GETTING THE BEST OUT OF THE CARIBBEAN IN WINTER

On the face of it, winter is the ideal season for scores of sun deprived, pale faced Europeans to flee to the far warmer, more welcoming waters of the Caribbean.

And flee we do. Like hordes of migrating bluebirds, we follow the sun and pour up the gangways of the megaships, sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral to those sun splashed little island idylls. Snow, slush and bone chilling cold is no competition for the subtle, seductive lure of broad, bone white beaches, idly waving palms, and the indolent ‘no worries’ lifestlye that has always made the Caribbean so damned compelling in winter. On the face of it, it’s a no brainer.

Of course, the same holds broadly true for our American and Canadian friends, especially those bunkered down in that bitter winter bruiser known as the north east corridor. From Toronto down to Washington, DC, plane load after plane load of weary winter refugees sag gratefully into the open arms of benign Florida sunshine. The world and it’s wife can take care of itself for a week. It’s full speed ahead, destination sunshine.

And, while all of this is fine and dandy, it very much depends what you want from your Caribbean experience. If all you want is just a fun filled week in the sun, then fine. But, if you really want to get ‘under the skin’ of those self same islands, there are some other things you should know about the Caribbean winter cruise circuit.

OVERCROWDING

Any way you slice it, the winter Caribbean cruise circuit is very, very, crowded. Scores of ships that spend summers in Europe and Alaska flee like migrating birds of passage to the warmer, more welcoming Caribbean sun each fall, and stay there till the following spring.

This can mean some fantastic bargains in terms of fares, but trust me, there will be very little that is peaceful and quiet about those islands. Traffic is intense, and almost all of the main shopping streets are a glut of gold, tanzanite and diamond shops. Roads are busier, taxis more in demand. It takes longer to get anywhere and, inevitably, everywhere is much, much, more crowded. Little surprise, then,  that tempers can sometimes run just as hot as the temperatures.

To give one example; back in December 2003, I saw no less than fifteen cruise ships stocked up at Cozumel, Mexico. Every pier was full. Some of the most famous and prestigious cruise ships in the world were obliged to anchor offshore, tendering their passengers in. By the time you factored in the off duty crews coming ashore from all of these ships, the result was a vast human tidal wave, well in excess of thirty thousand strong.

AND MORE ARE COMING…..

That was 2003. The count of new cruise ships coming on line since then is mind boggling. And more are coming.

Virgin Cruises wil debut a trio of enormous new cruise ships in a few years, each one bound for the winter Caribbean. MSC Cruises will also offer year round Caribbean cruises, with their enormous new Seaside-class vessels, too. Newbuilds from Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line will further add to the mix. Rather than getting calmer and more sedate, the Caribbean is going to get busier and louder. And there is no changing that.

SAME OLD, SAME OLD?

Many repeat Caribbean passengers are, quite frankly, getting bored with the same old islands. Warm and inviting as they are, the likes of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman have become something of a well worn ‘greatest hits’ collection of Caribbean hot spots. So the cry goes up; what’s new? We want new!

And ‘new’ is what passengers will get. Well, kind of. Brand new cruise line developments such as Amber Cove and Harvest Caye, purpose built from scratch, provide the kind of safe, secure Caribbean experience that might well entice the old hands back, as well as wowing the newbies. How much connection these wonderful, almost Disney-esque places have to the actual, day to day experience of Caribbean living is another thing. But then, you’re not going to live there, are you?

Those points made, there are ways in which your winter Caribbean fun run can be kicked up by several notches. Here’s just a few points that you may find worthy of your august consideration.

FLY FURTHER SOUTH TO BOARD A SHIP

That’s right. Give Florida’s fun fuelled embarkation ports a complete swerve, and board a ship in, say, Barbados, or even Puerto Rico. Though you’ll still get the crowds, you are far closer to many of the islands themselves. On a typical, seven night cruise, you’ll hit at least six different island calls. Frantic yes, but you’ve got more chance of a richer, deeper experience. For many, this could be a deal breaker.

