NORWEGIAN EPIC 2015 CRUISE PROGRAMME; OFFICIAL

The Manhattan Room on Norwegian Epic

The Manhattan Room on Norwegian Epic

Norwegian Cruise Line has just announced it’s first ever programme of year round Europe cruises for the 2010 built Norwegian Epic.

Hitherto, the French built ship has alternated between seven day summer sailings in Europe, and winter cruises to the Caribbean out of Miami.

In an announcement aboard the new Norwegian Getaway in January, CEO Kevin Sheehan confirmed that Norwegian Epic will be permanently deployed in Europe from early 2015. Today, the itineraries were officially posted.

Beginning on November 29th 2015, the ship will operate a series of nine night Canary Islands cruises, from her home port in Barcelona. This programme takes in Tangier, Madeira, Tenerife, Gran Canaria and Malaga, Spain, and runs through to April 7th, 2016. This includes the seasonal Christmas sailing, which departs on December 19th.

Like the rest of the itineraries, these will go on sale from next month.

There will also be a series of ten, eleven and twelve day round trip sailings from Barcelona to the Western Mediterranean, as well as a special, six day New Year’s Eve cruise that sails on December 28th, 2015. Ports of call offered on the longer cruises include Cagliari, Palermo, Naples and Civitavecchia.

The Canary Islands itineraries are the ones previously run by all year round Barcelona stalwart, Norwegian Spirit. It would seem to confirm that the latter ship will be leaving Europe after several successful seasons, through which she has proved to be very popular.

Norwegian Epic features cutting edge entertainment from Blue Man Group on each sailing

Norwegian Epic features cutting edge entertainment from Blue Man Group on each sailing

Norwegian has recently entered into an agreement with authorities at Port Canaveral to base an as yet nameless big ship year round in the Florida port. Odds must be quite high that this ship will be the Norwegian Spirit.

While the Norwegian Epic brings many more dining and entertainment options to the Mediterranean- the most on any year round mega ship, in fact- she also brings twice as many berths. She has a capacity of 4200, as opposed to 2000 on Norwegian Spirit. That represents a lot of berths to fill.

Still, the ship also has a complex of more than a hundred studio cabins for singles, offered at solo prices, which make the Norwegian Epic a great buy for single travellers.

These cruises offer a big literal departure for Norwegian Epic, which has hitherto operated on a seven day round trip cycle, both in Europe and the Caribbean. Ten, eleven and twelve day voyages will allow for more sea days, as well as more opportunities to showcase the ship’s extensive range of more than twenty diverse eateries.

RAISING THE GAME; NEW CRUISE SHIPS IN EUROPE FOR 2015

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Princess Cruises has announced that their new Royal Princess- launched just last year- will return to Europe for a full season of cruises over the summer. Her arrival- the latest in a slew of announcements from the major lines- points up just how much all the big players see Europe as seminal in filling- and for displaying- their prime movers and shakers. Just look at what else will be here next year.

Royal Caribbean’s new, second of class ship, Anthem Of The Seas will also be based in Southampton and, to no one’s great surprise, so will P&O’s new Britannia, a vessel being built on the same hull platform as Royal Princess.

The deployments by Princess and Royal Caribbean, in particular, represent a quite extraordinary statement of intent. Two of the world’s newest mega ships, with a capacity of well over 4,000 passengers each, will be based in the Hampshire port. It should be great news for the local business in Southampton for sure and, for the canny cruising purchaser, there should also be some great bargains available as well.

Nor is it simply Northern Europe that will be the recipient of state of the art mega ships. After four consecutive summer seasons in the Med, the game changing, 2010 built Norwegian Epic will be permanently home ported in Barcelona for 2015 onward. The one off mega ship significantly ups the ante for year round cruising from the Catalan port, though her itineraries will not be announced until next month, at the Seatrade Conference in Miami.

Larger still, Royal Caribbean took some people by surprise when it announced a full, summer season of 2015 Barcelona sailings on the jaw dropping Allure Of The Seas, one of the two largest cruise ships ever built. The gargantuan vessel will offer a series of seven night round trips from May through October. She will be by far the biggest ship to offer an extended cruise season in these waters and, with a passenger capacity in excess of 6,000, she will also offer roughly half as many berths again as her nearest rival. Should be interesting.

Pompeii's remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Pompeii’s remains a staple of the Med cruise circuit. See them from Naples.

Plus, next year will also mark the inaugural Med season for the new Costa flagship, the Costa Diadema. Due to debut this autumn, the ship is the biggest ever built by Carnival for the Italian franchise.

And, it has to be added, a few other players will stay their hands as regards dramatic new announcements until Seatrade. Arnold Donald, CEO of Carnival, is on record as saying that the line might possibly return to Europe in 2015. Given that the newest Carnival ship- Carnival Vista- will not emerge from her Italian builders yard until 2016, the smart money would be on one of the Dream class trio coming back to the Mediterranean, though probably not the Baltic.

