SHIPS AND ICE- A BAD COMBINATION?

Summertime Alaska is surprisingly lush and colourful

Summertime Alaska is surprisingly lush and colourful

The idea of cruising in regions full of ice is anathema to some people. I get it. And I do share some of your sense of unease.

Personally, the only ice I like to see on a cruise is usually in my lunchtime margarita, and then not too much of that, thank you. Cold weather and cruising is at first glance a bit like Simon Cowell and One Direction; a cold, tasteless combination, and guaranteed to break up at any moment.

Yep, You caught me out. I’m very much a warm weather baby; a product of years spent living on the north east coast of the United Kingdom, where the winter winds rush straight down from the Arctic itself. God, I’m getting cold just thinking about it.

Then there was the Titanic, of course, and the horrific fallout from that. The loss of life. The whitewash inquires. The Celine Dion single. God knows, we never want to experience any of those ever again.

But, in all seriousness, some of those icy stretches of water actually provide for some of the most scintillating, exhilarating cruise and voyaging experiences on the planet. And I’m not just talking about Alaska, either.

Greenland blooms for a few months in the summer, and a fantastic, patchwork quilt of colour floods the landscape as giant, blue tinted icebergs- the true ‘great whites’ of the Atlantic- proceed ponderously down through the pearly, perennial summer twilight that hangs over Disko Bay. It’s a gaunt, jagged flotilla, as beautiful and pristine as a Caravaggio painting, and as potentially deadly as a wolf pack. But it’s a sight you’ll never forget, for sure.

You can make some of the same observations for Antarctica; imagine sitting in a hot tub at midnight in the permanent daylight of the Austral summer, and nursing a hot whisky as killer whales flit and frolic in the rose tinted ice floes that stretch to infinity. There’s a good chance that you’ll forget the cold here altogether.

As for Alaska…. have you ever actually seen an iceberg calve? It’s a thrilling, thunderous experience as a wall of vast, steely gray ice cleaves itself free from it’s parent, only to impact on a still, glacial sea with an ear splitting roar that throws up salt water and spray in an icy sheet that disappears as fast as it comes. And the silence that follows is so deep, real and wondrous that you’ll wonder if you might actually have dreamed it.

No one needs to see ice this close up, of course

No one needs to see ice this close up, of course

Or go north into the summertime Arctic, and see a still pristine wonderland where the air is as sharp and clear as a knife blade. You could watch polar bears balancing precariously on ice floes, bobbing on a wine dark swell as they make clumsy lunges at fish swimming by.

Specially chartered expedition ships boast ice strengthened hulls, and can even take you through the icy fastness of the north west passage, from one world to another. Though these ships lack the frills of the luxury vessels, their robust construction means that you can usually get much more up close and personal with both the environment and the wildlife. These voyages are not cheap, but the true value of such an adventure is in the very real experiences and memories that you take home from it.

So, that’s hopefully some food for thought. And the ice is definitely breaking around my previous anathema to such jaunts. Dear Lord, I do believe a thaw is setting in.

FIVE PERFECT EXCUSES TO RUN AWAY TO SEA…….

Escape capsule, Silversea style

Escape capsule, Silversea style

You might be one of those lucky people that needs neither an excuse nor an incentive to run away to sea. I can get on board with that. In doing so, I salute your sense of chutzpah and your dedication to a life of insouciance on the ocean waves.

However, not all are quite that fortunate. Some people need stimulation of one kind or another to run away to sea. And that is fair enough, too.

But, in my endless quest to make your voyage across the sea of life just that little bit smoother, allow me to supply you with some powerful incentives to run away to sea. if you need to clutch at straws and jump, this piece is devoted to you, with my love.

 1)  MARIAH CAREY MIGHT GET A NEW RECORDING CONTRACT – Titter ye not; it could happen. Then what? You’re stuck on dry land, and the glasses in your drinks cabinet are throwing themselves from the shelves because Mariah is back warbling like a whole load of WMD in human form? Run…..

  2) IT’S ONLY EIGHT MONTHS UNTIL THE NEXT EUROVISION SONG CONTEST- Ah, yes. The logical heir to the Spanish Inquisition, but with a lot more agonised screaming. Last year they dredged up Bonnie Tyler; the year before, they re-animated Engelbert Humperdinck with a fifty thousand volt charge, a coat of fresh creosote, and a quick gargle of embalming fluid. God knows what horrors they are planning for 2014. And remember; Cilla Black is still alive, and out there somewhere.

On the other hand, if you like to hear groups of Russian grannies singing about chickens, you might want to stay ashore. You do? Really?

