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.

SNAPSHOTS FROM AMSTERDAM

Spring in Amsterdam; the old city awash in sunlight

Spring in Amsterdam; the old city awash in sunlight

Still the quintessential city of bikes and canals

Still the quintessential city of bikes and canals, Amsterdam is a classic

Brownstone gable houses have long typified this amazing city

Brownstone gable houses have long typified this amazing city

Those canals give the city it's unique, freewheeling vibe

Those canals give the city it’s unique vibe

The famous frontage of Dam Square on a perfect day

The famous frontage of Dam Square on a perfect day

The facade of the Town Hall, one of the city's crown jewels

The facade of the Town Hall, one of the city’s jewels

A perfect Amsterdam pastiche; bridge and canal

A perfect Amsterdam pastiche; bridge and canal

Mirrored reflections in a golden stream..

Mirrored reflections in a golden stream..

Amsterdam's cafe scene is not limited to land

Amsterdam’s cafe scene is not limited to land

FLIGHT REVIEW; KLM FROM DURHAM TEES VALLEY TO COLOGNE

KLM Amsterdam

KLM Amsterdam

Though overall a relatively short journey, this one could so easily have gone wrong. Flying from Durham Tees Valley to Cologne via Amsterdam Schipol, allowed me only forty minutes’ transit between the two flights. And yes, I was a bit concerned about my luggage.

It’s incredibly sad to watch the continual downward spiral of Durham Tees Valley, a spiffy little airport that deserves so much better. It has sensational ease of access, and is truly human in scale. I arrived at four in the morning and, for a long time, my only company was the tumbleweed flitting through the lounge. And, while check in and processing was friendly and efficient, I was still charged the infamous, £6 fee to depart from the airport-something I’ve never encountered anywhere before. Really? I mean, I know Middlesbrough is no photogenic beauty, but charging people to leave it is not an ultimate winner, guys.

The flights; both of these were on the seventy seat, Fokker 70 planes that KLM use on their city hopper routes. At DTV,  we simply walked out onto the tarmac and up the short, retractable flight of steps. It really was as easy as that.

Inside, the Fokker 70 has two abreast seating on the left hand side, and three abreast on the right. Seating in trim KLM blue had plenty of room, was spotlessly clean, and featured tables in the armrest, with magazines and flight info in a pocket built into the back of the seat in front. We received a welcome greeting from our pilot, pushed back on time, and were airborne within minutes.

I had seat 5F on the way out, an aisle seat that gave me more than enough leg room (disclaimer- I am 5′ 6″ height) and, though I did not use the recline, the short flight out to Schipol was supremely comfortable. Smart and efficient cabin staff brought around cold drinks and a snack that consisted of a small oatmeal bar. But after all, this was a one hour, forty minute flight and, all things considered, it passed quickly and pleasantly.

We arrived on our stand at Schipol ten minutes early- a bit of a relief, if I’m honest- and debarked onto a bus for the short ride to the terminal. The transit for my onward flight to Cologne was painless- I was actually at the gate twenty minutes early.

Part of this is down to simple, intelligent design and execution. Though Schipol is a huge airport, it is far and away the most user friendly of any major airline hub on the continent. There were no problems whatsoever here; this airport is almost a joy to use.

KLM livery is distinctive, and immediately recognisable

KLM livery is distinctive, and immediately recognisable

The second flight- also on a similarly configured Fokker 70-also embarked via a short bus ride and a set of in built, exterior steps. Other than that, it was a repeat of the short flight that preceded it- even down to the cranberry oatmeal bar and water service.  Again- and as always with KLM- the staff were smart, crisp and efficient, and the plane was spotlessly clean.  For my money, the Fokker 70 is unbeatable as a short haul product.

Touchdown was smooth and on time, and our bus transfer to the terminal at Cologne was flawless. Customs and immigration was a breeze and- typical German efficiency- luggage was on the belt by the time I came through. Total time from landing to exit? A gratifying ten minutes. The baggage arrival was a huge plus, too.

