area better than most. The small size of the ships also means that they can get into the smaller ports, and often much closer to all the good stuff, than the much bigger ships with their thousands of passengers.

And that small size makes for a far more intimate, rewarding on board experience. The ships feature many authentic Greek specialities on their menus in addition to international fare, and there is a very definite emphasis on Greek hospitality on board. In other words, it’s a more genuinely authentic, pared down way to see the islands. One that offers the best of everything.


Add up all those points above and you’ll realise what a fantastic, time sensitive, cost effective little jaunt one of these cruises represents. Over one slightly long weekend, you can see and do more than many millions of people actually achieve over the course of a lifetime. These trips offer comfort, good pricing, awesome, world famous sights and jaw dropping scenery, plus the chance to just spend a few days’ lazing under that glorious Aegean sun.

Greece? It’s still the word. See you out there.

Savour marvellous vistas from atop spectacular Santorini

Savour marvellous vistas from atop spectacular Santorini


Some details of next years’ long anticipated refit of Queen Mary 2 have begun to surface.

The 25 day refit will take place at the Blohm and Voss shipyard in Hamburg, Germany, and will begin on May 27th. The ship is scheduled to leave the dock on June 21st.

No less than thirty balcony staterooms for Britannia Club passengers will be added to the ship. To accommodate an extra sixty potential diners, the area currently occupied on board by the Britannia Club annexe will be extended.

Significantly, the ship will also gain some fifteen new, dedicated cabins for singles, thus bringing her into line with smaller fleet mates, Queen Victoria and Queen Elizabeth.

And, just to prove that it’s not really a dog’s life on the Queen Mary 2, the ships’ kennel complex will benefit from both a new water hydrant and a lamp post. And, in response to demand, an additional ten kennels will be installed in the ships’ aft placed, upper deck dog compound, bringing the total available to twenty two in all.

The company is also getting ready to announce further enhancements in the future. One of these will almost certainly include a massive change to the centrally sited Kings’ Court buffet area, a perennial cause of customer complaint.

More details will be posted here as they are made public.

As ever, stay tuned.

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016

QM2 is sailing full speed ahead for some substantial enhancements in 2016


The Queen Mary 2 will celebrate yet another historic milestone this year when she sails on what will be her 250th crossing of the Atlantic in November.

The giant Cunarder- the largest ocean liner ever built- will sail from New York on November 25th on an eight night, eastbound voyage, scheduled to arrive in Southampton on December 3rd.

Fares for an inside stateroom start at £999.

It’s been something of a banner headline year for Cunard.Tthe company celebrated it’s 175th anniversary this year and, on a more sombre note, there was a pretty emotional voyage of remembrance to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania off the south coast of Ireland in May.

Having just completed her first, full decade of service, the Queen Mary 2 is also slated for a major refit, which will see the replacement of the mid ship, centrally located Kings’ Court buffet area among other things. The Kings’ Court has been a bone of contention for many QM2 regulars ever since the ship made her debut, back in 2004.

While it is heart warming to see the great liner passing yet another service milestone, I can’t help but point out that the original Queen Mary – half the size of the current one- used to make the same Atlantic crossing in half as many days.

Still, this really is a cause for celebration, and no doubt the event will be marked on board in suitable style. It should be quite a memorable crossing.

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year

The great QM2 will embark on her 250th Atlantic crossing in November this year


In what amounts to a historic first, all four cruise ships in the current Fred. Olsen fleet will meet up in Bergen on Tuesday, July 28th.

Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca and Black Watch will all arrive in the Norwegian city at around 0800, and depart to a specially arranged fireboat salute at around 1800 that same evening. Between them, the popular quartet are expected to deposit around four thousand passengers ashore to enjoy highlights such as the Fish Market, Mount Floyen, and the historic harbour front warren of the Bryggen.

Clearly inspired by the huge publicity surrounding Cunard’s series of rendezvous featuring the ‘three Queens’, Fred. Olsen has chosen one of its most popular and perennial ports of call as the backdrop to the fleet gathering. The event is collectively being tagged as the ‘4B’s in Bergen’.

It will also mark the first time in many years that Boudicca and Black Watch- still fondly remembered as the Royal Viking Star and Royal Viking Sky respectively- have been seen together in what was once their traditional home waters.

