NORWEGIAN SKY IN RETROSPECT

When she entered service in the late summer of 1999, the Norwegian Sky was the first purpose built mega ship for Norwegian Cruise Line, and she created quite a stir. At 77,000 tons, the stunningly beautiful ship soon became a popular staple on the week long Caribbean cruise circuit out of Miami.

But she had actually been ordered by Costa Cruises as the Costa Olympia, a sister ship for the Italian line’s hugely successful Costa Victoria. Financial problems at the German shipyard caused Costa to abandon the project and, to the surprise of many, the incomplete hull was purchased by Norwegian Cruise Line instead.

After some radical redesign that included the addition of two decks of balcony cabins, the newly renamed Norwegian Sky entered service in August 1999, offering a few sailings in northern Europe, before crossing the Atlantic to take up Caribbean station in Miami.

From here, she operated a series of alternating, seven night cruises to the western and eastern Caribbean. The Norwegian Sky proved so popular that the company ordered a pair of near identical sister ships, though only one- the current Norwegian Sun – was actually built.

The two sister ships remain among the most beautiful cruise ships at sea, with proud, gracefully raked bows and a single funnel. The upper decks remain some of the most expansive and best laid out of any ships sailing anywhere today. Both have proved to be solidly, consistently successful ships.

In 2004, the Norwegian Sky was hurriedly transferred to the new NCL Hawaii brand after the newly wrought Pride Of America suffered a major flooding at her fitting out dock in Germany. Rushed around to San Francisco, the ship was given a heavy, Polynesian style make over and renamed as the Pride Of Aloha.

From Honolulu, she spent four years sailing around the waters of Hawaii, before a long overdue scaling back of the overly ambitious Hawaiian cruise project saw the ship return to Miami in 2008.

An intended sale to the Spanish cruise operator, Pullmantur, never materialised. Instead, she resumed her former name of Norwegian Sky and re-entered service for Norwegian out of Miami.

She remains in service to this day, sailing on three and four night cruises to the Bahamas each week. Three night voyages leave on a Friday and call at Nassau, as well as the company’s ‘private island’ of Great Stirrup Cay.

Her four night Monday sailings add Freeport in the Bahamas to the same mix. And, with her Polynesian décor left largely intact, the Norwegian Sky is an intriguing, wonderfully quirky contrast to any of the other mega ships sailing from the Florida port.

With a full range of Freestyle Dining options on board, the Norwegian Sky is perfect for a quick, invigorating getaway. In some ways, it really is a shame that Norwegian does not send the ship on more varied routes occasionally. She would be absolutely perfect on a five night itinerary to Cozumel and Grand Cayman, for example; very similar to the voyages once offered from Miami on board the Norwegian Jewel.

For now, the stalwart Norwegian Sky remains on station in Miami, carrying over four thousand passengers each week on a series of sunny, fun fuelled jaunts to the Bahamas. I hope she continues sailing for Norwegian for a great many years.

Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

SAMBA SUN! NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE IS ROLLING DOWN TO RIO.

Norwegian Cruise Line’s Norwegian Sun will be returning to South America for the winter of 2016-17, offering a series of cruises from a new home port of Rio De Janeiro along with old favourites, such as Buenos Aires and Valparaiso, in Chile.

The pioneering ship, built in 2001, thus continues in her role as the company’s traditional ‘trail blazer’, opening up new itineraries and routes that other ships sometimes later take up. It’s a role in which the 78,000 ton ship has proved to be perennially popular.

From December 2016 through to the following March, the Norwegian Sun will sail a series of tantalising, ten night voyages between Rio and Buenos Aires in either direction. Highlighted by an overnight stay on board in one or other of these two embarkation ports, the Norwegian Sun will also call in at ports such as Santos, Buzios, Montevideo, and Ilha Grande.

If time is an issue, there are also a pair of shorter, seven night sailings that bracket four of the greatest hits ports en route, namely Montevideo, Ilha Grande, Puenta el Este, and Santos; a pretty full on, exhilarating week in the depths of a European winter for sure.

