TAKING A CRUISE FROM TILBURY? WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW

Marco Polo is Tilbury's 'year round' cruise ship

Marco Polo is Tilbury’s ‘year round’ cruise ship

In terms of actual cruise business, Tilbury certainly comes well down the listings from both Southampton and Dover, the unchallenged ‘big boys’ of the UK cruising market. Yet, slowly but steadily, the Essex port is gaining it’s own, distinctive niche as a place of embarkation.

And it is not as if the place lacks maritime history. It was at Tilbury that Elizabeth I made her magnificent, inspiring speech- one of the greatest orations in history- even as the Spanish Armada loomed in the English Channel.

The port has immediate, convenient access to central London, which we’ll look at shortly. That access made Tilbury a natural port of embarkation for the post war, P&O liners heading out to the Far East and Australia, with their huddled masses of ‘Ten Pound Poms’ looking for a new life down under.

And it was also Tilbury that saw the first, post war shipload of Caribbean emigrants arrive in the UK, disembarking from the Empire Windrush. It was a seminal step in making the capital the vast, amazingly multi- cultural environment that it is today.

The advent of cruising largely left the port behind, but in recent years that trend has been reversed. Part of the reason is, as stated above, the relative proximity to the capital. Leaving Fenchurch Street Station near Tower Hill, one of the many regular trains will deposit you smartly into Tilbury Town in around forty minutes.

From here, a taxi- they are lined up outside the station- will take you to the cruise terminal in just five minutes. It really is that easy.

Alternately, there is a dedicated National Express coach service that leaves London Victoria to connect directly with each sailing. If you are likely to be struggling with luggage, this is more likely to be an easier, more convenient option, though slightly longer a journey at around an hour each way.

So, who sails from Tilbury these days?

From the Tower to Tilbury is just forty minutes.....

From the Tower to Tilbury is just forty minutes…..

The only year round sailings are made by Cruise and Maritime Voyages. The intimate, classically styled Marco Polo operates from the Essex port on a year round basis, offering everything from overnight cruises to a marathon, forty- two day Amazon odyssey.

Next year, she will be joined for a series of first ever sailings by the veteran Azores, which will also be sailing from the port over the summer.

Some summer and autumn sailings are also being offered by Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines, with the ever popular Black Watch.

With its smaller, more intimate set up and ease of access from London, Tilbury has a lot going for it as an embarkation port. The larger ships are unable to come this far upstream, and that helps to keep the scale more human, less hassled. On embarkation day, that can count for quite a lot.

I’ll be keeping an eye on any future developments in Tilbury, passenger wise.

As always, stay tuned.

OVERNIGHT CRUISE SHIP SAMPLERS; FRED. OLSEN ON THE THAMES

Fred. Olsen's Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

Fred. Olsen’s Black Watch in the Kiel Canal

If you’re looking for a cheap hotel in London for Christmas shopping, or fancy sampling life aboard a luxury cruise ship without breaking the bank- or, indeed, risking the winter storms in northern Europe- then Fred. Olsen Cruise Lines has come up with something you might be interested in.

The popular, classically styled Black Watch will be moored on the Thames, at Tilbury, for three nights from December 15th through 17th, in between a pair of short cruises she will be making to the continental Christmas markets. The 28,000 ton ship will be offering occupancy across a range of inside, outside and balcony cabins- not to mention suites- at a price that no London hotel could hope to match. And with the prices also inclusive of a four course, evening dinner, as well as a cooked or continental breakfast, the value is obvious.

Prices begin at £89 per person for a standard inside, rising to £119 per person for a suite. Single fares begin at £109 for an inside, and an astonishing £159 for a suite. A full entertainment programme will run during these overnight stays, including live entertainment, a disco, and a casino. It is also worth noting how cheap the drinks prices are when compared to any mainland London hotel.

The one disadvantage for some is that they may feel that Tilbury is too far from central London. Trains run regularly from Tilbury into London, however; ideal for daytime shopping followed by night time relaxation aboard the classically styled, elegant Black Watch.

In addition, all of the leisure facilities on board, including the gym, pools, and hot tubs, will be open for those brave enough to endure the outdoor December temperatures.

Fred. Olsen is not the first company to offer such a programme. Rival cruise line, Cruise And Maritime, has been doing something similar with their equally classic style Marco Polo for a few years now, also berthed at Tilbury.

