UNDER NORTHERN SKIES- MARCO POLO IN THE BALTIC

Sharp as  a butter knife, the slender, raked prow of the Marco Polo cut an elegant swathe through the grey, rolling swells of the summertime Baltic. To port, the last, lingering remnants of the setting sun cast a surreal, golden slant across the top of the thin membrane that separated sky and sea. Inside, soft light glowed on beautiful marble and etched glass, bathing the entire ship in a warm, cosy glow. From somewhere up forward, the sound of a moody, throaty saxophone caught my ears for a moment.

We were less than two hundred miles from Saint Petersburg, and a million more from reality.

Celebrating her incredible, fiftieth anniversary in 2015, the Marco Polo- a ship that first set sail in the same year as the first keel plates of the QE2 were laid on Clydebank- was returning to the waters that had actually given birth to her. With a sell out capacity of just under eight hundred passengers, the adults only, awesomely anachronistic ship provided the perfect platform for the adventure of a lifetime.

And what an adventure it proved to be. A string of stunning sea cities throng the edges of this ancient, alluring sea like so many gems, danging from an ornate necklace. Taut, compelling Tallinn, that amazing medieval theme park; cool, classy Stockholm and bustling, beautiful Helsinki. Warnemunde, the gorgeous, stunningly vibrant German beach resort used as a jumping off point for Berlin….

As for Copenhagen, even Danny Kaye underestimated how ‘wonderful’ Copenhagen truly is. Day or night, this rollicking, largely pedestrian city is the fun capital of Scandinavia; a compact city of green copper spires, long, winding streets and vast, open squares. Canals full of fishing boats and one of the world’s most amazing theme parks are suffused by the warmest and most welcoming vibe anywhere in the region in this shimmering, ethereal summertime playground.

Saint Petersburg is, of course, different. More remote, a city with so many different facets. One part Faberge egg, one part Russian matroshka doll, this fabulous, turbulent city merited the two days we spent there, and would have merited many more as well.

Grand, imposing and full of almost relentlessly European architecture, the great city wears the scars of it’s turbulent, three hundred year plus past like a series of battle honors. Revolution and suppression; war and famine. siege and a seat of government; Saint Petersburg has seen it all. A city where Tsars, assassins and men like Rasuptin, Trotsky and Lenin once strolled, plotted, and set into motion the events that defined an entire new world order. As destinations go, it has compulsion and attraction on a scale perhaps unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Over the next few weeks, we’ll visit all of these amazing places in more depth. And, even more importantly, we’ll get under the skin of the relatively small, massively alluring ship that carried us to and from this amazing series of fairground rides.

Make no mistake; the Marco Polo is truly unique. And she gets more so as the years pass, because nothing like her will ever be built again. Part time capsule, part antidote to the fleets of mega ships breaking out across the world’s oceans like some vast, incurable rash, the Marco Polo is a voyage of discovery all by herself.

So, I’d like to cordially invite you on board. May I recommend that you check out the expansive, aft facing outdoor terrace of Scott’s Bar, and perhaps treat yourself to a cold Vodka and Cranberry? Grab a seat, kick off your shoes, and just breathe.

We have three thousand or so miles to go. The ropes are off, and a slowly widening gap is opening between the quayside and that gorgeous, flaring blue flank.

Let’s see what’s out there, eh?

Marco Polo, at fifty still sailing in style

Marco Polo, at fifty still sailing in style

CAPTIVATING COPENHAGEN- THE QUEEN OF SCANDINAVIA

 

Copenhagen city fountain

Copenhagen city fountain

Copenhagen; a cool, compact city of green cooper spires, cobbled squares filled with outdoor cafes in the summer, and fantastic, fun filled theme parks. A roisterous, swaggering city that wears its heart on its sleeve and offers a warm welcome to miilions each year. Human in scale, Copenhagen is a city with a real heart and soul.

Compact and easily walkable, the city is brimming with wonderful sights. Passengers arriving by sea are greeted by the winsome Little Mermaid, the symbol of the city. Based on the story created by local hero, Hans Christian Andersen, the diminutive little waif sits silently on her rock, gazing with sightless eyes out to sea.

The sights and sounds come and go like so many ceremonial drum rolls. At the heart of the town is Tivoli, a twenty three acre theme park that gave the young Walter Disney the idea for the string of theme parks that still bear his name. A shimmering, ethereal wonderland full of captivating lights, theatres, restaurants and thrilling fairground rides, Tivoli is the very heart and soul of Copenhagen.

