QUEEN ELIZABETH: CUNARD’S UNLOVED SISTER?

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERASeventy years ago today, Cunard’s reconditioned Queen Elizabeth began her much delayed maiden voyage to New York. At exactly the same time, many of the main henchmen of the late Adolf Hitler were waiting for a final appointment with an American hangman in their cells in the Place of Justice at Nuremberg.

That latter, epochal event in world history had the effect of relegating the much delayed maiden voyage of the Queen Elizabeth to the inside pages of much of the world press. And, in a way, it had always been thus for the storied Cunard liner.

The Queen Elizabeth was launched on September 27th, 1938, into a world already twitching ever more nervously at the sabre rattling antics of both Hitler and his Italian vassal, Benito Mussolini. Just one month earlier, her companion ship- Queen Mary- had finally wrested back the Blue Riband from her great French rival, the Normandie. Even from the start, these events conspired to put the launch of the new ship very much on the back burner of world news.

Of course, the Queen Elizabeth never ran for the speed record. One record holder was enough for the line, and of course, that honour was left with the Queen Mary. Even after the barnstorming debut of the United States in 1952, the younger, seemingly more subdued of the Queens was never let off the leash to see what she could really do.

There was always something kind of melancholy, almost hang dog, about the Queen Elizabeth in the post war years when compared to the Queen Mary. And the real tragedy here is that, in almost every way, the Queen Elizabeth was the better ship of the two, both from a technical and passenger standpoint.

The Queen Elizabeth was sleeker and more aerodynamic than the Queen Mary, with a brace of fully formed, free standing funnels and a sharply raked prow. Her upper decks were largely free of the forest of vents and guy wires that mushroomed everywhere about the older ship’s trio of smokestacks. In every aesthetic respect, she was an obviously more modern ship than the earlier liner and, from the point of view of both crew and passenger comfort, a far better ship.

And yet she never really endeared herself to either passengers or crew in the same way that the Queen Mary did, both before and after the war. A war in which she played every bit as vital and heroic a role as the earlier ship, lest we forget.

Why? There will never be a definitive answer to that question, simply because it is so hard to be rational about vessels that essentially draw a purely emotive, largely illogical, response from those that live in them and sail them. But my guess is that the public- both at home and the travelling kind- had three full years before the war to get used to the ideal of the Queen Mary, and what she actually represented. The Queen Elizabeth- the actual, truly named ‘Grey Ghost’- seemed to appear, not quite fully formed, from the fog of war, performed magnificently, only to emerge into the new, peacetime era as an unknown, largely unheralded debutante. She never had time to create her own pre war legend, that bond with both crew and travelling public, that is the foundation on which any successful commercial career is built.

Of course, she did phenomenally well on the hugely lucrative Atlantic crossing right up until 1960. And it was the Queen Elizabeth that was so expensively converted for part time cruising in the mid Sixties, at a time when both the ageing dowagers were sailing on a rising tide of red accountants’ ink. Cunard obviously saw more potential and adaptive ability in their second, prodigal child, even after almost two decades of service.

Her end- tragic and almost certainly preventable- was a kind of mirror image of her life; sensational and dramatic, but soon forgotten by those not directly affected by it. By then, she was an idea and a concept whose time was obviously gone.

As ocean liners go, the Queen Elizabeth and her service record were largely eclipsed by that of a truly beloved, yet quite inferior companion ship which, against all the odds, still somehow contrives to exist in Long Beach, California, to this day. One whose very name has come to symbolise all that is enduring and immortal about ocean liner travel.

Who knows? Perhaps ocean liner history is not deep and expansive enough to allow for the burnishing and preservation of two such gigantic legends at the same time.

HAWAII- A CRUISE TO SUIT YOU?

For a great many people, a cruise around the beautiful series of islands that collectively constitute Hawaii seems like the stuff of dreams. And why not? Majestic mountain, scenery, stunning Pacific sunsets and, of course, that all pervasive spirit of aloha makes these islands among the most compelling holiday destinations anywhere on earth.

Of course, few would dispute that a cruise is the easiest, most cost effective way to see this mid ocean string of pearls. The ease, relative economy and sheer convenience of a floating hotel is impossible to deny. And, if it were just about boarding a ship and going there, then I suspect that many, many more of us would do it in a heartbeat.