Norwegian Sun will also serve up some four, fifteen night round trip cruises, sailing between Buenos Aires and Santiago, in Chile. These will showcase the best of the Chilean fjords, offering calls at ports such as Punta Arenas, Puerto Montt, and the Falkland islands. There is also one special, festive sailing on December 23rd, a fourteen night round trip fiesta departing from Buenos Aires.

With new ships coming on line over the next few years, and expansion of itineraries to include Asia for the first time in over a decade, Norwegian really seems to be moving itself into high gear on a much more global scale than before. I just hope that the company does not spread itself too thinly.

That said, these new South America cruises offer a great deal more scope and diversity than anything offered by Norwegian in the past. I expect them to sell well.

As ever, stay tuned.

The Norwegian Sun is Rio bound in 2016

The Norwegian Sun is Rio bound in 2016

DOWN MEXICO WAY- THE NORWEGIAN SUN

Slowly, like a patient coming out of a long term coma, the market for cruises to the Mexican Riviera is beginning to revive. And, in the opinion of many, that’s not before time.

As winter sun destinations go, the seven day ‘Riviera Runs’ that sail round trip from Los Angeles are a pretty compelling alternative to the overcrowded winter hugger mugger of the Caribbean, though the latter certainly has better guaranteed weather. Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta and Cabo San Lucas form a pretty compelling troika of ‘greatest hits’ ports of call, ranged against the smoky blue sprawl of the Sierra Madre mountains, that offer a very different experience to their vibrant Caribbean counterparts.

Yes, the beaches are wonderful, and the Margaritas are fantastic, frosty confections found almost everywhere. But the pace is less frenetic- a consequence of it being much, much, less crowded. And, of course, the truly star struck have the pre- cruise option of venturing out on star spotting safaris in La-La Land. Pretty good, eh?

But for something a bit more, well, inclusive, I’m really taken by some of the Mexican Riviera cruise being run by Norwegian Cruise Line this fall. They combine departures from my favourite California city- San Diego- with eleven nights’ aboard my favourite ship in the Norwegian fleet- the always excellent, hugely under rated Norwegian Sun.

The company never promotes this wonderful ship to anything like the same degree as her newer siblings, but she has always been something of a trailblazer. And that reputation is freshly enhanced with these new cruises that really do give you more of Mexico than simply the banner ports of call.

For many years, Acapulco was the gem of the Riviera. In the so called ‘Swinging Sixties’ it was perceived as one of the most glamorous resort cities in the world. Time and tide chipped away at that carefully applied make up, and the city became almost a no go zone by the late nineties.

Now, freshly powdered, tidied up and inherently more appealing than it has been in many a long decade, Acapulco is back on the menu- at least for the Norwegian Sun and her passengers. I suspect this might be the first of many returning vessels over the next few years, as Pacific Mexico begins to aggressively assert itself to the cruise industry once more.

Also on the menu is a call at the beach resort of Ixtapa, and a full, two day call at fun filled, bohemian Cabo San Lucas, a place that feels in parts like a Pacific version of Key West. Also on the menu are both Mazatlan and Puerto Vallarta, those other two members of the ‘Holy Trinity’ of Mexican coastal ports.

Combined with an option to spend a few days getting reacquainted with cool, classy San Diego, these longer, more in depth cruises on the always excellent Norwegian Sun could well be the perfect cure for your looming winter blues.

I know fine well that they may very well be the cure for mine. Anyone else in?

The Norwegian Sun in the Caribbean

The Norwegian Sun in the Caribbean

CHEERS! NORWEGIAN OFFERS FIRST ‘ALL INCLUSIVE’ SHIP FOR 2016

As of January 2016, Norwegian Cruise Line will be dipping a little toe in the all inclusive pool.

Year round, dedicated Bahamas mainstay, Norwegian Sky, will be going all inclusive on the drinks front at least. The 78,000 ton, 1999 built ship will now include unlimited premium spirits, cocktails, bottled or draft beer up to the value of $11, plus wine by the glass for guests aged 21 and upwards. Guests aged from 3 to 20 will be offered unlimited free sodas and soft drinks.

Interestingly, the offer also applies to all drinks consumed on Great Stirrup Cay as well. The port of call is offered on both weekly itineraries offered by the ship.

