CUNARD TO OFFER COMMEMORATIVE LUSITANIA VOYAGE IN 2015

The Lusitania

The Lusitania

In an apt and respectful nod to the most tragic incident in its commercial history, Cunard will offer a seven night, commemorative voyage to mark the centenary of the sinking of the Lusitania back on May 7th, 1915.

The giant 92,000 ton Queen Victoria will offer a seven night round trip from Southampton, calling at St. Peter Port (Guernsey), Le Havre, Dublin and, most pointedly, Cobh on May 7th itself. There will be a series of commemorative services on board, as well as a special, temporary display of Lusitania artifacts curated by renowned maritime author, Eric Sauder. The voyage will also mark the launch of a new book on Lusitania by Eric Sauder, who has himself been down to the mangled wreckage of the former Cunard speed queen, just off the coast of Southern Ireland.

Cobh is sure to be an emotional lightning rod for all on board; the Lusitania went down just ten miles off the coast, on a brilliantly sunny day, after being hit by a single torpedo fired by the U20, then under the command of Kapitanleutenant Walter Schweiger. The giant, 31,000 ton liner capsized and went down in eighteen minutes, taking 1,201 passengers and crew with her.

The desperate, improvised rescue effort was mounted from Cobh. A total of 764 survivors were brought to safety here in the aftermath of the sinking. Some 124 victims were buried in a series of heartbreaking interments in the local Clonmel cemetery, where they remain to this day. The dead were still being washed ashore on the beaches here a full three weeks later.

Prior to the outbreak of the war, the Lusitania and her twin sister, the Mauretania, had been the unchallenged speed queens on the Atlantic crossing. On her debut in September 1907, the Lusitania- then the largest and most opulent vessel afloat- had retaken the speed record, held for ten consecutive years by a succession of German liners. With their sharp, graceful lines, quartet of tall, raked smokestacks and sumptuous interiors, the two sisters played ping pong with the Blue Ribband for a full seven years. Sailing between Liverpool and New York, the two sisters continued to beat each other now and again by a fraction of a knot.

The story of the last voyage of the Lusitania has been replayed often, and will no doubt be dragged up for air again next year by a whole conga line of armchair theorists. The bare facts are that the liner sailed from New York on May 1st, 1915, bound once more for Liverpool,  after German warnings had appeared in the press. These advised prospective passengers not to travel on ships said to be illegally carrying munitions to aid the British war effort on the Western Front. Based on this belief, Schweiger slammed his torpedo into the starboard side of the Lusitania on the early afternoon of May 7th, 1915, and sank the ship.

This still buoyant controversy in  no way negates the impact of the tragic deaths of 1,201 people, passengers and crew alike. Nor does it tarnish the tremendous achievement and seven years of largely forgotten success that the Lusitania still represents. One hundred years after her ghastly demise off the Old Head of Kinsale, it is entirely right and fitting that the maritime community in general- and Cunard in particular- pays due respect to this lost, enduring legend.

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.

MUTINY ON THE FRANCE; DOLLARS, CRUDE OIL AND HARD TIMES….

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

The happy return: Norway at Southampton in May of 1980

As the 1970’s dawned, passenger numbers continued to plummet. By that year, only four in every hundred travellers were still crossing the Atlantic by sea. The jets were unbeatable.

Even the France had started to suffer so, for the winter season, the French Line had started sending her on cruises. These were mainly to the Caribbean, but there was also a couple of special cruises down to Rio for the Carnival. Each spring, she resumed her place on the five day transatlantic shuttle, sailing between Le Havre, Southampton, and New York.

The France was hugely successful as a cruise ship; a role she had never been designed for or envisaged in. The ship had very little usable outdoor sunbathing space, and both of her swimming pools were covered.

These major shortcomings would be addressed during her conversion into the Norway but, for now, the France was a surprising success in the off season cruising scene.

Still, it was on the North Atlantic that she really came into her own. And, even as the noose tightened, she remained a matchless, elegant ambassador for the French way of life; a magnificent, final burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering airlines.