However, from the UK and mainland Europe, even getting to the embarkation port is quite a stretch. Most ships sail from the port of Los Angeles, which means a minimum twelve hours’ flight from the UK alone. Of course, if time (and money) are no object, you can add in a few days in California proper both before and after your cruise. But, any way you slice it, getting there is a long slog indeed.

But let’s assume that you have done just that. Now you’ve got four full days to relax at sea, en route to Paradise. Then, like one frantic, hectic merry go round, those beautiful islands come and go, one after another, vying for your attention over the course of four full days, before another four day sail back to the west coast. Wow, that was fun. is everyone OK back there?

Typically, these cruises sail in April and October, and most spend no overnights in Honolulu, which for me would be an absolute deal breaker, I’m afraid. Waikiki Beach, Diamond Head, and of course, the poignant memorials at Pearl Harbour cannot be truly absorbed in eight hours. I would always want at least an overnight stay in Honolulu.

There is one alternative; you can fly straight to Honolulu itself, five hours’ west of LA, and board the Pride Of America for a week long circuit of the islands. With a couple of overnight stops en route, this is easily the most ‘up close and personal’ way to cruise the Hawaiian Islands. It really does allow you to get under the skin of the main sites. And, of course, you could fly in a few days early, and really enjoy some quality personal time in Honolulu prior to setting sail.

The downside is the minimum of around twenty hours’ flying time to achieve Honolulu. And, while the cruise experience is sublime, it is also very expensive.

For single travellers, cruise only in a studio cabin (and there really are only a handful compared to the rest of the ships in the Norwegian fleet) is typically double that of a week in a similar cabin to, say, the Caribbean, or even famously pricey Bermuda. A typical, nine night fly cruise package from the UK in a studio cabin will lighten your bank balance by a full three thousand pounds. And, if you want a few extra days beforehand in Honolulu, then the fund factor goes upwards by quite a way.

So, there you have the pros and cons of cruising to and from Hawaii. None of the options available are perfect; largely a consequence of the remote geographical locations of the islands themselves, if truth be told.

But, that said, I venture to say that any cruise out to or, indeed, around those islands, will yield a priceless return on your investment of time, cash and sheer stamina. It’s axiomatic that the places most worth achieving on this earth are the ones that are often the hardest to reach. And, if the Hawaiian islands were easy to reach, they would long since have lost much of their patina of wonder and mystery.

For anyone that disagrees, I have one word as an answer; Nassau.

Originally one of the most exclusive and sought after resorts on the planet, the capital of the once hugely top drawer Bahamas has become a byword for tacky, over rated and over priced hype; any pretensions to real style went south- quite literally- many decades ago.

The relative remoteness of the Hawaiian islands acts as a force field against that kind of creeping degradation, but the flip side of that same coin is high prices and an island group that is hard to reach comfortably. But there is no other way around it.

So, should you still go? Absolutely. If the urge to go is too much to resist, then you cannot put a true price on going. And, in my book, the price tag attached to a missed opportunity, regretted over the course of a lifetime, is incalculable.

Cruising to Hawaii is the stuff of dreams

Cruising to Hawaii is the stuff of dreams

CATALINA ISLAND- OUT ON IT’S OWN

Catalina's waterfront

Catalina’s waterfront

Catalina Island is not huge; some twenty two miles long and eight miles wide at the most, it is only slightly larger than Bermuda. But, unlike that famous island, it sits snugly near the shore, just twenty-two miles away from the massive urban sprawl of Los Angeles. From its waterfront, the twinkling coastal lights of California are plainly visible at night.

Yet beyond that mutual proximity, mainland and island seem to have very little in common. For Catalina Island feels a million miles removed from Los Angeles in terms of tone, style and substance. The island’s capital, Avalon, hosts around ninety per cent of Catalina Island’s total of around 4,100 inhabitants. With its stout, brightly coloured trawlers chugging gamely out into the Pacific each day and it’s squadrons of wheeling, screeching sea birds, it feels more like a part of New England than Surf City.

For sure, it also has a kind of smiley, slightly soporific vibe. The island is chocolate box pretty, with Avalon itself clustered around the fringes of a sultry, sinuous bay backed up by tracts of lush, languid greenery. A long promenade, studded with beautiful, tile framed benches, meanders down to the big, circular theatre cum casino that was built here in the thirties, and which is still the island’s most outstanding architectural highlight to this day.