Though the numbers of ships being deployed are not really up on the 2012 figures, it is pretty obvious that nearly all of the major lines still see Europe as the prime arena for showcasing their new ships. Beside the big ticket, first time deployments in Southampton, Princess Cruises are also bringing over the huge Caribbean Princess and, for the first time ever, the line is offering an all inclusive drinks package in the fare.

So the European catwalk (cruisewalk?) season of 2015 looks like being quite a floor show, with each of the entrants bearing all the traits and positive selling points- both real and imagined- of their respective sponsors. One thing there will be no shortage of is choice.

Stay tuned.

SEADREAM IN THE SUMMERTIME MED; THE GOOD LIFE JUST GOT BETTER…..

What a day for a Seadream....

What a day for a Seadream….

Harbours full of idly bobbing yachts. Cobble stone streets and quaysides awash with waterfront bars and cafes, brimming with life well into the small hours. Porsches and Lamborghinis sitting idly under a canopy of gently waving oleander. People wearing sunglasses worth the entire national debt of a small third world country, discreetly checking out the milling throngs strolling past their lunch tables. For sure, it could only be the summertime Mediterranean.

If there is a region more dedicated to la dolce vita, or one more perfectly sculpted to deliver it in spades, then I have yet to find it. There is something so utterly seductive and compelling about those platinum chip, people watching playgrounds that sparkle along the summertime coasts of Italy, France and Spain. They draw people back year after year, like moths to a flame that bursts back into life again with the dawn of each new spring.

And, for sure, there are no shortage of huge, glitzy cruise ships that will show you the ‘greatest hits’ of the Mediterranean. Rome, Florence and Naples. Monaco and Barcelona. All places worthy of your attention and indulgence. All fabled and legendary. And, in summer, all crowded beyond all belief.

If you’ve ‘been there and done that’, then you don’t need to be told that these port intensive, week long ‘Meddy-Go-Rounds’ are great fun, yet anything but relaxing. Especially in the heat of mid summer, they can actually be damned hard work, as you try to absorb whirlwind encounters with a conga line of mind blowing cathedrals, castles, piazzas and shopping plazas. Fabulous and enjoyable it is, but relaxing it most certainly is not.

And that’s where Seadream Yacht Club comes in……

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

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

Imagine a small, 4,200 tons, all inclusive yacht, carrying a maximum of 115 guests, served by a hand picked crew of 90. Now make that yacht all inclusive from dawn till dusk, with free flowing champagne and fabulous, round the clock food that truly is ‘gourmet’, and a casual dress code that is perfectly suited to those balmy Mediterranean climes.

Imagine voyaging along and to all the small, smart resort havens that the bigger ships have to sail past. Tying up literally in the middle of town, just steps from the action. And a schedule that allows for long, lingering stays in those same ports, often overnight.

Sounds dreamlike for sure. But Seadream II is no dream. She is very, very real.

Each summer, Seadream II meanders among those peachy little splashes of paradise along the length of the Riviera and the Adriatic on a series of indolent, hugely inclusive adventures. A small marina at the stern allows her to carry such ‘toys’ as kayaks, sail boats and jet skis. In the more enclosed harbours, these are available to all passengers free of charge. It adds a whole new dimension to your idea of personal indulgence.

A unique outdoor set up means that all guests can dine alfresco- at any time of the day or night- on extraordinary, elegant fare. Imagine breakfasting on lamb chops as you sail into the stunning bay of Dubrovnik, or savour a long, lazy dinner in the fantastic, floodlit bay of Portofino. Peachy, non?

The aft pool

The aft pool

Life on board is totally informal and unstructured. Evenings tend to revolve around cocktails at the sumptuous Top Of The Yacht bar, open to sea breezes on both sides. It’s a causally spectacular little enclave, perfectly proportioned, and just as perfectly served. You’ll find it hard to tear yourself away at any hour of the day or night.

The aft lido deck features a small pool, and a hot tub just perfect for midnight cocktails, after you wander back to the yacht after a few hours strolling the bar and restaurant scene in Saint Tropez. This is one of several ports where Seadream II offers a number of overnight stops and, unlike certain other ports, it really does live up to the hype; a fabulous, fun place just to ‘stroll and roll’ and take it all in.

While the staterooms do not have balconies, all are outside, and come with marvellous, mulit jet showers in a marble lined bathroom, together with top end toiletries by Bulgari. Panelled in gorgeous cherry wood, each one features a sublime double bed, mini bar, plasma screen TV, and a separate living area.