Recommended? Absolutely. Well done, KLM. A pleasure, as per usual. Thank you for your service.

A-ROSA FLORA; THE RHINE GODDESS

Dreaming wide awake; sailing the Rhine in spring

Dreaming wide awake; sailing the Rhine in spring

The surface of the springtime Rhine was like a mirror, still and silent as a string of cotton candy clouds flitted across it like so many ghostly galleons. From the balcony of the the A-Rosa Flora, I watched entranced as as succession of stunning vistas unfolded around me like a series of staggering drum rolls, one after another.

One minute we motored effortlessly past giant, hulking industrial plants, the new cathedrals of the 21st century. Another minute, and we ghosted past small villages clustered round the spire of some ancient church. A bend in the river would offer up broad, sandy beaches dotted with improbable gangs of roaming horses, enjoying the returning springtime sun.

Passing under vaulting, arched bridges and through long, deep canal locks, we nudged effortlessly into ancient, fabled Dutch and Belgian cities and some lesser known gems along the way. There was sturdy, Gothic accented Ghent, with its cobbled streets and looming spires, and poignant, pretty Arnhem, with its flower strewn waterfront promenade and the famous ‘bridge too far’ that still straddles the Rhine at this juncture.

Vibrant, swaggering Amsterdam and cutting edge architecture in the vast harbour of Rotterdam formed a fabulous contrast to the breezy, yacht studded harbour at Hoorn. Antwerp was all clattering horses’ hooves on cobbled streets and impossibly gorgeous waffles, lashed in hot chocolate sauce, savoured against a soundtrack of ringing church bells in one of the most magnificent grand squares anywhere in Europe.

Pool deck on the A-Rosa Flora

Pool deck on the A-Rosa Flora

We moved deftly through an endless hinterland of street cafes and flower strewn streets and squares, sailing past flotillas of sturdy Rhine coasters, each one with a car or two strapped to it’s stern and, often as not, a furiously barking dog standing guard on deck. Lines of plane trees stood like sentries as the setting sun flitted skittishly between the foliage, warming the ancient river with an amazing, translucent wash.

Our passage was almost dreamlike; our transport a paragon of modern luxury. The A-Rosa Flora was making only her third voyage, yet already she has become an amazing cocoon of style, warmth and excellence. With open seating dining in a window walled restaurant that regularly offered up the most amazing food I have eaten on any river boat, it was a feast for both the palate and the senses.

Smart, crisp and modern, the A-Rosa Flora boasts a vibrant, modish palette that allows for the bright, linear decor to complement the wash of floor to ceiling natural light that suffuses the boat. An elegant observation lounge right forward leads to the dining room via a starboard side inner promenade. One deck down a small, beautiful jewel of a spa offered an almost water level perspective of the outdoor pageant as it slowly unfurled.

On deck, canvas chairs and wooden tables dotted the forward and slightly raised aft deck. In between was a pool, a small golf putting green, and even a sit up, outdoor bar. Like everything else on board, the quality of fixtures and fittings was superlative. Clean, crisp and incredibly comfortable, the A-Rosa Flora is a modern, modular marriage of intelligent design and subtle, finely styled flair. If the opposition isn’t worried, it should be.

The elegant dining room

The elegant dining room

It is no exaggeration to say that dining was a feast; from the freshly baked breakfast breads and strong, piping hot coffee to the gorgeous, unmissable soups, right down to the delicately prepared fish and such evening dishes as reindeer, it was simply fabulous. The desserts were creamy, custard and chocolate confections that dared you to try and ignore them. I failed. Repeatedly.

The cabins? Four suites had proper private balconies, but most- such as mine- had a French balcony. Twin beds that convert to a very comfy double,  a couple of comfy chairs, and a flat screen TV. Three wardrobes and ample drawers provide more than enough storage space; the dress code is smart casual right throughout the trip.