Norwegian Sky was the first, purpose built mega ship for the company back in 1999. Originally ordered for Costa Cruises, she was purchased on the slipways and completed for Norwegian. A near sister, the 2001 built Norwegian Sun, spends summers in Alaska, and winters in Mexico and around South America.

At present, the ship sails a well practised routine of three and four night cruises, round trip from Miami, each week. Three night cruises sail each Friday, and call in at both Nassau and the ‘private’ island of Great Stirrup Cay. The four night sailings on Monday add Freeport on Grand Bahama Island to the three night roster.

Norwegian Sky offers the most comprehensive range of dining options of any ship sailing on the short Bahamas circuit out of Miami- she was, in fact, the first to introduce the popular Freestyle Dining  concept- and she also offers the largest number of standard balcony cabins of any ship sailing from Miami.

This looks very much like a test pad for the potential launch of ‘all inclusive’ drinks across the Norwegian fleet. No doubt, the company will be carefully monitoring the reactions to this new venture, perhaps the biggest thus far of the post-Sheehan era at the company.

Interesting times, indeed. As ever, stay tuned.

The Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

The Norwegian Sky off Great Stirrup Cay

RISING SUN; NORWEGIAN STALWART GETS SOME STUNNING NEW 2015 ITINERARIES

The Norwegian Sun at St. Thomas, USVI

The Norwegian Sun at St. Thomas, USVI

Tucked away in the Norwegian Cruise Line press release for 2015-16 winter cruises were some truly different, off the beaten track options for the stalwart, still highly popular Norwegian Sun.

Introduced in September 2001, Norwegian Sun was the first of the company’s ships especially built to showcase the Freestyle Dining concept which has since became the Norwegian touchstone.

The 78,000 ton vessel- one of the most beautiful ships afloat anywhere- was initially based in the Caribbean, before several Alaska seasons, and even some South America sailings, before Norwegian deployed her for a few summer seasons in Northern Europe.

In recent years, she has returned to her original home port of Miami, alternating winter Caribbean cruises with summer voyages in Alaska. As of now, she is scheduled to move to Tampa this autumn.

In October 2015, the Norwegian Sun will relocate to San Diego for the first of three, eleven  night round trip cruises to the Mexican Riviera. Highlights of these will include an overnight stay in Cabo San Lucas; other ports visited will include Mazatlan, Puerto Vallarta, Manzanillo, La Paz, and Ensenada.

But the real highlight of the programme is the return of Norwegian Sun to fourteen night, round South America cruises. Running in both directions between Buenos Aires and Valparaiso, Chile, these cruises will sail from November 2015 through to April of 2016.

Ports of call will include Puerto Montt, Puerto Chacabuco, Port Stanley in the Falklands, Punta Arenas, Ushuaia, Puerto Madryn, and Uruguay’s show stopping capital of Montevideo. En route , passengers can savour the scenic delights of the Chilean Fords and the Straits Of Magellan, as well as the famous voyage around Cape Horn.

These South America runs mark the return of Norwegian to the region for the first time since 2010, when Norwegian Sun herself closed out a seasonal run offered for many years by both Norwegian Dream (now Superstar Gemini) and Norwegian Crown (now Fred. Olsen’s Balmoral).

With scenery at least comparable in terms of scale, scope and beauty to Norway, not to mention infinitely more settled and benign weather, these forays into the Chilean Fjords offer some of the best, most destination intensive cruises available in the Southern Hemisphere. Add in the option of spending a few days, pre or post cruise in sultry Buenos Aires, and the appeal of these trips is obvious.

As companies such as Costa, MSC and Royal Caribbean continue to enjoy success with seasonal, week long South America cruises that take in the highlights of Brazil and Argentina, it seems only a matter of time until Norwegian follows suit. But, for now, the return of Norwegian Sun to round the Cape cruises provides a welcome burst of colour to an oft neglected region.

PANAMA AT 100; SOME CRUISE OPTIONS FOR 2014

Legend Of The Seas is offering Panama Canal cruises in 2014

Legend Of The Seas is offering Panama Canal cruises in 2014

2014 is a big year for anniversary travel, especially bearing in mind the 70th anniversary of the D-Day landings and, from a land based side, the centenary of the Great War, But it is also the centenary of the opening of the Panama Canal, the waterway that cut the journey time between Atlantic and Pacific from weeks to hours.