I thought at first that I would miss having my own balcony but, truth be told, Seadream II is so small, elegant and intimate that the entire yacht feels like your own private terrace. And a slew of Balinese Dream Beds on the upper deck can be reserved-again, free of charge- so that you can sleep outside, underneath the stars. in perfectly secluded privacy. At a time of your choosing, a Seadream steward will wake you with orange juice, coffee, champagne or, indeed, all three. It’s a perfect spot from which to catch the first tender, blush pink flush of an early Sorrento sunrise, and a simply wonderful experience in and of itself.

To sum it up, Seadream II is a small, perfectly formed lady, one every bit as elegant as an exquisite charm bracelet. Yet she is big on style, hospitality, and things to do- or indeed, not to do.

The beauty of the Seadream Riviera...

The beauty of the Seadream Riviera…

You can hang out in a hammock with a glass of ice cold champers, or tear up the sparkling briny on an exhilarating jet ski ride. Be as sociable or as reclusive as you wish, and when it suits you. The kind of people typically drawn to the Seadream experience tend to be affable, pretty easy going types that are very well travelled. For the most part, they share a common aversion to the crowds carried on the big ships.

Come the autumn, Seadream II crosses the Atlantic, and relocates to the balmier, more welcoming climes of the Caribbean. From here, she saunters around the smaller, more secluded yacht havens that were once the playgrounds of seventeenth century privateers such as Bluebeard and Ann Bonney.

Whatever, whenever, the same casual elegance is a constant. But I offer you one well meant word of warning; if you once get to savour the Seadream experience, it will quite likely spoil you for just about anything else.

Other than that, enjoy. It’s all good.

OVERNIGHT STAYS IN PORT- THE PROS AND THE CONS

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

Some cruise lines now overnight in captivating Quebec

There was a time when the idea of keeping cruise ships in port overnight was absolute anathema to cruise ship owners. It meant the payment of more excessive docking fees to the local authorities, and there was always the potential revenue loss involved in passengers dining and partying ashore at nights. It was a double whammy that some lines fight tooth and nail to avoid for decades.

But there were some ports that offer such a wealth of attractions that a simple day time visit was nowhere near enough time to really see all the sights. Saint Petersburg, Hong Kong and Singapore were among an initial handful of ‘trophy ports’ where the lines were obliged to simply bite the bullet, and stay overnight. In the case of Saint Petersburg, the more deluxe lines can stay for up to three nights in succession.

As time has moved on and more new ships have come online, cruise lines have been looking to diversify right across the board. And some of the feedback indicated quite strongly that more and more passengers were in favour of more overnight stays on a cruise, especially in regions like the Mediterranean. Following the potential money trail, the lines had little choice but to play ball.

But as time went on, those same lines came to realise that certain economies of scale accrue from overnight stays. Port fees were often countered by the amount of fuel saved in being tied up at dock, and some shore excursions could even be run and sold  during the evening. And the chance of a welcome run ashore at the end of a busy working day was also a valuable morale booster for ship crews as well.  As long as a reasonable balance could be struck between these pros and cons, overnight stays could be made to work for all concerned.

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

Venice is a popular and compelling overnight stay

A classic example has just been seen in the dropping by the Bermuda government of its age old ban on cruise ship casinos being open in ports. These are obviously a big source of revenue for the cruise lines, and Bermuda’s insistence that they remain closed certainly hurt the island’s cruise trade.

In the Far East, more erudite operations such as Voyages to Antiquity offer many overnight stays, including up to three nights in such fabled ports as Yangon. Saigon has evolved into a very popular overnight destination while, back in the Mediterranean, companies such as Azamara and Crystal now offer overnight stays in such idyllic spots as Sorrento. Kusadasi, Barcelona and even Monte Carlo.

For passengers, overnight calls allow for the possibility to see a destination in greater depth, and at a far more leisurely pace than that allowed by a typical ‘nine to five’ daylight stay. The possibility of being able to dine ashore at night builds in far more options- and therefore value- for potential passengers. Managed and promoted properly, cruise lines will, in future, find overnight stays to be far more of a positive benefit than an awkward accommodation. I expect to see many more in the future.

DISNEY DELIGHTS- MEDITERRANEAN CRUISES IN 2014

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

The Disney Magic at Port Canaveral, Florida.

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

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

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

FOUR NIGHT CRUISES:

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

FIVE NIGHT CRUISES:

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

SEVEN NIGHT CRUISES: 

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

NINE NIGHT CRUISES:

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

TWELVE NIGHT CRUISES: 

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

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

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

THE CROSSINGS:

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

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

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

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

Disney Magic is mostly homeported in Barcelona for her 2014 programme

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

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

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

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

OVER THE NEXT FEW WEEKS- COMING UP IN THE CRUISE WORLD

Carnival heading for New Orleans

Carnival heading for New Orleans

Quite a few things worth noting here, actually, as we begin the long, slow slide into winter. A possible new build. maybe a new cruise line, a big refurb, and some big shifts in deployment are all here in the mix;

AIN’T NO SUNSHINE

After an initially troubled start up following her unprecedented, bow to stern refit, Carnival Sunshine (the former Carnival Destiny) will leave Barcelona on November 1st for a sixteen night transatlantic crossing to New Orleans. With her goes the last deployment of any of the ‘Fun Ships’ in any European cruising region until at least 2015.

