AIRPORT CHAOS; SCHIPOL AND A CHANGE IN THE WEATHER…..

Flying high- or sometimes not....

Flying high- or sometimes not….

By their very nature, international airports are intended to be rapid transit centres. Passengers leave and arrive in a constant, ongoing flow. The entire set up is designed to facilitate this two directional flow as fluidly as possible.

In general, the system works. But what happens when something goes horribly wrong? What happens when that whole, free flowing machine snarls up and shudders to a halt?

I had the dubious honour of discovering that the other week, when my overnight flight from Atlanta made landfall in an Amsterdam so smothered in thick fog that it was even hard to make out the wingtip of our plane as it crept along the runway.

Along with many others, my flight back to Newcastle had been cancelled. Faces already strained by the reality of a long haul, overnight flight now dropped visibly as a conga line of cancellations rolled down the departure screens. A long, low collective groan seemed to rise out of nowhere.

Inevitably, a long, long line of refugees began to snake towards the transfers desk. And each minute, it grew longer. We were clearly in for an extended wait.

Six and a half hours later, I finally made it to the front of the checking line. By now, Schipol was suffused in brilliant sunshine, but numerous backlogs had built up. I was not able to get a flight to Newcastle that day.

Instead, I managed to bag the last seat on a flight to Durham Tees Valley. I asked specifically if my baggage- which the staff confirmed had arrived in Amsterdam- would definitely be transferred to the Teeside flight. I was assured that it would be.

Needless to say it wasn’t, but that’s getting ahead of the curve.

How did Schipol deal with those vast, snaking lines on that November day?

Within an hour, airport staff were distributing bottled water, sandwiches and other snacks right along the lines. These were pretty constant, and kept on coming. Needless to say, they were very welcome.

Obviously, there was nowhere to sit during this process and, inevitably, six hours’ constant standing shredded the nerves of many to snapping point. But really, what else could the airport staff do? Nothing as far as I could see.

I’m not sure if any of the quintet of girls behind those recheck desks got so much as a tea break over those frantic, messy hours. They were shouted at and yelled at by people for a situation that they had done nothing to create. They endured tears, tantrums, downright threats and outright pleading. I cannot even begin to imagine the stress levels that they must have been under.

The point is that they did not want to be in this awful situation any more than we did. Yet they seemed to remain constantly polite and attentive to each hassled client, as successive tales of woe unwound.

It took them maybe ten minutes in the end to sort out my problem once I got to the desk. I was offered a food and drink voucher (Ten Euros) without having to ask for it and yes, I was dealt with politely and fairly. But then, I wasn’t ranting and  screaming at anyone.

I finally got home some twelve hours late, minus my luggage. Despite the assurances at Amsterdam, I was half resigned to this being the case (or not the case, so to speak) in any event. As is customary, I left my home details at the airport for them to send the luggage on to me, fully expecting it to take at least a day or two,

Imagine my surprise, then, when my luggage was delivered to my front door within an hour of my finally getting home. A truly emotional reunion, and one totally unexpected. Kudos to KLM for turning it round so quickly.

Make no mistake, this was by no means a ‘fun’ experience. But no one can make weather and, for the most part, both Schipol and KLM did the best that they could in a situation that everyone must dread. They showed concern, compassion and care, as well as sporadic bouts of obvious confusion as news updates failed to filter quickly through from the bosses to the staff in the trenches.

That’s it, really.

EURODAM PART TWO; A HALF MOON RISING

Sometimes, it really is better in the Bahamas......

Sometimes, it really is better in the Bahamas……

What a day for a daydream; what a day for a daydreaming boy..”

Daydream; The Loving Spoonful, 1966. Lyrics by John Sebastian.

There were many things I was looking forward to about my cruise on the Eurodam. And returning to Holland America Line’s ‘private island’ of Half Moon Cay was right at the top of the list.

The Bahamian outpost is actually a part of Little San Salvador, one of a series of some seven hundred islands sprinkled like stepping stones amid the sparkling azure hue of the ocean. Carnival Corporation- the parent company of Holland America-bought the island for something like six million dollars in December, 1996, and promptly proceeded to develop an area of roughly fifty acres into a kind of ‘catch all’ day break destination for passengers cruising the Caribbean.

Geographically, Half Moon Cay lies some one hundred miles to the south east of Nassau, the capital of the Bahama Islands. But, in terms of crowds, temperament and tempo, it is practically on another planet entirely.

So successful has Half Moon Cay become that it is now also a prime destination of choice for vessels of the parent Carnival Corporation. And, when you see this sizzling, sultry little gemstone, the reasons for that success are instantly apparent.

Half Moon Cay is strictly low rise in appearance, but sky high in terms of stunning visual impact. The entree is a perfectly hewn, semi circular arc of tissue soft, powder white sand lapped by almost supine, electric blue waters- a literal Half Moon, as it happens. Beyond this, clearly marked winding trails lined with hibiscus, frangipani and rows of deep, vibrant shrubbery, form a backdrop inhabited by local wildfowl, making the whole area ideal for nature lovers and ramblers.

