Before Norwegian Cruise Line went on a mega ship building binge, there was a time in the early nineties when the company slowly began the transition from running smaller, sold out cruise ships such as the Starward, to a series of medium sized new builds that formed the mainstay of the company for the better part of a decade and a half.

The first of these new ships was the Seaward, which entered service in 1988. She was strictly a one off vessel, but she did pave the way for a new pair, to be built in the same French shipyard as the beloved company flagship, the ageing SS. Norway.

These twin sister ships would be called the Dreamward and the Windward. At around 42,000 tons each, they introduced some radical new concepts for NCL when they first debuted. Of the two, it was the Dreamward that arrived first, in November of 1992. She was showcased to the UK travel trade at Greenwich on a rainy winter Sunday but, even then, the new ship shone through.

The Dreamward featured a centrally located main pool, with the sun decks in front of it stacked up in a series of tiered steps. A modified version of this arrangement would later become a feature of the new Carnival Destiny class, the first cruise ships in the world to exceed the 100,000 ton mark.

Aft, a series of curved, window walled terraced restaurants formed a graceful cascade at the stern, offering stunning views out over the ship’s wake. A second, smaller plunge pool was located just behind them.

Inside, every cabin- both inside and outside- featured a small, dedicated sitting area that was separate to the bedroom. And, bowing to a rising tide of demand, the new ship also featured a handful of balcony cabins.

The Dreamward was formally christened by her godmother, Diana Ross, in December 1992. Almost immediately, she entered service on the popular, seven night eastern and western Caribbean cruise circuit out of Miami. For the 1993 summer season, she moved north to New York, from where she operated a series of seven night cruises to Bermuda.

The centre piece of these cruises was a full, three night stay alongside in Hamilton, and these proved to be immensely popular. By this time, sister ship Windward was also in service, sailing to Alaska in the summer, and then joining the Dreamward out of Miami in the winter months. With little real variation, it was a routine that the two sister ships would follow over several seasons.

In 1997, Norwegian Cruise Line decided to lengthen both ships. In January of 1998, the Dreamward was dispatched first to a German shipyard, and there cut in half to facilitate the insertion of a pre built new mid section, some forty metres long.

In addition to this, both the mast and the top of the funnel were fitted with special hinges that would allow them to be ‘flipped’ to one side, to facilitate passage under the lower bridges of the Kiel Canal. Once refurbished, NCL planned to use the ship on a series of first time, pioneering cruises out of the United Kingdom to the Baltic capitals. And, with her new look came a new name; the ship was restyled as the Norwegian Dream.

In this guise, her tonnage increased to around 50,000, and her passenger capacity was increased. from around 1,250 up to 1,750.

The first season of these twelve night Baltic sailings were well received. Each one featured an overnight stay in St. Petersburg, as the highlight of a circuit that typically included such ports of call as Warnemunde, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Tallinn, Helsinki, and sometimes Oslo as well. In this role, the Norwegian Dream became something of a trend setter; a role she would play out during the remainder of her service with NCL.

Then, in August of 1999, the Norwegian Dream collided with a container ship, the Ever Decent, in the middle of a thick English Channel fog. The bow of the cruise ship crumpled like rice paper, but she was never in any danger of sinking. Mercifully, there were no injuries on either ship.  Her mangled prow had to be rebuilt, at great expense, back in Germany. Following this, she re-entered service just in time for the winter time Caribbean peak season.

As newer, more amenity laden tonnage entered the NCL fleet, the Norwegian Dream was sent further afield during the winter season. She sailed a series of superb, round trip cruises in South America and to the Chilean fjords for several seasons, usually voyages of seventeen days’ duration. It was while she was on one of these that the Norwegian Dream was involved in a second collision, when she hit a barge while leaving the port of Montevideo in December of 2007. Fortunately, the damage to neither ship was serious.

The Norwegian Dream also started the tradition of winter cruising from New Orleans for NCL, running on seven night circuits to the western Caribbean. But, by 2008, it was clear that the ship no longer matched the new company profile. Her sale was expected imminently by many.

That year, the Norwegian Dream ran one final season of cruises to Bermuda from Boston, in a kind of valedictory farewell to her original role. Her sale to Louis Cruises had by then been announced and, at the end of that season, the ship sailed over to Greece, ready to begin a new life.

It never happened.

Though Louis did indeed take up the purchase of her fleet mate and fellow ‘Bermuda boat’, Norwegian Majesty, the Greek company declined to go ahead with also taking the Norwegian Dream. Louis Cruises cited ‘mechanical issues’ as a major hurdle. For a full three and a half years, the Norwegian Dream sat on life support in the Aegean, making occasional short runs between the islands to try and resolve the issues.