Panama was a waterway that literally changed history. One of the most desperate. last ditch Japanese plans for changing the course of the Second World War centered around a submarine launched bombing raid on it that never came to pass. When the passage hewn at such ghastly human cost opened in 1914, the long, perilous voyage around the tip of South America became a thing of the past, and the tempo of east-west trade changed forever.

Literally tens of thousands of lives were lost to malaria and yellow fever in the jungle shrouded killing fields of Panama, but finally the forty eight mile long canal- the brainchild of a French engineer named Ferdinand De Lesseps- was completed by the Americans, and officially opened on August 15th, 1914, by which date Europe was already at war,

There are plenty of indolent sea days en route

There are plenty of indolent sea days en route

Today, the legacy of Panama’s genesis is one of the most amazing travel experiences on offer anywhere today, an astonishing, eight hour passage through a panoply of dense, rolling tracts of jungle that tumbles down to the waters’ edge on both sides. As your ship gradually rises and falls more than eighty feet as it is threaded gingerly through a series of gigantic locks, the air all around you is a live with the sound of chattering, humming and screeching local birds and wildlife; it really is an all out visual and vocal assault on the senses.

Essentially, most Panama transits take place as part of relocating cruises. In spring, many cruise ships relocate from Miami to Los Angeles, from their winter Caribbean cruise grounds to the popular Alaska summer runs. In the autumn, they relocate the other way. Either way, these cruises- which always of necessity involve a full transit of Panama- take between thirteen and fourteen days.

Either way, it’s a pretty exhilarating adventure, swapping the indolent playgrounds of the Caribbean for the sparkling, sun splashed waters of the Pacific, where the sunsets defy belief. Whichever direction you sail in, you’ll stop off at such places as beautiful Huatulco on the Mexican side, as well as famously feisty and fun Cabo San Lucas, with the soaring Los Arcos rock formations, and its internationally famous freewheeling, fun vibe.

On the other side, after that spectacular, stand out transit of Panama proper, you might stop in at breezy, Spanish accented Cartagena, before heading north to either Miami or Fort Lauderdale. In between, reckon on quite a few relaxing sea days to just kick back and soak up that delightful tropical sun.

Parrots of Panama

Parrots of Panama

Typically, Florida to California (westbound) Panama cruises sail in the spring, with eastbound trips running from September onward. With that in mind, here’s my pick of some of the best cruises, running in both directions, over the course of 2014.

ROYAL CARIBBEAN has four transits of Panama announced, all of them on the 70,000 ton, recently revitalised Legend Of The Seas. Eastbound dates: April 1 and November 30.  The two westbound departures are on March 17 and November 15.

More upscale? Sassy CELEBRITY CRUISES has no less than seven Panama transits on its roster. The classically styled Celebrity Century sails westbound on both January 5 and March 6, and eastbound on January 20.

Her larger, more contemporary fleet mate, Celebrity Infinity, also offers a tempting quartet of options. She sails westbound on March 30 and again on November 4, and has eastbound crossings available on April 14 and November 19.

NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE is the pioneer of Freestyle Cruising, and the line has no less than four ships making Panama transits next year. Here’s how the four ships line up;

Norwegian Pearl: westbound on April 18; eastbound on October 3.

Norwegian Star: westbound on October 20 and November 17. Eastbound on April 20 and November 3.

Norwegian Sun: westbound on April 28; eastbound on November 4.

Norwegian Jewel: westbound (from New Orleans) on April 20. Eastbound (to Houston) on September 25.

Any of these options will provide you with a good, solid cruise experience. The one essential recommendation I would make is that, if you are going to go to all the trouble of embarking on a Panama Canal adventure, then it is definitely worth booking a balcony cabin.

Enjoy!

2014 ADVENTURES- LOOKING AHEAD TO SOME OF NEXT YEAR’S HIGHLIGHTS

Raise a glass to the new Norwegian Getaway

Raise a glass to the new Norwegian Getaway

With 2013 already dragging inexorably into the long, leaden days of autumn, I’m increasingly starting to look ahead to some of the potential highlights of 2014.  Here’s just a few of them for you to take a casual glance at.

