FRENCH LINE CUISINE; THE FINEST AFLOAT

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

The France at speed. She guzzled fuel oil like cheap table wine

‘Bon voyage is always French’ was the motto of the Compagnie Generale Transatlantique, better known as the French Line. The line asserted confidently that you were actually ‘in France’ the moment that you crossed the gangways of any of their fabled liners, no matter where in the world you actually happened to be.

Competition for the creme de la creme of the North Atlantic trade was always fierce, even at the height of the Depression. Steamship lines inherited and showcased all the values- both real and imagined- of their respective mother countries. Every transatlantic liner was an ambassador of sorts for the nation whose flag she flew, and all were sailed with a sense of fierce, patriotic pride.

But none quite reached the level of elegance, service and panache that typified the French Line; even today, most knowledgeable travellers regard it as the height of ocean liner style and glamour. And a huge amount of that appeal came from the almost relentlessly French ambiance created aboard those fabled liners.

For instance, announcements on board were always first made in French, even though something like eighty per cent of the passengers on any given crossing would be American. Table wine on board was always free in all classes; the French believed that wine was an integral part of any meal. Even the bell boys had scarlet coloured jackets that matched the funnel colours to almost cosmetic perfection.

In first class especially, their ships were staffed- and ran- like the Paris Ritz, or the Negresco. But nowhere did the French sense of art de vivre resound so thoroughly as in the dining experience on board.

It is no exaggeration to say that the first class dining rooms were nothing less than sea going cathedrals, raised to the religion of haute cuisine. They were stunning, theatrical spaces at least two levels high; the idea that ‘low ceilings do not aid the appetite’ was a company mantra.

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

And the food was, naturally, prepared, served, and devoured with theatrical relish and attention to detail. For example, the ground breaking Ile De France of 1927 listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items on her first class dinner menu. Twenty two years later, when she emerged as a two stacker at the end of her post war rebuild, the Ile De France still offered French onion soup as an option on the breakfast menu, even in tourist class.

Of course, the Normandie raised things to another level again; that of the truly stratospheric.

Her wine cellar was loaded aboard a full nine months prior to her barnstorming maiden voyage in May of 1935, in order that it should settle properly. It was also placed in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, that the rolling would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an occupational hazard for the French Line on any trip, but the idea that the wine should be compromised was, naturally, unthinkable.

The Normandie routinely carried no less than ninety three different kinds of champagne. Her first class dining room was three decks high, more than a hundred yards long. and lined with floor to ceiling hammered glass, back lit by enormous, lalique light fountains that hugged the edges of the room. Above it all, a gigantic gold, gilt and coffered ceiling held a powerful, imperious sway.

With typical modesty, the French Line remarked that this astonishing chamber- still the most beautiful public room ever to go to sea on any ship- was ‘slightly longer’ than the famous Hall Of Mirrors in Versailles.  It was more than big enough to contain all three of Christopher Columbus’ ships at the same time.

Approached via a pair of enormous, bronze doors, this was the first air conditioned room on any ship. Some one hundred and fifty tables allowed every first class passenger on board to dine at the same time. By now, that same menu listed some three hundred and twenty five different items on every crossing.

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

Sea air always sharpened the appetite

But the Normandie also had the more informal Cafe Grill right aft, a kind of supper club with live dancing .With steel and leather chairs and tables, and walls of varnished pig skin, it never really got into its swing until after midnight. You could dance until daybreak, and still savour a perfectly prepared chilli con carne at two o’clock in the morning. Many did just that.

Post war saw the eventual creation of the France, the last true year round transatlantic liner built for the northern route. The French Line described her as ‘the last refuge of the good life’ after her 1962 maiden voyage. In her, all the cherished traditions enshrined on the Normandie, the Ile De France and the Liberte lived again in one final, fantastic display of bravado.

Awed by the France, the American food critic, Craig Clairborne, described her first class dining room as ‘the finest French restaurant anywhere in the world’, and with very good reason. The old standards were adhered to with an almost religious zeal; to the end of her days, the France remained the greatest and best fed of all the Atlantic liners.

For example, Camembert was only offered on the menu on the fourth day of a westbound crossing to New York, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. It was available to order off menu at any time, of course. But tradition demanded that it only be openly advertised when at its absolute best.

The extent of this fierce dedication to the good life was pointed up in the early seventies. Cunard, wanting an impartial opinion on how the French ship compared to their brand new QE2, paid for Lord Litchfield to cross the Atlantic one way on each ship. On his return, this card carrying member of the British establishment shocked his Cunard hosts by telling them that the food and service on the France was superior in every respect to that of their new flagship.