We came bumbling ashore from the Eurodam on tenders, in itself a thrilling enough entree to what lay ahead. While many passengers do not enjoy the tendering experience, I am one of those people that have always savoured it as a kind of spray tinged appetizer to the fun and frolics awaiting ashore. It certainly hones the anticipation to knife point sharpness for me.

Meanwhile, para gliders flit across the sky like so many skittish butterflies. Jet skis roar and splutter across the sparkling briny like scampering water beetles. From the nearby barbecue- literally unloaded from the ship and cooked ashore- the smell of jerk chicken, burgers, and a whole other conga line of goodies floods the fresh, mid morning air.

Half Moon Cay is essentially a surreal, sweetly scented netherworld; a kind of idealised dream destination. Shorn of the need to do anything more demanding than grab another Margarita from any of the numerous bars that sprinkle the landscape, you sag with pathetic gratitude into a kind of submissive, smiley stupor once ashore. In an ideal world, every day would truly be like this.

After a while, wading through the tame, milk warm surf while holding a drink and talking to friends just became so- normal. Further along the expanse of that flawless beach, other passengers lolled in seafront cabanas, while others rode horses through the same surf that we strolled with such indolent indifference.

And yes, we could have gone deep sea fishing, or possibly have taken a glass boat ride to take in the stunning smorgasbord of underwater coral. We could have gone kayaking, sail boating, or we could even have hauled ourselves aboard a Hobie catamaran. And, for those so inclined, there was certainly no shortage of water toys to frolic with on that sparkling, sun kissed ocean.

But that would have involved making a conscious effort. One involving actual motivation on a day when, well, the sun was in the sky, the beer was cold, and the sand was just so damned warm between my toes. And yes, I folded. First world problems, eh?

Even the palm trees seemed to be saying ‘chill out’ as they danced an idle, soporific skit against a backdrop of clouds that drifted by like so many giant, ghostly galleons of old. And, through a filter of reggae and old sixties tunes, the words of that old John Sebastian classic, quoted at the start of this article, came flooding back to remind me of the day’s really urgent, to do business.

So, another Margarita it is. Reality? A damned interesting concept.

But not today, thank you. No sir, not today.

EURODAM: GOING DUTCH THE FUN WAY

Holland America blends traditional ocean going luxe with modern maritime excellence

Holland America blends traditional ocean going luxe with modern maritime excellence

There are some ships that you just fall in love with at first sight.

For me, that was the case with Holland America Line’s gorgeous Eurodam. The great HAL flagship was docked behind us in mid summer in Germany’s port of Warnemunde, at the start of a really memorable circuit of the Baltic on the venerable Marco Polo- no mean looker herself, as it happens.

In the high summer sun, the Eurodam was a towering, triumphant revelation. Sunlight danced across her dazzling, royal blue hull and her serried tiers of balconies. The prow- far more tapered and graceful than I expected- was a thing of supine beauty.

Smitten at once, I knew right there and then that I wanted to go on that ship.

A little over four months later, I stared up at that same, stately prow in the warm, welcoming sun of Port Everglades in Fort Lauderdale. But this time, my view would be much more up close and personal.

Hours later, and I’m standing on board the Eurodam as she surges majestically out into the open sea, past rows of spindly, soporific palm tress waving idly in the fall Florida breeze. The siren booms out a sonorous, beautifully pitched farewell to the Sunshine State as a handful of well wishers wave from the shore. And off we go, standing out into the balmy, welcoming waters of the western Caribbean.

Inside, the vast, beautiful ship is spacious, and yet surprisingly intimate. Winding corridors on the public decks, each one carpeted in shades of rich, oriental red, lead the way past a stunning succession of paintings, ancient exhibits, and fresh cut flowers. Everywhere, the priceless heritage of Holland America- one of the most illustrious names in maritime history- suffuses this beautiful ship like a series of benign shades.

There is the head wear, sword and musket of a Spanish conquistador here, and a brace of imperious dragon heads there, glowering at head height with their sightless eyes. Off to starboard, the strains of a plaintive violin floods the lobby with some half forgotten aria. It fills the air with a kind of deft, delicate sound that produces a mild tremor in the soul.

Above the stunning, beautifully scaled lobby bar, the sultry, mellow sounds of a jazz combo mixes with the gentle clinking of pre dinner martinis to produce a rhythm as old as time. Stewards in their smart white jackets deliver trays of canapes and drinks to groups of first night passengers huddled around tables.

Outside, on the long expanse of the bone white promenade deck, a line of proper wooden steamer chairs stands at attention, as perfectly turned out as a parade of the Grenadier Guards. The setting sun falls from the sky like a blazing theatre curtain, turning the entire ocean into what looks like so much smouldering straw. The waves roll lethargically by; they resemble a kind of magical roller coaster, taking the Eurodam off on another, epic ride.

Inside, the sunset vanishes behind rows of deftly drawn drapes. Pools of warm, languid lighting dance across the acres of sparkling glass and brass finery inside. From somewhere, the strains of a sultry bossa nova floats through the ether like stardust.