Finally, at the end of 2011, the ship got under way once more and headed for a dockyard in Singapore. Here, she would be transformed into the Superstar Gemini for NCL’s parent company, Star Cruises, to operate short, port intensive cruises in the Far East.

Heavily refurbished and in many ways re-invented, the Superstar Gemini enjoyed a happy reunion with her sister ship. The Norwegian Wind was by now sailing as the Superstar Aquarius for Star Cruises, and the two sister ships are now once more sailing in harmonious tandem service.

This $50 million renovation also brought her passenger capacity back down to around 1,532- a sensible decision. On a Bermuda cruise in June 2008 that I made aboard her, the Norwegian Dream– fully booked for the sailing- had seemed really crowded.

I was also lucky enough to sail on her in June of 2000, up to Scandinavia, after the repairs to her bow. In the opinion of many, the lengthening of the ship spoiled the formerly good passenger traffic flow through the ship but, having never sailed her as the Dreamward, I am not really in a position to comment.

This pioneering ship deserves more respect and appreciation than she often got back in her NCL days. The Norwegian Dream was a stylish, well thought out design that combined a wonderful external harmony with more than a dash of elegance. Like her sister ship, she served the company well during it’s ‘lost’ years of the late 1990’s. In fact, in many ways, she and her sister helped lay the foundations for the miraculous recovery that the current company enjoys to this day.

The Norwegian Dream docked in Hamilton, Bermuda, in June of 2008

The Norwegian Dream docked in Hamilton, Bermuda, in June of 2008


Champagne, sunset and Silversea. What could be finer?

Champagne, sunset and Silversea. What could be finer?

It was one of those moments that have to be seen to be believed. The late evening air in the summer time Baltic was as warm as toast. I was quite alone, out on the aft terrace of the Panorama Lounge aboard the stunning Silver Whisper, on the last night of a brilliant, week long sweep through the highlights of the region. Most people had already headed down for one last, splendidly lazy dinner. Me, I hung back for a little while.

I’m so glad that I did.

This amazing, visual feast slowly unfolded in front of me, flooding my senses with a sight so wonderful and mellow that it made for a visual banquet, one seemingly laid on only for me. With no muzak polluting the air waves, the only sound was the heaving, low surging, gun metal gray rollers of the ocean, as the sun turned it into what looked like a sea of blazing straw,

Time itself seemed to stand still. I hardly dared breathe, for fear of shattering the rare, fragile beauty of the moment. It was a scene so vivid, one as fragile as glass. A moment that would possibly never, ever be repeated. And yet today, it is seared into my soul and my senses as indelibly as if I had been branded, sealed there forever.

And, of course, Silversea and champagne go together as seamlessly as Rodgers and Astaire. Glacially cold, bubbly, and tremendously life affirming right at that moment. No other drink would have done justice to such a stunning moment. It seemed to me that Mother Nature deserved a toast, and so….

I lifted the glass in the direction of the sunset and, as if predestined, the fiery, slowly setting sun ghosted right across the centre of my flute, burnishing it with a fabulous, golden sheen that simply took my breath away.

It was a stunning, spontaneous moment, unscripted and unbidden. But it sprawled across my senses like a slowly unfurling red carpet; a compelling, almost hypnotic pastiche that will stay with me until the day that I die. The sheer, serene solitude and yet, at the same time, the feeling of being totally at peace, at one with everything around me, was as deep and profound as the ocean itself.

And if you wonder why I still travel after all these years- and sometimes even I still do myself- well, this photograph should go a long, long way towards answering that question.

A single moment. An endless voyage. Here’s to the next one….


Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Russian delicacies might seem less appealing this year

Vladimir Putin’s Sudeten-esque power play in the Ukraine is potentially redolent with big implications for the 2014 cruise season. With the region slowly but steadily growing in popularity over the last few years, more and more lines were committing themselves to two, three and sometimes more departures in and around the region.

Most lines will now be hedging their options, or trying to read the situation as it unfolds; a stance about as practical as trying to stuff a cloud in a suitcase. And, while summer temperatures in that region can, indeed, be hot, I suspect the unwelcome heat of the moment will dampen the enthusiasm of many potential visitors over the next few months.

In the upper echelon, both Crystal and Azamara have plans to cruise the Black Sea. When it comes to adventure cruises, Voyages To Antiquity had a couple of round trip cruise tours scheduled for the Aegean Odyssey. But it is the main stream lines, such as Costa and MSC, that stand to be hardest hit by the current situation.

It may well be too early to state definitively yet just what the end result of Putin’s hard ball game will be; the principal Black Sea ports of Odessa, Sevastopol and Yalta have always been popular draws. So, too, is Sochi, a city that would have been a landmark port for many after the recent winter Olympics.

Of course, Russian itineraries might already have been impacted to some extent by a gay backlash and boycott, the obvious consequence of Putin’s shocking acts of regressive demonisation, and the potential consequences of that alone could be significant. But as Russia keeps its foot firmly on it’s neighbours’ wind pipe, the residual, simmering world wide anxiety of the moment could well spread like a forest fire.