With her withdrawal in 1974, one hundred and ten years of French Line excellence and urbanity was guillotined in a single stroke. Of course, the great France herself would be miraculously resurrected as the show stopping Norway, but the magic of the dining experience had gone. It was a different time, and a different world.

And, truth be told, there has never been anything like it since. Au Revior.

OASIS 3 KEEL LAYING- THE GENESIS OF A GIANT. AND OASIS 4 IS GO, TOO….

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

Allure Of The Seas is Europe bound next year

As much of the UK media attention is focused on the historic celebrations to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Queen Mary 2, a small ceremony is today taking place over in the shipyard that gave birth to the iconic Cunarder.

STX Saint Nazaire in France is the site of the keel laying ceremony for the third in the gargantuan Oasis class of mega ships, the largest passenger carrying vessels that the world has ever seen. The ship- with no name as yet- is scheduled to enter service in the spring of 2018, and is the first of the trio not to be built in Finland.

And, in a move which will surprise few, Royal Caribbean has just announced an order for a fourth vessel in the class, also from STX.

While many people expressed surprise at Royal Caribbean going to STX Saint Nazaire for the new behemoth, the two companies actually have a shared history.

Back in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, it was Saint Nazaire that produced the first class of mega ship for Royal  Caribbean. The Sovereign Of The Seas was first in January of 1988, and was soon followed by two almost identical sisters, Monarch Of The Seas and Majesty Of The Seas, in 1992.

This first generation of super ships were, in their day, every bit as groundbreaking and technically advanced as their siblings of the Oasis class. All three are still in service, though only the Majesty Of The Seas is still with Royal Caribbean.

The French yard also built the Nordic Empress, originally ordered for Admiral Cruises but then completed for Royal Caribbean, back in 1990.

It is true that Royal Caribbean has been associated with Finnish and German yards such as Meyer Werft in Papenburg over recent decades. The new ships from STX join a construction roster that includes a pair of new, twin sister ships for MSC Cruises. After years of playing second fiddle to Germany, the French shipyard has certainly come out swinging.

The most fascinating thing about the new Royal Caribbean ships will be in seeing how much they will differ from their earlier sisters. With both Oasis Of The Seas and Allure Of The Seas due to make their first European cruises- in 2014 and 2015 respectively- the huge European market is obviously being primed for the potential, perhaps year round deployment of one of these innovative, ground breaking  new giants.

Exciting times for future cruises in Europe, to be sure. As always, stay tuned.

THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1960’S

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

Steamer chairs on deck; once the very essence of the transatlantic liner

By the dawn of 1960, the writing was on the wall for the transatlantic liner as a viable means of transport. More accurately, it was in the sky, carried in the vapour trails of the new Boeing 707 jets of Pan American, TWA and BOAC that had cut the journey time, down from five days to almost as many hours. When that new decade dawned, the jets already had around  seventy per cent of the transatlantic passenger trade. The trend was irreversible, the prognosis terminal.

And yet, incredibly, new liners were still being built.

The first- and without doubt the greatest- of these was the SS. France. The longest passenger ship ever built, she arrived in New York for the first time in February of 1962. Her owners called her ‘The last refuge of the good life’. The American press said that she was an eighty million dollar gamble.

The France was a pure express liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Le Havre, Southampton and New York. There was never any intention that she would be used for cruising. In fact, she had very little open deck space, and her beam made her too wide to pass through the Panama Canal. Built as a one ship replacement for her legendary forebears, the beloved Ile De France and the Liberte, she embodied all the cherished traditions for which the French Line had been renowned for almost a century.

She was also fast- very fast indeed. Only the United States was faster. But with the jets whispering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, the French Line directors decided that any attempt to run for the Atlantic speed record would be archaic. They preferred to let the style, service and cuisine of the new ship speak for itself.

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

The France at speed. probably on her trial runs out of Saint Nazaire

This was a wise decision. The France guzzled fuel oil like so much cheap table wine and, like the Normandie before her, she was kept in service only by a very generous operating subsidy from the French government.

When she emerged, the France joined the rump of a transatlantic trade still dominated by the ageing, increasingly expensive to operate Cunard Queens, the Mary and Elizabeth, and by the record holder, the legendary SS. United States. All three of these ships were already running winter cruises; something to which they were wholly unsuited, in a Canute-like attempt to halt the rising tide of red accountant’s ink that threatened to swamp them. It was a temporary palliative at the very best.

The France was, however, very popular from the start. Incredibly, she would average an occupancy rate of some eighty per cent through the decade; a quite astonishing achievement. But even that was not enough to save her from being sidelined to winter cruising; either to the Caribbean, or even sometimes down to Rio.  Ironically, she was also very successful in this role but, even so, she was still on borrowed time as well.