Carnival Sunshine will operate seven night Western Caribbean itineraries from New Orleans through April 2014, when she comes around to Port Canaveral to offer six and eight night round trip Eastern Caribbean itineraries.

SERVING UP INDIAN…..

Word is circulating about the likely start up of a new, Indian based cruise line, aimed at tapping the potentially huge local domestic market. Royal Asian Cruise Lines is said to have already bought the laid up Gemini, last used as an accommodation ship at the 2012 London Olympics. The line is also said to be in the market for up to four more, second hand ships of a similar size and vintage.

Final financing arrangements were due to take place in Barcelona this month. The cruise line will initially operate in the Indian Ocean, including the waters around Sri Lanka.

SEABOURN’S FAB FOUR?

Ultra luxury Seabourn Cruise Line is said to be on the cusp of ordering a fourth vessel in the highly successful, 32,000 ton Sojourn class. If so, it will give the line a consistency across the fleet, and a potential depth of world wide deployment that is going to be hard to match. Meanwhile, first of the initial trio, Seabourn Pride, will leave the fleet to join new owners, Windstar, in April next year, with the other two smaller sisters completing the transition in 2015.

Midships pool on the Louis Aura

Midships pool on the Louis Aura

LOUIS SWINGS SOUTH

With the season for short Aegean and Greek Islands cruises coming rapidly to a close (the last few sailings are in early November)  Louis Cruises is sending two of its ships across the Atlantic on full winter charters.

Louis Aura, currently sailing as the Orient Queen, will be heading for Brazil, to operate a series of itineraries varying in range from between three to seven nights, concentrating mainly on the north east coast of Brazil.

Louis Cristal (familiar to many as Norwegian Cruise Lines’ former Leeward) is off to begin a series of pioneering, seven night fly cruises from Havana, Cuba to the Caribbean. The Louis Cristal is under charter to a Canadian tour operator. Embarkation is also going to be possible for these cruises in Montego Bay, Jamaica.

NOW, VOYAGER

Regent Seven Seas’ Seven Seas Voyager will enter dry dock in Marseille on October 14th  for an eight day refit that will see full refurbishment of the Horizon and Observation lounges with new carpetings, furnishings, and a new bar in each. All penthouse suites will also get a comprehensive makeover.

In addition, all balconies will receive new teak decking, and outdoor relaxation areas will be enhanced with new deck furniture. The Constellation theatre and the atrium will be refurbished with new soft fittings, and marble enhancements.

Carpeting throughout the 708 guest all balcony, all inclusive Voyager will be replaced, and new art works added right throughout the ship.

Seven Seas Voyager is due to resume service on October 23rd, with a ten night sailing from Rome to Venice.

I’ll be on board for that, so expect a more comprehensive appraisal soon after. Stay tuned.

2014- AND THE CRUISE BARGAINS KEEP ON COMING…..

A Spanish 'carnival' in the Med, anyone?

A Spanish ‘carnival’ in the Med, anyone?

It’s not so very long ago that the Mirror’s Captain Greybeard pointed up some amazing cruise prices in his online blog. Despite less big ships returning to the sunny climes of the Med next year, it seems that cruise lines are still engaged in a desperate scramble to get their hands on your money. And it’s no longer just the English and American lines, either.

This year, Spanish all inclusive cruise and tour operator, Pullmantur, introduced its first ever, dedicated brochure for UK passengers. Using a mixed bag of tonnage acquired from its parent company, Royal Caribbean, it looks to be making a determined and sustained push for a piece of the UK cruise market.

This has triggered a slightly more muted response from its Spanish rival, the Carnival owned and financed Iberocruises.

While there’s (yet) no sign of a UK brochure, the company is now selling its product through specialist operators such as Ponders Travel and Cruise Nation. The ships in the Iberocruises fleet are largely ex- Carnival tonnage, ships of around 45,000 tons. It has also appointed a general sales agent in the UK-Vamos Holidays– to co-ordinate its activities in the UK and Ireland.

The two ships sailing for the company- Grand Holiday and Grand Celebration- were originally two of the first mega ships built for Carnival, and first entered service in 1985 and 1986, respectively. And, while it’s not an all inclusive product like Pullmantur is, some of the fares currently on offer almost beggar belief for sheer good value.