Stroeget is the main shopping street; a pedestrian only thoroughfare that winds along more than two kilometres. Filled and fronted with every kind of shop you could want- from the mainstream to the downright quirky-Stroeget also has many bars, restaurants and cafes, and it hums with life at any time of the day or night.

So, enjoy these few snaps of this pretty, welcoming little city!

A city of green copper spires

A city of green copper spires

The famous Gefion fountain

The famous Gefion fountain

Danish Resistance open air exhibit

Danish Resistance open air exhibit

Copenhagen statuary

Copenhagen statuary

The old naval barracks, Copenhagen

The old naval barracks, Copenhagen

City centre square

City centre square

City centre

City centre

Stroeget, the main shopping centre

Stroeget, the main shopping centre

That portico is pure classical Greek

That portico is pure classical Greek

Lots of Art Nouveau architecture here

Lots of Art Nouveau architecture here

Radhuspladsen, the town hall

Radhuspladsen, the town hall

Close up of the town hall

Close up of the town hall

The city has lots of quirky statues

The city has lots of quirky statues

The entrance to Tivoli Gardens

The entrance to Tivoli Gardens

The city is full of these great vistas

The city is full of these great vistas

Orsteds Park, Copenhagen

Orsteds Park, Copenhagen

City centre

City centre

Canal side setting

Canal side setting

ENCORE FOR EUROPA 2- 2014-15 SEASON HIGHLIGHTS updated

Taking wining and dining to Olympian heights- the new Europa 2

Taking wining and dining to Olympian heights- the new Europa 2

Following on from a critically acclaimed first season in the Mediterranean, Hapag Lloyd Cruises has just launched the 2014-15 brochure for its stunning new Europa 2.

The 42,000 ton wunderschiff has been winning rave reviews from passengers and industry experts alike for her unique take on family friendly, upscale cruising. With eight open seating restaurants, a maximum capacity of 516 guests carried in all balcony accommodation, many interconnecting suites and a smart casual dress code, Europa 2 has massively upped the ante in terms of the premium luxury experience.

Top billing in the 2014 roster goes to a pair of transatlantic crossings, which will see the Europa 2 make spectacular entries into both New York, and her home port of Hamburg on June 7th 2014.

The company is also running a short season of four day, introductory cruises for the ship. Some of these serve up both Oslo and Copenhagen, while others take in the idyllic, little known Baltic islands of Usedom, Bornholm, and the city of Wismar.

In all, the Europa 2 will premiere some 167 different ports of call, spread across five different regions as geographically diverse as Scandinavia to South America, as well as a first season of headlining, seven day Caribbean cruises out of Miami. Ports on offer on the Caribbean roster include Barbuda, Grand Turk and the yachting haven of Jost Van Dyke, in the British Virgin Islands.

La Serenissima restaurant, Europa 2

La Serenissima restaurant, Europa 2

Thirty two different routes- one for every different kind of gin carried by the ship- will offer up a wealth of smaller, off the beaten track destinations, often far away from the madding crowds of contemporary cruise ship scheduling.

There is also a mind blowing, 76 day complete circumnavigation of the entire South American continent for seriously determined- and rich- sybarites

Key to the ship’s 2014 season will be a second series of cruises in the summertime Mediterranean. There, the Europa 2 will once again operate a series of seven night cruises that can be interconnected to form a string of fabulous long voyages.

Golf fans will be in nineteenth hole Heaven, with a series of four specially themed cruises that offer the chance to play the best courses in ports such as Bilbao, Malaga and Casablanca amongst others.

As well as a string of clubs and activities for children and teens of all ages, Europa 2 has a staff of six trained nannies, meaning that parents of young children can really take the weight off their feet, and truly relax on board. Typical, seven day family accented cruises will run between Civitavecchia (Rome) and Barcelona, as well as between Malta and Piraeus.

Europa 2 will serve up the best of the Caribbean in 2014

Europa 2 will serve up the best of the Caribbean in 2014

On her first, full year round deployment, it will be interesting to see how this uniquely different vessel- she operates in both English and German languages- actually stacks up against the established, de- luxe ships that have been in service for a number of years now. But with both the highest prices- and the highest passenger space ratio- in the luxury cruise ship industry, the Europa 2 is certainly going to be a formidable competitor for the top end of the travel trade.

The brochure covers all sailings from April 2014 to April, 2015. It is released with all UK pricing this month.

Update: Berlitz has just announced it’s confirmation of the Europa 2 as the highest rated cruise ship in history, with an unparallelled 1,860 points scored from a possible maximum of 2,000.

