MINI ANTIQUES- VOYAGES TO ANTIQUITY OFFERS SHORTER FLY CRUISES

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise. See it from the Aegean Odyssey in May

Mount Vesuvius at sunrise. See it from the Aegean Odyssey in May

In a move that is possibly a test run for future sailings, specialist operator Voyages To Antiquity is offering a pair of shorter fly cruises this May aboard the small, beautifully styled Aegean Odyssey.

The fly cruises are of five and nine nights’ duration respectively, and come inclusive of all flights, transfers, shore excursions with knowledgeable, in depth guides, and inclusive beer, wine and soft drinks with dinner each evening. And, with no single supplements to boot, they represent quite extraordinary value.

The first, five day jaunt departs from Istanbul on May 10th, with calls at Lemnos and Izmir to see the stunning, magnificent ruins of Ephesus. Moving on, the Aegean Odyssey then offers a morning touring among the sacred grave sites at Delos, followed by a few hours’ people watching in classy, stylish Mykonos, before disembarking in Athens on May 14th. Single fares for this trip begin at £895.

The second, nine night itinerary begins in Athens on May 14th, and finishes in Rome’s port of Civitavecchia. En route, the Aegean Odyssey visits Nauplia, to see the fabulous site of Epidaurus. After a day at sea, she sails on to Taormina, with it’s fantastic Greco-Roman hilltop theatre, and then on to the historic Sicilian city of Palermo for an overnight stay.

From here, Aegean Odyssey makes her way for another overnight stay; this time in fabled, springtime Sorrento. There is ample time to see such landmark sites as Pompeii, Herculaneum and, of course, the brooding Mount Vesuivius itself, as well as leaving time to enjoy some serious people watching in Piazza Tasso, or even a drive along to fabled Amalfi, or perhaps a boat trip out to Capri.

This cruise concludes the next morning. Prices for the inclusive, nine night package start from £1,495. Again, there is no single supplement.

The pretty little Aegean Odyssey

The pretty little Aegean Odyssey

Flights are usually arranged on the scheduled services of British Airways, and include domestic flights to Heathrow where necessary.

The Aegean Odyssey is a small, destination intensive cruise ship with an ambiance more akin to that of a floating country club than a vast maritime theme park. With a capacity for less then four hundred passengers, she offers fabulous service and dining- both indoors and out- and a smart casual dress code.

This is not a ship for those wanting a lively, late night environment. Think of her as a very comfortable combination of a boutique hotel and a fantastic, fulfilling and educational travel experience, and you have the gist.

I particularly recommend the cove balcony cabins in the aft part of the ship as a great buy. Nicely sheltered, and with lovely canvas chairs, they offer you an expansive and roomy vantage point from which to savour those balmy spring time Aegean and Mediterranean sunsets.

TAKING FLIGHT; THE GREAT ESCAPE

Exchanging this....

Exchanging this….

As I write this, rain is thumping in vengeful torrents against my living room windows, just as it has done for around two hours. The wind is howling and shrieking like a Justin Bieber wannabe. Outside, the sky is grimmer than a gargoyle’s jockstrap. And yet here I sit, grinning like a proverbial village idiot. Oh, yes.

For the great escape is on. Ssshhhh…..

In a scant five days, I’ll be exchanging this grotfest for the warm, sunny skies of Miami and the Caribbean. Thanks to the lovely folk at Carnival Cruises, I’ll be pottering sedately around a quarter of sun splashed, Caribbean idylls. Hopefully, the only ice to be encountered will be in my lunch time margarita. Peachy, non?

This contrast between grim ‘now’ and glorious ‘next’ had the unexpected effect of making me ponder just how truly miraculous long distance air travel still is.  If all goes to plan, I’ll be touching down in balmy Miami just nine hours and forty minutes after departing from the unalloyed joy that is Heathrow. That thought alone warms me on some deep, inner level.

I’m on British Airways for my flight out; that airline usually does a fine job of getting me to where I need to be. In fact, I have used this same flight quite often. Coming back, I am at the tender mercies of American Airlines. And I don’t even want to think about that.