GO SMALLER

Forget those fun filled floating theme parks, and go for a voyage on the smallest, most exclusive ship that you can afford. The smaller they are, the more inclusive they seem to be.

The likes of Silversea, Star Clippers, Regent, Seadream, Seabourn and Crystal will all offer you salubrious, sybaritic indulgence on such a scale that the experience of cruising the Caribbean is massively elevated. These smaller ships can raise the bar- and the price- by quite a way, but the experience is truly unforgettable.

They can also often access the smaller, far more intimate islands, such as Jost Van Dyke and St. Barts, that the big ships have to bypass. Thus, your Caribbean experience becomes far more intimate, pared down and personal. In short; you get what you pay for.

Buteven the most exclusive of ships will sometimes deliver you into the same massive crowds at the ‘greatest hits’ ports. Your six star, boutique ship may well look swanky and impressive when docked next to the latest floating death star at sea, but you will still be competing with its passenger load for access to taxis, beach space, and shopping and restroom facilities. Which is precisely why these de luxe ships try and avoid the busiest of these ports in peak season; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It’s horses for courses.

All of that said, none of the points up above should prevent you from running like a March hare to any of those islands in the sun during the winter. Maybe, like me, you are quite happy to relax on board quite a bit, and then just saunter off to a favourite, nearby beach for a few hours once the crowds have headed off for their day of pirating ashore. And, crowded or not, few things sooth the soul quite like a hammock on some sunny beach, with a feisty, frost crusted strawberry daiquri to hand, with warm sun, cool breezes, and the sound of reggae kissing your ears. It worked for me back in the Eighties, and it still works now.

Maybe I’m just weak and predictable, mind you.

The bottom line is that the Caribbean has it’s complications and flaws in winter, and some will find them maddening to the point of temporary distraction. But hey- a distracted day in paradise, noise, crowds and all, is still a giant leap for mankind better than a day driving through a blizzard to reach the factory or office.

On balance, get out there. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls, and choose accordingly.

And yes, I’m afraid that hammock is taken. Have a nice day.

A winter wonderland; it's called the Caribbean....

A winter wonderland; it’s called the Caribbean….

 

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GERMAN LINERS IN WORLD WAR TWO; A DOOMED BROOD

World War Two was nothing less than a second sunset for the German merchant marine

World War Two was nothing less than a second sunset for the German merchant marine

Just as in the previous war, the conflict of 1939 through 1945 would be incredibly hard on the German merchant marine. Rebuilt at almost superhuman cost in the doldrum years of the Weimar Republic, it was to become the tool of a totally nihilistic regime that neither valued it, nor really knew how to use it. What followed was depressingly predictable.

“On land I am a hero; at sea I am a coward.”

This untypical bit of critical self analysis from the mouth of Adolf Hitler gave proof of where his priorities- and zone of malign expertise- really rested. Throughout the war, the German Navy and it’s civilian counterpart would remain very much the beggar at the feast as far as materials and priorities for the German armed services were concerned.

Of the two great pre war, North German Lloyd speed champions, the Europa was safely in Germany, but the Bremen was in New York, with only hours to escape before the formal declaration of war. Unwilling to see the ship interned just like her Great War predecessors, her crew sailed her out of New York without passengers, but with her decks rigged with explosives. Her crew gave a collective Hitler salute to the Statue Of Liberty as she sailed past it,

Outside territorial waters, a Royal Navy cruiser lay in wait for the Bremen, but the big liner confounded it, with her crew painting her grey as she made a headlong dash for the totally implausible port of Murmansk, in Russia.

In December, after three months as a ‘guest’ of Hitler’s temporary allies, the Bremen took advantage of darkness and fog to sneak down the coast of Norway on her way home. A British submarine actually sighted her, but was forced to dive by a German patrol aircraft. To the relief of her crew, the Bremen somehow made it home in one piece.