Pier at Avalon, Catalina Island

Pier at Avalon, Catalina Island

Houses in winding lines are framed by tracts of oleander as they tumble down towards a slim, dusky sliver of a beach, and a series of rickety piers thronged by clapboard bars, shops and restaurants, with huge, louvered shutters that allow marvellous views of the matchless Pacific sunsets. As you’d expect, the local seafood is sublime. Washed down with a cold beer, it is reason enough to head out there on it’s own.

At night, the cocktail bars are low key, with piano players and martinis at sunset, just as it has been here for decades. For Avalon is a bit like a Californian Brigadoon, frozen in time and legend. Here, the lines between past and present seem to be blurred in a way I have never seen anywhere else. It is twenty two miles from shore, and a million more from contemporary California reality.

The harbour is studded with fleets of yachts, especially in the summertime. Just off the northern coast of Catalina, the actress Natalie Wood fell overboard from a yacht while staying with her partner, Robert Wagner, in hugely controversial circumstances that have never been fully explained. Sadly, this remains Catalina Island’s sole true claim to fame.

Catalina is a wonderful, enchanting place to visit for two or three days, to savour and appreciate the almost total disconnect from the hustle and bustle of modern living. But those two or three days will probably be enough for most non residents. After that, I suspect many will be fighting the urge to swim back to the mainland.

Tiled benches on the Avalon waterfront

Tiled benches on the Avalon waterfront

Especially if you are going to be in Los Angeles for any amount of time, then a couple of days spent on Catalina would make for a nice change of pace with the pretension, pollution and hideously overcrowded highways of the City Of Angels. For, while Catalina itself may not be quite Heaven, there is certainly something compelling, charming and surreal about it.

Definitely worth a visit.

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.

BUDGET PRICE NORWEGIAN AIRLINE LAUNCHES CHEAP FLIGHTS TO USA IN 2014

Flying higher, and for less...

Flying higher, and for less…

It was an idea first bruited several months ago, but now it’s official; from July 2014, low cost operator Norwegian Air will begin operating cut price flights across the Atlantic. Leaving from London Gatwick, the first three destinations will be New York, Fort Lauderdale, and Los Angeles.

One way prices begin at £149 to New York, £179 to Fort Lauderdale, and £199 to Los Angeles, based on September departures. These are inclusive of all departure taxes.

Flights from the London hub will operate on all new, Boeing 787 Dreamliners. Norwegian Air already has two of them in service, and will take delivery of another three next year- part of a massive, two hundred and seventy five plane order intended to make the carrier one of the biggest in the world.

The Dreamliner will fly in a two class configuration, with 259 seats in economy, and a further 32 in a dedicated premium economy cabin. All will have free wi-fi available as standard.

There will be three flights a week to New York; commencing on July 3rd, these will leave on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays. Twice weekly Los Angeles flights commence a day earlier, on July 2nd, and are available from that date on Wednesdays and Sundays.

But it’s the Fort Lauderdale route that will ultimately appeal to many potential cruise passengers. This service begins with a somewhat appropriate July 4th maiden departure, and operates an outbound service on Mondays and Fridays.

The Friday departure is particularly convenient for anyone picking up a cruise ship over the weekend, and the route itself holds more than a few advantages, Cost is first and foremost; it costs around fifty per cent less to fly from Gatwick than from the far more disjointed, frequently chaotic Heathrow. Gatwick itself has always seems to be a much better airport to both leave from and arrive into.

Similarly, arriving in Fort Lauderdale allows you to avoid the all too well known horror that is Miami International Airport. The latter is a byword for surly, inhospitable and often chaotic arrival for long haul passengers, something exacerbated immensely since 9/11. 

Located just twenty five miles north of Miami, and right on the cusp of Fort Lauderdale itself, the smaller airport is a much easier, far more hassle free experience than its neighbour to the south. It is also worth remembering that Fort Lauderdale hotels are generally cheaper than their counterparts in Miami. Connections between the two cities are good, and relatively inexpensive.

Norwegian Air itself was founded in 1993, and now flies some 382 different routes to 121 destinations, including Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, the Far East, and the USA. It is the second largest low cost carrier in Scandinavia, and carried more than eighteen million passengers in 2012. The current fleet of 75 aircraft has an average age of 4.6 years.