We all know the minuses of air travel, especially if you turn right at the cabin doorway. And the airport experience is never a joyride, no matter what class you fly. And yet, the sheer adrenaline surge of such an escape seems nothing short of miraculous right at this moment. The negatives can be dismissed with a casual shrug- for now at least.

They can be dismissed because the journey itself is a means to an end- a progression from dismal to delightful days. A bridge to the sun, if you will.

For this.....

For this…..

After all, if God had meant me to spend winter in such conditions as we’ve got right now, then he would hardly have put two airports within thirty miles of my front door now, would he?  That’s my rationale, and I’m clinging to it like a banker, hanging on to his last bonus cheque.

The idea of being able to get back to somewhere at once warm, welcoming and familiar, fills me with a kind of subtle, wonderful warmth. Oh, the joys of shedding four layers of clothing. To feel the warmth of the sun again.

In a sense, the journey has already begun. Anticipation is always the most sublime of appetizers out there. It won’t be long now.

And- my word- it just stopped raining. Quite literally.

NEWCASTLE AIRPORT’S NEW 2014 ROUTES (Updated)

Newcastle is an increasingly important centre for Easyjet

Newcastle is an increasingly important centre for Easyjet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

See the wonders of Niagara Falls from Newcastle International

See the wonders of Niagara Falls from Newcastle International

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

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

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

POST WAR AIR TRAVEL- THE RISE OF THE MACHINES

Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

Air travel gained undeniable ascendency after the Second World War

After the Second World War, it took a few years for the patterns of past war transatlantic travel to re-establish themselves. All of the big surviving transatlantic liners were in need of massive refurbishments, and the only planes capable of making non stop transatlantic flights were still propeller driven, and mostly adaptions of mass produced bombers.

Planes like the Boeing Stratocruiser offered sleeping berths, personalised service and dining, and comfortable, armchair style seating with more than ample personal space. They could cross the Atlantic in around twelve hours. Even the fastest of the renovated ocean liners took eight times that long. On paper, air travel had the game sewn up.

But those same planes were notorious, unstable bone shakers, and even the long range ones had to land in Eastern Canada to refuel. And they could also carry relatively small numbers of passengers on each crossing. Reliable, mass market air travel remained an elusive chimera.

And the ocean liners fought back with a vengeance. By 1947, more than a million passengers a year were once more routinely crossing the Atlantic, and the premier liners of companies like Cunard and the French Line were almost always full. Far more so, in fact, than at any other time before.

Both the enormous Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth were usually sold out six months in advance, even in the winter seasons. And, riding the wave of this massively resurgent market, America introduced the barnstorming SS United States in the summer of 1952.

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

Cunard had the most popular, two ship service on the post war Atlantic

The big American liner thundered across the Atlantic in July 1952, and took the Blue Riband for the fastest crossing of the Atlantic, at just under three and a half days. Under any circumstances it was an amazing performance and, true to form, the United States prospered mightily as the new speed record holder.

At about the same time, the first commercial jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet, entered commercial service. Fast, smooth, and capable of carrying large numbers in relative comfort, the Comet eliminated almost all the discomfort of its propeller driven predecessors.

But this beautiful plane suffered from a series of design flaws and, in the next few years, no less than thirteen of them came down, killing some 426 people in all. The adverse media publicity was enormous, and it undoubtedly gave the transatlantic liners a few years’ breathing space.  Even the sinking of the beautiful Andrea Doria off Nantucket in July, 1956 did nothing to deter the tidal wave of businessmen and tourists still sailing across the Atlantic each year.

In 1958, more than 1.2 million passengers sailed the old route, either on business or pleasure. But this was quite literally the high water mark. That same October, a Pan American Boeing 707 named Clipper America flew from New York to Paris in less than seven hours. In its vapour trail, that pioneering flight carried the death warrant of the ocean liner. The writing was not so much on the wall, as it was in the sky.

Air minded visionaries such as Juan Trippe at Pan Am, and Howard Hughes of TWA, now set about monopolising the air routes, together with players such as BOAC, the predecessor to the current British Airways. The 707 itself was a complete game changer; one of the most significant and successful aircraft in the entire history of commercial flight.

