BRAEMAR TO RETURN TO THE CARIBBEAN IN 2016-17

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely recommended as worthy of your attention.

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

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

THE MARCO POLO; TRAGEDY AND MISCONCEPTION

The Marco Polo at Honfleur

The Marco Polo at Honfleur

No one can have heard of the death of a passenger on board the Marco Polo this weekend without anything but intense sadness, and sincere condolences for the family so tragically bereaved. It is truly heartbreaking as accidents go.

And, despite the hype and the storm of criticism currently being hurled at owners Cruise And Maritime, an accident is exactly what this is.

The Marco Polo was only hours from port, sailing up a storm lashed English Channel at the conclusion of a forty-two day Caribbean and Amazon cruise. The unfortunate passenger was sitting in the ship’s Waldorf restaurant, when a huge wave smashed in one of the big floor to ceiling windows, killing him instantly.

Inevitably, the usual raft of armchair critics have been roused from their winter torpor, and the internet is awash with their retrospective pearls of wisdom. Let’s look at some of these, one at a time.

Why didn’t the Marco Polo run for shelter in a Channel Port, given the fierce weather?

Seems reasonable, until you consider that, in order to reach any European port, the Marco Polo would almost certainly have had to alter course, and very likely expose herself to even worse sailing conditions than the ship was already encountering. Shortsighted and foolhardy as a course of action.

Aft terraces on the Marco Polo

Aft terraces on the Marco Polo

In addition, many ports simply don’t have docking facilities to accommodate a ship with such a deep draft as the Marco Polo. Docking a 22,000 ton ocean liner is not as easy as swinging a car into a convenient parking space.

A newer, bigger ship would have weathered these conditions much better….

To which I can only add one word: Titanic.

The ship was old, and badly maintained

Sure, the Marco Polo is a lady of a certain age. Fifty two, to be precise. What does that mean? Absolutely nothing.

Having sailed on the ship three times myself, I know fine well that the Marco Polo is one of the stoutest, most strongly built cruise ships sailing anywhere. With a hull strengthened to withstand Antarctic ice, she is far more capable of overcoming bad weather conditions than most of the new, high sided modern ships now in service.

I went through a pretty nasty storm in the Aegean on the Marco Polo, and she handled the rough seas very well indeed.

Maintenance? There is no point at which you can maintain the windows of any ship against an unstoppable volume of salt water. Much bigger and more modern ships have had their windows punched out in howling gales. The sea will always be the master here.

And, in my experience, I have to add that the Marco Polo is most certainly not a badly maintained ship.Quite the opposite, in fact. I would not hesitate to sail on her again.

Why didn’t the Captain simply stop his engines, and ride out the storm?

This one is the absolute height of stupidity. Only an idiot of the highest order would voluntarily disable his own power plant in any weather conditions, and thus endanger every life on board.

Marco Polo entrance lobby

Marco Polo entrance lobby

This is a hideously tragic accident. The fact is, we are all on borrowed time and, if we shied away from doing things simply on the rare to unfeasible idea that something similar could happen to us, then we might as well be dead anyway. When you stop dreaming and then doing, you die inside, even if you keep on living for decades.

None of which is intended to detract from an awful, heartfelt human tragedy. My sympathies are with the family of the unfortunate gentleman. They are also with the crew of the Marco Polo, who are no doubt very traumatised by such a sad and upsetting event.

CRUISING SOMEWHERE DIFFERENT- OPTIONS OFF THE BEATEN TRACK

Chase the sun. Or just the change

Chase the sun. Or just the change

Let’s face it, there are times when the lure of even the most famous of cruising venues begins to fade when you’ve done it time after time. So, if you’re beginning to fall a little out of love with the dolce vita lifestyle of the usual Meddy-Go-Rounds, or feeling blase about the sun splashed Bahamas, what are the options if you still want to enjoy the seductive cruising lifestyle?

Well, fear not. Here’s an idea or two that will hopefully rekindle your interest in the world at large.

One option you might like to look at is the Black Sea. Cruises tend to be on offer here traditionally in late summer and early autumn. You’ve still got the advantage of hopefully good weather, linked in with a chance to see ports such as Odessa, Yalta, with it’s famous Swallow’s Nest castle perched high up on a cliff above the sea, or even Sevastopol, from where you can see the killing field that once witnessed the futile, heroic charge of the Light Brigade during the Crimean War.