CHAMPAGNE AND SUNSETS- THE PERFECT PARTNERSHIP

The perfect combination...

The perfect combination…

Just consider this picture; a gracefully setting sun that seems to be falling bit by bit into a glass of champagne. Of all the many thousands of pictures I’ve ever taken on cruises over three decades or so, I don’t think any other one quite captures the elegant, timeless essence of a true luxury cruise quite as deftly as this one. A real freak shot, but a beauty for all that.

It was shot from the terrace outside the Panorama Lounge aboard Silversea’s stunning Silver Whisper. We were sailing between Helsinki and Copenhagen, winding down towards the end of what had already been a truly memorable cruise.

It’s all the more improbable when you consider that it was taken in the notoriously fickle Baltic in August. The sea really was that benign for a whole week; we sailed in and out of a constant, mind blowing conga line of such fierce, fiery floor shows, courtesy of Mother Nature. And that got me thinking….

There has long been an almost symbiotic, truly sybaritic relationship between champagne and sunsets at sea. They are the Rogers and Astaire of  that most mesmerising and poetic of mid ocean combinations. The champagne dances on your tonsils even as the sunset flits across your field of vision like some exquisitely choreographed dance routine.

This kind of strange, magical evening can happen almost anywhere in the world, but the experience is honed to almost exquisite clarity out at sea. With little or no land based pollution to distort the view, the sunsets seem to unfold in magnificent, slow motion cinemascope.

You might consider that such a sight and taste sensation deserves some kind of epic soundtrack. And you’d be right, in part at least. Because here, once again, it is Mother Nature that pulls out all the stops.

Anyone who has ever heard that gentle, swishing sound of water against a slowly moving ship’s hull will certainly know exactly what I mean. It’s as low key and exquisite as a superb base line, and not one bit less compelling. It fills the electrified ether between sea and sky with the power of a quiet storm; a sound and a feeling quite impossible to replicate on dry land.

All of these things combine to create something so rare, special and tender that you hardly dare breathe, in case it fractures like some beautiful, broken butterfly. It’s a moment too intense and precious to last forever. Something as fleeting and fragile as it is exquisite and beautiful.

And yet… these memories do last. And I don’t know about you, but I’ll happily drink to that.

Cheers.

WHEN DOES A VOYAGE REALLY START?

Stealing out of Monte Carlo at midnight....

Stealing out of Monte Carlo at midnight….

When does a voyage actually start?

That might seem like a strange question, but please bear with me here. A little background information is quite clearly in order.

I’m off to Fort Lauderdale in a couple of weeks to board HAL’s stunning Eurodam, for a long anticipated week around the sun splashed highlights of the balmy Western Caribbean..

It’s a fabulous itinerary on a supremely stylish and well run ship, and I have been anticipating it keenly for a while now. And that’s what led me to wonder; when does the voyage- or, indeed, any voyage- actually begin?

I think you build the pleasure and anticipation of a voyage in a way that mirrors the construction of any ship. From the keel up. Over time, the sense of anticipation and the details of the cruise as a whole take shape in your mind. They fill out and become something almost tangible enough to touch. That anticipation is the stuff of dreams.

It’s the kind of thing that gets us through bad days and hard times; the knowledge that something (hopefully) great and good is just beyond the horizon, and approaching slowly but surely with each passing day.

Just kick back....

Just kick back….

So I’d argue that the actual voyage begins the moment that the idea begins to take shape in your mind. When we pick up the brochures and browse through them. And there, suddenly, like some fantastic exclamation mark, the trip is waving back at you. Wearing a smile you can’t resist. Welcome aboard….

It’s like clambering aboard a slowly stirring carousel on a fairground. We do our research into the ports of call and, as we decide what to do-or what to avoid- the anticipation steps up a gear. We read online reviews of our chosen ship and route. We fret about flight times, and fuss pointlessly over connecting times at remote foreign airports. We sigh and sigh over what currency to take. And packing the right wardrobe becomes almost a holy grail. After all, looking good is feeling good too, right?

And when the tickets arrive… it’s like being a kid on Christmas Day again. You want- no, need- to see what cabin number you’ve been allocated, and exactly where it is situated. We pore like addicts through pages in the information booklets, with their almost impossibly tiny print. And we stare longingly at our shiny baggage labels as if they were the keys to the kingdom of Heaven itself.

