THE MARINA; GETTING THERE, AND GETTING ON….

STOBART AIR

Up, up and away with Eddie…..

I really enjoyed my recent short cruise on Oceania’s opulent, upscale Marina, but it was a trip that came with a few little quirks that are worthy of flagging up. I don’t mean for these to be interpreted in any negative sense; most actually added a degree of charm to a very pleasant few days spent cruising around waters quite close to home.

Firstly, I had to get to Dublin to board the ship, which was by then two-thirds of the way through a British isles cruise that had embarked in Amsterdam, some seven days earlier. Flying from Newcastle, I had two options; Aer Lingus or Ryanair.

Unwilling to trust myself to the tender mercies of Ryanair on such a tight schedule (a wise decision, as things were to prove) I decided to go a day early, and spend a night in Dublin itself. So I opted for the flight with Aer Lingus.

On this short, one hour twenty minute long flight, the Irish flag carrier uses the services of it’s UK subsidy, Stobart Air. It operates twin engine, turbo prop flights on this route and yes, the absence of those all too familiar jet engines was just a tad disconcerting.

But it was more the actual, vintage appearance of the plane itself that really threw me a curve. No swept back wings situated low on the hull here; instead, a pair of straight edged contraptions were attached to the top of the fuselage itself. One prop was mounted on each, with a set of eight blades that resembled nothing so much as drooping flower petals. I half expected Dick Dastardly to climb out of the pilot’s seat at any minute.

We boarded through one of those neat little door and stepladder contraptions that fold back into the hull for take off. Inside a central aisle bisected two rows of twin seats that were just about spacious enough for a short flight, but nothing more. Those props spluttered and whirled into giddy motion and, before I knew it, we were lumbering down the runway and our strange little bird was clawing at the sky.

Sat squarely in mid plane on the right hand side, I found myself mere metres from the frantically whirling blades of the starboard engine. Boy, is it weird to see the engines actually sitting at a level somewhere above your heard, and going like the clappers. The motion generated a kind of strange little vibration that was not unpleasant, but certainly not the normal routine on a short ‘puddle jumper’ flight. And, though the experience of that flight was a little different (and quite interesting) I was still relived when our wheels clumped down onto the ground at Dublin International Airport. Tyres yelped on tarmac, and we came shuddering to a halt.

Just an hour or so later and I’m in my hotel room, nursing a coffee as I gaze out over the sinuous, winding sprawl of the River Liffey. Dublin will be the subject of another blog or two later in this series so, for now, I’ll content myself by saying that I had a cracking night out in one of the most cosmopolitan, but expensive, capital cities in Europe. Be advised; Dublin is no cheap date. She’s as much about Gucci as Guinness these days.

Next day, and I’m on the free shuttle bus to where the Marina sits, awaiting her returning passengers. Many of them are off on shore excursions, in and around Dublin, others are just exploring the city on foot. It’s a glorious day for doing so; the temperature is up in the mid-eighties, and Dublin today feels fresh, vibrant and alluring. A sound city on a sunny day.

And Marina? She’s cool, captivating, and as perfectly poised as any supermodel. That hull, spotless and immaculate. gleams in the afternoon sun. On board, the air conditioning is like healing balm. Her interiors are as plush, understated and alluring as ever. They are truly ravishing, but right now my appetite craves something more substantial.

So it’s straight up to Waves Bar and Grill for the first Kobe burger of the trip. Ever since arranging this voyage, I had been mentally salivating over the prospect of getting reacquainted with the finest burgers anywhere at sea. And oh, my, I would not be disappointed.

Those burgers come with a sublime black truffle sauce, and all the sides that you could possibly want; in this case, fries and mushrooms. Just the sound of that burger sizzling slowly to completion was more seductive than anything in the entire Barry White songbook. I devoured it with a relish that is impossible to truly relate.

I have a problem with chocolate milk shakes. Just the thought of them makes my arteries whimper like a violated virgin. But the ones on Marina were too good to resist, as well I knew. I folded like so much wet cardboard, and went dark side for one of the damned, delicious things. I regret nothing.

Boarding a ship that is two thirds of the way through a voyage throws up a kind of curious dynamic; the other passengers have been on board for several days, have settled into their own rhythms, habits and friendships. They have coalesced into a shipload of happy fellow travellers. I, the late arrival, have parachuted into the midst of all this like some kind of gilded gatecrasher.

I ponder this idly over the rim of my champagne glass later that same afternoon. Showered, unpacked and now swathed in a bathrobe, I’m lounging on my balcony in full Bubbles De Vere mode. Some tired looking souls pour out of a tour bus to troop gratefully up the gangway, several decks below. Somewhere, the deep growl of a freighter’s siren roars out across the River Liffey. Seabirds wheel and screech in the humid Dublin hugger mugger. They remind me of dive bombers, and strike me as being every bit as unsettling.

I’m swilling my champagne for some reason that totally eludes me, before I indulge in the bubbles again. It’s a lazy Sunday in the summertime, I’m back aboard Marina and, right at that moment, life as a whole feels pretty damned fine.

 

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KLM; DIVERSITY IN THE SKIES?

I was just looking at the flight itinerary for an upcoming trip next month, going through the details for each stage of the three flight journey each way, when I was struck by a sudden revelation.

That six flight round trip- from Newcastle to Fort Lauderdale, Florida- features no less than five different kinds of aircraft. Is this some kind of record?

If not, it points up just how diverse a carrier KLM- the Dutch national airline-has become over the years.

I prefer using KLM for both European and long haul travel if at all practical, because it allows me the option of avoiding Heathrow, instead changing at the far more user friendly and well laid out ‘home base’ at Amsterdam Schipol instead.