If the Canary Islands just don’t cut if for you any more, consider going even further south to the islands of the Azores, for a more up close and personal, less tourist driven flavour of what those islands once were. Beautiful, remote and bathed in more or less year round sunshine, the Azores attracts a small, select handful of sailings each year. It’s not by any means a big market but, if the object is to avoid the crowds, then this is pretty much a perfect choice.

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

The Amazon is also an amazing, unforgettable foray. Sailing nine hundred miles upstream to Manaus is a fantastic experience; the city emerges from it’s jungle cover like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. En route you’ll see amazing beaches, samba displays, and streams of black and white water literally flowing side by side.

You’ll also see bugs and insects of every size, shape and colour imaginable, as well as gimlet eyed caimans. And where else could you go fishing for piranha if you’re so inclined?

Something not so steamy and in your face? Consider an expedition cruise to the remote, pristine fastness of Antarctica, an austral winter wonderland where the sun never sets at all during the main season, from November through February each year.

See vast ice floes, tinted rose pink by the glow of the endless sun, as flocks of cawing penguins skitter across them. You might see giant whales breaching the surface, leaving plumes of icy spray against a backdrop of cold, clear blue sky. There are giant, jagged icebergs as large as cathedrals, parading past you in slow motion like so many ghostly galleons. For something completely different, this is as good as it gets.

Bermuda is a famous beauty

Bermuda is a famous beauty

And, if you want some seductive, sunny island life without the crowds, traffic and beach hawkers, you could do a lot worse than consider a summertime cruise to Bermuda. Most of the voyages run between April and October, and typically sail from both Boston and New York. The short distance- just 700 miles sailing in either direction- allows ships to spend a minimum of three days/two nights docked at his beautiful island.

Bermuda is clean, safe, uncrowded, and features some of the most singular and stunning beaches anywhere in the world, a string of blush pink beauties drummed by surging Atlantic rollers. It’s perfect for families, too, as well as honeymooners. It really is a little floating piece of paradise.

So, there you go. These are just a handful of ideas that will hopefully whet the appetite at the very least. Wherever you go out there- enjoy.

BRAEMAR RETURNS TO THE CARIBBEAN-UPDATED

Braemar at anchor off St. Barts

Braemar at anchor off St. Barts

In what looks like being a very popular move, Fred. Olsen’s gorgeous little Braemar is returning to the Caribbean in 2015 for a fourteen night fly cruise.

The ship was a regular Caribbean winter staple for ten years, from 2002 through till 2012, until rising flight prices and prohibitive APD costs forced the line to curtail the programme. Based on Barbados, the Braemar sailed the Caribbean on fourteen night itineraries from November through each April. At least one of these voyages was an Amazon itinerary that took the 20,000 ton ship all the way to Manaus, some nine hundred miles upstream (see previous blogs).

The happy return- very much an exploratory trip to see if the market will support a renewed series of such sailings- departs from Barbados on January 12th, 2015. It’s very much a ‘greatest hits’ tour of the eastern and southern Caribbean, with calls at Grenada, Curacao, Aruba, Turks and Caicos, Tortola, St. Kitts, and Antigua. There is also an overnight stay in Santiago do Cuba, which should prove popular with both passengers and off duty crew.

Prices are from £1779 for a complete fly cruise package, and offered from London and Manchester, based on two people sharing an inside cabin. The new itinerary goes on sale this coming August 17th.

Shell Beach, St. Barts

Shell Beach, St. Barts

I did a few Caribbean cruises on the Braemar, and they remain some of the most memorable of all my voyages. The ship is an ideal size; she was able to snuggle up into the sweet little harbours, such as Saint Barts, that the bigger ships had to bypass. Her cascading outdoor terrace decks were especially popular at night; the usual quite formal Fred. Olsen dress codes were deliberately relaxed especially for these warmer climes.

All cruises (with the exception of the once yearly Amazon run) included a first night, overnight stay in Barbados and, late in her Caribbean runs, one at Montego Bay as an alternative. This was a great way to settle in and kick back after a long day’s travel.

The whole package was seamlessly organised; Olsen chartered their own flights, with upgraded meal service and free drinks included. On arrival, luggage was sent ahead, and usually waiting for passengers in their cabins when they embarked. Coaches brought arriving passengers to the ship, where they did their check in on board.

Each fourteen night round trip circuit of the Caribbean would take in an average of eleven different ports of call.

On the return journey, flight check in was done on board Braemar the day before arrival, and luggage again sent on ahead to the airport. This allowed for a relatively stress free last day; passengers left the ship and went direct to departures at Barbados airport in the mid to late afternoon.

All of these things combined to make the Braemar a very popular and attractive draw in the Caribbean. Factor in the great food and the service from the fabulous, Filipino crew- very much the heart and soul of the Braemar– and it is not too difficult to see why.

And it's a welcome return to gorgeous Grand Turk....

And it’s a welcome return to gorgeous Grand Turk….

However, it has to be said that some things have changed since then.

Braemar herself has put on weight. The addition of a mid section to the ship added a second pool, several popular balcony cabins, and a much needed forward observation lounge. Inevitably, it also made her thicker around the waist. But after several years of sampling superlative cruise ship food, I should maybe keep quiet on that subject…

That said, this truly lovely little ship is still far, far smaller and more nimble than any other British flavoured ship on the Caribbean circuit. And, if anything, the extra balcony cabins should make her even more of an attractive choice, especially for first time cruisers.  If all goes well, then an extended season could be a realistic opportunity. Very much a case of ‘bringing on back the good times’ for many people who remember the earlier days with great affection.

Personally, I wish her the very best of luck. Smooth sailing and a fair breeze to pretty little Braemar.

NB: Owing to overwhelming demand for this cruise, a second, fifteen day round trip fly cruise on Braemar in the Caribbean has now been added for January 26th, 2015. Prices from £1779 also.

AMAZING AMAZON ADVENTURES…..

The unique 'wedding of the waters' at Tapajo, Brazil

The unique ‘wedding of the waters’ at Tapajo, Brazil

The Amazon. A staggering, serpentine waterway that snakes for thousands of miles from the Atlantic, right up into the hinterlands of South America. It’s unlike any conventional cruise you’ll ever make, and that accounts for a huge part of its appeal.

You can sail more than nine hundred miles upstream to Manaus, a jungle shrouded, rustic gem of a city that looks like something straight out of an Indiana Jones movie. En route, you’ll encounter sights, sounds and scents that will sear themselves into your memory forever.

Vast tracts of rich, dense foliage that tumble down to the banks of the muddy river. Canoes attempting to keep pace with your ship as she glides silently upstream. Cows and oxen grazing near the banks of the river, while gimlet eyed Caimans watch from the water for a first, slight slip. Thatched houses on rickety stilts that seem to cling to the riverbank for comfort.

You’ll be surprised by beautiful, pristine beaches far upstream at Alter do Chao, and maybe experience some vibrant, frenetic displays of samba at one of the local displays in Parintins. You’ll certainly be blown away by the unique, unreal ‘wedding of the waters’ at Tapajo, where currents of brown and white water flow literally right alongside each other. You might even catch sight of some of the local pink dolphins that frolic in these same waters.

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

Daily life along the banks of the Amazon

And there are always lots of options on offer in this spectacular natural wonderland. You could go on a night hunt for Caimans with a torch, or take up piranha fishing from a small tourist boat. And anyone fascinated by insects will find literally thousands of diverse, brightly coloured bugs competing for their attention. The air is alive with the screeching of brilliantly hued and plumed parrots, as well as thousands of other colourful, chattering birds.

There are incredible, lush tracts of fauna and flowers, and enormous floating lily pads that look big enough to crash land a helicopter on.Vast swathes of gnarled, twisted tree stumps and roots form a myriad of  dank, impenetrable mangroves that suddenly give way to patches of pristine, cultivated farmland. The heat and the humidity can be overpowering at times.

But nothing prepares you for Manaus.

The capital of Amazonia was established by Jesuit priests, and later greatly expanded thanks to Henry Ford, and his use of the rubber plantations here. Ferries chug up to the beach here and literally run aground on the sand under the promenade wall. A glut of goods- everything from printers to live pigs- is carried ashore here.

The locals

The locals

There’s an adjacent walk that takes you right past the heart of this teeming, jungle shrouded juggernaut of a city. For an elegant contrast, check out the elegant Teatro Amazonas Opera House, with its stucco facade. It looks as if it has been lifted intact from a Parisian boulevard. Topped by a graceful cupola draped in the Brazilian national colours, it is the focal point of the entire city.

Yes, the Amazon is a different kind of adventure. It’s thrilling, spellbinding, and more than a little bit raw in places. But it is totally distinctive as cruise destinations go, and it is never, ever boring.