3) HUGH GRANT MIGHT MAKE ANOTHER MOVIE –Oh, the humanity…. or the complete lack of it. Our favourite, sporadically animated Barbie doll of an actor might make another film. And then he’ll be everywhere. On television giving interviews. On the cover of every third rate grotfest of a magazine that you see everywhere, grinning at you as if he knows something you don’t.  It’s like one long near death experience, but without the fun part at the end. It’s too awful to think about.

Could another of Katie's marriages go down in flames? Stay tuned. or not...

Could another of Katie’s marriages go down in flames? Stay tuned. Or not…

  4) JORDAN MIGHT GET DIVORCED/MARRIED/DIVORCED AGAIN- Perhaps the course of true love will, alas, not run smoothly once again for the lovelorn Katie Price. Then the poor, heartbroken wretch will feel the need to unburden herself to every cheque book- oops, I mean journalist- in the entire length of this blighted kingdom. There will be no escaping this publicity obsessed harpie- the woman who put the ‘hag’ into haggard. Run away to sea? After a week of this drossfest, you’ll be wishing you could swim out to the Titanic. With bricks tied around both ankles.

  5) THE X FACTOR WILL BE BACK- Because true evil never dies; it simply changes it’s frock, and puts on fresh lipstick. That means the return of Simon Cowell’s musical battery farm, as well as the most improbable pair of moobs south of the aforementioned Katie Price.

In the old days, they had public hangings to entertain and divert the masses. Now it’s the X Factor. Hard to decide which is more cruel and inhuman really but, unless they dig up Albert Pierrepoint and make him one of the judges, then I’m betting that the brood that will ultimately succeed the unspeakable horror that is One Dire-ction are mere months away from being foisted upon a cowed and trembling public. Be afraid, dear reader. Be very, very afraid….

Or simply leave it all behind, and run away to sea. Eschew all that horror and instead enjoy your first Harvey Wallbanger as the baleful, breathy presences of Price, Cowell, Carey and co disappear beyond the broad, increasingly sunny horizon like so many smartly dodged storm clouds.

Really. life’s just too damned short to endure that level of dross. Or, indeed, to drink bad martinis.

See you out there somewhere…..

RIDING THE RAILS: TORONTO TO NEW YORK BY TRAIN

Scenery en route is something else....

Scenery en route is something else….

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun...

Over rivers burnished by the setting sun…

Sixteen coaches of gleaming gunmetal shimmering in the summer Toronto sun, the Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered into life, and began to slowly roll out of the city’s Union Station. Sprawled out in a huge, business class seat, I watched idly as downtown Toronto’s glittering, glass and steel skyline rolled slowly past my window. It was 8.30 in the morning, and some hot coffee went part of the way to reviving me after what had been a late night out.

Having always been a fan of long distance train travel, I leapt at the chance to do this thirteen hour rail journey; a sampler that will, hopefully anticipate a much bigger, coast to coast adventure in a year or so. I was curious to try and get a handle on the pros and cons of travelling on the much maligned Amtrak network. And the price- even for a huge, spacious business class seat with a spectacular amount of legroom- beat out the cost of flying by a good way. So, not being in a hurry, this seemed as good a chance as any to try the Amtrak experience.

I made a couple of basic, elementary mistakes. Firstly, the Maple Leaf Explorer is a single decker train, unlike much of the coast to coast rolling stock. There would be no dinner in the diner, or anything remotely finer for that matter. In retrospect, I should have stocked up with edible goodies while in Toronto. Ah well, too late now. You’re off…

Once we arrived at Niagara, everybody had to dismount the train for customs and immigration formalities at the U.S. border. This was less tedious than a One Direction megamix playing on a loop, but not by enough to make you want to keep on living, It took a full three quarters of an hour. Back in my seat, I was ridiculously relieved to feel the Maple Leaf Explorer resume it’s rhythmic progress towards New York.

By now, my finely honed, Clouseau-like sense of intuition had perceived that there would be no at seat food and drink service; something unthinkable on any long distance train in Europe. So, like any intrepid explorer with a hunger for more than just adventure, I set forth in search of food.

Comfort with a capital 'C'

Comfort with a capital ‘C’

The buffet car was not hard to find. My first clue was a conga line of waiting people that was slightly longer than a Bosnian refugee column. It seemed to stretch back to infinity, and it moved forward with all the speed and enthusiasm of the condemned line at the foot of an overworked guillotine.