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

The ocean liner as a breed did not give up easily

Suddenly, air travel was safe, frequent, a lot more comfortable, and competitive price wise with the cream of the ocean going crop. The liners began to lose ground very quickly indeed. By the turn of the new decade in 1960, the jets already had around seventy per cent of the total transatlantic trade.  Even the famous and popular Cunard Queens often carried more crew than passengers on winter crossings. The big ships of all the famous old companies were sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. The flow could not be halted, much less reversed.

Yet still, big liners continued to appear. On a cloudy February afternoon in 1962, thousands lined the banks of the Hudson to watch the maiden arrival in New York of the brand new SS. France. Helicopters buzzed the great ship like so many curious dragonflies as a quartet of fire boats hurled huge, icy plumes of water skywards in welcome. Banners snapped in greeting in the frigid breeze as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her pier. She was magnificent, utterly magical, and way, way too late; a last burst of bravado in the face of the inevitable.

The France was popular and successful, but only a titanic government fuel subsidy made it possible for her to sail at all. The jets kept slashing at the Atlantic liner’s passenger numbers. By the mid sixties, the ageing Queens were often compared to deserted seaside resorts. Attempts to use them on off season, warm weather cruises met with only partial success.

The Italians in particular fought doggedly against the airborne assault. In 1965, a pair of lithe, sparkling new sister ships called the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged to sail on the Italy to New York run.  Italians have always been particularly sea minded and, for a few years, these two ships were able to buck the airborne trend, before ultimately succumbing in the mid 1970’s, after just a decade each of service.

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

The QE2 was synonymous with the Atlantic crossing for almost four decades

Then, in 1969, came the brand new Queen Elizabeth 2, a ship designed from the start both to make crossings and off season cruises. After a shaky and troubled start, the ship- forever after to be immortalised as the QE2– settled down to almost four decades of legendary service. For many years, she would steam stubbornly back and forth across the Atlantic as the last surviving liner and, in doing so, she would become the most legendary and beloved of all the long lineage of illustrious, hallowed Cunarders.

1969 also saw the withdrawal from service of the stunning SS. United States, and the inauguration of the new, mass transit successor to the 707. This new plane was the Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet.  Huge, capacious, and offering unparallelled economies of scale, it took commercial air travel to a whole new level. By the time it was flying in regular service in 1970, the jets had ninety six per cent of the transatlantic trade.

By that stage, only the France and the QE2 were still making regular crossings on the old superliner route and, while they were indeed sometimes still fully booked in summer, the winters saw them seeking refuge, and indeed survival, in warmer cruising regions. The triumph of air travel was as unassailable as it was undeniable.

And yet, incredibly, in the years to come, both jet and ocean liner would come to form an alliance of sorts. As crossing gave way to cruising, the former rivals would become working partners, with each being necessary to the successful operation of the other.

But that, my friends, is entirely another story….

CONCORDE- THE HIGH CLIMBING QUEEN OF THE SKIES

Concorde was the absolute epitome of airborne chic

Concorde was the absolute epitome of airborne chic

All told, Concorde flew in commercial service for British Airways for something like twenty seven years, between 1976 and 2003. Mainly used on the Heathrow to New York route, it was the first- and only-supersonic jet to maintain a regular service.

The plane carried 135 passengers in all, and flew at a height of around 58,000 feet. At that height, the curvature of the Earth was quite clearly defined. Such was the pace of the plane that an early morning Concorde, departing from Heathrow, would arrive in New York some two hours earlier.

Of course, this beautiful plane- more truly bird like in appearance than any other- was fabulously served, staffed by the cream of BA cabin crews. Only Concorde could offer champagne and fillet steak at Mach 2, as the rich and famous of five continents lounged in soft, specially contoured, grey leather seats.

What surprised many people was the actual small size of the plane. British Airways staff nickname for Concorde was the ‘pocket rocket’; anyone over six foot in height would have found the confines of the plane a bit trying. And even the thirty-eight inch seat pitch of those premium priced Concorde seats was no greater than that of the current BA World Traveller Plus.

