In a welcome and surprising move, Carnival Cruise Lines is putting one of its original Fantasy class megaships back on a seven night Caribbean itinerary for the first time in a decade.

Beginning in May of 2016, the 70,000 ton Carnival Fascination will be home ported in Bridgetown, Barbados, to offer a series of very port intensive, seven night sailings to St. Lucia, St. Kitts, St. Maarten, San Juan and St. Thomas, with a final day spent at sea before returning to Barbados.

Built by Kvaerner Masa shipyard in Finland as the Fascination in 1994, the ship was the fourth of the eight ship Fantasy class- the first generation of mega ships to be built for the company.

As new tonnage came on line over the following years, all eight of the ships were relegated to short, three to five night cruise voyages out of ports from Miami out to the west coast. Lacking the balconies and amenities of the new ships, it seemed to be good business to put these less amenity laden ships on shorter cruises.

So it is both surprising and quite nice to see this relatively more intimate, 2,000 passenger Carnival stalwart getting back out and doing some more intensive sailings. Recently, sister ship and first of class Carnival Fantasy has been used again on some seven night Bahamas itineraries out of Charleston, which seem to have been very popular.

For the UK market, these new Carnival Fascination cruises are being bundled in with flights, transfers, and a three night pre cruise hotel stay to provide a very attractive, eleven night cruise and stay option, mainly based on London departures.

I have fond memories of making a pair of four night runs out of Miami on the Fascination a decade or so ago, and found her to be a very snappy, well run ship that served up a great value short trip.

These new runs out of Barbados should prove to be a good option out of Barbados. As ever, stay tuned.

One of the original, pioneering Carnival mega ships is returning to longer, seven night Caribbean cruises.

One of the original, pioneering Carnival mega ships is returning to longer, seven night Caribbean cruises.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Definitely recommended as worthy of your attention.

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

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


On the face of it, winter is the ideal season for scores of sun deprived, pale faced Europeans to flee to the far warmer, more welcoming waters of the Caribbean.

And flee we do. Like hordes of migrating bluebirds, we follow the sun and pour up the gangways of the megaships, sailing from Miami, Fort Lauderdale and Port Canaveral to those sun splashed little island idylls. Snow, slush and bone chilling cold is no competition for the subtle, seductive lure of broad, bone white beaches, idly waving palms, and the indolent ‘no worries’ lifestlye that has always made the Caribbean so damned compelling in winter. On the face of it, it’s a no brainer.

Of course, the same holds broadly true for our American and Canadian friends, especially those bunkered down in that bitter winter bruiser known as the north east corridor. From Toronto down to Washington, DC, plane load after plane load of weary winter refugees sag gratefully into the open arms of benign Florida sunshine. The world and it’s wife can take care of itself for a week. It’s full speed ahead, destination sunshine.

And, while all of this is fine and dandy, it very much depends what you want from your Caribbean experience. If all you want is just a fun filled week in the sun, then fine. But, if you really want to get ‘under the skin’ of those self same islands, there are some other things you should know about the Caribbean winter cruise circuit.


Any way you slice it, the winter Caribbean cruise circuit is very, very, crowded. Scores of ships that spend summers in Europe and Alaska flee like migrating birds of passage to the warmer, more welcoming Caribbean sun each fall, and stay there till the following spring.

This can mean some fantastic bargains in terms of fares, but trust me, there will be very little that is peaceful and quiet about those islands. Traffic is intense, and almost all of the main shopping streets are a glut of gold, tanzanite and diamond shops. Roads are busier, taxis more in demand. It takes longer to get anywhere and, inevitably, everywhere is much, much, more crowded. Little surprise, then,  that tempers can sometimes run just as hot as the temperatures.

To give one example; back in December 2003, I saw no less than fifteen cruise ships stocked up at Cozumel, Mexico. Every pier was full. Some of the most famous and prestigious cruise ships in the world were obliged to anchor offshore, tendering their passengers in. By the time you factored in the off duty crews coming ashore from all of these ships, the result was a vast human tidal wave, well in excess of thirty thousand strong.


That was 2003. The count of new cruise ships coming on line since then is mind boggling. And more are coming.