The bathroom is shower only, though it is an excellent shower. Best of all was the floor to ceiling sliding door that opened up onto that balcony rail; a beautiful place for enjoying a glass of chilled sekt as the A-Rosa Flora ghosted silently along the implacable, moonlit Rhine.

All things considered, those rooms are more than simply comfortable; each one is a little haven. And, this being a river boat, everything else is just a simple step away.

With an all inclusive drinks policy on board and a staff that absolutely work their socks off from top to bottom, dawn till dusk, the A-Rosa Flora serves up the storied, ancient Grand Dames that line the banks of the Rhine with singular aplomb and panache. It’s an elegant, indolent and all inclusive way to see these fantastic places, many of them looking like something straight out of the pages of a Brothers Grimm fable.

Exquisite panoramas from the forward Observation Lounge

Exquisite panoramas from the forward Observation Lounge

And, with all your shore excursions and transfers included for the duration, there is no more convenient or inclusive way to see the magnificent, medieval magic of old Europe. Just lovely.

NEWCASTLE AIRPORT’S NEW 2014 ROUTES (Updated)

Newcastle is an increasingly important centre for Easyjet

Newcastle is an increasingly important centre for Easyjet

According to it’s own website, Newcastle International Airport is offering a range of new flights in 2014 to a series of hopefully enticing destinations. The airport- by far the premier transport hub of the North East of England- still seems to be holding its own.

First off the ground, as it were, is Easyjet. As of March 30th, the airline will operate to London Gatwick, two flights per day, six days per week. Lead in fares for the new service will start at £27.49, and are on sale as of now.

These neatly replace the recently cancelled Flybe routes between the airport and London. For businessmen and women, the prices are easily competitive with conventional rail travel and, of course, it’s a lot quicker. Trains from Gatwick Airport run into central London in just over thirty minutes.

For the winter sun seeker trade, Easyjet is now also flying direct from Newcastle to Tenerife, with prices for the flights beginning at £79 return.

Rival airline, Jet2, is also inaugurating flight only options to Madeira from £75 one way,inclusive of taxes,  and package holidays to the balmy Portuguese island from around £429. In addition, the airline will also fly to the nearby island of Fuerteventura from £79 per person, one way.

Interestingly, both Jet2 and Easyjet now offer reserved seating, and rivals Ryanair will soon fall into line as well. The continued buoyant success of Newcastle is in stark contrast to the marked, seemingly irrevocable decline of it’s regional sibling, Durham Tees Valley, which has seen an appalling drop in passenger numbers over the last decade.

Newcastle is the gateway towards such world class cities as medieval Durham, with its UNESCO World Heritage cathedral and castle, as well as Newcastle itself, and such vital centres as Team Valley industrial estate.  Sights such as the Angel Of The North combine with the lure of famous, fabled Lindisfarne and the beaches of Northumbria to make the North East one of the most powerfully scenic and emotive highlights of any visit to the United Kingdom.

See the wonders of Niagara Falls from Newcastle International

See the wonders of Niagara Falls from Newcastle International

For far ranging travellers, Newcastle International offers several British Airways daily flights to London Heathrow, all of them connecting with that airline’s world wide network via Terminal Five. It also offers connections on Air France via Paris, and partner airline, KLM, via the highly rated Dutch airport at Amsterdam Schipol.

If you’re using the airport, you’ll find a number of tourist and business class hotels on site at the airport. There’s a Premier Inn, and a pretty good Doubletree Hilton, that are literally both just steps from the airport terminal. The airport can also be accessed by direct metro services from both central Newcastle, and Sunderland.

UPDATE: Irish flag carrier, Aer Lingus, has just announced that it will add four flights a week from Newcastle International to the Southern Irish city of Cork.

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.

THE FUN RUN-DFDS FERRIES TO AMSTERDAM FROM THE TYNE

Get out there......

Get out there……

For quite a few people, their first experience of a voyage at sea has been on one of the year round, overnight ferry runs offered by DFDS Seaways from the Tyne over to Holland. Even now, the route remains a popular staple for hen and stag nights, as well as being a simple, relatively cheap and enjoyable break away in its own right.