Three years later, it was the turn of Italy to stun the industry with the introduction of not one, but two beautiful sister ships, also designed for the transatlantic run. At 46,000 tons each, both the Michelangelo and the Raffaello emerged in the first half of 1965.

A view largely gone from the Atlantic...

A view largely gone from the Atlantic…

The sisters were typical Italian beauties, graceful as swans and both sheathed in bridal white. Their twin, latticed funnels and beautifully flared bows made them unmistakable from day one. The Italian Line had high hopes for them and, on the face of it, not without some reason.

The twins operated on the age old ‘Sunny Southern’ route between Genoa, Cannes, Gibraltar and New York. While their British and French rivals had to battle across the stormy northern ocean, the Italian ships spent much of their time on sunnier, calmer seas. They had outdoor pools for each class, and expansive, open lidos. Above all, they boasted the indolent, raffish, Fellini-esque vibe of la dolce vita afloat. They had style and panache by the boat load.

The Michelangelo and Raffaello also benefited in their early years from a residual, sea minded mentality that existed in southern Europe at that time. People as a whole in Italy and Spain were reluctant to switch to the jets, however much faster they were. The Italian Line was thus able to buck the trend of the airborne assault on their coffers for quite some time and, for a good few years, both ships sailed with very healthy passenger loads.

With their outdoor lidos, they should also have been much better set up for a cruising career in the winter seasons. But they were actually hamstrung by the large number of inner cabins on each ship, little more than shoe boxes with upper and lower berths. These compared poorly with the far nicer counterparts aboard the even earlier France.

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Pan American was once the standard bearer of luxury inflight

Later, the two ships would suffer from falling passenger numbers, random crew strikes, and a resultant, fatal inability to keep to a reliable schedule. But, for the sixties at least, these two magnificent ships were the new Italian standard bearers on the Atlantic crossing, and they were sailed with great style and pride.

Last of all there came the oft delayed, problem plagued Queen Elizabeth 2, forever more to be immortalised as the QE2. Months overdue, she finally made her debut on the Southampton to New York run in May of 1969.

The QE2 was intended not so much to replace the illustrious Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth, as she was to completely reinvent the Cunard brand. More than anyone, that pioneer of transatlantic steamship travel had seen the writing on the wall. And, from this most cautious, inherently conservative of steamship companies, there emerged the boldest, most strikingly different modern ship of them all.

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

For the QE2 was to be a dual purpose ship from the start, spending summer seasons crossing the Atlantic between Europe and America, and whiling away her winters in warmer cruising climes. She had broad, stepped lido terraces with outdoor pools at the stern, air conditioning right throughout the ship, and every cabin on board came with shower and toilet.

Her interiors were totally modern, like a very smart Hilton hotel afloat. Originally intended to be a three class ship, wiser heads prevailed, and she was- in theory, at least- a two class vessel on crossings.

Her exterior was strikingly beautiful. A graceful, tapered bow opened onto a gloriously proportioned charcoal hull, topped with a gleaming white superstructure. There was a single staunch, graceful funnel two thirds of the way aft, painted at the time in black and white. Not until 1982, after her legendary Falklands adventure, would the famous, ‘traditional’ Cunard colours be added.

Traditional, die hard Cunard passengers reviled her for the lack of a traditional, interior ‘liner’ promenade. Instead, her public rooms were built right out to the sides of the hull, with huge, floor to ceiling windows on both sides. Posterity would vindicate this design over some four decades of unparalleled success.

By the time she emerged in the spring of 1969, the QE2 shared what was left of the Atlantic passenger trade with the France and the United States, as well as with the two Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello. But by this time, the United States was also suffering badly.

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

Twilight Of The Goddesses- the magnificence that is QE2

The big American liner, still the holder of the Blue Riband, had been sold on her speed. With the jets thundering overhead at ten times her best pace, that advantage had gone. Lacking a reliable running mate, the United States was approaching mid age by the end of the sixties, and her once cutting edge interiors looked pale and antiseptic in the new era. And, with the France still winning all the plaudits for food and service, it became hard filling her at all.

This was partially alleviated by sending the big liner on cruises. The United States appeared in such unlikely places as Cape Town, and even Tenerife but, like the old Cunard Queens before her, the deep draft necessary for a fast ocean liner acted as a drag on her cruising viability. She usually had to anchor far offshore, and transfer her passengers in by tender.

Labour disputes with her all American crew became increasingly common- a foreshadow of the fate that would also befall her French and Italian competitors. In November of 1969, the fabled ocean greyhound entered dry dock in Newport News, Virginia, for her annual overhaul.