Virgin Cruises wil debut a trio of enormous new cruise ships in a few years, each one bound for the winter Caribbean. MSC Cruises will also offer year round Caribbean cruises, with their enormous new Seaside-class vessels, too. Newbuilds from Royal Caribbean, Carnival and Norwegian Cruise Line will further add to the mix. Rather than getting calmer and more sedate, the Caribbean is going to get busier and louder. And there is no changing that.


Many repeat Caribbean passengers are, quite frankly, getting bored with the same old islands. Warm and inviting as they are, the likes of St. Maarten, St. Thomas and Grand Cayman have become something of a well worn ‘greatest hits’ collection of Caribbean hot spots. So the cry goes up; what’s new? We want new!

And ‘new’ is what passengers will get. Well, kind of. Brand new cruise line developments such as Amber Cove and Harvest Caye, purpose built from scratch, provide the kind of safe, secure Caribbean experience that might well entice the old hands back, as well as wowing the newbies. How much connection these wonderful, almost Disney-esque places have to the actual, day to day experience of Caribbean living is another thing. But then, you’re not going to live there, are you?

Those points made, there are ways in which your winter Caribbean fun run can be kicked up by several notches. Here’s just a few points that you may find worthy of your august consideration.


That’s right. Give Florida’s fun fuelled embarkation ports a complete swerve, and board a ship in, say, Barbados, or even Puerto Rico. Though you’ll still get the crowds, you are far closer to many of the islands themselves. On a typical, seven night cruise, you’ll hit at least six different island calls. Frantic yes, but you’ve got more chance of a richer, deeper experience. For many, this could be a deal breaker.


Forget those fun filled floating theme parks, and go for a voyage on the smallest, most exclusive ship that you can afford. The smaller they are, the more inclusive they seem to be.

The likes of Silversea, Star Clippers, Regent, Seadream, Seabourn and Crystal will all offer you salubrious, sybaritic indulgence on such a scale that the experience of cruising the Caribbean is massively elevated. These smaller ships can raise the bar- and the price- by quite a way, but the experience is truly unforgettable.

They can also often access the smaller, far more intimate islands, such as Jost Van Dyke and St. Barts, that the big ships have to bypass. Thus, your Caribbean experience becomes far more intimate, pared down and personal. In short; you get what you pay for.

Buteven the most exclusive of ships will sometimes deliver you into the same massive crowds at the ‘greatest hits’ ports. Your six star, boutique ship may well look swanky and impressive when docked next to the latest floating death star at sea, but you will still be competing with its passenger load for access to taxis, beach space, and shopping and restroom facilities. Which is precisely why these de luxe ships try and avoid the busiest of these ports in peak season; sometimes successfully, sometimes less so. It’s horses for courses.

All of that said, none of the points up above should prevent you from running like a March hare to any of those islands in the sun during the winter. Maybe, like me, you are quite happy to relax on board quite a bit, and then just saunter off to a favourite, nearby beach for a few hours once the crowds have headed off for their day of pirating ashore. And, crowded or not, few things sooth the soul quite like a hammock on some sunny beach, with a feisty, frost crusted strawberry daiquri to hand, with warm sun, cool breezes, and the sound of reggae kissing your ears. It worked for me back in the Eighties, and it still works now.

Maybe I’m just weak and predictable, mind you.

The bottom line is that the Caribbean has it’s complications and flaws in winter, and some will find them maddening to the point of temporary distraction. But hey- a distracted day in paradise, noise, crowds and all, is still a giant leap for mankind better than a day driving through a blizzard to reach the factory or office.

On balance, get out there. Just be aware of the potential pitfalls, and choose accordingly.

And yes, I’m afraid that hammock is taken. Have a nice day.

A winter wonderland; it's called the Caribbean....

A winter wonderland; it’s called the Caribbean….



See the real beauty of the Caribbean on Silversea

See the real beauty of the Caribbean on Silversea

For indulgent single travellers looking for some luxury winter sun cruises, Silversea has just announced a whole conga line of delicious winter sizzlers, each with a single occupancy supplement of just ten per cent.

There are nine sailings in all, ranging from the end of October through to mid December, each one being from seven to ten days in duration. Voyages are featured on three of the line’s ultra luxury vessels- Silver Cloud, Silver Whisper and Silver Spirit.

While some of these are one way trips between San Juan and Barbados, no less than five are complete, round trip sailings from Fort Lauderdale, a great place in itself for a few days’ pre or post cruise relaxation.

