VOYAGE REPORT- CRYSTAL SERENITY

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

Crystal has become the contemporary bench mark for modern maritime elegance

I boarded the Crystal Serenity in Venice at the beginning of last month for a week long swing down through the Adriatic, stopping in at Mykonos before transiting the Dardanelles, and finally leaving the ship in Istanbul. It was a frantic, fun fuelled week that neatly balanced magnificent history with a dollop of indolent hedonism, with a couple of welcome sea days in between to allow me to catch my breath,

The cool. marble suffused expanse of the Crystal Atrium was filled with the strains of a violin quartet, swinging lushly through The Blue Danube as I walked back on board. Instead of going straight to the suite, I lingered long enough to grab a maiden glass of glacially chilled champagne. I needed to linger for a minute or so and let it all come back to me.

Since Crystal had come under the auspices of Genting Hong Kong, a series of seismic announcements have unfolded like a string of muffled drum rolls. Crystal is not so much gathering headway, as going to warp drive.New ships, a stunning yacht, a brace of deluxe river ships, and even a pair of opulent air cruises. The mind boggles at the sheer scale of it all.

But a nagging feeling of unease had still gnawed away at me. What would the new regime mean for the actual, current on board experience? How would the Genting hegemony impact on board a pair of ships that I have come to cherish over a decade and a half. Surely change and retrenchment on board were inevitable?

Over the next week, those doubts vanished like sea fret. The on board experience remains as compelling, inclusive and all pervading as ever. Crystal Serenity remains suffused in a patina of care and concern from bow to stern, truck to keel.

Service throughout the ship remains as flawless and timely as ever. The staff are adept at appearing when you need something, yet without falling over the line into being overly intrusive. Of course, the high staff to guest ratio makes this easier, but that very ratio itself is indicative of the mindset originally instilled by Joe Watters from day one. It is heartening indeed to see that Genting understands this. Quite simply, it creates a bond, a contract of sorts between crew and guests that elevates the entire experience into something far more than a ‘mere’ voyage.

Crystal’s cuisine remains peerless; a series of beautifully executed snacks and feasts, running from the simple to the sublime. Whether we are talking about the simply gorgeous chocolate ice cream at Tastes, the dainty little custard tarts at the Bistro, or the succulent, full blown Italian fare at Prego, the Crystal Serenity delivered in spades.

Particularly enjoyable were some amazing, saffron accented lamb skewers served up one night in the Trident Grill. And being able to pick at prawns and lobster while lounging on my balcony as we skirted the coast of summertime Turkey is a level of indolence that is almost stratospheric.

God knows, I looked for signs of slippage in a product- and on a ship- that I know really well. I looked in vain.

The overall vibe on this spacious, supremely comfortable ship remains as upbeat and accommodating as ever. Wonderful live music filled the shimmering Crystal Atrium before and after dinner each night as we surged through some of the most fabled, historic waters on the planet. Banner destinations such as Dubrovnik, Mykonos and Izmir unfolded around us like stunning portals to the turbulent past of one of the most mesmerising regions in the world. And, having been sated and fascinated by these incredible places, we would return to the reassuring welcome of our floating home from home. And, make no mistake, that is exactly what sailing on the Crystal Serenity still feels like.

Over the years, the ship- along with the equally sybaritic Crystal Symphony- has been constantly refined and re-imagined, especially in the public areas. Particularly beautiful is the lounging space under the sliding glass roof of the Trident Grill. Teak decking, liberally sprinkled with plush lounging chairs and sofa groups, is now framed by vibrant climbing walls draped in lush greenery. There is even a small tree draped with twinkling fairy lights that makes for a stunning focal point while enjoying more casual evening fare over dinner.

The classic, on board alchemy achieved by this marriage of space and grace creates a clean, harmonious whole that is, quite simply, without peer. Details delight the eye and lift the spirit. The Crystal experience remains as vibrant and uplifting as ever.

Crystal CEO, Edie Rodriguez, was on board for this voyage. Affable, accessible and hugely capable, she is well aware that the line’s key asset remains the superb Crystal staff that give both ships their heart, soul and personality. From the start, Crystal was a line that hired it’s staff based on their attitude first and foremost. The theory always was that such staff could be trained up to offer the best possible levels of service for the guests then. It was a proven formula, and it remains one that has paid huge dividends for the line itself.

This level of intimately styled excellence, married to superb, quality hardware and a series of carefully thought out, round the world itineraries, is what really marked out the Crystal product of old as a thing apart. Happily, it still does to this day.

In my opinion, Crystal Cruises is the obvious heir to the cherished seagoing traditions of such stellar travel icons as the Royal Viking Line, and even the French Line. And, while it operates in a very different market to those long gone legends, Crystal’s ongoing adherence to those self same, timeless values of care and courtesy garnished with a ‘can do’ attitude, mark it out as a singular, worthy counterpart to both.