The economy product is actually pretty good, especially long haul. Some people complain about the new seat design installed in the last few years- mainly in the Boeing 777-200- but, truth be told, I don’t have a problem with it.

Anyway, back to the flights;

The first flight- from Newcastle to Schipol- is on one of those spiffy little Embraer E90 planes, with double seat configuration and just over a hundred passengers. Thse are trim, tidy little ‘puddle jumpers’ that are, in my opinion, vastly superior to the usual Boeing 737’s that KLM use on short haul European routes, as far out as Istanbul (I came back from Istanbul on one of these the other week). Either way, it’s a spiky little plane to start a long, long trip on.

I’m anticipating the usual, easy transfer at Schipol. The other week, I was able to change planes here with only forty minutes as a window. That alone points up how user friendly this airport is. And yes, my luggage did make it.

The second flight is on one of the revamped KLM Boeing 777/200 planes out to Atlanta. Economy comes in a 3-3-3 configuration here and, though I prefer the 2-4-2 configuration of the American Airlines 777, there is a new seat back screen on the KLM flight that serves up something like one hundred and fifty different feature films on demand. In other words, there is more than enough to keep me amused on the nine hours and fifteen minutes’ haul out to Atlanta.

Long haul, KLM tends to be pretty good. The food is decent and plentiful (for most), the staff are usually very pleasant and helpful, and the airline offers an open bar right throughout the flight. I’m told that they now deliver ice cream treats in mid flight as well. So I’m anticipating some nice food and drink, a decent film or two, and then hopefully I will slip into a happy, wine fuelled slumber before wheels down in Atlanta.

Atlanta. Gawd. Now we are talking about one hot mess of an airport…..

Still, i have almost two hours to do the mandatory customs and immigration checks here before changing terminals. From there on in, I am at the tender mercy of Delta Airlines.

As the code share partner of KLM, Delta will (hopefully) be wafting me from Atlanta down to spiffy, very user friendly Fort Lauderdale airport. Anyone who has used this airport will tell you what a vast improvement it is on the horror story known as Miami International, some twenty-five miles distant.

From there, the real fun begins; a week’s effortless, indulgent cruising around the western Caribbean aboard Holland America Line’s stunning Eurodam. And there is something almost poetic about taking Dutch flights to board a Dutch ship which, to my mind, just seems so damned right.

But, after the ball, the long haul home will still await me.

Once more, the first leg sees me at the tender mercies of Delta. It’s back off from Fort Lauderdale to Atlanta on yet another like as not hideously overcrowded Boeing 757.

Last time I flew Delta long haul, the plane was delayed a full hour on the ground in Miami because of an engine fault. Airborne, about an hour into the flight, the pilot suddenly announced that we would have to turn back, because of a problem with the engine….

Cue one rather anxious travel writer until our wheels kissed the tarmac; not in Miami, but at Atlanta in the small hours. Result; a six hour wait for a replacement aircraft and crew.

But I digress- from Atlanta overnight to Amsterdam, I’m back with KLM. The Dutch airline flies an Airbus A330-300 on this route; a twin engine jet that seats economy class passengers in a 2-4-2 configuration that I’m much more comfortable with.

Any kind of Airbus is unusual for KLM; the company has almost always purchased it’s aviation hardware from Boeing. None the less, I’ve been on lots of these planes- mainly with the now defunct US Airways- and I find them a robust, reasonably roomy and comfortable plane to spend an overnight flight cocooned in.

Service and amenities are pretty much on a par with the outward flight and, with a bit of God’s good grace, I might snatch a few hours’ sleep on board before our descent back into Schipol.

I would rather transit Schipol any day in the early morning hours, instead of that random, disjointed mess called Heathrow. Two and a half hours here allows plenty of time for a good breakfast and some wonderfully reviving Dutch coffee, before the final, short hop.

Here’s where KLM gets all too predictable; one of their ubiquitous Boeing 737’s will be waiting to shepherd me over the North Sea on the last, one hour plus run back into trim, tidy Newcastle International.

God knows, I’ve done hundreds of flights over the decades, but I can honestly say that I think this is the first such journey that has involved five different kinds of planes on the same ticket.

Anticipated highlights? Well, my first flight is not until one fifteen in the afternoon, and that alone means a full nights’ sleep before I fly. Normally I am at the airport at four in the morning before I fly to the USA, and thus usually tired and irritable from the get-go. Not this time, by the looks of things.

Second; the Boeing 777 long haul. Yes, I know that you’re more or less confined to one seat for over nine hours. But when was the last time that you had nine hours just to indulge in food, drink, entertainment of your choice, and even sleep en route to anywhere? Hopefully fate will be kind, and give me agreeable seating companions. If not, that’s what headphones are for.

Third; being able to do my customs and immigration in Atlanta. This means that when I do finally rock up at Fort Lauderdale not long before midnight, my flight will be classed as a domestic arrival. Just need to pick up my luggage and head for that sign marked ‘Exit’. Hopefully.

Dreads; Atlanta airport. Simple as that.

KLM is not an overly luxurious airline, but it is in general solid and dependable, and it has a reliable, reassuring air-pun wholly intentional- which is half the battle when you are contemplating being catapulted half way around the world via a string of sudden, rapid jaunts.

I’ll be reviewing the actual long haul flights as and when I get back from the Caribbean. So, if air travel is your thing- or even just a passing concern- then it might be worth checking back to this blog in a few weeks.

As ever, pray stay tuned.

KLM livery is distinctive, and immediately recognisable

KLM livery is distinctive, and immediately recognisable