In June of 2013, Norwegian Air was voted Europe’s  ‘best low cost carrier of the year at the prestigious Skytrax World Airlines Awards.’

This is clearly one to watch for both cruise passengers and weekend break fans alike. As ever, stay tuned.

THE GREATEST SPEED RACE OF ALL TIME; NORMANDIE, QUEEN MARY, AND THE BLUE RIBAND OF THE ATLANTIC

Baggage tag for the Cunard Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. The greatest tag team in Atlantic history

Baggage tag for the Cunard Queens, Mary and Elizabeth. The greatest tag team in Atlantic history

At 11.03 on the morning of June 3rd, 1935, the French Line’s brand new SS. Normandie thundered past the Ambrose Lightship. just off the coast of North America. As she did so, a thirty metre long blue pennant was unfurled at her mainmast, and her steam whistles let out a single, triumphant scream. Normandie, newest and greatest of all ocean liners, had taken the North Atlantic speed record at the first attempt. And now she was letting the world know about it.

Of course, she had not been openly trying for the speed record. No blue blooded ocean liner ever did. But there’s no doubt that the French desperately wanted the Blue Riband; France had never held it before.

The fallacy was exposed when every single one of the maiden voyage passengers was presented with an engraved silver medallion to commemorate the event, complete with the date. As for the actual Blue Riband pennant; that just ‘happened’ to be on board at the time. A happy coincidence, indeed.

That barnstorming maiden voyage of the Normandie was unquestionably the most successful in the history of ocean liner travel. More than a quarter of a million people blackened the banks of the River Hudson to witness her triumphal entry into Manhattan. Her debut attracted newspaper and media coverage fully equal in scale to the first Moon landing, some thirty four years later. And yet, even at the height of all the hoopla and celebration, the French Line directors back in Paris were casting nervous eyes over in the direction of Clydebank, where the Queen Mary was rapidly nearing completion for Cunard White Star.

One commentator summed it up perfectly when he said; ‘The coming of the Queen Mary will inaugurate the greatest speed race of all time. Which ship will be the faster; the Normandie or the Queen?’ It was a question that vexed people all over Britain and France alike. Nothing less than national pride was at stake.

In truth, the two liners had been rivals ever since they were laid down on their respective slipways in Scotland and France, right in the depths of the greatest financial depression that the world had ever known. They were of around the same size- 80,000 tons- and they were the first ships in the world ever to exceed a thousand feet in length. Each was designed to cross the Atlantic in around four days.

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting  by James A. Flood

The magnificent Normandie, from a painting by James A. Flood

Normandie and Queen Mary were, essentially, vast, swaggering, sea going cathedrals, designed to showcase the greatest attributes and merits- both real and imagined- of their host nations. But, while work on the Queen Mary came to an agonising halt in the midst of the Great Depression, the French ploughed ahead with Normandie. She emerged in the late spring of 1935, and immediately swept the board on the Atlantic crossing. There had never been a ship like her and, in all truth, there has never been one quite like her since.

If the French were nervous about the coming debut of the Queen Mary, then their English rivals were equally jittery. The Normandie had taken every possible honour that the new British liner could hope to aspire to. If Britain was to regain its pre-eminent place as the number one maritime nation in the world, then the Normandie had to be beaten, and decisively at that.

It started well enough. On May 27th, 1936, the Queen Mary sailed on her maiden voyage from Southampton, high on jingoism and laden down with the weight of national expectation. Once clear of the English Channel, Commodore Edgar Britten put his foot down, and the big British liner thundered out to the westward. Then, two days out from New York, she hit the fog.

For eleven straight hours, the Queen Mary slowed to a crawl in the middle of a typical Atlantic sea of fog. When she finally cleared it, the big liner poured on power. She soon began to make up time.

But not enough time….

Queen Mary arrived in New York to a stunning, superlative welcome fully the equal of that accorded to her rival. But the next day, when the eastbound Normandie docked in Le Havre, she was still flying her Blue Riband pennant.

That same August, the Queen finally beat her French rival, taking the pennant in both directions. There was an air of general satisfaction back in Britain; the natural order of things seemed to have been restored.

Then, In March of 1937, the Normandie took back the eastbound record in the teeth of a ferocious storm. That same August, she also retook the westbound record as well. Game on.