As I noted at the start of this piece, one of my concerns was whether or not that vital, all pervasive attitude might have changed under the new regime. After my recent trip on the Crystal Serenity, I can say emphatically say that it has not.

And in a world where hype too often attempts to masquerade as style, that is something that I for one find truly heartening.

VIKING OCEAN CRUISES- ROYAL VIKING LINE MARK TWO?

There is little doubt that the ongoing emergence of Viking Ocean Cruises has absolutely galvanised interest in cruise travel on a scale unseen for many decades. The whole concept has distinctly nostalgic overtones, wrapped in a state of the art modern package, and deliberately marketed to evoke memories of a more exclusive, intimate cruise experience. Simply and unashamedly, the company draws inspiration from an illustrious, very storied predecessor.

in the annals of vanished cruising legends, the Royal Viking Line evokes a level of whimsical nostalgia perhaps equalled only by the equally salubrious French Line. The company was established by Warren Titus in the early 1970’s with one simple aim; to create the most elegant and exclusive cruise experience available to passengers anywhere.

He envisaged, and then delivered, a trio of stunningly elegant sisters, suffused in Scandinavian chic from bow to stern, that would offer spacious accommodation and gracious service at the pinnacle of luxury cruising. Those three sister ships were, of course, the Royal Viking Sea, Royal Viking Star, and Royal Viking Sky.

This tremendous, triumphant trio succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. The three sister ships became the collective benchmark for elegant travel, and the first choice of the savvy, sophisticated cruising elite that demanded nothing but the very best. Just as likely to turn up at Tromso as Tahiti, the three sister ships carved out a niche in modern maritime history that every subsequent luxury cruise line- from Crystal to Silversea- has aspired to ever since. They truly were game changers.

The sheer, enduring excellence and elegance of their design is borne out by the fact that all three vessels are still in service for other lines, more than forty years after their original genesis. And, despite no longer being the sybaritic showstoppers that they once were, each of these three wonderful ships is still instantly distinctive as ex-RVL royalty.

Titus emphasised space, splendour, and matchless cuisine and service as the bench marks for his three sisters. And now, like a modern day echo heeding that timeless old call, a new class of vessel is gradually taking shape, echoing those age old standards in a series of new, yet startlingly familiar sister ships.

Viking Ocean Cruises is the long anticipated offshoot of the hugely successful river cruise line. It combines the polished, Scandinavian flair of the original RVL with the best features and attributes of the river cruise experience that Viking has come to dominate to such a large extent.

Again, the company decided on a trio of congenial, compatible sister ships. The first of these- the 48,000 ton Viking Star- entered service last year, to reams of critical acclaim from passengers and travel trade alike.

Just the appearance of the ship drew awed gasps from the not easily impressed. There it was once again- that graceful, sharply raked prow that had been the trademark of the Titus trio, and the single proud funnel, placed just aft of midships. The hull- as brilliantly white as an Arctic glacier- hinted at the cool, pristine perfection of those classically styled Scandinavian interiors. In almost every respect, Viking Star is a graceful, beautifully executed nod to her three predecessors.

Next year will see a pair of sister ships- Viking Sea and Viking Star- that will round out the initial fleet (though there is an option for a fourth vessel in the class). Between them, this trio of vessels will take passengers ‘back to the future’ with a kind of intimate, endearing twist of the old days. In so many ways, this is Royal Viking 2.0.

And yet….

This new trio of ships offers a natural, luxurious progression from those 1970’s built ships that makes them as salubrious and state of the art as can be. Every single cabin- and even the smallest measures in at a capacious 270 square feet- comes with its own private balcony. In the old RVL days, balconies on cruise ships were almost non existent.

The symmetry between Royal Viking of old and Viking Ocean of new is hardly a happy accident. Viking CEO, Torstein Hagen, was actually the CEO of Royal Viking Line between 1980 and 1984.

In a mirror image of their river going siblings, the Viking Ocean trio will also offer a full, complimentary range of shore excursions, and many overnight stays in ‘greatest hits’ ports such as Bergen and Barcelona. This is intended to make them fully competitive with the likes of Azamara Club Voyages and Oceania- lines that Viking Ocean will inevitably be compared to.

Viking Ocean will also offer complimentary beer and wine with both lunch and dinner- just like the river boats and another rival operator, Voyages to Antiquity. This is not quite the fully inclusive largesse of, say, Regent or Seadream and, if the line is to really raise it’s game, then fully all inclusive is a must do. For now, this is not the case.

Viking chairmen, Torstein Hagen, has been smart enough to conceive a trio of classically cool, state of the art vessels that are already garnering a tidal wave of attention in the travel industry. Like their RVL predecessors, they emphasise superb food and personal service in casually spectacular surroundings.