The first Sunshine Martini from the Pinnacle Grill Lounge hits us like so much healing balm. In the restaurant itself, the delicate, barely audible chink of tables being laid with exquisite china and fine cutlery creates its own subtle, delightful symphony. The food, which we are already eagerly anticipating, will of course be centre stage.

And there we leave her for now. The proud, mighty Eurodam, ablaze with light and chasing a sunset she can never, ever reach. Poised and beautifully polished, the great lady is not one to be hurried by such trivia as time, temperament, or even actual reality.

It is my fervent hope that you will be kind enough to rejoin us for the rest of this wondrous voyage as it unfurls over the next few blogs in this series. Though we are not on the bridge in any sense, it is already plain to most of us on board which way our course is set. We are on an ageless, elegant path in the finest of styles.

It is my great fortune and privilege to be able to share such wonders with you.

NORWEGIAN EPIC EMERGES FROM THREE WEEK DRY DOCKING

Pool deck on the Norwegian Epic

Pool deck on the Norwegian Epic

Fresh from a three week dry docking, the Norwegian Epic left Southampton for Barcelona on Monday to begin a one of a kind season of year round sailings to the Mediterranean and Canary Islands.

The one off ship- unique in the Norwegian fleet- will return to Port Canaveral in the fall of 2016 to operate Bahamas and Caribbean cruises.

On the entertainment front, Norwegian Epic now showcases a new Cavern Club, a homage to the legendary Liverpool venue of the same name, and a new, headlining show in the form of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.

In addition, the ship’s Bliss ultra night club was refurbished, together with the Mandara Spa, the library, and the outdoor marketplace. The Epic Theatre, casino and exclusive, upper deck Haven complex also benefited from such additions as new lighting, freshening up of all furniture fabrics, and new artwork.

Dining venues on board such as the Manhattan Room, Moderno Churrascaria, Tastes, Cagney’s, Le Bistro and the Lido, have also been enhanced with new, soft furnishings, decor, and fresh carpeting in places.

On the technical side, Norwegian Epic has taken on board several significant upgrades, including a new pair of propellers and new rudder caps, a fresh coat of hull paint, and enhancements to the lifeboats release mechanisms, as well as some enhancements to the on board refrigeration and storage spaces.

Over the coming winter, Norwegian Epic will cruise from Barcelona to the Western Mediterranean, as well as offering a string of nine night fly cruises to the Canary islands, also sailing from the Catalan port.

Her abrupt return to the Caribbean next fall after just one season in year round Europe cruising came as something of a surprise in certain quarters. From fall of 2016, she will be replaced permanently in that role by Norwegian Spirit- the ship that she was originally brought over to supplant.

None the less, these are interesting times at Norwegian, especially with the looming debut of the Norwegian Escape coming up rapidly on the horizon.

As ever, stay tuned.

WHY DID WHITE STAR GIVE UP ON THE BLUE RIBAND?

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

Olympic (left) and Titanic at Belfast in the spring of 1912. The Titanic is very near completion here.

When the White Star Line introduced it’s brand new Oceanic in 1899, the company broke the mould of traditional Atlantic voyaging in one spectacular respect.

It was not so much in terms of size- the Oceanic represented natural evolution rather than a seismic advance. It was not even in terms of her beautiful, elegant interiors that the new ship really made a splash.

With Oceanic, White Star instead went against the single prime tenet that had governed Atlantic steamships for decades. For here was a ship that, almost uniquely, was designed to steam at a slightly more economical speed than her British and German rivals.

The unspoken rule had always been that liners should be ever swifter, with the in built possibility of making record speed crossings. But with Oceanic, White Star formally opted out of the speed race, never to return.

Why?

Firstly, fuel was very expensive. Each additional knot over the first twenty attained cost as much as that original twenty. And the potential wear and tear on hulls pushed at flank speed could be considerable.

Instead, White Star chose to concentrate on building larger, more economical ships that would emphasize comfort and luxury over bone shattering speed. And it was a policy that worked admirably right up to the outbreak of the Great War.

And I think that it is worth remembering that this comfort-before-speed policy was enshrined in the White Star playbook before the formal takeover of the line by J.P.Morgan’s IMM. And the fact that Morgan allowed this mindset to stand shows that he was in agreement with that direction of travel.

I think by that stage that White Star was not so much keeping an eye on it’s age old rival, Cunard, as watching developments across the channel, in Germany.

Here- just like in Britain- two great shipping lines fought tooth and nail for the lion’s share of the travelling trade.

North German Lloyd dominated the turn of the century era, with a quartet of long, lean four funneled racers. Each in succession took the Blue Ribband (except for the Kronprinzessen Cecile) on their Atlantic debuts.

Their main German rival, Hamburg Amerika Line, replied with a speed record champion of their own, in the shape of the very similar Deutschland.

That ship almost shook herself to pieces in her ambitious grab for the crown. And she proved to be a profligate, hideously expensive fuel guzzler right throughout her career.