These overnight stays will obviously appeal as venues for Christmas parties for local companies, being very cost effective in themselves in terms of both venue and accommodation. And you can also combine an overnight stay on board the Black Watch with a short, two night foray over to the continent if the mood so takes you.

This is a first toe in the water, so to speak, for the venerable Norwegian operator. It will be interesting to see how the numbers stack up in relation to the already established and very popular Marco Polo. Either way, this is  a reasonably priced excuse- if one is needed- for a sweet little pre- Christmas treat.

Nice.

CHOOSING THE COACH- ROAD TRAVEL IN THE UK BY NATIONAL EXPRESS

London is the premier destination for coach companies like National Express

London is the premier destination for coach companies like National Express

Long distance public travel options in the UK usually come down to a choice between rail or coach travel. While rail travel in the UK is generally faster, the extortionate fares and massively disjointed network across the country do little to inspire either confidence or customer loyalty. And across the board fare increases of five per cent, just announced, certainly do not help sugar the pill.

So, what about coach travel? Exactly how does it stack up as an alternative to rail, if indeed it does at all? Here’s a few insights into the pros and cons of using a long distance coach in Great Britain.

Most long haul coaches in the UK are run by National Express.

Firstly, the great bulk of the coaches used on the long haul runs between Scotland and London are single deckers, with pairs of forward facing seats arranged down both sides.  Each comes with a seat belt, which has to be worn for the duration of the journey. The seat in front of you has a small mesh net for holding magazines, etc. There is air conditioning, an individual reading light, and a nominal amount of recline for each seat.

The seats are actually pretty comfortable, with a decent amount of leg room (disclaimer: I’m only five foot six in height). There is a rack above your head, but this is so thin as to be totally impracticable for any hand luggage. And that’s pretty much it.

The days of on board hostesses, selling sandwiches sand hot drinks in styro foam cups are long gone. So, too, are the old overhead TV monitors that used to break down with depressing predictability. In their place is free wi fi on most coaches, and a half hour stop at some ghastly, hideously over priced service station where the spirit of Dick Turpin strides proudly through a torrent of hideously antiseptic tat that masquerades as travel necessities. Every single one of them should be flattened as a service to humanity.

And it also takes longer to reach anywhere by coach these days- around seven hours to reach London from the north east of England. That’s a long time to be stuck in one place, with next to nothing but motorway to look at for hours on end.

There is a toilet, but using it as the coach shudders and vibrates is an adventure in and of itself. But there are plus sides to using these services as well.

For a start, your luggage is stowed safely in the cavernous belly of the coach. No lugging your belongings along the length of an often packed railway carriage here. And, price wise, the coaches are hugely competitive with rail.

If you’re flying from an airport such as Heathrow or Gatwick, coach services go almost right to the front door. This makes it a lot easier for commuters than struggling on and off a succession of long distance trains and/or packed underground carriages.

Nor is a coach in general any less comfortable than a train. The real weakness of coach travel is lack of any decent on board catering options, and, inevitably, sheer boredom. Additionally, you can now buy National Express coach tickets from the Post Office. Like other forms of travel, tickets are cheaper if bought in advance. And , although still relatively cheap, fares have crept steadily up over the years.

Drivers vary widely in terms of customer interaction. Some are gregarious and affable. others are obvious graduates of the Kim Jong Il school of charm.

So, there you go. Hopefully there is some food for thought in here, Wherever you decide to go- happy travelling!

LONDON PANORAMA- A WALKING TOUR OF SOME CITY HIGHLIGHTS

The Houses Of Parliament at daybreak

The Houses Of Parliament at daybreak

Entrance to Lambeth Palace
Entrance to Lambeth Palace

Entrance to the Imperial War Museum

Entrance to the Imperial War Museum

Fifteen inch naval guns on display at the museum entrance

Fifteen inch naval guns on display at the museum entrance

Side elevation of the guns. One is from HMS Resolution, the other from HMS Royal Sovereign

Side elevation of the guns. One is from HMS Resolution, the other from HMS Royal Sovereign

Side elevation of Lambeth Palace, traditional home of the Archbishops of Canterbury

Side elevation of Lambeth Palace, traditional home of the Archbishops of Canterbury