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

Finally, in August of 1938, the Queen Mary won back the record in both directions. Yet the British ship had always been the more powerful of the two. Her engines could generate 200,000 horsepower, compared to the 160,000 of her French rival. In theory, that gave the Queen an advantage of around twenty five per cent.

The actual speeds varied by only a fraction; both ships routinely ran at over thirty knots. Each in turn brought the crossing time down to a little under four days.

The Normandie benefited massively from her radical new hull design; sleek, clean, sweeping and modern, she was like a space ship compared to the doughty, conventional Cunarder. Her bulbous underwater bow and sharp, tapered prow combined with a broad waist and vast, soaring flanks to create a magnificent, aerodynamic dream of a hull, one as practical and successful as it was bewitching to behold.

By contrast, the Queen Mary was  a bigger, updated version of earlier, proven Cunard mainstays such as the Mauretania and Aquitania. Evolutionary, rather than revolutionary. For all of her considerable warmth and grace, she simply did not have the style, boldness and panache of the French ship.

But the Normandie was not quite the French masterpiece that her owners claimed. In fact, her hull was designed by a Russian emigre by the name of Vladimir Yourkevitch. Before the 1917 revolution, he had been an architect working for the Imperial Russian Navy.  Leaving Russia seemed a smart move at that turbulent time. And it was he who came up with the stunning hull design for the Normandie.

Yourkevitch was by no means prepared to work solely for-or with- the French. As specifications for both Normandie and Queen Mary were being worked out, Yourkevitch touted his revolutionary designs to both Cunard White Star and the French Line. The British sidelined the Russian refugee; the French did not.

And, in the most exquisitely agonising twist of all, Yourkevitch had to stand back and watch his great creation burn and die in front of his own eyes. As she slowly flooded and capsized at her Manhattan Pier in February of 1942, Yourkevitch begged the American admiral in charge of the scene to let him go on board.

He knew the Normandie blindfolded; better than anyone else. Yourkevitch could have opened the flood valves that would have ensured that the ship settled on an even keel. But this insignificant seeming little man was rebuffed. Admiral Adolphus Andrews told Yourkevitch that it was ‘a navy job’.

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

The result? The needless, total destruction of the Normandie. With her went the chance of shaving up to six months from the end of World War Two.

Of course, the Queen Mary went on to a fabled, illustrious career that straddled both war and peace. She finally lost the Blue Riband to the barnstorming SS. United States in 1952. The new American liner had turbines developed for fast attack aircraft carriers in the Pacific theatre, and a hull shape that owed more than just a nod or two to the Normandie.

Both ships- Queen Mary and Normandie-  have rightly become immortal. They were designed, built and sailed with great style and panache. Everything about them was front page news at the time. Both survive after a form; the Queen Mary as a dilapidated, yet still dignified hotel cum tourist attraction in Long Beach, California. And as for Normandie, her reputation as the most beautiful, brilliant and daring ocean liner of all time is safe; cherished and inviolable, the magnificent French Line flagship remains the absolute epitome of luxury, style and glamour to this day.

MANHATTAN BEACH; THE SWEET SPOT IN LOS ANGELES

CNV00002If you only have a day or a night to pass while transiting through LA, you could do a lot worse than making the detour to the small city of Manhattan Beach. Though it is located just two miles from the airport, and only a mile or so from Hermosa, you’ll feel as though you’ve somehow stepped back half a century in time.

CNV00004For this is the part of Los Angeles that inspired Brian Wilson and Mike Love to write all those perennial classics for the Beach Boys; Surfin’ USA, Help Me Rhonda, All Summer Long, and all the rest of those peerless tunes. Here, the sparkling white Pacific surf still rolls and drums the broad, honey coloured dream of a beach, a full four hundred feet wide and more than two miles in length.

The surfers are still there; together with the summer volleyball tournaments. In the centre, a stout wooden pier juts fearlessly out into the ocean, with an eclectic, octagonal shaped aquarium cafe located at the very end.

There are roller bladers, strolling lovers, and little old ladies that walk improbable, yapping dogs that bay frantically at the bare chested, flame haired men whose attachment to jogging is less painful than their devotion to purple spandex. All human life is here, and then some.