But these ‘new’ Vikings offer a whole range of indoor and alfresco dining options that the old RVL trio never did. This is not so much revolution, more the evolution of a classically elegant kind of style and service.

All things in, Viking Ocean is a very alluring prospect; a kind of ‘less is more’ sense of enhanced elegance, shorn of casinos, rock climbing walls and roller rinks, and instead suffused in a cocoon of expansive style and space, in ships that are large enough to be eminently seaworthy, and yet still remaining intimate enough to make fast in the smaller, more exclusive ports that their larger competitors will be obliged to sail past.

Something old, something new, on an ocean that remains eternally blue. A subtle revival and the ageless thrills of a stylish arrival. Hagen is clearly onto something here.

The question is; will anybody else follow in his wake?

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.

From Greenland to Genoa, Viking Ocean Cruises is ushering in a new kind of ocean going exploration.

NORMANDIE; TRIALS AND TRIBULATIONS

At about this time some eighty years ago, the brand new French liner, Normandie, was running speed and handling trials in the area around the Bay of Biscay, prior to sailing round to Le Havre to enter commerical service at the end of May. Once there, she would embark passengers for what remains the most spectacular and barnstorming maiden voyage in maritime history to this day.

Watching the ship, the local Breton fishermen were astonished. They reported that the Normandie, rather than ploughing through the waves, instead glided over them ‘like a gull’. It was proof, as if proof were needed, of the extraordinary seakeeping qualities of the stunning hull wrought by Vladimir Yourkevitch.

Not that the French Line wanted to give the former Tsarist Russian naval designer any credit. The Normandie was seen by her owners to extol all the great virtues, both real and imagined, of the mother country. She was ‘France afloat’ on so many levels. In their minds, it would have taken more than a little off the gloss to re-iterate that her fabulous, flowing lines- the decisive feature that made her so distinctive and swift- were actually the brainchild of a foreigner, albeit an amazingly gifted one. In fact, only at the last moment was the French Line shamed into providing free, first class tickets on her maiden crossing for Mr. and Mrs. Yourkevitch.

‘The French Line’ said the company brochure, ‘naturally welcomes any suggestions from passengers for making the ship as agreeable as possible.’  And, while history would garland the Normandie with the accoloade of the most triumphant of all the great ocean speed queens, there were aspects of sailing aboard her in the early days that were somewhat less than agreeable.

While she was not subjected to the nightmarish rock and roll tendencies of her great rival, the Queen Mary, the Normandie did have the tendency to sometimes heel sharply to one side a short notice- ‘like a destroyer coming smartly about’- as someone once put it. She was always quick to correct herself, shearing smartly back to the vertical. In such situations, the Normandie was said to shatter pieces of lalique with careless abandon.

Yet she was still by far the better sea boat of the two great liners. The French Line used to boast that she was so stable that she never had to empty her swimming pools in even the most severe of Atlantic storms. It was a standing joke for many years that the Queen Mary could roll the milk out of a cup of tea. The British liner also suffered from some quite severe vibration problems. But she was far from alone on that front.

For the Normandie, too, was prone to vibration. In her case, it was noted on her trials, and extra stanchions were put into some parts of her stern to provide stiffening. This was not an outright success; once she was in service, it was noted by many that glasses in the aft facing, upper deck Cafe Grill could only be half filled with water, lest the vibration empty them all over the passengers.

This problem was largely cured later by replacing the original quartet of four bladed propellers with a set of newly designed, three bladed models. And it should always be remembered that, when Normandie and Queen Mary first came into service, they were vessels of a size and scale never seen before. Some forms of mechanical problems could only be truly revealed and, hopefully parried, once the ships were in service, and operational experience had been gained with them.

All of this was in the future as the coundtdown begun to the maiden voyage of Normandie in that momentous spring of 1935. The wine cellar had been loaded on board a full six months earlier so that, even if the ship rolled, the motion would least upset the wine. The first class dinner menus that would list no less than 325 separate items had been prepared with agonised, exquisite care. The dog kennels were almost ready, and the famous, scarlet jacketed bellboys- the mousses- were being trained and inspected daily by veteran French Line hands, especially picked for the maiden voyage.

What those Breton fishermen saw in those memorable days was a ship totally without an equal; young, fresh, vibrant, and brimming with unparalelled potential. Blooming in the first full flush of the spring of her life, Normandie was a ship afloat on a sea that was one part pride, another part promise, a butterfly emerging from a coccoon.

In the spring of 1935, the sun began to rise on Normandie's glittering career

In the spring of 1935, the sun began to rise on Normandie’s glittering career

 

 

THE ILE DE FRANCE- THE ENDURING ‘IT GIRL’ OF THE ROARING TWENTIES

ILE DE FRANCE NY POSTWAR

The Ile De France steams down the Hudson in her post war guise; her original trio of funnels have been replaced by a more stocky, substantial pair

It’s a fact that, while many ocean liners achieve fame, few actually achieve immortality. And those that do very often do so on the back of some catastrophic event. Those that actually become immortal over the course of a long career can probably be safely counted on the fingers of one hand.

That point made, I’d argue that if any liner can be called immortal, it is surely the Ile De France.

Why the Ile De France?

At first glance, she might seem a strange choice to some. Viewed externally through the prism of history, she was neither the biggest nor the fastest liner in the world when she emerged in 1927. And the hull, with its knife like bow and three towering, black and red funnels, looked as if it could just as easily have been a product of Edwardian designers. Yes, she was proud and dignified but, from afar at least, she was hardly cutting edge.

But inside, she was a very different lady indeed.

The entire, fabulous interior of the Ile De France was sheathed in bow to stern Art Deco styling, rivalling the greatest and most luxurious hotels ashore. Whereas all of her slowly ageing, sometimes ponderous rivals were decorated in a pre war style that made them resemble so many fusty, Edwardian theme parks, the Ile De France was stunningly, totally modern. Those new interiors were the architectural equivalent of a brick hurled through a frosted up window. They were like nothing ever seen before and, after her, nothing on the Atlantic would ever be the same again.

The French Line insisted that ‘To live is not to copy; it is to create’, and in the concept and completion of the Ile De France, that notion- one that was to become something of a hallowed mantra- was carried through to massive acclaim. In short order, the Ile De France became so popular that veteran travellers were prepared to wait an additional week or more to make sure that they could sail on her. She was new, and she had panache; as such, she was bound to prosper in the early days.

So what, then, explains her extraordinary longevity? Not until 1959 would the veteran liner call down ‘finished with engines’ for the very last time. It had to be something more than could be created by that initial, sensational splash. Something deeper and more grounded. Something far more subtle was at play here.

For sure, she had flair. The first class dinner menu on the Ile De France listed no less than two hundred and seventy five separate items nightly. On her maiden voyage, one particular lady upbraided her captain, saying that the Ile was neither the biggest or the fastest. The captain’s reply was pure class;

‘No, madame. But neither is the Ritz’…..

And that single sentence sums up the Ile De France with more singular brilliance than I ever could. With her all French crew, including the scarlet jacketed little bell boys who were there solely to operate the lifts, the Ile De France took every strand of the hallowed French Line traditions of exemplary service and matchless cuisine, and then wove them into the most internally dramatic and stunning ship ever built.

The result was pure magic. Noel Coward was so enchanted with her that he worked a reference to the Ile De France into the lyrics of These Foolish Things. Even when the far bigger and faster Normandie made her sensational debut in the mid thirties, the Ile De France continued to be one of the most popular ships afloat; one that had, indeed, by that time already developed a true cult following.

And, of course, her war record was nothing less than heroic. Taken over and managed by Cunard Line during the Second World War, the grey shrouded Ile De France carried literally thousands of troops to all the major theatres of war. It took a huge toll on her, both materially and mechanically. Not until 1946 would the battered, grimy trooper make her first return home to France in some seven years.

Already twenty years old, the Ile De France needed drastic rebuilding and refurbishment; a task easier envisaged than accomplished in a devastated, post war France. It would be 1949 before the ‘new’ Ile De France emerged to resume first rate French Line service on the Atlantic.

Though as lavish and loved as ever, and with her three funnels replaced by a pair of stockier, newer models, the Ile De France still had an exterior that was obviously from another era when she arrived back in New York to a fabulous, fire boat and siren welcome. But, with her return to service, the French Line served due notice to the opposition. The legend- and she was already that- was back. And how.

The service and cuisine remained as lavish as ever. On the Ile De Franc, onion soup was offered for breakfast even in tourist class. In those first, post war years, the Atlantic liner trade boomed as never before.

Paired with the reborn Liberte, formerly the rival German Europa, the Ile De France offered the most highly styled and diverse service afloat. No matter that the Cunard Queens were bigger and faster; the French duo had that same effortless, elegant sense of art de vivre that made the French Line the natural first choice of the beau monde. For years, the two ships raked in massive profits for the French Line.

As the fifties picked up pace, the veteran liner finally began showing her age. But in July 1956, the Ile De France made world wide headlines once again, when she rescued most of the 1600 plus survivors of the Andrea Doria, after the beautiful Italian liner- the very emblem of 1950’s built, ocean going modernity- sank after being rammed in thick fog off Nantucket. There was life in the old girl yet.

In the winter season, the Ile De France sailed on leisurely, lavish cruises to the Caribbean from New York; a role in which she was to prove surprisingly popular. During the course of one of these, she ran aground and damaged her keel. Though taken back to Newport News and repaired, the Ile De France was clearly on borrowed time. And, when it came, her end caused uproar across her native land.

In 1959, the thirty-two year old Ile De France was finally sold to a Japanese company for scrapping. But, before commencing the task, the Japanese hired the Ile De France out to a Hollywood movie company. She was about to become the biggest floating film prop in movie history.

Over the course of The Last Voyage, the Ile De France- restyled as the S.S. Claridon for the sake of the film- suffered the indignity of having her forward funnel being toppled onto the superstructure, followed by numerous dramatic internal ‘explosions’. Then, the veteran liner was sunk in shallow water as a climax of sorts. Once raised post filming, her devastated, degraded carcass was patched up, and towed away to be butchered in a scrapyard.

And yet…..

Even that final, degrading barbarism has done nothing to diminish the reverence and sheer awe in which the Ile De France is still held, both in her native land, and by the maritime community as a whole. For the Ile De France had not just panache; she had soul. She was the absolute epitome of finely styled, ocean going finesse and elegance. Of a truth, she was beloved, and in a way that few, more pretentious vessels ever were, or will be.

Those striking, Art Deco interiors marked her out as a true, ocean going game changer; a ship as bold and daring as she was beautiful and dramatic. And, of course, she was fun.

Abreast of her smoke stacks, on either side, giant electric letters used to spell out her name. And, even now, it is all to easy for the mind’s eye to see those same, brilliant letters blazing out across the Atlantic at sunset as the cocktail hour approaches.

At the same time, they were both her epitaph, and the endorsement of her own, immortal legend.

ILE DE FRANCE.

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.

THE LAST ATLANTIC LINERS- THE 1970’S

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By 1974, the end was indeed in sight

By the turn of the 1970’s, the Atlantic liner trade was on life support. With only four out of every hundred passengers still making the crossing by sea, the airlines upped the ante still further with the introduction of the vast, mass market Boeing 747, forever to be immortalised as the Jumbo Jet.

By that time, the SS United States had already been laid up, returned to the same Newport News shipyard where she had been built. On the northern route between Europe and New York, only the QE2 and the France remained in seasonal, spring through autumn service.

The two ships enjoyed a special sort of friendly rivalry. A gentleman’s agreement between Cunard and the French Line ensued that the two ships would always be crossing in opposite directions. When close to each other, the radio operators on the QE2 would salute the France by whistling the Marseillaise at the French flagship. Their French opposite number would respond with an apparently sterling rendition of God Save The Queen. 

But such sangfroid belied the dire straits that both ships were in. By 1971, year round Atlantic sailings had finally came to an end, when the venerable Holland America Line ceased winter crossings with the fabled Rotterdam. It closed it’s almost century old headquarters in Rotterdam itself, and upped sticks to relocate to Seattle, in an ultimately successful attempt to relaunch as a premium cruise product. Happily, it remains so to this day.

From Italy, the great white sisters, Michelangelo and Raffaello were also still making the crossing from Genoa to New York, but a series of strikes by staff on board, as well as among shore side people and tug boat crews, resulted in them often arriving and departing days off their intended schedules. And while they, too, were losing passenger numbers by the early seventies, it was this inherent unreliability that went a huge way to undoing those last great Italian liners.

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

The legendary Rotterdam closed out the HAL transatlantic service in 1971

But it was the soaring cost of fuel oil that was the real concern. The Arab oil producing countries, in the form of OPEC, effectively had one foot on the windpipe of western consumers. For the liner companies, it could not have looked worse.

By the fall of 1972, Cunard was actually considering taking the still new QE2 out of service for three months over the winter. There was a vague plan to anchor her off the Florida coast, and then using her as the world’s largest floating casino for that period. Thankfully, it never came to pass and, through thick and thin, this last great Cunarder sailed on.

But the France really was coming to the end of the line.

By 1974, she was costing the French Line- and, by extension, the French government- a million dollars a day for fuel alone. The great liner guzzled the stuff like cheap table wine at full speed. With the barrel price of crude oil soaring almost as high as a Pan Am Jumbo, what followed was pretty much inevitable.

Faced with the stark choice of keeping the France in service, or funding the joint Anglo French Concorde project, the French government inevitably plumped for the latter. In the summer of 1974, the Elysee Palace officially announced the end of the annual, twenty four million dollar operating subsidy for the France.

This was a death blow. The French Line had done what it could; lengthening Atlantic crossings from five to six days and- in a move that many French Line regulars saw as the ultimate portent of doom- the company actually began charging for table wine at lunch and dinner. All to no avail. To nobody’s surprise, the French Line announced that the liner would be withdrawn from service on October 25th, 1974, at the end of her current season.

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

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

The story of the doomed, desperate effort by her crew to keep the France in service has been told elsewhere on this blog. But by December of 1974, all such attempts had failed, and the France– by far the finest of all the post war Atlantic liners- was laid up at a backwater berth in Le Havre. Her fittings, fixtures and furnishings were covered in shrouds and, with only a skeleton crew on board to maintain essential systems, the great, proud France sagged into a five year long coma.