Parliament in the early morning light

Parliament in the early morning light

The famous London Eye

The famous London Eye

The Tattershall Castle, a floating bar/restaurant now moored on the Embankment

The Tattershall Castle, a floating bar/restaurant now moored on the Embankment

Rainy day bridges on the Thames

Rainy day bridges on the Thames

The huge new London Shard

The huge new London Shard

HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames

HMS Belfast, moored on the Thames

Tower Bridge, with the walkways lowered

Tower Bridge, with the walkways lowered

Traitor's Gate, Tower Of London

Traitor’s Gate, Tower Of London

Outer walls of the Tower Of London

Outer walls of the Tower Of London

White Tower, Tower Of London

White Tower, Tower Of London

Close up of the White Tower

Close up of the White Tower

The dome of Saint Paul's Cathedral

The dome of Saint Paul’s Cathedral

Entrance to the world famous Savoy Hotel

Entrance to the world famous Savoy Hotel

Nelson'c Column, Trafalgar Square

Nelson’s Column, Trafalgar Square

Base of Trafalgar Square fountains

Base of Trafalgar Square fountains

Trafalgar Square lion

Trafalgar Square lion

THE RITZ-AN ADVENTURE IN TIME, SPACE AND GRACE

The Ritz is a paragon of Edwardian opulence

The Ritz is a paragon of Edwardian opulence

“A small house to which I am proud to see my name attached….”

With this masterful pearl of understatement, Cesar Ritz celebrated the opening of his second great hotel, the London Ritz, in 1906. Like it’s precursor, the 1899 Paris Ritz, it has gone down in history and legend as one of the most iconic and indulgent luxury brands in the gilded pantheon of platinum chip, elegant travel experiences. Even now, it’s allure still draws the nostalgic, the hedonists and the simply filthy rich like moths to a flame.

What surprises many people is how small the Ritz actually is. The entire complex has only some one hundred and twenty four rooms and suites, something belied by the huge, swaggering scale of the public rooms located just inside the entrance off Hyde Park and Piccadilly.

Cesar Ritz, along with his collaborating architects, Charles Mewes and Arthur Davis, envisaged the creation of a string of ultra opulent hotels across all the great cities of the world, to accommodate the top drawer sector of the travelling public that could afford the coronary inducing prices still charged to this day.

The London Ritz is a monument to Edwardian elegance and style; a shimmering montage of huge, heroic chandeliers holding sway above acres of rich, oriental carpeting. Enormous gilt framed mirrors and sconces provide the backdrop to formal groupings of coquettish, salmon tinted Louis XIV chairs and sofas.

But it has always been the levels of service and exclusivity that have raised the Ritz to a position head and shoulders above most of its erstwhile rivals. And, naturally, it has history in spades.

The elegant, window walled Ritz Restaurant looks much the same as it did when passengers about to embark on the brand new Titanic dined there. The Ritz was beloved of everyone from Charlie Chaplin to Coco Chanel, who once famously painted her toenails green while she stayed there. More than anything else, that little detail gives some idea of the indolent, raffish lifestyle that Cesar Ritz sought to create.

He succeeded admirably; in due time, the word ‘ritzy’ would enter the English language as a synonym for anything outrageously elegant and exclusive. It remains so to this day. When Cole Porter wrote Putting On The Ritz, it became an anthem for a hotel that was already way, way more than a simple gilded lodging house. It had already become an institution; a way of life in its own right.

You don’t have to stay at the Ritz to savour what is, in essence, a gilded Edwardian time capsule, suffused with an air of dignified, discreet calm and matchless service. Afternoon tea is legendary, extremely popular, and not cheap. Booking in advance is all but essential.

There is also the elegant Rivoli Bar, well worth dropping into for a cocktail, or a glass or two of the wonderful house champagne, But if you really want to push the boat out, as it were, then an overnight stay is the way to go.

Last time I stayed there, Bill Clinton was checking in just in front of me. The guest rooms are gilt encrusted, lavish, lounging treats in their own right. Even the bathrobes are inviting enough to live in.

Make no bones about it, the Ritz is one of the last pure, unabashed havens of real, old world luxury; a hotel that remains faithfully wedded to its original mantra of style over hype. Cesar Ritz did, indeed, succeed in creating something truly individual and utterly magical; an establishment invested with- and fuelled by- a sense of deep, whimsical charm and style that has enabled it to rise above fads, whims and frippery. I hope the proud old lady always remains the same.