For example, Cruise Nation (www.cruisenation.com) is offering an eight night fly cruise package, consisting of return flights (based on London) to Barcelona, a two night city stay, and a six night cruise on Grand Holiday, calling at Marseille, Savona, Ajaccio and Palma, from only £279 per person. This is based on a departure date of March 2nd, 2014.

And two extra nights in beautiful Barcelona are included...

And two extra nights in beautiful Barcelona are included…

The website says it will arrange other airports on request, but no doubt at a supplement.

Interested? Who wouldn’t be. But- do be aware that the hotel stay is post cruise, and no mention is made about including transfers. However, this is easy enough to do in Barcelona. You also need to be aware that there is a ten euro per day service charge to add to the cost of this one, per person.

Even for a single passenger, assuming a 50 per cent single supplement still gives you an eight night fly cruise package for just over £400. That’s astonishing value.

Naturally enough, these fares are based on lead in, inside cabins. But even these come in at around 185 square feet- hardly claustrophobic. Facilities on board the Grand Holiday include three restaurants (one of them a buffet) six bars including outdoor and indoor choices, two pools, three hot tubs, a health centre, casino and disco.

Worth a flutter? Entirely up to you, dear reader.

THREE EPIC DAYS- A MINI TRIP ON THE BIG SHIP…..

Three days on the Norwegian Epic… It went by at a rate of knots that made the Normandie look like a non starter in the speed stakes. Day by day, here’s how it panned out.

DAY ONE:

Up above the Pyrenees

Up above the Pyrenees

It’s an unfeasibly early 4.15am check in at Newcastle Airport for the BA shuttle down to Heathrow Terminal Five. A simple airside change of gate, and I’m on the haul out to Barcelona. Managed to blag an exit row seat, with about four foot of glorious legroom in front of me. Love the views of the cloud capped Pyrenees drifting by below as I pick at some nibbles and a vitally refreshing OJ. Wheels down on time, through the airport quite quickly. Meet the rest of our media group, and then we’re off on our way to board the Norwegian Epic.

The sheer size of the Epic is still something to marvel at, even after three years. The huge width of the ship permits an enormous amount of interior space to create fabulous, diverse sets of vaulting public rooms. Quick bite of fish and chips at O’Sheehan’s Bar and Grill, and I’m back in the zone. Lifeboat drill is held inside, and then it’s pre dinner drinks with what proved to be a lovely media group. We’re outside on the aft terraces outside Spice H20 as this enormous, sea going cathedral swaggers out of sunny, beautiful Barcelona; destination Naples.

The Manhattan Room

The Manhattan Room

Dinner in the gorgeous, retro Manhattan Room, with its wall of glass windows overlooking the stern. There’s a live band playing old Motown, and Ike and Tina Turner stuff. It’s got the look- and feel- of a thirties style New York supper club, and I love it. Great food, service and music. After dinner, i call it a night at about ten. Been awake for more than twenty four hours by this stage. My head crashes onto the pillow, and I’m out even before the light clicks off.

DAY TWO:

Pool deck on the Norwegian

Pool deck on the Norwegian

At sea. A good night’s sleep, a decent breakfast, and all is well with the world. Warm sun feels good on my skin. The Norwegian Epic is full- there’s more than 4200 passengers on board- but the flow of the ship makes it seem like so many less. The upper decks are a giddy whirl of water slides, pools, hot tubs and tiki bars. There’s even a kiddie’s Nickelodeon area. Rows of sun loungers, fast food outlets and a slew of sunning space. It feels like a cross between Waikiki Beach and the French Riviera. Designed to make you feel good. It works.

Pathetic attempt to grab a healthy lunch at the Garden Cafe buffet is sideswiped by irresistible striploin steak only marginally smaller than the ship. Lord forgive me, I could not walk past those nice little slices of chocolate cake. Epic fail.

Happy Feet. In a Norwegian sty-lee

Happy Feet. In a Norwegian sty-lee

Penance is a bottle of chilled champagne, savoured in one of the ridiculously big padded chairs. There’s an avenue of these, in between the forward pool area and the outdoor shops just behind me. A sweet, warm breeze drifts down this alleyway, Carries the music from the live band playing up front; bits of Bob Marley and some Stevie Wonder go with the champagne flow. People saunter past in both directions. Eventually come to the realisation that the bottle is emptier than Paris Hilton’s head. Doh.

I manage to grab an hour out on my balcony. Nice, large space, and a quick coffee from the in room coffee maker to go, Love the sound of the ship’s mass, moving through the sea and throwing up quite a wash. We really are powering along now.

This man has never starred in a blue movie. Fact.

This man has never starred in a blue movie. Fact.

No words can really describe the amazing, early evening performance from the Blue Man Group. But here’s a few, anyway; toilet rolls, crunchy nut corn flakes, lasers, hammers, and plumbing used as drums. Oh, and a bit of escapology. Lots of blue paint. Dazed? You will be. Keep up at the back….