Painted in zig zag camouflage for the scheduled Operation Sealion, the planned invasion of Great Britain, the Bremen was left idle when that plan was aborted. In June of 1941, a disgruntled member of her skeleton crew set fire to the mammoth liner. Somehow, the 50,000 ton Bremen burned down to the waterline, in circumstances that have never been fully explained. Her gutted corpse was ripped apart after the war.

In December of 1939, the 32,000 ton, 1924 built Columbus, the third ship in the same line’s service to America, was intercepted off Cape Hatteras by a Royal Navy cruiser, HMS Hyperion. At the outbreak of war, the Columbus had headed for Cuba, where her cruise passengers were forcibly disembarked. Then, with her decks rigged with explosives just like the Bremen, she also attempted to run for home.

Her position was betrayed to the Royal Navy by a neutral American warship. Unable to outrun her heavily armed foe, the Columbus was scuttled by her crew. She was the first major liner casualty of the war on the Axis side. Events would prove that she would not be the last.

By January 1945, Germany had instituted Operation Hannibal, the evacuation by sea of as many civilians and soldiers as possible from East Prussia back to the interiors of the terminally contracting Reich. The approaching Red Army was unstoppable, and about to wreak a hellish vengeance for German atrocities committed across Russia itself.

On January 30th, the 28,000 ton Wilhelm Gustloff, a former ‘Strength Through Joy’ cruise ship built especially to cater to German workers and their families in peacetime, staggered out of the port of Gotenhafen, carrying anything up to an estimated ten thousand fear fuelled refugees and soldiers. The exact number was never recorded in the desperate haste of those times.

Emerging into the teeth of a howling gale, the wallowing liner became detached from her sole escorting warship. Just hours later, the Wilhelm Gustloff blundered into the cross hairs of a Russian periscope.

A trio of torpedoes from the Russian submarine S-!3 slammed into the liner. In little under an hour, amid scenes of indescribable horror, she capsized to port and sagged under the freezing Baltic waters. Just over 1300 survivors were plucked from the ice strewn seas, making for a never to be correctly ascertained death toll anywhere from six to nine thousand souls. To this day, the loss of the Wilhelm Gustloff remains the worst maritime disaster in history.

But in some ways, the sinking of the Cap Arcona on May 5th was even worse.

Hitler was already five days dead, but the war was not yet officially over, when RAF Typhoon fighter bombers discovered the three stack, pre war pride of the Hamburg-South America Line at anchor in the Baltic port of Neustadt, They promptly proceeded to fire rockets into the big liner, turning her into a huge, floating fireball,

Unknown to the British pilots, the Cap Arcona was actually loaded with over five thousand former concentration camp inmates, displaced from camps already overrun by the Allied advance. Within sight and sound of safety, most of these poor, emaciated souls would become unintended victims of the last great sea tragedy of the war. The bodies were still being washed up ashore for months afterwards.

This list, while depressing, is sadly by no means exhaustive.

NAMING OCEAN LINERS- NOT JUST A ROYAL PREROGATIVE

Belfast was the scene of many famous launches, including Olympic, Titanic and Canberra

Belfast was the scene of many famous launches, including Olympic, Titanic and Canberra

In British maritime circles, the current buzz is that the new P&O flagship, Britannia, will be named by the Queen at a special ceremony in Southampton on March 10th, though Buckingham Palace has yet to officially confirm this.

As noted in a previous blog, it has been customary ever since the 1930’s for the premier passenger liners and cruise ships of major British companies to have some kind of royal sanction, be that in the form of an actual, physical launch, or the act of some royal patron acting as godmother. We saw it most recently in 2013, when the Duchess of Cambridge acted in that role for Princess Cruises’ new Royal Princess.

So in the UK, monarchy and majesty at sea have always coexisted. But how have other nations with different systems of government handled such hugely ceremonial events in the past? In this context, it is vital to remember that the construction of the great ocean liners- especially in the 1930’s- were huge statements of national intent, destined to glean as much publicity on the world stage as possible. Different lines went about it in different ways.

In May 1912, the Hamburg America line prepared to launch the Imperator, the largest ocean liner in the world. It was just six weeks since the sinking of the Titanic. Festooned with extra lifeboats at the last moment and named for the Emperor, the bellicose, unstable Kaiser Wilhelm II, she was launched by none other than her sponsor himself.