The magnificent Swallow's Nest in Yalta

The magnificent Swallow’s Nest in Yalta

And it is not just the Black Sea that could take a hit. Summer time cruises in the Baltic are hugely popular, with a large number of ships- from the standard to the ultra luxury-  offering cruises that have overnight stays in Saint Petersburg as their main attractions. Some ships make a normal daytime visit, but by far the great majority stay from anything between one and three nights.

If things were to spiral further downward, and cruise lines start to boycott Russia’s star attraction, that would be hugely disappointing for many passengers. Admittedly, it would also put one hell of a dint in Russia’s local tourist economy. Not to mention triggering a sudden rush to find alternative ports, each for the most part woefully ill equipped to cope with the sudden potential tidal wave of cruise refugees.

Of course, all of this could be snuffed out as quickly and easily as a candle. Cold blooded, callous and calculating as he undoubtedly is, Vladimir Putin is not stupid. Money still talks louder than any of the sycophants whispering in his ear.

But it would be a very blase cruise line indeed that did not keep an ear to the ground, and a raft of options at least ready for launch. These are, indeed, scary times.

As always, stay tuned.


Interior stairwell and wall fresco

Interior stairwell and wall fresco

Panorama terrace
Panorama terrace

Even the stairways are Art Deco influenced

Even the stairways are Art Deco influenced

Russian buffet, Silver Whisper

Russian buffet, Silver Whisper

More of the buffet

More of the buffet

The Silver Whisper docked in Helsinki, August 2013

The Silver Whisper docked in Helsinki, August 2013

Suite corridor on Eight Deck

Suite corridor on Eight Deck

The pool deck, looking aft towards the funnel

The pool deck, looking aft towards the funnel

Wide angle shot of the pool and surrounding deck areas

Wide angle shot of the pool and surrounding deck areas

Sunset on the Panorama Terrace

Sunset on the Panorama Terrace

Interior of suite 824, my home for a week

Interior of suite 824, my home for a week

Sunset viewed from my balcony, looking towards the starboard bridge wing

Sunset viewed from my balcony, looking towards the starboard bridge wing

Balinese beds on deck

Balinese beds on deck

Got waffles? Breakfast, Silversea style

Got waffles? Breakfast, Silversea style

Looking forward along port side upper deck

Looking forward along port side upper deck

Pool and upper walkways, taken from the port side looking aft

Pool and upper walkways, taken from the port side looking aft

Buffet display in the restaurant

Buffet display in the restaurant

Pool deck day

Pool deck day

Deck (adence) pod, Silver Whisper

Deck (adence) pod, Silver Whisper

More Art Deco styling on the stairways

More Art Deco styling on the stairways

Wide, open corridors are a feature of all the Silversea ships

Wide, open corridors are a feature of all the Silversea ships



See Scandinavia, Seadream style

See Scandinavia, Seadream style

In something of a departure from it’s normal summer season in the waters of the Mediterranean and Aegean, one of the sumptuous brace of yachts operated by Seadream Yacht Club is coming north, to Scandinavian waters.

For a three month period lasting from the end of May until August 2014, the 4,400 ton, 115 guest Seadream I will be operating a series of nine voyages, varying in length from seven to fourteen nights. Seadream I will showcase the outstanding, high summer highlights of the beautiful Baltic and the stunning Norwegian Fjords in surroundings of casual, unstructured luxury. With all inclusive prices and open seating gourmet dining, both indoors and outside, the Seadream I offers a uniquely intimate vista from which to survey the amazing scenery over the course of the long, almost endless summer Scandinavian nights.

All outside window staterooms and suites feature marble lined, multi-jet showers and luxurious towelling and robes, a complimentary mini bar, exceptional quality bedding, an elegant sitting area. and a plasma screen television. Framed in gorgeous cherry wood veneers, they are the perfect place to relax and unwind. But, truth be told, the real attractions lie outside.

Imagine being able to see amazing Norwegian waterfalls, up close and personal at midnight from a gently bubbling Jacuzzi. Or sleeping on deck at night on gorgeous, private Balinese dream beds as you spend an overnight docked in the centre of epic Saint Petersburg. Seadream I is a subtle brew of casual elegance, invigorating shore adventures, and moments of indolence and individuality that adds a totally new dimension to the idea of exploring cruising’s most fabled inland sea, at exactly the best time of the year.

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening...

Top of the yacht. Top of the morning. Top of the evening…

You can  feast outdoors on lamb chops and waffles for breakfast as you sail past Copenhagen’s Little Mermaid, or enjoy champagne on deck under the midnight sun as you cruise past the gorgeous coastline of summertime Norway. With a list of options as long as the endless days of a Scandinavian summer, these summertime voyages aboard Seadream I showcase the beauty, style and sheer, historic splendour of Scandinavia in matchless style.