My impatience turned to pity when I eventually got my turn. There was one poor guy behind the counter- one- serving up micro waved food, plus hot and cold drinks, for the literally hundreds of people on this run.  He moved behind that counter like a whirling dervish; serving up slices of anorexic, piping hot, cardboard pizza and things that looked like they might once have been sausage rolls. Choices were thin on the ground, and even thinner when they emerged from being microwaved. I managed to grab some cold snacks, and the last two small miniatures of Sutter Creek Zinfandel on the train. Major sustenance would have to await my arrival in New York, several hours hence.

Fortunately, a feast of a far more satisfying kind was being served up, just outside my window.  The Maple Leaf Explorer shuddered, rattled and moaned its way through the heartlands of upstate New York,  speeding through a lush, green spread of slow, gently rolling hills and meadows, where small villages peeped almost shyly into sight, before disappearing in a smeary blur behind us.

The train rolled past small trailer parks, where children played on swings and in makeshift paddling pools. We thundered past one horse towns so quiet that even the horse was taking the day off.  Rivers came and went like drum rolls; some of them tinted an amazing rust brown by the slowly setting sun up above.

There were short, abrupt stops. Familiar names came and went. Albany. Buffalo. Names familiar from American folklore. Then on, into the clamouring embrace of the rolling emerald carpet that framed the views from my window.

The views en route were real, old world Americana

The views en route were real, old world Americana

There were old, abandoned industrial buildings, with brickwork still bearing the ghostly outlines of their trade in the form of weathered paintwork, scarred by decades of neglect and apathy. Sadness and pride seemed to be etched into every brick.

The Zinfandel had combined with the splendid, surreal scenery to lull me into a kind of languid, mellow stupor. And that train seat was wickedly comfortable; easily the most commodious and accommodating I had ever sat in. It really did put most airline business class seats to shame. The hours rolled by steadily, easily. And suddenly….

Out of the window, a jagged series of unmistakable buildings clawed abruptly at a flaring, purple twilight, their lights like the glow of a swarm of fireflies. Manhattan. Proud, beautiful, and never more alluring than at that special, magical hour of dusk. The Maple Leaf Explorer slowed to a crawl, grinding almost painfully forward, before it finally slid almost reluctantly into the floodlit, artificially lit embrace of Penn Station, and shuddered to a final halt.

Off the train, and the exhilaration of being in New York blew away the cobwebs and ennui as completely as if they had never existed. Within an hour, I had checked in to my hotel, found a nearby diner, and initiated a full frontal assault on a steak about the size of Saipan. Nothing- and I mean nothing- ever tasted so good. New York. Summer in the city. Now a new phase in the adventure could unravel.

Hey, Manhattan....

Hey, Manhattan….

It was a while before I could reflect objectively on that rail journey. I’m glad I did it, and it was a definite appetiser for the coast to coast trip I mentioned at the start. The trains making that run are huge, double decker juggernauts, with couchettes, sleeping cabins, scenic cars, and a full bar and diner service.  It’s the taste of another adventure; one yet to be savoured, from sea to shining sea.

CRUISING ON CARNIVAL

Anyone with more the three brain cells will be aware that there are many cruise passengers that would rather commit hara kiri than board a Carnival ship. The idea of being afloat with thousands of people in an environment sometimes compared to a floating frat house is anathema to them.

And that, of course, is fair enough. Because the true beauty of cruising lies in the fact that there are types and sizes of ships out there to suit every taste, from the raucous to the reserved.

But it is also a sad fact that many of those who sneer at Carnival have never set foot on a Carnival ship in their lives. My first Carnival cruise was back in 2000 and, for sure, I went with very mixed feelings. But I was also prepared to keep an open mind.

And the truth is that I had a great time. I met some absolutely wonderful people- a recurring theme from all of my dozen or so Carnival voyages to date. Yes, sometimes lines for getting on and off are maddening, as are the buffet lines. But you do not have to be Hercule Poirot to realise that these are the inevitable consequences of putting to sea on what is, in essence, a small town with propellers/azipods.

Sure, there are elements I find unappetising. The on deck games can be banal. So I don’t watch them. The ships have enough space and options to allow you to find your own personal happy space. Don’t like Country and Western? OK, go listen to some Jazz. Not a jazz fan? Fine- go check out some live rock. I’ll stop there because you undoubtedly get the gist.

Food not quite gourmet quality? Think about it in terms of what you pay for your trip. The value is certainly there. It might not be six star, but you’re not paying those kind of prices, either. Carnival’s food in general is pretty damned good, and occasionally outstanding. The dining rooms are as much entertainment venues as any bar or club on the ship, so you’re not going to enjoy the kind of  hushed, hallowed repast as on, say, Seabourn or Silversea. is that really a deal breaker for you?