Two years later, when the third and last of the Imperator class- destined to be named Bismarck- was ready for launching, the deed was supposed to be done by Otto Von Bismarck’s grand daughter. Her first swing of the bottle somehow managed to avoid hitting the biggest single steel structure on the planet. The returning bottle was caught by the Kaiser himself, who then managed to smash it against the prow with the same simple minded brutality with which his armies would help smash up much of Europe just six weeks later.

As for the Titanic herself, her launch at Belfast on May 31st, 1911 was the usual, under stated affair that was normal practice for the White Star Line. So there was no famous, titled patron in a huge, plumed hat, No champagne. In the opinion of the owners, the ship was deemed to be so spectacular and magnificent that no amount of pre release frippery and pretension could possibly do her true justice,

But the French, of course, could always be relied upon to do it with great panache, and more than just a little tongue in cheek subterfuge. When the Normandie was launched in front of a crowd of 250,000 people in October of 1932, the ship was first blessed on the slipway by the local bishop. His Eminence was ‘reassured’ by the owners that they had not committed the ‘sin of pride’ in building the most beautiful, blatantly ambitious vessel ever constructed.

With this helpful reassurance, Monsieur le Cardinal happily blessed the ship. Then, Madame Lebrun, wife of the living president, smashed a spectacularly huge bottle of champagne against  the bow. As  the great ship slid down the ways, she called out ‘I baptise three Normandie’  Then madame proceeded to blow a kiss to the Normandie as she lunged into the Loire, throwing up a spectacular tidal wave that left a whole conga line of sodden, top hatted dignitaries glowering at her..

Not exactly something that you could imagine any of the royal family doing, mind you. Plus ca change.

“I NAME THIS SHIP….” BRITISH ROYALTY AND CEREMONIAL LAUNCHES OVER THE YEARS

A Queen's eye view. The huge flank of QM2

A Queen’s eye view. The huge flank of QM2

With the media full of rumours that Queen Elizabeth II will launch the new P&O Cruises flagship, Britannia, this coming March, now seems as good a time as any to look back at some famous royal naming ceremonies of the past. Inevitably, most- but not all-of these are associated with Cunard. What might surprise many is that the first of these did not occur until as recently as September of 1934.

On that famous occasion, the ageing Queen Mary lent her name and prestige to a shop that become immortal. Hull no. 534 thundered down the slipways of the John Brown yard at Clydebank, to the cheers of over 200,000 rain sodden spectators. Thus began a tradition that remains- albeit in a different form- to this very day.

In those days, and for many years afterwards, a ship launch was exactly that; a physical progression of a newly christened hull from slipway to river. There would be the naming by a grand- hopefully royal- personality, and then the actual moment when the champagne bottle (or sparkling Australian wine in the case of the Queen Mary) was smashed against the prow. Immortalised in grainy black and white movietone reels. these still have an awesome retrospective splendour to this day.

Four years later, the young Queen Elizabeth did the honours for the second great new Cunarder from the same vantage point, beginning an intimate association with the RMS Queen Elizabeth that would last until that fabled ships’ eventual retirement a full three decades later. Present with her on the podium that day was the young Princess Elizabeth, whose own relationship with the ocean liner and cruise industry continues unbroken to this day.

In the post war world, it was this same young Princess Elizabeth that did the honours for the Caronia, the legendary ‘Green Goddess’ launched on the Clyde in October of 1947. But the future Queen was not solely to be associated with the great Cunarders.

In 1953, as Queen, she did the official duties for the launching of the Southern Cross over at the Harland and Wollf shipyard in Belfast. This new ship was revolutionary more in terms of design, rather than size. With a new, engines aft propulsion system, the new Shaw, Savill and Albion liner would be the trend setter copied by such future, ocean going aristocrats as the Rotterdam and Canberra.