In Germany, company chairman Albert Ballinn looked at the new White Star liner Oceanic, and decided that the British company was on to something. He, too, decided to go down the ‘comfort is more, speed is less’ route.

Their first toe in the water came in the stunning form of the Amerika of 1905, a ship so opulent and luxurious that she immediately became the most successful ship on the Atlantic. Slower but steady, and complete with marvellous cabins and a hugely popular, separate a la carte restaurant in first class, the Amerika drew passengers in droves. In many ways, she was just as epochal a ship as the Oceanic, if subsequently a much less well remembered one.

Meanwhile, over in Britain, Bruce Ismay, chairman of White Star, found himself confronted with the imminent, looming reality of a pair of record breaking new vessels from the rival Cunard Line. Lusitania and Mauretania would be half as large again as any other ships afloat and, inevitably, they would be far faster, too. These two liners would reduce the time on the Liverpool to New York run by several hours.

But Ismay’s eyes were not just on Cunard; they were also on the continent of Europe. And, even as Cunard contemplated it’s new pair of crown jewels, the White Star chairman acted.

In 1907, White Star took the unprecedented strep of transferring it’s first run transatlantic liners- the so-called ‘Big Four’- from Liverpool round to Southampton.

The Hampshire port had a far superior harbour to the Mersey in many ways, but it was convenient access to continental ports that was the key factor behind Ismay’s decision.

In a chilling echo of current times, Europe was awash with a human tidal wave of people on the move; streams of refugees fleeing war, poverty, and prejudice trekked the length of the continent to board transatlantic liners, hoping to find a new life in the promised land of Canada and, more especially, the USA.

This trade was so vast that tapping into it made simple, logical sense. From Southampton, a White Star liner could reach Cherbourg in six hours to embark passengers from the continent. Steaming overnight along the English Channel, that same liner could arrive in Queenstown to pick up Irish emigrants- just as their Cunard rivals did- before beginning the westbound crossing proper to the new world.

Thus, White Star ships could fill up their empty cabins at two ports rather than just one, as well as picking up passengers almost directly from London via the better rail links that existed to the Hampshire port. Once achieved, their ships could then steam westward at a more stately, fuel conservative speed that made them slower, yet more comfortable, than their Cunard rivals.

And, in planning it’s response to the Cunard wonder ships, White Star refused to be pushed back into an arms race in terms of speed. Instead, they opted for a pair of colossal ocean liners, later to be followed by a third. Each would be half as big again as the new Cunarders. From the start, these giants were intended to be ‘Southampton ships’ and, as a result, massive infrastructure upgrades were initiated across that port. Upgrades that Cunard, ironically, would benefit from significantly after the Great War.

While the design of the new ships was in theory a response to Cunard, White Star still kept it’s other eye locked on the progress of Hamburg Amerika and it’s chairman, the savvy, fastidious Albert Ballinn. It was, incidentally, a compliment that Ballinn himself duly reciprocated.

These new White Star ships would offer stunning, expansive luxury and largesse in first class, while also offering a wealth of cheap, utilitarian but extremely practical accommodation for the desperate hordes of migrants flooding into European ports. While they were intended to take a full day longer to cross the Atlantic than the speedy Cunarders- six days as opposed to five- they would be jam packed with a wealth of time killing amusements and diversions for the wealthy, moneyed travelling elite.

Of course, those two ships were the Olympic and the Titanic. But, as this article hopefully attests, their eventual genesis owed as much to the opulent German vessels of Ballinn as to their fabled Cunard rivals.

VOYAGE REPORT- CRYSTAL SERENITY

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

I boarded the Crystal Serenity in Venice at the beginning of last month for a week long swing down through the Adriatic, stopping in at Mykonos before transiting the Dardanelles, and finally leaving the ship in Istanbul. It was a frantic, fun fuelled week that neatly balanced magnificent history with a dollop of indolent hedonism, with a couple of welcome sea days in between to allow me to catch my breath,

The cool. marble suffused expanse of the Crystal Atrium was filled with the strains of a violin quartet, swinging lushly through The Blue Danube as I walked back on board. Instead of going straight to the suite, I lingered long enough to grab a maiden glass of glacially chilled champagne. I needed to linger for a minute or so and let it all come back to me.

Since Crystal had come under the auspices of Genting Hong Kong, a series of seismic announcements have unfolded like a string of muffled drum rolls. Crystal is not so much gathering headway, as going to warp drive.New ships, a stunning yacht, a brace of deluxe river ships, and even a pair of opulent air cruises. The mind boggles at the sheer scale of it all.

But a nagging feeling of unease had still gnawed away at me. What would the new regime mean for the actual, current on board experience? How would the Genting hegemony impact on board a pair of ships that I have come to cherish over a decade and a half. Surely change and retrenchment on board were inevitable?

Over the next week, those doubts vanished like sea fret. The on board experience remains as compelling, inclusive and all pervading as ever. Crystal Serenity remains suffused in a patina of care and concern from bow to stern, truck to keel.