The intimate size and scale of Seadream I means that the yacht can deftly access some of the smaller, lesser known jewels of the region, offering a much more up front and personal experience of these hidden Scandinavian gems than many of the larger ships. Highlights include the stunning Swedish island of Visby, the Danish resort of Bornholm, and the fabled German seaside resort of Sassnitz. In Norway, Seadream I will sail deep into the fabled fjords of Gudvangen, Sognefjord and fabulous Fjaerland.

The yacht embarks guests in ports as varied as Hamburg, Stockholm, Bergen and Copenhagen. There is also a full, fourteen night round trip in August from Dover that goes right up to Saint Petersburg for a two night stay, before another enticing trip from Dover, back down to the highlights of the autumn Mediterranean.

Little Mermaid, Copenhagen harbour

Little Mermaid, Copenhagen harbour

As well as superb cuisine and elegant, attentive service, Seadream I offers the opportunity for many late night stays in some of the more off the beaten track ports, often until midnight or sometimes later. The schedule is nowhere near as rigid and inflexible as that of conventional cruise ships that have to offload, and then reboard literally thousands of passengers at a time.

Definitely one worthy of consideration.


Fred. Olsen's Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

Newcastle’s Port Of Tyne lists no less than twenty one round  trip departures over the summer of 2014, featuring ships from three different lines, between May and October. With Thomson Cruises pulling out of ex- UK cruising for 2015 at least, this might be something of a high water mark for the northern port.

That line is offering nine sailings from Port Of Tyne, with the 33,000 ton Thomson Spirit. Beginning with the first round trip departure from the port on May 27th, she will be making three twelve to fifteen night cruises to the highlights of the Baltic, as well as a twelve night cruise to the top of the North Cape, and a special, fifteen night cruise out to Iceland and the Arctic.

There is also a trio of seven night cruises over to the spectacular fjords of Western Norway. The season closes out with a three night mini cruise on August 23rd, which repositions the ship to Harwich.

Cruise And Maritime is also returning to sailings from the Tyne, with the 22,000 ton veteran Marco Polo making five sailings, beginning with a six night cruise to Western Norway that leaves on June 9th. A further, seven night itinerary that also sails to Norway on 27th June is bracketed by a twelve night Baltic Capitals cruise, departing from the Tyne on June 15th, and a fourteen night adventure to the North Cape of Norway that sails on July 4th.

Helsinki's Lutheran Cathedral is a staple of the summertime Baltic cruise

Helsinki’s Lutheran Cathedral is a staple of the summertime Baltic cruise

Marco Polo rounds off her Tyneside season with an eleven night, Round Britain cruise that sails on July 18th. This cruise ends at London Tilbury.

Last but not least, northern mainstay Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines returns to the Tyne with the 28,000 ton Black Watch. The former Royal Viking Line flagship is serving up seven round trip departures, kicking off with a fifteen night foray to the North Cape on June 28th.

This is followed by a one off, seven night cruise to Western Norway on July 13th, and an eleven night swing out to Iceland on July 20th.

After a brief break, the Black Watch returns to the Tyne on September 14th to make a fourteen night Baltic Capitals cruise, followed by an eleven night cruise down to the sunny highlights of Northern Spain on September 28th. A penultimate, ten night departure on October 9th goes to some of the highlights of Scandinavia.

Final departure of the year is a fifteen night, Canary Islands sailing on October 19th, before Black Watch closes the Port Of Tyne cruise season with her departure from North Shields on November 3rd.

The summertime Baltic sunsets are truly phenomenal

The summertime Baltic sunsets are truly phenomenal

Between them, the total of twenty one sailings carried out by these three ships are anticipated to carry a total of 21,000 passengers from the only major port of embarkation in North East England. While a relatively small total compared to the flagship ports on the south coast, it has to be kept in mind that the season from the Tyne is a lot shorter than for most other ports on the mainland UK.

Future trends are hard to see, for although both Fred. Olsen and Cruise And Maritime will be back on the Tyne in 2015, the abrupt departure of Thomson Cruises creates something of a void. With a passenger capacity of around 1,250, the Thomson Spirit offers half as many berths again as her rivals, and she also offered the largest number of sailings. It has to be hoped that her absence in 2015 is only a temporary blip.


Saint Petersburg skyline

Saint Petersburg skyline

Many people want to visit Saint Petersburg for a couple of days, and it’s very easy to see why. Though just a little over three centuries old, few other cities on earth have such a rich, tempestuous past as the ancient capital of Russia.