At the end of what is sure to be a momentous and historic day for all concerned, the fleet will put to sea, one at a time, in the following order; Balmoral, Braemar, Boudicca, Black Watch.

Flagship Balmoral was originally built in 1988 as the Crown Odyssey for the now defunct Royal Cruise Line, while Braemar started life in 1993 as the Crown Dynasty of Crown Cruise Lines. She came to Fred. Olsen in 2001, after several years sailing for Norwegian Cruise Line as the Norwegian Dynasty.

Interestingly, all four ships have undergone ‘chop and stretch’ operations at some stage, each of which involved the cutting in half of each ship, and the addition of a prebuilt mid section. It’s a distinction that is unique to the Fred. Olsen fleet.

All things considered, this should be quite a special event, and I’m sure it will attract a fair bit of coverage on the day. As always, stay tuned.

All four cruise ships in the FOCL fleet will meet in Bergen this coming July 28th

All four cruise ships in the FOCL fleet will meet in Bergen this coming July 28th


Following on from the brisk sales of her first Caribbean season in many years, Fred, Olsen has made plans for their popular Braemar to return to the region over winter 2016-17.

The once perennial Caribbean stalwart will once again be based at her old winter ‘home’ port of Barbados. This years’ experiment of using Montego Bay, Jamaica, as a turn around port is not being repeated.

The 24,000 ton ship will return to the Caribbean on a transatlantic crossing, sailing from Tenerife on December 22nd. From here, she will operate three, fourteen night cruises to the highlights of the eastern and western Caribbean, and one fourteen night cruise to the Amazon, which sees the ship go some nine hundred miles into the heart of the river itself-a truly epic voyage.

Each of the Caribbean sailings features a first night spent on board in Bridgetown, allowing passengers the option of going ashore to experience the local nightlife if they are not too jet lagged. Oddly, the Amazon cruise is the only exception.

Following this season, the Braemar will return to Europe via a sixteen night transatlantic crossing, scheduled to arrive back in Dover on March 18th, 2017.

In connection with this programme, Fred. Olsen is offering a series of connecting flights from Manchester and Gatwick, complete with airport to ship transfers. Alternatively, passengers can buy the package as a ‘cruise only’ option, allowing them to add their own flights and, perhaps, include a few days’ pre or post cruise stay in Barbados,

With her small size and fine food and service, the Braemar is the perfect choice for those passengers looking for a more personalised, intimate Caribbean adventure. I did several of these cruises on the ship a few years back- including a truly memorable Amazon run- and all of them remain fondly remembered highlights of my travel adventures.

Definitely recommended as worthy of your attention.

Braemar is serving up sights like this throughout the winter of 2016-17

Braemar is serving up sights like this throughout the winter of 2016-17


Holland America Line’s luxurious Veendam will return to Boston next year for a short season of seven night Bermuda cruises. There will be four sailings in total, down from the six offered earlier this year.

Uniquely, the 57, 092 ton Veendam will offer a full, three night stay docked alongside in Bermuda’s capital of Hamilton. During these stays, the on board shops and the casino will be allowed to open while the ship is in port- a concession from the Bermuda government, no doubt influenced by the dramatic decline in the number of smaller ships visiting both Hamilton and the former capital of St. Georges.

With a capacity of 1,350 passengers and a crew of 580, the 1996 built Veendam will thus offer the best and most comprehensive season of Bermuda cruises available on any ship in 2016. With a matchless city centre berth- the Veendam literally docks right across from the main front street in Hamilton- and the advantage of a full twenty four hours longer in port than any other ship on the summer Bermuda run, the ship offers great scope for in depth exploration of this beautiful Atlantic island.

The four sailing dates are; May 14, May 21, June 11 and June 18.

Cruise only prices from the United Kingdom start at £648, based on two people sharing an inside cabin.

Veendam will berth right here, on Hamilton's front street. The ease of access is obvious

Veendam will berth right here, on Hamilton’s front street. The ease of access is obvious


As 2015 goes full steam ahead into it’s second half, I thought now might be a good time to look forward to some of the new builds coming on line in 2016.