Dinner in Le Bistro is sumptuous. Onion soup, amazingly tender and succulent surf and turf, and creme brulee all washed down with a warm, rich Malbec. Great food and service, and even better company. Disco? Rude not to, really. Wonder idly who will be the first to try and climb on the life size horses at the entrance. There’s bowling lanes in there, too. The whole thing looks like a Moroccan harem, with big divans, recessed sofa areas, and oversized pimp chairs; very a la P. Diddy. Some good tunes, too. Vintage Michael Jackson, some Chic- forever cool- and a packed room to boot. The cuba libres are like the medicine of the gods. Best use sparingly. Long day tomorrow. But it’s fun. Bed at three. Doh….

DAY THREE:  Up at a ridiculously early hour to grab a quick breakfast in the Garden Cafe. The Norwegian Epic is edging into the Bay of Naples. The sun is rising from behind Mount Vesuvius; the old brute seems to be glowering at us from across the water, but even it’s squat, scary stance can’t detract from the sheer beauty and serenity of the moment.

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise

We’re already snuggled up against the dock of the Stazzione Maritima by this time. I trudge off the ship, half awake, to be met by the human dynamo that is Wanda. Wanda is our tour guide; a Joan of Arc dressed by Gucci. Short in stature, but my God, her energy levels are something Duracell can only dream of. Wanda woman is taking us to Vesuvius. I begin to pity the scarred, scary looking old gargoyle. Vesuvius, that is.

We hike up to the summit of the mountain itself, some 4200 feet above the city of Naples. It’s a steep, onerous trudge across rolling tracts of black volcanic sand. I’m thrown by the sight of flourishing vineyards standing near jagged tracts of vast, mis shapen lava accumulations. We walk past cloud level, and the sun disappears. Seconds later, it comes back. Seeing into the crater is like looking down the jaws of a tiger shark. We’re too insignificant for Vesuvius to care. It knows how to deal with our kind; just ask the still cowed shades of Pompeii, right down the hill.

We yell into the crater for effect. Vesuvius responds with thirty centuries of silent, stony contempt. Euphoric to have got to the top and enjoyed the staggering views over the bay, but happy to follow the indefatigable Wanda back to the bus. I sag into my seat on the blissfully air conditioned coach like some puppet with its strings cut. But Wanda has more in store for us. Yup, it’s an afternoon in Pompeii.

The silent streets of Pompeii

The silent streets of Pompeii

Any attempt at Frankie Howerd jokes fall flat when confronted with the reality of Pompeii. This is a sixty six hectare, shattered corpse of a city, and it died screaming. Twenty thousand denizens and hedonists went down with Pompeii; it’s like a cross between a first century Las Vegas and the Titanic. You can still see the rutted truck marks left by Roman chariots more than twenty centuries ago.

Lower floors of houses and shops, immolated for centuries under seven metres of pumice, ash and hot lava, jut upwards in the afternoon sun like ranks of serried, jagged molars. Pompeii is immense, upsetting, tragic and deeply, deeply spooky. The sheer scale of its destruction is a lesson that we have neither the gall or gumption to comprehend. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world, but I’m glad to head back to the air conditioned serenity of the Norwegian Epic.

It’s been quite the day. Sadly, alas, it’s also arrivederci to the wonder that is Wanda. Ciao Bella, grazia!

Back on board, showered and changed. It’s five o’clock, and that can only mean one thing; Margarita. The first one goes down quicker than a hooker’s drawers at the start of Fleet Week. But oh boy, what an adrenaline charge. There’s live music on deck, and the soft, warm air is beginning to subtly change. So, too, has my mood; the ghosts of Pompeii were refused entry at the gangway. As the second, sweet margarita kisses my throat, the Norwegian Epic is threading her way out into the bay. Over it all, Vesuvius looms and watches. And waits. Our last night at sea begins with a killer watermelon martini at Shakers Cocktail Bar. Then we’re all kitted up with fur capes and gloves, for a session in the Svedka Ice Bar. Surreal does not begin to cover it.

The Empire Strikes Back?

The Empire Strikes Back?

Everything inside here is literally made of ice, save for the fur rugs on the ice benches. And, of course, the bartenders. We have luminescent, bright blue coloured cocktails in glasses made of ice. In our garb, we look like a cross between a coven of defrocked nuns and those jawas from The Empire Strikes Back. Fun it is. Yes.

Dinner tonight is in Teppanyaki. This Japanese themed restaurant is as much drama and theatre as fine dining, and proves to be anything but teppan-yucky. We sit in wary anticipation as our kimono wearing, bandana bedecked chef unleashes a blizzard of brilliantly sharpened knife blades on succulent cuts of beef and seafood; and all at a speed that makes Bruce Lee look about as agile as Bruce Forsyth. The guy is a whirling dervish, and each requested dish is cooked up to sizzling, finely sliced perfection in front of you.