NEWCASTLE AIRPORT’S NEW 2014 ROUTES (Updated)

Newcastle is an increasingly important centre for Easyjet

Newcastle is an increasingly important centre for Easyjet

According to it’s own website, Newcastle International Airport is offering a range of new flights in 2014 to a series of hopefully enticing destinations. The airport- by far the premier transport hub of the North East of England- still seems to be holding its own.

First off the ground, as it were, is Easyjet. As of March 30th, the airline will operate to London Gatwick, two flights per day, six days per week. Lead in fares for the new service will start at £27.49, and are on sale as of now.

These neatly replace the recently cancelled Flybe routes between the airport and London. For businessmen and women, the prices are easily competitive with conventional rail travel and, of course, it’s a lot quicker. Trains from Gatwick Airport run into central London in just over thirty minutes.

For the winter sun seeker trade, Easyjet is now also flying direct from Newcastle to Tenerife, with prices for the flights beginning at £79 return.

Rival airline, Jet2, is also inaugurating flight only options to Madeira from £75 one way,inclusive of taxes,  and package holidays to the balmy Portuguese island from around £429. In addition, the airline will also fly to the nearby island of Fuerteventura from £79 per person, one way.

Interestingly, both Jet2 and Easyjet now offer reserved seating, and rivals Ryanair will soon fall into line as well. The continued buoyant success of Newcastle is in stark contrast to the marked, seemingly irrevocable decline of it’s regional sibling, Durham Tees Valley, which has seen an appalling drop in passenger numbers over the last decade.

Newcastle is the gateway towards such world class cities as medieval Durham, with its UNESCO World Heritage cathedral and castle, as well as Newcastle itself, and such vital centres as Team Valley industrial estate.  Sights such as the Angel Of The North combine with the lure of famous, fabled Lindisfarne and the beaches of Northumbria to make the North East one of the most powerfully scenic and emotive highlights of any visit to the United Kingdom.

See the wonders of Niagara Falls from Newcastle International

See the wonders of Niagara Falls from Newcastle International

For far ranging travellers, Newcastle International offers several British Airways daily flights to London Heathrow, all of them connecting with that airline’s world wide network via Terminal Five. It also offers connections on Air France via Paris, and partner airline, KLM, via the highly rated Dutch airport at Amsterdam Schipol.

If you’re using the airport, you’ll find a number of tourist and business class hotels on site at the airport. There’s a Premier Inn, and a pretty good Doubletree Hilton, that are literally both just steps from the airport terminal. The airport can also be accessed by direct metro services from both central Newcastle, and Sunderland.

UPDATE: Irish flag carrier, Aer Lingus, has just announced that it will add four flights a week from Newcastle International to the Southern Irish city of Cork.

THE FLY CRUISE; WHAT IT IS, AND HOW IT WORKS

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

Few feelings beat that of the start of a fun cruise

It might seem like a no brainer even defining what a fly cruise is. As a staple of the travel industry since at least the late 1970’s, literally hundreds of thousands of people from the UK have taken fly cruises, whether in Europe, the Caribbean or, indeed, further abroad. On the whole, this article will have little enough to enlighten these people for sure. Fair enough, but please consider the following.

Of a current UK population of around sixty four million, approximately one point seven million take a cruise or fly cruise on a yearly basis, although those numbers are forecast to increase to around two million in a couple of years. That total- itself an all time record high- still represents less than one person out of every thirty-five. The potential for expansion is, indeed, incredible.

But a number of factors mitigate against a fly cruise to the potential new cruise passengers out there. Firstly, the infamous hassle endemic in airports and airport security and, secondly, the often cramped, bordering on unpleasant inflight experience itself, is off putting. Factor into that the always subliminal worry about that first ever arrival in a foreign country, and you have a trio of potential obstacles to overcome when trying to woo passengers to the storied pleasures of, say, the Caribbean or the Far East.

Here, education is key. I sometimes wonder whether some lines go far enough in explaining just exactly what the actual process of a fly cruise encompasses. This article is written in that spirit.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM THE USA:

Flying should ideally be a breeze

Flying should ideally be a breeze

If you’re going on a fly cruise that sails from an American port- typically, but not exclusively, from Florida- you will be flown from the airport nearest you to America. Often as not for those living outside London, this will involve a very early start, and a change of flight via Heathrow or, sometimes, via Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt. Some passengers can find this relatively simple process quite intimidating.