Service throughout the ship remains as flawless and timely as ever. The staff are adept at appearing when you need something, yet without falling over the line into being overly intrusive. Of course, the high staff to guest ratio makes this easier, but that very ratio itself is indicative of the mindset originally instilled by Joe Watters from day one. It is heartening indeed to see that Genting understands this. Quite simply, it creates a bond, a contract of sorts between crew and guests that elevates the entire experience into something far more than a ‘mere’ voyage.

Crystal’s cuisine remains peerless; a series of beautifully executed snacks and feasts, running from the simple to the sublime. Whether we are talking about the simply gorgeous chocolate ice cream at Tastes, the dainty little custard tarts at the Bistro, or the succulent, full blown Italian fare at Prego, the Crystal Serenity delivered in spades.

Particularly enjoyable were some amazing, saffron accented lamb skewers served up one night in the Trident Grill. And being able to pick at prawns and lobster while lounging on my balcony as we skirted the coast of summertime Turkey is a level of indolence that is almost stratospheric.

God knows, I looked for signs of slippage in a product- and on a ship- that I know really well. I looked in vain.

The overall vibe on this spacious, supremely comfortable ship remains as upbeat and accommodating as ever. Wonderful live music filled the shimmering Crystal Atrium before and after dinner each night as we surged through some of the most fabled, historic waters on the planet. Banner destinations such as Dubrovnik, Mykonos and Izmir unfolded around us like stunning portals to the turbulent past of one of the most mesmerising regions in the world. And, having been sated and fascinated by these incredible places, we would return to the reassuring welcome of our floating home from home. And, make no mistake, that is exactly what sailing on the Crystal Serenity still feels like.

Over the years, the ship- along with the equally sybaritic Crystal Symphony- has been constantly refined and re-imagined, especially in the public areas. Particularly beautiful is the lounging space under the sliding glass roof of the Trident Grill. Teak decking, liberally sprinkled with plush lounging chairs and sofa groups, is now framed by vibrant climbing walls draped in lush greenery. There is even a small tree draped with twinkling fairy lights that makes for a stunning focal point while enjoying more casual evening fare over dinner.

The classic, on board alchemy achieved by this marriage of space and grace creates a clean, harmonious whole that is, quite simply, without peer. Details delight the eye and lift the spirit. The Crystal experience remains as vibrant and uplifting as ever.

Crystal CEO, Edie Rodriguez, was on board for this voyage. Affable, accessible and hugely capable, she is well aware that the line’s key asset remains the superb Crystal staff that give both ships their heart, soul and personality. From the start, Crystal was a line that hired it’s staff based on their attitude first and foremost. The theory always was that such staff could be trained up to offer the best possible levels of service for the guests then. It was a proven formula, and it remains one that has paid huge dividends for the line itself.

This level of intimately styled excellence, married to superb, quality hardware and a series of carefully thought out, round the world itineraries, is what really marked out the Crystal product of old as a thing apart. Happily, it still does to this day.

In my opinion, Crystal Cruises is the obvious heir to the cherished seagoing traditions of such stellar travel icons as the Royal Viking Line, and even the French Line. And, while it operates in a very different market to those long gone legends, Crystal’s ongoing adherence to those self same, timeless values of care and courtesy garnished with a ‘can do’ attitude, mark it out as a singular, worthy counterpart to both.

As I noted at the start of this piece, one of my concerns was whether or not that vital, all pervasive attitude might have changed under the new regime. After my recent trip on the Crystal Serenity, I can say emphatically say that it has not.

And in a world where hype too often attempts to masquerade as style, that is something that I for one find truly heartening.

QUEEN ELIZABETH: CUNARD’S UNLOVED SISTER?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeventy years ago today, Cunard’s reconditioned Queen Elizabeth began her much delayed maiden voyage to New York. At exactly the same time, many of the main henchmen of the late Adolf Hitler were waiting for a final appointment with an American hangman in their cells in the Place of Justice at Nuremberg.

That latter, epochal event in world history had the effect of relegating the much delayed maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth to the inside pages of much of the world press. And, in a way, it had always been thus for the storied Cunard liner.

The Queen Elizabeth was launched on September 27th, 1938, into a world already twitching ever more nervously at the sabre rattling antics of both Hitler and his Italian vassal, Benito Mussolini. Just one month earlier, her companion ship- Queen Mary- had finally wrested back the Blue Riband from her great French rival, the Normandie. Even from the start, these events conspired to put the launch of the new ship very much on the back burner of world news.

Of course, the Queen Elizabeth never ran for the speed record. One record holder was enough for the line, and of course, that honour was left with the Queen Mary. Even after the barnstorming debut of the United States in 1952, the younger, seemingly more subdued of the Queens was never let off the leash to see what she could really do.

There was always something kind of melancholy, almost hang dog, about the Queen Elizabeth in the post war years when compared to the Queen Mary. And the real tragedy here is that, in almost every way, the Queen Elizabeth was the better ship of the two, both from a technical and passenger standpoint.

