MSC CRUISES; CHANGES AND AN ABOUT TURN

In a move intended to neatly side step areas of increasing potential conflict across the globe, MSC Cruises have announced a cessation of all calls to both the Ukraine and Egypt for the balance of the 2015 season.

Instead, the line will arrange a series of calls in destinations such as Rhodes, Cyprus, Crete and Israel. These will be on offer to passengers of the MSC Sinfonia, Opera, Fantasia and Musica, running through at least until the spring of 2016.

In addition, the heavily booked series of Canary Islands cruises operated by the MSC Opera will be extended, and all sailings will now include an overnight stay on Madeira, the only Portuguese island on the mainstream Canaries circuit. Also new next year is a quartet of calls to the Moroccan city of Casablanca.

In addition, the MSC Divina will return to year round Caribbean cruising from Miami once she returns to the Florida port this November. Benefitting from a newly refurbished terminal in the port, the MSC Divina will offer a series of alternating, seven night sailings to the highlights of the Eastern and Western Caribbean, mainly concentrating on the ‘greatest hits’ ports of call such as Grand Cayman, St. Maarten, and Puerto Rico.

Interesting times for the ambitious Italian juggernaut. As ever, stay tuned.

MSC is giving Egypt the swerve for the remainder of the 2015 cruise season

MSC is giving Egypt the swerve for the remainder of the 2015 cruise season

TRAVEL 2014- MY BEST BITS SO FAR

St. Thomas, Caribbean

St. Thomas, Caribbean

2014 has been a banner year for me for sure; more diverse and unpredictable in terms of travel and sights seen than for many a long year past. From Caribbean beaches to Budapest cafe society, 2014 has not been short on adventure so far.

I kicked off at the end of January with a welcome return to the balmy waters of the Caribbean, on an eight night Carnival Breeze cruise out of Miami. After the long, leaden British winter, it was sheer poetry to feel cold beer in my hand, and warm sand between my toes at the same time. Gorgeous stuff.

The spring equinox marked a long overdue return to the Nile, after an absence of fourteen years. Drifting idly in the gilded wakes of Akhenaton and Cleopatra is still like being awake in a living, moving dream. And the monolithic remains of what was once the greatest civilisation in history, strung out along both banks of the surprisingly verdant river, stir the soul and the psyche on some unfathomable, yet undeniable level. if you are tired of Egypt, you may very well be tired of life itself.

Next came my first ever cruise along the mighty Rhine. Heading north from fabled, imperial Cologne, we spent a week sauntering around a string of Dutch and Belgian delights. I found myself overwhelmed by the taut, sturdy, majesty of beautiful Hoorn, and by the cake rich glut of expansive Gothic architecture in stately, patrician Antwerp.

But few things beat arriving in Arnhem, the scene of one of the bloodiest battles of the Second World War, and walking over the famous, resurrected ‘Bridge too far’ that was the focus of the entire bloody fiasco. A hair raising, sobering moment that will stay with me as long as I live.

July gave me the opportunity to take a long anticipated, weekend swing out to lively, lavish Budapest; a beautiful, colossal statement of ancient imperial ambition that rolls out along both banks of the Danube like some amazing ceremonial carpet. It was a chance to catch up with old friends, and savour superb local food and wine in this genteel, Art Nouveau suffused city. In the long, light summer nights, it really was love at first sight. I cannot wait to return.

And then, north to Norway. And how! Take a real ocean liner- the legendary Marco Polo – now working as a sedate, Art Deco dream of a cruise ship, one where the numbers on board are measured in hundreds rather than thousands. Throw in the most amazing and versatile big band- all twenty of  ’em- that I have ever heard in my life, and set a course for what is arguably the most stunning scenic smorgasbord on earth.

Bring on the fabled, pine draped fjords of old Norway one after another, like a conga line of classical actors playing out some ancient, incredible theatre. Garnish with amazing, long summer light and the occasional shower. Cue reindeer in the hills, and butterflies in the fauna. Snow on the mountain tops, and strawberry daiquiris in the hot tubs on board. An endless voyage into a land of trolls, witches and uneasy, half glimpsed ghosts. A true epic adventure.