And the attractions are legion. Just consider the Hermitage, the Winter Palace, or the stupendous Church of The Spilled Blood, for openers. Saint Petersburg was hugely influenced by the raft of contemporary European capitals that it’s creator, Peter the Great, scoured in search of inspiration for the new capital, his fabled ‘Window On The West’.

The houses and public buildings that throng the edges of the broad, meandering River Neva have grand echoes of Palladian and ancient Greek majesty. The waterside boulevards, lined with plane trees, are so Parisian as to be almost indistinguishable from the real thing. All things considered, it has always been a city that should make for a great European short break.

Except for just one problem…

Russian bureaucracy seems to be as set in stone as Lenin’s mausoleum. Obtaining a visa takes time, travail and expense on such a scale that it has put legions of potential tourists off going there for at least five decades. But now, at long last, there is a way around it.

A Russian ferry company called St. Peter Line has been operating a year round, overnight sailing for a couple of years now, between Helsinki and  Saint Petersburg and back. The line has an exemption that allows them to offer visa free round trips- each one including two nights in a Saint Petersburg hotel- from either of these easily reachable Baltic hub ports.

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

The voyage takes about fifteen hours in either direction, offered on large, comfortable ferries that have more than enough bars, dining and entertainment venues to be considered as an integral part of the overall holiday experience. The emphasis is on Russian ‘hospitality’, something to bear in mind if you are perhaps accustomed to travelling amid levels of luxury equal to the Ritz, or the Savoy. This seems to be one of those quixotic travel experiences where you might well just have to roll with the punches.

That said, this is a unique, year round opportunity to see one of the greatest cities in the world. And it really is worth seeing. The serially adventurous among you can always tie in such a jaunt with a few days in either Stockholm or Helsinki, both marvellous propositions in their own right.

This is a trip I might look at doing myself in 2014. As always, stay tuned.

Also- thanks to intrepid blogger Kalle Id for bringing to my attention another option, also offered by St. Peter Line. This takes the form of a four night, cruise ferry round trip- Pearls Of The Baltic – that allows potential passengers to embark in either Helsinki, Tallinn, Stockholm or, indeed, Saint Petersburg itself.

Kalle is a regular contributor to the excellent Maritimematters website, and is alway swell worth a read.



CNV00198In the history of ocean liner disasters, the same three names are constantly chanted like some ghastly, undead mantra; Titanic. Lusitania. Empress of Ireland. All lost within three years of each other; each with a death toll well over a thousand.

Everybody knows the stories of at least two of them. The Empress of Ireland is not so widely remembered; perhaps because the bulk of her victims were mainly ordinary, blue collar people, as opposed to the top ten per cent of the New York social register. And yet, incredibly enough, there is another disaster, almost unknown outside of Germany, that claimed more lives than the three ships named above put together.

The Wilhelm Gustloff.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was one of two ships built by the Nazis as dual flagships of a movement called ‘Strength Through Joy’. Having crushed their trade unions in the same style that he would later crush most of Europe, Adolf Hitler realised that he would have to provide some kind of incentive for ordinary German workers to retain faith in both himself, and his public works programme.

The result was the first two true, one class cruise ships ever built; the Wilhelm Gustloff and the slightly larger Robert Ley. They were relatively modest affairs when compared to transatlantic icons like the Bremen and Europa, at around 28,000 tons each. Uniquely, they featured a uniform standard of accommodation for both passengers and crew alike. Prices were kept deliberately low, and subsidised by the Nazi government.

From 1938 onwards, both ships were sent on cruises to the Mediterranean and Scandinavia, carrying thousands of budget German tourists on trips that they might otherwise never have taken. They were seen as the more egalitarian, benevolent face of the Third Reich. But with the invasion of Poland in 1939, that mask slipped irrevocably in full view of the entire world.

For the first year of the war, the Wilhelm Gustloff served as a hospital ship. But, with the Baltic a virtual German lake after 1940, that role became redundant.

Painted slate grey, the Wilhelm Gustloff was then sent to the port of Gdynia in occupied Poland, which the Germans renamed ‘Gotenhafen’ for the duration of the conflict. There, she served as a static base and recreation centre for U-boat crews, engaged in working up exercises in the Baltic. She remained pretty much tied up at the same pier, albeit in full working order, until January of 1945.

By that time, the war had turned irretrievably against Germany. The Red Army had sliced right through to the edge of the Baltic, a vengeful, unstoppable host, fully intent on paying the Germans back in full for the atrocities they had committed all over the Motherland. Fully aware of what the arrival of the Red Army would mean, millions of terrified Germans and their helpers prepared to begin the biggest mass exodus in European history.

A frozen, fear fuelled trek to freedom began as far back as October of 1944 but, as the Russian noose tightened, the land routes were cut off, one by one. A tidal wave of terrified humanity now began to descend like storm clouds on the handful of Baltic ports still in Wehrmacht hands. And every single ship that could float or move- from warships to fishing smacks- was commandeered into service to evacuate this human mass.