With all outside suite accommodation, an all inclusive product on board, and superlative cuisine and service offered up in an atmosphere of complete, unhurried calm, each of the three ships carries only a few hundred guests. And, with a staff ratio of almost one to one, you can safely anticipate a superb adventure on board any of these cruises.

Lead in fares (cruise only) begin at £1,705 for a seven night sailing on Silver Whisper, between Bridgetown, Barbados and Fort Lauderdale, sailing on December 12th. Round trip sailings from Fort Lauderdale include a seven night sailing on the recently refurbished Silver Cloud from £1,810 single occupancy, again cruise only.

October through December is an ideal time to visit the Caribbean in terms of weather. Although the islands will often be busy with the glut of mega ships also sailing in these waters, it is also worth remembering that the Silversea ships are small and nimble enough to access the more petite, intimate harbours that their bigger siblings have to bypass. And, with numbers limited to hundreds rather than hordes close to five thousand in some cases, there is never any waiting about to get on or off the ships.

Enjoy a Silversea champagne sunset

Enjoy a Silversea champagne sunset

The advantages to this cannot be overstated if you want to maximise your quality ‘me time’ on the islands. Most of these voyages also include at least one sea day- more in the case of the Fort Lauderdale round trip sailings- that give you more than ample time to top up your tan, perfect your sunset martini drinking routine, or just to lose yourself in a good book or two.

While a Silversea cruise is a truly special experience anywhere in the world, there is something that is quite magical and life affirming in taking one of these beautiful ships around the Caribbean. 

Food for thought, maybe?


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.


The locals can be a bit rowdy...

The locals can be a bit rowdy…

Oh, the Caribbean. The very word dances on the tip of your tongue like liquid honey. What images it conjures up, and how it makes the adrenaline flow. For neophytes dreaming of that first trip, it can seem like the approach to paradise. For veterans returning to those same hallowed shores, the sense of anticipation is almost electric.

It often seems as if there are two Caribbeans; the brochure images of powder white beaches, calypso and swaying palms is still there to be sure. But there is also another Caribbean; one where thousands of cruise ship passengers flood like a human tidal wave across islands struggling to stay afloat under the weight of this mass disgorging of modern day pirates. One where the differences between mosquitoes and beach hawkers is increasingly difficult to distinguish. A place where the traffic can be every bit as frustrating as in London or Los Angeles.

Broadly speaking, the islands in the west, such as Grand Cayman and Cozumel, have brilliant, blinding white beaches, but not much in the way of outstanding scenery. They are also more susceptible to warm trade winds, which can often kick up quite a bit.

Those to the east, such as Saint Thomas, Tortola and Saint Lucia, tend to be typically more verdant, greener, and much more mountainous. Again, they are blessed with wonderful beaches, and arrayed so closely to each other that they resemble nothing so much as a string of exotic stepping stones, flung at random across the sparkling, azure hue of the ocean.

Those points duly noted, let me try and give you some pointers for cruising round this fabled, idyllic playground.

Winter? Where?

Winter? Where?

In either direction, the busiest season is invariably November through until March. This is when the weather is usually guaranteed to be at its best. With hurricane season gone, the allure of eschewing leaden winter days at home for adventuring around a string of sun splashed islands is irresistible for many Americans and Canadians. Europeans too are drawn here in droves during winter. The entire region acts like some surreal, sublime magnet.

The downside is that, in winter, the Caribbean is almost awash with giant cruise ships that have fled from colder climes to these far more welcoming waters. One memorable December day a few years ago, I watched in disbelief as no less than fifteen cruise ships- average capacity around 2500 passengers each- tried to find their way into Cozumel. They were stacked up like flights over Heathrow.

This makes for a far greater strain on an island’s infrastructure- taxis, tourist coaches and private guides have all got their work cut out for them. Pier space is often limited, so local towns can often find themselves awash with podgy, sun burnt tourists seeking shade, sustenance and the odd margarita, as they try to get to and from their ships. This congestion- both human and mechanical- can be maddening to the unsuspecting, as well as quite bewildering.

Beaches are often overrun by these human tidal waves, making the unspoiled seclusion promised by glossy brochure shots an interesting notion at best.

On the other hand, the duty free shopping scene on some of the islands has mushroomed; often to such an extent that some of them resemble vast, reggae suffused shopping malls. They ingest staggering volumes of revenue into an island’s coffers each and every week during the lucrative winter season.