In June of 1955, the Queen went over to the Fairfield yard at Govan, near Glasgow, to give her blessing to the Empress Of Britain, the new Canadian Pacific liner, built specifically for the Liverpool to Montreal run. This era marked the absolute high point of ocean liner evolution. It would be a dozen years before the monarch would again name a passenger vessel. But, when she did, it would begin an almost symbiotic relationship between the two.

“I name this ship Queen Elizabeth the Second…..”

On 20th September, 1967, the Queen returned to Clydebank to launch the successor to the two previous Queens. Aptly, she cut the cord holding the launch bottle with the same pair of scissors used on her two great predecessors. And, as the trim, magnificent hull began her stately progress down the ways, she was heard to exclaim; “Oh, look at her; she’s beautiful!”

The rest, as they say, is history.

After that landmark liner launch, the physical protocol of ship christenings evolved in line with new building processes. By the time that the Queen christened the new P&O Oriana in Southampton in 1995, the champagne bottle was deftly smashed against the side of a fully completed vessel, docked alongside in her future home port. From here on in, all major ship launches would follow a similar pattern.

Her Majesty would perform two similar honours for Cunard; first for the glorious new Queen Mary 2 in January 2004, and for a second, superb new Queen Elizabeth as recently as October, 2011. If the sovereign does, as expected, christen the new Britannia this coming March, it will be simply the latest in a long line of such gilded ceremonial events. But, while the Queen is the absolute gold standard for launching an ocean liner, she is by no means the only member of the family to engage in the time honoured process of naming such great ships.

Many have forgotten now that the late Diana, Princess of Wales, christened the 45,000 ton Royal Princess, again in Southampton, back in 1984. Not to be outdone, it was her sister in law, Princess Anne, that performed the same duty for the Aurora, the great new P&O cruise ship in 2000.

And, in 2007, the new Queen Victoria, the first ship ever to bear the name, was christened in Southampton by Camilla Parker Bowles, in her official capacity as Duchess of Cornwall.

Whatever your view of royalty, it seems completely right that these great, prestigious ships down through the years should be christened by such notable figures. For our current Queen, her interest and continued patronage of the ships she has named  is both very personal and, in the case of QE2 in particular, quite profound.

Britannia will almost certainly be next. It is to be hoped that she will not be the last.

CUBA CRUISES- COMING SOON?

Cuba bound soon?

Cuba bound soon?

With the recent news of Barack Obama’s lifting of travel restrictions to Cuba, the mainstream cruise lines are savouring the long cherished possibility of a return of cruise ships to the sultry, long isolated Caribbean island, Famed as a hugely hedonistic destination for Americans in the pre Castro era, it has been largely off limits to cruise ships since 1963.

There are currently a coupe of vessels making cruises around the island. Both the superlative Star Flyer of Star Clippers, and the Celestyal Cristal of Cuba cruises, run seven day itineraries that make a long circuit of the island each week during the winter months. But both of these smaller, more intimate ships cater mostly to an international market- largely Canadian in the face of the latter.

What people are waiting for is the arrival of the mega ships operated by the ‘big boys’ of the industry- Carnival, Norwegian and Royal Caribbean. And, the way things are looking, that might be sooner rather than later. But there are obstacles that first need to be overcome.

Firstly, the docking facilities in the capital of Havana are nowhere near adequate to handle one big ship, let alone the armada waiting to pounce on Cuba. The infrastructure is raw, and there needs to be far more in the way of air conditioned, tourist coaches for the sightseeing passengers.

That said, none of these are decisive deal breakers. From New Jersey to Jamaica, all of the big lines have proved adept at creating their own, purpose built docking complexes. This is the obvious way forward for Cuba and, though it would entail much co-operation between cruise lines, local tourist board and, of course, government offices, there is no reason why this cannot be done.

For their money, the lines gain access to a hugely sought, legendary destination seen by many as some nostalgic nirvana. Many Caribbean ‘regulars’ are getting tired of the same old islands. Once glamourous destinations such as Nassau now seem jaded and tired. New destinations are always to be welcomed.