After years of being shackled to her pier, the Wilhelm Gustloff was pressed into service, too. A minimum estimate of seven thousand civilians, redundant naval personnel, and around a thousand wounded soldiers were shoe horned into every last inch of the ship; even the indoor pool was emptied, and filled with makeshift cots. Hopelessly overloaded, and with only one torpedo boat to escort her, the Wilhelm Gustloff put to sea for the first time in five years, and lumbered straight into the teeth of a howling winter gale.

And the Baltic was no longer a German lake. Once the siege of Leningrad had been finally lifted a year earlier, Russian submarines of the Red Banner Fleet had begun to move into these formerly uncontested sea lanes. Now, at the end of January 1945, there were more of them on station than ever.

One of these was the S-13, under the command of Captain Alexander Marinesko. On the evening of January 30th, 1945, the wallowing Wilhelm Gustloff sailed right across the cross hairs of his periscope. By now, she had lost her escort in the foul, freezing weather. Marinesko promptly slammed three torpedoes into what was an all too easy target.

What followed was entirely predictable. There had been no lifeboat drill of any sort, and the hopelessly crowded liner fell gradually onto her side like a slaughtered animal. A panic too hideous and complete to adequately quantify erupted on board, with thousands trapped in a desperate, heaving throng of humanity on the promenade decks. People trampled each other underfoot in desperate attempts to reach the lifeboats, only to find that most could not be launched because of the ship’s abrupt list to port.

The Wilhelm Gustloff sank in less than an hour, leaving thousands that had survived the torpedo impacts and the horrific crush on board to freeze to death in icy water less than -18 centigrade. Thrashing and gasping for life in stormy seas dotted with ice floes, they died in their thousands.

German escort ships that raced to the area managed to pluck a total of 1,232 people from the scene of the attack. As the Wilhelm Gustloff had been carrying anti aircraft guns, the Germans had not classified her as a hospital ship, despite the large numbers of wounded she was carrying. In any event, such distinctions would probably have been academic; both sides had routinely been shooting holes in the Red Cross flag since 1941. For the Russians, the sinking of the Wilhelm Gustloff was a legitimate act of retribution, nothing more or less.

The true death toll will never be exactly known. In the desperate haste to get the Wilhelm Gustloff out to sea, no accurate passenger manifest was taken. The pre departure quayside was a scene of heartbreak and indescribable horror; mothers trapped ashore literally threw their babies to relatives on the ship. Estimates of those lost on board run from as relatively low as 6,000, right up to half as many again.

Because she was a casualty of the war against the Russians, the story of the Wilhelm Gustloff is largely unknown in the west. All told, the German navy and merchant marine lifted more than two million people to safety in those last few months of the war, in what amounted to nothing so much as a German Dunkirk.

The Wilhelm Gustloff was the greatest and biggest casualty of that massive movement of people. Almost as tragically, she has been every bit as much a casualty of maritime and wartime history, too.


P&O's original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

P&O’s original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

The first part of this narrative detailed the ‘after lives’ of several former favourites that sailed for cruise lines such as Carnival, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean. The reaction to that piece was both surprising and very gratifying, hence this follow up.

Holland America Line made big attempts to upgrade its fleet in the mid eighties, well before the spectre of a takeover by Carnival began to loom. To that end, the company commissioned a pair of spectacular, mid sized sisters in 1983 and 1984, respectively; the Nieuw Amsterdam and the Noordam.

These two ships were very popular and successful, cruising mainly in the Caribbean and Alaska. However, after the Carnival takeover in 1997, Holland America began planning and construction of the new, far larger Vista class vessels that populate the fleet today. It was then  obvious that Nieuw Amsterdam and Noordam were on borrowed time.

The Nieuw Amsterdam was sold to Louis Cruises in 2002, and Louis then chartered her long term to Thomson Cruises UK. She continues in service for that company as the Thomson Spirit, operating cruises in the Mediterranean and Baltic regions.

The Noordam also found a second life with Thomson, she cruises mainly in the Aegean and Adriatic regions as the Thomson Celebration.

Another former ‘Flying Dutchman’ that has found new life over at Thomson Cruises is the Thomson Dream. This famous ship started life in 1986 as the Homeric, the last newbuild for the ailing Home Lines.

Purchased by Holland America in 1988, she was renamed Westerdam, and then ‘stretched’ in a German shipyard. She then moved on to Costa as their Costa Europa before finally winding up with Thomson back in 2008-9, where she remains to this day. She typically spends her time making seven night cruises around the Mediterranean each summer, and relocates to the Caribbean for winter cruises out of Barbados.