NORWEGIAN CRUISE LINE is inaugurating the brand new Norwegian Getaway in January and, after the debut of the New York themed Norwegian Breakaway in April, I’m intrigued to see how her South Beach inspired sibling will stack up.

The line is also introducing some really peachy rail/sail deals in Alaska next year, combining a three night rail safari on the fabulous Rocky Mountaineer train to Denali National Park, with a seven night cruise on the beautiful Norwegian Sun, in many ways my favourite ship in the Norwegian fleet. With almost 24 hour daylight in summertime Alaska, I think this one will be unmissable.

A WEEKEND IN LONDON is something to be savoured at the legendary, lavishly refurbished Savoy. It’s the perfect base for catching a really good West End show, or a night out at Ronnie Scott’s jazz club up in Soho. Finish the night with late drinks in Cafe Boheme on Old Compton Street. And, if sobriety allows, head off to watch the sun rise over Waterloo Bridge. Marvellous stuff, methinks.

SILVERSEA celebrates twenty years of unbridled, elegant finesse in 2014. And debut ship Silver Cloud has just had a massive refurbishment that makes her look as good, if not better, than when new. There will be various celebratory voyages on all the ships in the Silversea fleet next year, but I can think of nothing better than a long, lazy Atlantic crossing on the original little pioneer of the fleet. Silversea plus sea days inevitably equals sublime. It would be really rude not to, I think.

Lido deck on the Silver Whisper

Lido deck on the Silver Whisper

NORTH YORKSHIRE MOORS RAILWAY offers authentic steam train and Pullman carriage journeys through eighteen miles of gorgeous, chocolate box pretty countryside between the villages of Grosmont and Pickering- Heartbeat country. It’s a unique adventure at any time of the year, and the experience of being on a steam hauled train is quite unforgettable. There are also special evening dinner trips that make a perfect break; ideal for a warm summer’s evening.

GREEK ISLANDS MINI CRUISE WITH LOUIS CRUISES I love these little three night slices of heaven; sailing from Athens for an evening in Mykonos, shopping in Kusadasi, and some serious people watching in Patmos and stunning Santorini. Go for the spring equinox sailing in March- there’s something totally magical about the play of light on water at that time of year. Plus, it’s warm, but not too hot and crowded. The ships are comfortable and welcoming, plus they are human in scale. Lovely stuff.

Summertime is always special in Durham

Summertime is always special in Durham

A DAY IN DELIGHTFUL DURHAM is always such a treat. Arguably the most beautiful city in England, every cobbled street and sidewalk is brimming with history, charm and character. The famous, eleventh century cathedral and castle form a perennial backdrop to this marvellous compact, city. Grab some lunch over at Cafe Rouge, or bag an outside table, a bottle of wine, and just watch the world go by. Nice indeed.

OK… those are just a few of the things I’m keenly anticipating to get me through the winter. More to the point; what are YOU going to be up to?

SHAPES OF SHIPS- FORM OVER FUNCTION?

CNV00013The argument is constant and ongoing. Why are modern cruise ships almost always unfailingly ugly, especially when compared to the classic liners that so many of us knew and loved? Do advances in technology go hand in hand with a general retreat into so many bland, soul-less stereotypes, breaking out over the oceans of the world like some incurable rash?

Well, yes. And you can put that down to a number of factors. One is the travelling public’s obsession with having balcony rooms at sea- something I am as guilty of as the next person- and the inevitable fact that the form of every ship is uniquely dictated by it’s function.

New hulls are jam packed with so many dazzling features these days. Many of them come across as a pastiche of a fantastic theme park, crossed with a shopping mall, that just happens to go to sea. A host of features, unheard of ten years ago, are now accepted as standard. Rock climbing walls, five storey high theatres, water parks; ice rinks and incredible themed bars are only some of the things that today’s cruise passengers just cannot seem to exist without.

No wonder Disney got into the game; they could see which way the tide was flowing.

CNV00181Ironically, their ships are some of the best looking afloat; classic modern interpretations of a timeless style. Add the demand for balcony cabins- artfully fanned by the cruise lines- and it is little real surprise that something had to give.