The basic deal revolves around a two night mini cruise on one of the large, 1800 plus passenger DFDS cruise ferries that sails from the Port of Tyne quay at North Shields, County Tyne and Wear, at five o’clock each evening. After an overnight voyage, they arrive at the port of Ijmuiden, some eight kilometres from Amsterdam, at around nine o’clock the next morning.

Coaches then take passengers on an included drive into Amsterdam, dropping everyone off at the Hotel Victoria, opposite Dam Station. There is then about five hours of free personal time, before a mid afternoon pick up at the same hotel returns passengers to Ijmuiden for the overnight crossing back to North Shields.

So what do you actually get for your money? Well, basic accommodation is in an inside, two berth cabin with shower and toilet. These are functional rather than luxurious, but more than comfortable enough. And, if you really want to push the boat out (pun wholly intentional) then you can upgrade several levels.

The creme de la creme is Commodore Class, which has upgraded luxury cabins, a free mini bar, and a private, concierge style lounge. It’s roughly the equivalent of flying club class.

Remember that this is a ferry, not an all inclusive cruise ship. All meals and drinks are at an extra cost, as is use of facilities such as the cinema. There is an excellent dinner buffet that allows you to go back and fill up on a raft of tempting hot and cold appetizers, entrees and desserts as often as you want, within a set time frame. Alternatively, the ships have a dedicated on board Explorer’s Steakhouse that allows you to savour an excellent, waiter service meal. On arrival days, there is also an extensive breakfast buffet.

All of these can be booked online in advance, at a discount running at around twenty per cent on the onboard fare.

The ferries have several comfortable bars and lounges. There is usually a floor show of some kind, and a live band/disco combination that rocks through until the small hours.

The ships themselves are big, impressive, and comfortable enough. But never forget that this is the famously capricious North Sea. It can be horrendously rough in June, and as still as glass in December. Be prepared accordingly.

Take a canal boat tour in Amsterdam

Take a canal boat tour in Amsterdam

Night times can vary from lively to rowdy; your chances of a more sedate crossing are heightened by avoiding weekend sailings if at all practical.

The prices are very competitive, and these trips are overall very good value; a great little opportunity to recharge the batteries at a price that won’t break the bank, either.

What is sad is that we now have only the one ferry route operating from the Tyne. Once over, it was also possible to sail to Germany, Denmark and Norway, too.

Still, the Amsterdam run is well worth considering. And you also have the option of extending your stay to include a stay ashore in a hotel. DFDS can also arrange this for you.

CITY BREAKS CRUISES- LOTS TO LOVE

ImageOne massive area of growth in the last few years has been in the number of short city break cruises that operate primarily from south coast ports such as Southampton and Dover. Hardly surprising, given the huge benefits than can accrue to both company and passenger. Here’s the lowdown on why.

Cruise lines like operating these schedules because they are low on fuel costs, and high on potential shore excursions sales. This is especially so when a ship might dock in, say, Zeebrugge; most people will buy a shore excursion to Bruges, rather than simply doing the short train ride on their own. Many people prefer the convenience of having everything pre packaged, and the cruise lines are quite happy to comply.

ImageItineraries can range from between two and five days, and include everything from the smaller, more homely styled ships of Fred. Olsen and Cruise and Maritime, to the gargantuan Cunard Flagship, Queen Mary 2. Once solely the preserve of summer holiday weekends, the odds are now that you can find just such a festive jaunt at any time of the year.

The big ships of P&O and Cunard are ideal if you consider the ship to be the destination, and all you really need is some shopping time ashore, while enjoying some serious spa pampering time for the rest of the voyage. This alone is enough for many people, and it is also an ideal way to get the feel of a ship if you’re considering a longer break. Plus, you can do it without breaking the bank.