And that’s where we are now. While there is much more to come- starting with Croatia next week- here’s hoping you enjoy this mix up of where I’ve been so far. The equivalent of an eighties mega mix, if you will.

Above all, enjoy the journey. Because if one thing remains true for me, it is this; it’s not so much always about where you go, as it is about how you get there. Bon voyage!

Magens Bay, St. Thomas

Magens Bay, St. Thomas

El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

El Morro, San Juan, Puerto Rico

Winter? What winter?

Winter? What winter?

Carnival Breeze at Grand Turk

Carnival Breeze at Grand Turk

Temple of Luxor, Egypt

Temple of Luxor, Egypt

The Nile is eternal

The Nile is eternal

Close up of one of those amazing, ageless statues

One of those amazing, ageless statues

Queen Hatshepsut's mortuary temple

Queen Hatshepsut’s mortuary temple

Temple of Philae, Aswan

Temple of Philae, Aswan

Local transport, Antwerp, Belgium

Local transport, Antwerp, Belgium

Sunset over Hoorn hafen

Sunset over Hoorn hafen

'A Bridge Too Far', Arnhem

‘A Bridge Too Far’, Arnhem

Sailing the springtime Rhine

Sailing the springtime Rhine

 

Parliament building, Budapest

Parliament building, Budapest

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

The Chain Bridge, Budapest

Cafe life, Budapest

Cafe life, Budapest

The  Fishermen's Bastion, Budapest

The Fishermen’s Bastion, Budapest

Marco Polo, Eidfjord, Norway

Marco Polo, Eidfjord, Norway

Live like a local, Norway

Live like a local, Norway

Voringfoss waterfall, Norway

Voringfoss waterfall, Norway

Good morning, Flam

Good morning, Flam

EGYPT; SAFE TO TRAVEL?

Temple of Philae, Aswan

Temple of Philae, Aswan

The slow trickle of tourists back to Egypt is hugely welcome in a country where the great bulk of the economy is dependent on tourism. But then, just as a few more river boats started plying the ancient waterways of the Nile, the Egyptian government puts the skids under the whole industry with a series of actions that are inexplicable to most western minds.

Mass death sentences, not to mention the bizarre imprisonment of a trio of Al-Jazeera journalists simply for doing their job, has cast the new, military government of General Sisi in a particularly baleful light. At the very least, this looks like a brutal, knee jerk reaction that could potentially impact the tourism trade right when it is at it’s most vulnerable.

That said, the main concerns that travellers in general are raising right now is, quite simply; Is Egypt safe? 

Here’s some general observations of mine, based on a week long cruise I did down the Nile in late March of this year.

Firstly, at the airports, and at all stops along our route, there was a conspicuous, highly visible presence of both the police,  and the Egyptian military. At no time during my week in Egypt did I feel anything but totally safe and at ease.

Naturally, this high profile presence is intended to reassure foreigners visiting the country. With so much of Egypt’s GDP deriving directly from tourism, the country simply cannot afford to appear complacent in any respect.

Cruising the timeless Nile

Cruising the timeless Nile

The security did not only apply to the obvious, headline tourist sites. Roads leading to and from airports, and strategic crossroads in all the main times, had a permanent presence of military, police, or even both.

Of course, the levels of begging are another matter, and long since a bane of any holiday to Egypt. It is now so intense that many shopkeepers are actually doing themselves out of potential sales with their relentless attempts at pleading and selling by turns.

It has to be understood that this comes from a place of total financial desperation. When the tourist trade to Egypt collapsed, so did the incomes of literally millions of ordinary people. Never millionaires at the best of times, the straits that these poor people find themselves in staggers belief.

But it has to be stressed that this is more annoying than threatening. If, like me, you have always wanted to see the fabled treasures and mind boggling monuments of this storied land, then there has probably never been a better time to do so than right now.

Tourist numbers are right down, so seeing the sights is easier than ever. The weather is great and yes, you are safe when you go there.

And I very much doubt you will regret such a trip. Enjoy.