And, for the Italian Line, arrivederci loomed large, too. The Raffaello was first to go, laid up at Genoa in April, 1975. She was joined by the Michelangelo after her last scheduled crossing that same July. On board for that last crossing had been the widowed Wallis Simpson, the Duchess of Windsor.

Too big to work as cruise ships at that time, and handicapped with far too many small, inside cabins, the two ships were ultimately sold to the Shah of Iran, who had them moved to the port of Bandr Abbas to serve as twin accommodation ships for his military. Both ships were destroyed by air attack during the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88; a tragic end for such a fine, beautifully crafted pair of ocean liners.

The QE2 was alone.

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

QE2- for many years the last great presence on the Atlantic crossing

She sailed stubbornly back and forth between Southampton and New York, and she did pick up some of the residue of travellers left high and dry by the demise of the France. Each winter, she operated a spectacular, three month, round the world cruise. In between crossings, the QE2 would make cruises to such exotic locations as Bermuda, the Caribbean, the Canary islands, and the Mediterranean. And in this role, the inherent excellence of her original, dual purpose design- one part cruise ship, one part ocean liner- became apparent. Indeed, it became paramount to keeping her sailing successfully. That last great Cunarder, already well on the way to becoming a modern legend, seemed to lead a charmed life.

At the beginning of 1980, a Norwegian captain, Tobjorn Hauge, was seconded to the QE2 in a guest capacity for some three months. Hauge, a captain from Knut Kloster’s Norwegian Caribbean Line, was on board the liner to learn the pros and cons of steering such a massive ocean liner in and out of limited port spaces.

For Hauge had just been nominated as captain-designate of the newly wrought SS Norway. 

After five years of darkened silence, the former SS France was being slowly resurrected as the largest cruise ship that the world had ever seen. In the spring of 1980, the reborn Norway emerged from her steel and concrete cocoon to gasps of awed amazement. Clad in stunning royal blue and suffused in bow to stern Art Deco, the former French Line flagship was destined for a new life in the lucrative Caribbean cruise market.

But first, there was a nostalgic Atlantic crossing from Southampton to New York. The Norway was not quite fully ready; an army of contractors sailed with the ship, finishing work on a raft of cabins and ancillary services. Still, she had a respectable passenger load of around a thousand on board for what was, in fact, her first westbound crossing in six years.

Following a nostalgic fire boat welcome and three days of celebration, there was an emotional reunion with the QE2, as the two great ships passed each other on the Hudson. A huge mural of that meeting was on display in New York’s Grand Central Station for many years.

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.

AN AGONY OF COINCIDENCE; NORMANDIE, FRANCE AND QUEEN ELIZABETH

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Sometimes, history seems to repeat itself in the long, glamorous story of ocean travel, but not always in the best ways. For there are few things as littered with coincidence, or as laden with irony, as the destinies of successive generations of ocean liners.

Here I’m going to look at just one such link; a tenuous, yet all too true timeline that binds three of the greatest passenger ships ever built- Normandie, Queen Elizabeth, and the SS. France. Take from it what you will.

FEBRUARY 9 1942

The enormous French luxury liner, Normandie, catches fire at her Manhattan berth of Pier 88. The Normandie is in the last stages of being converted to a troop ship- the USS Lafayette. While the fire is ultimately contained, a catastrophic ingress of water applied from forty-three fire engines and numerous fireboats fails to drain, turns to ice, and then ultimately causes the Normandie to capsize. Raised some eighteen months later, the most brilliant and beautiful ocean liner ever built is found to be beyond economic repair. She is towed away and scrapped.

During her first six months in limbo, Normandie shared the waterfront with the only other thousand foot long liners in the world, the Cunard siblings, Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth. New York dockyard workers nickname them ‘The Monsters’ for the duration of their stay.

FEBRUARY 8 1962

The brand new SS. France arrives in Manhattan on her maiden voyage. She ties up at the same Pier 88 spot where, twenty years minus one day earlier, the Normandie had capsized. At her launch two years earlier, President De Gaulle declared ‘I have given you a new Normandie!’ to the 100,000 strong crowd.

The France had endured a stormy maiden crossing that delayed her by several hours, but she poured on speed to arrive on time. Was the French Line desperate to get her into New York- and docked at that self same Pier 88- and perhaps take attention away from a particularly ghastly anniversary?

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

The Grande Dame; the legendary, beloved SS. Norway

JANUARY 9 1972

Fires break out in six places aboard the Seawise University, the ex Queen Elizabeth, as she is in the final stages of fitting out as a floating university cum cruise ship in Hong Kong harbour. The gutted ship capsizes, and is declared a constructive total loss. It is exactly thirty years minus one month since the Normandie suffered an identical fate in Manhattan.