And, of course, the plane was hideously expensive to operate. Concorde guzzled precious aviation fuel like so much cheap table wine. Only on the lucrative North Atlantic flight path could the plane ever hope to make a viable living. For many years, the Concorde operated a joint transatlantic service with the QE2, that other troubled child of the late sixties.

This unique partnership was incredibly successful, and lasted until the end of the Concorde scheduled services in 2003. By then, a number of factors had already combined to doom the plane.

The crash of an Air France Concorde at Paris in 2000 led to a painful grounding of all services until the cause of the crash could be established, and corrective action enabled. While this was in truck, the horrific events of 9/11 literally took down the demand for luxury air travel. And, though BA resumed Concorde services to New York that same November, nothing would ever be the same again.

Also working against the plane by this time was its own avionics. When Concorde was brand new, all its systems had been state of the art but, by 2003, these were hopelessly out of date. The fastest commercial aircraft in history had a flight deck that was almost antiquated compared to the newest generation of wide bodied 747’s. And, with passengers numbers still light following the fallout from both the Paris crash and 9/11, the costs of upgrading Concorde would have been unrealistic.

Both BA and Air France announced the inevitable end of their Concorde services in April 2003, with the last flights taking place that same October. All fourteen surviving craft from both airlines have either been mothballed, or opened as static museums. Despite the lingering hopes and ambitions of many, the prohibitive cost of reactivating the planes makes it unlikely that they will ever fly again.

Just as with the demise of the far more luxurious Hindenburg, the withdrawal of Concorde marked a watershed in the history of commercial air travel. And, just like that doomed airship, the stilled, supersonic paragon that is Concorde will always remain a highly romanticised high point in the story of elegant, exclusive passenger travel. We will never see the likes of it again in our lifetimes.

LEARNING TO LOVE LOS ANGELES?

'Do you remember back in old L.A, where everybody drove a Chevrolet.....'

‘Do you remember back in old L.A, where everybody drove a Chevrolet…..’

Even typing that article title feels strange. Those that know me well would have assured you that there’s more chance of seeing Bob Crowe and Paul Dacre leading a conga line down Piccadilly than ever there was of me admitting to even a shred of affection for Los Angeles. And yet, after a few recent trips, some revised thinking is quite clearly in order. Hmmm- has that California wine- or maybe the sun- finally gotten to me? Maybe it’s both.

Whoa, sunshine. Focus and recap.

Let me count the ways… In the past, I always sneered that LA stood for ‘lacks atmosphere’. It was made of plastic and, if you kicked it hard enough, it would surely fall over. The pouting of simpering, intellectual black holes such as Paris Hilton and the Kardashians, plus all the platinum grade, fawning bullshit that goes with that whole celebrity culture, has always left me more than a touch nauseous. Add in the smog, the endless traffic, and the pathetic pretension of some of the city’s more upscale eateries, and you have enough fodder for a barf-a-thon of incalculable magnitude.

And then, two years ago, I had an epiphany of sorts, when I discovered a whole different side of Los Angeles. A kinder, more benign aspect that does not insist on seeing its name up in lights, Because of that alone, Manhattan Beach boasts considerable style, charm and- dare I say it- stage presence.

The background to the story goes something like this; I had to fly out to LA to pick up a cruise ship down to Mexico. And, being booked on British Airways, I had already spent twelve anxious hours in the air, wondering if my luggage and I would enjoy an emotional reunion at LAX or, for that matter, anywhere else.  Add on the effects of passing through all those east to west time zones, and you’ll understand why I was pretty well fried by the time that we were on final approach to la-la-land.

I had been booked into the LAX Hilton hotel for the night, and that suited me just fine. I had stayed here before, and found the place to be eminently comfortable and businesslike. One of the perks attached to staying here was a free shuttle bus to Manhattan Beach, only some three miles away.

Manhattan Beach

Manhattan Beach

That first night, I was ready for nothing more than a shower and a quick meal. Both were achieved in record time, before sleep stole up on me and slugged me with a cosh. It was sayonara for a full eight hours. Truly relieved, my luggage and I enjoyed a wonderful night of welcome, mutual proximity

Next day, with a few hours to kill, I thought about taking the free shuttle bus to the beach. Turned out that it wasn’t free, but instead cost all of three dollars each way. Doh.