Sunset over Kom Ombo

Sunset over Kom Ombo

 

A WORLD OF SUNRISES AND SUNSETS……

Sunset in the Baltic

Sunset in the Baltic

Sunset over Bermuda

Sunset over Bermuda

Midnight Sun, Norway

Midnight Sun, Norway

Sunrise over Rhodes

Sunrise over Rhodes

LA sunset

LA sunset

Mediterranean sunset

Mediterranean sunset

Sunrise on the Bay of Biscay

Sunrise on the Bay of Biscay

Dusk over Mykonos

Dusk over Mykonos

Aegean sunset

Aegean sunset

San Diego sunset

San Diego sunset

Sunrise over Dover

Sunrise over Dover

Midnight sun, Baltic

Midnight sun, Baltic

Sunrise over the St. Lawrence

Sunrise over the St. Lawrence

Springtime sunset at sea

Springtime sunset at sea

Pacific sunset off Baja

Pacific sunset off Baja

Sunset off Monaco

Sunset off Monaco

Sunset over the Atlantic

Sunset over the Atlantic

Dawn over Bora Bora

Dawn over Bora Bora

Champagne sunset

Champagne sunset

Mount Vesuvius sunrise

Mount Vesuvius sunrise

Sunset on the Rhine

Sunset on the Rhine

Sunset over Hoorn hafen

Sunset over Hoorn hafen

Spring twilight, Rhine

Spring twilight, Rhine

Sunset on the River Nile

Sunset on the River Nile

Sunset over Kom Ombo

Sunset over Kom Ombo

Nile sunset

Nile sunset

One last Nile sunset

One last Nile sunset

STUNNING RIVERSIDE SIGHTS-MAGICAL SCENERY ALONG THE NILE, RHINE, SEINE, DOURO AND SAINT LAWRENCE

Felucca on the Nile, Aswan, Egypt

Felucca on the Nile, Aswan, Egypt

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec, on the Saint Lawrence seaway

Chateau Frontenac, Quebec, on the Saint Lawrence seaway

Chateaux line the valleys of the Seine

Chateaux line the valleys of the Seine

The unique 'wedding of the waters' at Tapajo, Brazil

The unique ‘wedding of the waters’ at Tapajo, Brazil

Local life along the winding Amazon

Local life along the winding Amazon

Porto's hilltop location is absolutely stunning.

Porto’s hilltop location is absolutely stunning.

Santa Maria Do Borbo, typical ancient Portuguese architecture.

Santa Maria Do Borbo, typical ancient Portuguese architecture.

The Tower of London on the Thames

The Tower of London on the Thames

The approach to Karnak is epic

The approach to Karnak is epic

The Nile is eternal

The Nile is eternal

Close up of one of those amazing, ageless statues

Close up of one of those amazing, ageless statues

Cologne's world famous icon; the monolithic, twin spired Dom cathdral

Cologne’s world famous icon; the monolithic, twin spired Dom cathdral

One of the amazing confections that lines the old Graslei harbour

One of the amazing confections that lines the old Graslei harbour

Canal side scenes like this one typify Ghent's old world appeal

Canal side scenes like this one typify Ghent’s old world appeal

This is Arnhem's pretty little cinema, set on the town square

This is Arnhem’s pretty little cinema, set on the town square

The reconstructed 'Bridge Too Far' is an exact replica

The reconstructed ‘Bridge Too Far’ is an exact replica

Not sure which surprised me more- beaches or sunbathing horses!

Not sure which surprised me more- beaches or sunbathing horses!

Hoorn waterfront

Hoorn waterfront

Row upon row of serried plane trees

Row upon row of serried plane trees

Amazing vistas stretch in all directions on the Nile

Amazing vistas stretch in all directions on the Nile

Sunset on the Nile at Kom Ombo

Sunset on the Nile at Kom Ombo

Sunsets were tender, mellow feasts

Sunsets were tender, mellow feasts

Another shot from further out

Another shot from further out

TEMPLE OF PHILAE, EGYPT

Approaching the temple om it's island

Approaching the temple om it’s island

Closing the landing stage at Philae

Closing the landing stage at Philae

Inside the body of the amazing temple

Inside the body of the amazing temple

The state of preservation is amazing

The state of preservation is amazing

Close up of one of the cornices

Close up of one of the cornices

The site is small, but full of wondrous detail

The site is small, but full of wondrous detail

Looking up at the column crowns

Looking up at the column crowns

Corner shot aspect of the temple at noon

Corner shot aspect of the temple at noon

The temple seen from a short distance

The temple seen from a short distance

Inside the actual complex itself

Inside the actual complex itself

Island vista out over the Nile

Island vista out over the Nile

Smaller scale Hipostyle columns

Smaller scale Hipostyle columns

Another angle of the courtyard

Another angle of the courtyard

One of the pylons at the temple

One of the pylons at the temple

Another angle on the colonnade

Another angle on the colonnade

Hieroglyphics hewn into the stone

Hieroglyphics hewn into the stone

Vista down to the Nile waters

Vista down to the Nile waters

Looking down over the Nile

Looking down over the Nile

Perspective of the Temple of Philae

Perspective of the Temple of Philae

Palms and Philae montage

Palms and Philae montage

The beauty and symmetry...

The beauty and symmetry…

Another shot from further out

Another shot from further out

Landing stage for the tour boats

Landing stage for the tour boats

SAILING DOWN THE NILE PART TWO

Reflections in a golden river

Reflections in a golden river

Scenery changes every few minutes

Scenery changes every few minutes

Rolling down the river in style

Rolling down the river in style

Sunsets were tender, mellow feasts

Sunsets were tender, mellow feasts

An amazing series of fiery vistas

An amazing series of fiery vistas

Springtime splendours on the Nile

Springtime splendours on the Nile

A spellbinding, mesmerising sight

A spellbinding, mesmerising sight

A boat on a river. Sheer magic

A boat on a river. Sheer magic

Up close and personal on the old river

Up close and personal on the old river

Past small towns and half built houses

Past small towns and half built houses

 Heading back to our berth in Luxor

Heading back to our berth in Luxor

Mirror images reflected to  perfect clarity

Mirror images reflected to perfect clarity

River traffic bumbled past on both sides

River traffic bumbled past on both sides

Limestone escarpments and greenery

Limestone escarpments and greenery

Boats on the river below our vessel

Boats on the river below our vessel

Dawn breaks over Luxor on the Nile

Dawn breaks over Luxor on the Nile

AFLOAT ON THE NILE- CRUISING EGYPT’S FABLED WATERWAY

Sunset on the ancient, timeless Nile

Sunset on the ancient, timeless Nile

Under way for Edfu after leaving Luxor

Under way for Edfu after leaving Luxor

Scenery little changed in five millennia

Scenery little changed in five millennia

Landscapes of limestone bordering the Sahara

Landscapes of limestone bordering the Sahara

Greenery against a stone and sky backdrop

Greenery against a stone and sky backdrop

Spring sunset, just as it always has here

Spring sunset, just as it always has here

Approaching Esna in the twilight

Approaching Esna in the twilight

Minarets glimmering in the twilight

Minarets glimmering in the twilight

Mosques peeped out from among the palms

Mosques peeped out from among the palms

Passing another riverboat  on the way

Passing another riverboat on the way

Gliding past reed bushes and small inlets

Gliding past reed bushes and small inlets

Local life, so up close and personal

Local life, so up close and personal

Little settlements sprang up along our route

Little settlements sprang up along our route

Boat and river bank; a perfect symbiosis

Boat and river bank; a perfect symbiosis

Amazing vistas stretch in all directions

Amazing vistas stretch in all directions

THE ROYAL VIKING; THE QUEEN OF THE MIGHTY NILE

The Royal Viking

The Royal Viking

She is a slice of modern luxury that would make any pharaoh gasp in awe; smooth as silk and as perfectly posted as a swan, the Royal Viking glides serenely along the golden highway of the pharoahs- the eternal Nile- offering comfort and convenience on a style that even Cleopatra herself could not dream of.

A boat of this size could easily carry almost two hundred passengers quite comfortably. Instead, the Royal Viking carries a maximum of 136, in sixty two cabins and four suites, spread across three upper decks.

All the cabins are outside, with floor to ceiling sliding doors and a balcony rail. There is a table and a couple of comfortable chairs, refrigerator, flat screen TV and a very comfortable double bed.  Three wardrobes allow for more than enough storage space. With dark wood fixtures and a wooden floor, these come in at around 252 square feet-  larger and more commodious than the regular cabins of most ocean going cruise ships.

The bathrooms also have slatted woods floors, with a toilet, sink, and combination bath and shower unit. Each comes complete with daily changed towels, and en suite bathrobes. Further up the scale, the suites offer even more living space.

The Royal Viking is one of the smartest and most contemporary boats on the Nile. Inside, a gracefully flowing lobby staircase leads down to the main, wood panelled bar. Full of large, comfy chairs and sofas, this is the ideal spot to enjoy a pre or post dinner cocktail with fellow adventurers, or one of the fancy dress parties and treasure hunts that make up the after dinner entertainment.

The lounge on board Royal Viking

The lounge on board Royal Viking

One level further down, the smart, contemporary dining room is lined by floor to ceiling windows that offer an almost water’s edge view of the Nile. Assigned tables for breakfast, lunch and dinner seat from two to six people. Meals are offered buffet style, with free coffee and tea at breakfast. Ingredients and creations reflected both a tempting, filling of Egyptian and international fare. And if there was a perhaps understandable emphasis on local fish and chicken, the food was almost invariably good to excellent in quality. Meals on board the Royal Viking soon came to be the social highlights of our day.

There is also a small shop on the upper level of the lobby, leading round to the middle deck of cabins. Climbing two levels, you emerge onto one of the most beautiful and expansive sun decks ever seen on this most ancient of rivers.

The forward part contains a large, cool pool that is an absolute blessing to have in the searing heat of an Egyptian spring. White padded, wooden loungers flank this area, all the way back to where a large, shaded outdoor viewing deck, full of elegant wicker chairs, sofas and tables, makes for a fantastic, unobstructed vantage spot across both banks of the river.

It’s a perfect spot for a leisurely afternoon tea as you glide past the beguiling panorama that plays out along the river; cattle and oxen grazing by the river banks. Small boats full of fish struggling to head up stream. The slender spires of mosques and the silently waving fields of rushes that flank the water’s edge.

And the view from on deck, at sunset....

And the view from on deck, at sunset….

And, of course, where better to savour the tender, mellow springtime sunsets, or a cocktail at night, with a backdrop of thousands of chirping crickets?  All things considered, the Royal Viking is a pretty spectacular way to see one of the most amazing and compelling places on earth.

PHOTO ALBUM: QUEEN HATSHEPSUT’S MORTUARY TEMPLE, LUXOR, EGYPT

One of the most potent attractions and enduring sights on the entire west bank of the Nile- the imposing, almost completely intact mortuary temple of one of ancient Egypt’s most legendary rulers- the great queen, Hatshepsut.

'Crouched in crook of death'... first view of the mortuary temple

‘Crouched in crook of death’… first view of the mortuary temple

Surrounding limestone ecarpments shelter the temple

Surrounding limestone ecarpments shelter the temple

Lower far side wing of the complex

Lower far side wing of the complex

Approaching the vast, silent complex on foot is an amazing experience

Approaching the vast, silent complex on foot is an amazing experience

Looking up to the nearside, second level

Looking up to the nearside, second level

'Silent in a sea of timeless limestone....'

‘Silent in a sea of timeless limestone….’

Ornate statues dedicated to Hatshepsut., looking out over the arid, dead lands of the west bank

Ornate statues dedicated to Hatshepsut., looking out over the arid, dead lands of the west bank

The surrounding scenery is literally unchanged for milennia

The surrounding scenery is literally unchanged for milennia

Close up of one of those amazing, ageless statues

Close up of one of those amazing, ageless statues

Looking along the upper level colonnade. The entire complex is something like 97 feet high in all

Looking along the upper level colonnade. The entire complex is something like 97 feet high in all

If this ancient, sun scorched columns could only talk...

If this ancient, sun scorched columns could only talk…

The shade of ageless stone columns was very welcome

The shade of ageless stone columns was very welcome

The sheer symmetry of the entire complex is awe inspiring

The sheer symmetry of the entire complex is awe inspiring

Another ground's eye view of the complex

Another ground’s eye view of the complex

Emblem of Horus, the Falcon god

Emblem of Horus, the Falcon god

One last, backwards glance...

One last, backwards glance…