How to make the flight easier? You can try setting your watch to the actual time in your arrival destination before you leave. The common consensus is to drink lots of water, and very little alcohol inflight (though, God knows, the inflight standards of some airlines would drive the most dedicated teetotaller to drink). Exercises tend to help to improve the circulation.

Once you get to the other side of the Atlantic, there will be a dedicated transfer to take you to your overnight hotel.Usually, a representative of the cruise line will meet you and direct you on your way. Often as not, this will be via the hotel’s own local, complimentary shuttle. You’ll need to on the ball in finding where the shuttles pick up, usually at a specially designated ramp just outside of departures.

In general, evening meals and/or drinks will not be included in the price of your overnight stay. It will be literally room only, plus transfers. Some hotels do include a breakfast buffet in with the price, but it is certainly best to check beforehand with your agent.

You’ll transfer to the ship at around eleven thirty to noon the next morning. There will usually be a letter placed in your room when you arrive on the previous night, detailing the transfer times and meeting place- usually the hotel lobby. Typically, there will also be some representative of the cruise line on site on the morning of departure, to answer any questions you may have. If there is a big group to move, you will almost certainly taken by coach to the ship, and your luggage will go on ahead. You won’t see it again until it turns up outside your cabin an hour or so after boarding, or sometimes later.

From inflight food....

From inflight food….

So, in the event that you have any vital medicines of any kind, best to put them in a small carry on bag that you keep on your person. Also, remember to keep your passport and your cruise documents in here, too. It will make the check in process a lot simpler and more hassle free.

Hopefully, you will now be able to kick back, relax, and enjoy what is, for many, the holiday of a lifetime. But as surely as night follows day, the time will come when you have to think about the return journey. Here’s how that works in general.

Your luggage should be placed outside your cabin on the last night before you go to bed, and it is offloaded once the ship docks. After breakfast, you’ll be disembarked as part of a group, usually designated by coloured baggage tags and staggered at certain times. Once through American customs in the terminal downstairs, you’ll find your luggage standing under coloured, overhead signs that correspond to your baggage labels. A porter will then take these to a coach that will be waiting to take you to the airport to check in for your flight home.

This is where the day can get long, and downright angsty. Cruise lines in general no longer offer the complimentary day rooms at a nearby airport hotel that they once did. The result is that you can often be left at the airport with seven or eight hours of time to kill. Most Europe bound flights- especially from the east coast of the USA- tend not to depart until the late afternoon, or early evening. You should be aware of this. All of these arrangements should be explained to you in a special debarkation talk, held the day before you arrive back in port.

There are ways around this end of cruise annoyance. You could ask your cruise line if they can give you a rate for a hotel day room. This will give you a comfortable base to rest up, shower and change before the flight, or perhaps catch a few last rays of sun. At a time more to your liking, you and your luggage can then take the hotel’s complimentary shuttle to the airport. Be sure to check with hotel reception about the timing and availability of hotel-airport shuttles when you first get to the hotel.

To cruise food....

To cruise food….

Another option is to pay extra for an included city tour, run by the cruise line itself. Typically, this will take you on an excursion to somewhere like, say, the Everglades in Florida, and it may or may not include lunch. Then, in late afternoon, you’ll be transferred to the airport. This option includes the knowledge that your luggage travels safely with you on the coach. For peace of mind, this one is a pretty good option. It also keeps the ‘holiday’ vibe alive until the last possible moment.

Once you’re on the flight, I’d set your watch back on UK time and, as far as possible, try to sleep after the evening meal. Better still, eat something a good deal more substantial in one of the airport restaurants before you board, and opt for an attempt at sleep as soon as you’re airborne.

FLY CRUISES TO AND FROM EUROPE:

You might think that, because of the relatively much shorter flying distances between the UK and continental Europe, the time needed to join a ship in Barcelona, Rome or Venice will be much shorter than boarding one sailing from the USA?

Um, not necessarily….

If you’re flying from London or Manchester direct then sure, you’ll find that it’s a short, one flight hop, of no more than a couple of hours’ duration. But if you’re up in Scotland, Ireland, Wales or in the North East of England, it’s almost a given that you will be taking two flights, routing over airports such as Heathrow, Paris, Frankfurt or Amsterdam.