The downside of these big ships is, as always, the places where they cannot go. Their size usually limits them to big industrial ports, such as Le Havre, Zeebrugge and the likes. Cunard, for instance, use Rotterdam as an entry port for visitors to Amsterdam. And while the two cities are, admittedly, only an hour apart, that’s two hours of your time gone on what  is obviously a trip short on time.

The smaller ships can slip neatly into the real gems such as Honfleur, a pastel pretty fishing port that is worth a day of anybody’s life. So, too, Is Antwerp, a glorious Gothic theme park devoted solely to Belgium’s ‘Holy Trinity’ of waffles, chocolate and beer. Some of the smaller ships stay overnight in one of these ports, giving you the opportunity to dine and drink ashore for the evening.

Regardless of its size, your ship offers you the safety, security and comfort of a very good hotel, with an inclusivity and at a price point that no land based hotel could possibly even begin to approach. Whoever you choose to sail with, the value is obvious.

There is one port of call that I would caution you about: Guernsey. And that is not because there is anything wrong with the place- it’s chocolate box pretty. It’s all about access. Or rather, lack of it.

Guernsey sits off the coast of France, and has no docking facilities for even the smallest ships. All landings are by tender boat from your ship.

ImageThe problem is that if the English Channel is in the least bit stroppy, then no sensible captain is going to put tenders in the water. Yes, the means you’re not going ashore, owing to adverse weather. And in the English Channel, ‘adverse’ is usually the rule rather than the exception. On my six cruises thus far slated to call at Guernsey, I have managed to get ashore twice. And all of these were in mid summer.

Should this be a deal breaker? That’s down to you, and how much you really wanted to see what is truthfully a very pretty little island.

That said, these great little escapes are mushrooming in popularity, and I expect the trend to continue. Fred. Olsen in particular now run some nice December ‘Christmas Market’ mini cruises that include an overnight stay in fabled, medieval Rouen. There can be few more enchanting locations to spend a few hours wandering the cobbled streets as you watch the snow fall.

Especially so when you remember that your floating hotel is not far away, it will be warm and welcoming and- best of all- someone will always have the kettle on. Happy wanderings!

A FEW HOURS IN AMSTERDAM?

ImageIf you’re visiting on a cruise or just transiting through Amsterdam’s Schipol Airport, and have a few hours to kill, it can be pretty difficult knowing how best to maximise that time. Truth be told, this amazing old merchant’s city- once the focal point of a vast colonial empire that stretched out to the Far East- is so chock full of attractions and diversions that even a week would barely allow you to scratch the surface. So, we’d better get cracking….

If culture is your thing, then the museums in Amsterdam are second to none. The recently re-opened Stedilijk is more contemporary in terms of displays. It could easily absorb your attention during the entire stay. So, too, could the legendary Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh, two overblown confections of amazing art work from the likes of Van Gogh, Vermeer and, of course, Rembrandt.

On a far more sobering and contemporary note, you might check out the haunting, claustrophobic bolt hole that is the Anne Frank House. The young Anne was only thirteen when she began writing her famous diary, in 1942. Of the extended Frank family, only her father would survive their subsequent betrayal and brutal internment. It’s a sobering, yet ultimately quite life affirming, experience.

ImageCulture is all well and fine, but to gain a real perspective on this beautiful city, try taking a canal cruise in Amsterdam. The city is locked and welded together by a serpentine network of canals that are actually the very life blood of the city.

You’ll beetle at a sedate pace past a landscape of looming brownstone houses, flanked by lanes of elegant plane trees. Cyclists on both banks try to keep up with your boat as it ghosts under a succession of vaulting bridges.Old barges, many of them long since converted into floating homes, sit alongside the river banks,

If it’s an evening cruise, street lights shimmering on the water enhance the vibe no end. On some cruises, you can savour the delicious local Dutch herring, washed down with a bottle of the refreshing, local Amstel beer. Some even feature live, languid jazz and blues on board. And, because the boats are enclosed, it’s a great way to spend a couple of hours, regardless of the weather.