Still, that shuttle was a dinky little thing. A fire engine red trolley, filled with wooden benches to perch on, it clattered into life and left the morass of hulking hotels that clustered around LAX in its wake.

First impressions were not at all promising. A string of turnpikes and freeways, and an enormous petrochemical plant of such unremitting ugliness that it resembled nothing so much as a boil on a supermodel’s butt. But then, gradually, foliage began to soften the route, and then we found ourselves running parallel to a huge, honey coloured expanse of immaculate sand, drummed gently by the incoming rollers of the springtime Pacific.

This, then. was Manhattan Beach.

Wide, welcoming and virtually deserted on this spring Tuesday morning, the area around it was awash with all manner of local life. A handful of joggers of various ages, and a doddering old dear walking a pekingese along the flower strewn boardwalk that flanks the beach. There was a pair of lovers strolling hand in hand, and random cyclists, barrelling at a dizzying pace past the date palms. On the roaring Pacific rollers, a battalion of early morning surfers did combat with the sea, weaving in and out of the breakers like scores of veteran fighter pilots.

CNV00009Centre stage, a good sized, almost deserted pier jutted out defiantly into the ocean. At it’s farthest end was a sealed up cafe-cum-aquarium, one reminiscent of any deserted seaside scene back in Britain. But there was no whiff of genteel decay here, no line of vultures doing a conga along the promenade. Instead, it was immaculate, and obviously just waiting for the warmth of the summer to bring it back to life.

Overhead, seabirds wheeled and screeched in an almost cloudless, petrol blue sky. I strolled between lanes of pretty, pastel shaded clapboard houses, their open patios already a riot of hibiscus and wisteria in the early spring sunshine. From here, i walked right onto the main drag of Manhattan Beach proper.

‘Bohemian’ was hardly the word. Here there were ditzy arts and craft shops, and a sweep of pubs, bars and restaurants. There was a kiddie’s toy shop and, most pointedly, not a skyscraper in sight anywhere, This was down at home stuff, right down by the ocean, and it was as charming as it was beguiling. More to the point, it was all completely, diametrically at odds with the LA that we all think that we know.

I treated myself to a succulent roast beef baguette the size of a Good Year blimp at Beckers, a local cafe and deli that has been here since 1942. With a cup of fresh coffee and a soundtrack of gentle Pacific surf kissing the beach, it was an absolute bargain at six bucks. Impressed? Yes, so much that I literally did buy the T-shirt.

Just then, the gentle clang of the approaching trolley bell jolted me out of this dreamy little stupor. It urged upon me the imminence of my appointment with my cruise ship, even then disgorging passengers just a few miles away at the port of San Pedro.

Manhattan Beach aquarium

Manhattan Beach aquarium

I left reluctantly, and in the sure and certain knowledge that I would stay here next time I returned. But the real sea change was in the fact that I knew that, next time, i actually wanted to return a few days early, just to soak up the ethereal, gentle vibe here. Smitten indeed.

So what are the lessons in all this? Well, for me it’s the same as always- that there is always something new to be learned, and often savour, about almost everywhere and, once again, to always try and keep an open mind.

To my friends in LA, I mean no disrespect to either you- or your lifestyles- by illuminating some of the city’s less attractive qualities. To my friends in New York, Boston and Miami- no, I have not gone completely ga-ga; I am, and will always remain, an east coast boy at heart.

LA is not my lady. I remain much more enamoured of cool, classy San Diego to the south. But LA has served me notice that maybe, just maybe, I have been just as brash and instantly judgemental as other people in the past. She has thrown open another door, and a chink of very illuminating light has shone through.

It’s official; my curiosity has been awakened, and my reservations, while not yet buried, have certainly been placed in a state of suspended animation.

A bit like Miss Hilton’s personality, really. But Manhattan Beach- I truly am missing you already…..

In the interests of clarity, I should state that the bulk of this article was written in the summer of 2009. I have been back to Manhattan Beach a few times since, but my original observations- as noted in this article- still hold true.