And a ship sailing from Florida could easily make a leisurely, fuel conservative weekly sailing to Cuba, docking for three nights in old, storied Havana at what will- initially at least- be absolutely knock down docking fees. And the flow of tourist dollars from each ship load will inevitably boost the local economy massively. Whether that is ultimately for good or ill is too far away to call.

For marketing men, filling cruise ships to Cuba would be the Holy Grail; an ultimate no-brainer that will attract the crowds, looking for the shades of Ernie Hemingwayand his ilk among all the decaying, Mojito fuelled fun on offer.

Obviously, one to watch. I will be following this with great interest.

As ever, pray stay tuned.

EUROPA 2 ACQUIRED BY GERMAN FIRM OF TUI (Updated)

Lobby bar on Europa 2

Lobby bar on Europa 2

The 42,000 ton, 500 guest Europa 2, lauded as the most stylish and highly rated ship since her introduction in service in 2013, has been bought outright by the TUI group, it was announced today.

Prior to this, the superlative ship was on a long term charter arrangement to TUI and sailed as the flagship of its Hapag-Lloyd Cruises subsidiary.

Hapag-Lloyd Cruises will continue to own and operate the ship. They have confirmed to me that there will be no changes to previously announced itineraries for 2015; the Europa 2 is scheduled for a short season in Scandinavian waters in spring, prior to starting a string of alternating, seven night Mediterranean sailings through the summer.

Unlike other Hapag-Lloyd Cruises ships, which are mainly marketed to German passengers, there has been a conscious attempt from the start to make the Europa 2 more of a multi lingual ship, with a targeted ratio of around forty per cent of English speaking passengers on each cruise.

With no less than seven restaurants, the all balcony suite ship comes complete with the largest standard suite balconies of any ship afloat. With her clean, stunningly modern interiors, the Europa 2 quickly garnered huge praise from right across the travelling fraternity.

All things considered, it looks like a very interesting full season for the great ship..

As always, stay tuned for further news.

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.

DRINKS IN PARADISE- COCKTAILS AROUND THE WORLD

Nice. A cold beer on a warm beach, or chilled champagne on the Riviera. A Harvey Wallbanger in your favourite hot tub, or a frosty Margarita in Old Mexico. So- without further ado, ladies and gentlemen- it’s a world wide drink-a-thon. Come aboard and enjoy!

BBC. Balcony. Butler. Champagne

BBC. Balcony. Butler. Champagne

Aft deck, nice place for a glass of wine

Aft deck, nice place for a glass of wine

Regent balcony with champers

Regent balcony with champers

Lunchtime Margarita, Crystal style

Lunchtime Margarita, Crystal style

Cold crab and Cape Cods....

Cold crab and Cape Cods….

Galley lunch; Bloody Mary to start?

Galley lunch; Bloody Mary to start?

Champers on ice; side order of sunset

Champers on ice; side order of sunset

Silversea Martinis are art works in themselves

Silversea Martinis are art works in themselves

Enjoy a Silversea champagne sunset

Enjoy a Silversea champagne sunset

Carnival do peachy sunset Margaritas

Carnival do peachy sunset Margaritas

Wine on the Rhine. Yes, honestly...

Wine on the Rhine. Yes, honestly…

Prost! On board the Deutschland in Amsterdam

Prost! On board the Deutschland in Amsterdam

Cuna Libres on the beach at Coco Cay

Cuba Libres on the beach at Coco Cay

Margaritas, Silversea style

Margaritas, Silversea style

Top Of The Yacht, Seadream II

Top Of The Yacht, Seadream II

Mediterranean sunset Martini

Mediterranean sunset Martini

Cabo Margarita!

Cabo Margarita!

Swedish sunset cocktails

Swedish sunset cocktails

Santorini sojourn, fresh fruit and red wine

Santorini sojourn, fresh fruit and red wine

On the Orient Express

On the Orient Express

Observation Bar, RMS Queen Mary

Observation Bar, RMS Queen Mary

Bottoms up, Tallulah!

Bottoms up, Tallulah!

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.