All three represent a pioneering new class of vessel for their respective owners. And, while two of these could well simply prove to be the lead ships of a new platform over time, one of them is almost certainly a total one off, a ship as individual as each of her three current fleet mates.

Firstly, Holland America Line has the superb new Koningsdam.  Coming on line in February, she is the first of a so-called new ‘Pinnacle class’ of vessels. Due to be delivered in March 2016, the 99,500 ton, 2,650 passenger Koningsdam will be the largest vessel ever delivered to Holland America.

Also being built in same Fincantieri yard as the Koningsdam is a larger, first of class vessel for parent company, Carnival Corporation. The brand new Carnival Vista is scheduled for an April delivery. Her maiden, thirteen night Mediterranean sailing on May 1st will mark not only the formal start of her career, but the first series of Carnival cruises anywhere in Europe for several years.

Carnival Vista is essentially an expanded and updated version of the very popular Dream class trio; she will have a gross tonnage of 133,500, and a passenger capacity of 3,936. After an inaugural season of Mediterranean cruises, the Carnival Vista will cross from Barcelona to New York in late October, prior to starting a season of winter cruises from the American east coast.

Definitely set to make a big splash- in every sense of the word- is the new, ultra deluxe Seven Seas Explorer, also fitting out at the ubiquitous, seemingly all conquering Fincantieri yard in Italy.

The first new build for Regent Seven Seas Cruises since 2003, this ultra luxury ship is setting its sights firmly on being, quite simply, the most luxurious ship in the world. Coming in at around 54,000 tons, the 700 guest ship will feature all balcony suites, making her one of the few ships in the world that can make such a claim.

These three ships offer a trio of very diverse products that largely cross the spectrum of the modern cruise industry. Each will be a trailblazer in it’s own way. And it is for certain that the progress and performance of each vessel will be very closely monitored by the competition.

Interesting times. As ever, stay tuned.

Regent's new masterpiece, Seven Seas Explorer, is set to be unveiled in 2016

Regent’s new masterpiece, Seven Seas Explorer, is set to be unveiled in 2016


Lazy Sunday afternoon; I’ve got no time for worries. Close my eyes and drift away…”

Steve Marriott, Lazy Sunday by the Small Faces.

The words of that iconic song flitted through my mind like a butterfly surfing a gently rolling meadow as the Marco Polo made a sublime, sedate passage down past the tree lined banks of the Kiel Canal, bound for Warnemunde on a gorgeous Sunday afternoon.

It was as perfect a day as you can imagine; a brilliant summer sun shone benignly on the still, sparkling waters of the fabled waterway. Children were flying kites in rainbow hues, people walked their dogs, and lovers strolled arm in arm under the gently waving trees. Rustic waterside inns dotted the meandering waterway like random exclamation marks, their outdoor terraces full to overflowing with crowds that spilled out almost down to the edge of the canal itself. Many of these looked up and waved at the Marco Polo as our beautiful ship passed by in stately procession. From their vantage point, she must have been quite a sight.

From my own vantage point on the gracefully curved aft terrace decks, I took in this slowly unfolding panorama as it gradually unwound behind us, picking idly at chocolate cake and cookies as the sun beat down directly on us. From where I was, the scene below presented an intriguing contrast.

Because we were so close to the land, everything seemed almost close enough to touch; cows grazing in slow motion on a patchwork quilt of gently rolling fields, local ferries beetling across the waterway in our wakes. The odd cyclist went barrelling by, sometimes ringing a shrill, tinny sounding bell in salute. There were people enjoying picnics and small, dainty yachts that flitted like toy boats across our track. The slow, rolling pace at which all of this unwound gave it a kind of dreamy quality, a chocolate box pretty hinterland that our ship slipped through without leaving a trace behind her.

At the same time, there was a sense of utter, unreal detachment on board the Marco Polo. The view down below and our gentle pace gave the entire scene a sense of exaggerated height, it was an almost Olympian panorama that just unfurled behind us like a series of gently muffled drum rolls. We could just as easily have been on a magic carpet ride as anything else.

Yet that same, sedate waterway has history in spades. It was originally built as the Kaiser Wilhelm Canal, solely in order to give the pre world war one German navy a way of passing from the Baltic through to the North Sea. Nowadays, this fantastic, beguiling stretch of water forms a perfect short cut; it slices right across the base of Northern Germany and Denmark. For those cruise ships small enough to use it- and there are not that many of them- the Kiel Canal saves many hours’ sailing time around the Jutland peninsula.