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect 'mini liner'

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect ‘mini liner’

Another former Home Lines survivor is the 1982 built Atlantic. She went to MSC Cruises in 1997 as the Melody, and had a long and successful career with them. Put up for sale in January of 2013, she has yet to find an official buyer. I saw her laid up in Naples in October, still in her MSC colours, and still looking very trim indeed.

Back in the mid 1970s, Cunard tried to shake off it’s dowdy old class conscious image, when it commissioned a pair of 17,000 ton sister ships expressly for the Caribbean cruise trade; the 1976 built Cunard Countess and her 1977 sister, the Cunard Princess. The latter ship was christened in New York by Princess Grace of Monaco.

She is still sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean as the Golden Iris for Israeli-owned Mano Cruises, and has been since 2009. After a long spell with Louis Cruises, and then UK firm Cruise and Maritime, the Cunard Countess is currently laid up in Chalkis, Greece, under the name of Ocean Countess, awaiting a new buyer or charterer.


Beautiful terraced decks on the Azores

Beautiful terraced decks on the Azores

German tour operator, Ambiente, has just announced details of a charter programme of Portuscale Cruises’ 1948 built Azores.

The ship last sailed for the now defunct Classic International Cruises as the Athena,  and originally started life as the Stockholm. She is the oldest passenger ship still in continuous service.

At 16,000 tons, the ship boasts a single main restaurant, a buffet, several bars and lounges, a cinema, disco, and a small pool, together with some wonderful terrace decks at the stern. The cabins are unusually large for a ship of this size, and eight of the top range suites come with private balconies. Sited midships on the upper deck, these have separate bedrooms, and fabulous views out over the ocean.

Ambiente have chartered the Azores from March until November, 2014. The programme begins on March 10th, 2014 with a six night repositioning voyage from Lisbon to Bremerhaven, Germany. 

There will then be a special cruise leaving on March 16th in search of the legendary Aurora Borealis, the Northern Lights. Ports visited en route will include Alta, Narvik, and Tromso.

The classically built liner- her hull is all riveted- will then spend the summer months cruising in the Baltic and Scandinavia, possibly including visits to her birthplace in Sweden. These cruises will showcase the smaller, less accessible ports of the region in a way that no large cruise ship ever can; it’s very much an ‘up close and personal’ kind of cruise experience.

September will see the Azores sailing south to the warmer, more welcoming waters of the Mediterranean, with an emphasis on late summer/early autumn cruises in and around the Aegean.

Highlights will include an inaugural call at Santorini on October 8th, and another at Corfu on October 17th. Another, seven day cruise will revisit Corfu on October 22nd.

A twelve day Aegean and Ionian cruise departs from Venice on October 26th, and includes calls at Corfu, Heraklion, Katakolon, Santorini, Argostoli and Rhodes, plus a transit of the Corinth Canal before the cruise terminates in Piraeus.

The Ambiente charter concludes in November, with a special, fifteen day Holy Land cruise.

I was lucky enough to sail on this lovely little ship a few years ago, on a week long cruise down to Croatia out of Venice. She retains some fascinating features from her old days, including genuine Swedish American Line ice buckets in the main dining room. This room also still has the original, double height rows of portholes down both sides of its length.

The stern walkway on the Azores

The stern walkway on the Azores

The stern also boasts an elevated, upper deck walkway that completely encircles it. This is the only one of its kind that I have ever seen on any ship.

Ambiente itself has a long association with these former CIC ships, having chartered many of them before the line’s unfortunate collapse. They seem keen to renew the arrangement with Portuscale. The Azores herself is now resplendent in the black, white and yellow colours of her new owners and, quite frankly, has never looked better.

I’ll update this piece as more details and itineraries become available. Stay tuned.

OK, for those interested- here are those Ambiente itineraries for Azores as they currently stand.

10-16th March: IMPRESSIONS OF EUROPE/WESTERN SUNSHINE COAST: Lisbon, Lexioes (For Porto), Villagarcia, St. Peter Port, Bremerhaven

16-29th March: UNIQUE POLAR LIGHT AND MAGIC April 3-EXPERIENCE: Bremerhaven, Bergen, Andalsnes, Narvik, Alta (overnight) Tromso, Alesund, Flam, Bremerhaven

29 March- 3rd  April: SPRING AND COASTAL METROPOLISES: Bremerhaven, Dover, Portsmouth, Ijmuiden, Ostend, Bremerhaven

April 3-12th: NORDLAND SYMPHONY: Bremerhaven, Ijmuiden, Harwich, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Oslo, Skagen, Esbjerg, Bremerhaven

April 12-19th: CITIES AND ROMANTIC PORTS ALONG THE ENGLISH CHANNEL: Bremerhaven, Portsmouth, St. Peter Port, Honfleur, Ostend, Ijmuiden, Bremerhaven

April 19-26th: EASTER CRUISE, MAGIC OF THE NORTH, FJORDS, TROLLS AND KING CITY, OSLO: Bremerhaven, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Oslo, Gothenburg, Esbjerg, Bremerhaven