If travelling on a ship you’ve never sailed on before, there’s a sense of anticipation; an excitement that builds like a gathering storm. If you’re going back to a ship that you know well, there’s excitement tempered by a kind of calm certainty that borders on smugness; you know exactly what you’re going back to and, if anything, that simply heightens the sense of anticipation even more.

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

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

And so, with just a few weeks to go, my voyage towards the sublime anticipation of another great Holland America experience is already well under way.  There is so much of the wonderfully familiar that I am looking forward to just diving straight back into. I love the wicker furniture on the cabin balconies, the classically elegant works that are everywhere, and the fact that the bathroom towels are big enough to get lost in. And soft enough to make the idea an agreeable one, too.

I’m looking forward to time out in those sunny, shaded cabanas near the pool, and my first, pre dinner chocolate martini at sunset. To just soaking in the hot tub, and picking at grapes while I lounge on my balcony, with a side order of glacially chilled champagne.

I’m looking forward to a calm, unhurried run of lazy, enticing breakfasts out on deck, with fresh fruit, wonderful waffles and piping hot coffee. To hearing subtle, sultry late night jazz. To time out just chilling in the room, with warm breezes and that wonderful sense of detachment from reality that you only truly get at sea.

All of which serves to make the point, I think. The voyage begins the moment that the seed is actually planted in your head. And, because of the incredible sights and scenes that a cruise delivers to you, and the people that you meet and encounter over the course of it, the memories will stay with you long, long after you leave the actual voyage behind. Close your eyes, and you can replay the whole giddy adventure on a loop in your head.  Time and time again.

So, there you have it. The appetisers have been served, and- thanks to KLM Royal Dutch Airlines- I have brilliant flight times, both outward and return.

The essence of Silversea. Quite literally...

The essence of Silversea. Quite literally…

As for the main course…. the mighty, majestic Eurodam will be waiting in Fort Lauderdale on October 25th. Beautiful, chic and totally compelling. And yes, I’m hungry to get out there, too. But anticipation is all part of the fun here.

And, my friends, wherever you sail off to this particular year, I’m pretty sure that the same holds true for all of you as well. Bon voyage!

THE LITTLE MERMAID- FIRST LADY OF COPENHAGEN

Copenhagen's maudlin Little Mermaid

Copenhagen’s maudlin Little Mermaid

She is one of the most iconic sights in the travel world. Sitting on a lonely rock in Copenhagen’s Langeline harbour, the Little Mermaid gazes out to sea with sad, sightless eyes, waiting for her lover to return.  Long, languid summer sunsets reflect lazily against her lithe, bronzed body. And, inevitably, the tourists come to gawp at her by the thousand.

Some actually never find her. They misread the directions to what is known locally as Den Lille Havfrue. And the lady herself is small, waif like and unassuming; an elfin, enigmatic legend that has now survived a century of long summer seasons and bone chilling winters. She is a stark, solitary presence, and more than a little wistful in her own way.

She’s seen some hard times, including at least two decapitations; the first of which necessitated the completion of a whole new head. She was deprived of her right arm, and once even suffered the ignominy of having paint dumped all over her. On another occasion, a very obvious sex toy was attached to her head by a women’s protest group. And on yet another occasion, she was even blown off her pedestal with explosives, and had to be retrieved from the bottom of the harbour.

But still, she survives. Based on a character from a fable by Hans Christian Andersen, she has become the symbol of Denmark. What the Eiffel Tower is to Paris, or the Statue of Liberty is to New York, so the Mermaid is to Denmark. Tiny yet indomitable, and always weathering whatever is thrown at her. Little wonder that people everywhere have fallen under her spell.

Those that did include Walt Disney, as witnessed by the animated film of the same name. Walter Disney himself has links to Denmark going back to the mid thirties, when he visited Copenhagen and fell in love with the city, as well as with the posthumous, collected works of Andersen. And it was Copenhagen’s legendary funfair at Tivoli Gardens that gave Disney the idea for the string of worldwide theme parks that now bear his name.

The Mermaid herself was unveiled on August 23rd, 1913, and paid for by Carl Jacobsen, son of the founder of the Carlsberg Brewery. Amazingly, the statue- a little over four feet in height- took a full four years to complete,

There were many raised eyebrows when she left Copenhagen for the first time over May to October, 2010, for a five month spell at the Danish Pavilion in Shanghai for Expo 2010.

But the little lady with the big legacy is now safely perched back on her rock again. And if you happen to be in Copenhagen- that roisterous, swaggering fun time capital of Scandinavia- then you should definitely stop by, just to say a quick hello.