Scared? Moi? Hell, no. I climbed and conquered Vesuvius, pal. I am Spartacus. Even if I felt more like Albert Steptoe’s older brother when I got back on board. It’s a fantastic, thrilling piece of food as theatre. We’re all pretty much beat after our epic adventures of the day. And, as it’s now eleven o’clock and we have to be up at six to leave, that can only mean one thing.

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki......

Flashing blades in Teppanyaki……

That’s right. Sing it with me. D-I-S-C-O…… Two and a half improbable hours of cuba libres, and an inevitable, graceless gallump around the dance floor to Mambo No. 5, and finally, sayonara, sweetheart. It’s 1.30 in the morning. Hangovers? Pah. Spartacus never bitched about hangovers, did he?

DAY FOUR:

We’re docked in the port of Civitavecchia, waiting for the shuttle to take us to Rome’s Fiumicino airport. The coffee helps me little. I feel like an undertaker with the hangover from hell. Maybe I should try gargling with embalming fluid. I mean, look what it did for Engelbert Humpaduck, or whatever the hell he’s called.

The coach rattles through the wondrous, rustic countryside of Lazio as sunrise kisses the cornfields. There’s an interminable wait at Fiumicino itself. Our flight takes off twenty minutes late, but swoops down into a grey, somber looking Heathrow on time. I fall asleep on the shuttle up to Newcastle.

Looking back, I’m awed and amazed at how much good stuff we shoe horned into three short days. I met some truly amazing people indeed, and sampled everything from the fiery miasma of Mount Vesuvius to our chilly little tinctures in the Ice Bar.

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

Jumbotron movie screen on the Norwegian Epic

The Norwegian Epic herself was big, both in size and the scale of the welcome on board. Even the above account is not a complete narrative of everything that we got through. And, for those of you pondering that sixty-four million dollar question…. The answer is: yes. Somebody did manage to climb up on that ruddy great horse just outside of the disco. And no, it wasn’t me. I get vertigo sitting on the edge of a kerb. Horses for courses? Sure. But when it comes to climbing up on to something that big, Spartacus I am not. No. Not ever.

BOARDING OPTIONS ON MED FLY CRUISES- MORE CHOICES THAN YOU THINK

Take a Roman Holiday all your own....

Take a Roman Holiday all your own….

Ah, the Meddy-Go-Round. Those pretty, popular little seven night slices of heaven that pirouette sweetly around the summer time ‘greatest hits’ ports of those balmy. southern European hot spots; Barcelona, Monaco, Rome, Florence, Naples, et al. What’s not to love?

Most people board their ships in Barcelona or Venice, but how many knew that there are other options available to them? For, truth be told, many of these ships can actually be embarked at any of the secondary ports on the circuit. And that, my friends, allows you to tailor make some pretty peachy stay and cruise options if you have the time and inclination.

Such as? Well, why not board the state of the art, ground breaking Norwegian Epic in Civitavecchia, the port for Rome, rather than the main hub of Barcelona? That gives you the option of a few pre and/or post cruise days in Italy’s stunning capital of history, art and culture. And, as you’ll then be visiting Barcelona itself in what amounts to technically mid cruise, you’ll also have a full day in the fabulous Catalan capital of cool. While thousands are getting off and on the ship, you can be chilling on the beach with some nicely chilled cava. Sweet.

Costa, MSC, Royal Caribbean and Norwegian all cruise out of swaggering, magnificent Venice during the summer. But anyone who has done this knows how chaotic it can be getting through the city and airport on a busy embarkation or disembarkation day. So why not board the day after instead? Some lines allow you to embark in beautiful, hugely under-the-radar Bari, a sweet little gem located on the southern heel of Italy.

Check out the highspots of Cannes on a Med cruise

Check out the highspots of Cannes on a Med cruise

Take a couple of days to see this glorious place, then board your ship- with far, far smaller lines at embarkation, and then enjoy a full, unhurried day in Venice as everyone else indulges in the pre and post cruise debarkation madness. Quick tip; why not make for the glorious Venice Lido, and enjoy some authentic Italian gelato right on the beach? A wonderful way to while away a few indolent hours.

You could board a ship in pithy, cosmopolitan Marseille, and enjoy a little quality time on the French Riviera before or after your cruise. And Pullmantur, the all inclusive Spanish operator, also allows embarkation in stately, dignified Genoa, a city that everyone should see once in a lifetime.

Most cruise lines will be happy to tailor make a package for you that will cover flights, hotels, transfers and, of course, your cruise. But if you like to do this stuff on your own, then you might find budget flights on the likes of Easyjet, Jet2 and even Ryanair that might save you a packet. It comes down to your confidence in your own abilities to arrange this sort of thing.