The Queen Elizabeth was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the Queen Mary, with a brace of fully formed, free standing funnels and a sharply raked prow. Her upper decks were largely free of the forest of vents and guy wires that mushroomed everywhere about the older ship’s trio of smokestacks. In every aesthetic respect, she was an obviously more modern ship than the earlier liner and, from the point of view of both crew and passenger comfort, a far better ship.

And yet she never really endeared herself to either passengers or crew in the same way that the Queen Mary did, both before and after the war. A war in which she played every bit as vital and heroic a role as the earlier ship, lest we forget.

Why? There will never be a definitive answer to that question, simply because it is so hard to be rational about vessels that essentially draw a purely emotive, largely illogical, response from those that live in them and sail them. But my guess is that the public- both at home and the travelling kind- had three full years before the war to get used to the ideal of the Queen Mary, and what she actually represented. The Queen Elizabeth- the actual, truly named ‘Grey Ghost’- seemed to appear, not quite fully formed, from the fog of war, performed magnificently, only to emerge into the new, peacetime era as an unknown, largely unheralded debutante. She never had time to create her own pre war legend, that bond with both crew and travelling public, that is the foundation on which any successful commercial career is built.

Of course, she did phenomenally well on the hugely lucrative Atlantic crossing right up until 1960. And it was the Queen Elizabeth that was so expensively converted for part time cruising in the mid Sixties, at a time when both the ageing dowagers were sailing on a rising tide of red accountants’ ink. Cunard obviously saw more potential and adaptive ability in their second, prodigal child, even after almost two decades of service.

Her end- tragic and almost certainly preventable- was a kind of mirror image of her life; sensational and dramatic, but soon forgotten by those not directly affected by it. By then, she was an idea and a concept whose time was obviously gone.

As ocean liners go, the Queen Elizabeth and her service record were largely eclipsed by that of a truly beloved, yet quite inferior companion ship which, against all the odds, still somehow contrives to exist in Long Beach, California, to this day. One whose very name has come to symbolise all that is enduring and immortal about ocean liner travel.

Who knows? Perhaps ocean liner history is not deep and expansive enough to allow for the burnishing and preservation of two such gigantic legends at the same time.

CHINA GIRLS- NORWEGIAN AND PRINCESS NEW BUILDS BOUND FOR THE ORIENT (Updated)

Norwegian Cruise Line is China bound, and in a big way, too.

Norwegian Cruise Line is China bound, and in a big way, too.

With the newly wrought Norwegian Escape set to launch later this month, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that her forthcoming sister ship, Norwegian Bliss, will be adapted for the Chinese market upon her completion in 2017.

Norwegian Bliss is the second of the so called ‘improved Breakaway class’ vessels and, alongside the Norwegian Escape, she will be the largest vessel ever to be purpose built for the line when she emerges in 2017.

The move comes right in the wake of an announcement from Princess Cruises that that their third in line Royal Princess class ship will also be going straight out from Italy to the Chinese market. Given the name of Majestic Princess, she will carry her name on the bow in both English and Chinese lettering.

While the Chinese market has been booming for some time, nothing gives the truth to it’s strength as the imminent assignment of these new, platinum chip vessels. They will join new builds from the likes of Royal Caribbean to create a series of very tempting first time cruise adventures for the local Chinese market.

What remains to be seen is just how buoyant that market remains in the long term, with the significant slow down of the Chinese economy that is becoming more and more evident.

Beyond these two significant new company ‘flag wavers’ bound for the East, it should be interesting indeed to watch the deployment patterns of other upcoming new vessels coming on stream for the likes of Costa and MSC.

Interesting times. As ever, stay tuned.

UPDATE:

As of this afternoon, Norwegian Cruise Line has announced that the ship will not be named Norwegian Bliss after all. A new name, as yet unannounced, will be given to the vessel in the near future.

MAGELLAN VS. MARCO POLO- THE LOWDOWN

Having been lucky enough to sail on both Magellan and Marco Polo this year, I thought it might be a good idea to flag up some of the salient points of each ship for those undecided about which of the two they might possibly like to sail on next year.

First, a few general points;

You have to bear in mind that the two ships were built some twenty years apart, and for very different purposes. Lithe and beautiful, Marco Polo is every bit as much an obvious ‘Sixties Girl’ as, say, Dusty Springfield or Diana Rigg. Her long, lean lines and fine, low slung hull reflect that era to cosmetic perfection.

Magellan, by contrast, presents a chunkier, more vibrant profile, and her broad open decks betray the fact that she was built for open, expansive cruising from the start. That silhouette- so ridiculed back in the day- has filled out to resemble something more welcoming and almost matron-like with the passage of time. But she is still a very different experience on many levels to her storied sibling.

In terms of size, Magellan is twice as large again as the Marco Polo- 46,000 tons against 22,000- yet, at the same time, she carries just over half as many passengers again (1250 as against 800). Hence, Magellan feels more open and spacious than the Marco Polo, assuming both ships are full. And, on my two cruises, both ships were sailing at full capacity.