Kick back on sultry St. Maarten

Kick back on sultry St. Maarten

In the summer months, hurricane season can bring its own, obvious perils. The bulk of the winter fleet sails off to Alaska and Europe, leaving a much reduced rump of ships to sail the week long cruises around the islands.

The result is a calmer, more sedate Caribbean experience, albeit one with much higher humidity. And there is always a chance that a hurricane might whip up. No cruise ship captain would ever dream of ploughing full tilt into such an appalling natural maelstrom; that in turn might result in the cancellation of one or more ports of call in favour of more comfortably achieved alternatives. So, if you are going to the Caribbean to see a specific set of ports, there is always the off chance that, owing to the weather, you might not get there. No cruise line will play Russian roulette with passengers’ lives merely for the sake of it.

So, those are some of the pros and cons. Now, many will tell you that the islands are all the same- identikit pictures of each other. And yes, to some extent they do kind of blur into each other, in a dreamy, smiley kind of way. And, while many of them do have much in common, each one is as individual as a human fingerprint.

During the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the major European powers- England, France, Holland and Spain in particular- embarked on a phase of aggressive colonising in the Caribbean. The Spanish built massive fortifications on occupied islands such as San Juan, mainly to offer shelter and succour to the fleets bringing plundered Aztec and Mayan gold back to Spain. English privateers took an avowed interest in diverting that same gold into the coffers of Good Queen Bess, and thus a slow burning powder keg was lit.

Shell Beach, Saint Barts

Shell Beach, Saint Barts

Saint Lucia, for example, changed hands no less than thirteen times between England and France. Later, pirates such as Blackbeard and Anne Bonney turned these same waters into a devil’s playground of looted, pillaged shipping; a violently bloody slaughter ground enlivened with bouts of rum sodden roistering ashore. Often as not, these ended abruptly on some English or Spanish gallows at dawn.

Not that this deterred the pirates from seeking out the lucrative treasures that had to pass through here, en route back to Europe. To say nothing of the appalling barbarity of the slave trade, imposed by those same, ‘civilised’ European nations, as their owners raised vast plantation houses for themselves, and treated their human cargo to such appalling inhumanity that they died in agonised droves. Many of these plantation houses can still be seen on Barbados and Jamaica to this day.

And yet… the islands still have the most amazing, vibrant aspect right to this day. Almost perfectly clear. electric blue waters kissing vast carpets of honey coloured sand, fringed by serried tiers of idly waving palm trees, many with hammocks slung between them at crazy angles. The permanent, languid lilt of reggae that is heard almost everywhere. The smell of spicy nutmeg and cooked jerk chicken. Tracts of gorgeous hibiscus and oleander….

Forests full of chattering birds and bright, multi coloured butterflies. An Iguana strutting fearlessly from out behind a red painted, clapboard bar as it saunters back into the undergrowth. Para gliders dotting the sky like exquisite butterflies. Jet skis tearing a thin white trail across a seascape sprinkled with small yachts, scuba divers, pedalos and canoes…

Frosty margaritas, daiquiris and pina coladas. The simple pleasure of sipping an ice cold Carib beer on a beach as the warm water kisses your feet. Soft, sultry sand between your toes…..



Sunrises that fill the heart with wonder, and spellbinding sunsets that engender a deep, mellow sense of contentment are also in the mix. Warm nights of dining and dancing under the stars. The anticipation of arrival in the next , exalted landfall. All laid out in one rich, appealing package. Compelling stuff, indeed. Powerful magic.

The Caribbean is not perfect. But then, neither is anywhere else. The overall pace of life- and that lifestyle itself- is as invigorating as it is sporadically relaxing.

If I am certain of one thing, it is that one visit will never be enough. You may, indeed,  leave the islands. But the islands never truly leave you. At times, the urge to return is overwhelming and, oh my, return you surely will.

You might run into me at Magen’s Bay on Saint Thomas. At Stanley’s bar on Cane Garden Bay in Tortola. Or at Seven Mile Beach on Grand Cayman.

Whatever, wherever- mine is always a margarita. What’s yours?


Braemar at anchor off St. Barts

Braemar at anchor off St. Barts

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

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

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

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

Shell Beach, St. Barts

Shell Beach, St. Barts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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