The Bismarck came this way, too. That vast, tiger shark of a battleship transited the Kiel Canal three times during her brief life; there are still photographs of her, passing under the Rendsburg Bridge, her phalanx of anti aircraft guns bristling like a host of drawn swords.

Any way you slice it, getting that huge ship- twice the size of the Marco Polo- through the relatively narrow canal was one fantastic feat of seamanship; and now, here we were on a perfect Sunday afternoon some seven decades later, ambling lethargically along in her wake. Our passage, it has to be said, was much more peaceful and enjoyable.

So, on we went. We meandered under vast, vaulting bridges that cast long, fleeting shadows across the sun splashed teak real estate on the aft decks of the Marco Polo, only to vanish again as we emerged back into the sunshine. Under my feet, the decks trembled slightly as the ship moved cautiously forward on her way. A good, ice cold German beer seemed an apt, poetic way to enhance the flavour of this fantastic scenic smorgasbord.

For those few, slowly unwinding hours, all seemed well with the world. A kind of surreal, dreamy calm suffused the Marco Polo like the aroma of freshly gathered hay. Only the odd, sporadic car horn briefly disturbed our gentle reverie. I hardly dared breathe, in case I unwittingly shattered the spell forever.

Up ahead lay the fairy tale cities and old world charm of the summer time Baltic; a string of compelling dream destinations with few equals. Soon, the Marco Polo would emerge from the Kiel Canal like the proverbial genie, freed from its bottle, intent on achieving this riot of riches in one stunning, spectacular sweep.

Yes, life looked pretty sweet on that balmy, benign, Sunday afternoon.

‘Close my eyes and drift away……’

Sunlit aft terraces on the Marco Polo

Sunlit aft terraces on the Marco Polo


Like many, many others in the maritime community, I am incredibly saddened to hear of the death today of John Maxtone-Graham. My thoughts are with his wife, Mary, and his family at this time of great personal loss.

I personally owe John Maxtone-Graham an unfathomable debt; it was his taut, articulate prose, at once both factual and poetic, that served as an inspiration and a benchmark for me on so many levels. I did not read The Only Way To Cross and it’s subsequent pair of eloquently wrought follow ups, so much as devour them.

His books were crafted with the same loving care and exquisite attention to detail as the great ships that he wrote about with such verve, flair and authority. He wrote about the likes of Normandie, Titanic and Norway in such a vivid and compelling way that those grand, dramatic ships suddenly became very real once more, emerging bows on from the mists of time. The sounds, sights and smells of another era danced through my mind like wisps of Atlantic fog.

And the man was unfailingly courteous; immaculately attired, his shipboard lectures were always packed to the gills. We would sit there, spellbound, as he told us stuff that many of us already knew by heart. And often, his take on seminal maritime events just cut straight to the core of a story with effortless ease.

Consider this John Maxtone-Graham classic quote; ‘There will never be a coherent account of the last hours of RMS Titanic, because nothing coherent actually happened…..’  It’s a stark, simple statement that goes like a laser to the heart of that awful night in April, 1912; a surgical scalpel, simple, elegant and true. I was hooked on his work from the moment that I read that line.

And I was lucky enough to meet the great man; he signed a copy of one of his books for me and answered the questions of this awed, star struck young neophyte with the calm, polite patience of a man who has heard it all before. And he did it with breathtaking ease and matchless authority.

So, I bid John Maxtone-Graham a very thankful and heartfelt bon voyage as he no doubt continues on his own, very personal, fantastic voyage of discovery. It is my fervent hope that he now finds the answers to those compelling questions from maritime history that even he could not resolve in this world. No doubt he will find those answers to be fascinating. And I, for one, would give anything to read his take on those answers.

Good sir; I cannot thank you enough for the inspiration and education that you provided me with. Your prose remains as proud, sharp and magisterial as the prow of the great Normandie herself. And, like that incomparable French liner that he so adored and described so well, John Maxtone-Graham was, truly, a one off; a paradigm that defies replication. Merci.