April 26- May 4th: SOUTHERN ENGLAND, CHANNEL ISLANDS AND PICTURESQUE CORNWALL: Bremerhaven, Dover, Portsmouth, Plymouth, Isles of Scilly, St. Peter Port, Portland, Bremerhaven

May 4- 15: DIVERSITY OF THE NORTH; SCOTLAND AND THE NORWEGIAN FJORDS: Bremerhaven, Ijmuiden, Harwich, Rosyth, Invergordon, Lerwick, Geiranger, Hellesylt, Bergen, Kiel

May 15-25th: BALTIC TREASURES; DIVERSITY OF THE BALTIC; Kiel, Gdynia, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg (overnight), Helsinki, Stockholm, Kiel

May 25- June 1st: GRANDIOSE WORLD OF FJORDS: Kiel, Bergen, Hellesylt, Vik, Flam, Stavanger, Kiel

June 1-13th: NORTH CAPE AND FJORDS; TO THE MIDNIGHT SUN; Kiel, Vik, Flam, Alesund, Leknes, Honningsvag, Tromso, Geiranger, Bergen, Kiel

June 13- 27th: INTENSIVE NORTH CAPE AND FJORDS; MAGICAL LUSTRE OF THE MIDNIGHT SUN: Kiel, Bergen, Hellesylt, Geiranger, Leknes, Honningsvag, Kirkenes, Hammerfest, Tromso, Alesund, Stavanger, Kiel

June 27- July 10th: WHITE NIGHTS; HIGHLIGHTS OF THE BALTIC SEA, KALININGRAD: Kiel, Ronne, Gdynia, Konigsberg, Klaipeda, Riga, Tallinn, St. Petersburg (overnight), Helsinki, Mariehamn, Stockholm, Kiel

July 10-26th: ARCTIC POLAR SUMMER IN GREENLAND AND ICELAND: Kiel, Thorshaven, Seydisfjordur, Akureyri, Grundafjordur, Reykjavik, Paamuit, Nuuk, Sissimuit, Illulisat, Qeqertarsuaq, Kangerlussauq, fly to Germany

July 26- August 9th: ICELAND AND GREENLAND FASCINATION: Fly to Kangerlussuaq, Illulisat, Qeqertarsuaq, Sissimuit, Nuuk, Quaqortoq, Reykjavik, Akureyri, Seydisfjordur, Invergordon, Bremerhaven

August 9-17th: ENGLAND AND SCOTTISH HIGHLANDS WITH EDINBURGH MILITARY TATTOO: Bremerhaven, Invergordon, Rosyth, Newcastle Upon Tyne, Hull, Harwich, Ijmuiden, Bremerhaven

August 17- 29th: PURE EXPERIENCE. NORTH CAPE, LOFOTEN AND THE NORWEGIAN FJORDS: Bremerhaven, Vik, Flam, Alesund, Leknes, Honningsvag, Tromso, Geiranger, Hellesylt, Bergen Bremerhaven

August 29- September 5th: IN THE LAND OF FJORDS AND TROLLS: Bremerhaven, Bergen, Hellesylt, Geiranger, Vik, Flam, Stavanger, Kristiansand, Bremerhaven

September 5- 15th: ENGLAND, IRELAND AND SCOTLAND: Bremerhaven, Dover, Portsmouth, Falmouth, Dublin, Belfast, Stornoway, Rosyth, Bremerhaven

September 15- 25th: COURSE SOUTH- WESTERN EUROPE FOR ALL THE SENSES: Bremerhaven, St.Peter Port, Villagarcia, Lisbon, Portimao, Malaga, Barcelona, Nice

September 25-October 4th: MEDITERRANEAN PEARL: Nice, Ajaccio, Olbia, Trapani, Valletta, Catania. Lipari, Salerno, Porteferraio, Nice

October 4- 19th: BLACK SEA AND SUN ISLAND: Nice, Catania, Santorini, Canakkale, Sochi, Yalta, Odessa, Constanza, Istanbul, Corfu, Venice

October 19- 26th: MAGIC COAST OF THE ADRIATIC: Venice, Zadar, Dubrovnik, Corfu, Kotor, Korcula, Split, Venice

October 26- November 6th: GREEK MYTHS AND LIFESTYLE: Venice, Corfu, Katakolon, Heraklion, Santorini, Rhodes, Kusadasi, Piraeus, Argostoli, Venice

November 6- 20th: HOLY LAND AND MEDITERRANEAN SUNSHINE ISLANDS: Venice, Ancona, Bari, Heraklion, Ashdod (overnight), Haifa, Limassol, Rhodes, Messina, Genoa

The programme currently lists these twenty five cruises as active. Destinations correct at the time of writing.