The French Line always asserted that you were ‘in France itself’ the moment that you crossed her gangway. Announcements on board were only ever made in French, even though the bulk of her passengers were American. Onion soup was always available for breakfast and, as on all her ancestors, table wine aboard the France was always free.

In short, the liner clung to her true sense of national identity. Her crew of 1200 was entirely French, including the scarlet jacketed lift boys that whisked madame or monsieur to whichever deck they desired. God forbid that a passenger on the France should actually have to push their own lift buttons.

But the ship was sailing on a rising tide of red accountant’s ink. Only a very generous operating subsidy from the French government kept her sailing at all. But, as the old political guard changed back in Paris, some very different thinking began to emerge.

The France made two stunning world cruises in 1973 and 1974, arriving in such unfamiliar locations as Sydney, Singapore and Cape Town. On each cruise, a special supply ship loaded with fresh, clean, high quality linen had to be sent to meet the France at the half way mark; the table cloths, bed sheets and napkins on board were of such a standard, that no foreign workers or machinery could be entrusted to clean them. So the French shipped replacement sets halfway around the planet.

Both cruises were magnificent, headline making epics, but even then, events in the middle east were conspiring to deal a death blow to this floating fairy tale.

In 1973, OPEC increased the price of crude oil sixfold. The France, which guzzled the stuff like so much cheap table wine, could no longer be immune. On five day crossings, she was burning the equivalent of a million dollars worth a day of crude oil. Crossings were lengthened to six days to conserve fuel and- in a move that really shocked regular French Line passengers to the core- the company started charging for table wine. Many said then that they knew that the end was near.

The government was faced with a stark choice; either to continue funding the joint Anglo-French Concorde project, or keeping the France in service. Doing both was unrealistic. In 1974, it announced the end of the annual, $24 million operating subsidy for the France. What followed was inevitable.

The French Line announced that the SS. France would be withdrawn from service after her October 25th crossing, and put up for sale. One hundred and ten years of unparalleled French excellence on the Atlantic was thus guillotined with the stroke of a bureaucrat’s pen. But all parties concerned reckoned without the liner’s crew.

While many of the deck and engine room staff had the option of transferring to cargo ships and freighters, the hundreds of stewards, cabin attendants and lift boys were left with nowhere to go. Naturally unwilling to see their livelihoods torpedoed thus, they decided to act.

On the evening of September 10th, 1974, the France was approaching her home port of Le Havre, at the end of an eastbound transatlantic crossing. Many of the 1,266 passengers were at dinner. The orchestra was playing in the Restaurant Chambord when, almost apologetically, a steward interrupted them to inform the passengers that the ship had  been taken over by the crew. She would be anchored right across the entrance to the port until further notice. With that, the stunned passengers were served their coffee and, in the best traditions of another moment of desperate shipboard history, the orchestra resumed playing!

On the bridge, Captain Christian Pettre had been confronted by a group of men led by Maurice Roulin, a bedroom steward and former wartime commando. Roulin informed Pettre- nicknamed ‘The Pasha’- that the crew were taking over the ship. Pettre asked him if he was mad, but remained impassive thereafter. No doubt he sympathised with his men and their predicament.

The story made headlines around the world the next day. The France was anchored across the entrance to Le Havre; her huge bulk meant that no other ship could either enter or leave the port. The passengers and their luggage were taken off the next day by ferry. Then both sides settled down to what amounted to a classic Mexican stand off.

The government blustered that they had expected anything but this; the France taken over by her own crew, as if she was some common or garden factory. The crew, in no mood to compromise, proceeded to blow its own slim chances out of the water by demanding the retention of the France in service, plus a whopping great thirty five per cent pay increase.

In the event, it was the strikers- the French were careful not to use the word ‘mutineers’- that blinked first. As the autumn weather worsened, the France was obliged to move to Cherbourg, thus ending the blockade. Supplies of certain foodstuffs began to run out on board. The government simply sat back, and waited.