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN NORTHERN EUROPE

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

Ancient European dungeons; if walls could talk

This short piece is mainly for the benefit of my American friends who might be thinking about coming to visit northern Europe in the near or distant future. Whether you’re on a cruise, or just working through some self devised itinerary, these are five of the great buildings and attractions of the continent that I would argue deserve your attention. They are not listed in any particular order of preference; the impact of each upon the individual is too damned subjective for such a superfluous kind of batting order. But each is uniquely compelling in it’s own way…

Tivoli Gardens, Copenhagen, Denmark

Tivoli is the jewel in the crown of Scandinavia’s most boisterous and exuberant city; a shimmering, ethereal, twenty three acre wonderland of a theme park that dates back to the 1800’s. Here, a Chinese pagoda towers above a lake where a giant pirate ship provides the perfect grandstand for the twice nightly midnight fireworks each week in summer.

A wondrous maze of fountains, fairy tale lights and fun fair rides, Tivoli was beloved of the immortal Hans Christian Andersen. It’s also the place where one Walter Disney got the idea for his own, subsequent string of theme parks. He visited Tivoli in the 1930’s, and fell in love with the place. Chances are, you will too.

Geiranger Fjord, Norway

God blessed the twelve thousand miles of Norwegian coastline with an almost obscene level of beauty, and most people agree that Geiranger Fjord is pure, platinum chip scenic porn.

Sailing between the silent, towering, pine carpeted walls of rock is an incredible adrenaline surge. The silence is almost deafening You’ll see meadows in forty shades of electric green. Butterflies and jagged, snow capped mountains. Cows grazing by water so still that the scenery is reflected to mirror like perfection. There are vibrant, splashing streams that tumble down the mountain sides, and gaunt wooden stave churches, some of them hundreds of years old, scattered about a landscape that looks like something straight out of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. A UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Petrodeverts Palace, Saint Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

Petrodeverts palace, St. Petersburg, Russia

A monumental, swaggering statement in gold, gilt and marble, Petrodeverts was the summer palace of the Tsars of Russia. Built to exceed even Versailles in terms of beauty, scale and grandeur, it’s epic Italianate facade is the prelude to a stupendous spread of public rooms, each one almost awash in gilded opulence. Vast, impossible chandeliers hold sway above galleries lined with floor to ceiling mirrors.  Lacquered Chinese cabinets frame rooms filled with a glut of silver banqueting ware set on tables the size of the Titanic. The staircases are sweeping, magnificent, marble accented ascents.

In the gardens, a series of stunning, stepped fountains sweep right down to the edge of the Baltic itself, each terrace flanked by pairs of gilded, golden cherubs. When you see this vast former Royal playground, you get a sense of what truly triggered the revolutions that ultimately culminated in the Communist take over of October, 1917.

The Reichstag, Berlin, Germany

The most commanding building in this amazing city. And quite literally in many ways, since this is the seat of the German parliament. The vast, sprawling neo classical facade is impressive enough, with elements of ancient Greek architecture on display as well. The new, magnificent glass cupola, added by British architect Sir Norman Foster, offers almost Olympian-like views out over the most vibrant city in Germany.

It was famously burnt down in a coup orchestrated by the Nazis, in order to frame the opposition and consolidate Hitler’s total grip on power after his election in 1933. Today, children sit eating ice cream on the same steps that hordes of Russian infantrymen stormed in 1945 in the face of a desperate, fanatical resistance. Nazism died on those steps in many ways.

The Tower of London, London, United Kingdom

Even on the brightest days, the Tower manages to look at once menacing, sinister and forbidding. Hardly surprising when you consider it’s almost thousand year history. A site of great pageantry and a place of unimaginable pain and cruelty, every one of it’s gaunt, bleached stones seems to have centuries of agonised history seared into it.

You can see the amazing. glittering glut of the crown jewels, and some of the fetid, one time rat infested cells where scores of doomed men and women eked out their last pitiful days. You can even walk the silent, immaculately manicured lawns, and see the spot where no less than three Queens of England- Anne Boleyn, Catherine Howard and Lady Jane Grey- met their grisly fates. All are interred in the adjacent, small church of Saint Peter Ad Vincula, once described as ‘the saddest place in all of England’.

This is just a snap shot of some of the great sites that litter the shores and cities of Europe like so many random exclamation marks. They all have amazing stories to tell. Many are poignant, all are powerful, each one is a  pointer to the past glories-and follies- of this proud, often prolifically violent continent.