So, what is it actually like on board? The Carnival ships are stunning, swaggering slices of Vegas-On-Sea, with casinos the size of zeppelin hangars, and all the round the clock fun and frivolity you could ever shake a cocktail stick at. The upper decks are liberally sprinkled with pools, hot tubs and chaises, plus thousands of bodies draped across them. There is live music everywhere.

Too much? Sometimes, yes. But Carnival have clocked on to this, and each ship now has a dedicated, adults-only Serenity area with padded loungers and umbrellas, and sometimes a couple of hot tubs. On my last Carnival cruise, I eschewed the bubonic joys of a day ashore in Ensenada and just hung out here all day instead. Sheer, copper bottomed bliss it was, too.

I’m not mad on their on board discos, but this is more down to the music policy than anything else. And it is understandable that the young and young at heart want to hear the current stuff. Having grown up listening to the Temptations and the Supremes, it’s pretty obvious that the ‘sound’ of One Direction and Girls Aloud is not going to be honey to my ears. But again, it’s a generational thing. I have a theory that the first Caribbean line to have the odd, Motown/Philly/Soul themed cruise would clean up quite nicely at the bank. Food for thought. Soul food. Hold that thought!

But again, there are other options. Each Carnival ship has a bar dedicated solely to good, live jazz, and I love chilling out in them. The young can keep their hip hop and their Budweisers if I can get some cool jazz and a decent martini. And thankfully, Carnival serves up both with some aplomb.

Some shudder at the bright, neon fuelled decorative excess that typifies Carnival interiors. They are mainly the work of the brilliant Joe Farcus, Carnival’s very own Andy Warhol. These actually work perfectly for the famously monickered ‘fun ships’, and contribute immensely to the brash, breezy vibe that permeates those Carnival colossi. Fun is seldom subtle, and Farcus even less. But his ships are always beguiling, in an Alice through the looking glass way. Each is as distinctive as a fingerprint; and they are never, ever boring.

Cabins are fine and roomy, though the suites are not generally as expansive as the competition.The newer, bigger builds flaunt avenues of balconies atop their snow white hulls. Those balconies are not big, but definitely big enough for two. And it also gives you another options to escape the hugger mugger on the noisy upper decks.

Yes, there is a hard sell for extras such as bingo, shore excursions and the rest. The photographers can be annoying, but the truth is that it is no more prevalent on Carnival than on any of its rivals these days. You’ll find a blizzard of flyers for shop sales, both on board and ashore. if this annoys you, that’s what the waste bin is for.

Truth be told, all of these things are options on the whole smorgasbord that is the experience of a Carnival cruise. As with any buffet, you pick the stuff you like, and disregard the rest. This is not rocket science, but it’s amazing- and a bit dispiriting- to realise how many people don’t get that.

And of course, you’ll always find career, professional moaners on any cruise. The sort of people that would probably have more fun at a hanging than a wedding. Nothing will ever be good enough for them but- again- the size of the ships means you can neatly sidestep these miseries intent on raining on your parade.

Like anything else, a smile and a decent attitude will generally sugar your coffee. Just go with the flow, as it were and, chances are good that you’ll have a great time. I have had some of my best times on Carnival ships- the people that I have met, both passengers and crew, have often been a delight- and I fully intend to go again.

Wherever and whenever you go, have fun. It’s a party, not a punishment. See you out there somewhere!

  Carnival’s distinctive funnels are their trademark

This piece was originally written prior to the incidents with the Carnival Triumph and Elation, both of which I have sailed on. I have very happy memories of both ships.

Does anything that has happened change my opinion on cruising Carnival? No. Things go wrong on any ship from time to time. That said, Carnival’s PR department has it’s work cut out for it in reassuring the travelling public that all is well with their ships.

There’s been a very vocal, ill informed barrage of media feeding on what they see as a prime target. That does not mean that there are not issues that need to be resolved- and permanently- in the public eye. Stupidity on one side does not excuse laxity or lack of clarity required from the other one if it is to get back on track.

The great bulk of these breakdowns seem to be happening to the bigger, Italian built hulls. By contrast, the eight ships of the earlier Fantasy class- all built by MASA in Finland- seem to lead largely charmed lives.

All of these now tend to sail on shorter, three to five day circuits and are, in truth, never too far from land anyway. But they are not the problem.

With Carnival upping it’s presence in both Scandinavia and the Mediterranean this summer, the company really needs to get it’s act together if it is going to compete effectively in those arenas with longer, better established rivals such as Norwegian and Royal.