Finally, in October, the crew voted overwhelmingly in a ballot to bring the France back into port. After a final, touching mass in the ship’s chapel, she arrived back in Le Havre on October 9th. And though the crew continued to picket the ship until December, the SS. France was officially stricken from service that same month.

That should have been that. The liner was taken to a quiet backwater called the Quai D’Oubli- literally the ‘pier of the forgotten’- and laid up. Her furnishings were covered over and, with only a skeleton crew on board, a deathly silence fell over the great, grand France.

It hung over her like poisonous fog for five long, lonely years, As Saigon fell and Britain entered the Common Market, the France lingered in silent despair; lovingly maintained, yet seemingly doomed to the scrapyard. Punk rock came, Elvis left the building, and the darkened ship slipped further from the public memory.

A scheme to sell her as a floating casino fell through, as did a bid from the Chinese government to use her as an accommodation ship, But that vast hull contained thousands of tons of premium grade steel, and it began to receive some very unwelcome attention in certain quarters. Around the world, scrap yard owners flexed their cheque books as they began quietly sharpening their knives.

But these gentlemen were to be disappointed, for the last great French liner was not destined to die after all…..

In early 1979, Knut Kloster, the brilliant pioneer behind Norwegian Caribbean Lines, was desperate to acquire fresh tonnage to bolster his quartet of sold out Caribbean cruise ships. Unwilling to wait years for a new build, he embarked on a radical, far reaching course of action. He decided to convert an already existing ship up to his new cruising standards.

Kloster went for the big top, and decided to buy a laid up Atlantic liner for the job. The premise seemed unbelievable. The experts opined that all four available candidates were far too big for the job. But Kloster pressed ahead.

He first looked at the Italian twins, Michelangelo and Raffaello, and then at the lingering SS. United States.  And then, finally, he came to the SS. France, by a way the biggest of the bunch.

By that time, the France was enduring her fifth, consecutive soul destroying year in limbo. But she was in immaculate condition, lovingly maintained and, as the Norwegians were quick to discover, obviously built to last for decades. The prime candidate. But there was more to it than just that.

Looking up at the still graceful, flaring bow, Kloster said of France: ‘I looked at her, and she smiled at me. I knew then that I wanted to keep her smiling for another twenty years….’

Kloster bought the France for $18 million and, in August of 1979, she was renamed the SS. Norway in a simple ceremony in Le Havre. On the 22nd of that month, four tugs towed the former pride of the French Line out of her home port towards Bremerhaven, Germany, and the onset of the biggest conversion project in maritime history.

The atmosphere was tense. The local French unions, flailing desperately around, had threatened to block the seaward channel in a vain attempt to prevent her departure. On the bridge, captain designate Torbjorn Hauge had been assigned a pair of armed guards.

It was all a lot of fuss over nothing. Two days later, the Norway entered the Lloyd Werft dry dock at Bremerhaven, and a miraculous, eight month transformation began to unfold. A rebirth without an equal…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But not enough time….

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

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

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

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

Pace and grace; the Queen Mary

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

The bridge of the Queen Mary as it appears today

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

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

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

CITY BREAKS CRUISES- LOTS TO LOVE

ImageOne massive area of growth in the last few years has been in the number of short city break cruises that operate primarily from south coast ports such as Southampton and Dover. Hardly surprising, given the huge benefits than can accrue to both company and passenger. Here’s the lowdown on why.

Cruise lines like operating these schedules because they are low on fuel costs, and high on potential shore excursions sales. This is especially so when a ship might dock in, say, Zeebrugge; most people will buy a shore excursion to Bruges, rather than simply doing the short train ride on their own. Many people prefer the convenience of having everything pre packaged, and the cruise lines are quite happy to comply.

ImageItineraries can range from between two and five days, and include everything from the smaller, more homely styled ships of Fred. Olsen and Cruise and Maritime, to the gargantuan Cunard Flagship, Queen Mary 2. Once solely the preserve of summer holiday weekends, the odds are now that you can find just such a festive jaunt at any time of the year.

The big ships of P&O and Cunard are ideal if you consider the ship to be the destination, and all you really need is some shopping time ashore, while enjoying some serious spa pampering time for the rest of the voyage. This alone is enough for many people, and it is also an ideal way to get the feel of a ship if you’re considering a longer break. Plus, you can do it without breaking the bank.

The downside of these big ships is, as always, the places where they cannot go. Their size usually limits them to big industrial ports, such as Le Havre, Zeebrugge and the likes. Cunard, for instance, use Rotterdam as an entry port for visitors to Amsterdam. And while the two cities are, admittedly, only an hour apart, that’s two hours of your time gone on what  is obviously a trip short on time.

The smaller ships can slip neatly into the real gems such as Honfleur, a pastel pretty fishing port that is worth a day of anybody’s life. So, too, Is Antwerp, a glorious Gothic theme park devoted solely to Belgium’s ‘Holy Trinity’ of waffles, chocolate and beer. Some of the smaller ships stay overnight in one of these ports, giving you the opportunity to dine and drink ashore for the evening.

Regardless of its size, your ship offers you the safety, security and comfort of a very good hotel, with an inclusivity and at a price point that no land based hotel could possibly even begin to approach. Whoever you choose to sail with, the value is obvious.

There is one port of call that I would caution you about: Guernsey. And that is not because there is anything wrong with the place- it’s chocolate box pretty. It’s all about access. Or rather, lack of it.

Guernsey sits off the coast of France, and has no docking facilities for even the smallest ships. All landings are by tender boat from your ship.

ImageThe problem is that if the English Channel is in the least bit stroppy, then no sensible captain is going to put tenders in the water. Yes, the means you’re not going ashore, owing to adverse weather. And in the English Channel, ‘adverse’ is usually the rule rather than the exception. On my six cruises thus far slated to call at Guernsey, I have managed to get ashore twice. And all of these were in mid summer.

Should this be a deal breaker? That’s down to you, and how much you really wanted to see what is truthfully a very pretty little island.

That said, these great little escapes are mushrooming in popularity, and I expect the trend to continue. Fred. Olsen in particular now run some nice December ‘Christmas Market’ mini cruises that include an overnight stay in fabled, medieval Rouen. There can be few more enchanting locations to spend a few hours wandering the cobbled streets as you watch the snow fall.

Especially so when you remember that your floating hotel is not far away, it will be warm and welcoming and- best of all- someone will always have the kettle on. Happy wanderings!

REMEMBERING CANBERRA- SOME PERSONAL RECOLLECTIONS

ImageI doubt that few cruise ships are as loved or mourned as the late, great SS. Canberra. She had a following that verged from loyal to fanatical and, indeed, she still does. Her game changing role in the Falklands War earned her the nickname of the ‘Great White Whale’, What follows are just a handful of recollections from sailing aboard her.

I did two cruises aboard the Canberra; the first was a seven night run down to Madeira and Vigo in the summer of 1985. Her paintwork was an absolute disgrace at the time. It looked as if she had just come back from the Falklands. To call her exterior ‘shabby’ is by no means an understatement.

The second trip was ten years later; a short, three day cruise over to Le Havre and Cherbourg in an unfeasible, balmy October 1995. This time, the proud old girl was immaculate; bridal white from stem to stern, and draped in welcoming signal flags. She was definitely quite a sight.

I remember the marble staircase that wound up to the Crow’s Nest Bar. On our first cruise, the Canberra rolled and pitched her way through Biscay like a demented dive bomber for hours on end. Just walking up that damned staircase could make people seasick in slow motion. In fact, it did. But the views out over from that fabulous room were incredible.

I remember watching the sun set in the same waters on our way back. Biscay was as still as a millpond that time. Falling into what looked like a sea of burning straw, the setting sun threw her two staunch, graceful funnels into sharp relief; they flared up like twin ramparts, proud and inviolate against the summer sky. It remains one of my most cherished shipboard memories to this day.

She was almost relentlessly British in temperament, much more so than the rival, highly American accented Queen Elizabeth 2. Many P&O loyalists would not have dreamed of touching the legendary Cunarder, and said so vociferously. On Canberra, you could always get a decent cup of tea, and the currency was always sterling, rather than dollars. For decades, those loyalists were the fuel that kept the ship running.

The Canberra had inside, four berth cabins down on G Deck without private facilities. Showers were down the hall. You could buy individual shared berths in those cabins at incredibly cheap rates. Most people today would shudder at the notion of such accommodation. It was, in fact, this lack of private in cabin facilities that ultimately doomed her. New SOLAS 1997 statutes made it seemingly uneconomical to update her. But back in the day, no-one seemed to mind the showers being just ‘down the hall’.

And the deck space seemed vast to me. There was never a problem with finding somewhere to lay down. Up forward, the steel promenade deck was coated in green paint, and it had the most exquisite upward sheer. It merely accentuated the incredibly fine lines of one of the most beautiful ships ever to cut salt water.

Of course, sometimes she didn’t ‘cut’ so much as hack her way through the sea. In bad weather, the Canberra had a level of stability roughly comparable to that of the late Colonel Gaddafi. if ever a ship could have rolled the milk out of your morning cuppa, it was surely her.

Yet anyone with even a shred of human empathy would forgive her these little foibles. First and foremost, the Canberra was a lady and, like many ladies, she was fickle, quirky, and prone to sudden mood swings. To be honest, it was a huge part of her charm. I smile thinking about it even now.

And what emotions she aroused! The Southampton send offs were amazing affairs, with a quayside band thumping gamely away at everything from ‘Rule Britannia’ to ‘Copacabana’ as the side of the ship vanished beneath a technicolor torrent of paper streamers. The whole vast, soaring flank of the Canberra seemed to be wreathed in a rainbow. There’s no doubt that the people of Southampton absolutely adored her.

Those are just a few of my memories; an affectionate take on a ship that inspired great affection in all who were lucky enough to know her. I’ll always remember those two graceful funnels, proud against the falling sun, until the day I die. And for that, I will always be grateful,

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.

THE HAPPY RETURN- SS.NORWAY IN LE HAVRE, SEPTEMBER 1997

The crowds were unbelievable. They surged forward in a human tidal wave that blackened every practical vantage point along the Le Havre waterfront. They filled the beaches and swamped the nearby streets. Hundreds poured out onto the balconies of small houses that lined the approaches to the old port.

Traffic snarled up, hopelessly inert in the face of this immense outpouring. Factories, shops and offices emptied at warp speed as their occupants joined in this communal march to the sea. Old women still clutching shopping baskets. Young families with pushchairs and grizzled old dockyard hands, limping unsteadily. Many exhibited traces of the warm trickle of tears. But they were tears of joy.

Out on the river, an armada of small boats dotted in and out of the fret. Bright red and green fishing trawlers and fussy little excursion boats, seemingly full to bursting.Yachts, tugs and even wave skimming zodiacs that thumped across the rolling swell. All of them dressed in brightly coloured bunting that hung limp in the damp, early morning breeze.

And suddenly she was there, in their midst…

A brusque, no nonsense fire boat nosed though the murk, throwing shimmering, silvery grey plumes of water on all sides in a series of graceful arcs. And then, through the rainbow prism of fire boat spray, two enormous, winged funnels ghosted out of the gloom to stand out like sentinels against the Le Havre skyline. The deep, gut shaking boom of her siren roared out in salute, seeming to shake the very buildings with its power and intensity. And from crowded shore and curious, bobbing flotilla alike, one enormous, ragged cheer rent the grey sky like a thunderclap on a day nobody would ever forget.

The Norway had come home.

For twelve memorable years, the Norway ex-France had been a constant in the life of the people of Le Havre. The huge, sumptuous ocean liner was a world class symbol of French seagoing excellence and style. World famous and wonderfully over the top, she was a final, magnificent burst of bravado in the face of the all conquering jets, She stood for the very best in exalted, luxury travel. Not for nothing did her owners call her ‘the last refuge of the good life’.

But it went way beyond even that for the Havrois. The ship provided a huge amount of local work for dockers, railwaymen, victuallers, taxi drivers and countless others. The local economy benefited hugely from the spending power of the crew. The France dominated the town in far more ways than one.

Her loss verged on the heartbreaking. After five years of soul destroying limbo, the pride of France was towed out of Le Havre to begin her miraculous transformation into the show stopping Norway. The locals were far from happy.

Her new Norwegian captain, Torbjorn Hauge, was provided with bodyguards on the bridge as she was towed down stream, presumably forever. Hundreds watched her disappear in stunned, sullen silence. The sense of loss and humiliation for the locals was almost apocalyptic as a huge part of their lives and history was swallowed up in the fog.

But now, she had come home. The prodigal child- loved and mourned, but always proud and never forgotten- was once more threading her way through those old, familiar waters. Any residual enmity in French hearts was soon overwhelmed by a tidal wave of affection, nostalgia and sheer awe as the homecoming queen made fast to her old pier, and the crowds surged forward just to be near her again.

I know all this because I was there, standing on the upper deck of the Norway as we swept past the breakwater and into the port. All of us on deck were stunned by the warmth and extent of our welcome, And yet far more was to come. There was a lump in my throat big enough to play football with. And what I thought was simply condensation on my face was the salt of my own tears. On that day, the seemingly impossible had truly come to pass.

Ashore, I talked to a young man who had travelled five hundred miles to be here. He told me that, as a child, his father had brought him here to see the France sail in and out quite often in the seventies. Now he held up his own son in the shadow of those graceful, flaring stacks. The child’s eyes were as wide as saucers.

Even for those of us who knew the history of the France/Norway, it was something of a revelation to see just how much the French still obviously adored the ship. A gendarme on duty said that they estimated the crowd at well over a hundred thousand people. They surged and gazed at her in awe as a searing summer sun smote the gloom and smiled on her towering upperworks.

A band played for most of the day under her shadow; some spectators literally fainted in the heat as they stood there, and had to be rescued by the French Red Cross. That night, old French Line black and white movie reels featuring Ile De France, Normandie, Liberte and, of course, France herself were shown on a giant, implausibly pink blow-up movie screen, with the illuminated ship as a stunning backdrop. Even at three in the morning, there were still hundreds just sitting there.

Our departure the next evening was pure theatre. Thousands thronged the quayside at ten in the evening as Norway shrugged off her shackles to glide effortlessly into mid stream. Astern of her, fleet mate Norwegian Crown was also undocking.

In a gesture of pure homage, the Crown blew her whistle in salute to the Norway like a courtier bowing to a queen, and then held respectfully back to let the Norway make her grand exit. From on shore, hundreds of torches lit the warm night air. Car headlights blinked and horns beeped as the great liner stood on into the stream.

On board, the sounds of a big band flooded the lido deck as the champagne came out in waves. And then, as Norway began to move forward, the night sky was rent by the most staggering pyrotechnic display I have ever seen.

From the black rolling hills right down to the breakwaters extending out into the harbour, the night sky erupted into a sizzling, spectacular, technicolor palette on an epic scale. For a full thirty minutes it rolled on and on, a thrilling, exhilarating torrent of light, colour and muffled booms, interspersed with the slowly fading cheers and ‘bon voyages’ of the crowds on shore. And, like the graceful, ageing diva that she was, the Norway acknowledged the adulation of her besotted fans with a series of loud, imperious booms on her whistle that made the very soul shiver with delight. And then we were off, into the pages of history and legend.

“I know I just saw all that, but I still don’t believe it…” The guy standing next to me fondled his champagne glass without really seeing it. His eyes were wide, and wet with tears. There were a lot of those about that night. The adrenaline out on those open decks was flowing like tap water.

We know the rest. It is all too sad and familiar. But nothing will ever rend, rape or rip apart the memories of that incredible time and place, when the homecoming queen and her cargo of daydream believers went home, mended fences, and made new friends. Only something truly epic, monumental and legendary could pull off such a stunning coup. But Norway did it. I know. Because I was there.