CNV00005The main drag leading down to the beach is lined with clap board houses, wreathed in multi hued clouds of hibiscus, oleander and jasmine. Gaunt, spindly palm trees stand black against the reddening hues of twilight. A long boardwalk promenade meanders along towards nearby Hermosa Beach.

CNV00008The main thoroughfares are lined with bars, cafes and restaurants, each with a surplus of outdoor seating that has spilled out onto the sidewalks like a class ten roller. There are ditzy little arts, crafts and herbal remedy shops, and more than a few car dealerships. Amazingly, there is not a skyscraper within view anywhere; only the sight of a plane clawing at the sky as it lifts off from nearby LAX even hints at the presence of the vast, seething metropolis just beyond.

CNV00009The whole vibe is more than a little bit like a fantasy bubble in the middle of a vast, chaotic empire; a sort of Brigadoon by the sea, if you will. But the whole area has a kind of subtle, hypnotic charm that gathers you in, and then draws you back again.

Highlight? For me personally, sitting at a waterfront bar and drinking Zinfandel- preferably Beringer- as the sun sags like a slow moving dream into the blush tinted embrace of the rolling Pacific. This is my touchstone- that magical moment when I know beyond doubt that I have returned. And it’s a moment, and a feeling, every bit is warm and full bodied as that same benevolent sun. Wonderful stuff.CNV00012

ENDLESS SUMMER- CALIFORNIA’S BEACHES

ImageManhattan Beach at sunset. Spindly palms loom black against a blood red sky as the sun sags into the ocean. A glass of cold zinfandel and a Mamas and Papas sound track in the background…

ImageSounds like a cliche? Sure. But only because, like the best cliches, it happens to be true. There’s something almost other worldy, Something subtle and tender about a California sunset. Explaining is like trying to stuff a cloud into a picnic basket; it’s far easier to feel, to understand, than it is to elaborate.

ImageImageAnd the days… surfers cresting the surging, cobalt blue rollers that kiss and crash against that broad, biscuit coloured sweep of sand. The warmth of the breeze and the mild sting of the spray.

ImageImageAnd there is so much more. The buskers filling the air with soft, soulful strumming. Lovers strolling the jasmine fringed boardwalks. Little old ladies walking impossibly small dogs. Clapboard shops and restaurants in a hundred shades, strung out along gaunt, sturdy piers that jut out into the Pacific.

ImageIt’s all evocative, dreamy stuff. And yet, very real. And if this little intro has got you hooked, then please enjoy these photos. Taken at Manhattan Beach, Los Angeles, and Pacific Beach in San Diego.

ImageOh, and if you happen to be anywhere near ‘PB’ late afternoon or early evening, you could do a hell of a lot worse than to rock up to a great beachfront bar called Lahaina, grab a Longboard beer, and drink in the sunset from that great vantage point. You’ll be glad that you did.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

BALBOA PARK PICTORIAL- SAN DIEGO’S SWEET SPOT

ImageI make no apologies for loving San Diego. It has wonderful beaches, warm sunshine, and warm hearted locals by the thousand. It truly is a city with a wonderful vibe.

ImageBut nowhere does this come across more than in the vast, Spanish accented spread of Balboa Park. Beautiful gardens and vast, almost impossibly ornate public buildings frame a fabulous spread of exuberant fountains, placid lakes full of huge, impassive carp, and outdoor theatre that truly brings a warm summer night to vibrant life.

ImageI could go on and on. But I won’t. Just check out these pictures for yourself. You’re smart. And, chances are, you’ll be just as amazed as I am every time I go back to this beautiful, smiling city on the bay.ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage

TIME OUT IN THE 1930’S- TIME TRAVEL FOR REAL….

ImageI said in a previous blog that I had enjoyed an overnight stay in Long Beach on the venerable old Queen Mary. In fact, as things go on my ‘to do’ bucket list, this was right near the top. But I still approached the old girl with mixed feelings, and not without reason.

ImageBy the time I got to her, the Queen Mary had spent more time on life support in her Long Beach exile than in service; forty-three years against thirty-one, to be exact. I’d always assumed that there would be something mournful about her.

ImageThere would be that moment when I leaned over the railings, thrilled at the unique magic of being on such a fabled, legendary ship. The adrenaline would flow like tap water as I waited for the engines to start.

But of course, they never will….