C.Y. Tung was, in effect, on the verge of creating what was actually the world’s first mega cruise ship, a full seven years before Knut Kloster would relaunch the laid up SS France as the SS Norway, the ship that changed cruising forever.

In her last years as a Cunard ship, that company had tried to convert the Queen Elizabeth for a partial cruising role by adding a large lido pool right aft. They had hoped to keep her in service at least until the mid seventies. On acquiring the France, Kloster did almost exactly the same thing for the resurrected Norway. 

Queen Elizabeth, like Normandie before her, was in the final stages of a massive conversion when she was engulfed. The France underwent an even bigger conversion into the Norway; one that prolonged her life by almost a quarter of a century, and made her a legend for the second time.

All coincidences of course, but ones that verge on both the exquisite and the agonising. Irony, elegance, tragedy and ignominy. The four nautical horsemen of the apocalypse?

TIMESLIP: THE MAIDEN CROSSING OF THE SS. FRANCE, FEBRUARY 1962

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

When the France was laid down in 1958 as the long term replacement for the ageing Liberte, more than 1.2 million passengers still crossed the Atlantic by sea each year, either on business or pleasure. But that same October, the first ever Pan Am jet airliner flew eastwards across the Atlantic in just six hours, and the apple cart was not so much upset, as reduced to matchwood and splinters.

By the time of her launch just two years later, those same jets had more than seventy per cent of the transatlantic trade, and those numbers were climbing as steadily as a Boeing 707 cleared for take off. So by the time that the France was finally ready for her first passengers at the beginning of 1962, a huge amount was riding on her, both figuratively and literally.

The France was the last true Atlantic liner, designed to make thirty four round trips a year between Europe and America, with  no thought whatsoever being given to ever using her as a cruise ship. She was every bit as much of an Atlantic thoroughbred as the Normandie before her and, to the French, she was intended to be every bit as much a national showpiece as that fabled thirties showstopper. Though her actual cost was astronomical- the American press was already referring to her as ‘an eighty million dollar gamble’- the French invested far more in her in terms of emotional currency.

But this maritime Joan Of Arc (a perhaps unfortunate comparison when considering how many French liners were actually lost to fire) was to turn out to be more of a gilded Canute, fighting valiantly to stem the unstoppable. All the same, she was almost ready by the dawn of 1962 and, prior to her maiden crossing to New York, the French Line decided to send her on a nine day, trial run of a cruise down to the Canary IslandsIt was an idea taken up again by Cunard, when they introduced the brand new QE2 into service in early 1969.

This trial voyage sailed from Le Havre on January 19th, 1962 and, while it was a good exercise in PR, it also served to highlight the numerous potential shortcomings of the France as a cruise ship. It was the equivalent of expecting a premier league centre forward to switch to rugby league, and perform at the same level. These shortcomings- mainly revolving around a lack of outdoor deck space and her glass enclosed swimming pools- would only be permanently addressed during her 1979-80 conversion into the Norway at Bremerhaven.

However, the cruise did serve to demonstrate the excellence of her machinery. The France was the second fastest ocean liner ever built but, with the jets thundering overhead at five hundred miles an hour, any attempt at a tilt for the speed record, held for the past ten years by the SS.United States, was quietly ruled out. The France was expected to excel on an entirely different level.

Finally, at 1400 on the afternoon of February 3rd, 1962, Commandant Georges Croisiele took the flag bedecked France clear of the dock at Le Havre, to begin her maiden crossing to New York. Among the capacity load of 1,958 passengers on board was Madame Yvonne De Gaulle, wife of the president. She was making the voyage in her official capacity as the Godmother of the ship. The young actress, Juliette Greco, was also on the roster.

February was hardly a typical time for a gala maiden voyage, and the Atlantic slammed the new liner with a series of savage, forty five foot waves that forced Croisile to reduce speed from thirty knots right down to six at the height of the gale. That said, the only casualties were a slightly dented anchor housing, one broken window in the first class library and, perhaps most distressingly, some eight bottles of premium scotch. The passengers responded with typical panache, by adapting the dance steps to the brand new ‘twist’ craze to suit the weather conditions and, despite this vicious baptism of fire, France and her surviving, happily ample supply of scotch were able to make up the lost time. She duly arrived off Quarantine in New York on schedule on February 8th, 1962.

The welcome was as warm as the day itself was bitterly cold. A quartet of fire boats arced vast, icy plumes of water into the air all around the France as the last great French liner swept proudly towards her berth; this was the exact same pier where her predecessor, Normandie, had burned and sank some twenty years minus one day before. The arrival date can hardly have been a coincidence.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

Prophetic, indeed. The France tied up at Pier 88, Manhattan, at the same spot where the Normandie burned and sank.

A flotilla of tugs and small pleasure craft rode shotgun around the new ship as she proceeded in state past the Battery. Helicopters buzzed her like random, curious dragonflies, filming the event for posterity. Crowds shivered along the freezing banks of the Hudson and banners snapped in the icy breeze as the soaring flank of the France kissed the edge of Pier 88 for the first time. Despite the adverse conditions encountered on the crossing, the France had, indeed, performed flawlessly.

The subsequent press conference held on board was a curious mixture of euphoria and tempered wisdom. The owners stated that ‘the captain is satisfied with his ship- and the ship is satisfied with her captain.’ They then went on to enshrine her as ‘the last refuge of the good life.’

At the same time, the multi millionaire Charles Cloredisembarking from the France, took occasion to deny to the assembled press that he was planning to buy the Cunard Line.

The press were in general, enchanted and awed by the stunning new ship, but elements of it did reiterate the ‘eighty million dollar gamble’ epithet in their subsequent coverage. They also questioned the fact that the huge beam of the liner made her too large to transit the Panama Canal

That drew a classic, Machiavellian retort from no less than General De Gaulle himself, back in France. He said flatly that ‘the ship is not too big; the problem is that the canal is too small.’ In his grandiosity, Monsieur Le President had also conveniently forgotten (or ignored) the fact that the dimensions of the Panama Canal had actually been decided by another determined Frenchman, Ferdinand De Lesseps.

HOLLAND AMERICA LINE- STILL SUBLIME

Holland America's current Westerdam

Holland America’s current Westerdam

With a history that dates back to its first ever transatlantic sailing in 1873, the Holland America Line can safely lay claim to a place among the aristocracy of ocean travel. Now headquartered in Seattle and a principal player in the Carnival portfolio, the venerable line made the transition from crossing to cruising at the dawn of the 1970’s.

HAL traditionally never built the vast, imposing national flagships that typified their Cunard and French Line rivals, instead preferring to build solid, mid size vessels with excellent sea keeping qualities; a vital prerequisite on the often stormy passage between Rotterdam and New York. All the same, the line soon acquired a reputation for running smart, well served vessels on a human scale, factors which would make the line the first choice of many travellers over the years.

It became an axiom of transatlantic lore that a single speck of dirt on a Holland America ship would be enough to make a chief purser commit suicide. Legendary liners such as the graceful, triple stacked Statendam and, more than any other, the fabulous Nieuw Amsterdam of 1938 would become every bit as iconic as their larger fellow travellers. Hollywood stars such as Spencer Tracey were often prepared to alter their travel plans, just for the opportunity of sailing on the Nieuw Amsterdam, such was her star power on the post war Atlantic crossing.

But the canny Dutch had already foreseen the increasing dominance of the jet airliner when they introduced a new national flagship, the Rotterdam of 1959. Staunch and graceful, and with a pair of parallel twin funnels mounted aft, the new ship was designed for dual purpose, Atlantic crossings and warm weather cruising. Incredibly, this venerable and much adored legend would sail on until the year 2000; a happy ending that nobody could have foreseen in the cloudy skies of 1959.

Inevitably, dwindling numbers forced the cancellation of all Atlantic crossings at the end of 1971, a new emphasis on full time cruising, and a relocation of headquarters to Seattle. Long before it’s acquisition by Carnival in 1997, the line had become one of the major players in Alaska cruises and tours during the summer months.

Today, bolstered incalculably by Carnival’s financial clout and business expertise, the line operates some of the best and most elegant ships in the upper premium market. Though the ships of today are much bigger than the Atlantic and Bermuda stalwarts of the ‘old’ HAL, devotees of the line would instantly recognise the fresh cut flowers, signature art collections and deft, efficient Indonesian staff members that have defined the Holland America brand for over a century now.

The 1959 built Rotterdam, still afloat today as a hotel ship in her namesake port

The 1959 built Rotterdam, still afloat today as a hotel ship in her namesake port

If HAL stands for anything, it is tradition and continuity. And while these factors have been key to holding and retaining a quite extraordinary level of loyalty from regular passengers, they have also been perceived as stumbling blocks in any attempt to attract newer, younger passengers to its storied fleet.

It is a conundrum, and it has to be said that the modern HAL fleet is every bit as capacious, diverse and amenity laden as its rivals. Indeed, HAL offers some of the biggest standard cabins afloat, and a level of cuisine and service well above that offered by the mainstream lines. The lack of alternative dining venues in comparison to other lines merely points up just how excellent and finely styled the on board options already are.

Holland America is changing slowly by degrees to accommodate the new cruising demographic. Like a graceful Dutch galleon tacking slowly round to take advantage of fresher breezes, it will be a case of slow and steady does it.

The Holland America Line is still a timeless, tremendous experience even now. The ships remain as immaculate and highly styled as ever; each one is a sumptuous, floating art gallery in its own rightFor a classy, utterly distinctive big ship travel experience that combines the best of old world glamour with all the comfort and modern conveniences anyone could ever want, you would be very hard pressed to do much better.