WINTER BRAZIL SEASON- WHO’S SAILING THERE THIS YEAR?

Silversea will take you to Rio in sumptuous style

Silversea will take you to Rio in sumptuous style

Now that autumn’s cold, clammy fingers are tickling our collective windpipe, many of us start to succumb to an almost pathetic sense of yearning for clear skies, sparkling seas and yes, good, warm sunshine. If the Marie Celeste had only been able to drift like our collective thoughts, then she would never have been becalmed in mid ocean…..

Assuming you’re ready to take the plunge (pun wholly intentional) then; where to? If the Caribbean seems overcrowded, or the Canaries too ‘same old’, then options look as if they are beginning to stretch thinner than the credibility of Donald Trump’s wig. The Far East too far out? The winter Mediterranean not warm enough? Dubai just ‘duh’?

So- how about Brazil in particular and, indeed, South America in general?

OK. Halt. Who goes there? Well, you might be surprised at just how many options you actually have, my friends…

Late each autumn, a conga line of cruise ships flee the leaden European winter and flock like so many exotic birds of passage to the warmer, far friendlier waters of South America. Every kind of ship and line, from budget to mass market, to deluxe, all inclusive icons of the cruise trade. And they do it for very good reasons.

..as, indeed, will classy Crystal...

..as, indeed, will classy Crystal…

For starters, there’s that sultry, samba fuelled fire cracker otherwise known as Rio De Janeiro. But Brazil is far more than just Rio. There are stunning beach resorts like Ilhabela, Paraty and cool, swaggering Recife. Argentina rolls out the red carpet in sultry, full blooded Buenos Aires, the tango capital of the world. An overnight stay here on most cruises is almost mandatory. Quite right, too.

Uruguay is often overlooked and forgotten in the South American beauty pageant, and yet Montevideo is one of the most stately, graceful monuments to sheer indolence and tropical cafe life that you’ll find anywhere south of the equator. In short, there are no shortage of places, parties and sheer pleasurable experiences to be had down under the balmy tropical Latin skies.

You just have to decide what ship and style is right for you.

Louis Cruise is operating the Louis Aura (ex-Orient Queen) in those waters over the winter. She’s small, intimate and unassuming, but well fed and chock full of charm and fun. Cruise lengths are everything from three days to a week. The ship is an absolutely great budget choice for the region.

Latin flavours are on offer from both Iberocruises and Pullmantur, The two Spanish operators both have a ship or two ‘down Rio way’ during the winter, offering predominantly seven day cruises. Of the two, Pullmantur has the advantage of being all inclusive, and generally offers bigger ships. Both products are great value for the fares charged.

MSC know how to get the samba started

MSC know how to get the samba started

Staying in that Latin groove, both Costa and rival MSC have big, amenity laden megaships aplenty down here for the season; a hangover from the days when Italian liners routinely made line voyages from Italy down to South America. The big draw with both lines is the vast number of available balcony cabins that they offer.  These are probably the best party boats in the region if you’re looking for some serious hedonism, but the lines to get off and on them at some ports might not be everybody’s cup of tea. Good prices, though, and again, itineraries are typically six and seven days, with a few shorter cruises in between.

Touch more international? Royal Caribbean usually has a pair of its gorgeous Vision class ships down here, with their updated eating areas and vast swathes of floor to ceiling glass windows. They, too, will offer six and seven night round trips- typically from Santos, the port for Sao Paolo- but they will also fold some shorter, three and four night jaunts into the mix as well. And, don’t forget that Royal Caribbean now offer a handful of single cabins on many of their ships as well.

Want luxury? Fine. Sassy Crystal, sophisticated, European accented Silversea and classy, all inclusive Regent Seven Seas all offer winter holidays on wonderful, expansively opulent ships, where tailored service, gourmet food and a classically styled cruise experience are all in the mix. Longer itineraries- typically in excess of ten days- allow for a far more immersive experience, but at a price.

Costa has specialised in South America for decades

Costa has specialised in South America for decades

Most of these lines will offer you packages including airfare, hotels and transfers, but what if you want to book your own flights? Well, here’s a few ideas….