The problem here is not so much the actual flight times, so much as the fact that you might be laid up in one of these airports for a few hours. Again, I would recommend you keeping any necessary medication, plus your travel documents, on your own person.

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

But the end result is so, so, worthwhile

It’s also a fact that most European fly cruises do not include a pre cruise, overnight hotel stay. Once you’ve picked up your luggage, you’ll be transferred- again probably by coach- straight to the ship. Again, there will be a representative of the cruise line to meet you when you arrive, and he or she will direct you to your waiting transfer coach. And the same will be true at the end of your cruise, too. In Italian airports especially, these return arrangements can cause some hassle.

Here, the check in desks seldom open less than three hours prior to your flight home so, if you’ve got an early evening departure from, say, Venice, you’ll be left in an airport that has very little comfortable seating- with your luggage to boot. It’s not a great way to end an otherwise marvellous adventure.

Again, most cruise lines offer an added, half day city tour in cities such as Venice, complete with a later transfer time to the airport. This is better, but personally I’d recommend booking an overnight, post cruise hotel stay for the night. This allows you to unwind without the crowds or the hassle, although you might have to arrange your own taxi transfers the next day. Still, this is the least painful option and, often as not, the cruise line can also arrange your hotel- and possibly the transfers- at a supplement.

Taking a fly cruise does not have to translate to a frightening, unfamiliar adventure into the unknown. Properly explained, easier understood.

It’s actually a pretty seamless process on the whole, one honed and practised down over a number of decades now. And another great advantage of buying a complete fly cruise package via a cruise line, is that they have total responsibility to get you to and from the ship at the start and finish.

STROLLING LONDON- A WALK WORTH CONSIDERING….

Welcome to The Savoy!

Welcome to The Savoy!

People often think of London as a city dominated by traffic and the tube, but there are many really pleasant opportunities to stroll along large parts of the city while taking in some of the sights. If you’ve got time, stamina- and the weather- on your side, then a few hours’ strolling one of the most beautiful, historic and enigmatic of all the world’s cities is well worth the effort.

One I discovered not so long ago began at the Houses of Parliament, considered by many to be the finest example of a gilded pig’s trough anywhere in Europe. From there, carry on down to the Thames riverside walkway, and follow the line of the river on a route that will ultimately take you all the way to the Tower of London.

On the opposite bank, the skyline is dominated by the London Eye. Lambeth Palace still looks exactly the same as it would have done to the likes of Thomas More. Stroll past the relatively new, hugely evocative Battle of Britain Memorial, and you’ll also see the enigmatic Egyptian Sphinx, the first place in London where German bombers actually struck back in 1917. It still bears the shrapnel marks from a near miss to this day.

If you fancy a break or just a drink overlooking the river, walk aboard the old Tattershall Castle, a former paddle steamer now serving as a floating pub/restaurant, now permanently tethered to the river bank. It has no shortage of outdoor seating, and it’s a pretty sweet spot on a warm summer day from which to watch all the small craft and excursion boats that scurry up and down the ancient waterway.

The Tattershall Castle

The Tattershall Castle

Moving on, you’ll find the world famous, iconic St. Paul’s Cathedral is just a short diversion uphill. It’s not far, and worth it just to contemplate the soaring cupola of Sir Christopher Wren’s most enduring, enigmatic creation.

Heading back towards the river, after passing the soaring, arrow like, steel and glass expanse of The Shard, you’ll encounter the petrified, camouflaged bulk of HMS Belfast, shackled to the same mooring she has occupied since 1971. Belfast is the only major surviving warship from World War Two and, with her forward pair of triple gun turrets swung round at an angle and her brace of jaunty, graceful funnels, she makes for quite a striking sight. Behind her, you’ll get your first glimpse of Tower Bridge, looming up in the not too far distance. Just keep heading in that same direction.

You’ll now encounter the historic, blood splattered old gargoyle otherwise known as the Tower of London. You can pay the £20 entrance fee and get the traditional Beefeater tour of the place if you want but, if that’s too much of a cut, simply stroll around the perimeter of the grim, gloomy old battlements, and you’ll gain a sense of the dread and awe that this place inspired in everyone from Guy Fawkes to Catherine Howard. It’s impressive rather than beautiful, but it remains a true London landmark.

Tower Bridge

Tower Bridge

OK, you’ve done great so far. You could honourably stop here and call it a day. Or, you could backtrack a little bit, and give yourself a little treat. After all that hard work, you deserve it.