In terms of cabins, those aboard Magellan are of a more uniform, almost cookie cutter type of design. They are generously proportioned, and all around the same size- both insides and outsides- so that the real pricing difference lies largely in location rather than specifications. Magellan also has a handful of balcony cabins and- a real deal- some 125 rooms are set aside as dedicated single cabins on each voyage, at a supplement of just twenty five per cent of the twin rate. A smart move.

Cabins aboard Marco Polo have a lot more individual charm in general, great wardrobe space, and absolutely beautiful interior woodwork. They come in a vast variety of grades and, if booking one, you’ll need to check out the deck plans really carefully to ensure that you get exactly what is best for you.

In terms of dining, the Magellan has two main restaurants- Kensington and The Waldorf- that operate on a two sitting system for dinner. Interestingly, the opening times for both first and second sitting are staggered some fifteen minutes apart each evening.

Magellan- like Marco Polo- also offers a more casual, upper deck lido alternative for all main meals, including dinner. The newer ship also features an almost round the clock pizza corner, and a lunchtime burger food outlet located near the main, central pool area.

The dining operation aboard Marco Polo revolves mainly around the midships situated Waldorf. This beautiful dining room also offers dinner in two sittings, with open sitting for breakfast and lunch. As previously mentioned, the lido offers another main dining option. Outside, there is a separate deli area that serves up delicious hot sandwiches, wraps, and hog roasts on some sea days that are very popular.

On both ships, food and service is very good indeed, and most passengers are more than content with the overall preparation, content and delivery of the food on board. You will not starve on either ship and, in my opinion, you will often be both surprised and delighted. Both ships deliver an excellent, value for money product in this respect.

In terms of indoor spaces, it largely comes down to personal taste. The Marco Polo is, quite simply, one of the most exquisite jewels still afloat; a beautiful ship, suffused with Art Deco accented nooks and crannies that ooze cosy, old world intimacy and comfort. You soon get to know the staff, and vice versa.

Magellan, by contrast, has much better passenger flow, and a chic, Scandinavian flair that makes strolling her broad, open interior walkways a true pleasure. Long, expansive lounging areas flank a row of floor to ceiling windows, creating a long, languid space ideal for strolling and people watching alike.

The showroom on the Magellan also wins out over that on the Marco Polo. Hardly surprising, as it was installed as a purpose built, two story high auditorium for Vegas style stage shows when the ship was new.

Both ships feature good quality live music across a number of disciplines, from rock and soul to classical piano and violin duos. Sadly, neither ship has enough musicians on board. Each, for instance, would benefit from having a genuine live jazz music handle.

In terms of open deck space, the broad, capacious exteriors of the Magellan offer more expansive lounging spaces, with two separate pools and a trio of hot tubs. The centre pool, located in a kind of sun bowl, has both sunshine and shade on really fine days. Purpose built for cruising from day one, her open spaces are both diverse and delightful. And the aft facing garden area, located right aft, is as lush and elegant as that of any six star ship. It has proven extremely popular from day one.

But for sheer, symmetrical beauty and balance, nothing beats that triple tier of cascading sun decks at the stern of the Marco Polo. The extended arms of these seem to almost cradle passengers in an embrace of sun splashed teak styling, and the open expanse behind the popular Scotts Bar draws people with its magnificent, almost Olympian vista over the wake at any hour of the day or night. It remains one of the most compelling, totally alluring open deck spaces on any ship afloat, regardless of style, size, or presumed prestige. Quite literally, there is nothing else like it on the ocean.

In terms of other stuff, Magellan has a decent sized casino, where Marco Polo does not have one at all. There is a more expansive shopping gallery on Magellan, but the branded logo stuff is pretty much the same across the board on both ships.

So, hopefully, this should provide readers with some insight to help them make a choice. Personally, I find both ships to be good, solid and appealing vessels, each in their own way.

Of course, the Marco Polo is- and always will be- the true beauty of the pair, thanks to her harmonious marriage of Art Deco interiors to timeless, perfectly proportioned Sixties styling. The ship is as elegant as James Bond’s original Aston Martin and, in my opinion, every bit as iconic.

But Magellan, too, is winning people over. Her boxy, high sided hull is softened immensely by her new paint scheme, and her sharp, raked prow truly is a thing of beauty. And, with that graceful ‘whale tail’ funnel looming above a pert, perfectly squared off stern, the ship looks much more sleek and beautiful from most angles than many of the newer, far more modern new builds of late.

Both ships serve up a well programmed, carefully co-ordinated cruise and shore experience that is very good value indeed for the price. And, with attractive all inclusive drinks packages from £17 a day as part of the optional on board menu (more on short, two and three day taster cruises), you can budget to sail on either- or, indeed, both- without breaking the bank.

Your cruise, your choice. Enjoy 😉

Marco Polo, still one of the great, unrivalled gems of the cruise industry at fifty years of age.

Marco Polo, still one of the great, unrivalled gems of the cruise industry at fifty years of age.

VIKING OCEAN CRUISES- ROYAL VIKING LINE MARK TWO?