British Airways offers a string of flights from all over the UK through Heathrow, and many of these are often on a code share with it’s Spanish partner, Iberia, over Madrid.

Air France/KLM also offers good regional connections to both Brazil and Argentina over it’s main hubs at Paris Charles De Gaulle airport and Amsterdam Schipol.

You could also do worse than to take TAP Air Portugal. They fly from their main hubs in Lisbon and Porto, with connections from the UK available from Gatwick, Heathrow, and also a limited number from Manchester in the winter months.

So-food for thought? Throw off your winter woolies, put on your dancing shoes, slap on the factor thirty sun screen (lots of it) and- get out there!

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!

SPIRITED LITTLE BREAKS- NIFTY NORWEGIAN NUGGETS

Atrium lobby on the Norwegian Spirit

Atrium lobby on the Norwegian Spirit

If you’re a UK resident and you feel the feel the need for a short break, then Norwegian Cruise Line has introduced something that’s a little bit off the wall, and just a little bit different from the mainstream.

During the autumn, winter and spring, the elegant, oriental themed Norwegian Spirit is offering several eight and nine day cruises, sold as a round trip from Barcelona. But the line is now also allowing the option of booking a tasty little two night ‘sampler’ cruise, sailing between Malaga and Barcelona, and at some very agreeable prices, too.

The day between the two ports is spent at sea; an ideal opportunity to experience the considerable charm and style of this very distinctive ship, with her gorgeous, Roman styled pool on the upper decks, and a central, rectangular atrium lobby that is easily one of the most beautiful of any ships afloat anywhere.

In terms of decor, the Norwegian Spirit is very different to her fleet mates, being suffused with a rich, deep, oriental style- a hangover from her early days as the Superstar Leo. That point made, she boasts many of the signature Norwegian amenities, such as Le Bistro and Teppanyaki. The showroom is a lovely space that faces aft.

Cabins are not the biggest, but they are more than adequate, and come equipped with all the normal facilities. With the prices being so reasonable, you might want to consider springing for  a balcony room. These are slightly larger, and they also give you your own small, private, window on the world.

Terrace sunset on the Norwegian Spirit

Terrace sunset on the Norwegian Spirit

The ship is distinguished by some wonderfully curved, stepped terrace decks at the stern, that cascade down towards the children’s play area. And, at 78,000 tons, she feels more intimate. The layout of the ship is actually pretty easy to find your way around.

Other facilities include an open air, upper deck bier keller, an extensive, opulently indulgent spa, and a beautifully atmospheric main restaurant- Windows on The World– that flaunts a full wall of floor to ceiling glass windows across the stern. The ship’s disco looks like nothing less than a Maharajah’s harem, while the casino is possibly the most opulent I have ever seen on a ship.

And, of course, if you have a latent curiosity about the ship, this is an ideal way to sample her without breaking the bank. Equally, if you have never cruised Norwegian before, and are curious to see if the whole Freestyle concept works for you, then this is also worth a look.

Of course you’ll have to arrange your own flights and transfers, but this is hardly rocket science. Easyjet offers good, competitive fares to both Malaga and Barcelona from a range of UK airports, while British Airways also offers a fairly comprehensive, reasonably priced series of connections via a string of regional hubs.

From Malaga Airport, you can take the metro into the city centre, and then grab a cab (around ten euros) to the ship. In Barcelona, the metro again runs to the airport, and there are cheap airport buses that take you from the city centre as well. Or you can take a taxi from port to airport for around twenty five euros. Be aware; if flying Easyjet out of Barcelona, the terminal is set a little way away from the main terminals. Actually, this can work out for the best. Barcelona Airport is a well renowned rugby scrum at best.

The oriental vibe is obvious in this picture

The oriental vibe is obvious in this picture

I did this trip in April of 2013, and it was an absolute treat. Especially when book ended with a pre and post cruise overnight hotel stay in both Malaga and Barcelona; each of these is worthy of the extra day and night for sure.

For something with a bit of style, distinction and delightful indulgence, these sweet little breaks are worth a look. Enjoy!