Take a slow stroll up from the Embankment up along Villiers Street, turn left toward Charing Cross on the Strand, and you’ll find yourself confronting one of the most famous entrances of any hotel in the world.

The Savoy.

It’s lavish, legendary, and suffused with memories of famous past guests such as Oscar Wilde, but this beautiful, landmark monument to unashamed style and luxury is fresh from a two year, multi million pound facelift that has carefully showcased the best of the past glamour, while giving the old lady a smart, contemporary sense of luxe.

You could have afternoon tea here with all the trimmings, but my personal recommendation is to try one of the Apple Martinis in the legendary American Bar. Cheap? Hell, no. But this is The Savoy. After a five star walk-a-thon, you deserve a five star reward. And yes, the experience is worth the price.  You’re like L’Oreal- you are so worth it.

The Tower of London

The Tower of London

If you’re inclined to culture rather than cocktails, you could wander from here up towards Trafalgar Square, and enjoy the glut of Rubens, Van Dycks and Renoirs on display in the National Gallery. Entrance is free, though donations are encouraged. You could quite easily spend several hours just drifting from one gallery to another in this beautiful building, but be aware that it’s likely to be very busy.

From here, it’s a short stroll to such attractions as Covent Garden. Piccadilly Circus, Leicester Square, the theatre district, Chinatown and, of course, Soho. It’s a teeming, thriving mass of amazing, sometimes addled humanity at any time of the day or night, and it’s all truly exhilarating. That is, assuming you have any stamina left to enjoy it after all that walking.

And it is also another side of London that is pretty much outside of the remit of this piece. We’ll look at that aspect of the capital in another piece in the future.

if you’re going to do this walk, make sure you’ve got footwear that’s good for strolling. If you stick to the riverbank route, be aware that you’ll find a few flights of steps to navigate both up and down, especially as you get closer to the Tower of London itself. And, above all, just kick back, and enjoy the sights, sounds and sensations of strolling this constantly changing, truly amazing city.

CUNARD’S SINGLE TRANSATLANTIC SAVERS FOR 2013

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

Cunard and the Atlantic are like Rogers and Astaire

In a move that many have seen to be inevitable, Cunard has finally slashed it’s single supplements on a series of autumn and winter transatlantic crossings on the line’s legendary flagship, Queen Mary 2.

Lead in fares for an eastbound crossing now start at £749 for an inside cabin, and £899 for a balcony for single travellers, inclusive of one way flights to or from London. Fares for two start from £499 per person.

This marks a radical change for the iconic transatlantic line. When Queen Mary 2 was built to supersede the venerable Queen Elizabeth 2, she made her debut with no single cabins at all. Supplements for single occupancy have traditionally been at an eye watering 175%.

With the new fares, these are now down to 150%; much more in line with normal single supplements across the cruise industry. So, after several years of intransigence, what has brought about the change?

Traditionally, transatlantic crossings have been harder to fill in the autumn and winter, when the Atlantic is usually more capricious than can often be the case in summer. And, with a huge passenger capacity of 2,760 (compared to 1,800 on the old QE2), the Queen Mary 2 takes a lot of filling. The new fares simply reflect economic reality.

What will be interesting to see is whether these very welcome single supplement reductions will be rolled out right across the Cunard fleet, both for cruises and transatlantic crossings. For now, the fares are being offered only in connection with the handful of remaining crossings between Europe and North America this year.

It is a singularly outstanding deal; no other ship in the world can match the Queen Mary 2 on the Atlantic in terms of size, speed, stability, and sheer, platinum chip prestige. The largest ocean liner ever constructed is a small city on the ocean, and offers a style and level of old world service that no other ship can adequately replicate.

The Berengaria, Cunard's flagship in the 1920's and beyond

The Berengaria, Cunard’s flagship in the 1920’s and beyond

Cabins, too, are large, with even the insides measuring up to 195 square feet. The Queen Mary 2 offers a whole raft of diversions and entertainments on her seven day crossings, together with famous, big name lecturers, The ship also faithfully replicates the formal evening ambience that was a hallmark of Cunard liners in the heyday of the post war Atlantic crossing, in a setting of sublime contemporary splendour.