There is little doubt that the ongoing emergence of Viking Ocean Cruises has absolutely galvanised interest in cruise travel on a scale unseen for many decades. The whole concept has distinctly nostalgic overtones, wrapped in a state of the art modern package, and deliberately marketed to evoke memories of a more exclusive, intimate cruise experience. Simply and unashamedly, the company draws inspiration from an illustrious, very storied predecessor.

in the annals of vanished cruising legends, the Royal Viking Line evokes a level of whimsical nostalgia perhaps equalled only by the equally salubrious French Line. The company was established by Warren Titus in the early 1970’s with one simple aim; to create the most elegant and exclusive cruise experience available to passengers anywhere.

He envisaged, and then delivered, a trio of stunningly elegant sisters, suffused in Scandinavian chic from bow to stern, that would offer spacious accommodation and gracious service at the pinnacle of luxury cruising. Those three sister ships were, of course, the Royal Viking Sea, Royal Viking Star, and Royal Viking Sky.

This tremendous, triumphant trio succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The three sister ships became the collective benchmark for elegant travel, and the first choice of the savvy, sophisticated cruising elite that demanded nothing but the very best. Just as likely to turn up at Tromso as Tahiti, the three sister ships carved out a niche in modern maritime history that every subsequent luxury cruise line- from Crystal to Silversea- has aspired to ever since. They truly were game changers.

The sheer, enduring excellence and elegance of their design is borne out by the fact that all three vessels are still in service for other lines, more than forty years after their original genesis. And, despite no longer being the sybaritic showstoppers that they once were, each of these three wonderful ships is still instantly distinctive as ex-RVL royalty.

Titus emphasised space, splendour, and matchless cuisine and service as the bench marks for his three sisters. And now, like a modern day echo heeding that timeless old call, a new class of vessel is gradually taking shape, echoing those age old standards in a series of new, yet startlingly familiar sister ships.

Viking Ocean Cruises is the long anticipated offshoot of the hugely successful river cruise line. It combines the polished, Scandinavian flair of the original RVL with the best features and attributes of the river cruise experience that Viking has come to dominate to such a large extent.

Again, the company decided on a trio of congenial, compatible sister ships. The first of these- the 48,000 ton Viking Star- entered service last year, to reams of critical acclaim from passengers and travel trade alike.

Just the appearance of the ship drew awed gasps from the not easily impressed. There it was once again- that graceful, sharply raked prow that had been the trademark of the Titus trio, and the single proud funnel, placed just aft of midships. The hull- as brilliantly white as an Arctic glacier- hinted at the cool, pristine perfection of those classically styled Scandinavian interiors. In almost every respect, Viking Star is a graceful, beautifully executed nod to her three predecessors.

Next year will see a pair of sister ships- Viking Sea and Viking Star- that will round out the initial fleet (though there is an option for a fourth vessel in the class). Between them, this trio of vessels will take passengers ‘back to the future’ with a kind of intimate, endearing twist of the old days. In so many ways, this is Royal Viking 2.0.

And yet….

This new trio of ships offers a natural, luxurious progression from those 1970’s built ships that makes them as salubrious and state of the art as can be. Every single cabin- and even the smallest measures in at a capacious 270 square feet- comes with its own private balcony. In the old RVL days, balconies on cruise ships were almost non existent.

The symmetry between Royal Viking of old and Viking Ocean of new is hardly a happy accident. Viking CEO, Torstein Hagen, was actually the CEO of Royal Viking Line between 1980 and 1984.

In a mirror image of their river going siblings, the Viking Ocean trio will also offer a full, complimentary range of shore excursions, and many overnight stays in ‘greatest hits’ ports such as Bergen and Barcelona. This is intended to make them fully competitive with the likes of Azamara Club Voyages and Oceania- lines that Viking Ocean will inevitably be compared to.

Viking Ocean will also offer complimentary beer and wine with both lunch and dinner- just like the river boats and another rival operator, Voyages to Antiquity. This is not quite the fully inclusive largesse of, say, Regent or Seadream and, if the line is to really raise it’s game, then fully all inclusive is a must do. For now, this is not the case.

Viking chairmen, Torstein Hagen, has been smart enough to conceive a trio of classically cool, state of the art vessels that are already garnering a tidal wave of attention in the travel industry. Like their RVL predecessors, they emphasise superb food and personal service in casually spectacular surroundings.

But these ‘new’ Vikings offer a whole range of indoor and alfresco dining options that the old RVL trio never did. This is not so much revolution, more the evolution of a classically elegant kind of style and service.

All things in, Viking Ocean is a very alluring prospect; a kind of ‘less is more’ sense of enhanced elegance, shorn of casinos, rock climbing walls and roller rinks, and instead suffused in a cocoon of expansive style and space, in ships that are large enough to be eminently seaworthy, and yet still remaining intimate enough to make fast in the smaller, more exclusive ports that their larger competitors will be obliged to sail past.

Something old, something new, on an ocean that remains eternally blue. A subtle revival and the ageless thrills of a stylish arrival. Hagen is clearly onto something here.

The question is; will anybody else follow in his wake?

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.