ImageI was reminded again of the curious tourists that pay up to file past Lenin’s waxy corpse in Moscow. Was the Queen Mary the equivalent? The once great, iconic Cunarder now some tremendous, tethered mummy, wrapped in a hundred coats of black, white and red paint?

ImageI had other reservations. A lot of time and effort has gone into making the Queen Mary appear as some kind of temple to Art Deco. In fact, her interiors were much more of a Bauhaus/Odeon mixture. In terms of decor, she was by far the most conservative of the great ‘ships of state’ of the 1930’s.

ImageSure, there are plenty of streamlined, petrified Art Deco motifs still adorning the walls of her public rooms. But to call her an Art Deco ship- especially when compared to her great rival, the Normandie- has always seemed more than a little desperate to me.

But on the other hand….

ImageHere was the ship that had, in the immortal words of Winston Churchill, shortened the war by at least a year with her troop carrying capacity. The ship that had held the Blue Riband unchallenged for fourteen consecutive years.

ImageShe was the ship of film stars, politicians, sportsmen. The great and the good. Noel Coward, Laurel and Hardy. Hepburn and Spencer Tracey. Bob Hope and John Wayne. Greta Garbo. Bogart, Bacall, and even the Duke and Duchess of Windsor. In her post World War Two heyday, anybody who was anybody at all sailed across the Atlantic on the Queen Mary at some stage.

ImageAnd she still looks marvellous. No matter that her three funnels are plastic replicas of the originals. Those were wisely dismantled when it was found that the only thing still holding them together was one hundred and four coats of Cunard black and red paint.

ImageThe lady truly has a remarkable, swaggering stance. Even now, the Queen Mary is still a spectacular statement of intent. Just walking her outer decks is exhilarating. Stand on the wing of her bridge, look back at those three gigantic funnels, and you feel as if the old girl is ready to slip her ropes and sail off at any moment.

If only that were so…

ImageInside, many of her vast, double height public rooms can be viewed, as can the famous, supposedly haunted swimming pool. They run haunted tours on the ship. Maybe best not to give Clive Palmer any more money making ideas, though, eh?

ImageThe famous wood panelling is still waxed and buffed to an incredible degree, Just as in her heyday, the play of light on wood gives her a kind of dark, feverish feel in places.

ImageOf course, the legendary Veranda Grill has not been restored yet. If only they could achieve that, It would enhance her pulling power enormously. In the late forties and fifties, that room was the equivalent of the Savoy Grill, or the Ritz. The food and service was certainly among the best anywhere in the world.

ImageThe promenade decks are long, ghostly expanses. On my visit, they were as silent as a graveyard. Compared to how busy they must once have been, this was truly sad.

ImageBut my cabin- A-36- was wonderful. Just off the main lobby, and handy for what is still a fantastic shopping arcade; a true thirties time capsule with some excellent, eclectic memorabilia stores worth a few hours of anybody’s time. I browsed. I spent. I treasured. And I still do.

ImageBut, for me, the real highlight was the famous Observation Bar, curved around the base of the lower superstructure.

Here huge, floor to ceiling windows form a circular sweep that embraces a bewitching series of chrome balustrades, original floor and ceiling light fixtures, and groups of formal furniture. I could almost hear Noel Coward bitching about Ira Gershwin over a couple of apple martinis, or imagine Marlene Dietrich wafting into the room, all shimmering white and trailing a cloud of exquisite perfume in her wake.

CNV00099Here, the very essence of what the Queen Mary once was hits home like a cruise missile. The past is seared into every nook and cranny of this beautiful, expansive room. And, it has to be said, they make a pretty mean chocolate martini as well. It’s all good here.

ImageI left the ship feeling sad on several levels. Firstly, I was sad to end what had been a marvellous holiday (see previous blogs) and yes, I was sad to be leaving the Queen Mary, too. I want to return, and soon.

ImageThere was sadness, too, for all the parts of the ship that her owners simply cannot afford to renovate. Too much remains closed, dark and inaccessible.

Yet I am, after all, grateful that she is still there. Still proud, still beautiful, and still with a million stories to share.

ImagePartly for those reasons, I hope her venerable successor- the equally legendary Queen Elizabeth 2– can be preserved for other, future adventurers to love, cherish and wonder at. On that front, only time will tell I’m afraid.