Truth be told, the giant, iconic Cunarder is a far more comfortable ship than any of her famous forebears. Combined with a city stay in New York, Toronto, or even Miami, the Queen Mary 2 is one of the most compelling and exotic travel experiences on sale anywhere today. And especially at these prices, too.

I’ll keep an eye on the prices as they become available. Stay tuned.

FIVE GREAT TRAIN JOURNEYS WORTH CONSIDERING…

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Tired of flying? If the thought of one more airport experience makes you start losing the will to live, that’s the time to start considering alternatives.

Rail journeys can be a truly epic adventure, especially so if it’s an itinerary you’ve always longed to go with. You’ll need more time to play with, as well as a willingness to see the journey itself as a huge part of the adventure, and not merely just as a means of getting from A to B.

With those thoughts in mind, here’s a few rail journeys that I hope might just fire the imagination…..

TRAVELLING TO THE SOUTH OF FRANCE

This is an absolute beauty. Start at London’s ornate St. Pancras station with a glass of champagne, before boarding one of the sleek, highly styled Eurostar expresses for a two hour journey through the Channel Tunnel, and straight into the heart of Paris.

If time allows, grab another glass of bubbly and some fine food at Le Train Bleu; it’s an atmospheric, belle epoque restaurant in the Gare du Lyon station that definitely enhances the experience. From here, you can board the TGV that will whisk you through the heart of France, before rolling slowly towards the coast, and eventual landfall in cosmopolitan Marseilles or beautiful, balmy Nice. Altogether a great way to arrive in a quite magical setting.

TORONTO TO NEW YORK

A thirteen hour transit starts at Toronto’s Union Station. Stock up with food and goodies for your journey before you go; the catering on the cross border trains is pretty rudimentary.

The route runs via the border crossing at Niagara, where everyone has to do customs and immigration, down on through the rural heartlands of New York State; Albany and Buffalo are just a couple of the famous names en route.

The scenery is highlighted by huge swathes of lush, rolling greenery, dotted with white clapboard villages that fly past in a dreamy blur. You rumble over vast, winding rivers and through long abandoned industrial heartlands, before a final, magical early evening arrival among the gleaming spires of midtown Manhattan.  Tip; pay a little extra and spring for one of the huge business class seats for extra comfort and personal space. It’s worth it.

Barcelona awaits at journey's end

Barcelona awaits at journey’s end

OVERNIGHT TRAIN TO BARCELONA

You can do this one from London, again taking the Eurostar through the Channel Tunnel to Paris Gare du Nord. Here, you’ll connect with the special sleeper trains that run overnight through to the Catalan gem of Barcelona.

The trains have couchette berths in a number of configurations, and these also include the cost of an evening meal with wine, as well as breakfast the following day. The journey routes through the heart of France, and then through the Pyrenees into Spain proper, before eventually making the grand entry into one of Europe’s most beautiful and swaggering cities. Quite a way to go, and quite a city to savour at journey’s end as well.

AMERICA COAST TO COAST

Either east or west, try rolling across an entire, unforgettable continent. From L.A. to New York, or vice versa. Take one of the spectacular Amtrak double decker trains, complete with dining cars and separate sleeping cabins, and savour the spectacular hinterlands of mainland America.

Pit stops en route could include a few days in sassy, bohemian New Orleans, cloud scraping Denver, and even Al Capone’s old stamping grounds in classy, cosmopolitan Chicago. Roll into proud, patrician Philadelphia before ending your adventure in the forest of glass, steel and sheer excitement that is New York. Or make up your own route, and just go with the flow.

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

Your American coast to coast journey can start- or finish- in iconic Los Angeles

NORTH YORKSHIRE MOORS RAILWAY, UNITED KINGDOM

Short by comparison with the other options here, but sweet in its own right. Eighteen miles of beautifully meandering scenery between the villages of Grosmont and Pickering, in North Yorkshire. A scenic smorgasbord par excellence, and all savoured from the nostalgic cocoon of a real steam hauled train, to boot.

You’ll see chocolate box pretty stations and bubbling, splashing streams that meander through lush, flower carpeted meadows dotted with idly grazing cows and sheep. Some of the runs even feature evocative old Pullman carriages, and offer some seriously indulgent at seat dining options. A lovely option for a celebration on a warm summer evening.

So; there you go. Five of the best. Or just make up your own railroad adventure, and get out there. Whatever- wherever- enjoy.