Amsterdam is a relatively easy city to walk; it’s pretty flat and even. Enjoy cafe life in Dam Square with a beer and some of the delicious local bitterballs, as you watch the office crowds rushing home at the end of the day. The local trams run the whole length of the city; they look like nothing so much as giant, yellow mechanical snails that swoosh silently past umbrella flanked bars and restaurants that crouch along the sidewalks.

ImageFor a matchless view out over the old copper spires and steeples of Amsterdam, you can do a lot worse than to check out the rooftop terrace of the Doubletree Hilton Hotel. The cappuccinos are first rate, but the view out over the city on a warm summer night is just sublime, and a definitely recommended highlight.

The hotel also has the advantage of being very near to the cruise terminal, and it’s also quite close to Dam Station, if you are getting the train back out to Schipol Airport. For those that wonder, journey time from the city centre out to the airport is around eighteen minutes, and up to five trains an hour run in either direction during peak hours. There are also hourly trains that run right through the night.

So, there’s a slice of Amsterdam for you. Compact, compelling and totally attitude free, it remains one of the most enduring and endearing of all the great cities of Europe. Enjoy.

UK MINI CRUISES- TASTY LITTLE BITES

CNV00002If time is tight and you want a short break that won’t break the bank, why not consider a short mini cruise? Sailing from a host of UK ports on pretty much a year round basis, you can get a much needed fix of fun and luxury that can last from anything between two and five days. There are some truly amazing options out there, with prices to match.

Fred. Olsen’s more traditional, intimate ships offer a series of short jaunts over to ports such as pretty Honfleur, where their smaller size makes it easier to get alongside. The ships have excellent food and service, and a human scale that makes getting around relatively quick and easy. And, for a touch of real class, the flagship Balmoral has two beautiful, upper deck restaurants- Avon and Spey- that are among the nicest afloat. They also have a large number of single cabins at no supplement.

Similar sized ships are run by relative newcomers Cruise and Maritime, who organize a number of short, themed cruises through the year, plus the occasional, one night repo trip between, say, Edinburgh and Tilbury. These are an ideal way of getting a feel for a new ship. The elegant, Art Deco suffused Marco Polo is a long standing favourite, with her gorgeous, sweeping curved terraces and trim, traditional lines. She also boasts a trio of upper deck Jacuzzis that look out over the stern; ideal for afternoon cocktails, or just as good as a vantage spot for sail away from scenic masterpieces like Antwerp.

Long standing and immaculately styled, P&O have cottoned on to the concept of the short cruise break. Some of their sailings offer overnight stays in Amsterdam, and showcase some excellent entertainment, with artists such as Russell Watson on board. The ships are a lot bigger, with a greater range of facilities, and some sumptuous, first rate spas, as well as a number of alternative dining venues. Needless to say, you’ll find a much higher ratio of balcony cabins on these ships, if that’s something you can’t live without. Other typical ports of call might include Guernsey and Le Havre.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAEven Cunard have gotten in on the act. Both Queen Victoria and the new, nattily attired Queen Elizabeth offer two to five day breaks, over to Zeebrugge and back, or further afield to Hamburg. These are ideal sampler cruises, either to get the feel of a very different kind of cruising, or simply as a welcome top up for those already enamoured of the Cunard style. And, several times a year, even the celebrated flagship Queen Mary 2 makes a number of one way, two night runs between Southampton and Hamburg, or vice versa. It’s an ideal way to get the feel of what is a truly iconic ship. Tip; book cruise only, and fly out or back on one of the budget carriers like Easyjet. You’ll usually save quite a bit over the air/sea prices offered by Cunard itself.

Whichever line you travel with, you’ll find a style, value and price point that no equivalent land based hotel could ever hope to match. Add in the convenience of a sealed, safe environment, and the allure of seeing one or two different ports of call, and the attraction is pretty self evident. The lines all know that today’s short haul guest might be tomorrow’s much longer stay passenger, so you can expect some serious pampering. And, let’s face it, you’re so worth it.

So, there you go. What’s not to love?