Again, if you have standing Avios miles to use with an airline such as British Airways, you might be able to bag a real bargain cruise at a fantastic price. This is especially true for the winter Mediterranean cruise market; a week in the mild January sun might just be the post Christmas pick up that you need.

Whatever, wherever and whenever- just get out there, and have fun. Bon voyage!

BIGGING UP BERMUDA- NEW CRUISE TERMINAL DEVELOPMENTS ON THE WAY? (Updated)

Crystal Symphony, tendering passengers into Hamilton, Bermuda

Crystal Symphony, tendering passengers into Hamilton, Bermuda

Cruise Industry News has posted a revealing little snippet about the possible future direction of summer cruises to Bermuda.

It says that the Bermuda government may be partnering with an un-named ‘major cruise line’ to deliver a new docking facility on the east end of the island, as well as upgrading existing docking facilities to allow the arrival of the largest classes of mega ships.

The latter part of this is a no brainer, It surely refers to the existing facilities on the west end of the island, over at Kings Wharf. These currently allow ships in excess of 150.000 tons to berth- the area is home port for the brand new Norwegian Breakaway-to dock, four at a time. Presumably, any further expansion is aimed at attracting seasonal visits from either the enormous, 22,000 plus tons Oasis and Allure of The Seas.

Those two giants regularly operate year round Caribbean cruises from Fort Lauderdale, but either could just as easily offer an alternative, one week round trip to Bermuda if demand was deemed to be sufficient. It would certainly be something extra for the ships to offer to attract passengers jaded with the Caribbean. And, with enhanced docking facilities at Kings Wharf, a trial run would be at least practical for Royal Caribbean.

The bruited new east coast passenger terminal is far more enigmatic, and infinitely more controversial. It could only be around the area of the original capital of St. George’s, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of outstanding natural beauty. Hamilton, the current capital, is on the north coast, midway between the western and eastern extremities, and so does not sound like the development in question.

Side streets of St. George's, Bermuda

Side streets of St. George’s, Bermuda

The problem with St. George’s is that the entrance to the harbour can accommodate nothing above 50,000 tons at present. The coral reefs that flank it would have to be cut away massively to allow access of any kind- a bone of contention that has bedevilled attempts to revive the once lucrative St. George’s cruise trade for the better part of two decades.

The area could desperately use a return of mainstream cruises. In the late nineties, St George’s was regularly attracting four overnight cruise ship calls a week, week in and out from May to October. In 2011, the same port attracted just two in six months.

Holland America Line tried to resurrect the traditional Bermuda cruise for a few years with the mid sized Veendam, but lack of berthing space at the east end eventually scuppered that. So, when both HAL and parent company, Carnival, reviewed options for the 2013 season, they decided to abandon Bermuda altogether. The loss of HAL in particular was a body blow to the rump of the island’s east coast trade.

So an east coast terminal would clearly be to the economic benefit of both cruise lines and locals. But who is the cruise line looking to actively build such a facility?

I’m guessing it’s Carnival, who have a fine track record for developing purpose built locations such as Grand Turk, and the terminals in Barcelona and Savona for their Costa brand. For years, their rivals- Norwegian, Celebrity and Royal Caribbean- have been holding court over at the lucrative Kings Wharf side of the island. Making a play for a dedicated east coast base would give Carnival a quite unique location.

The beauty of Bermuda is legendary

The beauty of Bermuda is legendary

But there are other potential obstacles on the horizon, such as the Bermuda government’s so far apparently steadfast determination to refuse on board casinos and shops permission to open while in port; a huge revenue loss to consider when ships are berthed in Bermuda for a minimum of two nights. Yet there did seem to be some signs of concession from the authorities ashore a few years ago, faced with a rising tide of cruise ship losses to the Caribbean. Perhaps some leeway in these laws could be the sweetener for the proposed new venture?

In any event, this is one worth watching. It will also be interesting to see how the infrastructure of Bermuda- an island only some twenty one miles long- can adapt to the anticipated increase in cruise trade.  The network of ferries and buses that cover the island are inadequate, there are precious few taxis, and private car hire is non existent.

All of these points will have to be addressed if the Bermuda cruise trade is to be revived but, faced with continually losing out to its neighbours in the Caribbean, the Bermuda government really has very little room for argument here.

Stay tuned.

Original report source: Cruise Industry News, 2/10/13.  www.cruiseindustrynews.com

Additional information: As of October 4th, 2013, the Bermuda Parliament voted to allow cruise ship casinos to stay open from 9pm to 5am while docked in Bermuda. Ships will need to remain in port for one night or longer to qualify, and a casino licensing fee will also be payable.