She never sailed again.

By the end of 1969, the decline in passenger numbers was catastrophic. Only four in every hundred people making the journey between Europe and America still did so by sea.

The collapse had been massive, and it shattered whatever ostrich mentality might still have existed in the boardrooms of the ocean liner companies. Even as late as 1964, the Queen Elizabeth, the France and the United States had still often been booked pretty much to capacity on summertime crossings. Now, even that certainty had sunk.

By the dawn of the seventies, the end was plainly in sight for the transatlantic liner. Even for such celebrated stalwarts as the still hugely lauded France, the only real question was not so much if, as when.

CDF (NOT) TO ACQUIRE CELEBRITY CENTURY (UPDATED)

CNV00198French sources are reporting that the 1995 built Celebrity Century will transfer over from Celebrity to the French Croisieres De France line in 2015.

This will give the Royal Caribbean affiliate a trio of ex- Celebrity vessels. The line currently operates the 1990 built, 48,000 ton Horizon. She will be rejoined in 2013 by her 1992 built sister ship, Zenith, which is currently sailing for Pullmantur.

Celebrity Century has spent her last few seasons alternating between the Caribbean, and summer Alaska cruises. Her disposal has been bruited for a few years now, though Celebrity has continued to constantly invest and upgrade its first true mega ship.

Built by Meyer Werft in Papenburg, Germany and delivered towards the end of 1995, the then Century was the first of a similar trio. The 71,000 ton ship was followed by two slightly larger siblings, Galaxy and Mercury. Collectively, this trio raised the bar substantially in terms of the luxury mega ship experience, with their excellent service, cuisine and facilities putting them not far below the deluxe small ships in terms of the product offered on board.

Particular emphasis was placed on the quality and placement of on board art works at the time. All three ships went a huge way towards making Celebrity a world wide brand, before the line’s annexation  by Royal Caribbean in 1998. With extra large cabins and exquisite decor, these vessels were very much the benchmark for the subsequent Millennium class sisters that followed them.

When Galaxy and Mercury were passed on to the affiliated TUI Cruises, it was apparent that the older Century was also on borrowed time as a Celebrity mainstay. Despite this, she was given a major rebuild, with several hundred cabins enhanced with new, private balconies, as  well as incorporating successful signature elements that had proved popular on succeeding new classes of ships.

As far as Celebrity Cruises is concerned, the Century will always remain a seminal, groundbreaking ship. Deployed over the course of her career to most cruising regions in the world, she remains a ship that still has a huge amount to offer the cruising market.

Transferring to CDF, she will be the first, truly big French flagged passenger ship since the legendary SS. France of 1962. As such, she becomes part of a continuing tradition of French maritime excellence that includes such storied names as Ile De France, Liberte and, of course, Normandie.

While no itineraries have yet become public, the renaissance of this already fabled ship under the French flag will be welcomed by many shiplovers and bon viveurs around the world. I wish this great and beautiful lady bon voyage, and many more years of happy, highly styled adventures.

DECEMBER 28, 2013: The transfer of Celebrity Century to Croisieres De France, originally denied after the initial publication of this piece, has now been confirmed. She will replace the smaller, less balcony laden Zenith from April of 2015.

UPDATE SEPTEMBER 2, 2014: You can disregard all of the above. It was today announced that Celebrity Century has, in fact, been sold to Chinese interests effective of April, 2015. What effect this will have on possible future fleet dispositions for Croisieres De France is as yet unannounced. 

FIVE MUST SEE SIGHTS FOR AMERICANS IN SOUTHERN EUROPE

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

Sagrada Familia, Barcelona

The whole thing with southern Europe is that it is one vast, cake rich, cultural glut of incredible things to see. Castles, cathedrals, museums. Turrets, campaniles and spires. They all vie- nay, sometimes demand- your undivided attention on any given day of your European vacation.

Simple truth? You can’t do them all. So don’t even try. More truth? Not all of the truly great, awe inspiring sights are of human construction.

That point made, here’s five of my favourite places in the Mediterranean. With time, tide and fair breezes, they might just become some of yours, too.

Church of Sagrada Familia, Barcelona, Spain

Antonio Gaudi was a creative genius on a par with Warhol or Hans Christian Andersen, and the still incomplete Sagrada Familia church is without doubt his most stunning masterpiece. With it’s clutch of gingerbread spires clawing at a perfect Catalan sky, it has become the symbol of one of the greatest, most swaggering and stylish cities in the world.