That ‘something’ was the beautiful and distinctive hull shapes that made those old liners such a joy to behold. Norway, QE2, Canberra and a handful of smaller, sylph-like sea goddesses set a standard for interior and exterior elegance that these modern ships could never dream to aspire to. Yet, timeless beauties that they were, each of these became increasingly outdated, as the travelling public lapped up a conga line of shiny new hulls, chock full of state of the art goodies and time killing diversions. Inevitably, stage presence and sheer charisma alone were just not enough to satisfy this new wave of cruising neophytes.

it is not so difficult to understand. The modern cruise passenger, cocooned in state of the art luxury and with every modern convenience to hand, is blissfully incapable of viewing the often ugly, hulking exterior in which those facilities are packaged. And nobody who has sampled a balcony cabin needs to be sold on the sheer delight of watching an amazing sunset from your own private bit of deck space, champagne at hand, or the simple pleasure of a sunny balcony breakfast, with perhaps a view of St. Maarten as a side order.

CNV00031However, there are some modern ships which seem to get it just about right. As well as the Disney ships, Norwegian Sun and Norwegian Sky are both big, amenity laden and- whisper it- extraordinarily beautiful.The stunning Crystal Symphony is arguably the most beautiful ship afloat anywhere, both inside and out. And not a rock wall to be found, either.

The brace of Seadream yachts are low slung, seagoing paradigms. They are the swans of the ocean; as expansive and luxurious as they are easy on the eye. The five original Silversea new builds are all true beauties, marred only for some by their squared off sterns. A look that makes them resemble supermodels burdened with backsides as large as the late Luciano Pavarotti.

But even here, it is function that dictates. Those same, squared off sterns allow for the expansive terrace restaurant so beloved of Silversea devotees. Including yours truly. There are few finer spots anywhere at sea to enjoy a beautiful outdoor breakfast, or a mellow martini at sunset.

And therein lies the truth. The fact that we simply cannot have it both ways. No one appreciates the lines of a beautiful ship more than I do and, while it remains perfectly true that I can live comfortably without a balcony cabin, the fact is that I prefer not to. A happy medium is hard to find here, and harder still to alchemise on the drawing board of the modern maritime architect.

CNV00036Owners want to shoe horn as much revenue generating space into these new hulls as possible. Combine that with the new safety and hygiene standards demanded of modern ships- standards undreamed of in the old days of the Mauretania, the Normandie and the Queen Mary- and you have, for want of a better phrase, a near perfect aesthetic storm.

Nostalgia intensifies this retrospective yearning. The current outwardly bland, uniform designs of modern ships do not endear themselves to those who love the traditional liners. Yet it is those self same ships that are attracting people to put to sea in numbers unheard of before.

It is a seagoing Catch-22 that many of us can ponder as we enjoy a last, lazy night cap on our balcony, with the peaceful, rolling ocean and a sky packed with stars for company. That kind of ageless, sea going beauty has never been open to debate.

And, traditionalists, remember this; when QE2 – rightly acknowledged by most as the very epitome of seagoing grace and elegance first made her debut, many regular Atlantic passengers loathed her boldness and modernity. She was not ‘their’ idea of what Cunard represented in their eyes. This argument gained renewed momentum, when QE2 lovers looked down at the new Queen Mary 2. Not quite ‘their’ kind of ship, either. And so it goes.

Yet still, we sail. And, in the end, we are still all wrapped up in the thrall of being at sea, just like legions of our forebears in the past. Endless voyages on a succession of constantly evolving hulls. Racing towards a horizon, a nirvana, that none of us can ever reach.

I think that we can, perhaps, all unite on that premise, and be thankful for it, too.

WHITE NIGHTS PICTORIAL- ENDLESS SUMMER IN THE BEAUTIFUL BALTIC

ImageThe Baltic in high summer never, ever gets completely dark. This is the season of the fabled ‘White Nights’, where total darkness on one side of your ship is offset by an amazing, spectral, gleaming wall of light on the other.

ImageWith vibrant shades of red, gold, blue and electric green, this magical display shimmers on the waters of those far northern latitudes until the sun comes creeping back up over the horizon, back into full view.

ImageThe sheer sense of calm and serenity that nights like this engender cannot adequately be quantified, or even translated into really effective prose. Nights like this speak to you on a profoundly different level. Just feel it and enjoy….ImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImageImage