THE LEVIATHAN; US LINE’S POST WAR PRODIGAL CHILD

USS LEVIATHAN

The Leviathan in post war service for US Lines

Of all the great liners to emerge unscathed from the carnage of the Great War, I think the Leviathan had perhaps the saddest commercial career. In view of her high birth and her heroic war record, there’s something wistful and just damned wrong about her fate on the Atlantic. She was a flower that never seemed to fully bloom.

Designed and launched as the Vaterland, the second of the great Hamburg Amerika Line trio created by the brilliant Albert Ballin, she was in New York harbour, in the midst of her third round trip, when the war broke out. Shackled to her Hoboken pier, she was first interned, before suffering the ultimate indignity of becoming a troopship for the enemies of the Fatherland.

It was a role she performed beautifully. On one trip, she carried almost 15,000 doughboys over to General Pershing’s fledgling army in France, the largest amount of men ever to be ferried over any ocean at any time. At war’s end, she was awarded to the United States Lines as a prize. In all, she had carried an estimated 120,000 American troops.  After trooping duties, the huge liner went down to Newport News, Virginia, for a long, protracted restoration to civilian service.

Here, the huge vessel was converted to oil burning, and a complete new set of blueprints for her was produced from scratch by William Francis Gibbs, a man later to achieve everlasting fame as the designer of both the America and the United States. While much of her original glut of Edwardian elegance was restored, some Art Deco touches were dotted around the ship. By June 1923, the reborn Leviathan, with her funnels painted red, white and blue, was ready to re-enter service on the Atlantic crossing.

She never really had a chance.

In the prohibition era, American liners on the Atlantic were dry in more ways than one. Though an enterprising passenger could always acquire a stash of booze on board, her official moniker as a ‘dry’ ship hurt the Leviathan from the start.

Secondly, the high labour costs inherent in running with an all American crew bit into her potential profit margins. And United States Lines simply had no experience of running such a large and extravagant ship. While rivals such as Cunard and White Star operated a balanced, three ship service across the Atlantic, the proud, doughty Leviathan had no comparable running mate.

Despite that, she was a very prestigious liner, right up there with her sister ships and commercial rivals. the Berengaria and the Majestic. She was certainly the fastest of the ex-Ballin trio. But in many ways, the Leviathan was essentially a ‘not quite as’ ship. Not quite as large as the Majestic. Not quite as fast as the Mauretania.

It was an incredible time; the ‘Roaring Twenties’ was an age defined by steamships, gangsters, flappers, baseball and jazz. And, in her day, the Leviathan was as prestigious and newsworthy as any of her rivals.

Then, in 1927, the arrival of the stunning, Art Deco suffused Ile De France signalled the beginning of the end for the armada of ageing Edwardian theme parks still crossing the Atlantic. Her debut was sensational; within weeks, she became the most striking, newsworthy and successful liner on the Atlantic by a mile. Veteran Atlantic travellers were prepared to wait a full week or more just to be able to sail on her.

The Leviathan was particularly hard hit. Then- irony of ironies- the advent of a new German champion- in the shape of the Bremen- made matters worse still. The onset of the Great Depression in October of 1929 almost finished her. Only a generous government subsidy kept the Leviathan sailing at all.

Even the end of Prohibition did nothing to ease the pain. By now, the Leviathan was being sent on short, five and six day ‘booze cruises’ just to make ends meet. By 1934, she was making only five transatlantic crossings a year, often carrying more crew than passengers. Her grand, ghostly salons, dotted with just handfuls of stoic, die hard passengers, would prove to be an eerie harbringer for the deserted ocean liners of the Jet Age, some thirty years later.

The Leviathan never made another commercial voyage. For four years, she remained shackled to her pier, slowly wasting away. In 1935, she was crowded to capacity for the first time in years, used as a giant viewing gallery for the maiden arrival in New York of the Normandie.

Finally, in January 1938, the great liner was sold for scrap. For the last time, her propellers kicked into life, and she limped across the Atlantic to her own destruction in Rosyth, Scotland. It was a sad, laboured, and undignified end for such a magnificent liner.

That final voyage was her 301st in all. In her years of service for the United States Lines, she carried something like 250,000 passengers. She never earned a cent in profit.

Poor, proud Leviathan never inspired the same awe and affection as her two sister ships. Yet she was every bit as magnificent and glamorous. Fate dealt this fabulous, posthumously fabled ship a series of lousy hands in rapid succession. They were storms she could not weather, sadly.

UPGRADING YOUR FLIGHT- VALUE FOR MONEY?

Inflight BA lunch served in Club Europe, the business class for European flights

Inflight BA lunch served in Club Europe, the business class for European flights

It’s a fact of life that the great volume of air travellers turn right at the cabin door, turning their backs on the ordered luxe of First and Business Class for the enforced intimacy of the Economy Cabin. And oh, how many of us have looked in jealous admiration at those serene, spacious acres of perceived calm as we trudge towards the netherworld of chicken or pasta, twenty film channels, and lockers overflowing with a tsunami of strange shaped carry ons, all overlaid with a soundtrack of inflight safety videos and screaming kids. Little wonder then, that those who can afford it are tempted to consider paying for an upgrade.

Sure, Club/Business and even First Class will give you far more space to play and relax in, with vastly upgraded food and drink service. Fillet steaks and fine wines, served up on snowy white table cloths, Bose headphones and a seat that often converts to a fully flat bed are just some of the perks. There’s designer toiletries and, often as not, even an in-flight sleeper suit. But the real advantages are often in the pre and post flight experiences.

Those wanting to sleep on overnight flights can often dine quite well- and for free- in the exclusive departure lounges accessed with one of those magical, upper class tickets. There’s a dedicated Fast Track through security, as well as separate check in desks, and an enhanced luggage allowance. If time and privacy are of the essence, these can be real deal breakers in deciding whether to splash out on an upgrade.

The downside is that you are not going to get there any faster than the huddled masses in steerage, and there is no guarantee that you will escape from screaming kids, though a better class of headphone will certainly drown them out. And many will simply decide that the difference in price to upgrade from Economy to Business is simply not worth the while.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

The most expensive upgrades are usually on the Transatlantic routes where the demand is greatest, typically to and from New York, Los Angeles and Chicago. Here, the premiums are relatively highest in direct proportion to the actual flight time. By contrast, flights out to the Far East tend to be better value in the upgrade stakes, with cheaper prices and longer flight times. This is an option that clearly gives you the most bang for the proverbial buck.

If you can only go to the expense of upgrading on one leg, I would personally make it the outward one. It’s an auspicious way to start that trip of a lifetime, and worth doing at least once for the sheer excellent exclusivity of the whole gig. If travelling to America, you’re pretty certain to be flying in daylight hours as well, whereas the flight home tends to be overnight, and so not as conducive to enjoying the whole range of extras on offer.

That is a statement that obviously applies to leisure travellers. Business travellers, sybarites and the simply filthy rich will fly Business and/or First Class routinely, no matter when or where.

The nice seats are up front

The nice seats are up front

There is also a kind of netherland offered by some airlines, known as Premium Economy. These seats usually have five or six inches more leg space than in Economy, and they are also wider, so offering more than a modicum of ease and space, if not excessive luxury. The throwback here is that the food and drink service is the same as offered in the (relatively) cheap seats at the back, but the premium is a lot less than that charged for Club, Business or First Class.

If you’re part of an airline loyalty programme, you can often use accumulated miles to upgrade your ticket; a sweet little treat that is really the cream on the cake. And, after all, what else are you hanging on to all those miles for, if not to treat yourself?

Upgrading is ultimately a value call. If you think the price point offers good value in terms of convenience, comfort and exclusivity, then it’s a no brainer. It can make the difference between a good trip and a truly great one.

And, while spatial largesse and upgraded service are a common factor of all left hand turns at the plane doorway, it is also true to say that not all Business Classes are created equal. Mind you, prices for upgrades can vary widely as well. The best thing to do is check the individual airline websites in advance, to get an overall idea of the product. You could also check some inflight passenger reviews online to gain a picture of sorts of what’s on offer.

There’s no question that upgrading puts the fun back into flying. The real question is, whether you think the expense of moving up a level, or even two, can be justified. And, at the end of the day, that’s a value call that only you can truly make. Enjoy.

THE FLY CRUISE; WHAT IT IS, AND HOW IT WORKS

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

It might seem like a no brainer even defining what a fly cruise is. As a staple of the travel industry since at least the late 1970’s, literally hundreds of thousands of people from the UK have taken fly cruises, whether in Europe, the Caribbean or, indeed, further abroad. On the whole, this article will have little enough to enlighten these people for sure. Fair enough, but please consider the following.

Of a current UK population of around sixty four million, approximately one point seven million take a cruise or fly cruise on a yearly basis, although those numbers are forecast to increase to around two million in a couple of years. That total- itself an all time record high- still represents less than one person out of every thirty-five. The potential for expansion is, indeed, incredible.

But a number of factors mitigate against a fly cruise to the potential new cruise passengers out there. Firstly, the infamous hassle endemic in airports and airport security and, secondly, the often cramped, bordering on unpleasant inflight experience itself, is off putting. Factor into that the always subliminal worry about that first ever arrival in a foreign country, and you have a trio of potential obstacles to overcome when trying to woo passengers to the storied pleasures of, say, the Caribbean or the Far East.

Here, education is key. I sometimes wonder whether some lines go far enough in explaining just exactly what the actual process of a fly cruise encompasses. This article is written in that spirit.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM THE USA:

Flying should ideally be a breeze

Flying should ideally be a breeze

If you’re going on a fly cruise that sails from an American port- typically, but not exclusively, from Florida- you will be flown from the airport nearest you to America. Often as not for those living outside London, this will involve a very early start, and a change of flight via Heathrow or, sometimes, via Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Some passengers can find this relatively simple process quite intimidating.

How to make the flight easier? You can try setting your watch to the actual time in your arrival destination before you leave. The common consensus is to drink lots of water, and very little alcohol inflight (though, God knows, the inflight standards of some airlines would drive the most dedicated teetotaller to drink). Exercises tend to help to improve the circulation.

Once you get to the other side of the Atlantic, there will be a dedicated transfer to take you to your overnight hotel.Usually, a representative of the cruise line will meet you and direct you on your way. Often as not, this will be via the hotel’s own local, complimentary shuttle. You’ll need to on the ball in finding where the shuttles pick up, usually at a specially designated ramp just outside of departures.

In general, evening meals and/or drinks will not be included in the price of your overnight stay. It will be literally room only, plus transfers. Some hotels do include a breakfast buffet in with the price, but it is certainly best to check beforehand with your agent.

You’ll transfer to the ship at around eleven thirty to noon the next morning. There will usually be a letter placed in your room when you arrive on the previous night, detailing the transfer times and meeting place- usually the hotel lobby. Typically, there will also be some representative of the cruise line on site on the morning of departure, to answer any questions you may have. If there is a big group to move, you will almost certainly taken by coach to the ship, and your luggage will go on ahead. You won’t see it again until it turns up outside your cabin an hour or so after boarding, or sometimes later.

From inflight food....

From inflight food….

So, in the event that you have any vital medicines of any kind, best to put them in a small carry on bag that you keep on your person. Also, remember to keep your passport and your cruise documents in here, too. It will make the check in process a lot simpler and more hassle free.

Hopefully, you will now be able to kick back, relax, and enjoy what is, for many, the holiday of a lifetime. But as surely as night follows day, the time will come when you have to think about the return journey. Here’s how that works in general.

Your luggage should be placed outside your cabin on the last night before you go to bed, and it is offloaded once the ship docks. After breakfast, you’ll be disembarked as part of a group, usually designated by coloured baggage tags and staggered at certain times. Once through American customs in the terminal downstairs, you’ll find your luggage standing under coloured, overhead signs that correspond to your baggage labels. A porter will then take these to a coach that will be waiting to take you to the airport to check in for your flight home.

This is where the day can get long, and downright angsty. Cruise lines in general no longer offer the complimentary day rooms at a nearby airport hotel that they once did. The result is that you can often be left at the airport with seven or eight hours of time to kill. Most Europe bound flights- especially from the east coast of the USA- tend not to depart until the late afternoon, or early evening. You should be aware of this. All of these arrangements should be explained to you in a special debarkation talk, held the day before you arrive back in port.

There are ways around this end of cruise annoyance. You could ask your cruise line if they can give you a rate for a hotel day room. This will give you a comfortable base to rest up, shower and change before the flight, or perhaps catch a few last rays of sun. At a time more to your liking, you and your luggage can then take the hotel’s complimentary shuttle to the airport. Be sure to check with hotel reception about the timing and availability of hotel-airport shuttles when you first get to the hotel.

To cruise food....

To cruise food….

Another option is to pay extra for an included city tour, run by the cruise line itself. Typically, this will take you on an excursion to somewhere like, say, the Everglades in Florida, and it may or may not include lunch. Then, in late afternoon, you’ll be transferred to the airport. This option includes the knowledge that your luggage travels safely with you on the coach. For peace of mind, this one is a pretty good option. It also keeps the ‘holiday’ vibe alive until the last possible moment.

Once you’re on the flight, I’d set your watch back on UK time and, as far as possible, try to sleep after the evening meal. Better still, eat something a good deal more substantial in one of the airport restaurants before you board, and opt for an attempt at sleep as soon as you’re airborne.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM EUROPE:

You might think that, because of the relatively much shorter flying distances between the UK and continental Europe, the time needed to join a ship in Barcelona, Rome or Venice will be much shorter than boarding one sailing from the USA?

Um, not necessarily….

If you’re flying from London or Manchester direct then sure, you’ll find that it’s a short, one flight hop, of no more than a couple of hours’ duration. But if you’re up in Scotland, Ireland, Wales or in the North East of England, it’s almost a given that you will be taking two flights, routing over airports such as Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

The problem here is not so much the actual flight times, so much as the fact that you might be laid up in one of these airports for a few hours. Again, I would recommend you keeping any necessary medication, plus your travel documents, on your own person.

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

It’s also a fact that most European fly cruises do not include a pre cruise, overnight hotel stay. Once you’ve picked up your luggage, you’ll be transferred- again probably by coach- straight to the ship. Again, there will be a representative of the cruise line to meet you when you arrive, and he or she will direct you to your waiting transfer coach. And the same will be true at the end of your cruise, too. In Italian airports especially, these return arrangements can cause some hassle.

Here, the check in desks seldom open less than three hours prior to your flight home so, if you’ve got an early evening departure from, say, Venice, you’ll be left in an airport that has very little comfortable seating- with your luggage to boot. It’s not a great way to end an otherwise marvellous adventure.

Again, most cruise lines offer an added, half day city tour in cities such as Venice, complete with a later transfer time to the airport. This is better, but personally I’d recommend booking an overnight, post cruise hotel stay for the night. This allows you to unwind without the crowds or the hassle, although you might have to arrange your own taxi transfers the next day. Still, this is the least painful option and, often as not, the cruise line can also arrange your hotel- and possibly the transfers- at a supplement.

Taking a fly cruise does not have to translate to a frightening, unfamiliar adventure into the unknown. Properly explained, easier understood.

It’s actually a pretty seamless process on the whole, one honed and practised down over a number of decades now. And another great advantage of buying a complete fly cruise package via a cruise line, is that they have total responsibility to get you to and from the ship at the start and finish.

AMTRAK ACROSS AMERICA- LETTING THE TRAIN TAKE THE STRAIN

Comfort with a capital 'C' is standard on Amtrak

Comfort with a capital ‘C’ is standard on Amtrak

America is possibly the most scenically diverse country in the world. From the stunning national parks of Yosemite and the still, silent, pine clad fjords of Alaska, to the forest of steel and glass that is Manhattan, the landscape is as eclectic and engaging as it is magnificent and monumental.

Trying to see it all is about as practicaL as trying to stuff a cloud into a suitcase. But if you really do want to get up close and personal with this constantly unravelling landscape, then it makes sense to do it by train.

Amtrak is America’s national rail network and, like those of many other countries, it has its share of problems. Big investment is needed in the infrastructure- the rail tracks, bridges and stations- that are it’s backbone. And no, it’s record for punctuality is not the greatest. Key to enjoying the Amtrak experience is time and some flexibility.

But that same, extensive network permits the creation and completion of some truly epic itineraries. You could combine New York with Miami, via an overnight rail journey, or take the short, three hour Surfliner run from Los Angeles to San Diego (see previous blogs). You could enjoy an overnight run from Chicago to New York, or even swagger on into sultry New Orleans. 

So what is the Amtrak experience like, then?

The overnight trains are vast, double deck leviathans several carriages long; the first impression is of a gunmetal coloured conga line of ponderous rolling stock that seems to stretch into infinity. Once on board, you have two options in terms of accommodation.

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Coach class seats are wide, roomy and come complete with leg rests. If you want more privacy and comfort, small and compact roomettes sleep up to two people each. These come complete with twin reclining seats that converts into a lower bed, with a second, pullman berth that pulls down at night. Showers and toilets are located in the same carriage, and the roomette option also includes all meals in the price.

Bigger still are the bedrooms, which also sleep two people. Two of these rooms can can interconnect to accommodate families of up to four. Each comes complete with a large picture window, armchair, and has its own shower and toilet. Again, all meals are included in the cost. If you can go to the expense of one of these, this is definitely the way to go.

Food wise, the dining cars serve breakfast between 6.30 and 10.00. Lunch (reservations required) runs from 11.30 to 15.00, and dinner (again, reservations required) is served up between 17.00- 21.30.  Long distance trains also usually have a lounge car that sells drinks, snacks, and offers panoramic windows for watching the scenery unfold all around you.

All things considered, Amtrak is a very comfortable and evocative way of letting America come to you through a series of amazing vistas. The coaches are also set up for wi-fi, and that naturally increases the options available for diversions on even the longest journeys.

It’s also a unique way to meet and interact with the locals in a relaxed, casual environment that no air travel could ever replicate. And the hassles of flying and airports in general are done away with in a single stroke.

But it’s the sheer, exalted notion of ‘rolling on the rails’ that really pushes all the buttons for anyone possessed of even an ounce of nostalgia. Consider crossing the entire continent. Los Angeles to New York. From sea to shining sea.  This is America, up close and personal, as generations of travellers once discovered her. Close enough to touch, and still vast enough to awe, amaze and enchant.

Nice, eh? Well, go on- get out there!

DISNEY DELIGHTS- MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES IN 2014

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

After a very successful 2013 run, the Disney Magic will return to the Mediterranean next year. The ship, recently extensively refurbished in Cadiz, Spain, will offer a series of four, five, seven, nine and twelve night cruises running from May to September, before making a fourteen night transatlantic crossing back to America.

Disney Magic will offer twelve cruises in all, book ended by a twelve night eastbound crossing in May from Port Canaveral to Barcelona, and the aforementioned, fourteen night westbound voyage in September. Almost all twelve of these cruises sail round trip from Barcelona.

Here’s how the cruises in between break down in terms of length, ports and dates:

FOUR NIGHT CRUISES:

A one off departure on August 7th. Ports of call are Ibiza and Palma de Mallorca. One sea day.

FIVE NIGHT CRUISES:

Another one off departure on August 11th, calling at La Spezia, Civitavecchia for Rome, and Villefranche, One sea day.

SEVEN NIGHT CRUISES: 

Five sailings, calling at Villefranche, Naples, Civitavecchia and La Spezia, These cruises depart on May 31st, June 7th, and August 16th, 23rd, and 30th. Two sea days.

NINE NIGHT CRUISES:

Two cruises, this time to the Eastern Mediterranean. Embarkation here is in Venice. Ports of call are Katakolon, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Mykonos and Venice (overnight stay). This one sails on June 26th and July 5th. Two sea days.

TWELVE NIGHT CRUISES: 

First itinerary is from Venice, and sails to Piraeus, Kusadasi, Rhodes, Heraklion, Mykonos, Santorini and Valletta, Malta. A one off sailing on July 14th. Four sea days

Second itinerary from Barcelona. Ports of call are Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Piraeus, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Valletta. Another one off, sailing on July 26th.  Four sea days.

Third itinerary is also from Barcelona, with calls at Villefranche, La Spezia, Civitavecchia, Catania, Naples, Corfu, Dubrovnik, Venice. Sails on June 14th. Note that this cruise ends in Venice. Three sea days.

THE CROSSINGS:

May 19th, Port Canaveral to Barcelona, with calls at Castaway Cay (Disney’s private island experience), Funchal, and Malaga, Twelve nights.

September 6th, Barcelona to San Juan, Puerto Rico, calling at Malaga, Tenerife, Antigua, St, Maarten, St, Kitts, San Juan, Fourteen nights.

This is a really good programme of cruises, with something for everyone. A couple of short breaks to allow first timers to decide if the Disney style of cruising is for them without breaking the bank, some excellent seven nighters that include the rare treat of two full sea days, and a trio of cracking twelve nighters that are more or less a complete sweep of the ‘greatest hits ‘of the region. Again, there are enough sea days on these- between three and four- to allow time to recover from ‘cathedral fatigue’.

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

But the daddy of them all for me is the sailing on July 26th, that includes both Villefranche and Mykonos on the same itinerary. Probably the two most beautiful ports in the entire region, it is very rare indeed to see them both featured on the same itinerary.

Freshly upgraded, distinctive, and graced with a stance that is instantly nostalgic, the Disney Magic has more than enough areas for the whole family to eat, rest and play through the pleasure spots of the balmy summertime Med. And the ship is not short of adults only enclaves for when you need a little kiddie-lite time. And some shore excursions are even tailored for adults only in certain ports of call.

It’s also worth noting that the standard cabins on this ship are some of the largest in the industry. That gives you somewhere cool and air conditioned to really chill out when you return from a day spent exploring the hot spots waiting for you ashore.

Altogether well thought out as a programme, and definitely worthy of your consideration.

THINGS FROM MY BUCKET LIST….

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Most people who know me would say that I’m well travelled. My general response to that is that I travel well. And, for sure, I do.

But looked at in either context, a simple fact remains the same; the more we experience of the world, the more we become painfully aware of how little we actually have seen. Travel is like peeling an onion; just when you think you’ve got down to the heart of it, you find another hundred layers, lying in wait to be unravelled.

And that is exactly as it should be, too.

To truly travel, the mind should always be constantly exploring new horizons and, at the very least, contemplating new stuff. Many of us have what we call a ‘bucket list’; a set of trophy things we want to do, sights we yet want to see,

Trust me, I’m no different in that regard. So, without further ado, here’s some of the adventures I still want to experience at least once in my lifetime. Hang on- this could get messy….

TRAVEL BY RAIL ACROSS THE USA

From sea to shining sea. West to East. Starting in Los Angeles with a stay on the dear old Queen Mary, and then making my way on those fabulous Amtrak double decker trains, all the way to New York.

I’d make a two night stop in certain cities along the way; New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia come first to mind. There would be a final couple of nights in New York and then- as a truly grand finale- I’d sail back across the Atlantic to England on the Queen Mary 2. 

That’s living, all right.

THREE WEEKS IN THE GREEK ISLANDS

This would be the complete opposite to my normal, organised routine. Just an open return flight ticket to Athens, as little luggage as possible, and then just island hopping for three weeks, using the local ferries like buses.

Where to? Wherever the mood and the music takes me. A day here. Three days there. Two days anywhere. Repeat as necessary until you become so chilled out that you’re almost liquid.

So many choices, and all dependant on a mood, a whim, People watching and drinking wine in the sun. Repeat as necessary. Jacket and tie? I don’t think so. Not for this one, Colonel.

Rio bound??

Rio bound??

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Anyone with even a hint of romance in their soul has a sacred duty to sail down to Rio; the most sultry and sensuous city south of the Equator. Why sail? Because tourists fly. And you are not a tourist; you’re a child that has to follow the sun. We don’t ‘do’ mundane, chico. That’s not what we’re about, is it? That’s not how we roll.

And, if you are going to arrive in Rio, you want to make that spectacular, dramatic entry from the sea. Sailing in past Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. And do it in style; arrive on the biggest, most swaggering and spectacular ship you can find. You owe it to Rio. And you owe it to yourself. Don’t let me down.

PADDLE WHEELER ON THE MISSISSIPPI

In the immortal words of Churchill, D; Oh, yes…

I want to sit on a rocking chair on some huge, hulking great wedding cake of  a paddle steamer, and pretend I’m Huckleberry Finn while I sip on a mint julep. I want to swagger down one of those impossibly over fussed, Gone With The Wind style grand staircases. To roll on out of New Orleans, with the paddle wheel thrashing up the river behind us, and a dixieland jazz soundtrack ringing in my ears. I still want to be able to hear that music until my dying day. Yes sir, I’ll take some of that Mississippi mud pie, with a big slice of old style steamboating.

Is there more? Oh Lord, yes. Lots. But these are the brightest stars I’ll be aiming to reach for. Bucket list? The only thing that I’m sure of with any real certainty is that I’m going to be needing a bigger bucket.

How about you?

THE HINDENBURG: FLYING HIGH BEFORE THE FALL ON THE ‘RITZ OF THE SKIES’

ImageThe thunderous, climactic fireball that marked the death of the Hindenburg, seen here, became one of the most iconic images of the 20th century. If ever there was a real life bonfire of the vanities, it was surely the death of the Hindenburg. Her blazing, charred hulk was the funeral pyre of the entire airship industry. And yet, it could all have been so very different.

By the time of her immolation, the Hindenburg was into her second year of service. Indeed, her comings and goings in America had become so routine by May, 1937 that they attracted scant media attention. For fifteen months, the great, silver grey dream ship had ghosted passengers across the Atlantic between Germany and America, as well as making headlining flights down to South America.

Hindenburg, or LZ-129 to use her official designation, was an enormous craft; almost as long as the Titanic. With her public rooms and cabins arranged in the great silver belly of the beast, she brought comfortable, stylish air travel to the Atlantic run for the first time. Some would also say it was the last, too.

There was a hermetically sealed smoking room, and two promenades with views down over the scenery below that were lined with ocean liner style deck chairs. There was a small lounge with a grand piano, and an excellent restaurant, staffed by former waiters from the Hamburg-Amerika line. It came complete with crockery that was specially commissioned for the giant airship.

Twenty-four small, Pullman type cabins were functional, with beds one above the other. Incredibly, there was even a shower available. For her passengers at least, the Hindenburg was intended to be a joyride on more than one level.

The Germans had to fill her with hydrogen, after the American government refused to allow the export of helium to Germany, supposedly on the personal orders of President Roosevelt. Helium was much safer, although five times more expensive than hydrogen.

But helium also had military uses, and Roosevelt- way ahead of the curve when it came to recognising the ambitions of Hitler and the Nazis- was not about to invite charges of fuelling both the Hindenburg and the German war machine. So the great, graceful giant kept using the hydrogen that was available. And, of course, that ultimately would lead to her destruction.

In her first season in 1936, the Hindenburg was a stunning success; so much so that she was often wait listed for cabins in both directions. She could make the flight from Germany to America in two days- a speed which made her more than twice as fast as the record breaking transatlantic liners, Normandie and Queen Mary.

The airship would usually maintain an altitude of around six hundred feet, and was known for being remarkably steady in the air. In fact, she proved so popular in service that another set of cabins were shoe horned into the hull during her refit over the winter of 1936-7.

It became normal for the Hindenburg to descend low enough to show her passengers drifting Atlantic icebergs. Approaching her berth, the Hindenburg would fly along the length of Broadway, before eventually coming to alight at her Lakehurst, New Jersey tower.

All things considered, it was the ultimate way to fly. So successful was the Hindenburg that a sister airship, the Graf Zeppelin II, was under construction in Germany by this time.

The premature, controversial final demise of this great sky goddess- the airborne equivalent of the Ritz- put paid to the notion of airship travel. Had it happened at any other time than in the hysteria fuelled run up to the Second World War, it might not have been a fatal blow. But in the war of words and ideas between competing world views, the loss of the Hindenburg became a political statement on both sides.

It was, without question, an apocalyptic end to an incredible vision. The Hindenburg was, in the end, as much a victim of Nazi megalomania as she was of freak weather conditions on that fatal night.

NEW ENGLAND IDYLLS

CNV00013Something marvellous happens along the length of the St. Lawrence seaway each autumn. As the seasons change, a vast carpet of slowly reddening leaves blankets the pine forests that march silently down to the banks of the river on both sides.  The air becomes cooler, yet somehow sharper and more intense.

Mother Nature reserves one of her most spectacular floor shows for this time of year, and the only way to get a grandstand view- quite literally- is to take a slow, meandering cruise that brings you up close and personal with the small communities, as well as the teeming cities, that line this ancient, much travelled waterway.

These voyages usually start in the most spectacular way possible, with a night time departure from New York. Clad in its own coat of brilliant, shimmering lights, the fabled skyline never fails to make the adrenaline run faster. Just add some glacially chilled Moet, and you’re off to a stupendous start.

You might amble into amiable, patrician Boston, or sturdy Halifax, with its clapboard houses, fishing fleets, and historic links to the Titanic. Other cruises stop off at breezy, yacht studded Newport. But the real voyage begins once you enter the St. Lawrence proper.

Vast, jagged rock formations loom sharp against a petrol blue sky. The banks nearby are swathed in serried tiers of deep, dark pine trees in a hundred shades of green that slope down to the water’s edge. The water is as still and impassive as the face of a mirror.

The odd whale or two might breast the surface of these same waters when you least expect it. Eagles wheel overhead in the noonday sun. Little fishing boats fuss upstream. The whole scene is like some incredible, random canvas that you project your own moods onto; vibrant, multi-hued, and headily spectacular.

Most cruises end in chic, sassy, French accented Quebec. It’s a spectacular moment as your ship rounds a bend in the river, and the great city sprawls across your entire field of vision. Dominated by the vast Gothic confection of the famous Chateau Frontenac hotel, this is easily the most European accented city on the entire American continent.

Stroll the breezy expanse of the Dufferin Terrace, and savour cool jazz at one of the cosy cafes that line the winding, cobbled lanes of the old town. Enjoy excellent seafood and the fabulous, free wheeling vibe of this charismatic, civilized old world outpostCNV00007.

There’s a lot to be said for cruising New England in the fall. And; best news of the lot is that it’s all good.