In places, it has the appearance of a slowly melting cake, inlaid just above ground level with some of the most amazing and intricate carvings you will ever see.  There is literally no other church like it in the world. During the day, this honey coloured colossus enjoys a matchless stance by a small park, but try to catch it at night. Indirect lighting, built all around it makes Sagrada Familia truly unforgettable and awe inspiring. You don’t have to be of any religious persuasion to be awed by this stunning testament to human devotion and ingenuity,  Highly recommended.

Villefranche, Cote D'Azur

Villefranche, Cote D’Azur

Bay of Villefranche, Villefranche-Sur-Mer, France

A sensuous, semi circular sweep of high, rolling hills studded with million euro villas, Villefranche is the most stunning single coastal location anywhere in southern Europe; one so perfectly formed that it was used as the backdrop for a James Bond film in the 1980’s.  At the edge of the quay, a row of Italianate shops, bars and restaurants in shades of blue, ochre and terracotta curves seductively around the lower edge of the bay. Umbrella shaded bars and pavement cafes spill out onto the quay that overlooks an azure harbour, studded with literally dozens of idly bobbing yachts and fishing boats. It’s a place to kick back and people watch over a sumptuous, two hour lunch, You’ll see people wearing sun glasses worth the entire national debt of a third world country, and old ladies walking impossibly small dogs among the jasmine wreathed cobbled streets that lead up into the old town.

Once seen, never forgotten; Villefranche will stay with you long after you leave it behind.

Greco-Roman Theatre, Taormina, Sicily

This almost perfectly preserved, Eighth Century amphitheatre is as compelling for its location as it is for it’s ageless, elegant sweep and still flawless acoustics. Nestling in the shade of towering pine trees at the top of Taormina, it looks down and out over the sparkling blue carpet of the Mediterranean. From it’s terraces, you can clearly see the brooding, still smouldering mass of Mount Etna, grey against a cobalt blue sky.

It has an exalted, almost Olympian feel to it; row upon row of stepped, circular stone seating cascades down to a central ‘stage’ which is still used for outdoor concerts to this day.

Worth going to simply for the view alone; an outdoor concert at dusk would be a truly amazing experience as well.

Piazza Navona, Rome, Italy

One of the scenic exclamation marks in a city almost awash with them, Piazza Navona has been a Roman stand out for centuries.

The centre piece is formed by a series of amazing, medieval fountains by Bernini, almost awash with a riot of intricate, over the top, Romanesque statuary from the middle ages. Off to one side is the cool, ordered elegance of the circular Pantheon, with its shady interior, incredible frescoes and marvellous acoustics.

These fountains and surrounding buildings form the focal point of this famous, frantic, bustling square that hums with life at all hours of the day and night. The whole area is framed by a host of sun splashed cafes and restaurants, while mime artists and strolling musicians mingle with dog walking locals taking time out for an ice cream.

It’s a quintessential Italian slice of the good life; la dolce vita served up with age old Roman style in a swaggering, feel good setting. Deliciously over the top, and typically addictive.

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Mykonos

Windmills of Chora, Mykonos, Greek Islands

No other single sight is as evocative of the history and hedonism of the Greek Islands as those five famous windmills that sit on top of the hill above the harbour of Mykonos, immortalised in the movie, Shirley Valentine. They can be seen from any part of the island, and the views of the sunsets from here draws out the crowds each and every night in the peak summer season. It’s an almost pagan ritual, as compelling as anything you’ll see at Stonehenge. The vibe at evening time has more than a little in common with Key West.

Individually, each of the five windmills has a uniform stance. Circular and whitewashed, surrounded by low stone walls and fronted by petrified, long silent sails, each is topped with it’s own thatched ‘mop top’ roof.  It is their collective poise and presence that makes them so memorable; they loom above the Aegean’s most compelling and indulgent island like a quintet of benevolent deities.

So; there you go. Five of my faves from the magnificent Med. You may agree. You may disagree. But I think we’d all agree that the real fun lies in getting out there, and finding and defining your own favourites, Happy exploring!

DEVIL’S ISLAND-REVISITING FRANCE’S ALCATRAZ ON THE OCEAN

The waterfront at Devil's Island

The waterfront at Devil’s Island

At first sight, Devil’s island looks benign and innocuous. With it’s surf kissed waterfront and ranging, impossibly tall palm trees, it could be the gateway to any tropical paradise. The whole place has more than a little of the lethargic, languid vibe and feel of the South Pacific; it brings images of Tahiti and Moorea straight to mind. Though the island sits only some ten miles from the coast of French Guiana, it feels as if it is somehow completely cut off from the rest of civilisation. But, for many, any vestige of civilisation was in short supply here.

Most former visitors arriving here would have been under very few illusions. For this is the former leper colony, turned into a penal institution, that became a byword for terror. Ile Du Diable- Devil’s Island- would acquire a reputation for stark, inhuman brutality that made Alactraz look like the Adlon by comparison.

The combination of sharp, rocky shores and vicious cross currents made any attempt at escape inadvisable, as did the fact that the waters all around are shark infested. Over the years, more than eighty thousand reluctant guests endured this dreadful place; few returned to tell the tale.

One of three small islands that form the territory of the Iles Du Salut, the island itself is relatively small; a mere twelve hundred yards long, and four hundred across. But that small space is awash with towering palms, and the shores of Guiana are full of old mangrove swamps that were such fertile breeding grounds for a whole raft of noxious diseases, such as dysentery and malaria. Scores died from exposure to the pitiless humidity.

A prisoner's eye view as old as time....

A prisoner’s eye view as old as time….

The colony was in use for over a hundred years, from 1852 onward. The French dispatched their most feared and reviled state enemies here; spies, political prisoners and the like. But none was more famous than Alfred Dreyfus, the former army officer framed on trumped up charges. He arrived here in 1895, and over his four year stay he wrote more than a thousand letters, detailing the ghastly regime of this nineteenth century Guantanamo in chilling detail.

It was also the setting for Papillon, the fictional masterpiece that managed to recreate much of the fear, horror and misery so inherent in the real thing. Escape was almost impossible, and recapture meant the dawn walk to the guilllotine. Fear, casual brutality and rampant malaria did the rest.

Part of the old penal colony of Devil's Island

Part of the old penal colony of Devil’s Island

Today, what remains of the old penal colony is a series of gaunt husks of buildings, many of them bleached a shade of bone white by more than a century’s exposure to a constant, pitiless sun. The gaunt, unyielding old hospital where so many gasped out their last moments is grimly stark; it still feels like somewhere that pity was as thinly rationed as water and any other kind of humanity. A place of tense, uneasy ghosts.

In fact, all three of the islands had prison facilities, but Devil’s Island was mainly reserved for political scapegoats such as Dreyfus. In 1938, a book about the island called Dry Guillotine was published, outlining in stark detail the brutish regime on these islands. It caused such a wave of revulsion across France that the entire complex was slated for closure in that same year; only the advent of the Second World war prevented it from happening. The last prisoners were quietly evacuated in 1953.

Today, there’s a serene patina of isolated beauty to the place. But it is a very thin veil indeed, and the memories of former times are seared into those stone walls. If buildings could, indeed, talk, then the sound emanating from those pitiless pieces of brickwork would be one loud, continuous wail of terror.

THE FRENCH LINE- UNSURPASSED OCEAN ROYALTY

ImagePainting of the Normandie by James Flood, maritime artist extraordinaire

In the world of travel, no people are as nostalgic as fans of the vanished ocean liners. I know. I am one. An incurable case, with zero chance of remission.

Yet of all those long vanished icons of ocean travel, none for me exerts the regret or sense of loss that the French Line does. Because if ever a line could be said to embody the real panache and elegance of ocean liner travel, then the French Line is surely it.

Why? For me, there are a number of factors. Where lines such as Cunard and White Star built ships in pairs to operate as running mates, the French Line never did. Each one was a true individual, as finely crafted a statement of intent as it was possible to produce.

There’s also no doubt that the French Line offered the best food and service afloat of any of the great lines. The dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less then 275 different items each evening. ‘Bon Voyage is always French’ was the line’s mantra. It was something the line lived up to in deed as well as the spoken word.

For instance, the wine cellar on the Normandie was stocked on board a full six months before her maiden voyage, in order to give the wine time to settle. What is more, it was loaded in such a way that, should the ship ever roll, the motion would least upset the wine. Seasick passengers were an unavoidable hazard of Atlantic travel, but bad wine was a mortal sin.

On the subject of wine, vin du table was always free aboard the French Line; the company considered it a vital part of the ambiance of ‘France afloat’. The French Line insisted that you were actually in France the moment that you boarded one of their ships. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, despite the fact that most of the passengers were, invariably, American.

They had style in spades. When the Ile De France first made her stunning debut in 1927, a churlish passenger remarked to her captain that she was smaller than many rivals. His reply? ‘She may not be the biggest, madame; but then, neither is the Ritz’…

Of course, the Ile De France became a legend. She introduced Art Deco to the Atlantic crossing, and her striking, modern interiors at once made every other liner afloat look dowdy and old fashioned. So sensational was her impact, that many veteran travellers were prepared to wait for a week, just to cross on her. For years, she carried more first class passengers than any other Atlantic liner. Even Noel Coward immortalised her in song.

And, even after the war, she was regarded with awe and reverence; a place where you could have onion soup for breakfast, even in tourist class.

The post war Liberte became the most popular ticket on the Atlantic. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger,  and the United States faster. And she became a movie star three times over. When Marilyn Monroe tells Jane Russell that she is off to Europe, Russell asks; “On the Liberte?” Marilyn’s reply; “How else?”

Those grand, French Line public rooms had scale to match their splendour as well. When the company introduced it’s first, stunning SS. France in 1912, she featured a magnificent, two story first class dining room. The reason? ‘Low ceilings do not aid the appetite’, said the line. In fact, this was nothing less than a dig at the single story, first class dining room aboard the rival White Star line’s Olympic and Titanic.

But the impact of the Normandie was nothing short of seismic. No ship, either before or since, has made such a sensational, stunning debut as the immortal French Line flagship. Even now, the superlatives flow like fine wine.

The first ocean liner over a thousand feet in length, and the first of the eighty-thousand ton monsters; the first to be the largest, fastest and most luxurious on her maiden crossing. That crossing itself was the most epochal in maritime history.

In terms of beauty, style and chic, she was unapproachable. When she and Queen Mary were playing ping pong with the Blue Riband in the 1930’s, it took the similarly sized British ship an extra forty thousand horsepower just to reach the same speed as the Normandie. The French masterpiece was space age, sumptuous and spectacular. The world would never see the likes of her again.

But that did not stop the French from trying…

‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ With that fatuous burst of egotism on his lips, General De Gaulle watched as his wife, Yvonne, set her successor afloat on May 11th, 1960. Two hundred thousand people cheered as the second France slid serenely into the River Loire, launched from the same slipway as her elegant predecessor.

France was lithe, fabulous, and way too late. By the time she arrived in New York for the first time, the jets already had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade. The writing was truly in the sky.

Everyone knew it, too. The American press described her as an eighty million dollar gamble. The French Line called her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

Yet, to the end, the last great flagship embodied all that was special, elegant and stylish about her country. Audrey Hepburn fell in love with her. The France even carried the marginally less beautiful Mona Lisa to New York for the 1964 World Fair. Salvador Dali liked to walk his pet Ocelots on deck. Burt Lancaster would show passengers his hand spring skills.

The dining rooms were still double height and, naturally, Camembert cheese would only be offered to passengers on the fourth day out from Le Havre, when it was considered to be at its absolute best. A French Line Maitre d’ would have chosen suicide over slightly over ripe cheese. It was the French Line way.

Her layup in 1974 brought down the guillotine blade on 110 years of French Line excellence and style. But the great France, magically resurrected as the fabulous, Art Deco suffused Norway, would go on to become a legend for the second time in her magnificent career.

Something of her grand, French Line past always lingered like fine perfume within that sumptuous hull. And those great, winged stacks made her unmistakable. For that, and for the memories that she embodied, I for one will always be grateful.

FIVE DAYS ON THE MARCO POLO PART TWO- THE CONTINENTAL STYLE…

Dinner on the Marco Polo was a pleasant experience that same evening. We had a good table and, it has to be said, were well looked after in the busy, beautiful Waldorf restaurant. Good company and good food- created and plated for the British palate- combined to create a wonderful atmosphere.

I was still basking in that warm glow of contentment when I wandered back into Honfleur about nine o’clock that evening. By now the Marco Polo was ablaze with light from stem to stern; deck after deck of her lights shimmered bewitchingly on the silent, ink black Seine. It was hard to take my eyes off her as I wandered back into town, but the volume of traffic on the roads made it infinitely wise to do so!

I sauntered slowly back to that gorgeous marina. There was no rush- we would be here till one in the morning, before heading fifty more  miles upstream for our truncated visit to Rouen.

The town was a lot less busy than on the afternoon. The crowds of shoppers and tourists had vanished like Channel mist, and only a few groups of mainly locals thronged the bars and cafes that surrounded the still waters of the marina. The only sound was from a few televisions, screening football games. Every now and again, a burst of ragged cheers was testament to a goal. Personally. I couldn’t care less. For tonight, I was a man on a mission.

That mission involved finding a suitable quayside venue and a decent bottle of wine. Intrepid detective work gave up both. For a couple of blissful hours I sat enjoying some delicious Muscadet on an unfeasible warm, October evening.

The wine was effortlessly chilled, and so was yours truly by the time I wandered back to the warmth and light of the Marco Polo. Ah well, when in France…

Back on board, the night was in full swing. There were still several hundred people up on the outer decks when the Marco Polo swung loose soon after one in the morning and stood out into the darkness, destination Rouen.

The rain came back with a vengeance in the morning. It thumped unerringly on the streets of the old town of Rouen as we took off on a quick, guided walking tour. Rain or no, I saw enough to make me want to come back for longer.

In the first grey light of that Monday, pools of light from shops and houses glimmered weakly on the sodden, winding cobble stones of the old part of town. Row upon row of vaulting, half timbered houses loomed above the almost deserted streets. Many of these dated back literally many centuries.

Gothic spires and ancient, turreted ramparts scowled their contempt at the early morning gloom, just as they have done for centuries. In the city centre, the famous Gros Horlorge clock was a sudden, unexpected burst of blue and gold bravado, as welcome as it was isolated in its quirky splendour. Cafe chairs were stacked up against walls, as if seeking refuge from the rain. Lines of plane trees stood shivering like Napoleon’s grenadiers in the bone chilling cold.

The spot where Joan of Arc was martyred in May, 1431 is marked by a stark, single cross. The simplicity and pathos of the place combined with the driving rain, and struck home like a guided missile. I found myself far, far more moved than I would ever have guessed possible.

How can anyone actually burn an eighteen year old girl alive? And how can that same lonely, no doubt terrified girl show such amazing courage and strength? During her sham trial- the verdict was already determined- this illiterate peasant girl calmly and completely destroyed every charge and argument brought against her by her supposedly well educated, soon-to-be murderers. All, of course, to no avail.

These thoughts flitted through my mind as the Marco Polo turned to head back upstream soon after noon. A magnificent visual smorgasbord was about to unfold on both sides and so, braving the still unrelenting rain, I resumed station in the hot tub at the top of the ship.

And what a vantage spot! I forgot the rain as a fabulous vista of lush, sodden fields and valleys unfolded on both sides of us. Chateaux and ancient monasteries peeped out from among the foliage for seconds before disappearing again. Behind me, the wake of the Marco Polo cut a swathe along the steel grey Seine, sending the propeller wash surging back along both banks.

Flocks of water borne ducks surfed those impromptu rollers. On the banks, herds of lethargic cattle flopped down as if on strike. Coasters and small container ships fussed past the Marco Polo in both directions as we nudged under random, vaulting bridges.

It went on and on. Cars and buses beetled alongside the ship with what seemed like indecent haste. Villages- some of them almost unchanged in five centuries- tumbled down to the river banks on both sides, with Gothic church spires sharp against the gloom. Tidal waves of gossamer spun mist surged down through valleys to the water, before fading in the gloom astern of us. It was a fantastic spectacle that felt like some amazing, slowly playing movie footage from another time and place. Rain or no, I was utterly spellbound.

Next day brought a miraculous transformation. The sun came out once again as the Marco Polo picked her way nimbly up the sixty mile long estuary of the Scheldt, destination Antwerp.

This gorgeous city has got to be one of the most under rated experiences in Europe, if not the world. The Grand Place is a glut of honey coloured, gingerbread Gothic magnificence, with a staggering town hall and stunning cathedral. Cafes and bars hug the edges of this fabulous formal square, while horse drawn tourist buses clop casually along the winding streets that fan out from this central spot.

The Belgians are as devoted to their local beer as the French are to their wine, and it shows. In fact, drinking and eating well is central to their whole philosophy. Because as much as you might marvel at the famous Rubens House (and you will), real Belgian art these days is in the shape of the world’s best chocolate, and the mouth watering, diet defying waffles that cry out to be smothered in strawberry jam, chocolate sauce, or even both.Once sampled, never forgotten.

Oh yes, the Rubens house. It is actually more like an Italian renaissance palazzo than anything else, with a fabulous, balconied courtyard. Inside, centuries old, cake rich masterpieces frown down on you like some many scowling medieval merchants. It’s breathtaking, and we had way too short a time to get more than a snapshot of the place.

Back in the city, trams snaked along the main arteries as we headed back to the ship. A quayside band serenaded the Marco Polo out into the night as we slipped our ropes for the last time. The next morning would find us safely tied up alongside the landing stage, back in Tilbury.

Impressions: this is a great way to see a few cities in a short amount of time, and the voyage down the Seine was a scenic spectacular that no land based tour could replicate. Pack and unpack once, and the floating hotel moves with you. Marvellous stuff.

Minuses? The ship is pretty busy, so expect lines for getting on and off, and at buffets, etc. A little patience goes a long way. If you want non stop casino action, loads of bars and shows and balcony cabins, then you might want to consider alternatives.

But… this is a ship that oozes sheer class and style. Marco Polo is warm, welcoming and marvellous value. Give her a go. You won’t be disappointed….